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The Bingo Book

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They had known he was coming. Kakashi wasn't sure how, but they had known. The ambush had been too carefully planned for any other explanation. This wasn't just a group of missing-nin lying in wait for random travelers who passed by. They were there for him, they had prepared to fight him, and they were close to winning.

He pressed his back against a tree, trying to regain his breath and assess the situation. He'd killed three in the initial wave of their attack, but hadn't gotten out unscathed. Running wasn't an option, the deep gash in his left thigh had ruled that out. He'd managed to twist away at the last moment, keeping the shuriken from lodging itself in his femoral artery, but just barely. Blood ran down his leg as he hastily bandaged the wound. He tied it tight, but knew it wouldn't fully stop the bleeding. If he couldn't finish this quickly, blood loss would start to be an issue. But that assumed chakra depletion didn't get him first.

With the blood from his leg on his hands, he flashed through the summoning hand seals. He used as little chakra as possible but still felt the burn of it on his already overtaxed system.

Pakkun appeared in a cloud of smoke on Kakashi's left hand. He opened his mouth, no doubt to complain, only to snap it shut again as the situation hit him. The smell of blood and death in the air was instantly recognizable.

Kakashi signed backup at him and got a grim nod in return before Pakkun took off through the trees. The fact that he hadn't made any commentary before he did so spoke volumes. Konoha was over half a day of travel away. Pakkun was fast, but it'd still take him six hours to get there. By the time backup arrived, all Kakashi would truly need was either a medic or a coroner.

He knew the two remaining missing-nin were regrouping, the loss of their teammates had only seemed to register on a tactical level. There had been no anger or grief over the three that had fallen, just a cold recalibration of their strategy. He was fairly certain this was the first time they'd worked as a group. They'd been fighting him together, but not cohesively. The lack of true teamwork left openings he'd been able to exploit, allowing him to take out the weakest members one by one. The remaining two wouldn't be quite as simple. Especially not in his current condition, not with his current chakra level.

They had to have known he'd be at his weakest on his way home after a mission, at his most vulnerable when it was a solo one. But the mission he was returning from hadn't been difficult. It had required speed and stealth, but no enemy engagement. His chakra reserves had been at almost full strength when they had attacked, otherwise he'd be dead already.

Almost constant use of the Sharingan and two Raikiri later, he was well under fifty percent. He had his left eye shut tightly for the moment, but he knew he'd need it again before this was over. He was starting to feel the warning signs of using too much chakra too fast. The ache that was settling under his skin, far deeper and more debilitating than what physical exertion alone would cause. It was a feeling he knew all too well.

There was no other way around it. Reaching into his pouch, he pulled out a soldier pill. It'd exacerbate the chakra exhaustion if he made it long enough to feel its effects, but having Tsunade kill him in the hospital for doing something foolish was a far preferable death to whatever these missing-nin were offering. He pulled down his mask just long enough to pop the pill in his mouth, then mentally ran through his remaining supplies as he chewed and swallowed it, immediately feeling the way it kicked his systems into overdrive, the momentary, illusive relief it gave.

The two missing-nin would attack soon. Even if they needed time to regroup themselves, they'd be eager to press their advantage. He didn't have much time to come up with a strategy

Of the two, he'd only seen the abilities of one of them, a dark blonde weapons expert. It had been one of her shuriken that had sliced open his thigh. He could have avoided it completely, but then he wouldn't have been able to take down the third member of the group. It had been a calculated risk. If he took the hit, he could make the odds a little more even and hope he wouldn't bleed out before he could kill the remaining two. If he didn't, it'd still be three on one with his chakra reserves getting lower by the minute.

The other, a short-haired brunet, had been hanging back from the beginning, watching the fight but not assisting. He appeared to be the youngest, probably not even out of his teens yet, but Kakashi was willing to bet he was the leader of the group, waiting for his underlings to weaken Kakashi enough for him to take the final blow. There was something about him that itched at the back of Kakashi's mind, something he should remember, but the start of a headache was keeping him from thinking about it too much. He had other things he needed to focus on more at the moment.

It didn't surprise him when the kunoichi initiated the next attack, a barrage of weaponry hitting the trees around him. There were tags wrapped around the handles of the kunai, which could only mean one thing.

Break time's over, he thought, leaping away just before the tree he'd been leaning against and the ones around it exploded, showering him with debris. He dodged behind another tree, but still felt some splinters of wood slice against his skin. Even landing with as little force as possible caused a spike of pain to run through his leg. He pushed extra chakra through his leg to try to reinforce it, but knew it wouldn't last long in a fight.

He needed to take the kunoichi out first. The other missing-nin was still a mystery, but she was the more immediate threat. He circled around to where he thought she was located, dodging weapons the entire way.

Ideally, he'd send clones ahead to scout the area, but nothing about this situation was ideal. Clones would use too much chakra. Long range jutsu were too risky for the same reason. He couldn't afford to miss and waste the chakra they required. He'd seen the katana on her back and doubted it was there solely for decoration. Still, close range combat was the best option, but first he had to get past her mid-range attacks.

His fingers flashed through a series of hand seals as he ran, each step causing pain to shoot through his injured leg. Tiger, Hare, Boar, and Dog to create a wall, Snake to set it in motion. He paused just long enough to slam his palms against the ground, then jumped back to avoid another wave of shuriken, but the earth was already moving, raising in a wall that started to roll towards the kunoichi. Kakashi slipped in behind it, using it as a shield to get closer. When she leapt over the wall to keep it from crushing her, he was ready.

"How's the leg?" she asked as she unsheathed her katana, confidence clear in her voice. With only kunai to block, he was at a disadvantage.

Kakashi didn't bother replying, instead focusing on meeting her first attack. The force of it shook his body. He wouldn't be able to take many of those without damaging his arms. What he wouldn't give for a sword or even just a tanto at that moment.

He opened his left eye and saw the flinch she tried to contain. The Sharingan's pull on his chakra reserves increased, adding to the headache that had already started to form behind his eyes. Another calculated risk. He needed to make this quick and the Sharingan would allow that.

She was good, but with the Sharingan, she wasn't a match for him, even in his current state. He could read her movements too easily, dodging her advances and preventing her retreats. They both saw how this would end well before it did.

"Why aren't you helping, you asshole?" she gritted out, and it took Kakashi a moment to realize she wasn't talking to him, instead it was directed at the other missing-nin. Kakashi hadn't notice him approaching from behind. He could have attacked, but he hadn't.

The brunet scoffed at her. "Why should I?"

Kakashi had been right. He was waiting for the other shinobi to exhaust Kakashi before he attacked. There was something about his voice that Kakashi felt like he should recognize, but he didn't know from where.

A bright rage filled the kunoichi's eyes as she realized she was facing Kakashi alone. The anger made her next attack rushed, allowing Kakashi to slip into her personal space, too close for her to easily use her katana anymore.

Her eyes widened as he drove a kunai through her chest. For a moment exhaustion caused the past and present to mingle in front of his eyes, blonde hair darkening to brown, the kunai disappearing, but he shook his head. Now was not the time to get lost in old scars.

Four down, one to go, he thought.

Underneath the effects of the soldier pill, he could feel the real cost of the battle on his system. The pill might be able to trick his body into pushing itself harder than should be possible, but it couldn't keep the illusion up forever. Fatigue hummed through every cell of his body, sweat dripped off of him, but he didn't have time to worry about it. He turned to face the remaining missing-nin.

Before he could fully turn, a kunai flew at him, causing him to take a step back. The earth slid and squelched beneath his right sandal.

Mud.

A jolt of alarm shot through him. It hadn't rained for days and the kunoichi's blood hadn't spread behind him yet. The earth should be dry.

He tried to jump away only to find himself stuck.

The missing-nin threw another kunai at him and Kakashi dodged it as much as he could with one leg stuck to the ground. The brunet seemed amused, jumping from tree to tree, forcing Kakashi to follow his movements as best as he could. Whenever he tried to look away, the missing-nin would throw another weapon at him. He was toying with Kakashi.

The longer Kakashi stood still, the more he could feel the combined effect of the blood loss and chakra depletion and from the looks of things, his opponent knew it. He was staying just far enough away that throwing weapons or jutsu at him would most likely be a waste. He seemed fine with waiting things out. Kakashi didn't have that luxury.

"Do you know me?" he called out to Kakashi.

"No," Kakashi answered, he wasn't in the habit of letting missing-nin get away from him alive.

"Are you sure?"

And for a moment, Kakashi wasn't. The itch in the back of his mind was there again, like he should know this kid, but he still didn't know how. The soldier pill was wearing off faster than it should and Kakashi was having a hard time thinking over the headache that was continuing to build.

Another kunai came flying at him and he dodged it, but just barely. His movements were even more restricted than before. He glanced down quickly and realized why. The mud had worked its way nearly to his knee. The world spun violently around him. He'd been caught in this jutsu before, back when he was in his late teens and in ANBU. It trapped shinobi, draining their chakra as it slowly spread over their bodies. The soldier pill wasn't wearing off faster than it should, the jutsu was draining away the additional chakra it had given Kakashi. It was part of a set of mud releases that were linked to a bloodline limit.

He looked up and saw the shadow of the missing-nin he'd faced at that time in his current opponent. The two of them seemed to fuse together in Kakashi's mind as confusion from the blood loss started to set in.

"Kasumi Shunrai?" he asked, remembering the name of the ninja he'd killed a decade before.

The boy in front of him sneered. "So you remember now?"

Kakashi shook his head, trying to clear it. The missing-nin he had faced at that time had been slightly older than him, this current one was significantly younger.

"You're his younger brother?" Kakashi asked as his mind raced. He had escaped this jutsu once before, he could do it again. He just needed a little time. He started gathering chakra.

"Kasumi Shundei," the boy said, answering the question by introducing himself.

Kakashi released the chakra he had gathered through the tenketsu of his trapped foot, feeling lightning scorch up his leg, burning at both his clothes and his skin. Forcing large amounts of lightning chakra out of his foot was painful, but earth was weak to lightning and it loosened the mud's hold long enough for Kakashi to pull away. The minor damage it caused him was a more than fair price for freeing himself from the trap.

As he jumped away from the mud jutsu, he heard the missing-nin scream in rage. Ten years ago that jutsu was supposed to be unbreakable, but Kakashi was the only person alive that knew that wasn't true.

The ground was now littered with patches of mud that hadn't been there at the start of the battle. Maybe the kid hadn't just been watching after all. Setting so many traps would have taken serious preparation. Each time Kakashi jumped to avoid one patch, another appeared where he was about to land, spreading out beneath him, reaching up towards him. He lost count of the number of times he had to change directions in midair.

It wasn't safe on the ground anymore. Staying in the trees would put extra strain on his leg and use more chakra than he could spare, but there was no other choice. He made his way up into the branches.

There was a pause as the missing-nin readjusted his strategy and it gave Kakashi a moment to think about the fight he'd had with Kasumi Shunrai. His younger brother must have been just a kid when he had died. Hell, he was still just a kid now. Maybe the age Kakashi had been when he had killed his older brother.

The family resemblance was undeniable, but the missing-nin's eyes reminded Kakashi all too much of someone else, too focused on revenge to see the world around him.

The tree Kakashi was on lurched under his feet, groaning as it started to sink into the ground. Kakashi jumped to another, only to feel it shudder and splinter as mud started to consume it as well. He jumped again, evaded, twisted his way through the trees, but each time he landed for more than a few seconds, the earth began to swallow the tree he was on. The missing-nin was playing with him again.

Kakashi felt himself go lightheaded for a moment mid-jump and nearly missed the landing. He gritted his teeth against the jolt it caused his leg. The blood loss was taking its toll. He needed to end this, and he needed to end it soon, or he'd be out of chakra.

He remembered how he'd killed the kid's brother. He might be able to do it again, if he could just hold himself together long enough. He only had one shot at this, and if it didn't work, backup was still too far away to help him.

He had just enough chakra left for one clone. Two or three would have made it easier, but that wasn't happening. The clone jumped away to another tree, while Kakashi attached a wire string to the tree he was on, waiting for it to start to sink before jumping to another, trailing the almost invisible wire behind him.

A trap alone wouldn't be enough though, he knew that.

"Do you even remember your brother?" Kakashi called out. The kunai that flew towards him was a clear answer.

"What, were you like two when he died?" Kakashi's clone asked.

"Seven!" the kid yelled. Kakashi attached more wire and jumped to another tree.

"Why do you even care? You probably only have a few memories of him at most." The clone's voice was cold and heartless even to Kakashi's own ears. The tree the clone was in shifted violently to the left as it started to sink.

Perfect, Kakashi thought, jumping to yet another tree.

"Your brother was an easy kill," Kakashi said, fighting back another wave of lightheadedness. It wasn't true. The kid's brother had been good, Kakashi had just been better.

"You're a liar," the missing-nin spat out. He was closer now, but not close enough. Kakashi jumped again. Two more trees to go.

"He tried to hide behind his jutsu the whole time we fought. Too scared to face me head on." The tree he was on lurched and he jumped to another. One more.

The clone had already finished its half of the trees they were connecting. It jumped to a tree in the middle and called out again. "He begged for his life before he died."

Kakashi cringed internally. He hated using the dead like this, even if they were missing-nin, but it worked. The kid flew at the clone, abandoning his strategy in favor of going after Kakashi directly.

Reaching the last tree, Kakashi tied off the wire and dispelled the clone, needing the extra chakra it returned to him in the process. Just as quickly as it returned, he ran the chakra through the circle of wire they'd laid, lightning sparking fast through the trees.

The missing-nin had only a moment to blink around him in confusion before Kakashi triggered the trap, bolts of lightning snaking from all sides towards the seal the clone had placed on the central tree just before Kakashi had dispelled it.

The lightning struck the tree and the missing-nin on it with a blinding flash of light and a deafening crash of thunder.

Kakashi sagged to his knees, ears ringing from the sound. The forest around him was completely still.

He gave himself a moment to try to catch his breath, but no more than that, using a tree trunk next to him to help himself back to his feet. He needed to confirm the kill.

The ground under Kakashi's feet lurched just as violently as the trees had, but Kakashi knew it was caused by exhaustion, not a jutsu.

Up close, the missing-nin looked even younger than Kakashi had thought. He checked for a pulse. If the kid had waited until he was older, he might have been even better than his brother, but they'd never know now.

He rummaged through the kid's pockets and pouches as carefully as he could with shaking hands, gathering up the few scrolls he found there. Given the precision of the attack, it was likely part of something bigger and they'd need any intel they could get.

Head swimming as the rush of the fight started to fade, leaving him weak, he staggered away from the battlefield. If this group of missing-nin had been working with a larger organization, more of them might be on their way. He couldn't stay here, he needed to get closer to Konoha. Each step was excruciating. He tried to cover his trail, but knew he wasn't doing a very good job of it.

The day was hot and sunny, but he felt cold. His heart and breathing weren't slowing down the way they should after a battle. All signs the blood loss was further along than he had hoped.

The world was narrowing in around him, spinning capriciously, making it hard to remember which way he needed to go. More than once he had to stop and force himself to focus when he found that he was starting to head in the wrong direction. The reeling, whirling earth beneath his feet had a mind of its own, making him stop to pull down his mask and empty his stomach as he leaned heavily against the nearest tree.

He stumbled and nearly fell. How long had Pakkun been gone now? It felt like days, but had probably been less than six hours. Five and a half, if he was reading the sun in the western half of the sky correctly. If that even was the west. It was still hours before backup would arrive.

He thought he had made it about halfway back to Konoha when he had to admit to himself he couldn't go any further. He used the little bit of chakra he had left to haul himself up into the low branches of a tree. He was close enough to Konoha now that there shouldn't be any immediate danger if he waited here. He just needed to stay conscious a few more hours. Pakkun would find him.

Whenever he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness, he dug his fingers into his leg wound, the pain giving him momentary lucidity, but it slipped away quicker each time.

He didn't know how long had passed before he heard the sound of someone coming towards his tree. It wasn't Pakkun, that much he knew. He grabbed a kunai, knowing it wouldn't do much good if the person below him was an enemy. He could barely hold it.

"Kakashi-san?" a voice called up to him. He couldn't recognize it, his ears felt like he was underwater.

"Where do fallen leaves rest?" Kakashi asked, slurring the words together. It was the most basic of Konoha's identification confirmation codes.

"Under the Will of Fire's Shadow," the shinobi answered and Kakashi sagged against the tree.

The shinobi jumped up to Kakashi's branch, immediately checking his pulse. Even through Kakashi's mask, the hand was almost too hot against his chilled skin.

"What happened?"

Kakashi couldn't focus on the face in front of him, only making out brown hair and a standard Konoha uniform. He couldn't understand why Pakkun wasn't with the backup.

"What happened?" the shinobi repeated, shaking Kakashi slightly to get his attention.

"Ambush," he said, voice a dry rasp, "enemy neutralized, scrolls in my vest."

He felt healing chakra being pushed into his leg without finesse and he flinched.

"Sorry, I can't fix much beyond scraped knees."

"Why didn't Pakkun get a medic-nin?"

"Let's hope he did."

Kakashi didn't understand that answer, but before he could say anything he felt himself being hauled onto someone's back then they were flying through the trees at a breakneck pace.

Blackness started to pull him in again, but this time he let it, blissfully falling into unconsciousness. There was nothing more he could do now.

~*~*~

Iruka slowed as he found himself in a silent area of the forest. Fire Country's wildlife knew to avoid a battle. It was never a good sign when they'd cleared out of an area completely. The sharp, distinctive scent of ozone and the stench of burnt flesh filled the air.

He inched his way forward, looking for whatever had caused the eerie silence. It didn't take him long to find it. An entire section of the forest had been rearranged, trees sticking out of the earth at odd angles, other parts flattened completely.

He found the bodies next, four in relatively close proximity to each other, probably missing-nin from the odd combination of their forehead protectors. Two had holes blown through their chests, another had been stabbed between her fifth and sixth ribs, and the fourth had his throat sliced open. Their bodies were cold, but the pools of blood around them hadn't dried fully yet. This had happened just a few hours ago. Further away, in the middle of the worst of the destruction, he found a fifth body, younger than the others. There were no obvious injuries, just trickles of blood running out of his ears and mouth. Iruka found it hard to look at his face, it was too close in age to his own students.

There were Leaf-made weapons scattered around, but no bodies to go with them. A small relief to an otherwise unsettling find. Something like this never should have happened so close to Konoha.

Surveying the area around the fifth body, he tried to piece together what had happened. There had been a fight between a group of missing-nin and Konoha shinobi or shinobi who used Konoha weapons. This one had likely been killed last given the level of destruction around him. Iruka made a mental note of the location. He'd notify the proper authorities once he returned to Konoha, in case they needed to dispatch a team to investigate the battlefield.

It wasn't until he turned to leave that he noticed the trail leading away from the fight, heading towards Konoha.

Iruka followed it. Every single student in his class would have been able to follow it. If the shinobi was trying to cover their tracks, they weren't doing a very good job of it, most likely too injured to be able to, if the numerous blood smeared trees were any indication. The ground spoke of stumbling, limping steps. Iruka grimaced when he saw vomit at the base of a bloodstained tree.

There were two likely scenarios here, Iruka thought as he continued to follow the trail. The first was that one of the missing-nin had gotten away from the fight, but that seemed the less likely of the two, given the direction they were heading. The more likely scenario was that he was following an injured Leaf-nin trying to get home.

Whichever it was, he needed to follow them, needed to find them and take them back to Konoha, whether for questioning or medical aid. He was grossly under-prepared for either situation.

He was just on his way back from a solo messenger mission that had taken him a little less than a day outside of Konoha, heading Northwest towards Earth Country. It was the perfect weekend mission for his schedule. One day there, spend the night, one day back. Nothing crazy, little chance of running into enemies or a fight. Just him moving through the forest and still getting back in time for class the next day. He took missions like this whenever he could. It kept him on the active duty roster and helped pay the bills. But he always traveled light. Whether this trail was leading him towards a fight or an injured Leaf-nin, he doubted he'd have the supplies he'd need.

The tracks became progressively more erratic the closer they got to Konoha, twice heading off in the wrong direction only to correct themselves again, the stumbling gait was even more apparent. They came to a stop at the base of a tree about three hours outside of Konoha.

The shinobi in the tree was too distinctive to mistake for anyone else. Hatake Kakashi. Iruka swallowed hard, disturbed at the sight of him. Even from the ground Iruka could see the too quick, too shallow rise and fall of his chest, the blood-soaked leg of his pants.

Iruka approached the tree carefully. Wounded, disoriented jounin could be dangerous even to their own. He made his steps heavy to give Kakashi warning of his presence and saw the way he gripped a kunai in his hand, white-knuckled and shaking.

"Kakashi-san?" he called out, hoping Kakashi wasn't too far gone to answer. He wasn't surprised when Kakashi needed to confirm his identity as a Konoha shinobi before he let his guard down.

Iruka leapt up into the tree next to Kakashi and tried to assess his condition. Kakashi's eye wasn't focusing on him, his pulse was rapid and weak, skin cold and clammy under Iruka's hands. The small visible portion of his face was even paler than usual. Iruka had never been good at medical ninjutsu, but the symptoms of severe blood loss and chakra depletion were easy to read.

It took asking him twice before Kakashi told him what had happened, his voice so different from every other time Iruka had heard it before.

When Kakashi wondered why Pakkun hadn't gotten a medic-nin, Iruka felt a small strand of hope wind its way through his mind. He didn't know how long ago, but Kakashi had called for backup. Someone would be coming, someone should know.

Kakashi had managed a relatively straight line from the battlefield, and Pakkun would have taken roughly the same route. If Iruka headed straight towards Konoha from here, he would hopefully meet the backup, and more importantly the medic-nin, somewhere in between.

Kakashi was a deadweight on his back as he ran through the trees. Iruka split his attention between the forest around them and the almost inaudible rasp of Kakashi's breath in case his condition worsened.

Konoha had never felt quite so far away. Iruka pushed himself hard, running faster than he had in ages.

It was about an hour outside of Konoha that Iruka realized he was being followed. He tried to go faster, but speed had never been one of his strong points and Kakashi's weight slowed him down further. He felt panic start to build inside of him. Maybe Kakashi hadn't killed all the missing-nin after all.

He pushed extra chakra through his legs, hoping to get just a little more speed, to put more distance between himself and whoever was following him, but it was no use, they kept gaining on him. They were still 45 minutes from the Gates. He wouldn't make it, his pursuers were too fast.

He considered his options. He could send a clone ahead, stop and make a stand and hope he could hold out long enough for backup to arrive, whether it be his or Kakashi's. But if his pursuers were the same ones that had done this to one of Konoha's best shinobi, Iruka knew his odds were so slim they weren't even worth mentioning.

Still, he had to try. He shifted his grip on Kakashi, trying to find a way to form the seals for a shadow clone as he ran with him on his back.

A gruff voice called out behind him. "Iruka-sensei!"

Iruka almost lost his footing in surprise. He looked back quickly to see who had called after him only to realize it wasn't a person at all.

He recognized the small dog as one of Kakashi's ninken. He'd never been more relieved to see a summons in his life.

"Iruka-sensei," Pakkun repeated, coming alongside him, "the medic-nin is right behind me."

Iruka slowed and dropped down to the forest floor, leaning Kakashi's unconscious form against a tree.

"I thought you were missing-nin," Iruka said between labored breaths.

"We just missed each other, and had to circle back around once we realized."

Iruka started to reply, but forgot what he was going to say as Kakashi's backup arrived. He'd been imagining a medic-nin being escorted by a three man team, instead four ANBU came into view. One immediately moved towards Kakashi, another towards Iruka.

It wasn't completely uncommon to see ANBU around Hokage Tower, standing guard whenever the Hokage was there, but it was never the same as seeing them in action. They just didn't move the same way other shinobi did. It was the difference between a house cat and a tiger.

"Report?" one asked Iruka, his boar mask muffling his voice slightly.

"Kakashi-san said he was ambushed, but the enemy was neutralized. The battlefield is five hours northwest of here, there are bodies of five missing-nin. He said he has scrolls in his vest."

He nodded at Iruka and turned to the eagle-masked ANBU scanning Kakashi's body with blue chakra. "Washi?"

"He needs a blood transfusion and his chakra stabilized, but there are no apparent internal injuries."

The ANBU nodded again. "Towa, Komachi, go to the battlefield, bring back any additional information you can find. Dispose of the bodies. Iruka-sensei, are you able to make it back to Konoha on your own?"

Iruka jumped at the question but answered quickly. "Yes, sir."

There was a scramble of activity as the ANBU left the area, two heading away from Konoha and the other two heading towards it, Kakashi on the captain's back.

"Thank you for helping," Pakkun said.

Iruka jumped again, he'd forgotten the ninken was there. "Anyone would have done the same," he said.

Pakkun nodded and then took off after Kakashi.

The forest was oddly peaceful around him, like the last few hours of his life hadn't just happened. If it weren't for Kakashi's blood on his hands and uniform, Iruka would be tempted to think it had all been a dream.

He finished the last part of his journey slowly, head not fully wrapped around the day's events, more than a little stunned. He'd been on countless missions like his current one over the years. Things like this didn't happen, at least not to him.

His brain decided to supply him with a dozen different scenarios of how it could have played out instead and none of them had a happy ending. He shook his head to clear away the thoughts.

When he arrived home, he washed off the dirt and blood and got ready for bed. He'd had more than enough excitement for the day. For the year even.

~*~*~

The intel-nin unrolled a scroll onto Tsunade's desk. "We were able to disarm the traps on one of the scrolls recovered during the ambush last week," she explained.

She unsealed the scroll then handed over the black book that appeared in the center of it.

"The relevant entry starts on page 11."

Tsunade flipped to that page and skimmed through the entry, one of her eyebrows raising as she reached the end of it.

"You've verified this?"

"We couldn't, not without drawing suspicion."

Tsunade nodded and dismissed the kunoichi. After a moment she turned to one of the ANBU standing guard in her office, cloaked and invisible in the corner.

"Get me Kakashi."

She couldn't see the ANBU, but she felt them leave.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Kakashi had been home for less than 24 hours and there was already an ANBU at his window, tapping out a code to tell him the Hokage needed to see him immediately. He forced himself out of bed, feeling the pull of the movement on his still too fresh leg wound and the weakness that ran through his body. One week wasn't long enough to recover from total chakra depletion and severe blood loss, it wasn't even close. But this would be far from the first time he'd been sent back out into the field before he'd recovered completely. It might be the first time under Tsunade's command, but it probably wouldn't be the last.

The medic-nin's orders had been clear. Take it easy, no missions for at least three more weeks, longer if possible. He hadn't even wanted Kakashi to leave the hospital yet, but after a week of blank walls and the overpowering scent of disinfectants, Kakashi was going stir-crazy. He'd assumed Tsunade would be more likely to keep to suggested treatment guidelines than the Third had been. But medic-nin training or not, a Hokage was still a Hokage. She had a village to protect. And if the village needed him for a mission, he would go, full recovery or not.

The walk to Hokage Tower was slower than he was used to, and it was an actual walk. If he was about to be given another mission, he needed to save the little chakra he had regained, so he opted out of rooftop travel for once.

Halfway to the Tower, he saw two chuunin he recognized as Mission Desk workers.

That one, the orange-haired kunoichi's expression seemed to say as she made a face at the white-haired man standing next to her. The man's mouth tightened ever so slightly.

Kakashi knew that look. He'd seen it countless times as he stepped into one of their lines to drop off a report.

Hatake Kakashi of the Illegible Handwriting, Master of 1,000 Ways to Fuck Up a Report. He was far from their favorite shinobi.

He put extra effort into keeping his gait smooth as he walked past them, not wanting to show weakness more than necessary.

Tsunade was waiting for him, sitting behind her desk with her hands steepled. Her expression was cold and serious as she watched him walk through the door of her office. He recognized the book that sat in front of her for what it was immediately. A Bingo Book, and not one from Konoha.

"This was stored in one of the scrolls you collected from the missing-nin who ambushed you on your last mission."

It was standard procedure to try to unseal scrolls in order to get information on enemy groups. The fact that the scroll hadn't self-destructed during the process spoke volumes to the missing-nin's arrogance or foolishness. Or maybe just how young and inexperienced he truly had been.

Kakashi didn't have to open the Book to know he was in it. There was no way he wasn't. He had been listed in various Books for over a decade now. That couldn't be the reason he was here. It had to be someone else's entry that was the problem. If it gave new information on a Konoha missing-nin, ANBU would be sent after them, not Kakashi. That pointed to one thing. Whoever was listed was a Konoha shinobi.

He mentally ran through a list of activity duty Leaf-nin. Those he knew were confirmed in Bingo Books of various nations and organizations he disregarded. Most of the high level jounin were on one nation's bad side or another. Naruto had been listed for years as well. Someone known to be a target wouldn't be the reason he'd been called into her office.

Tsunade was still studying him and it set him on edge. He started going through the other names on his mental list, trying to figure out whose entry would cause Tsunade's concern and how he might have a role in it. He was coming up blank.

"The contact paperwork in your personnel file is up to date, correct?" she asked, and he realized that the thick, well-worn folder sitting on her desk, label hidden from his view, must be his file. The contact paperwork was blank, it had been for years.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," he said, standing more at attention than he would normally. His exhaustion temporarily cleared as he mind worked at the puzzle that was in front of him. The pieces weren't fitting together. There was an entry in that Bingo Book that Tsunade found disturbing, Kakashi was related somehow, but he didn't know who or how.

"And you are aware of the anti-fraternization policy?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," he said again, standing even straighter. Everyone knew about the policy. It kept the chain of command and maintenance of discipline clearer. It also kept jounin from using their status to pressure their subordinates into accepting unwanted advances. It wasn't unheard of for people to date outside their rank, but it required enough paperwork that most didn't even entertain the idea.

He crossed all the jounin, both full and tokubetsu, off his mental list as well as all those under the age of 20. There were still too many names and none of them were related to him in the obvious way.

"Were there any unauthorized stops during your last mission?"

Kakashi blinked. "You mean other than the ambush?"

Her eyes narrowed. She clearly wasn't in the mood for half answers.

"No, there weren't."

He had made his career on outthinking his opponents, but at that moment Tsunade held all the cards. He couldn't do anything until she showed them to him.

"Do you know who found you after the ambush?"

"I was told it was Umino Iruka."

He couldn't remember much of what had happened after the fight, but he'd been debriefed while he was still in the hospital. Did it matter who had found him? Her question was just another piece that didn't fit into this puzzle.

She studied him for a moment longer then deflated, tossing the Book at him as she leaned back into her chair. He caught it with ease, noting the twisted, leafless tree stamped in black and barely visible against the black cover. He'd seen that symbol before, half a decade earlier.

Kogarashi, he remembered, the withering winter wind.

"You recognize the symbol?"

"Yes," he replied. "It's the same as an organization I dismantled when I was in ANBU." But that had been five years ago, and this book looked new.

"Page 11," she said, sounding tired.

He flipped to that page, not surprised to see his own picture printed there. As he scanned through his entry, he realized it was much more detailed than usual. All the entries he'd seen before were two or three pages max, but this went far beyond that. There were lists of all the jutsu he was confirmed to have used or stolen, enemies he had taken out, missions he had completed, even a list of preferred taijutsu techniques.

If there had been any doubt that he had been targeted on his last mission, this more than put it to rest. It also raised another question.

"The mission before this one, my team was attacked on the way home."

She nodded. "I read your report for that mission. For now, it's best if we operate under the assumption that there might be a connection."

It hadn't seemed like an ambush at the time, only a coincidence. His team had taken care of their attackers quickly, assuming they were just random bandits trying to rob travelers and getting more trouble than they'd expected. There hadn't appeared to be a plan to their attack, not like the ambush on his last mission.

If this group was willing to attack him twice, they'd most likely do it again. But that still didn't explain Tsunade's question about his relationship status.

He looked back down at his entry. On the bottom of page 17 it listed Naruto as his former student (See page 25). He hated that Naruto had his own entry at such a young age, but still it was nothing new.

It wasn't until Kakashi turned the next page that he realized why she'd called him into her office. A photo looked up at him, the caption underneath it reading Umino Iruka (lover).

Kakashi had been hit by earth jutsu that packed less of a punch than this. He couldn't keep his visible eye from widening the further he read down the page.

Name: Umino Iruka
Rank: Chuunin
Occupation: Academy teacher
Nature: Suspected Fire user
Special Skills: Unknown, if any
Risk Level: Minimal
Age: 25
Height: 178cm
Weight: 66kg
Hair: Brown, worn in ponytail
Eyes: Brown
Distinguishing Marks: Scar across nose
Relationship to Target: Lover
Other Relations of Note: Uzumaki Naruto (former student, see page 25)
Reward: Minimal individual value, but strong connections to targets of high value. Only valuable if taken alive.

Kakashi blinked at the page, but it didn't change. The caption still stared back at him, accusing.

Umino Iruka (lover)

His head reeled.

He'd talked to Iruka maybe a dozen times since the Chuunin Exams and every single time that hadn't been full out yelling over the state of his mission reports, had been stilted conversations about Naruto's growth.

He didn't take lovers for exactly this reason. Sex was a need that he took care of impersonally when necessary. The occasional one-night stand with a like-minded jounin, the infrequent visit to one of the more discreet brothels in town, carefully disguised when he went. Relationships were dangerous. They were weaknesses that could be exploited.

Relationships got your loved ones listed in Bingo Books for a pittance of a reward just so they could be used as bait against you.

No matter how long he looked at it, the entry still didn't make sense.

Umino Iruka (lover)

There was a paper tucked into the pages. Kakashi unfolded it, feeling dread start to build in his stomach at what it might contain.

It was in a shinobi shorthand, one Kakashi didn't fully know, but there was something that had to be Iruka's address scrawled along the top of the paper and the four lists of numbers that took up much of the rest were simple enough to understand. Dates and times. The first and longest column was mostly weekday evenings and weekends. Kakashi didn't know Iruka's exact Mission Desk schedule, but if this wasn't it, he'd retire right then and there. The other three shorter lists weren't as easy to decode.

Tsunade cleared her throat and he jerked his head up to look at her. She'd been watching him closely the whole time.

"I will ask you again. Is your personnel file up to date?" There was a cold warning in her voice that told him not to lie if he wanted to stay on active duty. He didn't have to. There was nothing to lie about.

"It is, Hokage-sama," he said, voice firm.

"You should know your status as one of the top ninja in our village leaves anyone you associate with, however briefly, in a vulnerable position. You cannot let that put valuable members of our community at risk."

He nodded sharply and she didn't press the point any further. He didn't try to defend himself, he didn't say they had no relationship and never had. It didn't matter. If it was in a Bingo Book, it was fact to whoever held that Book. Whether or not they were actually in a relationship mattered less than the fact that people now thought they were.

"Do you understand the four lists?" she asked.

"The longest is his Mission Desk schedule." Tsunade raised an eyebrow, but he continued. "I don't know the other three."

"One is a list of the missions he has been on over the last year." It was fairly short with a series of characters behind the dates that he couldn't fully decipher. Probably locations and other information about the missions.

"The third is a list of dates he has taken his class outside the Gates," she continued.

Kakashi inhaled sharply at that. He wasn't just putting one life in danger if the people who compiled this Book were tracking that as well.

"We don't understand the final list," she finished, frowning slightly. "We were hoping you would."

He looked again at the shortest list, but shook his head. It didn't hold any meaning to him.

"It's clear this organization is after you, and is preparing to use any means necessary to do so."

Kakashi nodded. An organization targeting him wasn't out of the ordinary. One targeting other members of Konoha to get to him though, that couldn't be allowed. They needed to be destroyed before they made a move on Iruka, and especially before they did so while he was with his students.

"You realize the deeper implications of this, correct?"

He nodded again. A missing-nin organization had detailed information about a Konoha shinobi's schedule. There was only one way they could have gotten it, and that meant there was trouble for them inside the village as well as out.

"What is my assignment?" he asked.

She raised an eyebrow at him again. Presumptuous, it said. "For now, you have no official mission. You are still on leave until your chakra levels stabilize and you've fully recovered from the blood loss, but I want you to review the files on this organization to see if you can give us any additional information."

It was a small relief to know he wouldn't be back out in the field, trying to take down a missing-nin organization in his current state, but it didn't give him peace of mind.

"What will you do about Iruka-sensei?" he asked, not able to stop himself. She narrowed her eyes at him, trying to ascertain the depth of his interest.

"He will have ANBU assigned to him for now, until we can neutralize the threat."

"You'll inform him of the Book?"

"No, he doesn't need to know until we have more information."

"He'll know he is being followed."

"The ANBU will be discreet."

"He'll know."

"How do you know?" she asked, looking at him with suspicion again.

He didn't know, not really, but he knew the Third. "He wouldn't have been put in charge of the future of Konoha if he couldn't sense threats."

"The ANBU aren't threats."

"Unknown shinobi following you are always threats."

She pressed her lips together, irritated. "He won't be informed until it's necessary. You're dismissed."

He set the Book on her desk, bowed and walked out of her office, each step a painful reminder of the fact that for now there was little he could do to fix this situation.

Back in his empty apartment, he stared at one of the walls for a moment. The black letters of the Bingo Book listing painted themselves across the white surface.

Umino Iruka (lover)

He had tried his whole adult life to avoid relationships that might lead to this happening, and yet here he was, putting people at risk just by association.

A wave of exhaustion hit him, he'd been on his feet too long already. He stripped out of his gear and crawled back into bed.

~*~*~

Iruka surveyed his students as they threw various weapons at targets in the schoolyard. Nothing seemed off, but something was bothering him. There were no threatening presences around the school, no ill intent in the air. There were minimal bird calls in the woods around them, but that was common enough. Birds in Konoha were smart enough to avoid the Academy on target practice days. There was nothing he could put his finger on, but the warning in the back of his mind was more than enough to give him pause.

He held still, paying careful attention to the ambient flow of chakra in the village, the way it bounced off everything around them. He let it form an image in his mind and then started to scan the area around the practice field for concealed chakra signatures. It took a little searching, but he found the suspicious blank spots he'd thought might be there. Two of them, waiting in the trees just at the edge of the schoolyard.

He took a moment to gather his students around him and then crouched down to their level, speaking in hushed tones that wouldn't carry beyond the circle. A few of the children bounced in excitement. Then he stood up again, counting to three before he told them to start.

As one, all 30 students started throwing everything sharp within arm's reach at the surrounding trees, trying to see who could throw the highest, the farthest. The resulting chaos would have made childhood Iruka tear up with pride.

Now that he knew where the blank spots were, it was easier to track them. Both seemed to flicker in surprise and then quickly moved away from the yard as the barrage of inexpertly thrown weapons made unpredictable flights through the trees. Even with countless weapons flying at them, there had been no hostile intent.

When the children had exhausted their weapon supplies, the yard fell into momentary quiet and the itch in the back of his mind eased slightly. He could still sense the blank spots, but much further away, and he felt confident enough to have the students collect the weapons in pairs as he kept close tabs on the observers, making sure they didn't move any closer and ready to call his students back immediately if they did.

He promised that the pair who collected the most weapons would get bonus points for the day. The students quickly partnered up and started retrieving the weapons. He'd have to make another pass himself after school to get the ones they'd missed and the ones that had struck too high in the trees for them to reach, but they'd get most of them.

It was probably just two jounin parents checking out their kid's progress. That had happened before, and would most definitely happen again. But if he couldn't confirm that suspicion, he'd have to talk to the other teachers to make sure they kept an eye out. Just because whoever had been watching hadn't been hostile that day, didn't mean they'd always be harmless. There were very few reasons to completely conceal your presence that didn't have ulterior motives behind them and he wasn't willing to gamble like that when it came to his students.

~*~*~

Leaning against the wall next to a window in the staff room, Iruka watched his students as they trickled out of the school. The two concealed presences had remained for the rest of the afternoon, even after he'd taken his students back inside, slowly creeping closer to the school again once the students were no longer in possession of a large amount of sharp objects.

If two parents were watching, they'd leave with their child and once Iruka knew whose parents they were, he would send them a nicely worded reminder of the open campus days where parents were free to come for class observation. That was usually enough to keep them from spying again, at least for a little while. So far, over half his students had left, but none of them had been followed home.

Another teacher came over to where Iruka was standing.

"Everything all right?" Midori asked, looking between Iruka and the students leaving the school.

"Unscheduled observation day," Iruka said and she made a face. She'd been at the school long enough to have had a few of her own.

"Unscheduled observation day?" Fuyuno asked, overhearing their conversation. He was the rookie teacher for the year, still learning the ropes.

"You'll find ninja parents, particularly jounin ones, can be..." Midori trailed off, too nice to say what they were all thinking.

"Highly interested in the education of their children," Iruka finished for her.

"Insane, controlling bastards," Suzume clarified from the other side of the room.

"You'll understand after parent teacher conferences next month," Midori told him.

Fuyuno paled and Iruka bit back a smile. It hadn't been long ago when he'd been that inexperienced and worried about facing parents for the first time.

A few more of Iruka's students walked away from the school, but the observers didn't move.

"Are jounin parents really that bad?" Fuyuno asked.

The two kunoichi chuckled and starting telling horror stories to the new teacher, but Iruka was distracted. He frowned as the last of his students left in a small group. The cloaked presences stayed where they were. He waited, but they showed no signs of moving.

Whoever was watching the school, they weren’t parents. Iruka inhaled sharply, about to say something to the other teachers only to stop himself when suddenly there weren't just two blank spots anymore, there were four.

His hand instinctively went to his weapons pouch as he paid close attention to the presences. He felt alarmed, but then just as quickly as the additional two had appeared, two moved off again. Like they’d just had a shift change, he realized. He turned over that information in his mind. There was only one logical explanation. The two concealed presences that had been waiting outside the school all day weren’t parents watching their children. They were ANBU.

His brow creased in thought. He considered saying something to the other teachers, but quickly decided not to, not yet at least. They would have been told if there was a threat to the students or the school, which meant it had to be something else, something they weren't supposed to know about. But what could it be?

He heard someone calling his name.

"What?" he asked, mind still reeling at the idea of ANBU guarding the school.

"We are telling him that soon he'll be like you, leaving the village on solo messenger missions once or twice a month just to escape crazy jounin parents," Midori said, grinning at him.

"Beats sitting at home with nothing but grading to do," he said with a shrug. He'd been picking up extra missions for almost a year now, ever since Naruto had left with Jiraiya for training. Without him in the village, sometimes it felt like Iruka had no reason to be there on weekends either. His apartment was cold and lonely without Naruto constantly stopping by to beg him for ramen or to tell him about his latest missions.

The other teachers fell back into conversation and Iruka continued thinking over what he knew. The school was being watched, most likely by ANBU, and the teachers hadn't been informed. He could check with the principal, but either she knew and wasn't telling them or she didn't know. Whichever it was, he wouldn't be getting any additional information from her.

He turned the problem over in his head as he packed up his bag, preparing to head over to the Tower for his Mission Desk shift that evening. Whatever was going on, they didn't feel it was safe to tell the teachers, and that worried him.

Just as he was leaving the school, he noticed the watchers shift, like they were about to leave as well. He froze, focusing on them. Had he missed one of his students? He waited, but the ANBU stayed still as well. He let out a breath. Maybe he'd just imagined it.

He started walking again.

The two blank spots also moved.

Iruka felt his step falter. He swallowed and walked further away from the school.

They followed.

The hairs on his arms stood on end and he had to force himself not to run as the two shadows trailed behind him. He walked at a normal pace towards the Tower, trying to pretend like nothing was wrong in the world. This was just a regular evening as he went from one job to the next, but his mind wouldn't stop racing.

The two concealed shinobi that had been outside the school all day weren't there for the school or the students. They were there for him. ANBU were following him.

ANBU never followed people for happy reasons. "Congratulations, you're teacher of the year! Your prize is being shadowed by ANBU for a month!" was not a thing that happened. ANBU only followed people who were threats or threatened. He didn't understand how he could fall into either of those categories.

At the Desk, it was hard to focus on the reports being handed to him when his attention kept sliding towards the ANBU that had taken up posts just above the room's windows. Throughout his shift, they took turns making sweeps of the area and then returning to the roof. He tried not to twitch every time one of them moved. He wasn't entirely successful and had caused more than one shinobi to apologize for the state of their report before he'd even said anything.

It was a long shift and when finally he was closing the Desk for the night with three other workers, he felt relieved.

"Are you feeling okay, Iruka-sensei?" Shimo asked as they cleaned. "You've been quiet all night."

Iruka tried not to sigh. "Just a little tired. It was a long day at school," he said, hoping the white-haired chuunin wouldn't press further. He didn't, but another one of the workers did.

"Ah, still worn out from another mission?" Kaki asked, winking at him.

Iruka frowned. "No, I didn't have a mission this weekend."

"Ah," she said, looking a little disappointed though Iruka couldn't understand why.

They finished their work in silence and walked out together.

Iruka's heart pounded in his chest as he turned towards home, still holding out hope that this was all a misunderstanding or his imagination and he wouldn't be followed home.

The ANBU trailed after him and he cursed under his breath. Of course he wasn't that lucky.

Once he was inside he could sense the two ANBU as they moved to flank his apartment building, one across the street on top of a building that gave a good view of his front door and the second on the other side where they could watch his bedroom and living room windows.

Iruka sat at his kotatsu, his grading spread out on the table in front of him as he thought about the ANBU outside. He now knew he was definitely being followed, but he still couldn't understand why. He didn't believe they had any ill intent, but that didn't help settle his feelings.

The longer he thought about it, the more it started to annoy him. If he was in danger, why hadn't they told him? Had the Hokage thought he wouldn't know he was being followed by ANBU? The thought pissed him off. He didn't deal well with uncertainty and nerves, but irritation and anger he could work with.

He didn't like people following him, he didn't like people assuming he was weak. He gathered the papers and set them aside, pulling out his lesson plans for the next few days. He had some revisions to make.

Whoever was assigned to follow him would have one of the most interesting jobs in Konoha if he had anything to say about it.

~*~*~

The day following his summons to Tsunade's office, Kakashi was just leaving ANBU Headquarters after pulling old files on Kogarashi when he saw two ANBU returning. He recognized Komachi and Towa immediately. They'd run a few missions together before Kakashi had retired from ANBU.

The moment they saw him, they jumped to attention, old habits dying hard. They looked worse for wear. Komachi had a few leaves in her long blonde hair and Towa had a suspicious rent in his cloak. Both of them looked like they had recently fallen out of a tree.

"Guarding Iruka-sensei?" he asked, amusement creeping into his voice.

They didn't answer verbally, but the way they both turned their heads fractionally towards each other, making eye contact behind their masks, was enough of an answer for him.

He walked away, one corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly, far from noticeable under his mask.

He wouldn't tell Tsunade he had told her so the next time he saw her, he was too good of a shinobi for that. But he wasn't good enough to resist swinging by Headquarters around shift changes over the next few days just to see if anything else of interest happened.

~*~*~

Four days after he'd found out about the Bingo Book, there was one thing that Kakashi knew to be true about Umino Iruka: he was single-handedly terrorizing the highest level of operatives in Konoha armed only with his wit and a few dozen pre-genin.

Each day at the end of the first shift, the two unlucky ANBU who had pulled the short straws returned to Headquarters in some new state of disarray. The first day they had been leafy, the second day they had been decidedly muddy, and day three had left them splattered with paintballs.

The pair that had just returned from the day shift appeared to be covered from head to toe with brightly colored powders. They headed into the ANBU locker room with their shoulders ever so slightly slumped. Guarding a school teacher in the village was supposed to be a cushy gig. A nice break between S-rank missions. It wasn't supposed to require hours of scrubbing to make sure your skin wasn't electric blue before you could return to your daily life.

Kakashi hid his amusement behind his book.

No one questioned why Kakashi had been spending so much time at HQ recently after years of being off the ANBU roster. Clearly he had a good reason or he wouldn't be there.

The pair finally left the locker room and a few moments later Pakkun strolled out. They left the building together.

Pakkun spent the rest of the evening extorting steak from Kakashi before he gave him the best details he'd overheard.

Iruka had switched his curriculum, deciding the students should learn how to set traps sooner rather than later. The ANBU, who could dismantle a well-laid trap in their sleep, were having a hard time dealing with the pre-genins' completely illogical, poorly planned and made traps. They were finding that incompetently placed tripwire could be equally as dangerous as that laid logically by expert hands.

The ANBU, Pakkun told him between bites of steak, were trying everything in their power to trade shifts. Volunteering for S-rank missions and bribing their fellow ANBU to get out of the day shifts.

Kakashi spent the rest of the evening gleefully considering whether or not he should tell the current commanders that they might want to have Iruka design a training course for the ANBU after this was all over.

On the fifth day, both ANBU came back sporting singed cloaks and Kakashi had to use a body flicker jutsu to keep himself from laughing outright in the middle of HQ.

Kakashi hadn't had more than a dozen conversations with Iruka since the Chuunin Exams, but he was absolutely curious now.

He found himself walking towards the Academy without really thinking about it, cloaking his presence as he got closer. He located the two ANBU on duty quickly. They seemed to be keeping their distance, probably having noticed the cloaks on the pair they'd replaced.

When Iruka headed home, the ANBU followed, keeping a larger distance from him than probably necessary. That kind of distance was only left between higher level marks, S-class criminals and sensors.

Iruka reached his apartment and as he was pulling open the door, he paused and looked directly at the location of one of the concealed ANBU and then the other. There was no mistaking it for anything other than an I see you.

Busted, Kakashi thought, holding in a laugh as Iruka turned back to enter his apartment, but then Iruka froze and for a fraction of a second, his eyes flickered to Kakashi's location.

Kakashi stilled, holding his breath. There was no way Iruka should have been able to sense him. The two ANBU hadn't even sensed him.

But he couldn't deny the feeling that Iruka had in fact registered his presence, at least on some basic level.

Iruka hurried inside and shut the door, there was a solid click and then the hum of chakra wards coming to life behind him. Kakashi couldn't tell what those wards could do, but if the ANBU's skittish behavior was any indication, he was willing to bet they weren't something to be messed with.

Iruka had always seemed like a stick in the mud to Kakashi, a boring school teacher, the worst of the Mission Desk workers to turn a report in to, even if Naruto did sing his praises on a regular basis. But a good ninja had to correct their mistakes if they wanted to survive, and Kakashi was more than willing to admit he was wrong.

He was wrong, and now he was oh so curious.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Demanding an audience with the Hokage first thing in the morning never went over well, even less so on a weekend, but Iruka wouldn't leave until she saw him. After an hour of waiting, he got up and opened a window.

"Go tell her I'm sick of being followed," he yelled at his nearest shadow. The fact that they were invisible didn't stop him from staring straight at them.

The Hokage's assistant on duty looked startled and eyed Iruka warily, but after five days of ANBU trailing him everywhere he went, Iruka was beyond caring.

In his mind, he saw a slight movement to the edges of the blank space he'd just spoken to. It was something he'd never noticed before and it took a moment for him to realize what the reaction meant. The ANBU was surprised. This was the first time he'd ever addressed one of them directly. Though after countless pointed looks and a fair amount of less than casual hints to his students about where exactly they should be placing traps, the ANBU all had to have figured out by now that he knew exactly where they were. If they hadn't, Tsunade needed to reconsider her standards for the organization.

The two blank spots seemed to shimmer at each other in some silent, concealed language he couldn't hope to understand, then one of them flickered into Tsunade's office.

He didn't have to wait much longer after that. Her office door opened and she shouted for him to come in.

"What?" she demanded, looking annoyed. Iruka wasn't sure if her irritation was directed at him, the early hour, or a combination of both.

"I want to know why I'm being followed by ANBU," he said, trying not to show his nerves.

She looked him over, face unreadable. "Why do you think you're being followed by ANBU?"

I don't know. Ask the one I just yelled at, he wanted to say, but forced it down. He'd figured she wouldn't just tell him why. Whatever the reason, it was definitely above his clearance level, which meant he'd need to earn the information first.

"There have been concealed chakra signatures following me all week. For a short time, I thought they might be additional protection for the Academy, but then they followed me home."

"And you can sense their presence?" She seemed skeptical. He knew she didn't think he'd be able to.

"It's more like I can't sense them."

She gave him an unimpressed look and he quickly explained.

"When shinobi use chakra, it bounces off everything around them. There's enough being used in the village that most things have some small amount bouncing off them at any given time. Usually when someone is concealing their presence, they inadvertently cancel out the echo of chakra around them as well. It leaves a hole, a chakra dead area. It's easy to miss, especially in a large, open area, but once you know what to look for, you can guess the location of the person cloaking themselves."

She studied him. "How many ANBU are currently in my office?"

"Three," he said without hesitation. "There, there, and there. The second one that has been following me this morning stayed outside."

Two of the blank spaces wavered. The one next to Tsunade's desk remained even, able to control their surprise now that Iruka wasn't yelling directly at them.

Tsunade leveled a look at him. He knew he was correct about the placement.

"You're not listed as a sensor in your file."

"That's because I'm not. Not technically. I don't sense people giving off chakra, at least not more than anyone else, and I can't read their signatures. All I can really sense is when released chakra bounces off something else."

She considered that for a moment. "So, a chakra form of echolocation?"

He nodded. "Something like that."

Tsunade seemed amused, just like everyone else did when they found out about it. It was fitting, given his name. He couldn't deny that.

"You said you notice this in the village. What about outside?"

"There is usually less chakra in use. I've never been able to use it effectively outside the village. Giving off enough of my own chakra to get the same results is too much of a waste of resources to make it useful." He shrugged.

"How long have you been followed?"

"I noticed the concealed presences around noon five days ago. I don't know how long they were following me before that."

Tsunade nodded and he assumed it hadn't been much longer than that.

"And you're just coming to me about it now?"

"I've been monitoring them and was almost positive they were ANBU, I never felt any ill intent, and like I said, they seemed focused on me rather than the children or the Academy."

"So why now?"

"I'm under the impression that ANBU generally guard people in pairs."

"They frequently do."

"Last night I believe there was a third person following me."

Her eyebrows shot up at that and she turned to the ANBU next to her.

"Were you on duty last night?"

A fox-masked ANBU uncloaked themselves and shook their head. Iruka fought to keep from reacting. It was one thing to think he was being followed by ANBU, even to be 99 percent certain, it was another altogether to actually see them. It made the situation suddenly much more real.

"Did the on-duty pair report another presence?"

The ANBU shook their head again. Tsunade's mouth pulled tight.

"Bring your captain here."

The ANBU was gone in a flash. Tsunade paused for a moment and then looked at one of the other invisible ANBU in the room.

"Get Kakashi."

They didn't uncloak themselves, the blank spot in the room's chakra was just suddenly gone.

It was Iruka's turn to raise an eyebrow. Why would she summon Kakashi?

With the two ANBU gone, she turned back to Iruka, pulling a scroll out of her desk and unsealing it to reveal a black book. Even though Iruka had never dealt with one of the books personally, he knew immediately what it was.

She held it out to him.

"Page 11," she said.

Confused, he took the Bingo Book and opened it to that page only to see Kakashi's face. He flipped through the entry, feeling like a voyeur. There was more information here than he had the right to know. Why was he being shown this?

Trying not to read too much of what was written, he turned another page and froze when he saw his own face staring back at him.

He blinked repeatedly. His heart raced in his chest. It didn't make sense. Why was he in a Bingo Book? He wasn't important enough to be a target of value.

The words in the Book swam in front of his eyes and he was having a hard time focusing on them until he saw the caption under his picture.

Umino Iruka (lover)

He choked at that. There had to be a mistake. He flipped back a page, thinking he'd missed something, an explanation, anything, but it was just Kakashi's entry. He turned again to the page with his own picture and stared at the caption.

Umino Iruka (lover)

One of the windows in Tsunade's office opened with an unnatural silence and it made him jump. Kakashi slipped inside, landing beside Tsunade's desk. There was a subtle stiffness to his movements that Iruka would not have expected from someone of his level and it gave him flashbacks to the last time he'd seen Kakashi. He wasn't fully healed yet.

Kakashi looked him over once, visible eye lingering on the Book in his hands, and Iruka tried not to blush under the appraising gaze.

"I see you told him after all," Kakashi said, turning towards Tsunade.

"It couldn't be helped," she said with a shrug.

Kakashi didn't respond and yet Iruka got the feeling he was amused, but he couldn't understand why. Maybe at some point, after you'd been listed in a handful of Bingo Books, the whole thing just became amusing. Iruka wasn't quite there yet.

(lover) kept flashing in his head. If ANBU hadn't been following him all week, he'd think this was some kind of joke.

He probably talked to Teuchi and Ayame more in a month than he'd talked to Kakashi in the entire time they'd known each other. Why would anyone think he and Kakashi were... Iruka shook his head. Whoever had compiled this book had some seriously bad intel.

"This scroll was recovered from the missing-nin who ambushed Kakashi. We were able to unseal it six days ago and assigned ANBU to guard you starting that evening," Tsunade explained.

Iruka nodded, trying to process what she was telling him. Six days. He'd been followed for less than 24 hours before he had noticed them.

"You weren't going to tell me?"

"We were waiting for more intel," she said simply. Iruka took that as a no. He willed himself not to twitch in irritation, but the fact that Kakashi had clearly known wasn't helping matters.

Tsunade held out a folded piece of paper and he took that as well, eyes widening and irritation forgotten as he unfolded it. His address was printed on the top. He could feel both Tsunade and Kakashi watching him, waiting for his reaction.

"Do you know what the lists are?" Tsunade asked.

Iruka nodded. "My Mission Desk schedule," he said, stomach twisting at the realization that someone other than ANBU had been watching him, unnoticed and for much longer. He paused for a moment, looking at the next set of dates. Assuming they had to do with his schedule made them easy to understand. "This one is a list of the missions I've been on during the last year."

His unease turned to rage as he looked over the third list. "Dates I've been outside the Gates with my class," he said, voice coiled tight with fury. Targeting him was one thing, but putting his students in danger was unforgivable. He studied the fourth list, breathing deeply until he felt more in control of his anger. The seven dates seemed random at first, but after a moment an idea started to form.

"Do you understand the fourth list?" Tsunade prompted.

He nodded again slowly. "They're all dates Kakashi-san passed me letters from Naruto."

Both Tsunade and Kakashi looked surprised and he felt himself blush slightly. Maybe it was weird that he remembered the dates so clearly, but each letter had been a small, welcome piece of Naruto during his long absence.

He frowned at the lists, studying the sets of characters that followed his mission dates and trying to ignore Kakashi's gaze on him. He lined up where he'd been on those missions with what he knew of various shinobi shorthands and the code started to unravel. The first three characters indicated the direction and distance he had traveled. The next two noted if he'd stayed overnight, and if so, whether it had been at an inn or camping outside. The last letter appeared to to be a yes or a no of some sort. Most of them were marked yes.

His eyes narrowed. There were seven missions marked yes, including the most recent. He looked at the list of dates Kakashi had given him letters and then back to the mission list, realizing most of those seven missions came within a few weeks of days he'd gotten letters. Blinking, he tilted his head to the side as things started to click into place. He had a theory, but he needed to confirm it. He looked at Kakashi.

"Two weeks ago, when you were ambushed, you were on your way back from Earth Country, weren't you?"

Kakashi's eye flickered to Tsunade who nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Yes, I was," he said.

"And five weeks before that, did you have a mission in Grass Country?"

"I did."

"And Land of Swamps four weeks before that?"

Kakashi nodded and Iruka tried another. "Land of Fangs about a month and a half before that?"

Kakashi hesitated and looked at Tsunade again. She also paused, considering.

Above my clearance level, Iruka realized. "Okay, in the vague, general direction of Land of Fangs?"

Tsunade gave another small nod.

"Officially, yes, I was."

Close enough, Iruka decided. He passed the paper over to Kakashi. "Were you in the rest of these places around these dates? Officially."

Kakashi scanned the list and nodded, looking back up at Iruka. "Were you?" He sounded doubtful and Iruka didn't blame him. He wasn't put on missions that left the country very often.

"No," he said. "But seven weeks ago I was a day out of the village, in the direction of Grass Country and four weeks before that I was close to the border of Land of Swamps." He didn't continue, but he could have.

"They think I'm passing you letters to arrange meetings outside the village," Kakashi said, voice flat.

Iruka nodded. That was the conclusion he'd come to as well.

They never spoke about who the letters were from, that needed to be kept confidential, but they hadn't been particularly secretive with the hand offs. Kakashi had passed him most of the letters while picking up mission assignments or dropping off reports. There was safety and routine to it, always a reason for one of them to be doing something else. Kakashi leaving for a mission or Iruka taking care of the next person in line. The first time he'd gotten a letter, Kakashi had found him on his way to Ichiraku's. They had both stood there, trying to find something to talk about and failing miserably. After a few moments of awkward silence, Kakashi had excused himself. He'd stuck to the handing the letters over at the Desk ever since. The steady flow of shinobi in and out of the room, the constantly moving lines meant they could keep small talk to a minimum. But it also meant dozens of ninjas could have witnessed Kakashi slipping Iruka letters that clearly were not part of his mission reports.

There was no amount of bad intel in the world that would believably put them in an open relationship, but if they assumed Kakashi and Iruka were trying to hide their relationship, it put a different spin on things.

A thought hit Iruka and he looked back and forth between Tsunade and Kakashi.

"Five of those missions were dead drops."

Kakashi looked over at Tsunade sharply.

She shrugged again. "No one suspects a chuunin on a solo D-rank messenger mission to be carrying A-rank intel."

Iruka's eyes widened. He doubted she'd confirm it more than that, but given Kakashi's reaction, he'd acted as a courier for at least one of Kakashi's missions, probably more than one. It put them in roughly the same place at approximately the same time. It still wasn't enough to prove they were in a relationship, but it gave them a chance to meet outside the watch of the ever-curious eyes in the village.

"We currently have operatives trying to gather more intel on the organization that released the Book, but you won't be authorized to leave the village until this is settled," Tsunade said, breaking into the silence that had fallen over the room. She didn't have to say especially with students. That went without saying.

Iruka nodded, feeling a little numb. "Okay."

"Okay?" Tsunade questioned like she was expecting him to argue.

"Okay," he repeated. Given his reputation, she was probably waiting for him to start yelling, and there might be some of that later, but for now he was still trying to process the fact that he was listed in a Bingo Book. "There's not a lot more I can do at this moment, is there?"

"No," she acknowledged.

He wasn't ANBU, he rarely even took missions that might involve combat. As much as he would like to, he couldn't just storm out of Konoha and take down an entire missing-nin organization because there was a chance they might hurt his students. He had to trust that the ANBU would do that for him. Which reminded him...

"I do wish you had told me from the start though," he said, irritation creeping into his voice. "I wouldn't have set the kids on the ANBU if I had known why they were there."

Tsunade's mouth twitched but she kept her composure, and Iruka was now sure he wasn't imagining things, Kakashi was amused.

A moment later there was a sharp knock on the door and a white-cloaked ANBU was let in.

"Zou," Tsunade said, addressing him. "Did you add additional guards to Iruka-sensei's detail yesterday evening?"

"No, Hokage-sama," the ANBU captain answered. "We haven't changed the shifts from what was initially discussed."

Tsunade looked concerned.

Kakashi coughed, then rubbed the back of his neck. "That may have been me."

Tsunade, the captain, and Iruka all turned to stare at Kakashi.

"Why exactly were you following him?" Tsunade demanded.

"Maa, I was curious." Kakashi shrugged.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow at him and he had the grace to look sheepish.

She turned back to the captain. "Since Kakashi is curious, he will be rotating in on some of the shifts from now on. I've heard the day shifts are particularly interesting."

Zou nodded.

She looked at Iruka. "Now you know, do you want the ANBU to stay closer to you?"

"No," Iruka said, shaking his head, "it's better if they keep their distance and continue to cloak themselves as they have been. A few of the students are sensors and some of them might start picking up their presence if they get much closer."

Tsunade nodded her agreement.

Iruka turned to the captain. "And tell the ANBU sorry for... well, you know." He waved his hand vaguely in front of him.

The captain gave him a nod. Iruka wasn't sure how a masked ANBU could look amused, but Zou seemed to.

"Is there anything else?" Tsunade asked coolly.

"No, Hokage-sama," they all replied and she dismissed them. Kakashi left through a window before Iruka could speak to him. Just as before, his movement wasn't as smooth as it should have been and Iruka wondered again how injured he still was.

On his way back home, he felt the two ANBU following behind him and was glad to know why exactly they were there. Not knowing had been driving him crazy. At least now he knew.

It wasn't until he was home that he realized Tsunade hadn't even asked if the information in the entry was true or not. But then again, he figured, it didn't matter. He didn't know how many people had copies of this particular Book. It could be one or it could be a hundred, but they all had one thing in common. None of them would be questioning the intel. He wasn't ANBU, but he'd heard their saying. The Book was fact.

~*~*~

The following day, Iruka had a weekend Desk shift, but he couldn't focus on the work in front of him. No matter what he did, his mind kept wandering back to Tsunade's office and the Bingo Book. The words Umino Iruka (lover) kept popping up in front of his eyes, written on lists and reports until he shook his head to clear them away.

It didn't help that Sunday mornings were notoriously slow, the shift didn't get busy until the afternoon. It gave Iruka time to think. Too much time.

He couldn't get over it. There was no logic behind it. Anyone who knew them both would think it was laughable. Hell, anyone who knew even just their ranks and reputations would as well. When it came to skill level, there was an entire mountain of difference between them and Iruka wouldn't be surprised if one day that mountain had Kakashi's face carved on it.

Iruka could feel Shimo sending him concerned looks throughout the shift. He'd been distracted the whole week and all the Desk workers had picked up on it.

"You feeling alright?" he asked for what had to have been the tenth time that week.

Iruka waved him off. He knew Shimo meant well. They'd worked together for years and the older man was always willing to listen to any problems or rants the rest of the Desk workers had. But even if Iruka could talk about it, he wouldn't know what to say. A missing-nin organization might be targeting him because they thought he was Hatake Kakashi's lover. He still hadn't fully processed it himself.

Earlier in the year Shimo had tried to set him up with a former teammate which had led to some of the other Desk workers trying to do the same. It had been a concerted Let's Get Iruka Laid effort by Team Mission Desk that had left Iruka perplexed and dodging suitable candidates for over a month. He'd turned them all down. Between the Academy and the Desk, he just didn't have time for a relationship. Every prospect had been a moderately attractive chuunin. Average ninjas, average looks. If he tried to tell his coworkers that the real reason he'd turned them down was because he was in a secret relationship with one of the best shinobi in the village, he wondered how hard they would laugh. Probably hard enough they'd cry.

He forced himself to pay attention for the rest of his shift, if only to avoid more questioning looks from his coworkers.

After his shift he swung by the Academy to grab his lesson plans for the next week. Now that he knew why the ANBU were following him, he needed to adjust his curriculum again. His students had learned enough about traps for the time being. They could pick it up again when there was a slimmer chance of collateral damage.

The Academy was quiet and dark. No one wanted to be there on a Sunday afternoon. He entered the teachers room only to freeze by the door. Someone was rummaging through one of his desk drawers. His desk, which he locked and warded carefully every night before he left, just in case one of the students got some crazy idea about looking for test answers or playing pranks.

The next thing he knew, a window had slammed open. Iruka nearly jumped out of his skin. One of the ANBU was now in the room with him, still cloaked but ready for a fight. Something in his chakra or movements must have alerted them to the potential threat.

The person at Iruka's desk also jumped, standing up and looking around wildly. Iruka recognized him immediately, his long ash-colored hair was distinctive.

"Fuyuno-sensei, why are you at my desk?"

He turned towards Iruka quickly, his pale face bright red. "Iruka-sensei, you're here on the weekend," he said with a strained cheerfulness that immediately grated on Iruka's nerves.

"Why are you at my desk?" Iruka repeated, words sharp with irritation.

Fuyuno looked to the side, clearly trying to find an explanation and failing, then his shoulders slumped.

"I was looking for your lesson plans."

"Why?" Iruka was two seconds away from yelling and even the new teacher could hear it in his voice.

He grimaced. "All I've heard this year is "Iruka-sensei is the best teacher" and "You should try to be like Iruka-sensei." My students have been hellions recently and I thought if I used your lesson plans maybe..." He trailed off with a defeated sigh.

The ANBU silently slipped back out of the window.

Iruka shook his head and walked over to his desk. He pulled out the folder that contained his old lesson plans for the year Fuyuno was currently teaching and handed it over. "Next time just ask. Give it back when you're done."

Fuyuno mumbled an embarrassed thank you, standing awkwardly by Iruka's desk and watching as he grabbed the lesson plans for his own class, reactivated the wards, and headed out the door. Iruka made a mental note to change the wards later. He'd clearly made them too easy.

On his way home, he ran errands, stopping occasionally to talk to parents and students along the way. He felt the ANBU trailing after him the entire time.

How boring my life must seem to them, he thought. When you were used to S-rank missions, guarding a school teacher had to be mind-numbing. The most dangerous situation he'd faced all week was another teacher trying to secretly copy his homework because he was too inexperienced to realize teachers shared lesson plans all the time.

After he was finished with his errands, he stopped by Ichiraku's and ordered three bowls to go. Shooting looks at the ANBU-shaped chakra holes, he left two of the bowls on his balcony railing and went inside. When he glanced out the window a moment later, they were both gone. It might not make up for getting covered in paint, colored powder or mud, but it was a start.

~*~*~

Kakashi's ANBU gear had been stored in a box and shoved into the back of his closet in the hope that he'd never need it again. There had been a point when he hadn't wanted to be removed from the active duty ANBU roster, but over the years that had changed. He'd almost lost himself in the organization. It hadn't just been one more mask to wear, it had been one too many.

Standing in the ANBU locker room, putting on the uniform again for the first time in multiple years was a strange sensation, like he was slipping back in time. The uniform still fit, but it didn't feel right. The flak jacket sat on his shoulders wrong, the metal guards dug into his forearms, and the mask made it harder to breathe. He'd get used to it again. The tattoo on his arm had faded, but it would never go away completely. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught his reflection in the locker room mirror and looked away.

This was just temporary, until they stopped whoever was targeting him. Whoever was targeting Iruka and the village.

He was introduced to Kage before they went to relieve Washi and Inoshishi. His temporary partner was young and more than a little starstruck if the way his eyes widened under his mask with its shadowy black swirls was any indication. Kakashi didn't know what stories still circulated about the Hound, but he doubted they painted a warm, fluffy picture of him.

"Kage?" Kakashi asked, curious. It was an odd code name.

"Like an actual shadow, not the leader of the village kind of shadow," he replied, almost starting to fidget before he stopped himself.

"Who'd you piss off?" Kakashi asked, amusement muffled by his porcelain mask but still clear. There was a meaning behind most ANBU code names, but with one like that, the kid was guaranteed a career full of teasing as long as he operated under it.

"I, sort of, hit on one of the commanders shortly before joining," Kage said in a rush. "I didn't know who she was at the time!"

Kakashi let out a huff of amusement. He wondered how many jokes and puns Kage had put up with just because he'd tried to pick up the wrong person.

They made their way to the Academy and took up positions as Iruka started his day. Kakashi still wasn't fully recovered but he had enough strength back that taking a few, most likely uneventful shifts wouldn't be a problem. The toll on him would likely be more mental than physical.

He settled into the upper branches of a tree that gave him a good view of Iruka's classroom. Through the window he could see glimpses of their lessons. It was hard to reconcile what he saw with what he'd experienced.

The Academy had been an annoyance to Kakashi. A necessary hurdle the village had made him jump over even though he was already far beyond the level of his classmates, graduating at an age when most students were just starting. He'd felt it was a waste of his time, it wasn't until years later that he'd realized the value of what he'd experienced there.

But beyond the token complaints and protests, Iruka's students seemed to enjoy their studies. Iruka balanced lecture with enough active learning that his students stayed engaged, and even though he was prone to yelling, it was more than obvious that his students liked their teacher. Kakashi was starting to understand a little more now why Naruto had sworn up and down that Iruka was the best teacher ever.

Maybe if he'd had a teacher more like Iruka, he would have enjoyed the Academy more, but in all honesty, he knew his teachers hadn't been the real problem.

During lunchtime Iruka walked over to the window, a look of concentration of his face. After a moment he focused in on Kakashi's tree.

Iruka was looking straight at him even though he shouldn't be able to see or sense him. Kakashi was good enough at this concealment jutsu that even the best sensors rarely located him.

On impulse, Kakashi waved, wanting to know exactly how well Iruka could sense him.

Iruka's head tilted to the side a fraction and his eyes sharpened, like he was trying to figure out a difficult puzzle.

He hesitated for a moment, and then he waved back.

Kakashi couldn't help but grin. Interesting, he thought, definitely interesting.

~*~*~

Even when Iruka wasn't tracking the ANBU, the shift changes usually caught his attention. Multiple concealed shinobi swooping in on his location was unsettling, regardless of why they were there. But the guard change on Monday morning wasn't quite as jarring as the others had been. Likely because there was only one chakra dead area coming towards Iruka, not two.

It made more sense, really. Two ANBU following him around was a waste of resources. He'd actually been thinking he should talk to Tsunade about it. Maybe just two during the day when he was at school, after the students went home it wasn't as important. But as the day wore on, a nagging feeling in the back of his mind grew. He knew he'd missed something.

It took a few hours, but eventually he realized there wasn't just one ANBU, there were still two. Up until then he hadn't had a problem keeping tabs on his shadows, but this new one was different. There wasn't an ANBU shaped hole like the others made, just a subtle distortion, a slight warping to the natural movement of chakra around the Academy. Iruka's mind slipped past it every time he didn't focus on it hard enough.

He walked over to the window, wanting to get a better look at what exactly was happening. Even if he couldn't see the ANBU, having visual contact with the spot might help him focus on it, letting him sort out exactly where it stopped and started.

It wasn't difficult to put two and two together. It had to be Kakashi. The skill difference between him and the other ANBU that had been guarding Iruka was more than a little stunning.

As he was staring at the place he now knew Kakashi was sitting, the chakra in that area shifted. Part of the distortion lengthened briefly, then folded back in on itself. Iruka frowned for a moment, trying to figure out what had just happened. And then it hit him, Kakashi had waved.

Feeling a little stupid waving at what was basically an empty tree, Iruka lifted his hand and gave the tiniest of waves in return.

"Who are you waving at, Iruka-sensei?" one of his students called.

Iruka tried not to groan as he turned away from the window, of course a student had seen that. He'd hoped they were all too busy eating to notice.

"A really high level ANBU in one of the trees," Iruka said like it was the most boring thing in the world.

"WHAT?"

"REALLY?"

"THAT'S SO COOL!"

He had to dodge to avoid the herd of students crowding towards the window.

"I don't see any ANBU."

"Aw, they must have left."

"They must have," Iruka said, but in the back of his mind he could sense the Kakashi distortion waving lazily at his students and he had to bite back a laugh.

~*~*~

The following evening, in the lulls at the Desk, Iruka amused himself by trying to track Kakashi's movements only to lose him again whenever a rush hit. Following Kakashi's concealed presence was like trying to hold water in his hands. If he concentrated he could do it, but the moment he lost focus it slipped through his fingers.

After his shift, Iruka stopped by a bento shop to grab lunch for the following day. As he scanned through the selection his eyes caught on the fish sets and suddenly he remembered Naruto's loud complaints about how Kakashi always tried to get him to eat, horror of horrors, vegetables and how it was unnatural that someone's favorite food could be something like fish when awesome foods like ramen existed. He didn't even like sweets, Naruto had grumbled, what was wrong with him?

On a whim Iruka added a fish set and another popular set to his order. He shot Kakashi a look when he put the fish set down on his balcony railing and then looked at the second ANBU as he put down the other.

He turned away to deactivate his wards and open the door. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the fish set was already gone. Startled, he looked around, needing a moment before he could locate Kakashi on the rooftop across the street. The distortion shifted. He was waving again.

Fighting back a smile, Iruka shook his head and went inside.

~*~*~

Tossing some homework into his bag, Iruka got ready to leave the Academy.

"Desk shift tonight?" Midori asked.

"No, I'm free for the evening."

"Ah, so ramen then," she said in a teasing voice.

"Now that you mention it..."

She shook her head at him and he grinned back. He hadn't been planning on it, but not needing to cook did sound good.

He called out a goodbye to the teachers who hadn't left yet and headed towards Ichiraku's.

There was only one obvious blank spot following him. That meant Kakashi was on shift, but Iruka was having a hard time locating him at that moment.

Iruka hadn't been sure how many ANBU were rotating through his guard, the dead areas they made in the natural flow of the village's chakra were largely interchangeable. Kakashi had made it easier to judge. First he was on the morning shift, then evening, then night, a day off, and then back to the morning. That meant at least four sets of ANBU rotated through three shifts, three days on, one day off. It was such a waste of manpower, Iruka couldn't see how they were justifying it outside of the times he was with his students. He wasn't going to get ambushed while he was eating at Ichiraku's.

"Iruka-sensei," Teuchi said in greeting as Iruka pushed back the noren curtain.

Before he could even sit down, Teuchi was already handing over a take-out bag with three bowls in it. Iruka looked at him in confusion.

"We got your order just a few minutes ago," Teuchi said.

Iruka blinked at him. How had he known what Iruka was going to order? How had he even known Iruka was coming? He took out his wallet to pay, but Teuchi waved him off.

"There was money included with the note."

"What note?" Iruka asked.

"This one," Teuchi said, holding up a slip of paper for Iruka to see. "It just showed up out of nowhere."

Iruka would recognize that scrawl anywhere, though the note was slightly more legible than most of the reports he had seen it on.

He went home and ate one of the bowls of ramen after leaving the other two outside. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had bought him ramen.

It took some searching, but he finally located Kakashi again.

For the rest of the evening, Iruka tried to follow Kakashi's movements in his mind's eye. Kakashi made lazy circles around his apartment every so often, but mostly he stayed on the rooftop across the street.

They still hadn't spoken about any of this yet and Iruka wondered what Kakashi would say if they did. He had to think it was ridiculous as well.

Kakashi rotated through his detail for about two weeks and then he was gone. All the shifts were filled with the same interchangeable chakra holes as they had been before Kakashi had started taking shifts. He must have recovered fully, Iruka figured. They probably had him running missions again.

But as the time Kakashi was gone from his guard stretched longer and Iruka hadn't seen him around the village either, he couldn't help but feel worry start to build in him. Genius or not, a missing-nin organization was after Kakashi and the fact that Iruka still had an ANBU guard meant that threat hadn't been neutralized yet.

He decided he'd give it a little more time, but he wasn't willing to sit around and wait forever.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Contrary to popular belief, Kakashi did enjoy reading things besides the Icha Icha series. Unfortunately for him, those things definitely did not include intel reports. He rolled his shoulders back, suppressing a sigh, then reached for another pile. There was a limit to the number of these he could read in one sitting and he was swiftly approaching it.

After poring over his old mission reports on Kogarashi, he'd moved on to intel reports from the past year. Not for the first time, he swore to himself that he'd never deal with this many reports again if he could find any way at all to avoid it.

They were just so boring, so matter-of-factly written. There was no color or flavor to them. At least he tried to make his own reports interesting to read, though the Mission Desk staff never seemed to appreciate his efforts.

He flipped past the reports from Land of Lakes and Land of Mirage, stopping once he hit the section dealing with Land of Mountains. Kogarashi had worked mostly in the smaller countries that acted as a buffer between the Five Great Nations and Land of Mountains had been their base of operations. If the organization had been rebuilt, it wasn't hard to believe they might have started on familiar ground.

His eye caught on a report of a storm where lightning had flickered across the sky in unnatural patterns. It wasn't the first of its kind he'd seen in the last two weeks. A few reports later, there was another.

The storm appeared out of nowhere, lightning striking almost constantly, a witness had reported. When it was over, an entire area of the mountainside had been turned to glass.

If it had been an isolated report, he might have dismissed it, but after half a dozen reports suggesting a powerful lightning user was in the area, it would be foolish to do so. He leaned back in his chair and considered the intel.

Multiple Hidden Villages had tried to eliminate Kogarashi after it had added high profile assassination to its already long list of offenses. Kakashi had led Konoha's efforts, tracking its leader down and killing her. Kareki Fuuka had been a tough opponent with her deadly ice jutsu that were powerful enough he'd had a hard time countering them even with his strongest fire jutsu, but in the end he had completed his objective. Afterwards, he and his team had hunted down the remaining members of her organization one by one until they'd crushed it almost completely. They had closed the file on the organization and its activities, but the fact that there was a new Bingo Book with their symbol on it suggested that had been premature.

The only member they hadn't been able to find was her second-in-command, Nowaki Yonaga, a man nearly as well-known for his lightning jutsu as Kakashi. They had received what they had thought was reliable intel that another Hidden Village had killed him before they'd been able to get to him and his file now listed him as presumed dead. Kakashi was fairly certain they'd find out that was incorrect as well.

An organization that they'd written off as dismantled was active again. The second-in-command of that organization had lightning affinity and wasn't confirmed dead. Recent intel reports suggested increased criminal activity in their old haunting ground, with multiple indicating a lightning user was involved.

It wasn't a lot to go on, but it was a start. He just needed Tsunade's approval before he could follow up on the theory, but after three compromised missions, getting that might be even more challenging than getting through an entire stack of intel reports on speculation that Land of Tea used chakra to increase the growth rate of their tea plants for abnormally large harvests every year.

~*~*~

Hopping into Tsunade's office through a window unannounced always earned Kakashi a glare and a reprimand, but it was better than waiting for her to decide to let him in. Besides, Kakashi figured, if she really didn't want people to use her windows as doors, she wouldn't leave them wide open. Or closed but easily unlocked, as they increasingly had been of late.

He nodded gravely as she yelled at him. He'd never do it again. At least not until the next time he needed to speak with her.

Formalities over with, he got down to business, unrolling a map onto her desk.

"Kogarashi maintained a network of hideouts from Land of Rain to Land of Fields, with the highest concentration in Land of Mountains."

Tsunade's eyes focused on the map. "That's a lot of area."

Kakashi nodded. "I believe Nowaki Yonaga might have spread rumors of his own death, hidden low for a while, and then started to resurrect the organization." He pointed to two spots on the map. "We should search these two hideouts in Land of Mountains. They're located closest to where recent reports place a potential missing-nin with lightning affinity." He pointed out two more locations. "These two in the Land of Fields are on the way and could be searched as well."

"Do you have reason to believe they'd use the same hideouts again?"

"No, but it's the only lead we have at the moment."

Five years ago, ANBU teams had searched all the organization's known hideouts for additional intel and while Kakashi wasn't going to hold his breath for the same places to be used again, they needed to start somewhere.

She studied the map for a moment longer then nodded. "I'll send a team."

"I want to lead it."

She gave him a flat look. "You aren't ANBU anymore."

"I seem to have been reinstated recently," he replied.

Her glare was withering, but after she'd checked his chakra levels and leg wound, she reluctantly agreed. He knew she was concerned she might be sending him straight to the organization that was targeting him, but Kakashi couldn't sit idly by as others risked their lives for him. If anything, he regretted that he might be putting his teammates in danger, but he knew he couldn't do this as a solo mission. Tsunade would never approve it.

"Who do you want on the mission?" she asked.

Kakashi grinned. He already had three people in mind.

~*~*~

Kakashi leapt through the trees as he and his team made their way out of Konoha. Tenzo was off to his right and Yugao to his left. It had been a while since the three of them had worked together.

Kage was bringing up the rear. Kakashi had decided to include him almost on a whim. The kid amused him. Even after two weeks of working the same shifts, he still didn't know how to act around Kakashi. Whenever Kakashi looked at him, he jumped to attention even though Kakashi wasn't his commander. But when he wasn't nervously waiting for Kakashi to give him orders, his movements were swift, silent, and precise. Even in ANBU Headquarters, Kakashi had noticed he had a tendency to move in the shadows more than out in the open, a habit that spoke of many undercover missions. His code name suited him. Kakashi was hoping that running a mission together would help ease the kid's nerves around him, but he wasn't going to bet on it.

He kept their pace fast but sustainable. Tsunade had only given them a week. It'd take two days there and two days back, which only left three days to search the four sites for intel.

Fire Country's forests thinned out on their second day of travel and they slipped across the border. When there was no trace of the first hideout in Land of Fields, Kakashi wasn't surprised. They pushed on to the next one, reaching it just before sundown on the third day. It hadn't been used by anything other than wild animals in years and half of the roof was caved in.

They camped there for the night. It didn't take much to get Tenzo to use his Four-Pillar House jutsu. Kakashi knew it was one of his favorites, the architectural embellishments he always added were a dead giveaway it wasn't just about a place to sleep. The resulting structure dwarfed the hideout it now stood next to.

"Hmm," Kakashi said, eying it critically. "Looks a little on the small side."

Tenzo shot him a dead-eyed glare and Kakashi grinned back. It was good to be back with his old team.

Rolling plains turned into jagged cliffs as they crossed the border into Land of Mountains the next day. It wasn't until they reached the third hideout that they found signs of recent activity.

The building itself was still standing, but it was completely empty, wiped clean of any useful information. The fresh pile of ash outside suggested whatever had been inside had recently been burned.

"They knew we were coming," Tenzo said.

Kakashi nodded in agreement. That could only mean one thing. Their mission had been compromised.

He could try to give his team an out, but he knew they wouldn't take it. They pressed on.

That night, Kakashi didn't have Tenzo make them a shelter. If they were walking into a trap, they'd need all the chakra they had.

The following morning, they neared the final hideout.

"Can you sense anything?" Kakashi asked Yugao.

She paused, closing her eyes as she scanned the area for chakra signatures. After a moment, she shook her head. "I think the entire area is under a concealment jutsu."

Kakashi signed for the others to fall back and wait for his all-clear signal before advancing. He moved forward with careful steps, senses on high alert.

A quiet rattling of loose stones was all the warning he received before the earth beneath his feet shook violently. He had a fraction of a second to call out a warning before the ground behind him ruptured, scalding hot steam pouring from the jagged rent in the earth, effectively cutting him off from his team. He couldn't say he was surprised.

What did surprise him was the missing-nin that attacked him. She was petite with fiery red hair and eyes as hard and cold as the mountains around them. She was also young, maybe just a few years older than Team 7.

He blocked her initial attack and she sprung away from him, sending an explosion of boiling water at him to keep him from following. He dodged and the water sizzled as it hit the ground, evaporating immediately.

Much like the previous ambush, he realized that he'd seen that jutsu before. It was a secret clan jutsu he'd fought against while he was in ANBU. His eyes narrowed as he studied the missing-nin in front of him. He'd thought he'd killed the last members of that clan years ago.

"Hizakari Moyuru," the girl said, reading his hesitation and introducing herself.

Eight years ago, Hizakari Kagero and Hideri had been one of the most notorious shinobi couples, both missing-nin from Water Country. They had left a trail of death and destruction wherever they went until Kakashi had killed them both. He hadn't realized they had a daughter.

"Do I look like my parents?" she asked, her voice almost mocking.

He'd say she had her father's eyes, but his eyes hadn't been filled with nearly as much hatred. His wife's had though, after she'd seen Kakashi kill her husband.

When the girl attacked again, she held nothing back.

He had to give her credit for bravery. Unlike the last missing-nin that had ambushed him, she was fighting him herself, not hiding behind other shinobi, waiting for them to weaken him before she attacked. It was brave, but it was also foolish.

A large explosion from the other side of the steam barrier echoed through the mountains and Kakashi's eye flickered towards the sound. She took advantage of his momentary distraction, throwing another wave of boiling water at him. He dodged again, but his inattention cost him. Blistering pain shot up his left arm as the water hit his hand.

She grinned at him in triumph. "Your teammates are dead."

"Don't underestimate them," he said, keeping his voice confident, but a hint of worry still crept into his mind. There were only three of them and he didn't know how many men she'd brought.

The rocky terrain in Land of Mountains was far from the forests of Fire Country. It put them at an immediate disadvantage. There were no trees to use as cover or to get an elevated position. He needed to know his team was all right, but he wouldn't be able to help them until he took out this missing-nin first.

Under his ANBU mask, he opened his left eye, exposing the Sharingan. The fight didn't take long after that. She was too young, too inexperienced, and Kakashi had seen most of her jutsu before. He tried not to think about exactly how young she was.

Her grin didn't fade even as he struck the killing blow.

As the girl died, the steam around them did too, allowing Kakashi to see the larger battle for the first time. He had expected an ambush, but hadn't been prepared for so many enemies. Clearly they had thought that since the last two ambushes had failed, they just needed to send more people. He'd feel glad this mission wasn't a solo one, but only after he knew his team members were all safe.

Pain lanced through his left arm, but he ignored it, jumping into the fray.

His team had already taken down half of their attackers, but there were still seven left. Kakashi killed another two before most of them were even aware that he had joined the battle. The remaining five took a little longer, but with almost even numbers, they managed to finish them off with relative ease.

Kakashi felt himself breathe a little easier. They'd made it through the ambush. He stretched his left arm, trying to work out the tightness that had settled into it. He hadn't taken any major injuries, none of them had, and he still had at least half his chakra left. It was a far better outcome than he had hoped.

They searched the hideout quickly, gathering what little intel they could find, then destroyed the hideout and the bodies of the missing-nin that had attacked them. There was no obvious evidence of Yonaga's involvement, but Kakashi was willing to bet everything he owned that he had resurrected Kogarashi and was running it now.

Kakashi looked up at the sun, it was barely noon. If they pushed their pace, they might even get back into Fire Country before they had to make camp for the night.

As they ran, Kakashi turned things over in his head. Yonaga must have a grudge against him for taking Kogarashi down in the first place. The fact that family members of former targets were coming after him made that abundantly clear. It was all about revenge. But those kills had been while he was in ANBU and they'd been for solo S-rank missions. He had cleaned the sites of all traces of himself. They should have been anonymous kills.

If Yonaga had that kind of information, if he had known about this mission, whoever was helping him had high enough clearance that there was no telling what else they could expose.

They passed through the Land of Fields quickly, eager to be back in their own country. He flexed his fingers as he ran. His hand felt stiffer than it should. The water must have blistered his skin worse than he'd thought.

He had a sinking feeling this would be his last mission until this was over. If he continued to be ambushed, they would eventually kill him or they would kill one of his teammates trying to do so. No Hokage would allow him to compromise missions like that.

To top it all off, no matter what angle he looked at things, he couldn't explain why they'd think he was involved with Iruka, even if he had run intel for some of Kakashi's missions.

Kakashi shook his head and focused on the journey home again. They'd gone far enough for the day. He signaled for his team to stop. They might even make it back to Konoha the following evening if they kept up this pace. Under his porcelain mask, he grinned at the thought of turning a mission report in a full day early. The shocked faces of the Desk workers would be entirely worth the extra effort. It was too bad this wasn't the kind of mission that allowed for that. He'd have to remember to try it in the future.

Tenzo did most of the work, Kakashi made sure of it, enjoying his put-upon grumblings as he set up camp under Kakashi's supervision. Yugao laughed outright at some of their bickering, something Kakashi hadn't heard her do very often since Hayate's death and he played it up for all it was worth. Even Kage seemed to be amused, his mask not quite muffling his quiet snickering, probably enjoying not being the one to take the brunt of the teasing for once.

"If you make me feed you, Senpai, so help me," Tenzo started, tossing field rations to Kakashi.

In his mind, Kakashi ran through a hundred different ways he could reply, trying to decide on the best one as he reached out with his left hand to catch the rations.

The packet bounced off his hand and landed on the ground.

Every witty reply died on his tongue. He hadn't been able to close his hand around the food to catch it, he hadn't even felt it hit his hand. All three of his teammates turned to stare at him, but he was too busy staring at his hand to notice.

He tried to flex his fingers. They didn't move.

"What's wrong with your hand?" Tenzo asked, concern clear in his voice.

Kakashi opened his left eye, looking at his arm with the Sharingan. Even the briefest glance confirmed what he'd feared. There was no chakra in his left hand. Chakra tried to flow into it like it normally would, but it just drained away around his elbow. He had thought the jutsu had just scalded him. He had been wrong. There must have been some kind of chakra-eating poison mixed in with the boiling water. The girl's smile suddenly made a lot more sense.

He closed his eye again and reassessed his condition. He'd still had half his chakra left after the fight, it was significantly lower than that now, a lot lower than the journey alone should have made it. At the rate it was decreasing, he didn't have another day to get back to Konoha.

"Senpai, what's wrong with your hand?" Tenzo repeated.

"Maa, I was just thinking that after you put so much work into this camp, we really should be going." He tried to keep his voice light, but he knew they all saw through it. The flurry of activity as they packed up camp confirmed that.

Running at top speed while his chakra was already being drained away was not the most enjoyable way to travel. He kept constant tabs on his chakra level and their current distance from Konoha. There was enough time. It'd be close, but he'd make it.

Tenzo kept shooting him worried looks, sticking closer to him than necessary, but Kakashi ignored him and pressed on. The numbness in his hand crept up his arm and running became a strain.

Konoha's gates were never a more welcome sight. Kakashi paused just outside of them to dismiss his team. Yugao and Kage hesitated, but left. Tenzo did not.

"Are you disobeying an order?" Kakashi asked him.

"I'm not leaving until I see you've made it to the hospital."

"It's no big deal. I'm heading there now." Kakashi waved nonchalantly with his good arm. Tenzo eyed his bad one.

"I will carry you if I have to, Senpai. You aren't in any condition to fight it."

Kakashi avoided the hospital whenever possible, but that seemed like it was going too far. He knew he had to go this time and he was about to say so when the world started to dim around him.

Tenzo didn't give him a choice at that point, just hauled him onto his back and took off towards the hospital. Kakashi was vaguely aware of being put onto a hospital gurney before he passed out.

~*~*~

Two weeks after Kakashi had disappeared from his guard rotation, Iruka's curiosity won out. While filing reports, he pulled Kakashi's file. The idea of sneaking a look at someone else's file thrilled his inner trickster, but he pushed that excitement down. This was a lot more serious than any of the pranks he'd pulled as a kid. He had to use his Mission Desk clearance just to get into the room that housed the active duty shinobi files. Not only was this against the rules, it also was an invasion of privacy. Iruka was a little startled to realize that the latter was more troubling to him.

Kakashi's file was battered from frequent and long use and thicker than any other file Iruka had ever seen. His own file was maybe a quarter as thick. Before he opened it, he promised himself he'd only look at the most recent mission, nothing about Kakashi himself.

He flipped the file open to what should have been the mission log only to blink in confusion at an emergency contact form, blank beyond Kakashi's name and the code for no next of kin. It was out of place, like it'd been stuffed back into the file with no regard to the normal order of personnel files. Iruka slipped it back to where it should have been and then looked at the mission log. It only listed the bare minimum of details about a mission; the official mission number, its starting and ending dates, and codes that gave the most necessary information. Everything else was in the mission's file, stored in another room. The mission number and codes didn't give away much at first glance, but after years of working the Desk, they were easy to read.

The first mission listed had a date so old Iruka thought he had the wrong file for a moment, but a quick double check of the name on the log confirmed he wasn't mistaken. His eyes widened as he realized he did in fact have the correct file and Kakashi's first mission had been while Iruka was a toddler.

He quickly flipped to the most recent page. Even after promising himself he wouldn't try to find out personal details about Kakashi while he was doing this, he already knew more than he had any right to know.

The last page was numbered 41, Iruka doubted his own file had even half that. His eyes jumped to the bottom of the page, landing on the most recent mission. The last two digits of the mission number added up to nine, an s-rank mission. Iruka couldn't say he was surprised. But it was the codes that followed that were concerning, and a quick glance up the page made them even more so.

After a long line of missions with only the codes for team leader and completed successfully, it was impossible not to see the difference in the ones that followed his last few missions. Team leader and completed but compromised, the last three read with the last two containing the additional code for hospitalized.

He put Kakashi's file away carefully and went back to filing reports, resisting the urge to try pulling the file on Kakashi's most recent mission. His clearance probably wouldn't even get him into the room where it was stored.

As he worked, his mind kept wandering back to the codes for compromised and hospitalized.

The Bingo Book had been an abstract threat to Iruka. Even with ANBU following him around for a month and seeing the aftermath of the last time Kakashi had been ambushed, he had never thought they were in danger. Not really. Kakashi was too good of a shinobi for it to be a problem for long. But for some reason, seeing it documented in code and filed away as cold fact, made it a lot more real.

He didn't know anything about the organization that had put out the Bingo Book and he didn't know why they were after Kakashi, but it was obvious that he was being targeted effectively. He wasn't invincible, no matter what rumors were told about him. It was an unsettling realization.

Iruka couldn't focus for the rest of his shift. The date showed Kakashi's most recent mission had ended just three days ago. If he had been hospitalized, he would probably still be there. The image of Kakashi in an empty hospital room lingered in the back of his mind.

As the shift wound down, the three other Desk workers started to make plans to go out. Friday night was their drinking night, well-deserved stress relief after a long week of deciphering chicken scratch and countless times pointing out that a shinobi had managed to fill out a clearly labeled section incorrectly yet again.

"Hops the Twig?" Shimo asked, looking around the room.

"What about the Pine Overcoat? It's been a while since we've been there." Kaki replied. "Iruka, what do you think?"

He'd usually be right there with them, but an idea had been forming in the back of his mind ever since he'd looked at Kakashi's file.

"I need to take a rain check tonight," he said, hoping they wouldn't question why. Kaki called him lame, but they let him off easy.

Visiting hours at the hospital lasted for about another hour and there was someone he wanted to see.

Asking for Kakashi at the reception desk was nerve-racking. He had a moment of worry that they might ask who he was or why he was there and he didn't know what he would say if they did. "His lover, apparently," didn't seem appropriate, and being honest, he wasn't entirely sure why he was there. Curiosity and concern went so far, but neither really warranted a visit to someone he barely knew.

Given that Kakashi didn't react when Iruka walked into the room, he was probably unconscious. Jounin were notoriously light sleepers. The little of his face left showing was as pale as his sheets. He was the only occupant in the two-bed room but a quick scan of the area told Iruka there were four ANBU nearby, not just his two. Kakashi was being guarded now as well, at least while he was in the hospital.

Iruka found himself leaning against the window next to Kakashi's bed, listening to his soft breathing, the only noise in the room. There were still 40 minutes left before they'd kick him out and Iruka decided to wait, just in case Kakashi woke up. He didn't know what he'd say if Kakashi did, but he still wanted the chance.

Kakashi didn't wake.

Iruka left the hospital in a daze, head still turning over what he knew about the situation. He didn't even notice the group walking towards him until he almost ran into them.

He heard someone call out to him and looked up, realizing he'd just run into the Desk workers' drinking party.

"Hey," he said, pulling himself back into the present moment. "Switching bars?"

It was still too early in the night for the party to be over. They probably hadn't even gotten to the horror stories about the worst reports submitted that week yet. Kakashi was a frequent winner of the informal contest, earning a free drink for the poor soul who'd had to deal with his report.

"Yeah, we thought we'd try a new place for the second round," Kaki said.

"Visiting someone?" Shimo asked, switching the subject and pointing to the hospital with his chin.

"Yeah," Iruka replied. "Visiting a... friend." Friend sounded off even to Iruka's own ears.

"Join us for round two?"

"Next time," Iruka promised, saying goodbye and heading towards home. He had too many things on his mind and wasn't in the mood for company.

A turn later, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the Hokage Tower. The lights in Tsunade's office were still on. Suddenly he had an idea. A very, very stupid idea.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he changed course. He'd go home after she had confirmed how foolish his idea truly was.

He was ushered into her office almost immediately. Considering the piles of paperwork on her desk, Iruka was fairly certain she was just hoping for a distraction. She looked at him like he might be offering her salvation.

"I... I was just at the hospital," Iruka started out, not quite able to meet Tsunade's eyes. "I had heard Kakashi was there."

Her gaze sharpened. "I didn't know you were close enough to visit him in the hospital."

"We aren't," Iruka said honestly, "but I heard he was there and I was hoping to talk to him."

She nodded, keeping her face neutral.

"I don't know much about the situation, but I know he was ambushed a month ago when I found him in the forest and now he is back in the hospital."

She nodded again and Iruka pushed on.

"The fact that his entry in that Bingo Book was so detailed points to him being a major target for whichever organization made it."

She didn't nod but she also didn't deny it, which made Iruka certain he was correct. He paused for a moment, then took the plunge. The worst thing she could do was reject his idea. Or laugh at it, which was also a real possibility.

"The only reason I'm in that Book is because they think they can use me against him. If they've failed multiple times attacking him directly, they are probably more likely to think going the extra step and using me to get to him is a better idea. If they think I'm a weakness, turn it around and use me against them."

She considered him for a long moment and Iruka felt himself grow more self-conscious the longer silence stretched out between them. Maybe he shouldn't have said anything after all.

"You realize that could just put you on more organizations' radars, right?" she said finally.

He knew that was true, but he wouldn't let it stop him. "One of the village's best shinobi is being targeted by a missing-nin organization. There has to be a spy in Konoha otherwise his last three missions wouldn't have been compromised. Not helping because I might be put into more danger would be a cowardly thing to do."

Tsunade studied him again. "I'll consider it," she said, then she dismissed him.

He turned to leave.

"And Iruka," she called after him, warning clear in her voice, "Never use your clearance to look at someone else's file again."

Iruka cringed, he'd slipped up. He had seen firsthand that Kakashi's last two missions had caused him to be hospitalized, but there was no way he could have known his last three missions had been compromised without looking at his file. He hoped a misstep that glaring wasn't enough for her to decide he wasn't suited for a mission like this.

He finally reached home and collapsed on his bed, but sleep took a long time to come.

~*~*~

Kakashi blinked, trying to bring the room into focus. It didn't take long for him to realize where he was, the stiff sheets and sterile smells were a dead giveaway. He cursed himself for being back in the hospital so soon after the last time.

He drifted in and out of consciousness for most of the day, waking whenever a nurse entered the room to check his vitals. He was fairly certain he had gotten off easier than last time. He tried to move his fingers and found them stiff but with some function. By that evening, he had even managed to pull himself up into a sitting position and that was how Tsunade found him.

She swept into his room, her face all business and Kakashi knew he wasn't going to like the conversation they were about to have.

"I thought I told you last time I didn't want to see you in here again anytime soon," she said by way of greeting.

"Well, I do like to surprise people," he replied.

Her mouth twisted. "You're chakra depleted again but we were able to counteract the poison in your system. You should regain full use of your arm as long as you don't do anything stupid during the next few weeks."

He nodded and she continued.

"We have gone through the intel that your team gathered. It appears your suspicion is correct. Yonaga does seem to have revived the organization and is recruiting people with grudges against you to work with him."

He knew where this was heading.

"Given the current situation, it's too dangerous to send you on regular missions anymore. You'd just be endangering yourself, your team, and the missions."

He waited for her to confirm that she was taking him off active duty, but she didn't. Not exactly.

"We believe if you are kept off active duty officially, the organization will have no choice but to go after you in other ways. With no set mission plans, they won't know where you will be and when. It'll be harder for them to target you."

He drew in a sharp breath, she couldn't be suggesting what he thought she was going to suggest. She wasn't that reckless with the shinobi in her village.

"Iruka-sensei will help with the mission," she stated, watching him closely.

"You mean to use him as bait," he said, voice cold.

"They think they can use him against you," she said like it justified everything.

"I won't put people in danger in order to help me."

"People are already in danger because of you."

He barely contained the flinch that caused.

"Once you've recovered, we'll arrange a meeting between the two of you somewhere outside the village."

"Is that an order?"

"If it needs to be."

He grimaced.

"Iruka-sensei volunteered for this. Unless he changes his mind, we will continue as planned." She studied him for a moment, nodded once and then walked out the door, leaving Kakashi to his thoughts.

Kakashi didn't know Iruka well, but he knew he wasn't likely to change his mind. That didn't mean he couldn't try to convince him what a terrible idea it was.

He dragged himself out of bed, his body feeling heavy and slow. His arm screamed at him as he pulled his clothing on.

Sneaking out of the hospital took nearly all the strength he had and he was fairly certain that they let him go. Tsunade had probably warned them he would try to leave and said they might as well let him. He'd just keep trying if they stopped him.

Tracking Iruka down was significantly easier. He was on his way home from a weekend Desk shift, picking up groceries for the next day. His schedule was too predictable, it could easily be used against him.

"Why are you doing this?" Kakashi asked in a quiet voice as he walked up to Iruka.

Iruka looked surprised to see him. "Ah, Kakashi-san, you're out of the hospital already. I'm glad you're doing better."

Kakashi grabbed his arm and pulled him off to the side of the street. "Why are you doing this?" he repeated. There was no way Iruka wouldn't know what he meant.

Iruka cast a look around and then whispered back. "You're one of the highest level assets the village has, but if this keeps happening, you won't be. You won't be able to serve Konoha anymore."

"I don't want you involved in this."

"I am involved in this already. It's larger than you. We need to know how compromised the village is."

Kakashi didn't like that answer at all, but he also didn't know why it bothered him so much. It was the truth.

"You know what could happen to you if they kidnap you, right?"

Iruka gave him a cold look. "We do cover that at the Academy."

"Teaching about it and experiencing it are two different things. They will torture you if they have a chance."

"Then don't leave me alone with them long enough for them to have that chance."

Kakashi could tell from Iruka's eyes that he wasn't about to back down.

Something seemed to catch Iruka's attention and he smoothed out his expression, waving in greeting at someone over Kakashi's shoulder, smile wide and fake. Kakashi realized that people were staring at them, probably wondering what they were arguing about in harsh whispers on the side of the street. Kakashi turned to see who Iruka had waved at when suddenly he felt the chakra depletion hit him hard. He started to tilt to the side only to have Iruka step into his personal space, propping him up.

"You weren't discharged from the hospital yet," Iruka said. It was more an accusation than a question.

Kakashi couldn't answer. The world was spinning in a way that made him not want to open his mouth. Not that he had much in his stomach to throw up anyway.

Iruka radiated heat against him, a warmth that seeped into Kakashi's skin through their uniforms. It made him want to melt into Iruka, press up against him to get as much of it as he could. The small part of him that was still clinging on to lucidity even through the mental haze of exhaustion was aware it likely had more to do with him having the chills than Iruka being hot.

He was though, Kakashi thought as the world swam around them.

He let Iruka lead him back to the hospital. Not that he had any choice in the matter. Iruka managed to do it in a way that made it look like two drunk friends swaying home together after a night at the bars, supporting most of Kakashi's weight with an arm wrapped tight around his waist.

Probably just another thing Iruka was doing to make sure one of Konoha's best assets didn't lose any more of its value, Kakashi thought, but at the moment, there wasn't much he could do about that either.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

The hospital staff had become significantly less accommodating after Kakashi's jailbreak. The door to his room was kept open and nurses checked his vitals far more frequently than necessary. He was beginning to suspect the head nurse had some kind of telepathic ability. Every time he started to consider whether he had recovered enough to make the three story jump from his window to freedom, she appeared like a summons, adjusting his pillows with an excessive amount of force.

Gai had dropped off Kakashi's full set of Icha Icha novels the day after he had woken up, but that wasn't enough to keep his thoughts from returning to the issue at hand with a persistence that would put even his friend's most dogged requests for a challenge to shame.

They needed to take down the organization and find the spy, but if their plan was going to work, they couldn't expose the spy until the organization took the bait. If they did this the wrong way, they risked scaring them off. They'd have to tread carefully, balancing the threat from within and the one from without.

Kakashi considered who it might be. It had to be someone with ANBU clearance if they knew about his solo missions, but there were entire factions within ANBU he didn't know. Even within their ranks, they tended towards secrecy. He couldn't dig too deeply, at least not yet, but knowing that didn't keep the problem from mocking him, daring him to find the answer.

A day later, Tsunade turned up with pen and paper and told him to write a letter that sounded like it came from Naruto.

"I can do that," he replied. "But if anyone sees it, they will know it's not from the same person. The handwriting will be a dead giveaway."

Someone thought the letters were coming from him, but if the handwriting were suddenly different, it might make them suspicious.

"We've got that covered. You just need to provide the content," she said.

He frowned, but quickly scrawled out a letter as she watched him. Dragging his feet on this wouldn't keep the mission from happening.

She took away the draft and he didn't see her again until a few days later when she showed up with a scroll in her hand.

"How many late mission reports do you currently have in your apartment?" she asked.

He gave her an innocent look, but she wasn't buying it.

"A few," he admitted with a shrug.

She handed over the scroll. "It's time you turned one of them in. Unseal this before you do."

She left and he realized that was the extent of his mission briefing. No formal assignment, no paperwork, no trail. Nothing that might fall into the wrong hands.

He was released from the hospital the following day. After he stepped inside his apartment, he grudgingly picked up the B-rank escort mission scroll that was tucked behind his door. He'd need to get a new doorstop now.

He glanced over the report once then decided it was fine. A little beaten up maybe, but still legible. Nothing of note had happened on the mission, it didn't matter if the report was late.

When he unsealed the scroll Tsunade had given him, he found a letter that looked exactly like Naruto had written it. Next to where the letter sat on the scroll, a question had appeared as well, written in beautiful calligraphy, obscenely neat next to Naruto's forged scribble. Kakashi nearly choked as he read it.

What dickless moron writes like this?

Kakashi was just glad that neither he nor Naruto would likely ever have work to work with whoever had written it.

~*~*~

Iruka sat in the teachers' room and forced himself to stop tapping his red pen against his desk. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd noticed himself fidgeting throughout the day. It'd been a little over a week since he'd talked to Tsunade and he hadn't heard anything back from her yet.

His guard detail was still filled with the same clearly-not-Kakashi chakra dead areas as it had been for the last three weeks and he tried to tell himself that was why. Kakashi wasn't fully recovered. But that just made him more anxious. This organization, whatever it was, had managed to hospitalize arguably the best non-sannin shinobi in Konoha not just once, but twice. And he was offering himself up to be used as bait to catch them.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Fuyuno inching his way towards him with Iruka's lesson plan folder held like a shield in front of his chest. Iruka thought his behavior was strange until he realized he'd been glaring at the same essay for a good 15 minutes.

"Thanks for these," Fuyuno said, handing the folder back when Iruka looked up and nodded at him. "They were really helpful."

Iruka made a noise acknowledging him and put the folder back into his desk drawer, the one that was now warded in a way that would leave anyone who wasn't Iruka literally red-handed for a week if they messed with it.

Fuyuno hesitated a moment and then asked, "Are you okay? You seem stressed."

Iruka tried not to groan. Recently he'd had enough people asking him that to last a lifetime.

Suzume walked over to join them, clearly having heard Fuyuno's question. "Don't worry. He just needs to run a solo mission again."

Iruka blinked at her. That was such an odd suggestion, but then again, he did use them to relieve stress. She must have picked up on that.

"It's been a while, hasn't it?" she asked.

"Yeah, I guess?"

"Taking one soon?"

"Probably?"

"See," Suzume said, turning towards Fuyuno. "He'll be all better soon." She led the younger teacher away and Iruka was left staring at their backs in confusion. He couldn't even begin to process the conversation they'd just had.

He shook his head and went back to his grading, making a large red slash through a paragraph that tried to explain scientifically that sleep and sugar were the two best ways to increase a shinobi's chakra capacity.

~*~*~

He didn't have to wait much longer, though he never would have predicted the way the plans came to him. He had expected Tsunade to call him into her office and brief him. Instead they came via a mission report presented to him by the most generic shinobi he had ever seen in his life.

Iruka squinted up at the man. What was his name again? Sato maybe, or Kato? Or was it Suzuki? Iruka had seen him in line before, handing in mission reports hundreds of times. Maybe it was Tanaka? He looked down at the list of reports due to come in that day but none of the names on it matched this guy's face. Wait, what did his face look like again? Iruka couldn't remember. He glanced back up at the shinobi. He sort of looked like a Watanabe, Iruka decided, holding out his hand for the scroll.

Maybe-a-Watanabe handed it over with a smile. He had a pleasant kind of smile, Iruka thought, as he unrolled the report, but what did it look like again? Every time Iruka tried to picture the shinobi's face, his mind just slid past it.

Iruka started to skim through the scroll as he debated with himself over what color the shinobi's hair was. He was pretty sure it was brown. Or maybe blond. Yeah, it was blond. Or black. One of those.

Midway through reading the report, the words on the scroll started to move, rearranging themselves in front of Iruka's eyes.

Expect a mission report and letter from Kakashi next week. Take the solo messenger mission towards Land of Lakes. Act as usual.

Iruka blinked at the scroll, keeping his face neutral as he read and reread those few short lines. He had proctored enough exams to know a test when he saw one, and this had test written all over it. Of course Tsunade wouldn't make this easy. Iruka knew he didn't have the best reputation when it came to keeping his emotions hidden. She probably wanted to make sure he had a poker face before they did this.

He finished reading the scroll and looked up at... Takahashi, Iruka decided. Or Nakamura, he could definitely be a Nakamura.

"Thank you for your hard work, Shinobi-san," Iruka said.

Possibly-a-Nakamura nodded and walked away. Iruka already couldn't remember his face.

Fucking genjutsu, Iruka thought as he glanced back down at the scroll. It was a completely normal mission report. He rolled it up and put it on the pile.

For the rest of his shift, he focused on his work, too paranoid that Tsunade had found the Third's crystal ball somewhere and was watching to see what he'd give away.

It wasn't until he was at home, safely behind his wards, that he let himself think about it. He still didn't have any details about the organization, but if they thought Kakashi was passing him letters to arrange meetings, this was the most logical way to set things up.

Iruka's mission would need to look like every other solo messenger mission he'd picked up over the last year otherwise it wouldn't be believable. Something that took him just far enough outside of Konoha that he had to spend the night, but not far enough that Kakashi couldn't sneak out of the village and meet him.

Without an official mission, the organization wouldn't know anything about Kakashi's movements; what path he'd take to get there, when he'd be on the move, or if he'd even be there at all. On the other hand, Iruka's set mission schedule would make him an easy target. They'd know exactly where to set a trap to catch him. The ANBU would just need to follow him, and hopefully they'd take out the organization in the process.

Iruka was still fairly sure it was a stupid plan, but Tsunade had approved it, so it couldn't be completely without merit. Or maybe they were just that desperate for leads.

He'd thought that he'd be getting more information about what was going on, but apparently not. He was left to make guesses about what exactly was happening. The lack of information just made his imagination run wild.

Whenever he thought about everything that could go wrong, he could feel his nerves start to build, but he wasn't going to back down from this. Besides, the Book had specifically said they needed him alive, so they probably wouldn't kill him. At least not until Kakashi showed up. He decided it was better just not to think about it too much. Convincing his brain to agree to that was another matter altogether, but overthinking this wouldn't help anything.

All he could do now was wait.

~*~*~

The following week, Iruka had to keep himself from reacting, freezing, letting his nerves show as Kakashi walked into the room and got in line behind the tokubetsu jounin that Iruka was currently helping. He felt his heart pounding in his chest and had to force himself to focus on the shinobi in front of him, not the one waiting just a step behind.

He hadn't known when exactly Kakashi would pass him the letter, but this had to be it.

Iruka hadn't realized how long it took to accept a report until that moment. When it was finally Kakashi's turn, he handed over a report and Iruka hesitated for a fraction of a second, remembering the mission. Act as usual, he reminded himself.

He reached for it as nonchalantly as he could manage. Just another report from a shinobi with notoriously bad paperwork skills. His fingers closed around the scroll, feeling the letter that was carefully tucked against it. He tried to calculate how much of the room would be able to tell that it wasn't just a mission report. Probably less than half, and that assumed they were looking for it. Most wouldn't be.

Kakashi didn't say anything about the letter, but then again, he hadn't in the past either, not after the first time.

Iruka tried to slip the letter inside his vest as subtly as possible, but it might as well have been the Scroll of Seals as ungracefully as he managed it. If anyone was watching, it really did look like Kakashi was passing him some kind of secret note. It wasn't a completely incorrect assumption either.

"Thank you," he muttered under his breath, something he knew he'd done before. He glanced up at Kakashi who looked just as uncomfortable as Iruka felt. If everything needed to be done as usual, they didn't have to act when it came to the awkwardness that often lingered between them. Iruka had never understood it, but no matter what he did, he'd never been able to relax completely around Kakashi.

He unrolled Kakashi's report to distract himself from the blush he felt threatening to show itself and the distraction was fully achieved when he noticed the mission date on the scroll. It was from six months ago. The irritation he felt building in him was another thing he didn't have to fake.

"This report is late, Kakashi-san," he said, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

Kakashi just shrugged. "It got lost on the road of life." He sounded bored, like he was only turning it in now because he had nothing better to do with his time.

Iruka twitched and scanned through the scroll. Six months late. He wondered how many other reports were laying around Kakashi's apartment, waiting for the road of life to get off its ass and turn them in.

After looking over Kakashi's report a little longer, Iruka stamped it as ready for payment and put it in the correct pile.

"Thank you for your hard work," he said. There was sarcasm in his tone that he couldn't quite hold back.

Kakashi's eye curved up into an arch and he gave Iruka a little salute before he turned and headed out the door.

"How late was that report?" Shimo asked under his breath from where he was sitting next to Iruka.

"SIX. FUCKING. MONTHS," Iruka replied and got a low whistle in return.

"I'm surprised you let him out of here alive."

Iruka laughed nervously, blushing. He had been too easy on Kakashi. He'd have to be more careful. He turned to the next shinobi in his line.

His heart was still beating hard, he could feel it against the letter he'd tucked into his vest. Without thinking about it, he brought his hand up, brushing his fingers against where the letter was.

Whenever he got one of Naruto's letters, he always excused himself for a break as soon as possible so he could find a place to read it. He tried to do the same this time even though he knew there would be nothing of importance to read in the letter. He touched his vest again then forced himself to stop, it was too obvious of a tell. He waited until there was a lull, the letter getting steadily heavier the entire time.

It wasn't until an hour later that he could get away. He opened the letter in the break room after quickly checking to make sure the room was empty. He wasn't surprised when he saw the letter looked exactly as all the others had. Whoever had made it had an eye for forgeries. The handwriting looked exactly like Naruto's, the content was similar to the other letters he'd sent as well. If Iruka hadn't known better, he'd think this actually was a letter from Naruto.

While he hadn't needed to fake the usual awkwardness that happened between himself and Kakashi whenever they interacted, he did have to fake his reaction now. After he'd read one of Naruto's letters he was always in a wonderful mood, one of the few times he was willing to take slightly substandard reports. He couldn't act any different this time. He took a deep breath and centered himself, pulling on all his memories of Naruto to bring up the smile he needed to get through the night as he normally would and then he returned to the Desk.

The rest of the shift passed so slow it was almost painful.

As they were closing up for the night, he flipped through the missions list and found the D-rank solo messenger mission he knew would be there. It was for the following weekend. He finally knew when this was going to happen. He wrote his name down by it and rummaged through the mission scroll pile to find the corresponding one.

"You're taking another mission?" Kaki asked casually, pushing her long orange hair behind her shoulder before gathering up an armful of scrolls.

"Yeah, I don't have much to do at the Academy next weekend and I want to knock out another one before the term gets busy again."

"Ooh, it's been a while," Seri said as she walked up to them, her arms full of scrolls as well. "We thought you might not be taking them anymore."

"Ah, no," Iruka said, "Just got busy at the Academy for a little while."

The two kunoichi exchanged a glance and then turned toward the file room together.

"Have fun," Kaki called over her shoulder. Just before the door closed completely Iruka could swear he heard laughter.

He stared at the door for a moment and then glanced at Shimo who just shrugged. Kunoichi. Who knows? the gesture seemed to say.

Iruka shook his head and went back to cleaning up the Desk.

~*~*~

Iruka felt Kakashi return to his guard the following morning. Or more accurately, he didn't feel him. He felt one ANBU come to join the two that had been on the night shift and then he felt those two leave. It hit him that Kakashi must have recovered enough to be on duty again. It took a moment of searching, but he was finally able to locate him. His presence was such a tiny disturbance in the chakra around the Academy, and yet Iruka could hardly think of anything else.

At the morning meeting, he let the other teachers know he'd be on a mission that weekend. It was standard practice in case something happened and he couldn't get back in time. They were the ones that would need to cover for him in that scenario. The response he got was less standard.

"It's about time," Suzume said, not bothering to hide her grin.

"Seriously. You've needed a good de-stressing for weeks now," Midori said, joining in.

"Are messenger missions that much of a stress release?" Fuyuno asked, looking just as confused as Iruka felt.

Suzume snorted. "When they double as assignation missions, they are."

Iruka choked, feeling himself blush. Suddenly all the little comments that Suzume and Midori had made over the course of the last year came rushing back to him, along with some of Kaki and Seri's comments as well. He had thought it was just one person who had gotten the wrong idea, but maybe it was more than that.

Was that really what everyone thought about his weekend missions? Maybe some shinobi took solo missions to meet up with people unofficially, away from the village, but they had to be the minority. People couldn't think that of of him, right?

His lack of immediate denial seemed to fuel the fire and soon they were speculating about who it might be. Was it someone from Konoha? Or maybe another country? They didn't come anywhere close and he was glad that whatever rumors were being circulated about him, they didn't seem to include Kakashi's name.

After a moment, he broke into their teasing. "It's just a messenger mission, guys, no exciting hidden relationship," he said, but he was still blushing. They had skeptical looks on their faces but they let the subject drop.

He realized that he had lost track of Kakashi's presence during the exchange and he started to search for him again. He didn't have to look far. Kakashi was on the roof, just above the open windows of the teachers' room. There was no way he hadn't just heard what they were talking about. If anything, Iruka just blushed harder.

Iruka started preparing for that day's lessons, mind straying to Kakashi and the mission that weekend. He felt stupidly nervous about the whole thing. He told himself that it just had to do with the fact that he was putting himself in danger and nothing to do with being alone in a hotel room for an entire night with Kakashi.

~*~*~

Iruka waited in the hotel room. He paced from one side of the room to the other. It only took four steps. He didn't know where to sit. There was only the bed and it was barely big enough for two. The walls were blank, more than a few of the surfaces looked questionably stained, and there was a faint smell of mold in the air. This wasn't the type of hotel people stayed at for relaxation. There were exactly two purposes for a room like this and the mattress wasn't comfortable enough to do one of those well. The rhythmic banging against the wall from the room next door suggested it worked much better for the other. Iruka hoped they'd be done by the time Kakashi arrived. If there was one thing that could make this more awkward, it would be listening to barely muffled moans filtering through paper-thin walls with Kakashi sitting right next to him.

He'd assumed Kakashi would slip through the window, instead he knocked on the door. Iruka raised an eyebrow as he let him in and Kakashi just shrugged.

"There were people in the lobby."

Iruka nodded. The more people who saw Kakashi, the better.

They stared at each other for a long moment until Kakashi seemed to remember himself. He ran through a series of hand seals, and suddenly there were wards around the room. Iruka felt something like relief rush through him and it took a moment to realize why. He hadn't known exactly how this was supposed to play out, but the wards made things a little more clear. They weren't trying to hide the fact that they were ninjas after all. It'd look like a desire for privacy to anyone who noticed it, though they'd assume it was so people wouldn't hear them, not because there was nothing for people to hear.

The hotel room felt even smaller with both of them in it. Sitting on the bed with their backs against the wall, Iruka's arm was a breath away from brushing against Kakashi's. He'd need to stay the night if they wanted this to be believable.

"I still can't imagine where they got their information," Iruka said, trying to break the silence.

"Is it that unbelievable?" Kakashi asked, his voice low and serious.

Iruka scoffed, "That we'd date? Yes, it is."

"Come on now, Sensei, I'm hurt," Kakashi said. The teasing tone he used was more attractive than it should have been.

"You know what I mean. We aren't friends, we don't hang out, we aren't the same rank. There's no connection between us."

"There's Naruto," Kakashi corrected.

"True," Iruka admitted. "But if all it takes is just one student, I must be dating half the jounin in Konoha."

Kakashi didn't try to continue the conversation and the room fell into silence again.

The night stretched out long and uncomfortable. A few hours into it, the couple in the room next door started round two. For as all it did to stop the sounds leaking into their room, the wall between them might as well not even exist. Iruka swallowed hard, the noise unnaturally loud in the confined space, and tried not to shift. He prayed they'd be quicker this time. He prayers weren't answered.

They set watch shifts, but Kakashi didn't sleep during Iruka's shift, and Iruka didn't sleep during Kakashi's either. He was pretty sure they were both just counting down the minutes until they could be done with this.

Kakashi left early in the morning, but not before a number of people in the hotel were already up and about. Iruka waited another hour before leaving, like he wanted to make sure their arrivals back in Konoha were staggered.

On his way home, he tried to scan the area for ANBU but it was no use. There just wasn't enough chakra around for it. They might as well have disappeared the moment he stepped foot outside of Konoha for all he could tell. He just had to trust that they were there, trailing after him the same as they had been.

He kept his pace just a fraction slower than he normally would. It'd give people more of a chance to attack him, he reasoned, not really prepared to admit that the idea of being attacked by missing-nin seemed less stressful than spending another night like this one.

He wasn't that lucky. No one gave him a second look. The entire night had been a waste.

~*~*~

Iruka stood up from his desk and stretched. It'd been a long week at the Academy, but he didn't have any pressing work to bring home and he didn't have a shift at the Desk that evening. All he wanted to do was go to Ichiraku's for dinner then go home and read something that wasn't poorly written student essays.

After a week of life as usual, he had almost managed to convince himself that the bizarre weekend mission hadn't happened, but his ever-present ANBU guard kept him from forgetting about it completely, reminding him regularly that this was his life now. He wondered how long it would be until he could take his students outside the village or when he'd be allowed to go on a real missions again.

As he left the Academy, he felt Kakashi and another ANBU trailing behind him. Kakashi had become a regular in the guard rotation again and Iruka was starting to get used to searching out his non-presence whenever he was on shift. He was getting better at tracking him, but Kakashi still pulled frequent vanishing acts. One moment he was there, and the next he was gone.

He did it again as Iruka turned a corner on his way to Ichiraku's. Kakashi's presence was suddenly nowhere to be found. Iruka frowned in concentration, trying to figure out where he had gone. A few moments later, he was back in position. Iruka continued on, keeping close tabs on Kakashi but he didn't disappear again.

When Iruka got to the restaurant, Teuchi greeted him with a three bowl take-out order bagged up and ready to go.

Iruka left the shop and looked over at Kakashi, whose little wave still managed to be cheeky even while it was invisible. Iruka couldn't see his expression, but he was imagining Kakashi's visible eye curved into a little arch as he waved.

He felt the corner of his lips twitch up and he made a mental note to return the favor the next chance he got. If only Kakashi were this easy to be around when he wasn't invisible.

~*~*~

The next time he actually saw Kakashi was a few days later, when he was back in Iruka's line with another letter to pass and another long overdue report to hand in. They were going to try this again.

Iruka felt his stomach twist but he couldn't tell if it was from nerves, worry, or something else. That didn't stop him from yelling at Kakashi properly about his report this time though. Kakashi's visible eye sparkled with amusement for a moment before he settled into a more normal response, rubbing the back of his neck and giving lame excuses.

At the end of his shift, Iruka found the new mission that was waiting for him, heading east towards the ocean this time. Shimo glanced at the mission log and raised an eyebrow at him.

"You know people are talking about you and your missions, right? That you've got some secret affair going on."

Iruka felt himself blush, something he was starting to do whenever someone asked about his missions lately. He laughed, but it was hollow. He didn't know how to reply. Should he deny it? Or dodge the question? He had never given it a second thought before, but now every time the subject came up, he felt off kilter.

He shook his head, hoping it would be taken as a denial, and then deflected. "What about you? I've never heard anything about a significant other from you."

Shimo became quiet and Iruka dreaded what he was about to say.

"I had one. She was killed in battle," he said after a moment, scratching at his left shoulder. Iruka cringed. He knew better than to talk about things like that. There were too many of them that had lost loved ones over the years.

They fell into an uncomfortable silence as they finished their work, something that was becoming entirely too common in Iruka's life recently.

~*~*~

Iruka came prepared for their second meeting. The portable Go board had been an odd item to add to his pack and occasionally he could hear the stones rustle as he moved. He'd debated between cards, Go, and shogi, but had settled on Go since he was the strongest at it. He still expected to get crushed, but at least it'd kill some time.

The room was a little nicer, the bed was slightly bigger, and there didn't seem to be a couple screwing in the room next door, or at least not yet, but without some kind of distraction, Iruka knew the night would be just as long.

He had the board open and ready on the bed when Kakashi arrived.

Kakashi looked surprised at the arrangement but he sat down across from Iruka and seemed willing enough to play. Iruka was more than prepared to lose, but was determined to make it as difficult a win for Kakashi as possible.

Twenty minutes in, the game was staying relatively even and it was starting to piss Iruka off. He didn't want Kakashi to humor him. He started playing with every ruthless tactic he knew, taking one of Kakashi's formations with a hollow satisfaction. He would not have been able to do that if Kakashi hadn't let him.

Kakashi blinked as Iruka collected his newly captured stones from the board. He paused and looked at Iruka, really focused on him. The scrutiny flustered Iruka, like Kakashi was measuring his worth. It seemed to stretch on forever but then Kakashi looked back at the board, considering it for a moment and then seemed to change tactics, suddenly playing a much more aggressive game than he had been. It wasn't hard to realize that he had started playing for real instead of just indulging Iruka and killing time. It took Iruka too long to get used to this new style of play and he lost quicker than he'd have liked. Still, losing fairly felt better than being looked down on.

He studied the board for a few minutes after he resigned, replaying the game in his head, taking in the areas that he could have defended better and where he fought too long over lost causes. It'd been years since he'd played seriously and never against anyone as good at strategy as Kakashi. When he looked up from the board, Kakashi seemed to be studying him just as seriously as Iruka had been studying the game. Iruka felt his face heat up.

They stared at each other for a moment until Iruka looked away, embarrassed. He started to clear off the board, Kakashi helping to sort the stones, carefully keeping their hands from brushing against each other. The only sound in the room was the quiet scrap of stones against the board and the soft clinks as they put them back in their containers. He had hoped to kill an hour at least with this, but he was realizing how foolish that thought had been. Their game hadn't even lasted 30 minutes, and it had only lasted that long because Kakashi had allowed it. So much for his idea of trying to make the night go quicker.

But when he went to pack it up the containers, Kakashi reached across the board, grabbing his wrist lightly to stop him.

"It's still early. Let's play again," Kakashi said in a low rumble.

Iruka nodded, reopening the container with his stones. The feeling of Kakashi's fingers on his wrist didn't leave him for the rest of the night.

~*~*~

When Iruka was younger and tried to use jutsu without permission, his mother had always known. He'd start molding chakra and then she'd just be there, appearing out of nowhere with fire in her eyes. It hadn't mattered how careful he was about it, anytime he'd been near their house and she hadn't been away on a mission, she had known.

At that time, he hadn't understood how she did it. It wasn't until after his parents had died that he had started to realize he could maybe do the same thing, but at that point, it was too late. He had tried to ask his teachers about it, but they just gave him information about sensors, which didn't answer any of his questions. He'd messed around with it on his own, but in the end decided it wasn't a particularly useful skill and had left it at that.

His mother and father had both been jounin. He wasn't. Whatever his mother had been able to do, he figured he had just gotten a watered down version of it. Something he could use as a trick within the village, but would never be useful on a mission.

Two months after the first time Kakashi had rotated into his watch, Iruka started to wonder if that hadn't been an incorrect assumption on his part.

Kakashi was still difficult to track and Iruka lost his presence multiple times per shift, having to stop what he was doing to carefully scan large areas around his apartment or the Academy to find him again, but the images he received were starting to become clearer, his ability to detect movement was sharper even when there was less chakra in the area.

He set his students to work practicing their henge skills only to realize he'd lost track of Kakashi yet again. After making sure none of his students were likely to mess up the jutsu enough to hurt themselves, Iruka started to scan for Kakashi's presence again, starting close and working his way outwards, but he didn't get very far.

The search for Kakashi temporarily forgotten, he paused, focusing instead on his classroom. It became just a little more detailed in his mind's eye each time a student released chakra to perform the jutsu, casting the area around them in sudden sharp relief. He still wasn't sensing the students giving off chakra, but their jutsu lit up anything near them for a few moments before the echo of the chakra faded as it spread out further. In the initial aftermath of the jutsu, he could guess its origin.

Well, this is new, he thought. He'd never been this sensitive to chakra before, had never been able to identify the source based on the way it bounced off things. It was like seeing the world in a whole new way.

He watched carefully and started to realize he could even tell which students were using too much chakra because the things around them were shining extra bright. If he could use it to help his students gain chakra control, it wasn't such a useless trick after all.

It had to have been from how much he'd been using it lately, needing to push himself almost daily to track Kakashi's movements when he was on duty. The other ANBU weren't as much of a challenge, but with Kakashi he needed his sense fully activated if he wanted to follow his location. He'd never used it this much before.

He wondered what else he could learn to do with it, if it was something he could continue to train and develop. There was only one way to find out.

~*~*~

Convincing Kotetsu and Izumo to train with him after work the next day required a promise to pick up the first round of post-training refreshments, but Iruka decided it'd be more than worth it. They'd probably end up paying for the second round anyway.

He'd given it a lot of thought and finally decided on Training Ground 38 as a good place to start. It'd be better to go outside the walls, but he knew Tsunade wouldn't approve it. But that particular training ground was about as far from the center of the village as possible and would likely have the least amount of chakra bouncing around it.

The sun was just starting to set as Iruka arrived at the field. He felt Kakashi and the other ANBU on shift make a quick sweep of the area before they took up posts on either side of the field. The clearing and the trees around it were a fuzzy, indistinguishable mess in Iruka's head. The other ANBU was still fairly easy to locate, making a clear hole in what little chakra there was around the grounds, but Kakashi was barely detectable even when Iruka focused on him.

Perfect, Iruka thought. He was fairly certain he wouldn't be able to locate a non-concealed presence at all with this level of chakra in the air.

Kotetsu and Izumo showed up a short time later. When Iruka explained what he wanted them to do, they both stared at him blankly.

"You want us to run around," Kotetsu started.

"While using random jutsu," Izumo continued.

"And you're just going to stand here," Kotetsu finished. They both looked skeptical.

"Basically. Also, you could throw a jutsu or two at me while you're doing it, if you want."

"Oh, believe me, if you're just standing here while we're running around using chakra, we'll want to," Kotetsu said with a sharp smile.

Izumo's eyes darted over to his partner, but he didn't contradict him. Iruka laughed nervously.

After a little more grumbling from Kotetsu, they both finally agreed and went out into the trees around the grounds. Iruka stood in the middle of the clearing, waiting. It didn't take long for his theory to be confirmed.

While they were just running through the trees, Iruka couldn't track them, but the moment they started to use jutsu, the trees around them lit up as the chakra they used bounced off them, leaving trails that lingered in Iruka's mind for a few minutes before they faded to nothing. After a while he even figured out who was leaving which trail when he realized he could faintly make out a hint of the weapons strapped to Kotetsu's back.

Iruka was surprised when it was Izumo that lobbed the first fireball at him, not Kotetsu. Even with his eyes closed, he could sense the fireball coming at him by the chakra it gave off, leaving a trail that was coming straight at him. He sidestepped it with ease. After that they were both braver with throwing attacks his way, but Iruka sensed all of them coming.

He was starting to feel pretty confident with his new found skill, when suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. In his mind, the tiniest trail of chakra was heading straight towards him. He flattened himself to the ground just in time for a kunai to sail through where he had just been standing. There was an exploding tag wrapped around its handle. It hit the ground a few meters away from him and exploded.

What the hell, Iruka thought as he stood, brushing off dirt from the explosion. That had been a killing shot coming at him from behind. He looked around wildly. Kotetsu and Izumo had been throwing jutsu at him, but nothing with quite as deadly an aim.

After a moment, there was a little burst of chakra in one of the trees near the edge of the field, lighting up Kakashi's location just enough for Iruka to make him out more clearly.

He was waving.

Iruka resisted the urge to throw a kunai back at him in response.

Still, the warning was well received. The exploding tag had been giving off just enough chakra that Iruka could track it, but if it had been just a kunai, he doubted he would have noticed it before it was too late. He didn't let himself get overconfident again.

After they were finished training, he ended buying the first two rounds but it was most definitely worth it.

"Teachers really do have eyes in the back of their heads, don't they?" Kotetsu joked as he happily accepted the second round of drinks. Iruka grinned but didn't answer.

As he made his way home, Iruka walked by a sweets shop that was just about to close for the night and suddenly remembered Naruto ranting about Kakashi's weird and unnatural food preferences again. On impulse, he went inside.

Feeling mischievous, he bought three sugar candies pressed into the shape of kunai and had them individually wrapped.

He left two on his railing again and even though Kakashi had to have known it was something sweet, one of them was still gone the moment Iruka turned his back.

The next day Iruka arrived at the Academy to find a carefully wrapped bento sitting on his desk. When he opened it, he laughed hard enough that some of the other teachers looked over at him with concern. He had no idea how Kakashi knew maze-gohan was his least favorite food and he doubted he'd ever develop a taste for mixed rice, but just for this one day he figured he could eat it anyway.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

The third forged letter had been handed over with a report that was eight months late. Iruka was starting to fear Kakashi had piles of the things sitting around. He imagined opening the wrong door in Kakashi's apartment and being hit by an avalanche of overdue paperwork.

Iruka skimmed through the letter quickly, reading about adventures he knew Naruto definitely was not having, but it wasn't until the very end that it truly caught his attention. There was a postscript.

P.S. Try Ground 49.

Naruto was fond of postscripts and even post-postscripts. He seemed to always have something else that he wanted to say, but none of them had ever read like this. Iruka's eyes narrowed at the handwriting. It was different from the rest. Not different enough to tell at first glance, but after years of students forgetting to write their names on their papers, Iruka had mastered the art of identification by handwriting quirks. The postscript hadn't been written by the letter's forger. The person who had written it had tried to copy Naruto's writing style, but they hadn't quite gotten it right. There was an odd sort of hesitation and deliberateness to the letters that never appeared in Naruto's writing, which always looked like his pen was rushing to keep up with his thoughts and not doing a very good job of it.

It wasn't hard to guess who had written the extra line.

Iruka stared at the postscript for a moment, grin slowly starting to form on his face. He hadn't thought about that training field. It could make things interesting. He couldn't wait to try it, but convincing Kotetsu and Izumo to meet him there would be another matter altogether.

~*~*~

Training Ground 49 was every shinobi's least favorite, even more disliked than the Forest of Death. It was rarely ever booked and on the few occasions it did get reserved, it was usually because all the others were already taken. It was fine for taijutsu training, but there was something about the field that made using ninjutsu difficult. It felt weird, everyone complained, jutsu did strange things, if they even worked at all.

There were various rumors as to why. Everything from ghosts that haunted the field, feeding on the chakra of the living, to it being one of Orochimaru's old research sites. But the one Iruka had a tendency to believe was that it was right above an ANBU facility. He couldn't prove it, but now that he was looking at it closely, sensing the movement of chakra around the grounds, it was hard to dismiss the idea.

The entire area looked like a chakra dead zone in his mind's eye. He could see the tops of the trees with reasonable clarity, but the amount of chakra bouncing around diminished rapidly the closer it got to the earth. The ground itself was an empty hole, a chakraless void different only in size from the ones the ANBU made. The facility had to be under a concealment jutsu similar to what the ANBU used to cloak themselves. He couldn't even imagine the amount of chakra it would take to maintain a jutsu like that. ANBU were secretive, but if they were using this much energy to hide an entire facility, he probably didn't want to know what they were doing in it.

Kotetsu and Izumo had both groaned when he told them where he wanted to meet in the morning on their next day off.

"Is that the only one open?" Izumo had asked, voice about as close to a whine as it ever got.

Iruka could tell Kotetsu was going to protest so he quickly offered them three post-training rounds in return. Kotetsu grumbled but they eventually agreed and there was only mild complaining when they met him that morning to train.

There was no easily following his friends' locations this time. They were impossible to track when they weren't using chakra, and when they were, he only got quick flashes of the area around them. Bright snapshots of images that faded as fast as they appeared.

He had to change his strategy, trying to piece together the still frames to form a larger image, using logic and intuition to fill in what his sense was no longer supplying. It was an imprecise art at best, but thankfully Kotetsu and Izumo had to adjust as well. Their ninjutsu weren't as effective as they normally would have been. They would try to send a jutsu his way, only to have it fizzle out halfway as the chakra was siphoned off and neutralized by whatever concealment was in place.

He'd lost track of the ANBU guarding him from the moment he had stepped on the grounds. The blank spots they made were indistinguishable from the giant one coming from underneath his feet.

It just confirmed what Iruka had already known. He wasn't a sensor. Unless he was in an area with a lot of chakra, he wouldn't be able to sense an enemy ninja until it was too late. Outside of the village, he was just as average as he always had been.

They ended up staying longer than Iruka had originally intended, all three of them trying to overcome their own battles. Iruka felt wrung out. He'd never used his sense as intensely as he just had. It had always been more of a passive skill that didn't require much energy on his part, but trying to focus on even the smallest traces of chakra to find his friends' locations had been draining.

As they left the field he wondered why there was only one ANBU following him. It took him a moment to realize there wasn't just one. He glanced up at the sun. They must have changed shifts almost an hour ago. Of course Kakashi had been there to see him fail spectacularly.

They headed to a nearby bar. It was still early in the evening, but all three of them were more than ready for a drink.

"Only a sadist would think training on that field was a good idea," Kotetsu muttered into his beer.

Mind half on the way Kakashi was currently doing a sweep of the neighborhood, Iruka couldn't help but agree.

~*~*~

As the weeks stretched out, Kakashi grew more restless. He wanted this to be over with. He wanted to be back on active duty, not this fake medical leave he was currently on.

Almost daily he sent a clone to lounge in trees, reading a book like he had no cares in the world. According to village gossip, he was still recovering from a chakra-draining poison, but it'd been well over a month now. The rumor was already wearing thin, it wouldn't hold up for much longer.

While his clones were reading, he was doing research, trying to find out more about Yonaga and who else he might have recruited with revenge in mind, but the list of ninjas Kakashi had killed was far too long. It was impossible to determine how many people were after him.

The spy could be any one of the dozens of people who had access to the highest classified records. He'd gone through all their personnel files as discreetly as possible, but no one fit the profile. None of them had family members that he'd killed. He had even checked to see if any members of the Nohara clan had access to S-rank files, but none of them did.

He wanted an enemy he could fight, not another stack of old mission reports and intel files to read.

They were keeping everything as secretive as possible, not wanting to scare the spy into hiding, but Kakashi kept running into dead ends. There was nothing else he could do. Starting to question people would likely tip off the spy, which in turn could ruin their chances of finding Yonaga. He was stuck in a holding pattern. Too much of a threat to his teammates and the village to go on missions, too used to almost constant action to be content sitting on the sidelines.

The only time he could trick himself into thinking he was doing something was on the weekends they arranged meetings outside the village. But that just brought on another kind of frustration.

Each time he learned more about Iruka, the more interested he became. After seeing him train twice, he was now more curious than ever about how much Iruka could sense and what could be done with his ability. But only meeting in cramped hotel rooms outside the village and being invisible whenever they were together in the village severely limited whatever possibilities might exist between them.

When he had passed Iruka the latest fake letter to set up another fake tryst, he had enjoyed the blush it caused, a brief moment with potential to be something real.

He wasn't sure yet exactly how real, but he wanted to find out.

~*~*~

Iruka had gotten used to having Kakashi's presence around him in the village, just a hint of him when he concentrated. He couldn't quite say the same for outside the village. Their third meeting wasn't anywhere near as awkward as their first, but there was something about being in the same room as Kakashi that always seemed to throw him off. Or at least it did when Kakashi was more than just a nearly invisible distortion following him around. He wondered if Kakashi felt the same.

The games helped though. They gave him something to do, something to focus on besides how small the room was or how close Kakashi was sitting. The board laid out on the bed between them kept Kakashi at arm's length, a good professional distance for a mission.

Kakashi placed his first stone and glanced up at Iruka. "Do you like anything else besides ramen?"

It was such a random question, Iruka couldn't help but blink at him in surprise. "Sick of ramen already?" he asked after a moment.

Kakashi chuckled, low and pleasant. "Just seeing how similar to you Naruto really is."

Iruka felt his face warm, but ignored it. "I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours. One for every stone captured?"

Kakashi nodded his agreement and they continued playing.

"You've worked at the Mission Desk for quite a while, haven't you?" Kakashi asked as they got further into the game.

Iruka glanced up at him, surprised again at the question. He looked back down at the stones that were scattered across the board. It was already clear Kakashi was winning, his black stones were well on their way to boxing Iruka's white stones into places he wouldn't be able to defend. Resigning would be the smart thing to do, but he wanted Kakashi to have to work for it, even if just a little. He might not be able to win the game, but he could take a few of Kakashi's stones before he lost.

He placed another stone. "If you count my volunteer work there, over a decade now."

"Volunteer work?"

"The Third used to make me file D-rank missions as punishment."

"For pranks?" Iruka didn't look up, instead watching Kakashi place his next stone, but he could hear the amusement in Kakashi's voice.

"Occasionally," Iruka admitted, pushing away thoughts of the Third. His death was still too fresh.

Kakashi must have picked up on the emotion because he didn't pursue the topic any further. They played in silence for a while until Kakashi spoke again out of the blue.

"I don't think that orange-haired kunoichi you always work with likes me."

Iruka blinked, once again unprepared for this line of conversation. He didn't work with that many orange-haired kunoichi though, so it wasn't hard to guess who Kakashi was talking about. "Kaki?" he asked.

"Or the white-haired guy."

"Shimo?"

"Or the blonde kunoichi."

"Seri?

Kakashi shrugged. He probably didn't know most their names, Iruka realized. He had no reason to.

"I hate to break it to you," Iruka said as he placed another stone, teasing clear in his tone, "but none of us like you."

Kakashi pretended to be offended. "Even you?" There was exaggerated hurt in his voice and Iruka fought back a smile.

"When I'm at the Desk? Absolutely."

"And when you're not?" Kakashi asked, taking on a more serious tone.

Iruka ignored the things that question could suggest. He shrugged and looked down at the board. "I don't know you outside of the Desk." A handful of exchanged take-out orders and a few nights of faked hookups didn't mean he knew Kakashi and he wouldn't trick himself into believing it did.

They continued playing. Iruka managed to capture two of Kakashi's stones, though Kakashi already had multiple of Iruka's. He could feel Kakashi's eye on him, but he didn't look up.

As they entered the endgame, Kakashi tried to start up a conversation again.

"How does it work?"

Iruka looked up at him in confusion. Kakashi's conversations were just as hard to predict as his Go moves.

"Your sensing ability," he clarified. "You don't seem to be a sensor, but you locate cloaked ANBU easily in most situations. Only high level sensors can do that. The standard ANBU cloaking jutsu was specifically designed to avoid detection even by average sensors."

Just as he had in Tsunade's office, Iruka explained the way their concealment jutsu seemed to cause dead areas in the village's chakra. Kakashi nodded like Iruka was confirming something he had already suspected.

"Chakralocation," Kakashi said and Iruka nodded, it was as good a name as any. "You've never been able to use it on a mission though?"

"My mother could, apparently, but she was a jounin, and probably much better at it than I am."

"But you're getting better at it." It was a statement, not a question.

Iruka nodded again. "I've never used it this much before. I get clearer pictures now, but I still don't think it'll ever be practical for much though. Outside of the village, I could have it activated and still wouldn't sense an enemy ninja unless they started using jutsu."

Kakashi seemed to consider that for a moment, holding a Go stone between his fingers but not playing it. "What can you sense right now?"

Iruka closed his eyes, focusing on what was around him. They were in a civilian town so there wasn't a lot of chakra moving through the area. "The wards you put up give off enough chakra that I can see a faint outline of what's in this room, but not much beyond it."

He searched further out, trying to see what else he could sense. There was a lot of emptiness outside the walls of their room. Pushing further still, he realized he could sense something a few floors below them and he concentrated on it, trying to bring it into focus. "There's a man in the common room who is radiating chakra. He's lighting up the table around him," he said after a moment, a little surprised at himself.

"A ninja?" Kakashi asked. Iruka could hear the suspicion in his voice.

"No, I don't think so. I've noticed some ninja give off a little chakra when their emotions are high, if they are surprised or angry, that sort of thing. It's like their chakra control slips. But I've never seen one leak chakra like this. Maybe an untrained civilian with chakra ability?"

Iruka opened his eyes to find Kakashi studying him.

"If I cloak myself, would you be able to detect me in here?"

Iruka paused, considering. Kakashi was hard enough to track in the village. There wasn't much chakra in the room that would help mark his presence, but it was also a small room. "Possibly," he said after a moment.

Kakashi got off the bed, careful not to jostle the board and displace the stones. He ran through a series of hand seals faster than Iruka could catch then he disappeared. There was enough chakra in the room that Iruka could just barely make out his presence, something he doubted he would have been able to do a few months ago.

His eyes followed the distortion as it moved from one side of the room to the other. It flickered and then jumped quickly back to the other side of the room. Iruka snapped his head to the left to look at it.

Kakashi stood there for a moment and Iruka waited for him to move again. After a moment, the distortion started to even out. Iruka's eyes widened. Somehow Kakashi was adjusting the jutsu to conceal himself more fully.

Once again Kakashi moved quickly from one side of the room to the other. Iruka tried to follow the movement, but for a moment he lost track of him. He located his presence only to realize Kakashi was adjusting his control of the jutsu again. The distortion became even less noticeable, the faintest impression in his mind. He tried to focus even more to keep track of him, but Kakashi still slowly erased his presence. Another jump later, he disappeared completely.

Iruka pressed his eyes shut in concentration and searched the room, trying to find even the slightest trace of Kakashi. He had to be in the room somewhere, Iruka just needed to find him. He waited for Kakashi to do something, but he didn't.

Even without being able to sense where Kakashi was, Iruka could still feel the weight of his gaze on him. It made his skin feel hot. His breathing became rough as he strained to locate Kakashi. He wet his lips and swallowed hard.

There was the tiniest shift in the chakra right next to him. On instinct, Iruka reached out quickly, feeling his hand close around an arm.

Kakashi let the concealment drop and they stayed like the for a moment, staring at each other, Iruka's hand locked on Kakashi's forearm.

"It was hard enough to track you before," Iruka said after a moment, looking away and letting go of Kakashi's arm.

Kakashi let out an amused huff. "Just want to keep you on your toes, Sensei," he said, sitting back on the bed across the board from Iruka.

They finished the game in silence, Iruka still feeling hyper-aware of Kakashi's presence, even more so than before. After trying so hard to track Kakashi, his senses were too tuned to him. He could feel Kakashi breathe, feel his every move. The intensity of it made Iruka's head spin.

They traded favorite foods as they sorted stones, conversation lighter than Iruka currently felt.

"Okay, Sensei, I'll take the first watch. You get some sleep. We can switch in three hours."

Iruka snorted. "You haven't slept once during my watch."

"You don't sleep either."

The corner of Iruka's mouth twitched. Of course Kakashi had known. "I'll sleep if you do."

Kakashi reopened his stone container. "Another game then?"

Iruka nodded and reopened his own. They played until a little after dawn, but he couldn't breathe easily until Kakashi left in the morning.

There was still no attack on the way home, and Iruka had to remind himself that wasn't a good thing.

He wasn't completely surprised when he returned that evening to find his second favorite food waiting for him on his kitchen counter. How Kakashi had gotten through his wards, he had no idea. He ate the bento for dinner while considering things he could do to make it a little more challenging for Kakashi in case he tried something like this ever again.

~*~*~

Kakashi watched Iruka teach another day of classes. Iruka kept frowning slightly in concentration whenever there was work time for his students. Just to see what he'd do, Kakashi relaxed his concealment jutsu a bit, back to what it had been before Iruka had helped him fine-tune it, and Iruka's head turned in his direction before he returned to his work, brow no longer creased.

He thought about Iruka's words in the hotel room. "I don't know you outside of the Desk." He couldn't argue with that. Like Iruka had said during their first meeting, they weren't friends, they didn't hang out. Even now, his knowledge of Iruka consisted mainly of his food preferences, his Go strategies, and what he'd picked up from Naruto's many stories. There was a lot more to learn.

It was a thought that stuck with him through the rest of his shift and followed him into the ANBU locker room as he changed back into his regular uniform.

There was no reason for them not hang out though, Kakashi thought as he left Headquarters. If the spy was watching them, surely being seen together would just increase Iruka's value to them. And if Tsunade had a problem with it, maybe she shouldn't have approved this mission in the first place.

Instead of heading home, he went back to the Academy. Iruka should be getting off soon and he didn't have a Mission Desk shift that evening as far as Kakashi knew.

It was nearly an hour before Iruka left, but the surprise on his face when he saw Kakashi waiting was entirely worth it. He looked around the schoolyard casually, checking to see if they were being watched and then sent Kakashi a questioning look, clearly not sure what to do. Kakashi made it easy for him.

"Ichiraku's?" he asked, as he walked up to Iruka.

Iruka still looked confused, but agreed anyway, walking with Kakashi in silence to the ramen stand.

After they placed their orders, Iruka signed Mission? to Kakashi, his hand carefully hidden between his body and the counter.

Kakashi paused. Iruka might not even want to do this if it wasn't for the mission.

Couldn't hurt, he signed back, not really answering the question, but some tension left Iruka's shoulders.

"What was Naruto like at the Academy?" Kakashi asked as they waited for their food, enjoying the way Iruka jumped a little at the question.

"About the same as the first few months you had him, probably. Stubborn, loud, competitive. But also kind, brave, and hardworking." A fond smile crossed Iruka's face.

"He had a good role model to take after," Kakashi said.

It seemed to take Iruka a moment to realize who Kakashi was talking about. His eyes jerked over, meeting Kakashi's, and then just as quickly he looked away again, starting to blush at the compliment. The reaction made Kakashi grin.

"I'll tell you my craziest Naruto stories if you tell me yours," Kakashi offered and Iruka nodded.

They started trading stories a little hesitantly at first, but it didn't take long for them to fall into a comfortable flow of conversation. Things went easier from there. With each story exchanged, Iruka seemed to relax a little more, breathing a little bit easier.

It was nice being with Iruka in Konoha while he wasn't under a concealment jutsu, having a real dinner instead of trading take-out orders. Kakashi wanted to do it again, and maybe not just when Iruka thought it was for the mission.

~*~*~

Kakashi falling into step with him as he left the Academy felt like it could become a habit with dangerous ease, one Iruka wouldn't want to break. It wasn't every day, but it was starting to happen more often than not. Iruka had eaten out more in the last few weeks then he had in months. Their conversations were easy and enjoyable and more than once Iruka felt the urge to perform a quick kai just to make sure this was all still real.

The idea of them dating was still ridiculous to him, and from the occasional looks he caught other people giving them, he knew he wasn't the only one to think that.

He reasoned that he might as well enjoy these fake almost-dates. If anything, they would just help things along. If meeting in secret once or twice a month was no longer enough and they were getting serious to a point that they were willing to deal with the issues that might come up with them being open about their "relationship" in the village, the paperwork headaches and red tape they'd have to go through, they wouldn't need to meet outside the village anymore. It might force the missing-nin organization's hand if they noticed. And people were definitely starting to notice.

Iruka had already lost track of the number of times his friends and coworkers had tried to casually bring Kakashi up in their conversations.

"You've been hanging out with Kakashi a lot lately," Midori said one day after class was over. She wasn't the first to mention it and Iruka knew she wouldn't be the last. The other teachers were all pretending to work, but from the sudden lack of any other conversations in the room, Iruka knew they were listening.

Iruka shrugged. He should probably deny the implication, it'd just cause him problems when this was all over and he'd have to explain why they weren't going out to eat anymore.

When hints weren't enough to get him to talk, people started just flat out asking.

"So, you and Kakashi?" Kotetsu leered over drinks and Iruka tried not to bang his head against the table, already knowing where this was going. "Is he any good?"

Izumo elbowed his partner hard and Iruka sent him a grateful look.

Iruka looked out a nearby window. Kakashi was on duty that night but he was far enough away that it was unlikely he'd heard Kotetsu's questions. There had been other times Iruka had been less fortunate, like the time at the Desk when he'd found out that Kaki and Seri had overactive imaginations and clearly enjoyed indulging them.

"Kakashi does a lot of long missions, doesn't he?" Kaki had asked, suspicion clear in her voice.

"Yeah, but he's been off active duty for a while now and Iruka is still picking up missions." Seri pointed out.

That put a damper on their speculation, but after one of them realized that just because Kakashi wasn't officially on missions, it didn't mean he wasn't still meeting Iruka, they picked up right where they had left off. Iruka had tried to dodge their questions as things got significantly more explicit from there.

Kakashi had been right above an open window the entire time.

Turning back to Kotetsu and Izumo, he caught them giving each other a knowing look. He resisted the urge to groan. Everyone he knew was so willing to believe it and he just couldn't understand where they were coming from.

Kakashi didn't help, he seemed happy to let people assume things, but Iruka figured that was the point. He was like a puzzle Iruka could never quite figure out. He had said he wanted to keep Iruka on his toes, and he most definitely did. Every time they went out together, Iruka found some new mystery about Kakashi he wanted to unravel. The newest of which had started when Iruka had passed him a pair of disposable chopsticks.

It was such an everyday action, Iruka hadn't been paying attention, instead most of his focus was being used to check on his guards' location as he did it. His hand brushed against Kakashi's and for the briefest moment the table beneath their hands became just a little bit clearer than it had been in his mind.

Iruka blinked. He'd never noticed something quite like that before. The image stayed in the back of his mind for the rest of the evening.

The next time he was out with friends, he tried to replicate the effect, keeping his sense activated while he passed out drinks and dishes, accidentally brushing his hands against his friends'.

"You're awfully touchy tonight," Kotetsu commented, leaning into Iruka's personal space. "What will Kakashi think?"

Sometimes he really hated his friends.

Iruka kept his hands to himself for the rest of the night. It didn't matter, their chakra hadn't reacted the same way Kakashi's had.

He wondered if maybe he'd been imagining things. He needed to try it with Kakashi again to be sure, he was too curious not to. The next few times they were out together, he spent most the evenings trying to find casual ways to do it again, brushing their hands together, bumping their legs against each other under the table, leaning into Kakashi's personal space. Each time he touched Kakashi, something around them became just a little more defined in his mind, like there was a slight increase in the chakra bouncing off of it.

But as casual as he tried to be about it, Kakashi seemed to see right through him, giving him unreadable looks every time he got too close.

After one particularly searching look, he blushed hard as it hit him that it might just be because Kakashi didn't like people in his personal space. Some kind of automatic defensive reflex, Kakashi subconsciously gathering chakra for a fight, too used to battles for any other kind of response. He stopped testing it after that. He didn't want to make Kakashi uncomfortable.

It wasn't until Gai interrupted one of their dinners that Iruka started wondering if it wasn't something else. Gai slapped Kakashi on the shoulder and congratulated him for his Youthful Passions. Iruka blocked Gai out, instead focusing on the chakra around them. It didn't change. Iruka frowned.

After Gai left, Kakashi groaned, slouching back against his chair, eye pressed shut. Iruka reached over and tapped his hand to get his attention. The table lit up in Iruka's mind.

Kakashi opened his eye and looked at him but Iruka forgot what he had been about to say. Something about friends and idiots. They stared at each other for a moment until Iruka looked away.

Was it just him that made it happen? That didn't make sense. Sure there had been moments that he'd caught Kakashi watching him when he wasn't looking or when Kakashi stood just a little too close, but Iruka had figured it was all just part of the act. He wouldn't fool himself over it. But a reaction like this couldn't be an act. Iruka doubted Kakashi even realized he was doing it. The amount of chakra he was giving off was barely a fraction of what even the most basic jutsu used.

He pushed the thought out of his mind. It was just a mission and it'd be over eventually. He'd just enjoy what it was for now.

~*~*~

Kakashi wasn't surprised when Tsunade called him into her office to reprimand him over all the times he had gone out with Iruka over the last few weeks. He wasn't feeling particularly repentant.

"You're the one who seemed to think this was a good idea," he reminded her and her mouth twitched in irritation.

"The only thing I authorized was for you to meet outside of the village."

Kakashi shrugged. "It's more convincing if we meet in the village as well."

"It could also create more problems for Iruka-sensei in the long run."

"He's smart enough to realize that."

"And what do you intend to do after the mission is over?"

"That's up to him."

"Not entirely."

He fought back a grimace. "He is unlikely to ever fall under my chain of command, and I'm not pressuring him into anything." Those were the two biggest objections to jounin and chuunin dating each other.

She studied him for a moment. "He only has ANBU protection until this current threat is eliminated. If another organization decides to target you in a similar way, I can't guarantee anything."

And that was the main problem. He'd always be a threat to the people closest to him. Taking out one organization wouldn't change that. He shrugged again, uncomfortable. "It's up to him to decide."

Her mouth tightened, but she let it drop and dismissed him. He couldn't blame her. He wasn't safe, he never would be. Everything that had happened after the first ambush had just proved that again and again. As if it hadn't been proven a thousand times over before that.

Kakashi was halfway to Iruka's apartment before he realized where he was going and when he did, he didn't change his course. He knew Iruka had a thing with his coworkers that night, but he'd probably be home soon. He settled in on Iruka's balcony to wait for him.

He didn't have to wait long before Iruka came swaying down the street with the white-haired Desk worker. Shimo, Iruka had called him. Their arms were slung over each other's shoulders and even from a distance it was easy to see they were both drunk.

As they got closer, Shimo noticed him first. For a fraction of a second his body was far too alert for how drunk he had seemed a moment before, but a blink of an eye later he was back to stumbling drunk with Iruka. They both squinted up at Iruka's balcony.

"I thought you said you weren't seeing anyone," Shimo said in what he clearly thought was a whisper.

Iruka made a noise of agreement. "I'm not. I don't see him all the time."

Shimo stared at Iruka for a moment and then started to laugh. Iruka joined in.

"Okay, enjoy not seeing him," Shimo said, leer in his voice, still chuckling as he headed further down the street. Iruka waved after him.

Iruka made his way up to his balcony. "You didn't meet me for dinner tonight," he accused as he unlocked his wards.

"You had plans with your coworkers," Kakashi reminded him.

"Oh, right," Iruka said, remembering. "You could have come."

Kakashi let out a quiet huff as they stepped inside. "I'm sure that would have put a damper on things."

Iruka nodded cheerfully in agreement. Kakashi knew he didn't mix well with others.

Iruka wobbled as he slipped his sandals off and Kakashi's hand went to his waist, steadying him before he could even think the motion through.

"You know," Iruka said, turning towards Kakashi, ignoring how far into his personal space he was, finger jabbing into his vest. "My life has been completely turned inside out because of you."

"Sorry," Kakashi said, trying to put some space between them, rubbing the back of his neck as he stepped away as far as Iruka's genkan would let him.

"It's okay," Iruka replied, "I just think it's unfair that you can turn people's lives inside out because of the sex you've had with them when you haven't had sex with them even though you're having sex with them but aren't actually."

Kakashi blinked, trying to understand that sentence. It didn't follow the grammar or logic rules of any language he knew.

"I mean, shouldn't you at least have had sex with the people you've had sex with?"

Kakashi blinked again. "...yes?" he tried. He was pretty sure that was the right answer.

"Good. I'm glad you agree," Iruka said as he went to his fridge to grab a bottle of water. He downed it then started stripping out of the worst of his gear while he walked towards his bedroom. There were heavy thuds and metallic clinks as each piece hit the ground.

Kakashi could see into Iruka's bedroom just enough to watch him collapse on his bed and then promptly pass out, leaving Kakashi standing in Iruka's entryway in confusion. He let himself out, activating Iruka's wards as he did so, still trying to figure out if there was any meaning behind Iruka's words or if they'd just been the ramblings of a drunk man. He knew which one he was hoping for.

~*~*~

Iruka groaned at the too-bright morning sunlight that was beating into his room. He must have been too drunk to shut the curtains last night and that was never a good sign. He tried to ignore it away, but it didn't work.

He buried his face in his pillow, starting to smile as he remembered Kakashi waiting on his balcony the night before. Even through all the grogginess in his head at the moment, having Kakashi waiting for him to come home was a nice thought. Or at least it was, right up until the rest of the memories of his drunken ramblings came back to him.

Iruka groaned again and tried to burrow further into his pillow in embarrassment. Maybe if he didn't get out of bed, the missing-nin would just come and get him right here and he wouldn't have to see Kakashi again, but he highly doubted he'd be that lucky.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

The next time Iruka saw Kakashi was two days later, right before the Desk closed for the night. It'd been quiet for most of the shift and when Kakashi walked in, he was the only non-Desk worker in the room. Iruka felt his face heat up and his heart start to pound as he was hit hard by the memory of implying, with all the subtlety that alcohol could imbue, that if they were going to have to go through all this hassle because of a rumor, they might as well be enjoying it.

But mortified or not, Iruka still had a job to do. He was more than a little thankful that Kakashi hadn't made an appearance before that moment, when Iruka had the protocols of the Desk to fall back on. He held out his hand for Kakashi's report, mentally placing a wager on exactly how late this one was.

Kakashi set the report on Iruka's palm and as his fingers closed around it, Iruka frowned before he could stop himself. There wasn't a letter pressed carefully against the scroll.

Did that mean they were done? Had everything been resolved without Iruka knowing about it? Iruka opened the report to distract himself from following that line of thought too far.

It had been easy to tell the last three reports were late just by the state they were in. Freshly written reports didn't look like they'd propped open a window for half a year through rain and shine. But this one was written on brand new paper, only the mission date giving away how late it truly was. Kakashi must have gotten a blank form and rewritten it. It was semi-neat, and for the most part, correct. It was still months late, but it was a start.

Normally Iruka wouldn't hold back while reprimanding a shinobi for turning in a report seven months late, but at the thought of Kakashi painstakingly rewriting an entire report, he didn't have the heart to do it with anything more than a token amount of effort.

"If this were on time, Kakashi-san," he said instead, "it actually wouldn't be a bad report. I wouldn't even have to yell at you for something like this." He didn't want to think about how fond the amusement in his voice sounded.

Kakashi didn't miss a beat, just put a hand on the desk and leaned across it into Iruka's personal space. "But, Iruka-sensei, you know I like it when you get loud." His voice was low and rough and it did all kinds of things to Iruka that he wouldn't admit.

It was ridiculous, blatant flirting, done in public where anyone could hear. Out of the corner of Iruka's eye, he saw all three of his coworkers turn to stare. He tried not to react to it, tried to keep his breathing even and his expression neutral, but he could feel himself blushing.

Kakashi placed a letter on the desk and slid it towards him, the quiet rasp of its movement across the wood almost obscenely loud. Iruka grabbed it so quickly their fingers brushed together. The letter lit up in his mind.

"See you later, Sensei," Kakashi said as he turned to walk away and Iruka fought back a shiver at the promise in his voice. He shoved the letter into his vest.

Mission, he reminded himself, it's for the mission.

He set Kakashi's report on a pile only to jump as Kaki grabbed it and unrolled it. She looked up, giving him a knowing look.

"If that's what was required to get a decent report out of him, I would have volunteered years ago."

Seri looked over Kaki's shoulder at the report and raised an eyebrow. "I suppose you'll be off on another messenger mission this weekend?" There was amusement in her voice.

"Assignation mission," Kaki corrected her.

Iruka hadn't thought he could blush any harder than he was already, but apparently he'd been wrong.

"Well, the Academy-" Iruka tried to explain, but Kaki cut him off.

"Is not that busy right now. We know."

"You've been saying that all year," Seri said.

Both kunoichi laughed.

"Leave him alone, you two," Shimo said, cutting into the conversation. "I'd like to get out of here at a decent time and we still have filing to do."

"You're never any fun," Kaki told him, wrinkling her nose at him, but they went back to their work after that.

Iruka shot Shimo a grateful look and he nodded in return.

~*~*~

Iruka wasn’t surprised to see Kakashi waiting for him outside the Academy the following day. He'd been on guard duty while Iruka was teaching, which meant he’d be free that evening, and Iruka didn’t have a Desk shift. After the last few weeks, that almost guaranteed a night out together.

Waiting for the end of a day caused anticipation to grow in Iruka, slowly building to the point of distraction. By the final class, Iruka felt just as restless as the wildest of his students, glancing at the time and willing it to go faster. He still felt a little embarrassed over the other night, but more than that, he was curious. Kakashi had been so open in the way he’d passed the last letter, Iruka wanted to know what he'd do next.

They ended up at a small izakaya that was tucked down an alley Iruka hadn't even realized existed. The owner's muttered "Welcome" when they slid open the door sounded more like a curse. The restaurant was tiny, just a few rickety tables shoved into a dimly lit room, and they were the only customers. It was immediately clear that the owner was a retired shinobi. He didn't look up from where he was cubing beef like it was a battle.

"Don't let him fool you," Kakashi said, leaning into Iruka's personal space, so close to his ear that Iruka could feel the heat of his breath even through his mask. "He makes the best izakaya food in Konoha."

There wasn't a menu and they didn't place an order, but the owner brought them a steady stream of dishes, each one better than the last. He would limp the few steps between the open kitchen and their table, toss down some new dish, then return the way he came without much more than a grunt of acknowledgment.

Iruka probably would have thought it was some of the best food he'd eaten in his life, but he couldn't focus on much beyond the way Kakashi's leg was pressed against his under the table that had never been meant for more than one person to sit at it. They spoke in hushed tones, Kakashi leaning in closer than necessary to reply.

If Iruka had thought waiting for the end of the day had been distracting, it didn't compare to the way he could feel Kakashi shifting in his seat or shaking with quiet laughter. The time to call it a night came and went, but finally they admitted it was time to go.

"It's on the house, kid," the old ninja said gruffly as Kakashi started to take out money. Then he added under his breath, "about time you had someone to bring with you."

It was too dim to be sure, but Iruka could swear Kakashi was blushing, just barely visible above his mask.

Kakashi walked Iruka home through nearly empty streets and there was a moment outside his door when Iruka thought that if this had been a real date, he might have considered inviting Kakashi in.

It was harder to write this off as all part of the mission. Going to places like Ichiraku's or Yakiniku Q made them easy to spot, easy targets of gossip, but there had been no one to see them this time except a retired jounin who clearly didn't want Kakashi dead and didn't seem like the gossiping type.

Iruka had known the next day of classes would be rough, facing 30 pre-genin after minimal sleep was never fun, but he didn't regret it.

~*~*~

Their next fake date was at a shabu-shabu restaurant and Iruka wondered if it wasn't belated payback for all the times he'd casually tested the way Kakashi's chakra reacted when he was touched.

They were sitting at the counter, the hotpot between them, and every time they passed each other a dish, Kakashi made sure their hands brushed together. Iruka had tried to convince himself he'd been subtle about the whole thing, but he was having serious doubts about that belief now.

Kakashi's chakra didn't jump as much when he was the one initiating the contact, but Iruka still caught the occasional extra flicker.

Iruka's heart beat just a little faster every time he felt Kakashi's fingers sliding against his skin. He didn't know how much of this he could handle without demanding to know if there was something real behind the touches. If this was what he had put Kakashi through for days, he might owe the man an apology.

Then the flirting started. He might have been able to write off the touching as meaningless, but there was no denying the clever twists of innuendo Kakashi could add to even the most basic of statements. He knew he shouldn't be surprised that Kakashi made insinuations as casually as he read porn in public, but that didn't stop Iruka from blushing at some of Kakashi's more explicit statements. If he'd thought his coworkers were bad, Kakashi was so much worse.

His words put ideas in Iruka's head that lasted long past when they'd parted ways for the night.

But even through all the flirting, Kakashi was still Kakashi, all quick wit and biting commentary, and that in and of itself was a turn on even more than the teasing touches and provocative words.

Iruka wondered how long this had been building in him. If it had started with the Book or if it had always been there, the first blushes of attraction hidden under layers of awkwardness.

He realized that the next time he saw Kakashi, it would probably be in a hotel room, and that just brought him right back to where he had started the week.

He was distracted as he finished up his Friday evening Desk shift, not even bothered by the smirks Kaki and Seri were sending each other.

A few weeks ago he would have tried to pass off what he was feeling as concern over the very real chance he might be abducted on the mission, but he knew that wasn't the cause and he couldn't lie to himself about it anymore.

~*~*~

Iruka unpacked the portable Go board and stone containers as he waited for Kakashi to arrive, but he didn't feel like playing. He wasn't in the mood for anymore games.

This felt different from the other three meetings. For the first time since this whole thing started, it really did feel like he was meeting a lover, which was not the kind of thoughts he should be having in the middle of a mission. He blamed all the times they'd met in the village over the last few weeks, dinners that would have been nicer if he knew for sure they weren't just a front put on for an organization trying to kill both of them.

He knew something needed to happen soon, for the sake of the village, but he also wanted whatever this was to continue so he could see where it went. It was getting harder to remember it was for a mission, and that was dangerous. The potential for him getting hurt when this was over was too great.

When Kakashi came, they settled in to play a game. Iruka hadn't beaten Kakashi yet, he'd never even come particularly close, but he enjoyed the times he was able to capture stones that weren't obvious sacrifices or when he could defend a tricky bit of territory. What had started as a way to help break the ice between them, was now a different kind of distraction for Iruka, something to keep his mind off of how the awkwardness between them had given way to a building tension that left Iruka's stomach coiled tight. The game kept Iruka from focusing on tantalizing possibilities more than he should, but Kakashi wasn't letting it stay that way.

Iruka placed a stone and a fraction of a second later Kakashi placed one of his own right beside Iruka's, their hands brushing together as Iruka pulled away quickly in surprise. The board and stones lit up in his mind. The minimal amount of chakra in the room to begin with made the effect more noticeable than it had been in the village.

These tiny, extra shimmers of chakra fascinated Iruka. Kakashi didn't lose control, or at least that was the image Iruka had of him, but here he was, giving off what would normally be an imperceptible amount of chakra whenever their hands touched, whenever Iruka got too close.

The closest to it he'd seen before was when people were in states of heightened emotions. The area around them would become just a little brighter in Iruka's mind. It had happened to Fuyuno the first night of parent-teacher conferences when he'd been nearly shaking from stress. And from time to time, when Kaki and Seri were drinking and something made them laugh hard enough they could barely breathe, everything around them would glitter. Iruka had even noticed himself doing it when he was in the middle of yelling at his students at the end of a day when they'd been particularly wild.

Kakashi only did it when they touched.

A few moves later, Kakashi did it again, placing another stone directly next the one Iruka had just played. Iruka could feel the the smooth, worn leather of his gloves and the warmth of his fingers as their hands brushed together again, lighting up the board one more time.

Go shouldn't feel like foreplay, Iruka told himself, but with the way Kakashi was playing, it did.

He had thought this was all about the mission for Kakashi, but each time Kakashi's chakra reacted to his touch, Iruka became just a little bit more sure. Kakashi wanted him. Maybe it was just physical, Iruka didn't know, but he wanted to find out.

The next time Kakashi tried the same trick, Iruka was ready for him. Instead of pulling away, he let his fingers trail along Kakashi's gloved hand, over his wrist and down his fingers. A caress with purpose, not an accidental brush. To any other observer, Kakashi would have looked just as calm as always, but the momentary shimmering echo of Kakashi's chakra on the game board was a dead giveaway for Iruka. He bit back a smile as he reached for another stone.

It made Iruka want to push him further. He wanted to see how else Kakashi would react to him. Would he give off more chakra the more they touched? He felt himself start to blush at the idea.

"What are you thinking about?" Kakashi asked in a low voice that made it clear he already knew.

Iruka could try to deny it, but he didn't want to. He leaned forward just enough to reach across the board, watching Kakashi's face and focusing on the way the chakra in the room was moving around them.

Kakashi's left hand was resting on his knee and Iruka let his fingers brush against it. There was the tiniest shiver of chakra against the material of Kakashi's uniform pants.

"You lose control of your chakra when I touch you." Iruka said.

Kakashi's visible eye widened in surprise and then narrowed like he was assessing something inside himself.

Iruka slid his fingers up to the bare skin between Kakashi's glove and sleeve, running them along the inside of his forearm. Kakashi's chakra jumped at the touch and Iruka had to remind himself to breathe.

"Just a little, almost nothing at all," he clarified, "but I can still see it."

Balancing himself carefully to avoid displacing the stones, he leaned further across the board and started to trail his hand up Kakashi's arm. There was a slow deliberateness to his movements that let him see all of Kakashi's reactions, the darkening of his eye and the quickening of his breath.

"I'm supposed to be guarding you right now, Sensei," Kakashi said, voice quiet and rough.

"Proximity to your protectee is of utmost importance and essential when guarding them."

Kakashi let out a soft huff. "I don't think that means this kind of close." He wasn't encouraging Iruka but he wasn't pulling away either. Iruka's hand continued its journey until it reached Kakashi's shoulder. He let it rest there for a moment, giving Kakashi a chance to pull away. He didn't take it.

"You know this is dangerous."

"It's dangerous either way," Iruka said.

Kakashi let Iruka pull him into a kiss, Iruka's lips brushing against his mask. In Iruka's mind, the area around them started to shimmer. He wasn't so sure it was just Kakashi's chakra anymore.

He knew they shouldn't do this, there were a hundred reasons why they shouldn't, but he wanted it anyway. He was certain now that Kakashi wanted it too, had maybe wanted it just as long as he had.

But then Kakashi was pulling away, a hand against Iruka's chest, pushing him back. "No," he said firmly.

Iruka tried not to flinch, maybe he'd read things wrong, but then Kakashi was grabbing his arm and pulling him close again, whispering in his ear. "Not here, not like this. Not while we have to worry about what enemies are waiting outside the door. I want to be able to take my mask off and kiss you properly. I want to make you come so hard you forget your own name, and then I want you to return the favor."

Iruka felt himself shiver. "Is that a promise?" he asked, voice rough and filled with desire.

"It is if you want it to be," Kakashi replied.

Iruka wanted it to be. He almost couldn't breathe with how much he wanted it.

They went back to playing Go, tension thick in the air. It wasn't a particularly good game for either of them, both lost in their own thoughts.

Once again it was not until Kakashi left in the morning that Iruka felt like he could breathe normally again, but there was still the hum of arousal running through his veins as he shouldered his pack to leave as well.

~*~*~

Iruka forced himself to stay focused on the road ahead of him, not on what had happened in the hotel room behind him or what might eventually happen in the village after this was over. His desire to see this finished was at an all time high. He just needed this damn organization to get off their asses and take him hostage already.

He scanned the area around him out of habit more than a belief he'd be able to sense anything of value. He knew there were ANBU following him, but there wasn't enough chakra flowing through the forest for him to know where they were. Keeping the chakralocation activated, he continued to move through the trees.

An hour outside of the hotel, he felt something start to build behind him. First at the very edge of his range of perception, just a glimmering outline of trees, but then it started to grow in his mind as it came closer, its speed outstripping his own.

At first he wasn't sure what it was, but the closer it got, the more detail he could make out. The outlines of the trees around it clarified in Iruka's mind. It wasn't someone using chakra for a jutsu, there wasn't enough focus to it for that, but it reminded him of something. He frowned as he concentrated on it. After a moment, he realized what it was.

He'd seen it before, the last time they'd met, when Kakashi had asked him what he could sense. There had been a person in the common room who he'd thought was a civilian with untrained chakra potential. Given the speed they were moving through the trees, he had clearly been wrong. They weren't a civilian, but from the amount of chakra leaking off of them, they had to have some of the worst chakra control Iruka had seen in his life.

The distance between them closed at an alarmingly fast rate and Iruka continued to make out more details. It wasn't just one ninja with shitty chakra control following him, he'd brought friends. The others moved in and out of the chakra trail his left. They weren't cloaking themselves, so they didn't leave dead areas in the chakra like the ANBU would have, instead Iruka could see their outlines the same way he had with Kotetsu and Izumo during training. He counted at least three of them.

This was happening, Iruka thought. He felt a thrill go through him before he pushed it down. He shouldn't feel happy that he was about to get attacked, even if it did mean their plan was working. There were still far too many things that could go wrong for it to be considered a success.

He kept his pace even, not wanting them to realize he knew he was being followed, at least not just yet. They needed to think they were getting the better of him, otherwise they'd become suspicious. Iruka knew the ANBU were keeping their distance. They'd be there the moment anything seemed to be going wrong, but they had orders only to intervene if absolutely necessary. The endgame was to get to the leader of the organization, and it was doubtful he'd be doing the dirty work of abducting Iruka himself.

Iruka waited until the missing-nin were close enough that most ninjas would notice they were being followed before he acted startled, increasing his pace and making efforts to evade them. They were prepared for that, quickly surrounding him and bringing him to a halt.

There were four of them, he had been right. Two women and two men. The one who leaked chakra like a pre-genin that couldn't walk on water yet was the large, lumbering type, clearly hired for his muscle and nothing more. The other three stayed back, only blocking Iruka's escape routes while they let their teammate capture him.

The big man was chuunin level at best and Iruka felt a little insulted. In any other situation he was fairly certain he would have been able to take the man down with no problem. He did have a monstrous amount of chakra, but his control of it was appalling.

So Iruka put up a fight, but it was mostly for show. He had to find the right balance. If he didn't fight, they'd know something was wrong. If he went all out on them, they'd be more likely to injure him seriously. The Book had specified he needed to be alive, but that didn't mean they wouldn't cause him permanent damage if he caused too much trouble.

He knew how to take a hit and he knew it was coming, but it still stung when he let the first one connect with his side. He didn't have to fake staggering back. The missing-nin's chakra control might be terrible, but he still knew how to throw a punch. He let himself get hit a few more times before he fell to the ground, cursing internally over the last one, which had been to his head. He'd been able to move with the punch to avoid some of the damage it would have caused, but his head still rang from the force of it. He'd have bruises for the next week.

Iruka hitting the ground seemed to be the cue his other abductors were waiting for, they jumped down from the trees where they'd been watching. They manhandled him, roughly stripping him of his pack, vest, and weapons pouches before tying him with rope, blindfolding and gagging him. The big one threw Iruka over his shoulder and then they were off, moving through the trees in a northwesterly direction.

Well, this is dignified, Iruka thought to himself. He hoped one of the ANBU grabbed his gear before they came after him. It'd be a pain to find afterwards if they didn't.

It only took him a moment to realize exactly how useful the constantly leaking chakra was. Even though he was blindfolded, he could see exactly what the missing-nin were doing. There were only three of them now. One had split off from the group and Iruka had quickly lost track of her. But more importantly, just at the very edges of his perception, he kept sensing the flickering dead areas the ANBU were leaving as they moved through the trail of chakra leaking off the man holding him.

It was hard to panic when you knew half a dozen of Konoha's best shinobi were ready to save you the moment anything went wrong. Iruka couldn't sense Kakashi's presence, he didn't even try, but he knew he was there.

~*~*~

Kakashi hadn't liked this plan from the beginning. He still didn't like it now. It went against his nature to sit back while someone else got abducted by people who were ultimately after him. But they had come this far and they had no other options, all he could do was watch the missing-nin closing in on Iruka.

His fingers itched to grab a kunai and attack, but getting to Yonaga was more important. None of this would stop until they took him out.

The moment it was clear Iruka was being kidnapped, they initiated the plan they had in place. Komachi and Towa fell back while Kakashi and the other three ANBU continued forward. Komachi was able to use the Mind Transmission Jutsu, but she couldn't run while she did so. They would catch up after she had informed Tsunade that the abduction was underway and the direction they were heading so backup could be dispatched.

One of the four missing-nin had split off immediately, heading towards Konoha. The ransom messenger, no doubt. They'd think they'd need to inform Kakashi of Iruka's capture and wait for Kakashi to come. Instead, the ANBU would attack as soon as they had confirmed Yonaga's presence.

He wasn't surprised when the missing-nin headed northwest, towards the Land of Mountains. It was early, but they were almost a full day of travel away from the organization's suspected area of operation. It'd be a long run with nothing for Kakashi to do but think, planning and replanning for every possible scenario that might await them.

They all had their roles. Komachi and Towa were responsible for communication, Yugao would hopefully be able confirm Yonaga's presence, Kage would slip into the hideout and retrieve Iruka while Kakashi drew out Yonaga and fought him, and Inoshishi had intel training which they'd need when all of this was over.

Komachi and Towa caught up to them around midday, signaling that their message had been received and that they had taken out the missing-nin messenger after they had finished.

Backup two hours behind, Komachi signed to him. He hoped they wouldn't need them, he didn't want to wait that long. The longer Iruka was with the missing-nin, the more dangerous it would be for him.

After that, it all ran smoothly. They reached the hideout, Yugao quickly confirmed that Yonaga was inside and the number of missing-nin was within their ability to take on without waiting for backup. Kage slipped inside undetected to free Iruka, and Yonaga came outside to fight Kakashi when he realized he was there. It was like clockwork, all the little pieces fitting together to make everything happen exactly as planned.

Kakashi narrowed his eyes in suspicion as he squared off against Yonaga. He'd been on hundreds of A and S-rank missions. The more parts there were in motion, the more likely something would go wrong. He could plan 50 moves ahead in Go, but it didn't matter if his opponent started to make moves he hadn't anticipated. He couldn't shake the feeling of concern that was sinking into him. This was too predictable, too easy.

Yonaga sent a massive burst of fire into the sky and Kakashi could feel the air around them shift. Clouds formed and rain started to fall. The storm would benefit both of them, the question would be who could use it to greater advantage.

They circled each other and Kakashi gathered his chakra as he waited for Yonaga's next move.

~*~*~

Iruka had to admit that as far as hideouts went, this one was a good one. The final few turns before they had reached it had been well hidden. He hoped the ANBU had stayed close enough to follow them.

His abductors presented him like a trophy to someone he could only assume was the leader of the organization but the man seemed to have little interest.

"Lock him up for now, in case we need proof of life," he said then immediately turned and walked away from them. He hadn't even given Iruka a second look.

Iruka was taken further into the building and thrown unceremoniously onto the hard floor. He didn't push himself up immediately, instead using the opportunity to scan the area around him. There was just enough chakra that he could get a vague impression of his surroundings. The room was small and windowless, in the center of the hideout. He counted at least ten people. It was impossible for him to tell if they were ninjas or not, but he doubted they'd be there if they weren't.

"Are you sure this is the right guy?" the kunoichi asked the others.

"You saw it yourself. They definitely met up last night," the smaller of the two men replied.

"Yeah, but I was expecting more of a fight. He's just so..."

In his mind, Iruka could see her making a vague gesture with her hand and he felt himself bristle. Weak, the missing-nin was going to say, or pathetic maybe. Not on the same level as Kakashi.

The man snorted. "Well, he's pretty at least."

"True," she said, shrugging. They walked away, not even bothering to restrain him more than he already was. They didn't leave a guard outside the door, just locked it.

Iruka twitched in irritation and pulled himself into a sitting position. This whole damsel in distress act was starting to annoy him. He might not be Kakashi's level but they could try not to completely dismiss him at least.

He had himself untied and the door unlocked by the time he felt one of the ANBU creeping towards his location.

There was a sudden commotion of chakra outside and Iruka assumed the ANBU's attack had started. He could sense all the missing-nin scrambling as they rushed to meet their attackers.

Iruka threw open the door to the room and almost laughed as the chakra dead area made by the ANBU that had been coming to rescue him tried to flatten itself against the wall in a dark shadow. It might have fooled most people, but it was glaringly obvious in Iruka's mind.

He leveled a look at the ANBU and after a moment he uncloaked himself, a swirling black and white pattern decorating his mask. He had probably been following Iruka around for months now but this was the first time Iruka was seeing him. It was a jarring realization.

As far as Iruka could tell, all of the presences that he had felt earlier were now fighting the ANBU, but they still moved carefully through the hideout. In his mind's eye, he tried to track the battle that was raging just outside.

Four of the ANBU remained cloaked and they flickered around the battlefield, standing still only long enough to set off a jutsu or launch an attack. Iruka couldn't follow their movements, he was only able to locate them in the moments between. He knew there were only four of them, but to the missing-nin, it had to seem like there were dozens.

The effect was chaotic. The missing-nin had no idea where to attack and it only took a moment of distraction for the ANBU to target them with a jutsu or swoop in and engage them at close range before they quickly moved away again.

A little further away, two more shinobi were facing off against each other. It wasn't hard to guess who they were. As he and the ANBU who had come to free him stepped outside, a large ball of fire lit up the night sky.

Iruka moved to join the fight, but the ANBU put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

"I have orders to secure you," the ANBU said.

"I'm secure," Iruka replied, irritation clear in his voice.

The ANBU just shook his head and Iruka bit back a curse. Reining in his pride, he followed to the outer edges of the battlefield, only allowed to watch as the other ANBU steadily cut the number of missing-nin down. The more chakra they used, the clearer Iruka's mental image became.

He focused the majority of his attention on Kakashi and his opponent until he could distinguish between the two as they circled around each other.

Above them, thunder crashed loud enough to shake Iruka's bones. Rain started to fall, only a few drops hitting Iruka's skin in warning before the sky opened up and sheets of rain came down, drenching them within seconds.

The ANBU cursed and Iruka looked over.

"They both use lightning," he explained.

Iruka let out a curse of his own. Water could conduct lightning, and while Kakashi wouldn't use any jutsu that would put them in danger, there was no reason his opponent wouldn't decide to electrify the entire area. It wasn't safe to be close to them.

The remaining missing-nin all seemed to have the same thought, quickly trying to move away from the area. The four ANBU didn't let them them get far, breaking up to track them down and continue their fights elsewhere. Iruka stayed where he was.

"Iruka-sensei." It was half warning, half plea.

Iruka had no doubt that the ANBU would use force if necessary. He grimaced then reluctantly followed the ANBU. They needed to double the distance between themselves and Kakashi at least, but he still kept his mind trained on the fight.

A bolt of chakra-guided lightning streaked down from the sky. It lit up Iruka's sense, giving him a clear vision of it barreling towards Kakashi with deadly precision. He kept himself from calling out a warning, but just barely. It would have been useless anyway. He was too far away and the rain would just drown out his words.

Kakashi used a body flicker to get out of the way. As the lightning struck where he had just been standing, the spot it hit blazed white-hot in Iruka's mind. A deafening crack of thunder sounded. The moment Kakashi reappeared, the missing-nin was ready for him, throwing a lightning-edged kunai at him and forcing him to dodge again.

The ANBU next to Iruka was almost fidgeting with nervous energy, or as close to it as Iruka could ever imagine an ANBU getting, but he steadfastly blocked out his presence. He pressed his eyes shut, pushing aside the heavy beat of rain against his skin and ignoring everything that wasn't the fight playing out in bursts and flashes behind his eyes.

Another bolt came crashing down from the sky and Kakashi flickered away again, only to be greeted with another kunai as he reappeared. It was a closer call this time, Kakashi barely twisting away before the kunai flew past him. The chakra it was charged with sparked against Kakashi's arm.

It happened again and again. A bolt and a body flicker, a kunai and then a dodge. With each repetition, the timing was quicker, Kakashi's escape was narrower. Kakashi was barely able to avoid being struck by the kunai as he reappeared. He was being kept completely on the defensive, unable to launch any attacks of his own.

In all the years he'd been a shinobi, Iruka had never seen anything like this fight before. The lightning seared itself into his mind, every kunai made his heart pound faster. He lost track of the number of times they repeated the steps. Dread built inside him as he waited for something to break the twisted pattern. They couldn't keep this up forever, one of them would falter.

And then the next time Kakashi flickered away from a strike, he reappeared with lightning in his hand. The kunai flew straight towards his chest, but he didn't move to dodge it.

Iruka couldn't breathe. The entire world hung on that one moment.

Kakashi caught the kunai the moment before it made impact.

The lightning in Kakashi's hand joined what was already on the blade in a bright flare of chakra that shot back towards the missing-nin along the kunai's ionized path. The missing-nin's chakra had forged the way, charging the air between them, and Kakashi was taking advantage of that. The redoubled chakra was far faster and more powerful, slicing through the air with deadly precision as it returned to the man who had initially thrown it. There was no time for him to dodge.

It was the brightest flash of chakra Iruka had ever sensed. The usually muted tones of his inner vision solarized to a nearly unreadable white.

One last crack of thunder shook the world around him, and then there was only the sound of the rain, quiet now in the aftermath of the thunder. Iruka had to remember how to breathe again. He opened his eyes slowly, blinking to try to clear away the afterimage in his mind. His guard was staring at him.

"What happened?" he asked.

"He won," Iruka said, voice a little awed as his mind tried to process of what he'd seen. The ANBU relaxed almost imperceptibly.

The driving rain slackened to a sprinkle and then stopped completely.

All that was left was to clean up.

~*~*~

It became apparent very quickly that there wasn't much Iruka could do to help. The ANBU were a well-oiled machine, each taking care of their own part with little instruction from Kakashi. With the fighting over, it was time to deal with the bodies and gather intel, neither of which were Iruka's specialties.

The ANBU with the long blonde ponytail appeared to be using some kind of long-range communication jutsu, updating Tsunade on what had happened. He remembered her from the time when he'd found Kakashi after the ambush. Towa and Komachi, the team captain had called her and her partner, thought Iruka still wasn't sure which was which. Even with the mask, it wasn't hard to tell that she was a Yamanaka.

Another female ANBU with long purple hair was preparing two large scrolls with complicated enclosing seals while two of the other ANBU piled up bodies next to one. From what Iruka could make out of the seals, one was for storing corpses and the other was for transporting prisoners. He had tried to help with collecting the bodies, but he'd been waved off.

Kakashi and the boar-masked ANBU were inside the hideout, no doubt looking for any useful intel.

Iruka had been given a scroll that contained his vest and pack, and while it was a relief to know he wouldn't have to go back and try to find them, he had nothing left to do after he put his gear back on and rolled up the scroll. All he could do was wait. Wait and think.

His plan had worked, but after everything that had happened over the last few months, something felt off. He blamed the fact that he hadn't done any of the fighting himself. Instead, he'd just sat back and watched it all happen.

Not that watching didn't have its perks.

Kakashi was in a standard ANBU uniform, complete with mask, but there was no mistaking him. His jounin uniform had to have been stored in a scroll somewhere because he hadn't been wearing the ANBU uniform in the hotel room.

Imagining Kakashi in ANBU gear hadn't prepared Iruka for actually seeing him in it. His eyes had lingered on the bare skin of his shoulders. Kakashi was all lean muscle and sharp edges and the ANBU uniform did little to hide that fact. Iruka knew some people had a kink for that uniform. He'd never counted himself as one. But with Kakashi wearing it, he would have been hard pressed to deny its appeal.

Kakashi moved like an ANBU, which Iruka realized was a stupid thought, given that the tattoo on his shoulder made it perfectly clear this wasn't new to him. But it was hard to reconcile the deadly, graceful way he moved now with the way he slouched around the village. It was just another thing to hide behind, Iruka realized, right along with his books and his mask.

As he was standing there, Iruka noticed a hint of four other presences coming towards them but before he could say anything, the purple-haired ANBU looked up from her work and in their direction. She had to be a sensor. She exchanged words with the two ANBU near her and they left quickly in the direction of the newcomers. None of them seemed concerned though, so Iruka assumed backup had just arrived. Not that they needed it anymore.

A few moments later, the two ANBU returned with a four man team following them. Iruka blinked, surprised to see Shimo with them. The man went on fewer field missions than even Iruka did.

All four of them were looking around the area with expressions of surprise. Whatever mission they had been on, this clearly hadn't been part of their assignment, but it only took them a moment to get over their shock and get down to business.

They were an odd combination for a regular team. Two of them were likely intel from the way they were immediately shown inside the hideout. Another was a medic-nin, but there wasn't much for him to treat. He started to heal the few minor wounds the ANBU had received.

Shimo walked over and Iruka was glad he was no longer the only one without a task to complete.

"Seems like you got yourself caught up in a mess," Shimo said by way of greeting.

Iruka shook his head wryly. "You wouldn't even believe half of it if I told you."

The purple-haired ANBU was activating the first scroll and Iruka watched as one by one the missing-nin corpses turned to smoke and were sucked into the scroll.

"I didn't think you took many missions anymore," Iruka said after a moment.

"I do the yearly minimum," Shimo shrugged, rubbing at the upper part of his left arm. "The one we were on needed a guide who knew the area, and I used to run a lot of messenger missions around here."

There was a tightness to his voice that Iruka had only heard once before, when he'd asked Shimo about any significant other he might have. He didn't press any further. Some missions were better left forgotten.

"So, I take it this wasn't what you were expecting on this mission then," Iruka said, steering the conversation back to the safer ground of the present.

"Not exactly," Shimo admitted. "We were on a C-rank intel gathering mission when we were contacted by Tsunade-sama telling us our mission had changed." He looked at the scene in front of them. "Seems like the original mission was just a front."

Iruka nodded. It didn't surprise him that Tsunade had put backup nearby.

The ANBU were now hauling the three missing-nin that hadn't been killed during the fight over to the other scroll. They wouldn't enjoy the experience. Iruka had been told it was quite claustrophobic, but it would be much easier to take them back to Konoha that way.

Two of them were still knocked out, only one was conscious and even though he was bound and gagged, he put up a fight the entire way. His eyes locked onto the area where Iruka was standing. Even through the gag, his howl of rage was easy to understand. He fought harder against the ANBU holding him, only to have one of the pressure points in his neck hit with a numbing shot of chakra for his troubles. He slumped against the ANBU holding him, unconscious.

Iruka had heard of that jutsu before, but he'd never seen it. The precision it took was rare, if a shinobi's aim was even slightly off, they could kill instead of incapacitate. With their extensive knowledge of physiology and the chakra system, ANBU were the only ones outside of medic-nins who used it regularly.

The purple-haired ANBU activated the seal and the three missing-nin were pulled into the scroll.

Kakashi and the boar-masked ANBU came out of the hideout. Kakashi hung back by the door while the boar-masked ANBU walked toward Iruka and Shimo. He signaled for the medic-nin to join them as well.

"We still have another half day of work to do here. We need to pack up what we've found and erase our presence, but there is no need for you stay. When you get back to Konoha, report directly to Tsunade for debriefing."

Iruka nodded, grabbing his pack. It was almost dawn. If they left now, they could make it halfway back to Konoha before they had to stop for the night.

There was no point in them being there. They'd just be in the way.

He sent Kakashi one last look.

You have a promise to keep, he wanted to remind him.

Kakashi stared back, but it was even more impossible to read him than usual with the ANBU mask on. Iruka never would have thought Kakashi's regular mask was expressive, but it made him almost an open book in comparison.

There was a tiny wavering in the chakra against the wall near his hand, just enough to remind Iruka of the way Kakashi's chakra did things whenever they touched. Only this time Iruka was sure he was doing it on purpose. Another way for him to give Iruka a wave that only he could see.

Iruka turned to leave with Shimo and the medic-nin.

Shimo seemed distracted, quiet and lost in his own thoughts, so Iruka fell into conversation with the medic-nin. They'd never worked together before, but Iruka recognized him from around the village.

They were a few hours away from the hideout when the temperature started to drop. Iruka shivered and looked up at the sky. There were no clouds or wind that would suggest a sudden cold front. He frowned and looked over at the medic-nin. This wasn't natural. They both reached for their weapons.

Everything started to take on the glittering winter white of hoarfrost, sparkling brilliantly in the sun. Iruka shivered and activated his chakralocation. There were flurries in the air around them now, disturbingly cold in the heat of the day.

The medic-nin opened his mouth to say something and the snow swirled around him. Iruka watched as the snow was drawn into his mouth with his breath.

The medic-nin's reaction was immediate. A look of pain crossed his face and he clutched at his chest. Iruka rushed forward to catch him as he fell to the ground.

"Shit," Iruka said. "What's wrong?"

The medic-nin tried to answer, but only ended up coughing violently. Blood spattered the ground, bright red against frosted white.

There had to be something in the unnatural snow that was shimmering around them. Iruka pulled up the neck of his shirt to cover his nose and mouth, hoping it would stop the worst of it from affecting him. He tried to do something, anything to help the medic-nin, but he could barely heal minor, external injuries. Internal medical ninjutsu was far more advanced than that, he didn't even know where to begin.

One of the missing-nin must have gotten away. That was the only thing Iruka could imagine. They needed to alert the ANBU.

Iruka started to turn towards Shimo, he could run back for help while Iruka stayed with the medic-nin.

A blinding flash of pain blurred Iruka's vision as a chakra-infused hand hit a pressure point in his neck. For a moment the world swam in front of his eyes, and then he fell into darkness.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Waking up from a blackout was never a pleasant experience, a chakra-induced one even less so. It took time for the world to come into focus and make sense again. Effort was needed to pry open eyes that felt sealed shut. Iruka bit back a groan, trying to remember what had happened and where he was. He started to shift, only to find his movements restricted. His vest had been removed again and his arms were bound tightly behind him. He was propped up against a wall.

He cursed to himself as pieces started to come back to him. They'd been attacked on their way home. The medic-nin was probably dead. And Shimo...

Iruka forced his eyes open and looked around the room. The white-haired man was off to his left, sitting on a chair and watching Iruka intently. There were bars between them. Shimo wasn't tied up.

That answered that question, Iruka thought grimly. His head throbbed with pain as he tried to run through the list of things hostages should do to stay alive.

Stay calm. Try to develop rapport with your captor.

He'd thought he already had that with Shimo. They'd worked together for years, gone out drinking together nearly every weekend. Iruka would have called him a friend. Apparently he'd been wrong.

"You're awake," Shimo said after a moment. "How are you feeling?"

"Like a friend just stabbed me in the back," Iruka spat out before he could stop himself. He bit his lip.

Never antagonize your captor. Don't escalate the situation.

He was going to have to watch his mouth.

Shimo stood up. "I was really hoping it wasn't you. I didn't want to have to kill you."

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Because I want to hurt him. I want to do to him the same thing he did to me." There was so much venom in his voice, Iruka was taken aback. Shimo had always been polite and charming. He'd never shown the burning hatred that was shining in his eyes now.

Suddenly things started to fall into place for Iruka.

"Your significant other. The one that died in battle. Kakashi killed her?" It was a question, but Iruka already knew the answer.

"Yes," Shimo replied. For a moment he seemed lost in memories and Iruka took the opportunity to test the ropes that held him. They didn't budge.

Shimo shook his head, coming back to himself. "He should be here in four days."

"You sent a message?"

"No."

"Then how will he even know where we are?"

"He's been here before, but just in case he's forgotten..." Shimo said as he walked over to where Iruka's pack was sitting in the corner of the room. He pulled out one of the containers of Go stones and opened it, tilting it toward Iruka so he could see inside. It was half empty. He'd left a trail of breadcrumbs for Kakashi to follow.

As Shimo closed the container and put it back in the pack, Iruka tested his restraints again. Shimo must have seen the movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned towards Iruka.

"Don't do anything foolish. I don't want to hurt you before he gets here, but I will if I have to." His voice was cold and Iruka had no problem believing him, believing something he never would have thought possible just a day ago.

They didn't talk after that, but he also didn't leave Iruka alone for long. He'd leave the room for short periods of time, but he always came back, checking on Iruka frequently. Shimo wasn't underestimating him the way that the missing-nin had.

The room was small and nearly empty, its only purpose was holding the cell that Iruka was locked in. His gear was too far out of reach to do anything but mock him. There was a small window in the wall opposite the cell, dirty, but it still let in sunlight. At least he'd be able to keep track of time.

There had to be other rooms in the hideout, but Iruka couldn't get a feel for how big it was or what was around it. There wasn't enough chakra in the area.

Escaping from this wouldn't be easy, but he had to find a way. He had four days to get free. If he didn't, he'd just become a liability for anyone trying to save him and he wouldn't let that happen.

Be observant and analyze the situation. Escape when the time is right.

Iruka leaned back against the wall as well as he could with his arms tied behind him. He watched and he waited.

~*~*~

Kakashi ran through the trees with his team on their way back to Konoha. He knew he was pushing their pace faster than was necessary, but he wanted to get back as soon as possible. The few times they stopped for a rest, he could tell Yugao was giving him unimpressed looks even from behind her cat mask. She and Towa both had large transport scrolls on their backs, and while they weren't particularly heavy, running with them was awkward at best.

When they'd left the hideout, they'd split into two groups. Kage and Inoshishi were escorting the two intel-nin back while Kakashi and the other three ANBU went ahead with the information they'd gathered and prisoners they'd caught. The intel-nin weren't slow, but they wouldn't have been able to keep up with the speed ANBU usually traveled.

Just getting back to Konoha wouldn't mean this was all over, he knew that. They still needed to find the spy and track down any remaining members of the organization. Hopefully the intel and prisoners they carried would allow them to do that. But the end was in sight, and the sooner they got back to Konoha, the sooner they could finish this.

He felt himself grinning behind his masks as he leapt through the trees. Iruka's parting look had been intense, there was no hiding the meaning behind it. Kakashi had made him a promise, and he was looking forward to keeping it. He just had a few loose ends he needed to tie up first.

Once they reached the village, they went straight to Tsunade's office to report. Kakashi gave her a rundown of what had happened.

"The other half of the team should be arriving in three hours," he concluded.

"Six," Yugao said under her breath, still sounding winded.

Maybe Kakashi had run them a little too hard.

"Iruka-sensei is with the other group?" Tsunade asked, sounding confused and Kakashi's brow creased. Even with the speed they'd been traveling, Iruka should have arrived hours ago.

"He hasn't checked in yet?"

The no was barely out of her mouth before he was leaping out of her office window, worry starting to build in him as he raced towards Iruka's apartment. He knew this had been too easy. His mind had been trying to telling him that for the last two days, but he'd ignored the warnings because he wanted it to be over.

He banged his fist against Iruka's door. There was no answer, he knew there wouldn't be. Iruka's wards were still up and even from the outside it was clear no one was home.

The first time he had broken into Iruka's apartment, it had taken a considerable amount of time to work through all the tricks of his wards. It'd been a fun challenge. This time it took just a few seconds. He threw open the door and stepped inside, only to duck to the ground as a large fireball came rushing towards his head.

He had about a second to process that before another one came at him. Jumping to the side to avoid it, he opened up his left eye. He needed to disable this trap and confirm Iruka hadn't come home yet.

A third fireball was rushing towards him and he blinked at it. It looked real, but the Sharingan was telling him it was just an illusion. This time he didn't dodge it, just let it pass him. It felt like a warm breeze.

Kakashi did a quick kai to cancel the genjutsu and a note fell from the ceiling. He caught it on reflex. Iruka's neat handwriting was easy to identify.

If you break into my apartment again, next time they'll be real. :)

Despite the situation, Kakashi let out a breath of laughter at the ridiculousness of the note, half-hysterical given the desperation he was feeling. He'd appreciate the fact that Iruka had added an extra layer to his wards just for him later. After he was home safely.

He searched Iruka's apartment quickly, but it was clear no one had been home for days. Iruka hadn't made it back to the village.

The run back to Tsunade's office was a blur of rooftops and urgency.

"He hasn't been to his apartment," Kakashi announced as he landed beside Tsunade's desk. They all knew what that meant. "The white-haired Desk worker. Shimo. Does he have S-rank clearance?"

"Yes, he's ex-ANBU, honorably discharged and returned to standard duty," Tsunade replied.

Kakashi cursed. Between S-rank ANBU clearance and Mission Desk clearance, he probably had access to any file he needed.

"Permission to-" Kakashi started to ask, but Tsunade cut him off.

"Granted. Take whoever you need. Bring Iruka-sensei back."

He turned to Yugao, Towa, and Komachi. All three were standing at attention, waiting for orders.

"You have ten minutes to resupply and meet me at the North Gate or I leave without you."

They were gone in a flash and Kakashi followed just as quickly, Tsunade calling after him that she'd assemble a backup team within two hours.

Even though he'd given them more time, all three of his teammates were at the gate in five minutes. The speed they traveled away from Konoha made their earlier pace seem measured. They didn't have time to waste.

~*~*~

Kakashi had been right, Iruka decided. The books didn't know what they were talking about. He'd spent the last three days doing everything he'd read, all the things he'd learned and taught. He'd stayed calm and collected, he'd been observant and tried to ascertain Shimo's schedule, he'd looked for the best possible way of escape; and all he was really sure of was that he wasn't a naturally calm person, Shimo didn't have a schedule, and there was no best way to escape.

Even if he did find a way out, Iruka had no idea where he was or which direction he'd been taken. He still wasn't even sure how long he'd been out. They were probably hours away from where Shimo had attacked him.

Shimo had said Kakashi would be there in four days. That must assume two days for the ANBU to return to Konoha and then two days to reach them. He'd also said he knew the area around the first hideout, which put Iruka at another disadvantage, assuming they were still in the vicinity. He could try to escape, but Shimo would probably be able to track him down before Iruka could get his bearings.

His chakralocation was completely useless. He had no idea what was outside of the building they were in.

He was starting to wish he were still with the missing-nin who thought he was harmless. Shimo knew him too well to make the same mistake.

Iruka hadn't realized how little he actually knew about Shimo. The man had always been willing to listen to everyone else's problems, but he had rarely shared anything about himself. Iruka knew he was a Konoha shinobi, born and raised, and he knew Shimo had been working at the Desk for nearly as long as he had. Beyond that, he didn't know much else.

Shimo walked into the room to check on Iruka again. He'd only been gone fifteen minutes this time.

"How did you meet her?" Iruka asked before he could stop himself or think better of it. It was a desperate move, but it was the only one he had.

Shimo looked surprised and then shrugged. Iruka thought he was going to ignore the question, but after a moment, he began to speak.

"Land of Snow used to send delegations to this area and they tend to respect people who use ice and snow jutsu, so I was a natural choice to meet with them. We met on one of those missions."

Iruka noted the use of this area. Land of Snow had traded extensively with the Land of Mountains, exchanging their technology for the raw metallic ores that could be easily mined throughout the isthmus. They hadn't gone too far from the other hideout. If he escaped, Konoha was to the southwest.

"She was from Land of Snow?"

"Until their daimyo was killed, then she became a missing-nin."

Something Shimo had said earlier clicked into place in Iruka's head. "After that, you met while you were on messenger missions?"

Shimo nodded and suddenly his willingness to believe Iruka was secretly meeting someone on his own messenger missions made more sense.

"I would have left Konoha for her, but she thought it was better if I stayed."

Of course she would, Iruka thought. What missing-nin wouldn't want a direct connection to Konoha and its intel?

"So the leader of this organization knew you wanted revenge and recruited you?"

Shimo's eyes narrowed and Iruka realized he must have missed something. He silently cursed being kept in the dark about nearly all of this.

"Yonaga was a useless second-in-command. When the ANBU were closing in, all he did was run. He probably would have stayed hidden forever if I hadn't found him."

"You found him?" Iruka repeated, his voice giving away his shock. If this Yonaga was the second-in-command, Shimo's lover must have been the leader.

"It took me years to get clearance to access all the files I needed, but eventually I tracked him down. After that, it didn't take long to convince him to rebuild Kogarashi. He just needed a push. Finding others who wanted revenge on him was even easier."

Iruka felt sick. Shimo wasn't just being used by the organization, he was the one pulling the strings.

"You used Yonaga to target Kakashi."

"He needed to know what it felt like to be hunted, to know that someone was tracking him just like he tracked her. He had to experience someone closing in on his loved ones, and not being able to stop it." There was a long-burning hatred in Shimo's eyes that was spilling over into madness.

"But I'm not," Iruka tried to explain, knowing it probably wouldn't help. "I'm not his loved one. We aren't lovers."

Shimo gave him a disbelieving look. "You turned down everyone we tried to set you up with."

"Not because I was seeing someone else. I just wasn't interested."

"He's been passing you letters all year."

"They aren't from him."

"Then who are they from?"

Iruka pressed his lips together. Even in this situation, he wouldn't divulge that information.

"Your missions almost always overlapped with his," Shimo continued.

"Tsunade-sama's idea of covert, cost-efficient missions, apparently."

Shimo shook his head. "He cares for you."

Iruka opened his mouth to deny it, but Shimo cut him off.

"I've seen the way he looks at you."

"It was only for the mission. To find out who was targeting him."

Shimo studied him for a moment. "Maybe for you it was. But I've watched him for years. He never took lovers, didn't even have close friends. He is so carefully disinterested with everyone else. With you, he's not."

Staring at Shimo, Iruka realized it didn't matter what he said. Shimo wanted to believe it. He wanted someone that Kakashi cared for, someone he could hurt. He'd been waiting for years, of course he'd be grasping for anyone at this point, desperate for anything that seemed like a weakness. His own experiences colored his views, projecting his own relationship onto coincidence.

"There have been rumors about your missions all year. When I realized they lined up with his, I didn't think it could be true. You wouldn't like someone like him. But then I saw the letters."

"We aren't lovers," Iruka repeated with conviction, though he knew it was useless.

"He cares for you," Shimo repeated as well. "Even if you aren't lovers, your death will hurt him. He'll still feel like it was his fault." There was so much hatred in that last sentence, but it didn't sound like it was directed at Kakashi. At least not completely.

"Like you do," Iruka said as the realization struck.

Shimo scratched at his left shoulder. Iruka had seen him do it before and it hit him that it was right where an ANBU tattoo would be.

"The only reason the ANBU found her was because someone had seen her leaving a hotel. Intel never realized who she'd met that night, but..." Shimo shook his head. "A few days later, I was assigned a new mission. Acting as a guide for a backup team." He exhaled harshly, forcing himself on. "By the time we arrived, the first team of ANBU were already here. She saw me, she knew my mask. She made it clear she didn't want me to interfere."

Iruka swallowed hard. "You saw her die."

He couldn't imagine leading a team like that, knowing exactly what was going to happen if they found who they were looking for, feeling that he was to blame for her death.

Something Shimo had said on the first day tugged at the back of Iruka's mind. Kakashi had been here before.

"It happened here. He killed her here."

Shimo didn't deny it.

"I want him to watch as I kill someone he loves. If I can kill him after that, good. If he kills me, he still has to live with the knowledge that he caused your death. I'm okay with either."

Iruka stared up at Shimo, speechless. There was no way to respond to a declaration like that.

"I just wish it hadn't been you," Shimo said, echoing his words from a few days earlier. He shook his head and left the room, but Iruka knew he wouldn't be gone long.

He let his head fall back against the wall behind him. There was a day left for him to get himself out of this situation and he still had no idea how he was going to manage that. He closed his eyes and continued to work through scenarios.

~*~*~

As they neared Yonaga's hideout, Kakashi summoned his pack. His instructions were simple, search for any trace of Iruka they could find. It didn't take them long.

Kakashi picked up the white stone that Akino had found and rolled it between his fingers. It was identical to the ones in Iruka's Go set.

Slightly to the north, Uhei let out a howl. He'd found something too. When Kakashi arrived at the ninken's location, he wasn't surprised to see another stone laying in the open. Either Iruka or his captor was leaving a trail.

If Iruka had been able to, Kakashi was fairly certain he would have done more than just leaving a trail of stones, which meant it was likely his captor. Either way, it didn't matter. They started to follow the trail, knowing that an ambush was likely waiting ahead, not that Kakashi would let that stop him.

They pushed on. The ninken fanned out in front of Kakashi and the other three ANBU, occasionally finding stones as they went.

Each stone led them that much closer to the trap, but there was no time to stop and wait for backup to arrive. Tsunade had sent a team after them, but at the speed Kakashi was moving through the forest, there was little chance any backup would catch up to him. His teammates were barely keeping pace.

It'd already been too long. Four days was an eternity when you were being held captive. There was no telling what might have happened since these stones were left for them to follow. They had no time to spare.

Kakashi tried not to think about all the worst case scenarios, but his mind was a mess of everything that could have happened. He let it fuel him, let it push him faster and harder

The further along the trail they went, the more certain he became. Kakashi dispelled his pack, he didn't need them anymore and he didn't want the ninken to get caught up in a battle until he knew what they were facing. Even without them, he knew exactly where the stones led. He'd been there before.

Just a few hours after they had found the first stone, they reached the hideout. The last time Kakashi had seen it, it had been razed to the ground by ANBU. At some point in the last five years, it had been rebuilt.

The other three ANBU landed beside him and waited for his command. He pushed down the part of himself that worried about Iruka. Those emotions wouldn't help anyone right now.

It was time to do recon.

~*~*~

Iruka was in pretty good shape, all things considered. Far better than he would have ever hoped. He hadn't been tortured, he'd been given water and occasionally allowed to use the bathroom. The treatment he was receiving had been quite humane. The benefits of being held captive by a former friend, he thought bitterly.

The downside was that Shimo hadn't left him alone for long. When he left the room, it was never for a set amount of time. Sometimes he'd be gone only a few minutes, sometimes it'd be for an hour or two, but there wasn't enough chakra in the hideout to track where he went. He could have been standing right outside the door for all Iruka could sense. The varied times kept Iruka guessing. He might have been able to make a run for it during a few of the longer ones, if only he'd known where Shimo had been.

The periods between the last three times Shimo had checked on Iruka had been short. He hadn't slept for more than an hour at a time for the last three days as far as Iruka could tell, possibly only during the short, fitful bursts that Iruka himself had fallen asleep. It was something most shinobi knew how to do, longer missions all but required being able to function normally on a bare minimum of sleep. ANBU were supposed to be particularly good at it, but it also took its toll. The body used extra chakra to make up for the lack of rest, to keep the mind clear and the senses focused. Most shinobi could keep it up for three or four days, but after that they needed to sleep again. Shimo had to be reaching that point. It was the fourth day and if Kakashi would be there by the evening, Shimo might want to sleep a few hours in order to help restore his chakra for the fight. That would mean leaving Iruka alone and Iruka was ready in case he did.

He needed to make a move. He needed to escape and to do it soon. Before Kakashi arrived.

The next time he was left alone, it might be his last chance.

Shimo left, but Iruka waited. Sure enough, he came back just minutes later. He left again, and Iruka waited another few minutes just to make sure, then he got to work.

He had tried all the tricks he knew to keep the ropes loose each time Shimo was retying him, but Shimo knew them all as well. They hadn't worked. There was no way he was going to slip out of the restraints.

Bringing his head to his knees, he pushed his forehead protector up. In a different situation he might have been amused that momentarily it looked like he was opting to wear it the same way as Sakura. He then tilted his head back, shaking his head to make the forehead protector slide over his ponytail and fall behind him. His hand was open and ready to catch it. The edges of the metal were dull, but it was the only thing he had access to. As far as he could tell, Shimo had found most of the weapons he kept tucked in his uniform, and if he had missed any, they were in places Iruka couldn't get to in his current position.

He looped the cloth of the forehead protector around his hands and used the metal to start sawing at the ropes behind his back. His range of motion was limited and it was a strain, but he kept at it, waiting until the ropes started to give. He held back a cheer as the first thread snapped, giving him more room to work. From there, it didn't take much longer until he had enough slack to twist his wrists out of the bonds.

His forehead protector was worse for wear after using it as a makeshift knife, but it was better than the alternative. He put it back on. Whatever happened after this, he wanted to face it as a Konoha shinobi.

Now able to form hand seals again, he used a very small, focused katon to singe the ropes that tied his legs together, just enough to make them easy to split apart. Shimo wasn't a sensor as far as Iruka knew, but he didn't want to use too much chakra and risk being detected.

Finally free from the ropes, he stretched quickly, he hadn't been allowed to move much and the ropes had left burns on his wrists, but other than that he was fine.

The cell door was the next problem, but he hadn't been a trickster all his life for nothing.

He reached down to his sandals, grinning when he found the short senbon still tucked inside one of the seams. It wasn't standard length, so Shimo had probably missed it when he searched Iruka, but it would work well for what he needed it for. There was a reason why he knew teachers' desk drawers should always be locked and warded.

He made short work of the cell's lock and grabbed his vest, feeling more like himself once he put his gear back on. He gave his pack a regretful look, but it'd just slow him down. The only thing of any real value in it had been the Go set, which was worthless now that half of its white stones were strewn across who knew how many countries.

He wasn't surprised to find the small window in the room warded. It was his only real path to freedom, of course Shimo would have warded it in case Iruka managed to get out of the cell. Whatever it was, it only gave off a small amount of chakra, barely enough to light itself up in his mind from even a meter away. It'd probably alert Shimo that he was escaping if he triggered it, but the more important question was what else it would do. He was fairly certain it wouldn't kill him. If he accidentally killed himself while trying to escape, Shimo's plans to have Kakashi watch him die wouldn't work. The most likely scenario was that it would try to incapacitate him somehow.

Nonlethal wards were good. He knew all about them. He couldn't risk one of his students dying just because they thought it would be easier to break into the school, break into the teachers room, break into his desk, and steal test answers than it would be to just study for the damn thing. Even after years of teaching and many more of causing trouble, he'd never fully understood the logic of some students. When he'd broken into his teachers' desks, it'd always been for pranks.

Shimo was probably familiar with all the standard jutsu used by ANBU. The dull ache that had stayed in Iruka's head for the first two days of his captivity had been a constant reminder that Shimo could still use at least one of them. Iruka needed to find the trigger point of the wards and he'd bet money on the fact that it was concealed.

He released a small amount of chakra then examined the area carefully, both visually and with his chakralocation until he found a little blank space just below the left hand side of the window.

Normally he'd try to find a way to disarm the trap, but he didn't have that luxury at the moment. He'd already spent too much time, he had to make this fast. The best he could do was put his own set of wards around the trigger, hoping to isolate it and prevent it from going off. He picked the lock then held his breath as he slowly opened the window, trying to keep it from making any sound.

The wards didn't trigger.

He let out the breath he'd been holding, then squeezed through the window.

Being outside again for the first time in days was a literal breath of fresh air, but Iruka didn't have time to enjoy it. He started running the moment his feet hit the ground. He wasn't sure if he was faster than Shimo, but he had to try. His best bet was to get as much of a head start as possible.

He kept his chakralocation activated as he ran but there was nothing he could sense. They were too far in the middle of nowhere and there were no other chakra users around. The ground was jagged and rocky and he focused most of his attention on running. There was no cover, nowhere close to the hideout where he could take refuge. His only hope was to get far away and to do so quickly.

Part of him had known a trap would be waiting for him, but he still didn't see it coming. He couldn't, not with the level of chakra around.

There was a snap of chakra as he triggered the trap, like something beneath his feet had just broken open. In his mind, the ground began to glow as chakra bubbled up and spilled over from some hidden well. Iruka shivered as air temperature around his ankles plunged colder almost instantly. The memory of the medic-nin inhaling snow and coughing up blood hit him hard. He had to get out of here before another storm could develop.

Shimo had wanted revenge for years, Iruka knew that, but he hadn't realized how much he'd prepared for this. The trap he'd just triggered must have released a seal that had been holding a large amount of chakra. A few days without sleep didn't matter, not after years of sealing away chakra to use for vengeance.

The amount of chakra in the air when Shimo had attacked them earlier had been fairly small. Iruka didn't want to stick around for long enough to see what kind of storm this amount of stored chakra could make. He pushed himself to run faster.

Behind him, the storm continued to build. That was when he noticed them. Faint at first, but after months of them following him, there was no way he would miss the three blank spots clustered together, just outside the hideout. If there wasn't a fourth one with them, hidden so well he couldn't sense him, Iruka would be extremely surprised.

He cursed to himself. He was too late. He needed to go back and tell them that he was free, warn them about the snowstorm and what would happen to them if they breathed it in.

He turned around and headed for the ANBU's location.

In retrospect, running straight at four ANBU who were on high alert and ready for battle was not the wisest move he could have made, but he didn't have time to approach them carefully. He tried to regain his breath, head still ringing from hitting the rocky ground as one of them had taken him down. Just because he looked like Iruka didn't mean he was a friend. The ANBU was still invisible, but that wasn't keeping them from pinning him down.

This close, he could finally pick out Kakashi's slight distortion. Iruka leveled a look at him.

Kakashi moved closer, still invisible, crouching down near Iruka. After a moment, Iruka noticed the ground in front of him lighting up more. It was faint, but it let Iruka see the movement of Kakashi's hands just enough that he could make out what he was signing.

What did your note say?

Iruka blinked and then it clicked. Of course Kakashi would have checked his apartment first.

"Next time you pull that shit, the hospital's burn unit is getting another patient."

Kakashi dropped his concealment jutsu and let out a huff. "Close enough. It's him."

The other ANBU copied him, uncloaking themselves as well. He'd been pinned down by the blonde Yamanaka. She let him go and he pulled himself to his feet. The blonde's bird-masked partner and the purple-haired kunoichi were also there.

Iruka looked back towards the hideout. The temperature had dropped significantly in the few minutes since he'd triggered the trap. All the chakra Shimo needed to form a massive storm was floating in the air. "We need to get out of here. Now."

"How many missing-nin does Shimo have with him?" Kakashi asked.

"It's just him."

"Then why would we leave? It's five on one," the bird-masked ANBU said, but Iruka shook his head.

"You don't understand. He has some sort of blizzard jutsu, numbers won't matter. He is too prepared for this fight."

"Explain," Kakashi ordered.

"This cold, the same thing happened on the way home. The temperature dropped, everything frosted over, and it started to snow, but there is something in the snow. The medic-nin inhaled it and started coughing up blood."

Iruka looked at the rocks around them, they were already starting to frost. Cracks of white ran across them, fanning and feathering out.

"I triggered something during my escape. I think he's just waiting for the storm to build enough. He'll be here any moment."

There words were barely out of Iruka's mouth before he saw the first flakes in the air, glittering like steel in the sunlight.

"Don't inhale the snow!" he warned, pulling the collar of his shirt up over his nose again. He realized the ANBU were at an advantage, their masks might protect them better than the material of his shirt would.

The ANBU moved into a defensive formation around Iruka, looking for their attacker. They turned and searched, but there was no one there to fight.

The storm spread out, whirling around them, and the amount of snow increased, starting to block out the sun. Iruka felt himself shiver again though he didn't know if it was from the cold or the tangible killing intent in the air. This was already more of a storm than he'd seen before. He didn't know how large Shimo could make them, but he had a feeling he was about to find out.

A burst of snow snaked its way towards them and they all dodged it, but it moved with them, twisting through the gaps between the ANBU and aiming for Iruka. He kept his shirt pressed firmly against his mouth, but it didn't matter. The snow wasn't aiming for his face. It condensed itself, turning from a shimmer of flurries into something solid with form. When it hit Iruka in the upper arm, he staggered backwards. It slid frozen metal cold and sandpaper rough against his uniform, tearing at the fabric and the skin beneath. He bit back a cry of pain as the snow dispersed again into the swirling white around them.

He looked down at the tattered remnants of his uniform sleeve and the blooded skin beneath it. The snow wasn't poisoned. It cut like steel.

The ANBU all cast glances at his arm, taking in the abilities of this jutsu they'd never seen before. It wasn't just that they couldn't breath in the snow, they couldn't let it touch them.

Another flurry broke off from the walls of snow that were forming around them. Iruka tried to dodge it, but it was no use, the snow moved with him, following his every move until it could strike again, grating against his left leg. He didn't manage to fully stifle his cry this time. His leg almost buckled beneath him.

Kakashi moved closer, but it didn't matter. A third wave came rushing towards Iruka, aiming for his arm again and he couldn't do anything to stop it. The flakes scraped across his skin like a thousand little blades, each one making the previous cut deeper. Pain speared through him.

There had been three attacks now and each one had been coming for him and him alone. The snow wasn't going after Kakashi or the ANBU. Suddenly it made more sense that he'd escaped with relative ease at just the perfect time to run into Kakashi. Shimo didn't need him captive to kill him, not with a jutsu like this. He could torture Iruka then kill him right in front of Kakashi without standing in front of the man himself. It was actually easier to let him escape. Iruka had played into his hands. The realization left him shaken, but a little blood didn't mean he was about to give up. When the next tendril of snow came at him, he was ready.

He shot a katon at the approaching snow. It tried to dodge, but Kakashi seemed to have the same idea, sending his own fireball at the the snow as well. It dispersed between the combined strength of their jutsu. Iruka couldn't say it was destroyed, but it needed to regroup at least.

Following their lead, the other ANBU joined in. Each time snow came curling towards them, they shot fire at it until it slunk back into the blizzard that raged around them. It held the storm at bay, but just barely.

As they fought, the invisible hand controlling the storm seemed to change strategies. Shimo didn't just go for Iruka anymore. The snow came at them all, unpredictable but precise in aim. Shimo was attacking the ANBU, but only long enough to distract them from guarding Iruka. Once they broke formation, the snow would sneak between them to get to Iruka.

Their fire couldn't stop every attack and once it got too close, they couldn't use it without the risk of burning each other. The snow grated against their skin, slicing it open, but not too deeply. It was a small blessing in the midst of chaos. As long as the cuts weren't internal, it didn't seem like it could kill them in one go. Blood loss could start to be a problem, but it wasn't going to cut them in two like a katana would.

The ANBU's masks kept them from breathing it in when it went for their faces, though their eyes were still vulnerable. They squeezed them shut trying to avoid damage whenever it got too close. Iruka's hand was bloody from an attack that had tried to get him to move it, but he'd kept it clamped over his nose and mouth, holding tight to his shirt.

The storm grew thicker around them, pressing in closer, surrounding them with walls of white and cold. It caused an icy feeling of claustrophobia to wrap around them as they pressed closer together. They couldn't see more than a few arms lengths away from them in any direction.

There was no way they could keep this up for long. Their katon were a defensive stopgap, draining them of chakra while offering no benefits on offense. The space they could keep clear between them and the storm kept getting smaller and smaller.

They needed to find a way to attack Shimo, to take him down, or they would die like this, one cut at a time.

"Yugao, where is he?" Kakashi gritted out between jutsu.

The purple-haired ANBU paused for a moment, sensing the area around them. Out of the corner of his eye, Iruka could see her shake her head. "He must be concealing himself," she said, frustration clear in her voice. "The Sharingan can't see through the snow?"

"I'll need to keep it shut," Kakashi said. The realization that Kakashi intended to go into the storm hit Iruka with as cold a dread as anything the snow had brought. It was followed quickly by another.

The snow was basically chakra flying in the air, bouncing off everything around them, but he'd been so focused on the storm and Shimo's attacks that he hadn't been paying attention to what his chakralocation had been telling him. He switched his focus to his inner vision and everything was suddenly crystal clear. In the middle of the swirling madness, there was a blank spot, the same as all the chakra dead areas that had been following him around for months. Iruka swallowed hard.

"I know where he is," Iruka said, voice muffled by his hand.

Kakashi looked over at him then quickly away again as snow whipped its way towards him and he had to throw another katon to keep it at bay.

"Komachi," Kakashi said, "You can do the Sensing Transmission Jutsu?"

"Yes, sir," the blonde replied.

"Do it," he ordered. "Towa, Yugao, guard them."

They moved so quickly it didn't give Iruka time to process the orders. Komachi was next to him, hand pushing down on his shoulder.

"This will be easier if you're kneeling, Sensei," she said. "Just trust me."

Iruka blinked at her, but let her push him down and she knelt in front of him. She made the ram hand seal and then rested her hand on his head. Towa and Yugao flanked them, standing close, trying to hold back the storm.

For a brief, disorientating moment, Iruka felt disconnected from his own body. He didn't know where he was, if he was really anywhere at all. And then he felt himself take form again, but it didn't feel right. He opened his eyes and saw himself kneeling on the ground, Komachi's hand still on his head, the other two ANBU guarding them.

Snow whipped towards him but the body he inhabited was already moving, reacting to it with a grace smoother than any he'd ever felt within his own.

Hey, he heard Kakashi's voice and it took him a moment to realize that Kakashi hadn't spoken. He'd just heard Kakashi's thoughts. Whatever special Yamanaka clan jutsu Komachi was using had somehow put him in Kakashi's head.

When he searched deeper within himself, he could feel Komachi's hand on his own head, the rocks under his knees, but he also felt the coiled power in Kakashi's body, the readiness for a fight in the way he held himself. He could feel his own heart beating, but he could also feel Kakashi's, strong and steady even in the midst of battle. He was two places at once, two people at once, and it was hard to separate where his own senses stopped and Kakashi's began.

Surely this was the kind of thing you warned someone about before you did it to them, he thought.

Sorry, Sensei, no time, Kakashi thought back.

You heard that?

Loud and clear.

Shit, Iruka thought. Kakashi could read his thoughts. It wasn't like he was going to have many inappropriate thoughts mid-battle, but given his luck lately...

Kakashi let out an amused huff and Iruka realized he'd understood that as well.

I doubt they're anything I haven't thought before.

You're not helping.

Iruka wasn't sure how someone could leer in their thoughts, but Kakashi was managing it. Even with the trouble they were in, the predictability of the response had Iruka fighting back a smile. Kakashi was still Kakashi no matter how dire the situation.

Another blast of snow came at them, and that line of thought got put on hold for a moment. After Kakashi had fought off the snow, he spoke to Iruka in his mind again.

I need you to do your thing.

So Iruka did. He closed his eyes, though he didn't even know if he really had eyes in this form, and focused on his chakralocation. The world around them lit up bright and clear. With his eyes, he had only been able to see a few meters around him, but with his mind he could sense the whole area.

That's a neat trick, Kakashi thought.

Iruka could actually feel that Kakashi was impressed. He wondered if his physical body was blushing at the compliment or if being somewhat disconnected from it prevented that. But he couldn't focus on the thought for long. A flurry had tried to sneak by Towa. Yugao's katon had warded it off, but it'd been dangerously close to Iruka and Komachi. Even as disconnected as he was to his physical body, Iruka could still feel the singeing heat of the fire on his skin. From the hints of worry that were coming off Kakashi, he'd felt it as well, but he pushed past it.

If I make clones, can you establish connections with them too?

It took Iruka a moment to realize Kakashi wasn't talking to him.

Not without watering down the transmission, Komachi answered. Iruka hadn't noticed she was there. He couldn't feel her the same way he felt Kakashi. She was only a voice in his mind, not a physical presence.

He felt a grim determination coming from Kakashi. He needed to be able to sense Shimo as clearly as possible. They'd be doing this without clones. It was unlikely they would have lasted long in the snow anyway.

Iruka pushed all other thoughts from his head, focusing only on what he could sense, on the blank spot in the swirling chakra that had to be Shimo.

Even with his own eyes closed, he could feel it as Kakashi did the same, the way he braced himself before he entered the storm, how he gathered and molded his chakra as he started to move towards Shimo, wrapping it around himself in a way that would hopefully protect him against some of the damage he was about to take, but wouldn't prevent it completely.

There was a raw power in Kakashi's body that Iruka had never experienced before, a surety and lethal grace to his movements that left Iruka more than a little awed.

As Kakashi entered the storm, the snow raged around them, battered against them. It took a moment for Iruka to realize that most of it seemed to be normal, cold against Kakashi's skin, not cutting. But without warning, some of it would come to life, shaping itself and attacking him. Iruka felt it slice along Kakashi's skin, he could hear the scrape of it against his armor, the sound of metal on metal echoing in the snow. The stinging burn of it didn't slow Kakashi down, it drove him forward, closing the distance between him and Shimo with rapid steps.

Kakashi flashed through hand seals as he ran and Iruka felt the pull on his chakra, the way he gathered it in his hand and formed it. The crackling sound of lightning surrounded them, muted and dulled by the snow in the air.

Shimo didn't move even as Kakashi came rushing towards him, the blank spot he was making in the chakra was unwavering. He wasn't running from this. Kakashi drew his arm back, ready to thrust the Raikiri through Shimo's chest.

In Iruka's mind, he could see as Shimo raised his hands in front of him, forming seals.

Snow and ice rose between them at the last moment and Kakashi was unable to stop himself from smashing his fist into the quickly erected barrier. There was great cracking sound running through the wall, but it stayed standing. Icy cold bit at his hand and Iruka heard him curse in his mind. Direct attacks weren't going to work.

Kakashi ran an extra burst of chakra through his hand to counteract the frostbite that was setting in.

"Shouldn't you be protecting Iruka?" Shimo's voice echoed around them, mocking Kakashi before he flickered away from them.

The heat from another too-close katon singed Iruka's skin and he could feel Kakashi's hesitation, his momentary doubt.

Don't even fucking think about it, Iruka thought with as much force as he could manage. He wasn't about to jeopardize this just because Kakashi was worried about him.

Iruka-sensei's right, Komachi added. We've got this. If you come back here because you think we can't protect him, we'll kill you ourselves.

Kakashi felt torn between amusement and exasperation. Have you been running missions with Tenzo lately?

He may have given us a few pointers on dealing with you.

But the teasing only lasted a moment before another tendril of snow came at them, much harder to notice now that they were in the thick of the storm.

Kakashi shot fire at it and it retreated, leaving them a moment of breathing room.

The snow was all around them. There was no one to watch their back. Kakashi's eyes were still pressed shut behind his mask, relying entirely on Iruka's inner vision, but the flurries of snow weren't completely solid, they couldn't be easily distinguished from the rest of the storm until they were already coming at them. They only left shadows in Iruka's mind. It was impossible to defend against them completely. Kakashi cursed internally as one sliced across his right thigh before he could jump away and send a katon at it.

The fire heated up the air around Kakashi in the initial aftermath of the jutsu and Iruka could feel the way the snow melted, leaving traces of water clinging to Kakashi's uniform. A moment later, they were freezing over in the deadly cold. Kakashi pushed chakra through his body at regular intervals to kept himself from freezing.

It's too bad snow doesn't conduct electricity the same way water does, Iruka thought, noticing the way the hard lines of the ground softened in his mind as the snow was starting to pile up around them. Shimo's jutsu was a combination of water and air, but air kept lightning insulated, preventing it from spreading.

It can, Kakashi replied, if the lightning has enough power behind it. It just needs to be strong enough to stun him.

Iruka flinched as his attention was drawn back to his own body, feeling snow sliding razor sharp against his upper arm, just missing the place he'd already been hit twice. He held back a curse and tried not to react, but Kakashi seemed to pick up on it anyway.

Focus on Shimo, not the rest of us, Iruka told him and Kakashi did. Iruka felt him gathering lightning in his hand again, more of it this time. It made the area around Kakashi burn brighter still in Iruka's mind. He could feel the strain of it on Kakashi's system, the painful burn of pulling too deeply on his chakra reserves, but Kakashi didn't seem to notice it. The ease with which he pushed himself further than he should told Iruka a lot about the missions he was used to running.

When Kakashi had gathered enough lightning in his hand, he forced it into a drift of snow by his feet and the lightning sparked away from them, making its way towards Shimo's location. But it was slow, far too slow. The snow wasn't nearly dense even to allow the lightning to travel quickly through it. Shimo jumped away from its path with a leisure that could rarely be used in the middle of a battle.

Another flurry came at Kakashi, and he rolled to avoid it, sending a fireball at it as he did. He pulled out of the roll and crouched for a moment, regaining his breath after using so much chakra so quickly. His fingered brushed against the ground beneath him. It was frozen solid.

Iruka could feel the idea forming in his head. These mountains were full of metallic ores. They weren't just standing on rock, there was metal there as well, veins of silver and copper. The snow wasn't dense enough to conduct electricity, but the ground was. The metallic elements in the rocks would just help it along and the fact that they were frozen even more so.

What genjutsu did you use for those fireballs? Kakashi asked and it took Iruka a moment to follow the mental leap Kakashi had just made.

Even if Kakashi sent lightning chakra through the ground, it'd still be slow enough that Shimo might be able to dodge it. They needed to distract him, find a way to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Actual katon weren't traveling far enough, the water in the ice and snow neutralized the fire chakra and they faded too quickly. That wouldn't be a problem with genjutsu, it would travel as far as they needed it to.

Iruka ran through the steps he'd used for the genjutsu in his head, trying to form as clear an image of the procedure as he could. He could feel Kakashi focusing on him, even as he dodged another attack.

Kakashi started to dissect the jutsu and Iruka found the process fascinating. He'd set it to trigger when his wards were deactivated without his chakra as a key, but Kakashi was going to bypass that step and use it directly. If he tweaked this part of it, it'd be more realistic, if he changed another, it'd be hotter, melting at least some of the snow in its path. But even with the adjustments, Kakashi wasn't counting on Shimo falling for it more than twice, he'd have to work quickly.

After Shimo's next attack, Kakashi put his plan into motion.

The genjutsu itself required very little chakra, even with the modifications that Kakashi had made to it. Iruka couldn't sense the illusion as the first one flew at Shimo, but he could sense his reaction as he leapt to avoid it, his concealment jutsu wavering in surprise.

Kakashi gathered chakra with a battle-hardened speed that Iruka knew would leave him depleted for days. He could feel the toll it was already taking on Kakashi's body. He had to be nearing the end of his chakra supply, but it wasn't slowing him down at all. Nearly every ninja experienced chakra depletion at some point in their career, even if it was just during training, and Iruka was no different, but it had been a long time since he'd felt its draining effects. They were debilitating for most ninja. Kakashi pushed them aside like they were a minor inconvenience.

Gathering lightning in his hand again, Kakashi drove his fist through a drift of snow into the frozen ground with enough force that it shook the area around them. He pushed the chakra in Shimo's direction. In Iruka's mind, the lightning glittered and sparked its way through the ground, jumping from one deposit of metal to the next.

At the same time, he knew another fireball was rushing towards Shimo. It must have been aimed higher than the last one because instead of dodging, Shimo crouched to the ground to avoid it. He realized his mistake too late, trying to jump out of the way of the lightning. It caught him anyway. His concealment jutsu flickered out in Iruka's mind, but there was enough chakra in the air that he could sense the outline of his body as it hung in a state of suspended animation. Kakashi was already running towards him with lightning in his hand again.

As the distance closed between them, Iruka could see the stirrings of motion in Shimo. He hadn't been killed, just momentarily paralyzed. But Kakashi didn't give him a chance to fully recover, hitting him in the chest with a Raikiri.

Iruka flinched at the killing blow but understood the need for this to be finished decisively. Shimo wouldn't have allowed himself to be taken prisoner and Kakashi was running low enough on chakra that drawing out the fight any longer wouldn't have been possible.

He tried not to think about it as if he'd just helped kill someone he'd thought of as a friend. Maybe at some point they'd been something like friends, but none of that mattered in the face of Shimo's betrayal of Konoha. It wasn't a new feeling for Iruka, but he quickly pushed those thoughts away. There would be time to process them later.

Instead he focused on Kakashi. He had taken multiple cuts from the snow and ice, some deeper than others, but more importantly, he was exhausted. Iruka could feel how little chakra he had left and it was stunning that Kakashi was still standing.

Don't worry, Sensei, I'm used to it, Kakashi thought.

And that is supposed to make me worry LESS?

Kakashi felt amused. As he returned to the group, the storm started to die around them, blowing itself out, the sun breaking through icy clouds.

A tangible relief hit Kakashi as visibility increased and he could see them again. His mind focused on Iruka and for the briefest of moments Iruka could feel that relief shift to something with more passion, more intensity. It was enough to take Iruka's breath away and he couldn't help responding to the emotion.

But just as quickly as he felt the desire coming off of Kakashi, the connection between them was severed and he was jarringly returned to his own body.

Komachi looked away from him and cleared her throat. Iruka didn't want to know how much of what she was transmitting she was able to read. He felt himself blush bright red. She'd likely just found out that Iruka's mind could write an entire Icha Icha novel in a matter of seconds given the right inspiration.

Iruka needed a moment before he could stand up and face Kakashi. Sharing a mind with someone was a bizarre, intensely intimate experience. Knowing first hand what Kakashi's body was capable of wasn't helping.

Iruka stood and Towa clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to make him stagger. "Way to go, Iruka-sensei."

Iruka had to remind himself that the ANBU didn't know what had just passed between them and he was congratulating Iruka on the battle, not his overactive imagination.

He took a deep breath and felt himself relax more fully than he had in months. They were bloody and exhausted, but alive. He had a few more scars that would never fade away completely and no amount of sewing was going to save his uniform, but this whole thing was almost over.

Yugao healed the worst of their wounds and they quickly destroyed the hideout and Shimo's body before they turned to head home.

~*~*~

They ran into their backup a few hours away from the hideout. The moment Yugao alerted them to the fact that four shinobi were coming toward them from the direction of Konoha, Kakashi had moved closer to Iruka and he felt fond amusement at the action. Given how exhausted Kakashi had felt after the battle, Iruka was fairly sure he'd do better in a fight if the approaching ninjas had turned out to be enemies.

Two of the four ANBU that met them had been at the other hideout, but Iruka hadn't seen the others before. The one wearing a cat mask seemed to be in charge.

There was a brief exchange of hand signs that Iruka couldn't completely understand. The cat-masked ANBU signed something about chakra depletion and carrying people to the hospital that had Yugao and the ANBU with shadowy swirls on his mask chuckling.

Kakashi sighed and shook his head. "Fine. We'll camp here for the night if you make us somewhere to sleep."

Komachi walked over to the cat-masked ANBU and whispered to him in conspiratorial tones. He looked back at her with something Iruka was sure had to be an unimpressed look under his mask. His sigh was even more put-upon than Kakashi's had been.

A jutsu later, there were two houses standing in front of them, a small one and a big one. Iruka's eyes widened. He'd never seen anything like that jutsu before. It had to be a bloodline limit like the First's. It was impressive right up until the reason for making two houses hit him. Then it just seemed unfair that he was the only one not wearing a mask. If anyone else blushed, no one could see it.

"Tenzo," Kakashi said, warning clear in his voice.

Before he could respond, Komachi interrupted. "You two take the smaller one."

Kakashi and Iruka both stared at her flatly.

"What?" she asked, amusement in her tone destroying the creditability of her faked innocence. "We want to take our masks off for a bit and can't do that with Iruka-sensei around. But he knows who you are, so this just makes sense. I mean, I suppose he could stay in the smaller one alone, but who knows who else is in this area."

"Or what," the ANBU with the shadowy swirls on his mask chimed in.

The corner of Iruka's mouth twitched up. It was good to know Kakashi's friends were just as obnoxious as his own.

"Fine," Kakashi said, "but I'm taking the first watch."

"No, you fucking won't," Iruka said before he could stop himself. "You're chakra depleted and need sleep."

Multiple of the ANBU were suddenly hit by coughing fits that sounded suspiciously like poorly contained laughter.

"I'll take the first shift, Senpai," Tenzo volunteered.

"Second," Komachi called, not bothering to hide her glee.

Third and fourth shifts were just as quickly snatched up and unless they were sleeping longer than normal, there was no need for more than that.

If Iruka had thought the first night in a hotel room with Kakashi was awkward, it didn't compare to having seven ANBU watch as he walked into a house they'd less than subtly created to give him alone time with Kakashi. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Tenzo signing an approved at Kakashi.

In that moment he swore to himself that he would never allow their friends to meet. No good could ever come of it.

Kakashi closed the door behind them and removed his ANBU mask. There was a look on his face that Iruka couldn't read completely but it echoed the emotions they'd shared before the Sensing Transmission Jutsu was disconnected.

"Don't get any ideas," Iruka said, as much to himself as to Kakashi. "There was nothing about your promise that implied you'd be passing out midway through."

Kakashi let out a huff of amusement. "Whatever you want, Sensei."

There were a lot of things Iruka wanted, but at the moment, making sure Kakashi didn't run himself into a third hospitalized code on his mission log was fairly high on his list.

They settled down onto the wooden floor. Unfortunately Tenzo's jutsu didn't seem to include bedding.

Iruka stared up at the ceiling as silence stretched between them, for once more comfortable than awkward.

"Thank you," he said after a moment. "For coming to get me."

"Just returning the favor," Kakashi replied. "You were doing better than I was when you found me anyway."

Iruka felt himself relax further. "Let's not make it a habit, okay?"

Kakashi chuckled. "Agreed."

Iruka listened to Kakashi's breathing even out as he started to drift to sleep. He grinned up at the ceiling. Even if Kakashi had been chakra depleted the first night they were in a hotel room together, he never would have let himself sleep. It implied a level of trust between them that hadn't been there before.

He stayed awake a little longer, mind full of all the things that had happened over the last few months, but eventually he slipped off to sleep as well.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

After they returned to Konoha, their first stop was Tsunade's office. Her relief was clear on her face once she saw them. Kakashi's report was concise but complete.

"Any major injuries?" she asked.

"No, Hokage-sama," Kakashi replied and Iruka shot him a look.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow at them.

"He is chakra depleted again," Iruka explained. It wasn't an injury per se, but it also wasn't something to be taken lightly.

Tsunade shook her head. "Of course he is, but you try to keep him in the hospital instead of taking out the rest of Kogarashi. It'll never work, and the medic-nins have better things to do with their time."

Iruka was up for the challenge. It couldn't be harder than keeping Naruto in a classroom all day.

Kakashi must have read the determination on Iruka's face. "I'm fine. Really. I'm mostly recovered already. You said something about the rest of the organization?"

Tsunade looked amused, but allowed the subject change. "The Intel division went through everything you gathered at Yonaga's hideout and interrogated the prisoners while you were gone. Since their main objective was getting revenge on you, the organization was much smaller than last time. There are only a few missing-nin you'll need to track down."

She took a scroll out of her desk and tossed it to Kakashi. "This contains the intel on the remaining members. With a team, you should be able to eradicate the organization completely in two weeks, three max."

Kakashi nodded, tucking the scroll into his vest. Iruka realized there was no point in protesting, Kakashi wouldn't rest until this was finished.

They left her office together, running across roofs until they reached Iruka's apartment. Halfway home, it hit him that there were no ANBU following him. A feeling of freedom filled him with his next breath.

They dropped down onto Iruka's balcony and faced each other. Iruka realized that his part of this mission was officially over. For the briefest of moments, the awkwardness that he was all too accustomed to feeling threatened to make its way between them again, but he pushed it away. After everything they'd just been through, he wasn't going to let something so little hold him back. Not with how light and alive he felt in that moment. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.

"Remember you made me a promise," he said, half teasing, half anticipation.

Kakashi's eye darkened under his mask in response and he shifted his weight forward for a fraction of a second before he stopped himself.

They just stood there, staring at each other. Iruka's heart pounded in his chest and his stomach was coiled tight with building desire.

"I will," Kakashi said finally, voice filled with the promise he had made back in the hotel room.

In a flash he was gone and it took Iruka another minute before he could breathe properly again.

~*~*~

Iruka rolled over in bed, not quite ready to face the day. He scanned the chakra around his apartment and was momentarily confused when he couldn't locate where his guards were stationed. Then he remembered. There weren't any ANBU to find, not anymore.

He groaned and forced himself out of bed. Tsunade had offered him a few days of leave to recover from the mission, but he wasn't seriously injured, it didn't feel right to take it. Besides, the longer he was gone from the Academy, the bigger the mess he'd return to. There was no point in delaying the inevitable.

He had barely stepped foot into the schoolyard when he was hit by a waist-high ball of shrieking mini-ninja. There was a high probability that the ear-piercing sound it was emitting was his name. He staggered back only to be struck by another coming from the other side. He hid a grimace, the second student had managed to hit the deepest of his leg wounds, well on its way to being fully healed, but still tender.

Trying to extract himself from the situation wasn't working, every time he managed to free himself from one of the students, another was ready to take their place.

"They wouldn't tell us why you were gone," one of them said, looking stressed to the point of tears.

Iruka ruffled his hair and nodded. Not knowing was the worst, but it was something they'd need to get used to if they were going to be shinobi.

"Don't leave again," another wailed. "The sub sucked."

Iruka shook his head, fighting back a grin as the students quickly shifted from worry over Iruka's safety to complaints about the number of essays they'd written over the last week and the lack of time they'd spent in the training yard. They were happy Iruka was back, it was great he was safe and all, but when would they get to handle pointy things again?

Pre-genin and their priorities, Iruka thought. It was good to be home.

For one blissful day, his students were on model behavior, clearly wanting him to know how happy they were he was back. He knew he needed to enjoy the display of affection for as long as he could. They'd be causing trouble again soon enough.

He caught himself scanning for ANBU multiple times throughout the day. It had become such a habit, he hadn't even realized how often he did it, starting his day by trying to locate them and then checking in on them whenever he had a spare moment. The area around the Academy felt oddly empty without the blank spaces following him. On the plus side, he thought, he could finish up the unit on traps anytime he wanted now.

The other teachers were clearly curious about what had happened, but they didn't push to get information from him. They said they were glad he was back safely from his mission and left it at that. It made him immensely thankful. The story would come out eventually, but he didn't want to retell it just yet. The cut of Shimo's betrayal went deeper than the physical injuries he'd received.

By the end of the day, things at the Academy were starting to feel relatively normal, if he didn't count the depressingly large pile of essays on his desk that he needed to grade. The students really hadn't been kidding about the number they'd written.

Unfortunately, the same thing couldn't be said about the Desk. Iruka's shift the next night was abnormally quiet whenever a lull hit.

No one knew exactly what had happened yet, but Kaki and Seri had filled in enough blanks to know they wouldn't like what was written on the others. Any doubts they had would have been easily confirmed by opening up the right drawer to see the empty spot where Shimo's personnel file should have been. Traitors' files were pulled immediately.

Shimo's replacement was a freshly minted chuunin, his vest still shiny and new. Iruka spent most of the evening watching him out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't mess with the kid until he was about to accept a report from a jounin whose handwriting was nearly as bad as Kakashi's.

Iruka leaned over, looked at the report, and had to keep himself from grinning at the state it was in.

"That isn't legible. You can't accept it," Iruka said flatly, then returned to checking over the report he'd just been handed.

The new kid looked between Iruka and the jounin, clearly unsure what to do. Kaki, sitting on the kid's other side, noticed his dilemma. She leaned over to look at the report herself.

"He needs to rewrite it," she said, turning back to her own work as well. Iruka could just barely hear the hint of amusement in her voice.

The kid looked between her and Iruka, but they ignored him. He looked up at the jounin and then back down at the report.

"Would you possibly have the time to rewrite this?" he finally asked, voice uncertain.

The jounin opened his mouth to protest.

Iruka cleared his throat like he just might need to be projecting his voice any time now. Two seats over, Kaki did the same.

It was the jounin's turn to look between them, but they ignored him too. They were far too busy to pay him any mind. Iruka stamped the report he'd been given as approved and set it aside to be filed.

After a moment, the jounin grabbed his report from the new kid and left with a muttered "Fine."

Iruka and Kaki exchanged a brief glance, the first truly normal moment they'd had all night. The new kid looked like he had no idea what had just happened, but he'd learn the ropes soon enough.

It would be awhile before everything was normal again, but they'd get there eventually and having someone to train in the fine art of terrorizing jounin would help.

~*~*~

Iruka was understandably wary as he stepped into Tsunade's office the following day. The ANBU who had dropped into Iruka's classroom unannounced had left his students buzzing for a good hour with questions Iruka couldn't answer. He knew exactly as much as they did and nothing more than that. Tsunade wanted to see him after school had finished for the day.

It'd been less than 72 hours since they'd returned, surely nothing could have gone wrong with Kakashi's cleanup mission in that amount of time. And if something had, Tsunade wouldn't be calling him into her office like this, right? He wasn't even sure if she'd call him at all. He knew he shouldn't worry, there was likely nothing to worry about, but that didn't stop him from doing so.

He had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a common state of affairs if anything lasting did develop between him and Kakashi. But once he was in Tsunade's office, she didn't make him wait long.

"I'm upping your clearance," she said without preamble after the door shut behind him. "We need someone to take over filing the S-rank scrolls."

Iruka nodded. Getting a promotion was nice, but this wasn't the way he would have wanted it.

The paperwork required was remarkably simple by Konoha standards and Iruka took care of it in just a few minutes. Everything seemed set, but Tsunade didn't dismiss him, instead she stared at him for a moment, studying him. It wasn't hard to guess where this was going.

"Just say what you're going to say," he said, holding back a sigh, then realizing how blunt and rude that sounded. He rushed to add, "Hokage-sama."

She stared at him flatly but didn't call him on it. "You know I can't guarantee you ANBU protection if something like this happens again, right?"

He nodded, a little surprised that was the question she was leading with. He had expected something different, reminders of proper relationships between ranks or arguments over chain of command issues at least. But a question like that implied that she was close to signing off on the relationship.

It was a valid concern, he couldn't deny it. If one organization had tried to target Kakashi through his loved ones, there were probably a dozen more that might be willing to do the same, but Iruka couldn't imagine letting fear decide who he could or couldn't date. He wasn't going to back down over a hypothetical threat.

She must have seen the resolve on his face, but she pushed further. "If it does become an issue again, we may need to pull you from the Academy."

Iruka inhaled sharply at that. Shimo had wanted to hurt Kakashi far more than he'd wanted to hurt the village, but that didn't mean another missing-nin organization would feel the same. She was asking him to weigh the safety of his students against a relationship that hadn't even truly started yet.

Still, he needed to live the lessons he taught his students. Their safety came first, but he wouldn't want their lives to be controlled by fear or the idea that relationships would only get in the way of their duty.

"I will do everything in my power to keep the Will of Fire burning brightly," he said carefully, knowing it didn't directly address her statement.

She studied him for a moment then nodded in acceptance.

"Of course, threats to the future of Konoha are significantly more likely to be handled by ANBU," she said in a lighter tone. "And I may have heard something about an ANBU waiting list in case there are future shifts guarding you."

Iruka let out a shaky breath.

"For the record, you are not being pressured into a relationship with Hatake Kakashi in any way, shape, or form?"

"No, I'm not, Hokage-sama."

"And you are aware that there may be circumstances in which he will need to act as your superior officer regardless of your relationship status?"

"I am, Hokage-sama."

"And you realize that there will be paperwork?"

Iruka fought to keep a straight face. "I think I can manage paperwork."

She just shook her head. "Honestly, you two deserve each other. You're both so fucking stubborn."

Iruka didn't even bother to hide his grin.

"Naruto, too. All three of you are hopeless."

Iruka's smile just got wider.

She shook her head again and dismissed him.

Iruka grinned the entire way home.

~*~*~

A little over two weeks later, Iruka's life was almost completely back to normal.

After a long day at the Academy, he stopped by Ichiraku's for dinner. There was a pair of shinobi eating and as he sat down, he glanced towards them. They looked back.

Iruka nearly fell off his stool.

He didn't know their faces, but the blonde kunoichi's hairstyle was distinctive enough to recognize; Komachi and her partner, Towa, or whatever their names were when they weren't wearing masks.

They lifted their glasses towards him in a silent cheers and Iruka nodded in acknowledgment.

"Here you go, Iruka-sensei," Teuchi said, placing a bowl of ramen in front of him.

Iruka jumped again. He hadn't ordered anything yet.

He looked back over to the ANBU, but they were already gone.

When he went to pay, Teuchi waved him off. It'd already been paid for.

Iruka smiled and shook his head. Maybe his life wouldn't be returning entirely to normal after all.

~*~*~

Seeing Komachi and Towa back in the village was reason enough to believe that the clean up was almost over, so Iruka wasn't particularly surprised to find Kakashi waiting outside the Academy at the end of the following day.

"It's all taken care of?" Iruka asked by way of greeting, though it wasn't really a question. He knew Kakashi wouldn't be back if it weren't.

"It is," Kakashi confirmed.

Iruka's eyes scanned over him. "And how chakra depleted are you?"

Kakashi held up his hands in front of him, his eye curved up into an arch. "All good here, Sensei."

Iruka looked at him skeptically, wondering how many people fell for that, but he let it drop. For this time at least.

They fell into silence for a moment. Iruka wasn't really sure how he had expected this to go. Kakashi pushing him against the nearest flat surface and making good on his promise, or just staring at each other awkwardly, or what. He wasn't entirely against the first idea.

"Ichiraku's?" Kakashi asked, giving Iruka flashbacks of the first time Kakashi had been waiting for him outside the Academy.

It felt so natural to say yes, like they were just picking up where they had left off, but there was no doubt in Iruka's mind that it was real this time. No mission, no organization targeting them, just the two of them going out together because they wanted to.

It didn't matter that Iruka had just eaten at Ichiraku's the night before. Ramen two days in a row never killed anyone, Naruto would vouch for that.

And if he purposely brushed their hands together when he passed Kakashi a pair of disposable chopsticks just to see the way his chakra jumped, Kakashi didn't seem to mind. If anything, he just smirked at Iruka like he was accepting a challenge, leaning into his personal space to grab the pitcher of water that was sitting on the counter on the other side of Iruka. He could have passed the pitcher to Kakashi or leaned back to give him more room to grab it, instead he didn't move, wanting to see exactly how close Kakashi would get. Kakashi didn't touch him, but that didn't stop Iruka from thinking about it for the rest of the night.

~*~*~

Kakashi knew Iruka could protect himself. If missing-nin did go after Iruka, they wouldn't have an easy time of it. Anyone who underestimated him just because he was a chuunin teacher deserved the ass-kicking they were likely to get. As far as shinobi lives went, Iruka's was relatively safe, but that just meant Kakashi was the most dangerous thing in it. If something happened to Iruka, the chances of it being his fault were high.

Half-drunk or a little more, he tried to explain this to Tenzo.

"So what you're telling me," Tenzo said, face blank, eyes unimpressed, "is that you're afraid of commitment."

Kakashi sputtered. "No, I just mean the longer we're together, the more danger he is in."

"Ah. So you think Iruka-sensei can't protect himself."

"He definitely can, but-"

"He is incapable of making decisions about his own future?"

"That wasn't what I was going to say at all," Kakashi said. He gave Tenzo his best disapproving senpai look.

Tenzo continued to start at him blankly.

"I used to think you were so cool," Kage said, jumping into the conversation. He slumped back against his chair, all over-exaggerated drama and despair. "My idol has been ruined."

"Why did you bring the kid along again?" Kakashi asked, side-eying Tenzo.

"No, seriously," Kage said, sitting up straight once more and looking at Kakashi. "If you're too scared to date Iruka-sensei, can I have a go?"

"NO," Kakashi said, looking startled. Kage grinned at him.

Tenzo chuckled. "That's why."

"Don't you have an ANBU commander to hit on?" Kakashi asked.

Kage's grin just got wider.

Whatever training Tenzo was doing with this current batch of ANBU, Kakashi didn't know how he felt about it.

"Honestly, Senpai, with this whole chakralocation ability, it sounds like he's one of the safest people in the village."

Kakashi frowned. "I'm not even sure if he is using it now."

"Then ask."

Kakashi didn't want to ask, but that did give him a better idea. He smiled and Tenzo just shook his head. He knew Kakashi well enough to know it wouldn't be quite that simple.

~*~*~

Kakashi wasn't waiting for him outside the Academy. Iruka glanced around the area, but he was nowhere in sight. They hadn't made any concrete plans to meet, but Iruka had worked at the Desk for the last three nights in a row, so he'd figured they'd probably be grabbing dinner together. He shrugged and turned towards home. Maybe Kakashi had a last minute mission.

He was about halfway to his apartment when the hairs on the back of his neck rose. That was all the warning he was given. A fraction of a second later, someone was standing directly behind him, far too close for comfort. All Iruka's internal alarm bells were going off. Before he could even think about what was happening, he brought his elbow up and back as he twisted, aiming for what he hoped was face-height on his attacker.

Strong hands caught his arm, stopping its movement.

"Now, Sensei, what kind of greeting is an elbow to the face?"

Iruka jumped at the familiar voice and tried to spin around, but Kakashi didn't let him go, keeping him close. Out of the corner of his eye, what he could make out of Kakashi's expression looked concerned. He shook off Kakashi's hands and turned around fully.

"What?"

"Your chakralocation wasn't activated."

"I'd only been using it regularly to keep track of the ANBU and now they aren't following me, so..." He shrugged.

Kakashi looked like he was frowning under his mask and it hit Iruka what he was doing.

"Did you just test me to see if I could protect myself in case of a missing-nin attack?"

Kakashi's eye darted to the side. "Maybe?"

That was all the confirmation Iruka needed. He shook his head in exasperation. Jounin were well known for their quirks, but testing a potential lover's battle readiness was not something Iruka had been prepared for, though he figured he probably should have seen it coming.

"You should keep it activated," Kakashi said, trying to sound casual as they made their way to a nearby restaurant.

"In the village?"

"Yes."

"At all times?"

"Yes."

Iruka just shook his head again.

Kakashi spent most of dinner trying to negotiate how often Iruka would be willing to scan the area around him.

"Once every other hour?" Kakashi tried after Iruka had flatly rejected every 15 minutes, every half hour, and every hour. "Just to be safe."

"And what exactly will you be doing to keep yourself safe?" Iruka asked.

Kakashi looked taken aback.

"Don't even look at me like that. Out of the two of us, I'm not the one that needs to be worried over the most."

Kakashi seemed like he was about to argue.

"Unless it's just that you think I can't protect myself."

Kakashi's mouth snapped shut. He shook his head frantically.

Iruka grinned at him, bumping their legs together under the table.

"I'll promise to do everything I can to stay alive, if you do the same," he said, trying to keep his tone light. As shinobi, it was really all they could do.

Kakashi nodded in acceptance, though Iruka doubted this would be the last time the subject came up.

~*~*~

Despite Kakashi's words in the hotel, they were taking it slow, but that just made his promise so much more enticing. Their dates had an unspoken challenge running just below the surface, who could work the other up more, whose self-control would break first. Iruka enjoyed the burn of it, the anticipation. There was no denying where this was heading. They were both carefully placing stones and he couldn't wait for the endgame. But there was a limit to how long he could hold back, and he was starting to think they'd been dragging this out for long enough. Thankfully Kakashi seemed to feel the same.

Iruka had known Kakashi had a short mission that day, so he wasn't surprised to see him walk in with a report in hand about an hour after Iruka started his Friday evening Desk shift. What was a little more surprising was the way Kakashi handed over the report.

Iruka blinked at the letter sitting right on top of the scroll, out in the open for anyone to see. He looked up at Kakashi, raising an eyebrow at him. Kakashi had a wicked look in his eye and Iruka couldn't help but respond to it.

"Open it," Kakashi said in a voice that wasn't entirely appropriate for public, the type of voice that made Iruka think things he shouldn't while he was working.

Against his better judgment, Iruka opened the letter. He didn't need to look back up at Kakashi to know he was enjoying this, watching Iruka read what he'd written. It definitely wasn't forged this time. Kakashi's handwriting was neater than usual, but it was still recognizable.

The letter was nothing but filthy innuendo and less than subtle implication, full of promises of what exactly Kakashi wanted to do to Iruka and have Iruka do to him that night once his shift was over. Iruka would never admit to reading a few of the Icha Icha books he'd confiscated from his students over the years, but he had to say this one page put the entire series to shame.

Iruka knew he was bright red, but that didn't stop him from reading the whole letter.

"Mission report accepted?" Kakashi asked and Iruka nodded yes. He hadn't even looked at the report Kakashi had given him yet. It could be written in crayon and limericks for all Iruka knew, but that didn't stop him from thanking Kakashi for his hard work. He swallowed hard as he watched Kakashi walk away then tucked the letter into his vest where he felt it each time he moved for the rest of the night.

Knowing Kakashi had an evil streak running through him and actually experiencing it were two very different things. Iruka took a deep breath and tried to get his focus back on his work. He still had hours left in his shift and he spent them turned on, but also plotting how to get back at Kakashi for this. There was no way in hell that his nature didn't demand a little payback for hours of distracted work time.

More than once he caught Kaki and Seri giving each other amused looks. He found he minded it less now that he knew they weren't wrong.

"Not taking a mission?" Kaki asked as they were cleaning up for the night. She wasn't even trying to sound innocent.

Iruka blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. "No, no mission."

She and Seri exchanged knowing glances. The new kid just looked between them, confused.

As they parted ways to head home, Kaki called after him. "Have fun!"

Iruka was starting to think he'd just be blushing permanently for the rest of his life at this rate.

Kakashi was waiting for him outside his door.

"You didn't let yourself in," Iruka said, a little surprised. He'd half expected to find Kakashi lounging on his couch when he got home.

"Honestly, I was a little afraid of what you might have added to your wards since last time."

Iruka grinned, debating whether or not to tell him he hadn't changed anything. He deactivated the wards and let Kakashi in. When he turned around from locking the door behind them, Kakashi already had his mask pulled down and his forehead protector off.

Iruka had seen glimpses of his face out of the corner of his eye when they'd gone out to eat, but he'd never really looked. He'd been trying to respect Kakashi's privacy, but it had been getting increasingly harder to do so. What had started out as split seconds stretched longer each time. Ever since Kakashi had returned, it had almost felt like Kakashi had been daring him to take a look and it amused him whenever Iruka didn't.

It was a nice face, but more than that, the idea of Kakashi trusting him enough to casually take down his mask in Iruka's apartment filled him with a warmth he hadn't quite been prepared for. "Hi," he said, not really sure what else to say.

One corner of Kakashi's mouth twitched up and damn if that wasn't the cutest half-smile he'd ever seen. "Hi."

Iruka felt drawn to Kakashi, like a jutsu was pulling him closer, and he didn't bother fighting it, just toed off his sandals and stepped into Kakashi personal space.

"You made me a promise that last night in the hotel," he said, getting as close as he could to Kakashi without touching him.

"I'd like to make good on that now," Kakashi said, leaning in just a little more. Iruka could feel the words against his lips.

Iruka didn't bother replying, instead tilting his head up the last little bit to finally bring their lips together.

It was slow and purposeful, mapping each other's mouths like this was just the first in a lifetime of kisses to come. There was an unspoken promise to it. They had all night and both of them planned to savor every moment of it.

Iruka had been thinking about this for weeks now, months even, imagining how it would go, whether it'd be all passion and heat or hesitant awkwardness. But this deep, breath-stealing intensity had his entire body humming with a desire that made every single one of his fantasies pale in comparison.

Kakashi slid off Iruka's forehead protector, tossing it onto Iruka's couch before he went to untie his hair. The inevitable pulling that went along with letting others undo his hair didn't come, Kakashi's fingers deftly removed the tie.

It didn't slip past his attention that Kakashi had slid the tie into his pocket instead of tossing it away as well. He wondered if he would be getting it back, but he found that he liked the idea of Kakashi keeping a souvenir from this night more than he minded needing to find another tie.

Kakashi's fingers carded through his hair in a way that made it seem like he'd been thinking about doing this just as often as Iruka had. The feeling of it had him giving a low hum of appreciation against Kakashi's lips.

Kakashi pulled back enough to unzip Iruka's vest and slide it off his shoulders with the same unhurried pace as their kisses. He grabbed Iruka by the hips, pulling him closer again, one hand slipping under Iruka's shirt to tease at the skin beneath. The calloused fingers paused for a moment then turned more searching than caressing, tracing a path all the way up Iruka's back and then back down again. Iruka could feel the slightest of frowns against his lips. This was not generally the reaction he wanted when someone had their hands on him for the first time. He pulled back enough to see Kakashi's face.

"What?" he asked.

"You aren't wearing mesh armor under your uniform." Kakashi said. He had a crease between his brows. It was kind of cute, Iruka thought, but that didn't stop him from raising an eyebrow at Kakashi.

"I never do in the village unless I'm training."

"You should wear some," Kakashi said. "A shirt at least. And maybe leg guards, too."

"Should I go put some on right now?" he asked, unable to keep himself from teasing Kakashi, starting to pull away like he was going to his closet to get it, but Kakashi held him tight.

Kakashi shook his head quickly. "Not right now. After. Even in the village. Even when you aren't training."

"My day job isn't exactly dangerous."

"I've seen the things your students can do."

Iruka laughed. "This worrying thing you've been doing. It's not going away anytime soon, is it?"

"Probably not," Kakashi admitted, and Iruka felt a wave of fondness sweep over him.

"So chakralocation activated and mesh armor on at all times?"

"Preferably," Kakashi said, pulling Iruka close again.

Iruka shook his head. This really wasn't the conversation about protection he'd thought they'd be having tonight. They could work out the details later, right now they had other matters to take care of.

"Just so you know, I still remember my name," Iruka said, challenge clear in his voice.

Kakashi grinned, his expression becoming devilish and full of promise. "We can't have that now, can we?" The intent in his gaze was easy to read as he brought their lips together again.

Iruka pushed him towards his bedroom, enjoying the more playful direction their kisses had taken. He bit at Kakashi's lips and Kakashi did the same as they removed each other's gear along the way, stripping each other bare piece by piece, running hands over each other with touches that spoke of desire built up to the point where there was no holding themselves back anymore.

The mesh shirt under Kakashi's uniform was expected, but that didn't make it any easier to take off. The armor was fitted and didn't stretch much, making the extra layer difficult to remove in a hurry. He was fairly sure Kakashi would find the idea of Iruka always wearing some less appealing once he realized it would make getting him naked quickly a more complicated task.

There was an aesthetic appeal to it though, Iruka had to admit, taking in the way it fit against Kakashi's body, hinting at what was underneath.

Pulling off the armor revealed the scarred skin beneath it. Iruka ran his fingers over a particularly nasty scar on his stomach, liking the way Kakashi's muscles clenched under his touch.

In retaliation, Kakashi's hands slid down to grab Iruka's ass. "I can't even tell you how many times I've thought about doing this."

Iruka grinned. "Then get my pants off so you can do it properly."

Kakashi treated that statement like a mission assignment, sinking down to his knees. He unwound Iruka's wrappings while Iruka ran a hand through his hair, enjoying the feeling of it between his fingers.

He stayed on his knees in front of Iruka after he'd stripped him completely, hands running up Iruka's legs, thumbs teasing his inner thighs as he leaned closer. He smirked up at Iruka while his breath ghosted against his cock, like he could tell it was all Iruka could do not to wrap his hand tighter in Kakashi's hair and pull him closer still. Iruka waited for what Kakashi would do next, but then he was rising to his feet and Iruka had to bite back a groan of frustration.

Kakashi pulled Iruka close and slid his hands down to Iruka's ass again, grinding a thigh against Iruka's cock at the same time. Iruka didn't bother to hold back the groan that elicited.

"So," Kakashi said, breath hot against Iruka's ear, "any particular part of the letter you'd like to start with?"

Iruka couldn't decide, his mind spinning at the thought of everything that had been written there. "Any recommendations?"

Kakashi hummed, dark and low, "Mmm, if it were entirely up to me? First I'd suck you off until you are so close to coming you can't think of anything else, then I'd fuck you slow until you beg me to go faster."

"And when I'm returning the favor?"

"I want you to lick me open and see if you can make me scream," he said, biting at Iruka's ear.

Iruka shivered at the idea. "And the rest of it?"

Kakashi gave a low laugh. "That's what the rest of the weekend is for. You didn't have any other plans, did you?"

"Not anymore."

"Good," Kakashi replied. "And the recommendation?"

Iruka pushed Kakashi back towards his bed. "It's acceptable," Iruka teased, sounding as bored as possible with his dick more the half hard already.

"That sounds like a challenge," Kakashi said, sinking down to his knees again as Iruka sat on the edge of his bed.

"In case making me forget my name wasn't enough of one."

"I can multitask," Kakashi said, his wicked grin all the warning Iruka got before he leaned forward and sucked Iruka into his mouth. His left hand was gripping Iruka's hip so tight, Iruka knew it would leave a set of bruises in the shape of Kakashi's fingertips and he looked forward to seeing them.

Kakashi wasn't all talk, he knew exactly what to do to make Iruka's hands twist in his hair. Iruka tried not to pull, though that resolve only lasted a few minutes under the onslaught of sensations he was feeling. Kakashi just hummed his encouragement around his cock, staring up at him with lust in his eyes, both of them, and it hit Iruka that Kakashi was recording this. There was no way Kakashi could have missed how that realization made Iruka's cock twitch in his mouth and he smirked up at Iruka, winking at him with his right eye. Iruka swallowed hard.

Kakashi shifted his grip on Iruka's hips, tugging them forward a little more, and Iruka let himself fall back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling and spreading his legs wider. He was about to tell Kakashi his lube was in the bedside table when he felt Kakashi's fingers, already slick, pushing into him. Kakashi sucked him hard as he worked him open, backing off every time Iruka got too close to coming. Iruka could only twist his hands in the sheets and bite back curses.

He was fairly sure this was cheating. The part about making it so Iruka couldn't think hadn't included anything about fingers, but he wasn't going to complain, not with the way Kakashi was stroking his prostate.

If there had even been any doubt in Iruka's mind that Kakashi was a genius, this was completely eliminating it. A genius who also knew how to keep a promise, Iruka had to admit. He pressed his eyes shut, grinding down on Kakashi's fingers in the hope that he could push himself over the edge. He was so close, he just needed a little bit more. His breath caught in his throat as he felt pressure building inside of him, relief just out of his reach.

Without warning, Kakashi pulled back, carefully removing his fingers. Iruka didn't bother to stop the string of curses that caused. Kakashi grinned, standing as he pushed down his pants and Iruka wasn't entirely sure when he had managed to undo his own wrappings.

Iruka scooted back on his bed, mesmerized by the sight of Kakashi following after him like a stalking predator. The grace with which Kakashi moved set fire running through Iruka's veins, making him remember how his body had felt when he was in Kakashi's mind, the power and strength in it.

Finally having Kakashi naked in his bed, scarred skin sliding against his own as he settled on top of Iruka, felt so right he couldn't quite believe it. Somehow all their strained conversations and awkward interactions had ended up here, with panting, open-mouthed kisses and the heady roll of their hips against each other. It didn't seem real, and yet it was hard to deny as Kakashi shifted lower and started to push into him, so sure and deliberate it had Iruka gripping his shoulders hard enough to leave bruises of his own. When he was fully inside Iruka, they kissed again like before, intense and full of meaning.

Kakashi was true to his word with this too, keeping his pace maddeningly slow. Only the hot, ironlike grasp of his hands on Iruka's hips gave away the fact that he wasn't unaffected by this.

It felt good, but it was not nearly enough, there was no way Iruka was going to be able to come like this. He reached down to stroke himself, but Kakashi grabbed both his hands, lacing their fingers together and pinning them down on either side of Iruka's head, kissing him again, eyes still full of challenge and promise.

Iruka wasn't about to beg that easily. He hooked a leg around Kakashi, enjoying the moan it dragged out of him. But then he was pinning Iruka down with his whole body. Being completely unable to move, only able to lie there and experience the relentless slide of Kakashi's body against his own, had Iruka close to whining in frustration. Kakashi's pace was unbroken.

"Ask for it," Kakashi said in Iruka's ear and Iruka bit his tongue, not wanting to give in just yet.

The single-minded rhythm Kakashi was setting, his carefully calculated movements made an all-consuming fire build inside of Iruka until he could only think about the feeling of Kakashi over him, the fullness of Kakashi in him, the taste of Kakashi in his mouth, the way his fingers gripped Kakashi's strong shoulders and scratched down the scarred expanse of his back.

He wanted to watch the shift of muscles beneath Kakashi's skin, the expressions flickering across his face, but he also wanted to press his eyes shut and get lost in the feel of him. He was torn between wishing for this to go on forever and begging Kakashi to go harder, faster.

If the feeling of Kakashi was hard to resist, it didn't even begin to compare to the things he started to say, low and rough in Iruka's ear. How good Iruka felt, how many things he wanted to do to him, how much he was looking forward to fucking Iruka hard and feeling him orgasm around his cock. Iruka bit back a moan at the thought of it. His willpower crumbled even further when Kakashi switched tactics, starting to talk about how Iruka messing with the ANBU had made him so curious to learn more about him, how long he had wanted this, and how happy he was they were finally here, like this, with all the possibilities of their future spreading out before them.

Kakashi's voice had always been a turn on for Iruka and he enjoyed the dirty talk, but something about Kakashi saying that this was just the start of everything was so much better than promises to fuck Iruka in the shower later that night.

There was an edge of urgency that was building between them, but it was the first signs of Kakashi's control starting to slip that finally shattered Iruka's, the way Kakashi's thrusts were getting more demanding, his voice getting rougher.

"Kakashi, please," Iruka gasped out.

Kakashi didn't need to be asked twice, finally giving in to what they both wanted. Every thrust drove them that much higher, both dripping sweat and gasping for breath. But it was the noises Kakashi made each time Iruka rolled his hips up to meet his thrusts, low and desperate like he couldn't hold them back anymore, that pushed Iruka over the edge, his voice stolen by the intensity of his orgasm.

Kakashi followed just a moment later, the broken syllables of Iruka's name on his lips. He collapsed half on top of Iruka, an almost too hot weight against his side, but Iruka wouldn't have had him move for the world.

"Still remember your name?" Kakashi asked in a satisfied tone.

Iruka gave a quiet, breathless laugh. "Right now it's whatever you want it to be."

Kakashi wrapped an arm around him, his low murmur of "Iruka" was one of the best things Iruka had ever heard.

~*~*~

In the morning, Iruka woke to the feeling of one of Kakashi's hands running slowly through his hair. Still half-asleep, Iruka realized it might take a little while to get used to how much he liked waking up next to Kakashi.

They exchanged lazy kisses and ran their hands over each other, but it didn't get too far before Kakashi pulled away slowly, regretfully.

"Are you sure you're okay with this? You know what sort of danger you'll be in."

Iruka shrugged a shoulder. "If I wanted a safe life, I wouldn't be a ninja."

"You'll have a target on your back for as long as we are together. Breaking up might not even change that."

Iruka raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you future breaking up with me already?"

Kakashi looked slightly panicked. "I didn't mean-"

"I know," Iruka said, nudging him with his leg. "And I didn't just forget the last few months. I know what I'm getting into."

Kakashi winced. "Sorry about that, again."

"Turned out pretty well for me in the end," Iruka said as he pulled him in for a kiss.

"Me, too," Kakashi said, grinning against his lips, but then he was pulling away again. "Tsunade-sama will probably want to interview you. To make sure I'm not pressuring you into anything."

"She already has," Iruka said and Kakashi looked surprised. Iruka hadn't told him about the chat they'd had in her office.

"How much paperwork are we looking at?" Kakashi sounded a little worried and Iruka grinned at him.

"I can deal with the worst of it and help you with the rest."

"I'll even turn it in on time," Kakashi promised solemnly.

Iruka shook his head, amused. If Tsunade found out that Iruka could get Kakashi to turn in paperwork on time, he couldn't even begin to imagine how much extra work it would cause him.

"Are we finished with this morning's last minute attempts to get out of this relationship then?"

Kakashi looked sheepish, but nodded.

"Good," Iruka said, rolling over on top of Kakashi. "Because there was one last part to your promise. Something about me returning the favor?"

The wicked grin that spread across Kakashi's face was more than answer enough for Iruka.

"I'd like to make good on that now," Iruka said, echoing Kakashi's words from the night before.

Kakashi's grin just grew wider, anticipation in his eyes, and Iruka was more than ready to meet the challenge.

~*~*~

Chapter Text

Kotetsu was staring at Iruka like he'd just rung his doorbell to say he'd gone insane, and Iruka couldn't even blame him. He was pretty sure he had, though not in those words.

"You want to borrow my thigh guards?"

"Yes?"

"Have you somehow managed to either forget or not noticed the fact that I am ten centimeters shorter than you? They aren't going to fit you right."

Iruka had known this was a bad idea. He really should just buy a pair, but they were expensive and he couldn't imagine using them more than once. Ill-fitting armor was never a good idea in a fight, but they'd work well enough for what he needed them for.

"I, uh, just want to try them out to get a feel for them before I decide if I want to buy my own?" Iruka tried to explain, feeling his cheeks burning.

Kotetsu stared at him blankly for nearly a full minute before a very knowing smile started to spread across his face. "Doing some extra rough training, are you?"

"Something like that," Iruka muttered.

"Need Izumo and I to help?"

Iruka shook his head frantically, and Kotetsu just laughed, disappearing into his apartment and returning a minute later with the armor in hand.

"Izumo likes them, too," he said, winking at Iruka as he handed them over. "Just make sure you clean them before you give them back."

Iruka nodded a little numbly and walked away with the mesh armor clutched in his hands like a lifeline. Giving them back assumed he wasn't about two minutes away from dying of embarrassment.

When he got home he realized Kotetsu hadn't just given him the thigh guards, he'd included forearm guards too. Maybe he could just mail them back. He couldn't imagine ever being able to look his friend in the eye again.

~*~*~

Iruka glanced at himself in the mirror and then quickly glanced away before the ridiculousness of his reflection could talk him out of what he was about to do. The sleeveless mesh shirt he was wearing was his own, and he'd worn it enough to be comfortable with the extra weight of it against his skin. He couldn't say the same for the thigh and forearm guards. They were too short, just like he knew they would be. Thankfully they weren't too tight, but they still felt strange. He hadn't worn this much armor since he was a genin.

He slipped on his uniform pants and shirt over the armor, then unrolled his sleeves to keep the forearm guards from showing. When Kakashi arrived an hour later, he eyed Iruka's sleeves but didn't say anything.

"Sit on the couch," Iruka said, feeling himself start to blush already. It was best just to get this part over with quickly.

Kakashi didn't question the command, he sat down and looked at Iruka expectantly.

"You said you wanted me to wear mesh armor and keep my chakralocation activated," he said and Kakashi nodded, eye widening like he had some idea of where this was going.

Iruka pulled off his shirt and then hesitated a moment before pushing his pants down as well. He wasn't making a show of it, but Kakashi didn't seem to be complaining. His eye was wide open as he stared and Iruka had to fight against the urge to tug on the armor.

He felt foolish doing this, but the little sparks of chakra Kakashi's hands were giving off where they clutched the couch cushions were making up for it. Kakashi looked like he'd just found out the next Icha Icha book had been written for him and him alone and it was almost enough to make the embarrassment of borrowing the armor worth it.

Iruka straddled Kakashi's lap, chakralocation still activated, enjoying the way his skin glittered in his mind as Kakashi's hands slid up his thighs, lingering on the armor.

"Who did you borrow these from?" Kakashi asked, tracing his fingers along the upper edges of the guards.

"Kotetsu."

"Remind me to send him a thank you card," Kakashi said, eye running over Iruka's exposed skin and armor. "Are you going to buy-"

Iruka kissed Kakashi hard before he could finish that question.

A minute later, Kakashi was pushing up Iruka's mesh shirt to get at more of his skin, but Iruka just batted his hands away.

"Safety first," he admonished.

"A little less safety would be okay," Kakashi said, trying to tug up Iruka's shirt once more, but Iruka pushed his hands away again.

"A good shinobi is always prepared for an attack," Iruka said in the voice he reserved for his most important lectures.

"If anyone attacks us right now, they have a death wish," Kakashi said, sliding his hands under Iruka's shirt.

Iruka allowed it for a minute, then grabbed Kakashi's hands and settled them on his ass. It was a compromise Kakashi seemed to find agreeable, he squeezed tight and solemnly said, "Thank you for not borrowing full lower body armor."

Iruka chuckled and reached for the lube he'd tucked under the couch cushion.

Kakashi's left eye was open as Iruka stretched himself and sank down onto Kakashi's cock. He still wasn't used to Kakashi using his Sharingan for things like this, but it meant he definitely had his full attention.

The couch was shimmering beneath them and the room was lighting up around them in a way he couldn't blame entirely on Kakashi. It didn't take long to realize that it was nearly impossible to keep the chakralocation activated while he was riding Kakashi like this. The closer Iruka got to coming, the harder it was to maintain. He gave up on it completely when Kakashi flipped him over onto his back on the couch.

For a fleeting moment, he caught himself wondering if he could keep it up longer with practice and then just as quickly decided Kakashi could never ever find out he'd had that thought. If he did, Iruka would never hear the end of it. Kakashi would be trying to get him to train nonstop.

Afterwards, Kakashi was draped across Iruka's chest, looking like his birthday had come early. He didn't even seem to mind that the mesh was probably digging into his skin. The inside of it had some slight padding, the outside did not.

"If this was supposed to convince me that you wearing armor is a bad idea, you have failed spectacularly," he said, grinning wolfishly at Iruka. "Though, if you'd like to make the same argument again, I am willing to listen."

Iruka just laughed and shook his head. He'd never thought this would convince Kakashi of that, but given the way Kakashi was currently looking at him, all satisfied and smitten, like Iruka was the most amazing thing he had ever seen, Iruka couldn't complain too much. And maybe, just maybe he'd be willing to do it again. That was provided he survived giving the armor back to Kotetsu.

~*~*~