Iruka looked down at the amulet in his hands, the pattern of criss-crossing lines on its face not a family crest he recognized. The same design adorned the pillars of the gate he now stood before, wondering if Tsunade had finally relinquished her last hold on sanity.
“You're the best man for this job, Iruka-sensei,” the Hokage said as she handed him an amulet that made his chakra tingle. “You're caring, compassionate, and a genius when it comes to unraveling seals.”
“Phony ass flattery,” he mumbled under his breath as he fit the metal disc into the space carved for it on the left hand pillar. A high pitched humming immediately began, growing louder until it ended with an audible snap and a surge of chakra that made his ponytail all but stand on end. The gate swung open just enough for Iruka to squeeze through, then quietly closed behind him. He took a moment to study the mission scroll before walking toward the house (mansion?) he could see around a curve in the drive.
It was all fairly straightforward: try to determine what sort of seal was keeping a group of summons animals trapped on the human plane and break it, if possible. He wasn't so sure about the orders to care for said animals in the meantime, but how hard could it be?
Scratch that, it would be very hard. Iruka closed his eyes and raised his face to the sky, like a prayer for strength, then dropped his gaze to the ground, meeting the eyes of the miniature pug seated in front of him. “Pakkun,” he said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible while he inwardly cursed the Godaime. Kakashi. Kakashi's summons. He was stuck taking care of eight of the mouthiest, sassiest ninken known to shinobi-kind for heaven knew how long. Well, really only seven, since Buru was quiet and well-mannered compared to his brothers. But if he was in this situation that meant. . .
“Pakkun, where's Kakashi?”
The pug snorted and turned away, trotting in the direction of the house. He was so small that Iruka had no trouble keeping up. “He's in the hospital, of course. He was already on the edge of chakra exhaustion when this. . . whatever it is trapped us on the human plane. Shizune put him in a coma and sealed his chakra, thinking that would cancel the jutsu and send us back.” His shoulders twitched in a canine shrug. “As you can see it didn't work, but at least our continued presence isn't draining him dry.”
Iruka nodded his understanding, his mind turning over the information. With Kakashi's chakra sealed away it might be easier to reverse whatever had happened. He knew from past experience that anything dealing with summons contracts and the Kuchiyose no jutsu could be problematic, since that bond made for strange situations. In the case of Kakashi and his ninken it was because the bond was abnormally strong, but with one half of it removed from the equation he stood a better chance of getting to the bottom of this.
And there was no time like the present to get started. He squared his shoulders and increased his walking pace, outstripping the tiny pug. “I need to look at the summoning contract and check over each one of you individually, just to see if anything is interfering with your chakra.” He heard a sigh and glanced at Pakkun just as the dog's stomach gave a loud grumble. Iruka pressed his lips together to keep from grinning. “Okay, so food first.”
“Shiba, I need you to hold still,” Iruka said, clenching the crystal Tsunade had given him in his hand. “I can't get a clear read on your chakra if you keep fidgeting.”
The ninken gave his head one final shake, flopping his mohawk of fur from one side to the other before settling down on his back haunches, tail curling around his paws. “Sorry, Sensei,” he replied, sounding contrite.
Iruka smiled and held up the crystal near where he knew the dog's heart was located. It immediately started to cloud, then changed color from white, to the palest pink, the color growing darker and more saturated until it finally stopped on the edge of pure red. It was the same as he had seen in all of the ninken, and according to the Godaime's information meant that none of the animals had had their chakra affected in any way. So whatever had happened had been directed at Kakashi.
With all of the dogs snoozing in the courtyard Iruka made his way to the library to examine the summoning contract. He was exceptionally curious about the rest of the house, and its owner, but since this was technically a mission he did his best to keep a strictly professional mindset. That resolve went out the window as soon as he crossed the library's threshold, though.
If ever a room was stamped with the personality of its owner this one was it. One wall of bookshelves was filled with a disturbingly large collection of Icha Icha; books, DVDs, and all kinds of merchandise including a plethora of (unfortunately) anatomically correct dolls. The wall opposite those shelves had a large window, flanked on each side by displays of ceremonial weaponry that most likely dated to the early days of Konoha. He could see the same criss-cross pattern on the hilts of the swords, and felt some of the weight of Hatake Clan's history.
The summoning scroll was on top of the desk, so large it nearly overwhelmed the surface, but even without unrolling it Iruka could sense that there was something off about the seal. So with that first real clue he settled down to work at unraveling the mystery.
He wasn't sure how much time passed but the next thing Iruka knew he was startled out of a daze by a plate full of bread, cheese, and fruit dropping on the desk beside him. There was a brief scratching sound of a dog's claws on the tatami and then Pakkun was also on the desk, looking smug and even a little expectant. The chuunin's stomach grumbled loudly.
“Thanks, Pakkun, I'm starving!” Iruka all but cried out, doing his best not to laugh at the crestfallen expression on the pug's face. “You're a ninken, for pity's sake. I don't need to ask how you got the plate of food in here; I just need to enjoy it.”
The ninken snorted, sounding a little rueful, before turning his attention to the scroll. “Have you found anything, sensei?” he asked.
Iruka smiled. “Actually, I think I have.” He pointed to a strange seal inscribed below where Kakashi's name had been signed. It was clearly in ink, as opposed to the blood found on the rest of the scroll. “I think this is the cause of all of the trouble. Did Kakashi-san get hit with an unusual jutsu on your last mission?”
Pakkun nodded. “Yeah, I remember! And there was something off about it; like it wasn't designed to cause any actual damage to the person who was attacked.”
“I think it was an attempt to. . . well, turn a summons animal against its summoner and shift the tide of a fight,” Iruka explained. “The shinobi that cast it probably though he hit the jackpot in someone who had eight summons. But it didn't exactly turn out as expected.”
“I'll say,” the canine grumbled. “But can you reverse it?”
“Hmmm, I think so.” Iruka pulled a small pad closer, writing down a few notes and then reading over the entire page. “This should work, and if it doesn't there'll be no harm done.”
“You know, sensei, I'm really glad that the Boss chose you to care for us if anything ever happened to him.”
“Mmmm, that's -” The pen scratched across the notepad, leaving a jagged line. “WHAT?!”
Pakkun looked appalled and his eyes moved about, looking everywhere but at Iruka. “I'll just go and get the rest of the boys, all right?” He made to jump from the desk but the chuunin caught him by his vest.
“Stay.” Iruka commanded. “And explain.”
There was a brief moment where it seemed like Pakkun would keep quiet, then with a disgruntled huff he sat back down and met the human's eyes. “He listed you as the person to be called if he was ever incapacitated and we needed help. That's why Tsunade gave you this mission.”
“She said it was because I'm good with seals!”
“That's only part of the reason. The Boss chose you as the person he trusted a long time ago.”
Iruka felt like he was in a daze. To be trusted by someone with their summons animals was a startlingly intimate thing, and not something he would have ever expected from a man he had publicly argued with just over a year ago and had only exchanged stilted pleasantries over messy mission reports with since. “But why?”
“You stand up to him and don't let him get away with any crap,” Pakkun answered. “He likes people who do that. He likes you.” There was just the right amount of emphasis on the word “likes” to convey a meaning that made Iruka flush.
“Go. . .” He had to clear his throat. “Go get your brothers and we'll see if this solution works.”
Once all eight ninken were crowded in the library Iruka took one last look at his notes, wanting to be certain he made no mistakes. He worked his way through the hand signs, carefully making sure that the placement of each hand was precise and textbook perfect. When he felt the swell of his chakra he brought his hand together in the standard “release” sign. “ Kai! ”
There was a breathless moment when his heart dropped, thinking it hadn't worked, and then with a clap of displaced air and puffs of smoke all eight ninken disappeared. Iruka collapsed into the chair with a sigh of relief, unable to prevent the silly grin that he could feel growing.
The next morning, after reporting on his success to the Hokage, Iruka made his way to the hospital. He knew, from what Shizune had told him, that Kakashi had been awoken from his medical coma as soon as his chakra levels proved that the ninken had been returned to their own plane. A good night's sleep had made his recovery complete.
He found the jounin in his assigned room, already dressed in the standard uniform, with mask and hitai-ate firmly in place. Kakashi slid the shuriken holster into place on his thigh wraps and stood, leaning over the bed to grab his flak vest. When he turned to the door and saw Iruka his visible eye widened.
“Soooo,” Iruka drawled, enjoying the sight of a discomfited Kakashi. “You like me?”
A blush grew on the sliver of the jounin's face that was visible. “Can we talk about this somewhere else?” he groaned. “Literally anywhere but here?”
Iruka stepped into the room and took the flak vest from Kakashi's slackened grip, helping to settle it over the other man's shoulders. Then he slid his hand into the spot the vest had vacated with a smile, twining their fingers together. “Sure. But you're buying breakfast.”
Kakashi couldn't remember the last time he agreed to something that quickly.