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Vestiges

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Vestiges

***

Part One: (Regret)

In the distance a child was crying. Small lungs heaving as they sobbed their heart out.

His heart stuttered, discontented by the sound. He tried to move, but his body wouldn’t obey him. Limbs sodden, weighed down like lead. Pain flared, as he rode waves of agony. Each breath an ebbing flow that threatened to pull him under.

“Boss! Boss! Over here. I’ve found them. Iruka-sensei’s in bad shape.”

Gentle hands turned him, dancing along his skin, lightly assessing. Soft murmuring and then a gentle, calm voice.

“You’re going to be ok sensei.”

The tone brooked no argument and would have been reassuring, but Iruka was fading. His consciousness threatening to evaporate into darkness, even as hands continued to stroke his battered face.

“I’ll look after you.”

His body started shaking, seizing tightly as the nerves along his spine pulled tight. His mouth opened in a soundless scream as something tore. Sweat broke out along his brow and his stomach heaved threatening to empty its contents.

“He’s bleeding out! Hold him still!”

Hands grabbed at his clothing pushing and pulling him in all directions.

“He’s lapsing! Primary healer report! I can’t stabilise him!”

He drifted, the figures above him cleaving away to reveal a bright canopy above.

Warmth flooded his system - connecting nerves and mending sinew.

Caught in the torrent of chakra, he lost his senses. All he could smell was copper and iron.

For a single moment, his vision cleared. Keeling above him, a grey-haired figure - masked face strained in determination.

Kakashi.

Relief washed over him and the tight fist of tension in his belly eased.

It would all be ok.

He let go and darkness consumed him.

***

Iruka patted the thick material of his fatigues, tucking them away with his battered forehead protector. The metal gleamed darkly, still encrusted with his blood.

Before passing out he’d given the protector to Naruto, feeling helpless against the small boy’s snot smeared face and tear-filled eyes.

Any remaining reservations had dissipated into the wind.

He’d been conflicted responding to the Hokage’s summon that Naruto had stolen forbidden scrolls. Thinking that the foolish boy’s need for attention had finally driven him too far.

But when facing Mizuki, his closest friend since childhood, Iruka’s body had moved on its own.

Protect Naruto. That absolute certainty drove him on.

He’d been sure that he was going to die, and his regrets had spilled from his lips as Naruto looked on terrified.

Somehow, they’d survived.

Between Naruto’s miraculous rendition of the kage bunshin no jutsu and the swift efficiency of Konoha’s medic nin, Iruka would not only live but make a full recovery within days.

Then he’d be back at the Academy as if nothing had ever happened.

He wondered what he’d do in that time.

Resting would help his body heal, but he needed a distraction.

He feared what would happen when his mind inevitably wandered to Mizuki and - why, why Mizuki? Why would you do that? How could you betray me – betray Konoha that way? Konoha is our home.

Iruka shook his head and staggered to his knees. Feeling the weight of the grief that awaited him if he lingered in his thoughts too long.

He couldn’t think about it right now. Not with the wounds barely sealed along his spine – not with Mizuki’s unwashed uniforms still mixed in with his laundry. He wasn’t strong enough.

Iruka felt foolish then - of how close the man had been to family and how little he’d really known him.

There was no point in dwelling though. The forbidden scrolls had been returned to the Hokage and Mizuki had been detained for interrogation.

All that was left for Iruka to do was sit in his small house and wait.

He’d find something to do.

He could always visit Naruto. The last he’d seen of the boy, he’d been curled beneath the Hokage’s arm, deep asleep with exhaustion. Iruka’s forehead protector had slipped down around the child’s neck, collecting drool. Iruka had reclaimed it silently, vowing that he’d return it when it was clean.

That seemed like a lifetime ago.

Although less than 12 hours had passed, Iruka felt like he had run an emotional gauntlet. From shock and disbelief to betrayal and anger.

Exhaustion was a ninja’s closest companion of which Iruka was intimately acquainted. Begrudgingly, it had moved in – settling in the marrow of Iruka’s bones and taking up tender.

I probably need to sleep.

But sleep threatened to bring other dangers. Exhaustion, Iruka could handle. He wasn’t sure he was ready to face the dreams…

His eyelids began sagging but he couldn’t bring himself to move to bed.

The day’s events still pulled at him. He rubbed his temples and tried not to recall with stinging clarity, the bite of Mizuki’s fuma shuriken embedding against his spine.

It was unfathomable. Iruka tried to reconcile the small soft-spoken boy, with a kind smile who had held Iruka’s hand through their first steps into the Academy. The man that had never faltered in giving Iruka firm, friendly advice when he needed it.

What had happened to change him so drastically? Iruka couldn’t comprehend it.

Mizuki’s laundry was littered across Iruka’s house, so too were the remnants of their shared life; on the counter were the tags Iruka had made Mizuki for his next mission. Unwashed in the kitchen was the cup Mizuki had specifically brought for tea, disparaging Iruka’s poor taste in crockery.

Iruka owned few material possessions, a shared trait among shinobi.

His most prized belonging, beside his hiate and photos of his parents, was the peace-lily Iruka had received when he turned twenty. Mizuki had arrived early that morning, apologising that he would miss the celebrations but beneath his arm he’d held the most curious plant Iruka had ever seen.

‘It’s good for toxins’, Mizuki had explained.

Iruka had puzzled over it, picking up care instructions from Yamanaka’s Florist and flipping through an informative book titled The Diabolik – Meaning of Flowers. He thumbed to ‘Peace-Lily’ and began to wonder why Mizuki thought Iruka needed a sympathy flower.

Regardless, he’d still placed the plant next to the window beside his bed, a cherished present from one of his most special people. He tended to it diligently and it flourished.

It was all… tainted now.

Sighing deeply, Iruka began tidying the apartment. Gathering Mizuki’s possessions one by one.

He couldn’t sleep with so many reminders of the man surrounding him.

Rummaging for a box, he began depositing items. He’d return everything and remove all evidence that Mizuki had ever been a focal part of his life.

Step One for moving on , he thought, you take out the trash.                        

And he’d do it right now.

***

Mizuki lived in a teacher housing complex like Iruka’s. The quality was fractionally better as it had been built more recently and was made of the sturdy indestructible concrete recently favoured by Konoha’s construction crew.

Unlike Iruka’s apartment, the building didn’t bear residual signs of battle – no bent piping, no slipping shingles among the roof tiles. Mizuki’s complex even had a blossoming communal vegetable garden from which some green-thumbed nin had managed to coax edible produce.

The quality of the construction belied the subpar security.

Getting through Iruka’s front door was a pure chakra-infused obstacle course.

Conversely, Mizuki tended to only rely on a very solid deadbolt and a two-pin tumbler lock that could be picked by a small child.

‘I don’t have anything worth stealing’, Mizuki had told him. ‘And if someone wants me dead, well we live in a village of chakra-enhanced killing machines. Your simple jutsu won’t do much to save your life, let alone your apartment if someone wants to come in.’

Of course, the bastard was right but Iruka had enough confidence in his barrier technique to think his traps might at least slow someone down.

A second or two could make a difference, give him enough time to arm himself at least, and then –

Well…that argument didn’t matter anymore, did it?

Iruka made quick work of the door and silently entered the apartment. The sun had already set and Iruka could feel each hour he’d been awake as if they were a physical force slowing him down.

He’d been here just two days before. Laughing with Mizuki over the upcoming genin exams and trying to decide which topics they should test.

They’d squabbled slightly and ended on a compromise. Mizuki would draft the written component of the examination if Iruka would evaluate the practical. Iruka hadn’t minded but their sticking point had been what justu to grade.

Practicality had Iruka advocating for the kawarimi no jutsu.

It makes the most sense!’, he’d exploded. ‘A genin on a mission isn’t going to be able to use the bunshin no jusu to hide. It’s a combat orientated jutsu. Any nin can recognise chakra- they’ll be picked off straight away. Being able to replace their body with another object is much better for avoiding injury and escaping which – at genin level is the best thing we could ask them to do.’

Mizuki of course had disagreed but then Mizuki was talented at infiltration, the bunshin no jutsu and cloning were a core part of his repertoire.

Iruka couldn’t remember why he’d conceded but even then, he’d had a sinking feeling. He’d attributed the feeling to Naruto and his silly sexy no jutsu.

But Iruka had already been prepared to fail the boy. Had steeled himself for the fall out. He’d been expecting it.

Of course he thought Naruto would go off the handle; add some graffiti to Hokage rock, pull a few pranks – let off some steam. Iruka had hoped that by failing, Naruto might even refocus his attention on classes. Iruka had wanted to impress upon him the seriousness of his decision to become a ninja.

Good pranksters didn’t always become good ninja…

You were expecting him to fail. You were looking forward to it.

He rubbed a hand across his face as if it could erase some of his shame.

This isn’t how he’d wanted it to go.

Iruka knew his feelings of animosity were undeserved. Naruto had done nothing wrong.

The Sandaime had been right to point it out to him.

Grief was like a poison.

He was beyond it now but wished it hadn’t taken such a dire situation for him to realise it. Releasing those horrible thoughts and feelings had been cleansing.

Iruka hoped that he could cleanse himself of Mizuki too.

The streetlights flickered on outside as he began to unpack Mizuki’s belongings.

Mizuki had left in a hurry. His cupboards sat ajar; bed unmade. Most telling was the uneaten bowl of rice, now hard.

Piled next to that were exam papers. They were strewn somewhat haphazardly, covered in scrawl.

The bright crayon answers of genin spotted with the occasional doodle – a shuriken, the Konoha leaf – on one paper a genin had scribbled what looked like the Hokage in his wide brimmed hat.

The innocence expressed there should have consoled him, should have reminded him that not everything in the world was bad. Instead, the sight of the unmarked exams sparked a latent fury that rose hot in the back of his throat until suddenly he was yelling – screaming out into the emptiness of the room.

He spun, throwing the bag of clothing in a blur of motion. It cracked into a nearby lampshade, sending it tumbling off a low table. It continued sailing until it smacked against the closed window.

With a reverberate crash, both lamp and window shattered.

Now that he’d started, Iruka couldn’t seem to stop. Next were plates – flying and smashing satisfactorily against the kitchen cabinet. The plates were then followed by books – political thrillers all of them - that cast bad men as heroes – because of course Mizuki was that type of miscreant.

Iruka made wreckage of the place until he wore himself out, gasping and panting, clutching at one of the many wounds that ached and throbbed across his body.

He collapsed against the table, upending the bowl of rice and upsetting the exam papers. Tears burning hot and unshed in his eyes.

Get a hold of yourself Iruka.

He took a few deep breaths trying to fend off how suffocated the room made him feel. His chest was filled with a swirling mass that seemed to constrict and crush his lungs.

Confusion, hurt, and anger all emerged to tangle up his thoughts until all he wanted to do was run yelling down the street.

But who would he run to? Mizuki had been his closest friend.

He bit at his fingers and then sighed, burying his head in his hands.

Don’t fall apart here. You’re stronger than this. You’re alive, and in a few days you’ll be back in the classroom. It doesn’t matter that he was your friend – practically family –

He cut his thoughts off.

A ninja endures. He chanted silently. Then rose to his feet and collected the papers from the floor, shuffling them, then separating by class and grade.

It was easy to find a red marker. He was in a teacher’s house after all, even if that teacher had been a lying, backstabbing, piece of trash.

I have time to spare, so might as well mark them . It wasn’t the students who were at fault.

Later, when the Hokage questioned him, Iruka would blame tiredness.

He graded five papers before he realised that something about the answers seemed wrong.

There was something odd about the answer sheets. Blinking rapidly, he furiously tried to connect his thoughts.

There was something…

He pulled out an unanswered copy and circled each correct answer – then traced the patterns they made on the sheet. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but the pattern sparked something in the back of his mind.

The way each section was marked…

He was sure he’d seen something similar in the mission room.

Stranger still, when he looked at the examinations – five students demonstrated full marks; Sasuke, Sakura, Shikamaru, Shino and….

Naruto? He checked the paper again; certain his eyes had deceived him but no. There it was.

Naruto had answered the test correctly, even embellishing it with his token Uzumaki swirl.

Did I underestimate him? Iruka wondered.

First Naruto’s exceptional demonstration of the kage bunshin no jutsu and now this – a perfect test score?

His contemplation kept him from noticing the shadow until it moved. His body reacted swiftly, a kunai materialising in his hand as he spun, crouched low – barely healed skin pulling across his back.

The shadow coughed politely from where it perched in the broken window, white mask gleaming in the dull light.

“Your presence has been requested,” the ANBU intoned – voice slightly distorted. Blushing, Iruka pulled himself together, straightening his collar and standing straight, returning the kunai to its hidden location.

“ANBU-san you startled me. Apologies, I wasn’t expecting to be disturbed.” Flustered, he hobbled over to the window, moving Mizuki’s clothing onto a low table as he passed - wincing as pens, a few stray senbon, and for some reason a strange orange marble - clattered out.

How odd.

“Nor should you expect us – it defeats the purpose” the ANBU responded. Then, making one-handed seals with a lazy ease that spoke of experience, the ANBU grabbed Iruka’s arm and teleported them away.

***

The Hokage’s official office sat adjacent to the Academy and was adjoined to the Mission Room where Iruka spent most of his weekends. It was a grand building, built purposely with the strategic function of ensuring that in an attack, its most vulnerable and valuable population would be protected.

The building was ground zero for shinobi but Iruka couldn’t fathom why they had arrived here, instead of the Hokage’s Residence where Iruka knew Sandaime preferred to hold his post-mission debriefs.

As a child, he’d interrupted the briefings many times. He’d often tried his luck pranking jounin returning from missions – he’d pretended to be the Hokage’s assistant until one, particularly disgruntled ANBU had hung him out the window by his ankles.

Each time he was caught, he’d behave for a bit afterwards, but it didn’t stick.

There was a reason the Hokage insisted he and Naruto were similar.

The calm persona he’d perfected as an adult didn’t reflect his penchant for mischief and unfortunately most jounin in the village weren’t fooled by it.

There was a reason they obeyed Iruka in the mission room, no matter how picky he could be. Better rewriting a mission scroll than waking up to find all your furniture chakra bonded to the ceiling.

It was hard to shake a reputation once you’d made it and Konoha was small.

The ANBU beside him was calm and didn’t seem to think much of Iruka at all. They emanated a nonchalance, navigating corridors with ease.

They were tall, despite the slouched curve of their spine and the low dip of their head. Male, Iruka suspected, even though dark robes concealed their figure.

Their swagger was familiar. Iruka struggled to place it as his fatigue set in. It didn’t really matter.

It never paid to be too close to ANBU and Iruka would really like to avoid a quick but painful visit to the Torture and Interrogation Division. He already had one Yamanaka in his class, he didn’t need any more rummaging around in his head.

Oh, just imagine. Can you imagine? No, it’s too terrible – don’t think about it. Think of every memory they’d uncover. Remember your first date? That fumbling kiss beneath the Hokage Mountain just before you took your Chuunin exams. Even the rock-face was embarrassed for you.

More embarrassing memories surfaced.

Or when you taught that weapon training class for the second years when Mizuki called in sick. You came out like a pin cushion. Pre-genin are terrifying.

Then most embarrassingly;

And could you imagine if they stumbled across that dream you had of Kakashi and that evening on the bench where he leans over and you thought he was planning to kiss you but instead-

He cut off the thought quickly and cleared his throat hesitantly, suddenly paranoid that the walls could read his thoughts.

The ANBU continued to ignore him, reaching out to place a gloved hand to the door. Their chakra lit up the security seal and the paper fizzled and burst into a bright blaze before turning to ash.

Strange. Iruka couldn’t help thinking.

The Sandaime very rarely used such security precautions for his office. Between the Mission Room downstairs and the constant stream of ANBU, not to mention the Hokage’s personal guard – only a lunatic would try to gain access.

They entered the wide board room that served as the Hokage’s waiting room.

To Iruka’s surprise, other nin were already in the room. He recognised a chuunin of Inuzuka stock, who sat with hands firmly folded and a large dog heeled to her side. There was also an administrator from the mission room. Iruka had shared the same shift once or twice, what was their name? Azumi? Akubi? Then finally, leaning against the far wall was one face Iruka thought of as friendly.

“Anko,” he sighed and walked over briskly, “Do you know what’s going on here?”

She shook her head and pulled the dango from her mouth with a pop.

“Iruka – you in some kind of trouble?” Her posture was relaxed but her eyes, as usual, were sharp.

It was an ominous question. True, it was never a good thing to be escorted by an ANBU but to be greeted by what resembled a clean-up crew?

This was T&I protocol.

He half expected Ibiki to be there, scarred countenance and a pair of pliers at the ready.

He shivered.

Well, shit. Iruka’s spine stiffened at the implications. He hadn’t thought to be concerned by his ANBU escort, and the Hokage regularly summoned him for counsel – particularly on the students at the Academy.

It hadn’t occurred to him that perhaps he was the one in trouble.

If Anko was present, then he had to assume the worst.

T&I had a reputation for perfect confession. Torture was a last resort, but it was no secret that Anko not only liked her job – she was also very good at it.

Quick witted, she could pick apart weakness as if slicing through a peach, exposing every fleshy, pulpy part inside.

Iruka himself had never suffered her tender mercies professionally but had the distinct displeasure of facing her in the preliminaries of his first chuunin examination.

The back of his neck still occasionally throbbed thinking about it.

He shook his head trying to regain some composure and clarity.

“I – I hadn’t thought so”, he murmured. “I suspected that I might get called in to debrief on the situation with Mizuki and to perhaps provide some information for the interrogators, but this feels quite removed from that…” He paused and faced her suddenly.

Am I in trouble Anko?”

She shrugged, brazenly continuing to slouch against the wall.

“If I had to guess – I’d say you’ve been up to no good. But I know you.” She waved her hand dismissively. “You’re spotless. What type of ninja are you? Do you even have a pulse?.”

Iruka frowned. She didn’t need to insult him. 

Stability was key in a chuunin. Not everyone could be an eccentric jounin. Someone needed to make sure that Konoha functioned properly.

Administration wasn’t as exciting as battle against enemy nin, and sure, it couldn’t compare to a battle with a jinchuriki, but maintaining procedures and protocols was key to keeping their village safe. Iruka wouldn’t allow anyone to belittle that.

“My pulse is working fine Anko. It’s your blood sugar level you should worry about.” He let his eyes flick from the dango.

Her eyes narrowed in response.

Iruka always walked a fine line.

Despite their differences, they were somehow still friends. Anko had few and far between and trusted even less. Iruka was one of few she truly trusted. For that reason alone, she often gave him the benefit of the doubt. He didn’t know how far that would stretch. Certainly, not this far he thought, eyeing the participants in the room.

The wide shouji screen slid open before them, revealing two nin wearing the Hokage’s colours – his elite guard. The ANBU escorting Iruka bowed and slipped back against the wall of the room, retreating into the shadows.

Seated between the two guards, was the Hokage resplendent in all regalia. It was unusual to see him in formal attire. The Sandaime was usually a placid leader, rarely stern and touchingly kind. Iruka had seen him displeased but never truly angry.

The Hokage leant forwards heavily onto his hands, his cowl casting his face into darkness.

“Iruka, good. They brought you in time.” His voice was husky, as if he’d spent the evening shouting.

He probably had.

Most likely at Naruto for pulling such a foolish stunt. Stealing forbidden jutsu from the Hokage’s quarters was treason.

Iruka made a mental note to add the topic to the pre-genin curriculum if he ever left this room.

It was looking more and more uncertain, as Anko moved to block one of the three available exits.

Did they think he was going to try and escape out the window?  

He cleared his throat. “Hokage-sama, I am pleased to arrive in a timely manner. How may I serve?”

The Hokage gestured to his guard, and one presented a rolled parchment. Iruka had only seen something similar once in his life. As they released the seals, the scroll unfurled revealing not only the insignia for the Hokage but that of the Council.

Orders from Iruka’s utmost authority, not only as a ninja but as a citizen of Konoha.

“You have been given a mission, Iruka. It is only appropriate that you receive context and know the price should you fail.”

Iruka, reached out with trembling fingers – eyes already scanning the text.

S-class. It was an S-class mission. The bottom of his stomach fell. There, in bold calligraphy, detailed so very clearly was the reason the Hokage had called him.

“You, Iruka Umino, are suspected of aiding and abetting the traitor Mizuki Ito, and facilitating the theft of forbidden justu. The Council in their infinite wisdom –“, here the Hokage’s lips twisted slightly, “have decreed that you may choose an option. You may undertake this mission - despite the level of danger and track down the threat to Konoha. Mizuki may have leaked information outside of the village. We know that he was not working alone.”

He paused; eyes locked on Iruka thoughtfully.

“Or, you may choose to immediately proceed to T&I, where our operatives will extract your level of involvement.”

Anko was frowning, the Inuzuka looked tense. Even the Hokage’s guard seemed disconcerted. The Hokage removed his hat and placed it gently on the table. His expression became kind. Fatherly.

“Iruka, you provided a great service apprehending Mizuki and ensuring the scrolls were returned. You protected Naruto and demonstrated all the qualities I could ever hope for in my shinobi. I can do nothing more for you than offer you this choice.”

Iruka blinked dumbly, unable to comprehend his words.

“I’m…under suspicion?” Iruka stared sightlessly at the scroll, thoughts racing.

The Sandaime sighed heavily, leaning back and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Then, seemingly having made up his mind, he continued.

“You may be unaware Iruka, of evidence that implicates your involvement. We understand you are a close companion of Mizuki’s and have been beside one another since childhood. The village has no desire to pry into the nature of your relationship but by virtue of that closeness and the extent of this betrayal – you have been stripped of all duties pertaining to both the Mission Desk and the Academy until such a point when you have been cleared of committing any crime.”

The words punched Iruka in the chest and for one terrible moment all breath seemed to escape him.

They were taking it all away.

Since becoming a teacher there was the one thing he was certain of – that he was good. He made a difference. They couldn’t – couldn’t take that away from him. It was an extension of his self, his core purpose for waking up each morning. Without it, what would he do with his days? Lie in his futon? He’d waste away in his apartment sustained by memory alone until someone put him out of his misery. Maybe he’d do it first.

Each thought brought more dread. There was no way out of it. Even if he ceded and they took him to T&I to prove his innocence, the Academy wouldn’t be able to take him back. The Council would revoke his permissions. No parent wanted their child – ninja or not to be taught by someone who had come under suspicion from the Hokage.

His hands tightened against his thighs as hurt washed over him. How could the Sandaime even think he would betray the village? The Sandame was the closest thing to a father he had. For him to doubt Iruka so badly rendered a wound that Iruka wasn’t sure would heal.

He swallowed.

Perhaps there was still a chance. He could take the mission. Clear his name. If he could find enough evidence to exonerate himself…

“I accept,” he began, “I’ll take the mission and make sure those responsible are caught Hokage-sama.”

A tension lifted from the room as the Hokage nodded.

“Good Iruka, good.” His tone was grave, but he managed a parental smile.

“You’ll depart tomorrow, accompanied by a three-man team. Read through the parameters of the mission and be prepared to depart from the gates at dawn. An ANBU will escort you until you meet with your team.”

Iruka’s spine straightened and his hand automatically went to a salute. Iruka would do as he, and all other ninja of the hidden leaf had been taught – follow the Hokage’s instructions.

“Yes sir, I will prepare this evening.” Iruka bowed low. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clear my name Hokage-sama.”

The Hokage waved his hand dismissively.

“I don’t doubt your loyalty Iruka, but I am a sentimental old man and have been wrong before. All I ask is that you prove your innocence. For my peace of mind, it is essential that you do so.”

Iruka bowed again, lower in gratitude.

The Sandaime nodded, tucking his hands beneath his chin. “I have the greatest faith in you. Go prove your loyalty as a proud shinobi of Konoha.”

“Sir.” The slouched ANBU returned. In his hand they held a half-completed piece of paper. Iruka recognised it immediately. It was the exam he’d been marking earlier.

“That’s – ” he started but the ANBU swept past him to place the paper on the Hokage’s desk.

“Iruka?” The Hokage questioned, examining the paper.

“Our pre-genin exam paper. Mizuki wrote it last week and administered it two days ago to the students.” Iruka struggled for a moment, trying to find the words. “I noticed something about it, I – I couldn’t put my finger on it though.”

“If I may, Hokage-sama,” the ANBU interjected, “I believe I may be able to shed light where Umino-san cannot.”

The Hokage nodded ruefully.

“By all means, enlighten us.” The ANBU nodded and began to draw across the paper with broad strokes.

“Here, here and here. It’s relatively simple. When you overlay the numbered question with the answer, we get a rotational pattern. And here see? It perfectly matches the 9-hour cycles of the evening patrol. Then compare it to a simplified blueprint of the Hokage residence, you will see that the information contained on a correctly answered exam sheet matches the times the guard patrol enters each section of your compound. This explains why the kid was able to get past our defences. The information was given to him.”

The ANBU gave Iruka a wary look, as if their assessment of his intelligence had risen in leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile, Iruka still struggled to make sense of how the ANBU had pulled something so elaborate from what was meant to be a harmless exam for eleven-year olds.

The Hokage stood abruptly and began to pace behind the desk, deep in thought. Eventually, he came to a stop.

“It’s true, very few people are privy to that information. Iruka would have access by virtue of handing out the missions. But the rotation changes so frequently there’s no guarantee it would remain the same when it came time to acquire the scrolls…” he tapped at his chin again. “Yes, I believe I am starting to see the shape of it.”

He sat at his desk, and poured himself a cup of tea, nodding towards the ANBU.

“ANBU-san accompany him home, you’re on escort until tomorrow morning. Iruka, you will meet your team tomorrow, read the dossier this evening and prepare.” He turned to address the other ninja in the room. “Anko, go complete your report on Mizuki’s interrogation. I want it ready for the mission leader tonight.” She nodded and teleported away.

Suddenly, Iruka felt very tired. The tension that had been holding him upright all evening faltered and snapped. Exhausted, he bowed again, bidding the Hokage farewell and retreated after the ANBU as they exited the building. The scroll in his vest pocket felt heavy and his fingers itched to open it.

He’d never been on an S-class mission before. The only time he’d ever seen a scroll for an S-class was when a drunken Mizuki had waved it around like the ultimate prize in a carnival game. He’d been so pleased to ‘have his skills recognised’.

In hindsight Iruka could recognise that Mizuki had probably been gloating. He’d implied more than once that it was just one more thing that Iruka wasn’t suited for.

That was a lie though. Iruka didn’t lack skill as a ninja. How could he? His mother had been a sensor jounin of some renown and his father, a capable chuunin in his own right.

Iruka had pedigree when it came to ability. Just not the heart. Or rather too much of it.

He didn’t doubt his ability to protect an ally and he could kill in defence, he knew.

But he wasn’t polished. He couldn’t emerge unscathed. Not the way an accomplished jounin could. Without regret. He also couldn’t revel in it the way Mizuki had.

Mizuki loved missions. Enjoyed the challenge and proving his worth. Iruka had never thought to question what that might mean. Or what it could drive a man like Mizuki too.

Betrayal, it seemed. The answer was clear now.

The ANBU stopped suddenly and Iruka realised belatedly they were already outside his apartment.

“I leave you here. You have your orders from the Hokage. Prepare and I will escort you to the gates tomorrow. We leave at dawn. Be awake. You won’t enjoy it if I am required to wake you.”

With that the figure blurred and dissipated entirely.

Oh good, I always enjoy the abrupt departure of someone who could kill me while I sleep.

Taking a deep breath, he unlocked his door making his way inside. Things were strewn as he had left them only hours before. Since then, the world had tilted on its axis, leaving him drifting afloat and out to sea.

The numbness would probably fade. What it would be replaced by, he wasn’t certain. Sighing, he took the mission scroll from his pocket.

He sat and began to read.

***

Morning dawned in brilliant shades of red and purple, streaked with strands of golden light. Iruka had slept poorly, his mind still racing with the objectives of the mission. He’d packed lightly. A few ration bars, blank tags and ink, and two sealing scrolls. He never brought additional weapons on missions other than those that fit into his flak jacket. Additional kunai were always a pain, poking and jabbing at you at inopportune moments. Odds were you’d never even reach them if you needed them.

Better to conserve energy with a lighter pack.

The mission hadn’t seemed orientated towards combat but with Hatake Kakashi and Shiranui Genma assigned to the same team, it was a possibility.

From experience, Iruka knew they were both powerhouses in battle.

Hatake-san with his unearthly grace and tenacity. The ferocity of his mind in flight sent shivers down Iruka’s spine.

Genma didn’t use jutsu the same way as Hatake-san but he was skilled in both weaponry and poisons. He was strong too. Iruka had seen him break a training pillar in two with a simple chain and a senbon.

Iruka wasn’t sure what he could offer to the team.

Maybe they think I did it…maybe they’re taking me out to Iwagakure to stab me to death. He chuckled to himself without humour. Treasonous Umino Iruka dead by dawn. Naruto would probably cry…

That sobered him. Naruto would miss him if he was gone. Iruka had a reason to come home. A reason to prove his innocence and catch whoever was responsible. The realisation melted on his tongue like butter. He wanted to come home again, whatever it took. He wanted to show the Hokage that his faith was not misplaced.

Most of all, he wanted to make sure Naruto was ok.

He shouldered his pack, glanced at his apartment one last time and settled his resolve.

I’m coming back.

The ANBU waiting impatiently outside was less than impressed with the time it had taken Iruka to come to this proclamation but lacked enough investment to raise the issue.

Instead, they sprinted through the streets as the sun finally broke through the last fading remnants of night.

***

The gate seemed somehow larger than Iruka remembered. More foreboding. Genma had already arrived, pack slung over a broad shoulder, chewing on a senbon and looking bleary-eyed. His eyes brightened when he spotted Iruka.

“Iruka-sensei! Punctual as usual, don’t suppose you happened to see our wayward team leader on your way?”

Iruka shook his head and couldn’t stop the small smile breaking across his face. Trust Genma to treat him the same as usual. They’d known each other for years but had never been particularly close.

Iruka liked him, generally. They spoke when needed and didn’t burden one another with polite necessities.

Genma was jovial enough that Iruka could share his wry humour and he wasn’t afraid to tease despite Iruka’s known temper. Iruka liked to think that maybe, they could even have become friends if the distance between jounin and chuunin wasn’t so difficult to breach.

Difficult between friends and certainly impossible for lovers – though Iruka had never thought of Genma that way.  

But there were jounin that he had thought about.

His mind briefly strayed to his favourite late-night fantasy of a one eyed jounin-sensei. It was hard not to entertain semi-indecent thoughts about the man after their last mission together.

It had only been B-rank but Iruka had foolishly become embroiled in a local dispute between a small family of farmers and a group of roaming bandits. His good intentions had jeopardised the mission until Kakashi doubled back to smooth things over.

Kakashi’s justice was swift and brutal. Iruka had been equally appalled and enthralled by his efficiency. Iruka had expected that the man would chastise him for his error but instead Kakashi had simply warned him that he could not afford to be so kind.

In that moment, Iruka knew his career in the field was over. He would forever be unable to stand by and watch children suffer, or people starve.

In the end, Iruka had walked away with a clearer understanding of himself and knew exactly what he needed to do. He’d presented himself to the Hokage for reassignment the same day – walking away with a new nindo and an entirely inappropriate desire to bed Hatake Kakashi.

And what an incredible mistake that would be.

He banished the thought immediately from his mind. Now was not time for greater contemplation of his love life (non-existent, dead on arrival, not worth mentioning).

“No, didn’t see him. Though his reputation precedes him. I expect we may not see him here till midday.” Genma grimaced and dropped his pack to the ground, sliding from his feet to crouch down in the dirt. “What did I get up early for again? Might as well catch some shut-eye.”

Iruka’s ANBU escort appeared to disagree and cleared their throat loudly.

“If I’m no longer needed, I will depart. I’ll summon sen- Hatake-san separately to attend. You should not delay.”

The ANBU dissipated in a swirl of leaves, leaving both men to fend for themselves as the sun began to shine down in earnest.

Genma eyed Iruka speculatively.

“You’ll have to show me that trick sometime. If I could make ANBU flee from me like that – I’d be a comfortable man.”

Iruka couldn’t suppress his grin.

“Yes, that’s me. Terror of Konoha. I leave ANBU quaking in their shoes.” They giggled even as a third voice broke in.

“Quaking sensei? Do tell.”

The suggestiveness of it had Iruka spinning, a sudden vein beginning to throb at his temple. Sure enough, there was Kakashi, orange book in hand, half an hour late.

If only the damn man didn’t look so composed. Iruka groaned internally as his eyes drank in the sight against his will. The silver shock of hair, the single curved smiling eye…Iruka tried to convince himself it wasn’t possible to see the curve of his lips beneath his mask -

And failed.

Surely the trying had to count for something.

“Hatake-san,” he tried, smothering the spike of desire with his annoyance, “you’re late.”

“Maa Sensei, not all of us are as bright in the morning as you.” His eye wandered over to Genma and he smiled again. “Case in point.”

Genma groaned, curling into his pack which now formed a makeshift pillow. “I’d attempt to kill you but then I don’t really care enough to move.” He paused momentarily, opening one bleary eye. “Wait…are you…is that a new face mask!?”

Kakashi cleared his throat awkwardly. Single eye sliding to Iruka and then darting back.

“It’s operational.” He mumbled, heaving his pack and then darting out the gates, leaving a single footprint on the front of Genma’s vest before then man had time to react.

Genma shot to his feet with a roar and started sprinting after the speck of grey and green in the distance.

“HA-TA-KEeeeee!”

Yes, Iruka thought these jounin are crazy. He stifled a laugh and followed suit.

***

Two hours of solid running was enough to dampen even the best mood. What was charming only hours before now had Iruka holding back the urge to bite his fingernails. A habit he’d grown out of as a genin.

By assigning Genma and Kakashi on this mission, Iruka had thought that the Hokage was offering him a boon.

They were ninja at the top of their field. Strong, smart and focused. Surely, ideal candidates to help Iruka prove his innocence…

The preconception was being sorely challenged.

In the past half hour alone, he’d watched Genma juggle kunai (with both hands and feet). With horror he’d watched Kakashi miraculously jaunt through the trees without raising his head from his cursed orange book once.

He fought down the urge to yell at them both. This mission would determine whether Iruka was branded a traitor or not. He would have appreciated a bit more focus.

“What’s the plan?” he asked, eyeing as Kakashi turned another page of Icha Icha Ignite .

He battled irritation, as heat crawled up the back of his neck. Did the man really need to be reading that right now?

Jounin were known to be eccentrics and perverts. What did it matter if Kakashi was apparently both? Despite everything, Kakashi was an amazing ninja. With the White Fang for a father and the Fourth Hokage as a mentor, how could he not be?

Kakashi continued as if he hadn’t heard him, turning the final page and sighing happily as the novel reached its conclusion.

Finally, he put the virulently blinding book away and looked up to the sky.

“Now is probably time. Alright let’s move.” He hauled Genma up by the back of his jacket and snatched the kunai he’d been juggling from the air, sheathing them in Genma’s front pocket in a smooth action that made Iruka’s insides pull tight.

Clearing his throat, Iruka looked up at the sky trying to spot whatever signal had spurred Kakashi into action.

Other than the sun and a few white clouds - there was little he could interpret. They wandered slightly deeper into the forest as Kakashi brought them slowly to a halt.

“From here on out, we’re in stealth. Our target is four days travel to the east – a fishing village called Ito. The village is the hometown of the traitor Mizuki and his family is said to still wield some influence within the borders. Our information is that it is not a ninja village and we are not expecting contact with any hostiles however…”

Genma, having roused himself from his earlier boredom suddenly seemed alert. His eyes narrowed, understanding Kakashi’s unspoken words. Iruka felt hopelessly slow and looked between them both, trying to force understanding. Genma took pity on him first.

“Mizuki wasn’t working alone. We know that. Whoever he was working with will likely try to cover their trail. They’ve already tried to do so by implicating you Iruka-sensei.”

Iruka’s eyes widened as warmth bloomed in his chest. Touched by Genma’s unquestioned faith in his innocence. The feeling curled itself in his belly and lit up his limbs. He nodded, resolute.

Kakashi was watching him strangely. The man’s eye was no longer smiling, turning dark, serious and stern.

“That’s right sensei. That’s why we’ll start there. We should expect to be followed.”

Iruka’s fingers curled into fists.

“I’m not a coward Hatake-san. I know what’s at stake and I’m prepared to put my life on the line to protect Konoha.”

Kakashi held up his hands placatingly.

“I know sensei. I don’t doubt your bravery or ability.” He eyed Genma who continued chewing on his senbon, lazily eyeing the surrounding trees.

“Shiranui-san however…well I’m more doubtful. He has a bit of a track record for accidentally stabbing himself on missions.”

Genma choked and spun, waving a finger accusingly.

“No, no, no Copy-nin. You can’t accuse me of that. Not when you’re the one that made me stab myself!”

Kakashi shrugged again.

“If you get caught in genjutsu, I can’t really be blamed. Consider it a friendly training exercise.”

Iruka watched as the air between them seemed to spark, and then just as suddenly diffused leaving both men laughing and slapping each other on the back.

Are they…friends? It was hard to tell.

He hoped that was it and not…something else…something more.

It would make sense though wouldn’t it. For them to be something more. His stomach swooped unpleasantly.

It was stupid of him to feel that way.

They probably had a lot in common. Much more than Iruka would have with Kakashi.

Not that Iruka was hoping to have things in common. That would just make it harder, to be closer, to become friends – it would be too difficult.

Kakashi would never look at Iruka the same way. He swallowed and forced down his conflicting feelings. His quiet admiration would have to be enough. Watching Kakashi from afar, just knowing the man existed…it was all enough.

Iruka sped up. It wouldn’t do to get left behind.

***

An additional four hours of stealthily picking through vast undergrowth, and Iruka was ready to revise his opinion on jounin.

Jounin weren’t crazy. They were machines.

Beneath their long limbs and fleshy sinew had to be hard, cold steel.

They flew through the trees in perpetual motion, swinging from branch to branch. Never ceasing, never tiring.

Iruka was fit – one had to be to keep up with classrooms of raving, pre-adolescent shinobi, but this was another level.

No stopping, no slowing, barely any heavy breathing. At this point, pride alone propelled him on. Eying the sky, he silently prayed that they’d soon settle for the night. Otherwise, his body would soon stop obeying his brain and melt into a puddle of gooey muscle. They wouldn’t need to finish the mission. Iruka would be dead. They’d have to scrape his body off the forest floor and return to Konoha.

Panting, Iruka dashed sweat from his brow, trying to steady his breathing. His feet slipped and he wobbled, grabbing the side of a tree to steady himself. His eyes shot up to make sure the others hadn’t seen.

Genma continued flying forward and while Kakashi had slowed, he didn’t stop. Sucking in another lungful of air Iruka kept moving, determined to keep pace.

Finally, they ventured upon a break in the trees where their path diverged. Directly before them sat a massive cliff face with a plummeting crag of rock face that fell to meet a gushing river below. To the left was a bridge and to the right was a curving path that led up a series of hillsides before disappearing into the trees again.

Iruka eyed them both, considering.

Genma didn’t give him long.

“Tell me we’re not taking the bridge.” His eyes begged Kakashi silently. But the man had already turned and was winding his way through the path and began unfurling his sleeping kit against the base of a tree.

“Tomorrow. We’ll camp here tonight.”

By the time Iruka had followed suit, Genma had already started snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Hopefully they weren’t still aiming for stealth, Iruka thought wryly.

Kakashi took first watch. This only meant he stayed awake thumbing through that awful orange book. In Iruka’s opinion he certainly didn’t seem to be focused on keeping his eye out for potential threats.

Unable to stop himself, Iruka sidled over, reading the small script from the corner of his eye.

Himeko lay, kimono askew as she failed to cover herself. Her thighs, creamy in the light of the moon awoke something in Akiko, a hopeless longing for things she could never have.

Iruka blinked…were the lovers both…women? That was unexpected. Noticing his unsubtle observation Kakashi raised an eyebrow.

“Blushing sensei?” which immediately caused Iruka to splutter. His tone was friendly, but beneath was curiosity.

“No just – well. I didn’t realise Icha Icha catered to all sorts of partnerships.”

Kakashi’s eyebrow – if possible – seemed to arch higher.

“All sorts? Yes, well I suppose it’s diverse literature in that way.” His eye curved up in a smile.

“How about you Sensei? Are you into diversity?”

The question caught Iruka off guard and he stared into the fire. It was an odd question but the more he pondered the more he thought he understood its purpose.

“Mizuki and I weren’t together – if that’s what you’re asking. I…he was my friend – I thought he was my friend. Obviously, I was wrong, which makes me a poor judge of character but not a traitor.”

His mouth was dry as he tried to swallow. He wasn’t sure he could explain it to Kakashi. How he felt wrung out completely. Like someone had hollowed him out and replaced his chest cavity with mortar. He felt heavy and explosive. He was cracking at the seams and trying to plaster each breaking point with clay. Trying to keep his feelings from breaking through. How could he possibly make Kakashi understand it?

He tried anyway.

“I don’t understand why he did it. Intellectually, I know what he did. Better than anyone. But why? I can’t grasp it at all. Konoha is our home. We swore our allegiance. Together – at the same ceremony before the Hokage. We made oaths and promises and to break them is… unfathomable.

Iruka met Kakashi’s eye imploringly.

“I keep waiting for someone to explain it to me so that maybe the hurt will go away. I know his actions are unjustifiable, but I can’t help but want to understand because I’ve started to wonder if maybe it was my fault. Did I go wrong? Could I have stopped him?”

He hid his face in his hands. He’d done it. Exposed his stupid, foolish self to Kakashi. How would he ever be able to forgive himself for his blindness? His closest friend, and this entire time he’d be scheming against Konoha. Whatever judgement Kakashi metered out, he’d deserve it.

Kakashi remained still but sat thinking deeply. Finally, he reached out, placing a hand on Iruka’s shoulder.

“It wasn’t your fault Iruka. We aren’t responsible for the choices others make, only our own. There will be many times you fail and one day you might die because of it – this is not one of those mistakes. You’re alive and can make things right. Focus on what you can do next, and not the things you can’t change.”

A basic shinobi lesson but Iruka was glad to be reminded again. He placed his hand on top of Kakashi’s where it rested on his shoulder.

“Thank you Kakashi,” he whispered. Voice low and husky with unshed tears.

Kakashi jerked as if burned and pulled his hand back.

“Go to sleep sensei. You’ve got third watch in the morning. Genma will wake you.” They both looked to the man, sprawled out, limbs askew with mouth agape and snoring.

Kakashi snorted, eye sliding to Iruka and dancing with mirth.

“One in three odds he manages to inhale an insect while sleeping. Want to place your bet?”

Iruka grinned back, smile blinding.

“You’re on.”

***

Iruka’s watch passed peacefully as dawn broke through the struggling vestiges of night. He woke the others and as one, they erased their presence, burying the fire and dousing the embers to reduce the smoke.

“Ito is two and a half clicks west once we cross the chasm.” Genma rotated the mission scroll’s map and stuffed another ration serving into his mouth. He pulled a face.

“It’s always so dry.”

Kakashi rolled his eye and pulled out a pair of civilian clothes from his pack, before tossing them to Iruka.

“Change. We need to make sure you’re appropriately attired. The village is technically outside the rule of the Fire Domain. We can’t enter as Konoha ninja without attracting undue attention. Our mission is to determine if Mizuki has contacted anyone here in the last year, and if any information about Konoha has been revealed.”

“Genma, you’ll follow up on the lead outlined in your scroll. Iruka you’ll head to the teahouse as first point of call. Confirm.”

“Understood” they responded collectively.

Kakashi nodded and slipped seamlessly into a series of seals. A puff of smoke appeared out of which emerged a small tan dog. It looked familiar in a little dark jacket and hiate. With Kakashi’s signature henohenomoheji symbol etched on the back.

“Bisuke, follow Iruka and make sure he stays out of trouble. Any sign of danger and you contact me directly. I’ll set up our base of operations for the next few days. There seems to be a cave system here,” he drew a finger across the map. “It borders an abandoned farmstead here. Iruka will use this as his cover for the moment – you’re a wandering farmer dispossessed of your land. You’re looking for work if any is available and have taken shelter in this farm while passing through.”

Genma grinned.

“Y’know sensei, I can sorta see you as a farmer. Tanned and callused in all the right places…”

Kakashi cleared his throat forcefully but Genma didn’t take any notice.

“Don’t suppose you know how to grow rice? Beets? Iruka-sensei as a farmer…I bet all the ladies will be after you…”

Iruka blushed at the insinuations and managed to tug the clothing into place, tucking his forehead protector into the wide sleeves of his top.

They made a quick pace towards the river, Bisuke running alongside. The dog no longer wore the nin attire associated with Kakashi’s ninken and instead wore a small scarf around his neck that matched Iruka’s clothes.

Iruka wasn’t sure if this was supposed to signal ownership but imagined that Bisuke would be far from happy to be owned by a civilian that only owned clothing in an off shade of pink.

He plucked at his sleeve for the hundredth time. Had Kakashi chosen this outfit? It was ridiculous. Luckily, the mission wasn’t reliant on his looks.

The party made good speed, approaching the bridge that led to Ito’s main road.

It was less sturdy up close. Strung together with rotted planks of wood and twisted vine rope. Iruka doubted it would support three grown men.

“I’ll go first.” Iruka volunteered, trying to ignore the swirling currents of the river below. If he fell to his death the rocks would kill him before he hit the water – small mercies he supposed.

Kakashi nodded and gestured on.

Tentatively he reached out, placing a foot on the first plank and gripping the guard rope with his left hand for stability.

A moment of silence and then suddenly there was a crackling sound. Even as his hand curled around the support rope the air began to fizz. The rope sparked once and then burst into flame. Unknown chakra swelling instantly around Iruka in a brilliant blue storm.

His body responded reflexively, years of training kicking in.

Kicking off the plank he somersaulted backwards. The half-healed wound along his back stretched uncomfortably as he landed. He pushed the pain away.

The skin on his hand was blistered and swollen red where he’d touched the rope. The bridge was also scorched. Dark streaks of charcoal forming where the wood was still aflame. Above them, the ropes were alight. One by one they began to snap and unravel.

The bridge swayed perilously to the left, creaking above the chasm and then shuddered. The rivets along the planks sparked, spitting blue flames which twisted, crackling over the wood completely turning the ropes to ash.

Before his eyes, he watched as pieces of the bridge burst into flame - collapsing and falling into the inky water far below.

The residue in the air almost felt the same as an explosive tag, but he hadn’t channelled any chakra, hadn’t even thought to try and adhere himself to the bridge.

Sabotage? Had they been followed? His mind whirled. He hadn’t sensed anything or anyone during his watch. Had this been a trap? Just lying in wait for the first nin to cross?

“Sensei…” the voice broke through his thoughts sharply. “What happened?”

Genma watched him cautiously, face cast into a deep frown. His hand had automatically gone to the holster on his thigh. Iruka blinked dumbfounded.

Did Genma think he was a threat?

Iruka looked down, his injured hand was trembling.

“I- I – the rope it…I just touched it and it burnt through.”

A small smoky trail lingered in the air

Genma’s lips remained pursed around his senbon before clamping down decisively.

Kakashi plucked the senbon from his mouth with a quick slight of hand and placed it in Genma’s open palm.

“He didn’t do anything” Kakashi said heavily, pulling a scroll from his pocket. He swiped a trail of blood across the scroll triggering a cloud of smoke that dispersed to reveal Pakkun perched perilously in his hands.

“Sup Boss, what you got for me?”

“Report back to Konoha. We’ve got a tail. Tell ANBU to cross check against any nin out on missions in this district. I’ll report again once we reach the town. If you stumble across anything suspicious make sure to report directly to my most precious kouhai.”

Pakkun scented the air, one mulish eyebrow raised but then nodded and jumped down to the ground.

“You got it boss.” Then he darted off down the trail back to Konoha.

Kakashi turned, efficient and business-like gesturing towards Iruka.

“Your hand. Give it to me.” Iruka raised it, trying not to wince as each flex pulled the burns. He’d been injured worse before. It was the sheer surprise of the injury that made it tender.

He should have checked for traps before crossing. His failure loomed above him dark and heavy. Mizuki’s pale figure rippled to the surface of his mind, sneering. Another reminder of Iruka’s failure as a ninja.

Kakashi smeared burn salve across it and wrapped it tightly in a gauze.

“That’s the extent of my healing ability, I’m afraid sensei. Hands are too delicate for my usual style of jutsu. The chakra would fry your nerve endings and it’s more suited for stopping internal haemorrhaging than burns anyway.”

Iruka nodded mutely and tried to avoid Genma’s searing gaze.

“I should have checked the bridge. I’m sorry.” The apology was weak, but Iruka had nothing more he could offer. Kakashi shook his head dismissively.

“No. I suspected we might be followed. This confirms it. I’m more concerned that none of us picked up on an additional presence during the watch last night. It suggests a high calibre of skill…to pull something like this…Genma – have you seen anything like it before?”

Genma knelt by the cliff edge and rubbed some residue over his fingers. The ash sparked slightly, fizzing before turning damp and muddy.

“It’s keyed to elemental chakra affinity. It wouldn’t have caught fire for a civilian.” He concluded. “It’s not something I’ve seen in action, but a similar theory originated in Mist during the last war - that chakra affinity could be used to key weapons for specific targets…”

They fell into a deep silence both trying to erase the memory of the last war where so many jounin gained their promotion.

Iruka tried to make sense of it all. Why would someone gear the bridge to his chakra? Why would they be so desperate to stop him from crossing the river? Did they want to implicate him so badly that they would ensure the failure of his mission?

He couldn’t grasp it. None of it made any sense. Mizuki betraying Konoha was one thing. Using Iruka’s Academy examinations and sabotaging his mission was something different altogether. It spoke of intent. Planning. And more than that – a cruelty Iruka wouldn’t have thought Mizuki capable of.

Iruka had never had enemies. He was not the copy-nin and would never be found in a bingo book.

What was going on?

The Mist wouldn’t have the resources to dig up theories from the last war in order to see a lonely Chunnin Academy teacher fall from his village’s graces. There had to be something bigger. For the life of him, Iruka couldn’t find the shape of it.

Fortunately, it seemed that Kakashi was inclined to agree.

“We need to get to Ito as soon as possible. Things are in motion and we need to know what seeds Mizuki has planted.”

“But the bridge is down. Can we get across another way?” Genma eyed the mountain pass speculatively. “Let’s be honest, that way doesn’t look promising when we’re already short on time.”

Kakashi seemed to mull it over and then his eyes lit up.

“I have just the jutsu. Taught to me by a beloved Kouhai who I know would do just about anything for his senpai if asked nicely. Yes, I believe it was called the Yamato Nadeshiko jutsu.”

Genma, still surveying their surroundings paused, turned slowly to meet Kakashi’s expressionless face. Whatever he saw there sent him into a great fit – he started coughing loudly. Great gasping wheezes of air that left him staggering to a nearby tree and wiping tears from his eyes.

Then he was laughing.

“Ah, yes. Haha – I think I might know the one. Very versatile. I once saw an ANBU use it to rescue a cat from a tree.”

Kakashi’s eyelid gave a brief flicker, before he too was smiling widely. He turned and began making exaggerated hand movements, fingers forming elegant seals.

Iruka had never seen such perfect form. Kakashi usually whipped through hand seals faster than the naked eye could perceive. Was he trying to show them how the jutsu was done? Iruka tried to pay attention – boar, ram, tiger…wait was it ram? He quickly lost track as the seals became a convoluted chain of nonsense. Iruka stretched his senses to try and understand the process. The seals didn’t match the chakra release required for any practical jutsu Iruka had ever seen before.

Despite the lack of chakra, the seals seemed to be doing their work as wood slowly grew up from the basin of the cliff arching up and outwards to form a renewed bridge. Instead of planks, thick branches intertwined to create a ropey boardwalk. From the sides, small but sturdy branches twisted into side supports.

“Well damn,” Genma whistled low. “Your kouhai has some skills!” Kakashi raised an eyebrow and Iruka found himself nodding despite himself. Kakashi’s junior, whoever they were, would have incredible skills, it was only natural.

***

They continued picking up speed as they flew past trees until eventually the horizon widened and the forest was replaced by swarths of farmland. Rice fields cut segmented rectangular patches around them, reaching out forever along the distant hillside. Between each crop was a small dirt path, wide enough for two men to walk abreast.

Bright blooms of sunflowers in the distance marked the outskirts or a small wooden structure, outside which a small sign bore the flag of a teahouse.

“We’re on the outskirts now. Ito proper should be slightly further down the road. This is the traveller’s wayside point, but Iruka should be able to get enough information here to direct him on. Intel indicates Mizuki’s civilian family are merchants so our focus is on any markets that might be held over the next few days. Genma, go ahead and follow up on the Hokage’s directive. We’ll wait here for 30 minutes before proceeding, in order to make sure you have the time you need.”

Genma nodded and disappeared in a blur of motion.

Iruka sighed heavily and slumped down, making himself small. He was tired, slightly sore and increasingly uncertain how the Hokage expected him to prove his loyalty. He wasn’t the world’s greatest infiltrator and any trained eye would pick him as a ninja by his callused hands alone.

He’d started resolute but his uncertainty crept up to overwhelm him. Why hadn’t he given himself to T&I straight away? They would have uncovered the truth. Surely, he would have been reinstated after being exonerated.

His mistake with Mizuki felt catastrophic. It hung over his head. Worst of all – he felt like he’d proved Mizuki right. Perhaps Iruka wasn’t a good ninja. He liked to believe he was a good man. But that wasn’t enough. He needed to be more, better. Something .

He just…he didn’t know.

How do I become better than I am? Is it even possible? So stupid, so easily deceived. What am I doing here?

A warm hand fell on his shoulder. Kakashi looked down at him, expression achingly gentle.

“Stop it sensei.”

Iruka shrugged ruefully, and then realising Kakashi might mistake the gesture for dismissal, grabbed his hand before he could move it.

“I know. I know. But it’s hard. I keep thinking. One moment, I feel like everything is fine and the next I just feel…defeated.”

His eyes fluttered closed.

“He was my oldest friend. I trusted him with so many things.” It was true. Iruka had placed so much faith in Mizuki. Had shared his fears, deep and dark and lonely.

To find his ability to judge character so flawed and lacking had shaken him. He was filled with doubt.

His face grew hot with his discontent.

Kakashi sat down next to him. Quiet and contemplative. It sparked Iruka’s memory of another time when the man had sat next to him offering advice -when Kakashi had prompted Iruka to give Naruto a chance.

Iruka smiled sadly into the silence. Kakashi had an uncanny ability to appear whenever Iruka needed him most. It probably wasn’t intentional, and while they were still far from friends, Iruka wanted to lean on him. To curl up against his side and bury himself into the warmth of his neck.

His eyes slid across, taking in the man’s countenance. It was rare to see Kakashi serious outside of battle. Too often Kakashi played the fool. The man loved riling others far too much.

Perhaps it was the confines of the mission, but he seemed more himself somehow. Iruka wished he could put a finger on it. The silence drifted on but Kakashi didn’t move his hand.

Thirty minutes passed before he moved again. He stood, brushing dirt from his trousers, then turning offered Iruka his hand.

“Betrayal is the life of a ninja sensei. You should always expect it, prepare for it. And for the most part be happy to be proven wrong.”

He pulled Iruka to his feet and then met his eyes firmly.

“There’s no room for doubt here. You will complete this mission. Uncover the extent of Mizuk’s actions and then we will go home to Konoha to clear your name.”

Iruka’s mouth opened to protest despite himself. Kakashi gave him a small shake.

“Understood, sensei?”

He was uncompromising. Iruka couldn’t help the small smile even as his pulse picked up. His brain finally registering Kakashi’s proximity. He nodded and then tried to suppress an entirely different feeling as the sun reflected and turned Kakashi’s hair burnished silver.

Never in his life, had Iruka before wished to reach out a hand and touch something so badly.

***

Part 2: (Love)

The town of Ito was quaint. Small open storefronts lined the street, spilling wares out onto the town’s only main road.

Bisuke trotted alongside happily, usual ninken garb replaced by a strip of Iruka’s civilian clothing. It was strange to be out of his usual uniform. He’d been raised as a shinobi – had planned to die as one (albeit preferably old ). A civilian life had never factored into his life plan. Konoha was a thriving ninja village but not everyone trained in nindo. Many townsfolk didn’t even use chakra. If they did it was in unusual ways – Iruka had once watched the Ichiraku’s Ayame-chan overzealously jutsu dirty cutlery instead of washing them. Ever since, he’d always thought she would have made one hell of a medic-nin. If she could do the same with a fork as with a scalpel…

Well…

Ito resembled Konoha in some ways. It had a similar homely feeling. Being so close to the border between feudal domains, it had its fair share of transient mercenary types pass through. Iruka had already spotted at least one wandering ronin scrabbling for the correct amount of change at the teahouse. For one moment, the owner had looked braced for a fight but the ronin eventually produced the correct coinage, rubbing the back of their head – slightly flustered. Iruka hadn’t been taken in by the genteel act. He’d seen the way the ronin’s eyes had narrowed sharply afterwards.

Not killing intent but  shrewd astuteness. Then the ronin had eyed Iruka so intently that Iruka wondered if perhaps he’d been discovered.

But instead of recriminations, the ronin had settled down and continued calmly drinking the remainder of their tea.

Iruka tried talking to some of his fellow patrons. There were more than expected but Obon wasn’t too far away, so it would make sense to see travellers heading home for celebrations.

The owner had remarked about it offhandedly noting that Iruka was a ‘new face’ and that perhaps this was his ‘first time in Ito’.

Years at the Academy had developed Iruka’s skill for thinking on his feet – spinning the fast half truths that were common when responding to young children and their curious probing.

“You’d be right. Thought I’d take a detour this year. Met someone on my travels who hailed from here. Said it was a good quiet way point. Thought I’d come check it out. Pay my respects to his family on the way through while I keep a look out for work.”

The owner nodded. Obviously, it was quite common.

“Which family are you after? There’s only a handful native to these parts. Most folks get out of here fast as they can. All off to the bigger cities – more opportunity I s’ppose but my teahouse never did wrong. Has supported my family since Ito was founded and we’re a good stopping point – close enough to main trails to be convenient but small enough that we never get any rowdy folks. The roads are mostly safe and free from missing-nin and the like. We’re too small to bother nobody.”

The man’s voice had the slightest touch of pride. Iruka nodded.

“It can be dangerous out there. I’ve had some encounters myself recently.” He held up his bandaged hand, still aching from the burn earlier, showing it off. “Your townmate Mizuki Ito came to my assistance.” 

The owner looked surprised and then nodded.

“Good family that. Was tragic how they passed. Only way for you to pay respects would be at their graves. Out near the stream, left side part the main road. They’re buried in the front compound.”

Iruka thanked him profusely and dragged the conversation to its natural conclusion; small touch of country pride, part praise for the tea and finally a smidgeon of local history.

He finished the tea and headed off.

He finally had a lead.

***

Mizuki’s family came from a long line and were the original founders of the village. When they’d perished in the nine-tail’s attack on Konoha, Mizuki had become an orphan like Iruka. Mizuki never talked about Ito – instead choosing to become a ninja and making Konoha his new home.

His family estate sat to the north-east of the village, surrounded by a smattering of trees and a field that now held a very battered greenhouse.

Iruka eyed it warily and expanded his senses.

A few restless birds, two mice and a dozen chittering insects summed up the entirety of life he could sense in the vicinity.

Well, they did say the house would be abandoned. Everyone who should live in it is dead or currently incarcerated.

But that didn’t mean that no one had visited recently. Bisuke followed him further down the path, nose to the air and then back along the path – scenting.

He must have picked something up because suddenly he was running. Sprinting up towards the main house with a furious roar.

Startled, it took a moment for Iruka to register.

Then he too was racing, hurtling after the ninken with as much speed his body could muster.

His heart thundered in his chest.

One beat. Two beats.

The tattoo of sound filled his ears as his senses came alive.

Whatever Bisuke could sense was beyond Iruka but his body was poised to respond. A weapon sat ready in the palm of his hand, without thought.

He skidded across the doorway, hot on Bisuke’s trail as the dog whipped through the foyer and hurtled through a paper shouji screen.

Iruka paused, eyes adjusting to the darkness. Something was wrong.

He couldn’t sense anyone but the smell…

He reached out, slowly. Fingers brushed against the door, where a smear of wet blood had splattered across the paper screen.

It was cool to the touch but hadn’t dried. His fingers came back red.

Cautiously, he opened the door and followed Bisuke into the darkness.

He’d been expecting bodies. But only Bisuke filled the room, pacing back and forth, following some unknown scent.

There was more blood here. A smear across the floor where someone had fallen. Then handprints scrabbling in a backward slide. Another spray marred the great wooden dresser. The futon, half pulled from an open cupboard had been slashed and stuffing oozed out as though gutted.

What happened here ? Iruka’s gaze roamed restlessly, trying to make sense of it all.

Then, a feeling of dread.

From the corner of his eye he saw it glimmer from where it was wedged between the sliding rail of the door.

A senbon. Embedded deep into the wood.

The end had snapped but wrapped around the tip was a single strand of dark brown hair.

He froze, brain trying to comprehend it.

Bisuke turned from pacing and nudged him out towards the door.

“We need to go back. Need to let Boss know what we’ve found.” His teeth latched on to Iruka’s pant leg as he began to pull.

Iruka moved slowly, sluggish.

There are no bodies. That means that both parties got away. Did someone pursue? Someone was injured. Do we follow? Could Bisuke track the smell of blood?

Dazed, he let Bisuke continue tugging. Soon, Iruka found himself back at their temporary campsite, waiting for Kakashi or Genma to return.

Finally, as the birds began to settle for the evening and the sun slipped below the horizon. Kakashi meandered back into camp.

Iruka shot to his feet, but still had no words to explain what he’d seen. Thankfully, Bisuke saved him from having to devise something coherent.

“Genma was attacked.” The words were blunt and to the point. Iruka startled at the straightforwardness, and that Bisuke confirmed what he had been dreading..

What Genma had been doing at Mizuki’s family home was beyond Iruka, but whatever task Genma received from the Hokage had landed him in trouble.

Kakashi seemed solemn and nodded.

“Status?” he queried. Bisuke’s head tilted to the side and his tongue lolled – thinking, Iruka realised.

“Two nin. Unknown. Both wounded. I could smell their scents all heading in the same direction. Possibly a pursuit.” His nose continued twitching, as if recalling the smells.

“Mmm, yes. One was female.” He finished decisively.

Kakashi gave Iruka a quiet look, silently requesting confirmation of Bisuke’s report.

Iruka cleared his throat, standing straighter under Kakashi’s eye.

“From the visual, I can concur injuries. There was…blood and signs of a fight. No jutsu though, which is uncommon for ninja. But evidence of weapons and…” he paused, trailing off as he realised that a senbon at the scene hardly made for hard proof that Genma had been in battle.

Genma had more tricks than an absurd proficiency with thin needles. He would never rely on weapons alone to get the job done. His strength and taijutsu ability were also above par. Iruka had seen him smash through walls when necessary. He groaned, suddenly thinking back to the house.

“There wasn’t a sign of a proper battle.” He rubbed a hand over his face and breathed out heavily.“Not the kind you see when a ninja of Genma’s calibre is fighting for their life.”

Nothing other than the shouji and the futon had even been remotely damaged.

Kakashi caught on quickly.

“Staged?” Iruka nodded.

“I don’t know why. But it seems likely. I’m so stupid, I should have realised it straight away. How many pre-genin have I taught? Ninja make more mess by accident let alone when fighting a powerful enemy. Dammit. I don’t know what happened. But…Genma was there.”

Bisuke barked in affirmation.

“Yes. I could smell Genma. Boss, do you want me to follow?”

Kakashi nodded and summoned another ninken. This time Bull emerged from the jutsu’s plume of smoke.

“Both of you will track Genma’s trail. Don’t engage. Simply track for now and report once you’ve located him. We’ll remain stationary until you return.”

Both ninken pawed at the ground, accepting the command and then darted off into the trees.

Kakashi’s hand fell and clasped Iruka’s shoulder.

“Not much to do now other than wait Sensei,” he sighed. Iruka’s face felt hot and something roiled in his belly, like eating week old rice that had congealed in the pan.

He tried to pinpoint what he should have done. He’d been useless…if something happened to Genma – Iruka would be the only one to blame.

Kakashi seemed to understand without the need for words. He let Iruka sit quietly, giving Iruka exactly what he needed – quiet company.

The surge of gratitude took Iruka by surprise. Kakashi always seemed to know his feelings and what he needed most.

They remained in silence – both deep in thought. Though he wanted to deny it, Iruka felt the sudden need to know the man better. Wanted to sit with him and share conversation, space…body heat.

The last thought brought colour to his cheeks, thankfully hidden in the darkness.

His feelings for Kakashi began to dig their roots deeper a little bit more.

They took turns stoking the fire as night deepened, still awake and waiting even as dawn rose.

Neither Genma nor the ninken returned.

***

On the third night of waiting, Iruka finally cracked.

“Shouldn’t we be doing something!?” He dug his kunai deeper into the coals and sliced a chunk of flesh from the snake Kakashi had caught earlier. As meals went, he’d eaten worse.

Despite spending the days laying elaborate traps, Iruka was increasingly restless. Since stumbling upon the bloody scene, he hadn’t been able to calm down.

Genma was missing, Bisuke and Bull were gods knew where...

For Iruka – and despite the pleasure of Kakashi’s company – the helplessness of waiting had eaten away at his firm composure.

But what could he do?

A wrong move could expose Genma to more danger and despite the man’s flippant attitude, he was a good ninja. Handpicked by the Hokage as part of his own personal guard.

Genma wouldn’t make a stupid mistake. Not like Iruka…he should have noticed the obvious signs that something had been wrong. Iruka had been so flustered by the thought Genma might be injured, it was only thanks to Bisuke that he hadn’t gone hurtling off into the forest after ghosts.

If Kakashi hadn’t talked sense into him – he still might have. He hated waiting, and if Kakashi kept reading that cursed orange book instead of responding to him, Iruka legitimately thought he might attempt to do the man some damage.

“KAKASHI!” he bellowed, all sense of propriety gone. Nearby birds startled, vacating their cosy nests for the night in a flurry of feathers and frantically taking flight.

Kakashi calmly flicked another page, eye curving in distinct pleasure at whatever perverted act was taking place.

Iruka couldn’t stand it.

He marched over, skin and scale and snake fat dribbling from his fingers.

He snatched the book from Kakashi’s grip, and turning, tossed it into the fire.

Kakashi deftly apparated away, plucking the book from the air before it was in any danger.

He raised a brow.

“Really, sensei.” He admonished and brushed imaginary soot from the cover before tucking it away safely in his breast pocket.

Iruka deflated instantly.

“I…I’m sorry, I just…” he trailed off uncertain, unable to justify his actions.

He crumpled to his knees and rubbed harshly at his unshaven face.

“I just hate waiting, and we don’t even know if Genma’s going to be alright. Bull and Bisuke haven’t returned and meanwhile we’re just sitting here! ” His voice rose, slightly hysterical.

Kakashi sighed, and then tilted his head - considering.

“Sensei,” he began, “Don’t you think we have been doing something?”

He gestured to the makeshift camp they’d cobbled together.

“We’ve gathered supplies, conserved chakra – you’ve been laying traps for two days straight – I’d guarantee that makes this place the single safest place Genma could retreat to. Bull and Bisuke are my best trackers and Pakkun is placed to summon backup instantly if required. Tell me Sensei – what are you so worried about?”

Iruka couldn’t help himself, the words were tumbling out before he could think.

“What if something is wrong? I thought you believed that teammates are precious. We’re just sitting here - they could be torturing him! He could need our help now and we’re just -urgh!”

He stood, frantically pacing back and forth.

“I’ll do what you tell me to Kakashi – I will, I really will. But please how much longer will we wait ?”

It wasn’t that he had a desperate desire to face down an enemy, but he also couldn’t face the idea that he was leaving a friend behind. Leaving them to suffer when he could be doing something.

He’d always admired Kakashi and his belief that one should never leave their comrades behind. With all his genius, Iruka was awash with the glow of possibility, that they perhaps felt the same way. That they shared a common principle.

It made Kakashi seem more obtainable – more in reach.

Stupid, considering. But Iruka had always felt a pull, low in his belly when he considered the man.

Their last mission together, Iruka had struggled to keep his open admiration under control but had arrived back in Konoha with a strong suspicion that to Kakashi, he was transparent like thin film.

He’d avoided Kakashi after, embarrassed by what the man might suspect, and livid with his inability to keep his own secrets.

Mizuki had often joked – ‘I hope you’re a better teacher than a ninja.’

Iruka knew that was true. His students were capable at least. Well…Naruto gave him doubts some days, but most students came out alright.

It was jounin like Kakashi that often undid all his hard work. Starry-eyed genin with aspirations to outdo talented shinobi superstars. They set a standard much higher than what Iruka could teach.

The man in question continued to consider him from across the fire, prompting a soft blush to creep up the back of Iruka’s neck.

Iruka enjoyed watching Kakashi. He wasn’t sure he liked being watched in return.

Finally, Kakashi nodded to himself. Then tapped his chin – too near his mouth which distracted Iruka momentarily because if he squinted just right , the outline of his lips was visible in the firelight.

Focus, you fool.

He straightened visibly, shaking off unimportant thoughts and came back to the matter at hand.

“How much longer?” He asked, voice begging.

Kakashi folded his arms, cocked his head and eyed Iruka solemnly. It was far from his usual jovial expression.

Iruka didn’t have a word to describe him. He was ethereal in the firelight but sharp like a blade.

Glinting quietly; sheathed but dangerous all the same.

Iruka had always been attracted to him. From the first time they’d crossed paths. Iruka had been a small but stout genin, older than his peers but more mischievous by far. Kakashi had already been jounin for years at that point. Not a legend yet, despite his level of skill. That had come later.

Kakashi had been an escort. Tasked with ensuring the safety of the Konoha genin as they made their way to Amegakure for their chuunin trials. He’d been much quieter as a teenager. Gangly limbs that he’d yet to grow into but still demonstrating preternatural grace.

Iruka had been fifteen. The sight of the boy, so casually skilled had set his teeth on edge and stirred something fiercely desiring in his stomach.

It was the first time Iruka had been attracted to anyone.

Anko had demonstrated an interest in him once, too soon after her teacher’s flight from Konoha. Her one and only attempt at seduction had ended with Iruka hugging her tightly as she sobbed half clothed.

He’d known much earlier than that of his own preferences. Anko’s attempt was never going to sway him.

Thankfully, he’d never shared that titbit with Mizuki despite his mocking of Iruka’s self-imposed celibacy.

Kakashi always stirred the fluttering of desire. Iruka always found it unbearably unfair how unaffected Kakashi seemed to be.

Despite having learned to control his urges, he’d always fantasised about what Kakashi’s startled face might look like. If Iruka suddenly wrenched the man’s face towards his own in a fiery kiss…he might get to see what Kakashi looked like when shocked.

Standing beneath the man’s scrutiny now, left Iruka sweating. It was a direct gaze. The type of look that made a man defensive. Protective of the secrets it tried to unearth.

Iruka was braver than that. Instead of shying away, Iruka met it directly. Unwavering.

Let Kakashi look, he thought. He didn’t have anything to hide.

And if he finds those little lustful thoughts you keep hidden away?

Kakashi broke the gaze suddenly, swiftly looking out into the trees. A moment later, Iruka felt it too.

The flicker of chakra.

Kakashi dived for him as a kunai whipped past, embedding itself in the tree above his head.

Iruka instinctively rolled, leaping over the fire and hitting the dirt, his feet finding ground even as his hands sought weapons.

Leaping up to perch in the tree, Kakashi expanded his senses outwards – mummering to himself.

Then he flipped backwards and landed beside Iruka in a crouch.

“Waiting is over sensei. It’s time to go.” He dug his kunai into the ground and traced a rough map of the surrounding region.

“We’ve got incoming from the west – small 4-person battalion. Potentially in pursuit. If Genma’s on his way, Bull and Bisuke will be with him.”

Iruka nodded and began marking the map too.

“These are the traps,” he began. “I’ve got six live in total and potentially two I can wrangle at short notice. Two are barrier traps and this one here,” he drew a line with his finger to the north.

“That one’s a spring trap. If I activate the tag correctly, I can generate backlash on any nin that get caught in it.”

Kakashi huffed lowly.

“That’s pretty clever sensei.” His voice was husky and Iruka blushed at the praise.

“Yes, well…err. I’d have to do it correctly. Should we decide on a codeword? Wouldn’t want either of us to get caught in one of these” He gestured to the array of trap sites.

At this Kakashi smiled slyly.

“We’re dealing with a tricky enemy Iruka. I don’t think a codeword will cut it. Instead we need something much more unexpected.”

Iruka frowned, what did he mean? Codewords were standard ninja practice. Anything else was too easily –

Kakashi grabbed the lapels of his flak jacket and drew him forward, masked mouth meeting Iruka’s lips in a warm kiss.

Iruka froze. Stunned. Confused. What was Kakashi…?

Kakashi pulled back, eye smiling again.

“Maa sensei, that should be enough for you to know it’s me, right?”

Iruka nodded, dazed and mute. Kisses from Kakashi. Did he do this every mission? Should Iruka try to force his way onto those missions?

Oh god – does this mean he’s kissed Genma before? Iruka shooed the thought from his brain and cleared his throat.

“Yes, that’s um. Fine, yes,” he mumbled.

Kakashi grinned fiercely.

“Good. Now I’m going to head west and engage the team directly. I’ll get a read on their location.” He eyed the kunai in the tree.

“We’re not alone. But we’ve got some warning. Head north and make sure the traps are functional. I’ll lead them up to you. Catch and question is our objective but if Genma makes an appearance we need them subdued. Choose your method for that sensei,” he smiled grimly. “I’ll leave that to you.”

Iruka nodded. “Understood Captain.”

They shared a single glance and then Kakashi disappeared in a burst of leaves.

***

Iruka had always been skilled with barriers. Much more than he ever let on. Ninja adept in barrier making were often called upon for all types of missions. From mundane to risky to riotous. He hadn’t wanted to pursue that path. He’d wanted to teach. He was a good teacher. He loved mentoring the kids and kids adored him.

He was well suited and better at moulding minds than moulding barriers these days.

But combined with his skills for tags, Iruka’s barriers took on another form all together.

He’d always considered himself an average ninja. In combat he was effective but favoured taijutsu more than jutsu. He could use genjutsu competently but was less proficient under pressure. Truthfully, it was his great athleticism that made him a useful ninja, more so than his ability to think on his feet or dispatch an enemy. There was a reason he wasn’t sent on missions often anymore.

Yet – give Iruka an hour to prepare and he could build a trap so elaborate than enemy nin would be stuck circling for an hour – or lose their ability to smell, sometimes (if Iruka was feeling vindictive enough) he added a touch of genjutsu to his barrier tags which had the frightening effect of imbuing those trapped with false sensation. Up and down, air and water, all back to front.

He’d once made an enemy nin drown himself. He hadn’t been able to watch but it had been necessary. They’d threatened children. It was hard to feel remorse, easier to feel horror.

The traps he’d laid around their camp were different – had different purposes. Some were merely meant to alert should an unexpected presence enter the territory. Others were actively defensive, putting up a barrier to keep unwary bandits out (most knew better than to mess with ninja).

He’d wired one trap to be explosively destructive and the other he made with a purpose to bind.

Once Kakashi arrived, with nin in tow – Iruka would activate that trap and bind any nin who made it through the two barrier traps preceding it.

A chain effect – evidence that a childhood of pranks was a genuine skill building exercise for a ninja.

Iruka tried not to think about the ‘codeword kiss’ – trust Kakashi to be so flippant about something that sent Iruka’s heart racing. His heart (lungs, kidneys and accompanying organs) already more than happy to leap from his chest.

It was true that Kakashi was the sort of person to induce chaos before casually sauntering off.

Well this time, Iruka would take it all in stride.

Defeat the enemies, prove his innocence and kiss Hatake Kakashi senseless. It all seemed like a decent working plan to Iruka.

But first, traps.

He headed out to the northernmost trap and anchored himself down, ready to engage. He’d draped fine lines of chakra wire between the trees. Just enough chakra threaded through the cords to distract from the numerous tags that lined the trees.

Kakashi would hopefully crest up over the edge of the tree line which was Iruka’s cue to detonate the tags.

It was a tense silence as he waited. Even the insects had sensed the tremor of danger in the air and had softened their calls.

Iruka’s heartbeat thudded painfully in his chest. Each ounce of his attention focused on the line of trees.

He breathed out.

Time stilled.

A speck of dust lazily caught the light and danced on the edge of his vision – slow.

Then in an instant he was tumbling out of his senses, as his chakra pushed his awareness out beyond the clearing.

His second order senses could see Kakashi, shaded in monochrome as he swept under a blow from an enemy nin. Then flames as he returned the blow with a katon of his own.

A second and third nin made themselves known. Before Iruka could consider, his body was moving, vaulting forward from his hiding place to run and assist.

Kakashi danced, fluid motion. Trading blows for blocks, leaping beneath tree branches and punishing his pursuers with a spray of kunai.

His opponents were skilled.

Two worked in sync, one using earth jutsu to upend the terrain while their partner released strange gas from beneath their dark cloak.

The third, seemed to be contact orientated – hounding Kakashi with quick jabs. If it had been anyone else other than Kakashi who was routinely challenged by Konoha’s Great Green Beast, perhaps he’d be in trouble.

As it was, Kakashi hadn’t even removed his head protector - no sharingan in sight.

Iruka climbed quickly up the hillside, leaping from tree branch to tree branch.

If I distract the other two – perhaps…

A hand clapped him across the mouth, and he yelped instinctively as he was pulled backward from the tree.

He hit the ground hard, struggling as hands continued to pull him backward into the pushes.

“Shut up you fool.” A bedraggled Genma hissed. His face was smeared with blood and a long thin cut ran diagonally down his chin, dangerously close to his neck.

Iruka squirmed and then realised that while Genma’s hands held him fast, it was Bull propping him upright. The dog’s tongue lolled cheekily as he panted quietly.

“We’ve been running for a full day,” Genma said lowly. “They’ve been in pursuit for almost as long as that.” He ran shaky fingers through his hair, somewhere along the way he’d lost his forehead protector.

“Where’s the copy nin? What the hell are you doing out here alone?” His voice held a slight touch of suspicion.

Iruka shuffled deeper into the undergrowth.

“We got a warning – Kakashi seemed to understand it. Said to expect incoming contact. We weren’t sure if it was you or an enemy. He sent me to prep the traps.”

Genma sighed and nodded.

“You’re a chuunin,” he murmured. “You don’t really have the necessary skills for direct engagement.”

Iruka stifled his indignation. It wasn’t exactly true. He was a useful ally in battle. Proficient with a weapon and willing to lay down his life.

It was just…

Iruka did better when he had time to prepare

He opened his mouth, eyebrows furrowing deeply and -

One of his chakra wires suddenly pulled taut.

His attention flicked to the field and he raised a hand quickly, signalling contact.

His charka wires stretched like a great web strewn across the field with Iruka sat in the middle; a hidden spider.

Any movement would jar the wire and Iruka would spring to action, initiate the tags and –

A chill crawled up Iruka’s spine and his body froze. The hairs on his back stood on end and as he turned – he moved as though in slow motion, each muscle on edge.

Genma was watching him, his smile slightly too bright. Too sharp.

Even as Iruka watched, Genma’s face slipped. Pixelating into smoke and the silhouette that had been Bull unfurled into a heavy mace.

Iruka staggered backward, as the figure uncurled. Stretching up into a dark cloaked shadow. Bandages wrapped around the face and the remnants of what could have once been a hiate for the Mist. Now a deep dark line was scratched through whatever marking might have been there.

“I was looking forward to crushing your skull while your back was turned, but perhaps this works too.” The cloaked figure swung the large mace, easily cleaving through the surrounding brush. Iruka ducked, diving and rolling over debris – scrambling to his feet and darting through his wires.

Stupid, stupid – why didn’t it occur to you. Kakashi would have noticed straight away.

He’d spent too much time in the classroom, he realised. Taking things at face value. Kakashi and Genma wouldn’t have been fooled by such a ruse.

The fallen comrade, injured. Iruka would have been an easy target keeping an eye out for danger, never realising it was much closer to home.

Just like Mizuki. His eyes scrunched together tightly against the recrimination, blindly scrambling over branches on instinct alone.

In his mind, the landscape took form. The nin was following him lazily, but they were no longer alone.

Two other figures rapidly entered the edge of Iruka’s senses. One chakra source was small – too small for a nin and the figure moved too quickly to be anything other than a summon. They avoided his wires easily and Iruka cursed himself for not hiding the anchor points more effectively.

Not the time. He reminded himself flipping beneath his own chakra wire to avoid self-decapitation.

The second figure was still and confused Iruka’s senses. They seemed to merge with the landscape, in and out of trees, chakra blending and emerging as they approached.

Iruka stopped running, with the realisation that the three had pincered him into place. He hissed to himself and threw himself at the nearest tree, clambering up the rough bark and riffling through his front pockets for the tags he’d been laying earlier.

He wouldn’t be able to set off a chain explosion. But he’d be able to rig a temporary barrier long enough to signal his position. Even if Kakashi didn’t respond in time to assist, he’d at least know to keep his distance from Iruka’s traps. If Iruka timed it correctly, he might even be able to activate the larger barrier seal and contain the enemy nin within the confines of his chakra net. It was worth a try.

He bit his thumb, waiting for the blood to well before activating his weapons scroll. Unlike most nin, Iruka’s greatest weapon was his calligraphy pen.

His work in the mission room had taught him how to trap the best S-rank scroll against unauthorised eyes.

Which had come in handy over the years as an Academy teacher. There was a reason that students and jounin alike knew not to mess with Iruka-sensei – and it wasn’t just his angry voice.

He sucked on the brush, dampening the nib and swirling it through the blood welling from his fingers.

Then he drew.

Character after character flew out. They looped in elegant symmetry.

The paper crinkled even as his chakra infused each character. The field materialised around him – his senses expanding with a soft glow.

Chakra surging, he slapped the scroll against his own chest – jolting as his embedded chakra surged and made him the anchor point for the barrier he’d just erected.

So good news is that they’re all caught, Iruka thought. Bad news is they’re all stuck in here with me.

But hopefully that would buy Kakashi enough time.

A shuriken whizzed past his ear. Hitting the tree beside his head with an audible thwack. Very soon those weapons would start finding flesh.

He steeled himself. Took a breath. And moved.

His life depending on it, he shrunk his presence, recalling each molecule of chakra and monitoring his breath. He tried to envision himself as a leaf drifting on the wind. Nothing out of place.

For a less skilled team, Iruka’s dedication to non-existence might have made a difference. He would never know.

Certainly, the Mist nin were both resolute and skilled. An earth jutsu sent him stumbling through bushes and a second set of flame jutsu sent him scuttling, acrobatically darting to avoid the worst of the heat. The scorched earth left behind – evidenced how poorly off he’d be if hit.

By sheer luck and coincidence – though Kakashi would later say it was a testament of Iruka’s unintentional brilliance – the third missing nin’s jutsu, a wind attack to fan the flames, skirted along the edge of Iruka’s barrier and dissipated fully.

It was a countermeasure Iruka placed on this type of barrier – and though it worked best with jutsu of Iruka’s elemental infinity, it provided fuel he needed all the same.

Diving for the brush, he rolled. Kissing the ground with the palm of his hand, he pushed out the wave of chakra absorbed by the barrier and the resultant push of air catapulted him up above the tree canopy.

As the anchor of the barrier and with the added height – he quickly identified the locations of his other tags and activated them.

The tree line filled with smoke as minor explosions ricocheted all around. As he fell back to earth, he activated the second, third and final layer of the trap he’d set more than a day ago.

All around him, lines became visible. Long thin threads of wire and chakra combined. He wasn’t at the epicentre – that was the camp he’d shared with Kakashi.

But he had an advantage now, that would even his chances of survival.

Kakashi wouldn’t need to worry about any tag traps now, and his web would absorb any jutsu these nin tried to use while stuck inside his barrier.

It was the perfect scenario to test it.

Itomon Bakusei no Jutsu.

He’d toyed with the concept of it for years.

The jutsu’s practicality in battle was low. Without proper preparation there was no point to it. It depended on too many variables to be reliable.

He’d heard all these things before.

He wove his threads together, pulling the web around him tight. Anchoring it to the tag on his chest.

The tag would serve as the lynchpin. All he had to do was make sure he wasn’t found. Hopefully the nin would exhaust their chakra before realising how the jutsu worked.

Silently, he slipped from the tree. Fingers swiping through the dirt to smear mud across his hiate and hide the shine.

He pulled down his hair and continued to smear the mud on his skin, slapping leaves to it even as he continued to move through the growth.

Another fire jutsu set the trees to his right ablaze and he ducked. Rolling beneath bushes as a barrage of weaponry flew out of the adjacent tree line.

Sweat pooled on his back as he crawled on hands and knees. Senses cast – wide and alert.

Every now and then he stopped, silently casting kai. Just in case he’d fallen into another illusion.

When the small summon like creature started to close in – he stilled entirely. It felt like a ninken – a real ninken this time. Not just an illusion.

But was it one of Kakashi’s?

He paused in place.

Closed his eyes.

The shape formed in his mind. Four limbs dashing through trees. Small slender legs and civilian fabric still draped across it’s back.

Bisuke.

Iruka sighed in relief, lowering his head to the dirt – suddenly exhausted.

In his mind's eye, he could see Bisuke engage. Dodging the first swing of a mace and drilling forward in a wild twist of fur and fang.

The remnants of the jutsu buffered against Iruka’s barrier like waves against the shore. He wasn’t alone. Bisuke would be able to handle the Mist nin and his presence reassured Iruka that his master was not too far behind.

The air around Iruka stilled.

Suddenly, his body was moving. He flipped to his feet, springing upward to grab a branch and swinging himself forwards landing on the next tree, feet adhering with a touch of chakra.

Then he ran, as ropes of vine looped around the tree trunks. They swept through stripping branches of leaves, crunching and crackling everything in their path.

He gasped, feet slipping and slid down the side of a tree, tumbling to the ground with a thud.

Dazed, he kept moving forward – vision spinning.

Something slithered its way around his foot and pulled tight with a sickening crunch.

He yelped, stumbling. The vine pulled tighter, bones in his ankle scraping together.

He hissed and hacked the vine away.

“Run, run.” A voice sneered as a face emerged out of the tree beside him. It was wooden – at first.

Eyes blind and smooth, lips cracked with the lines on the bark.

Then it smoothed over. A brown haired nin with jagged scars bisecting both eyes stared out.

“Your trap was clever – I’ll give you that yessum.” The nin’s voice was high pitched. Masculine but high.

The strange face stretched out of the tree as the nin pushed forward. The face shuddered and changed again. An amenable sharp eyed face that Iruka recognised – it was the ronin from the teahouse.

“Clever, so clever. But stupidly designed don’t you think?” A vine wrapped itself around Iruka’s weapon pouch, unsheathing a kunai and then flailing about with it around playfully.

Iruka remained silent.

“That tag,” the nin smiled – dragging the kunai down to the tag Iruka had painstakingly drawn in his own blood, “Pinning it to yourself. Now that was just silly. You’re outclassed and then made yourself a target…”

He tutted. “Desperate, weren’t you.”

“Disappointing really,” he continued. “I was only interested in the pretty one. I would happily have let you go if you hadn’t locked me in here with you.”

His voice went dark.

“But you did and now they’ll have gotten away you see. You’re not quite pretty enough to repay me.”

Iruka shuddered. Mainly in revulsion but also because something was working its way along the barrier. Iruka could feel it. Tiny pin pricks against his skin. It magnified to a buzzing hum like the twittering of a thousand birds. Iruka could almost hear it, becoming louder and louder. He tried not to flinch.

The Mist nin had almost fully emerged from the tree now. He pulled his final leg free and gave a thrilled little shake that somehow felt menacing.

Iruka steeled himself pulling the wires of the trap he’d laid closer, mind whirling with ideas.

What options did he have left?

Think, think, THINK.

The Mist nin laughed mockingly, drawing closer and swiping his fingers through the dirt on Iruka’s face.

Iruka tensed and then released. His chakra web jolting to life as the stored energy from his barrier surged.

A vine shot out, wrapping itself around his neck and pulling him forcefully back to the ground. Tightening around his windpipe and he spluttered, pulling weakly against it and gagging for air.

But it was already too late.

The Mist nin swore – diving back into the tree, merging with the wood even as Iruka’s chakra wires whipped through the landscape, sharp edged and electrified. They sliced through wood and flesh alike. They sliced at Iruka’s cheeks, nicking his ears as they flew past.

Blood slipped down his neck, drenching his collar, as he lay flat on his back. Tangled web of wire and chakra dripping with blood above him.

The Mist nin’s severed arm lay before the neatly sliced tree trunk – he’d lunged to. He’d been too slow.

Iruka tugged the now lax vine from his neck, smearing blood and dirt together before collapsing back flat against the ground.

The incessant buzzing he’d felt continued to intensify but he was too exhausted to move.

He was so tired.

Chakra depleted. Energy gone. He didn’t have any tricks left and no idea if the two nin he’d encountered had any friends.

He was safe enough inside the barrier for now. But the increasing warm dampness of his neck suggested he may have sustained a greater cut from his wires than he’d realised. He was also certain he’d reopened the wound on his back, he could feel a warm slickness there that felt heavier than sweat.

The likelihood of him making it back to Konoha continued to decrease.

Will they still think I’m a traitor if I die here?

His eyes blurred. He’d tried not to think about it when he was with Kakashi. Tried not to remember the purpose of this mission was to determine the extent of his collusion with Mizuki.

They’d found nothing. No evidence. No leads. Genma had disappeared. Kakashi was gone.

Doubts pricked at him.

Would it be a bad thing to die here?

Naruto’s face covered in tears and snot stirred him. He slapped himself with a weak hand and dragged his body upwards.

The chirping in his mind rose to a fever pitch and he grimaced. The sound split him open.

His hand shook as he applied pressure, trying to stem the blood flow. Then something within him gave out.

His barrier shattered.

From the outside.

His body sagged in relief as the sound of wild barking rung in the air.

Bisuke. Kakashi. They’re here. They’ve made it.

Blurred shapes appeared above him and he blinked as the sunlight streamed down from behind them. They were fractured – but perhaps that was his vision. Shapes and their echoes swirling around him.

Kakashi’s masked face solidified above him. His sharingan swirling angrily, face splattered with blood.

Then behind him, Genma looking sheepish. Bandana askew and lip split – face mottled with bruises.

“You’re alright Iruka-sensei.” He grinned.

Kakashi’s face was stern. His hands glowed with healing chakra and hovered protectively over Iruka’s neck. Moments passed, and then seemingly satisfied he pulled back and rubbed his unshaved face roughly with his gloved hands.

“Idiot. I told you to activate the tags. Not trap yourself in a barrier with the enemy.” His voice was gruff.

Iruka tried to shrug -failed.

“They were already tracking me – the tags weren’t going to hold them off. I figured with the barrier I could at least absorb some of their attacks. Is Bisuke ok? I trapped him in here too.”

The pup strolled forward, butting his head against Iruka’s hand. Bull stood guard in the background. Wide eyed and alert, tongue lolling.

The sight of them all, unharmed had Iruka alight with a warm glow.

Kakashi suddenly pulled him close and kissed him soundly. The mask covered kiss sent Iruka’s mind into a tailspin. Swirling dangerously into oblivion.

Pulse raising, Iruka gasped into the kiss – a fish out of water.

They finally parted and Genma whistled lowly, slow clapping.

“And they finally get a clue. I always wondered if the reason Iruka gave up missions was because he was fed up waiting for you.” He ribbed Kakashi softly in the side, face splitting into a grin.

Kakashi batted him away with a quick exchange of jabbing hands. A light blush on his cheeks.

It was more than Iruka could take. His heart clenched and he couldn’t keep the words in before they were out – tumbling into the open.

“Urgh, I love you.” Iruka collapsed back to the ground as soon as the words were out, entirely spent and sucking in air. Relief filled him completely, radiating off his very bones.

They were safe.

Kakashi had kissed him.

The knowledge settled within him and he smiled goofily upwards.

What kind of strange dream was this, to be so perfect?

Then he passed out.

***

Something was troubling Kakashi.

It wasn’t just the furrowed brow. Or the way Kakashi’s eyes would guiltily slip away avoiding his.

Iruka could read it in the way he slouched to the right.

The curve of his spine, ever so slightly turning away whenever Iruka turned to speak to him.

Iruka sighed, punched the rock that was his pillow and tried to settle down. Two days had passed since his delirious confession.

In that time Kakashi had paced back and forth across the camp, like a caged jinchuriki. Checking and double-checking traps, barking out orders at Bisuke and Bull and then disappearing for hours on end to make sure they ‘weren’t being tracked’.

If Iruka had known the awkwardness that would follow his haphazard confession – he might have let that Mist nin strangle him for a little bit longer.

It would be worth it to avoid Kakashi’s quiet histrionics. In any other situation, Iruka would take Kakashi’s behaviour at face value for the rejection that it was.

But Kakashi had kissed him. Not the other way around.

Iruka didn’t think he’d imagined the man’s relief at finding Iruka undamaged and wonderfully alive.

So, what was wrong?

He turned again and tried to even out his breathing.

Kakashi likes me . But doesn’t like that I said I love him? Is that it?

But surely it wasn’t the first battlefield confession the man had ever heard. Iruka was certain that several Konoha ninja had professed their adoration of the copy-nin as he swooped in to save them.

So, what was the problem? Why was it an issue that it was Iruka ?

Genma certainly thought it was the funniest thing in the world.

Every so often, Iruka would catch him sending Kakashi an enthusiastic thumbs up from the corner of his eye.

A good guy pose that would have made Gai-sensei proud.

Kakashi only blanched and scrambled on to another task where he could perfectly avoid any contact with Iruka.

To make matters worse, they still hadn’t found a shred of evidence to exonerate Iruka before the Council.

Without any leads, it wouldn’t be long before Kakashi directed them back to Konoha.

Iruka wasn’t sure what would happen then.

“Hey, are you awake?” Genma’s voice drifted over the campfire and Iruka’s eyes opened narrowly as he placed a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder.

“Why would I be sleeping? I’m on watch,” came Kakashi’s dry response.

Genma nodded sagely.

“True, true. Figured it was best to ask before I end up with a Chidori through my belly though.”

There was no reply and the two men sat in silence for long moments.

As Iruka’s eyes finally drifted closed – he caught small snippets of their conversation.

It seemed quiet.

Contemplative.

“That can’t be the only way,” that was Genma – sounding adamant.

“It’s the job. We discussed this on the first night. Nothing’s changed.” Kakashi – sounding hopeless.

“You changed,” Genma argued back. “You’re allowed to change your mind. Your father – “

Kakashi cut him off.

“Stop Genma. Just stop. We’re not going to find anything more here. We need to go back to Konoha”

“And then?” Genma snapped. “What then?”

Silence.

Iruka’s mind was already adrift and he barely heard Kakashi’s soft whisper.

“I’ll apologise…and hope that I’m forgiven.”

***

The next day dawned in muted colours. Dark storm clouds looming on the horizon.

They packed up the campsite quickly erasing their presence.

It didn’t take long for Kakashi to corner him.

“Iruka,” he began, his single eye unwavering. “We’ve exceeded the time period for this mission.”

The words seemed innocuous but Iruka understood the implicit meaning. They’d run out of time. Ito had only led them to a dead end.

The nin Genma encountered had been promising, but ultimately they hadn’t gained any information on whatever schemes Mizuki had devised.

They had no other leads.

Iruka didn’t know what Kakashi expected. Did he expect Iruka to cry and scream? Make a break for it?

Iruka did neither.

Kakashi broke first.

“Iruka!” Kakashi breathed sharply. “Give me something I can use. I can’t…

His head bent, thumping against Iruka’s chest – hands clutching at Iruka’s shoulders.

Iruka wasn’t sure how to help him. Instead, raised a hand and stroked his hair calmly. The same way he’d soothed students at the Academy.

Kakashi relaxed into him.

“It…it doesn’t work out well for the people that love me Iruka.” He confessed. The words wrenched from him. Half remorse, half warning.

It was such a simple but damaging belief, Iruka thought. For such an incredible man to equate the misfortune of others to love for him and then to bear that burden upon his shoulders…

He tilted Kakashi’s face up towards his own.

“We’re ninja,” Iruka reminded him gently. “We do what must be done.”

Kakashi leaned in closer and Iruka held his breath.

His mind had a tendency to play tricks on him when the jounin came too close. His skin always prickled slightly – alive to the possibility of touch and then there was the temptation to reach out…place a hand against that mask and – no. It was utterly inappropriate.

His heart clenched slightly but he shook it off. He’d had practice.

The mission would soon be over. They’d head back to Konoha and without evidence – Iruka would be placed on trial.

Within the week he could be branded a traitor. He’d never see Kakashi again – or Naruto. Never walk the halls of the Academy and greet his students.

It was untenable but also, out of his hands. Iruka could no more prove his innocence than force Kakashi to return his affections.

Although, Kakashi didn’t seem to have any trouble doing so.

He looked deep into Iruka’s eyes. Searching for something unknown. Eventually, he found whatever he was looking for. Nodded. Pulled back.

And then Iruka was gasping, as Kakashi’s hand fell heavy over his eyes. There was movement, a shifting of fabric and then cloth replaced Kakashi’s hands.

Iruka stumbled, reaching out blindly to have his hands clasped in Kakashi’s grip. The makeshift blindfold blocked the light but there were Kakashi’s hands - guiding, bringing Iruka’s hands to his face to tug down the edge of his mask, exposing a sharp chin, and soft lips to the world.

Iruka felt a surge of longing as he blindly traced over the soft skin. The overwhelming urge to suck on it had his mouth salivating.

He gulped. Convinced Kakashi could suddenly read his mind. He daren’t let his mind wander – but the smoothness of Kakashi’s neck had begun to sing to him a siren song.

Respite came quick enough as Kakashi brought his face between his hands and bestowed a searing kiss that sent Iruka’s toes curling.

It was hot and wet, and delightful. Iruka committed to it wholeheartedly. Tongue swiping over the plump lower lip to suckle even as Kakashi nipped.

His blood fizzed, electrified and racing. How did normal people survive this on a regular basis?

Iruka thought he might implode. His heart swelling with pleasure.

Even if it was downhill from here – there was no greater bliss than this.

***

Part 3: (Hope/Faith)

The trek back to Konoha was slow. Every now and then, Kakashi would pause and call the day early. They’d settle down for the evening, Iruka curling into Kakashi’s side.

Genma would disappear into the woods to make sure they weren’t being followed. Iruka recognised it for the kindness it was, though he and Kakashi never once commented on it.

A day out from Konoha, they settled for the evening. Genma once more headed off for a stroll. Iruka caught him casting furtive looks at Kakashi as he meandered away. Kakashi seemed intent to ignore them.

Iruka pottered about by the fire, cast in shadow against the warm glow of the coals, as he prepared tea.

Eventually, Kakashi came to join him, stoking the fire with a kunai as Bull and Bisuke lolled playfully in the background, chasing one another around the makeshift tents. Ninken, but playful pups all the same. Every now and then a strange scent or sound would give them pause. Frozen, ears pricked until, with a huff, they shook it off and went back to play.

It’s peaceful , Iruka thought.

A soft, homely peacefulness that Iruka equated with quiet nights in Konoha, grading papers in the warmth of his home, tea in hand. For a long time, Mizuki had been part of that. He’d been comfortingly familiar. An old friend, like a reliable kunai – was there when you needed it. Iruka had forgotten how friendship could cut both ways.

He sighed contentedly, unable to suppress the soft glow in his chest. It was a rapid growing warmth that had replaced his discomfort and hurt in the wake of Mizuki’s betrayal. Whenever Iruka looked at Kakashi, the glow throbbed and grew that much brighter, oscillating in waves of hope and longing.

Iruka had always noticed Kakashi. Had always followed the whispers in the marketplace about the White Fang’s genius son. The protégé of the Yellow Flash.

Kakashi had only grown more and more impressive with age.

And he was not just talented.

He was beautiful.

Beautiful in a way that made Iruka’s chest hurt. Not just physically but in his effect. The way he looked at people -when he meant it- the way he looked beneath at what people tried to hide.

Terrifying for an enemy but comforting for a lover and friend.

Comforting for someone like Iruka who had nothing to hide.

But Kakashi? Iruka suspected Kakashi had a lot he wanted to hide. From his glib brush offs, to his nonchalant wanderings around town. Even the bright cover of Icha Icha was a mask.

The truth was that Kakashi was good with people. Iruka had seen it, had been a lucky recipient (twice!) of Kakashi’s kindness. Kakashi cared – not only about Konoha but also his comrades.

Iruka had heard whispers of Kakashi’s previous genin teams. All failed because they didn’t understand how important, and precious, one’s comrades are.

Kakashi cared a lot more than anyone ever gave him credit for.

Iruka would try not to underestimate the man’s capacity for it.

Over the past few days, Iruka felt they’d grown closer. Dare he say it…he even thought Kakashi might care for him. Not just as a comrade but as something more.

Heated kisses aside, Kakashi had expressed a true interest. Actual interest in Iruka .

They’d talked. About Iruka’s classes, his childhood, friends and their experiences as ninja. 

They’d both lost people – both grieved.

They’d had more in common than Iruka had anticipated.

Kakashi hadn’t mentioned Mizuki. Iruka hadn’t mentioned their mission.

It was a tentative stalemate that threatened to crumble.

But Iruka wanted to learn more – to know more about this strange and mysterious man.

He’d always been aware of him. Perhaps had always unconsciously tracked him, keeping an ear out to hear whispers about the copy nin. The only time Iruka had been close enough to touch the man had been during his final mission before the Academy.

The memory of Kakashi debriefing Sandaime on the outcome – his impartial assessment and Iruka’s sudden understanding of what he was he was meant to do – that he was meant to teach .

It all seemed so strange in retrospect. He glanced at Kakashi wonderingly.

“You don’t realise it do you? How much you’ve steered the course of my life these past few years.”

Kakashi cocked his head, looking up from the fire and raising an eyebrow sardonically.

“Me? Sensei?” He gave a small laugh and folded his body back to sit on the ground. Supine.

Curious, Bisuke and Bull came to investigate. Sniffing hungrily until Kakashi relented and scratched behind their ears. He looked relaxed. In his element here more so than bloodied in a battlefield.

Iruka’s head swam with visions; Kakashi as an honest farmer, a roguish merchant trader, a glassworker. His stomach twisted part desire, part jealousy.

If Kakashi hadn’t been born a ninja – Iruka would have never met him. But as a ninja, how well could Iruka ever know the man?

“Why do you wear the mask?” Iruka blurted out, still half lost in thought.

Kakashi’s eye drooped, half lidded and suspicious.

“Well sensei, that’s personal. Haven’t you heard already? My lips are too big. I have buck teeth. My eyes are like a fish. I’m practically my own horror story Sensei – didn’t you know? As a child I was mistaken for a Yato no kami. Bringer of destruction. Apparently at night I strip naked and wriggle beneath the moonlight as a snake. It’s any wonder Orochimaru didn’t take to me…”

Kakashi’s voice was bitter.

Iruka swallowed, too late to step back into the light warm atmosphere of moments earlier.

One foot in the stream – might as well jump in. You’re already wet.

“People in the village often talk about your father,” Iruka swallowed, “he was very handsome by all accounts.”

“Rumours” was Kakashi’s flat response.

Iruka moved to sit beside him and placed a warm hand on his arm.

“I’m sure people have said this before, but I want to say it too. Your father was a hero. I always admired the White Fang, no matter what anyone said.”

Iruka took a breath.

“When my parents died, I hated everyone. The Hokage for failing to protect us, the jounin who didn’t fight in that battle – even my parents for dying. Most of all, I hated myself. I was weak. It took me a long time to realise that there was nothing I could have done. In fact, I did the one thing that my parents wanted most – I lived.” Iruka paused, twisting a blade of grass through his fingers. Then continued.

“When I made chuunin, one of my first missions was to catalogue Konoha’s service records in the mission room. I was so disappointed. There I was, a newly minted chuunin being tasked with genin level work.” Iruka laughed humbly with the memory.

“It was much harder than I’d expected. It took me five days to get through eight files. The ninth file belonged to Sakumo.”

Beneath Iruka’s hand, Kakashi was tense. But he didn’t move. Iruka pressed on.

“I’d never really known much about what had happened. I was too young, not even Academy age. But reading that file, I realised how unjust it was. Your father was not wrong. He did the right thing and no one will ever convince me otherwise. The mission is important. Our duty as Shinobi is important but the people precious to us…what makes us different? What makes Konoha different to other great hidden cities?”

“We have much better weather.” Kakashi inserted glibly. Iruka swatted his leg but was grateful that Kakashi was listening.

“We care for one another. The word ‘team’ has meaning.” Iruka’s voice thickened with emotion. “Sometimes this means we’re betrayed but I want to think…I want to believe this world is better than that. Konoha stands for much more – where there is loss, I think Konoha stands for hope. It just requires us to have a little faith in one another.”

Kakashi buried his head in Iruka’s neck. Whispering softly.

“Iruka, please if there’s anything you know. Any other lead we can follow. Please. Please just… Please.

Iruka was soundless. The earlier feeling of comfort dissipating entirely.

Dread piled on his shoulders. Heavy like stone.

Kakashi clasped his hands tightly.

“We could go. Right now, and not return. You don’t have to go back to Konoha Iruka.”

It was an absurd thing to suggest. They could no sooner abandon Konoha than leave their lungs and heart behind. The fact that Kakashi had offered though made his insides throb warmly.

Foolish man, he thought, irrevocably fond.

“No Kakashi,” Iruka said quietly. “Konoha is our home. I won’t run away because Mizuki was a coward and a traitor. I…I don’t know what will happen tomorrow but I’m thankful you’ll be there.”

He squeezed Kakashi’s hand again, then brought it to his lips, kissing it softly.

“If you’re there with me, I won’t be afraid – no matter what happens.”

Kakashi said nothing and they sank into silence.

Tomorrow they walked towards an uncertain future.

***

Morning in Konoha came quickly. The bustling store fronts bursting open, tables lined with wares – children joyfully skirting the streets in gaggles of bright enthusiasm.

Under different circumstances, Iruka would be part of the crowd, making his way about his day, mind filled with lesson planning and sending assurances to Ayame that - yes, he would be at Ichiraku that evening and no, not with Naruto.

Today was not that day.

Today, he entered Konoha with the air of a man condemned. Even the usually jovial Genma was subdued.

Kakashi hadn’t spoken once since his offer the day before. He’d risen early and disappeared into the woods, returning with a stern and complicated expression. Iruka had served him breakfast – a few rations – and tried not to notice the bruising on the man’s knuckles, or the splinters of wood that clung to his hair.

Iruka wasn’t sure what would happen now. The mission had been a failure. They had no other leads – they’d found no sign of Mizuki’s network.

Iruka’s traps had ensured that there weren’t any witnesses to interrogate.

Not good.

As they approached Hokage tower, tension settled along Iruka’s shoulders. His insides collapsed and curled. Winding themselves up tightly like a spring – threatening to jump out of his skin.

This was it.

The Hokage’s assistant greeted them and waved them through to the main briefing room.

The Sandaime was already seated, dark shadows beneath his eyes as he read through completed mission scrolls – stamping successful missions with his seal before placing in an out-tray “for completion” at the mission desk.

That had been Iruka’s job once. To assist the Hokage in this task. Did the new assistant know that sometimes the Hokage’s hands became stiff after too much reading? Did they apply salve and make brown rice tea in the afternoons when the weather became colder?

The Hokage looked up from his paperwork and then shooed his assistant away then nodded to Kakashi.

“Report” he commanded.

Kakashi bowed deeply. The motion was so uncharacteristic that it gave Iruka pause.

“Hokage-sama,” he began “I regret to report that we were unable to successfully complete this mission.”

The Sandaime’s eyes shut tightly and Iruka could see shutters falling – blotting out any personal feeling that Sarutobi might have. He waved his hand and ordered the man to continue.

Kakashi nodded, face blank.

“We were unable to identify additional suspects in Ito despite engaging enemy combatants. There have been no signs of who supported Mizuki or a potential network he may have engaged.”

The Sandaime nodded thoughtfully, then momentarily looked regretful before forging on.

“The parameters of your mission…did you…did you follow your instructions?”

Kakashi’s spine stiffened immediately and Iruka saw a slight ripple shudder through him. Revulsion? He relaxed into his usual posture so quickly that Iruka wondered if he’d imagined it.

“Yes,” came the firm response. “I followed the mission parameters exactly.”

The old man’s face became grave, tinged with a barely discernible sorrow.

“I see,” he said softly. “Then Hatake-san, please debrief me.”

There was a sudden pressure - the air crackled, and Iruka could smell it like the fizzing electricity in the air before a storm. The Hokage’s guard tensed but as quickly as it appeared, it settled.

Kakashi’s form was rigid, fists clenched by his sides, single eye roving towards the exit.

There was a moment of silence and then he ceded.

“Previous intelligence indicated Umino-san has a romantic preference for men,” he muttered quietly. “His relationship with Mizuki has never been confirmed, but he displayed an obvious attraction to me that offered an opportunity to test his faithfulness to Konoha.”

Time stopped as the blood drained from Iruka’s face.

“W-what?” he asked weakly. His thoughts churned, tossing up their quiet moments. Things that were Iruka’s precious memories.

‘We could go. Right now, and not return. You don’t have to go back to Konoha Iruka.’ – Kakashi’s words. Iruka had thought it proof of Kakashi’s feelings.

Had Kakashi been testing him all along?

Kakashi didn’t look at him and once he’d started, he couldn’t seem to stop. He staggered on like the words were being wrenched from him.

“During the mission he demonstrated a suggestibility to genjutsu – a common trait among chuunin of his calibre. He lacks confidence which has resulted in a tendency to defer to others. Outside the evidence accumulated in Konoha I found nothing to suggest his engagement. However,” here Kakashi paused, finally daring to look at Iruka.

There was no air in the room. Iruka’s mouth opening and closing desperately.

Words were beyond him. Even the sound had been sucked away, leaving a high-pitched keening ringing in his ears.

He watched as a coldness settled over Kakashi. It wiped his entire countenance smooth like sea-tumbled glass - like a mountain on a far-off distant horizon. Nothing had ever seemed as untouchable to Iruka, as Kakashi in that moment.

Iruka wanted to reach out desperately. To cling to Kakashi’s sleeve, to come face to face and shake him. To demand the truth. He refused to believe it could have been an act.

Even Kakashi wasn’t that good of a liar.

Did he honestly believe Iruka was a traitor, and if so why bring him back here to the heart of Konoha - to the Hokage’s office?

Surely Sandaime couldn’t believe Iruka would betray him. Even under duress, Iruka would rather die for the sake of his village - for his students – than commit that type of treachery.

Kakashi should have been able to see that better than anyone.

If not even Kakashi believed in Iruka’s innocence…

What was the point? Iruka’s shoulders slouched and his gaze dropped to stare at his feet.

Kakashi continued talking but Iruka couldn’t hear what he was saying.

What will happen to Naruto? The thought surfaced unbidden. He’d be alone too, after Iruka was gone.

Naruto wasn’t to blame for this but what if they thought he was involved?

Iruka had been the one to vouch for Naruto’s innocence after all. If Iruka was found guilty, it wouldn’t be long before tongues began wagging.

The gossip vine in Konoha moved quickly, turning speculation into fact.

With Iruka gone, no-one would protect Naruto from suspicious eyes. Being the nine-tailed fox’s jinchuriki would only condemn him further.

A warm ember of indignation kindled in his chest.

No, he couldn’t leave Naruto lost and alone. Not again.

Shinobi Rule #31 – A ninja does what must be done.

“Take me to T&I.” He blurted the words out before he could lose his courage.

A hush fell across the room.

Iruka fought to keep the terror from his face. He’d heard about T&I – the rudimentary mission room gossip about the man they called the ‘Mind-breaker’ and Ibiki’s skill with a blade.

There were a thousand ways to break a man; his mind, his trust, his heart.

Iruka knew enough to be terrified.

Despite it all, he refused to show his fear. He clenched his teeth to stop them chattering and locked his knees so they couldn’t collapse from under him.

The Sandaime’s hands came together at his chin as he contemplated Iruka’s words.

He saw too much. As a child, Iruka had found it comforting. As an adult on trial for treason, it was less so.

Finally, the Hokage nodded.

It wasn’t a relief.

Hands clamped down around Iruka’s shoulders like shackles. Then he was being led backwards towards the tower that housed T&I.

He wasn’t sure he’d leave sane or alive.

***

When Iruka awoke, Mizuki was sitting across from him, face concerned.

“You’ve finally woken up. I wasn’t sure, with the extent of the damage…I was pretty sure you were dead.”

Iruka groaned, rolling to his side. Dimly he registered his surroundings.

He’d been placed in a small cell. Concrete barriers, sealed doorway and a shoddy barrier jutsu separating him from Mizuki.

Mizuki looked well for someone who’d been detained by T&I for over a week. His hair was greasy, but he looked well fed and was smiling sharply.

He whistled lowly.

“They did a number on you, didn’t they? Not sure you’ll use that knee anytime soon. That’s your ninja career over and done with right there. Your hand looks pretty busted too” he chuckled.

Iruka tried to ignore it. But he could already see his hands. His hands were a bloody, pulpy mess of cuts. Some fingers flopped uselessly; others bent backwards. He’d never be able to use a kunai again. He didn’t dare try to look at his knee.

It was a small mercy that he couldn’t feel the pain his body must be in.

“You’re being held for treason, so I guess it’s not like Konoha is out to do you any favours sensei.”

Mizuki’s voice took on a sing-song quality that made Iruka’s insides squirm.

“Poor Iruka-sensei. You should have just let me go. Why can’t you follow a plan properly!?”

The blood leeched from Iruka’s face, a pale flush of outrage at the insinuation.

“Plan!?” Iruka burst out. “You committed treason Mizuki! Don’t you get it? You were going to kill a child! You tried to eviscerate me!”

His body shook with his vehemence.

Mizuki shrugged, flopping onto his back and pillowing his head beneath his arms.

“You can’t pretend you didn’t know what was going on. You’ve been helping me play the good guy to Naruto for months now. Failing the kid was a stroke of genius. He walked straight into my hands.”

He laughed humourlessly.

“Seriously Ru – you’re gold. Absolute genius underneath it all. You gave me everything I needed.” He yawned lazily.

“You were always good for that though. Did you like me a bit more than a friend? I could never tell. It was pathetic watching you pant after Kakashi these past few months. Hahaha. Little Ruka you so desperately wanted his approval. I remember when you had that big mission with him. You were so excited – then naturally – you fucked it up. What was it again…some kid starving? Or…hmm - bandits attacking a village? Well I don’t remember. It was so fucking funny though. You came back determined to be a teacher.”

Iruka’s ears burned darkly as humiliation forced his eyes away. He couldn’t look at Mizuki. His battered heart ached, repeatedly subjected to one betrayal after another. He looked to the ceiling, trying to blink back his tears. He just wanted a reprieve from it all.

For a heart stopping moment, he almost wished they’d killed him during the interrogation. He couldn’t remember it – wasn’t sure what he’d said. He was so empty, that he was sure something must have been wrenched from him.

He wondered if the whole of Konoha knew the extent of his embarrassment and stupidity. It was a miserable feeling.

Mizuki prodded him further.

“It was shaping up to work well until you screwed me over. What did you think would happen Iruka? That the Hokage would just let you go? If I’m guilty, you are too.”

Then Mizuki turned to his side, cocking an eyebrow and running a finger over his lips. A parody of seduction.

A slow simmering rage took root, chasing away the pain. It welled within him until he was shaking.

“We could get out of here Iruka. You and me. I’ve never been curious, but I suppose all things given I could do worse than you. We could go. Right now, and not return”

The words stirred something in him, a remnant of memory. It was hazy but came unbidden. Hadn’t Kakashi said something similar?

The memory sparked, flaring into an inferno of feeling, catching him off guard.

That was right. The pieces fell together. He remembered now why they were so similar.

His hurt coalesced into a single ignition point.

Iruka exploded.

“No Mizuki! Not anymore. I won’t listen anymore! You betrayed our village. You betrayed me! I’ve only ever wanted you to succeed! But this!?” his tone turned plaintive.

“You were my best friend Mizuki. Do you understand what that means? It means I was always on your side. No matter what. I was never going to leave you behind. But now I must. You’ve forced my hand. How can I trust someone who put the entire city at risk?”

Mizuki scoffed.

“Please Iruka, don’t act like you’re so high and mighty. You’ve been with me every step of the way. How can you claim to have never noticed? Are you really so blind?”

It was a petty jab at Iruka’s already wounded soul. The truth was that Iruka hadn’t wanted to see Mizuki as he was. For Iruka, Mizuki was a constant. As familiar as his own shadow. Iruka hadn’t wanted to accept the signs of Mizuki’s growing unrest. Hadn’t wanted to acknowledge that they were growing apart.

That was the problem, Iruka realised. 

Mizuki, Kakashi…the reason he was so easily fooled wasn’t because he believed the best in people.

It was that he only believed what he wanted to. If Kakashi had a mask to hide his face, Iruka was walking through life with blinkers over his eyes. Both hiding from different truths he supposed. One fearing that they could not live up to expectations, and the other refusing to accept reality as it was with all its flaws . 

The knowledge settled within him.

It was an uncomfortable truth that had him turning away, hands covering his ears to ignore Mizuki’s jibes.

His tongue was dry in his mouth, his stomach empty.

He couldn’t feel anything.

***

Anko was the next to visit him in his cell.

Mizuki had disappeared at some point but in his dreamy state, Iruka struggled to recall when.

All that mattered was he had gone and Iruka could rest in peace.

Unfortunately, Anko was not the peaceful type.

She blazed into the room, kicking the door open with a bang.

Iruka startled, still muddled and groggy. He must have been sleeping, though he wasn’t sure he’d closed his eyes.

“Hey traitor.” She said cheerfully, squatting down and eyeing him critically from the other side of the barrier.

“I thought I’d drop by and see how you’re coping with my earlier handiwork.” She gestured to his ruined knee and hands.

“It’s always hard getting the screws beneath the kneecap but once you start slicing through the ligaments it’s like a pinwheel. It’ll just keep spinning.”

In the darkness, her eyes seemed to flicker reflecting gold in the low light.

“Sorry about the hands though. I always thought they were nice. Sturdy y’know?” She nodded to herself. “Yeah, that was a real tragedy.”

Iruka wasn’t sure what to say. He still couldn’t feel anything but logically he knew he’d never be able to use them again. They’d crippled him.

At least Anko is a little upset? For some reason, the thought amused him, and his lips twisted in a futile attempt to smile.

“Did you get what you wanted from me?” he asked instead.

His mind had blanked out whatever it was they’d done to him. Too painful or too shocking. He didn’t know which. Mercifully, his mind had tucked it away. Shielding him from the worst of it.

Eventually, he’d regain feeling and his wounds would be unbearable. But for now, all he wanted to do was sleep.

Anko seemed uncertain, chewing on her lip.

“I might have gotten a bit carried away,” she muttered. “You didn’t really say anything we didn’t already know.”

“So, you decided to try a bit harder?” he laughed mirthlessly and tried to wiggle his useless fingers at her. They flopped sickeningly back and forwards – most at unnatural angles.

This time, it was Anko who blushed.

“Traitors are made into examples,” she fired back angrily. “That’s just how it is.”

Iruka nodded.

“I’m still considered a traitor then.”

He’d have to be interrogated further. Was that why Anko was here? She didn’t look like she’d come to deliver a second round. Instead, she was carrying a small tray with a glass of water and two pills.

They were different colours. One a lurid pink and the other an off shade of olive green.

She placed the tray on the ground.

“This is my apology.” She stated firmly, pointing to the tray. “I was angry with you and I hurt you on purpose. More than the interrogation called for.”

That was unexpected.

“Why?” he asked, trying to mask his surprise.

She shrugged in response.

“I don’t have many friends Iruka…when I heard you might have betrayed Konoha with Mizuki…I was mad at you. I thought I’d been fooled again. I went a bit overboard.”

She blew at her bangs and scratched her chin, face scrunched into a strange expression that Iruka couldn’t place. Then she cleared her throat.

“Anyway, I figured I owed you one last act. A favour based on our friendship so…” she gestured to the tray again.

“The pink one will kill you stone dead and the green one will numb your pain for a bit. You’ve probably figured it out but…we didn’t get anything from you before and that means our job isn’t finished. I don’t want to hurt you more than I did already, so I wanted to give you a choice. You’ll need to decide quickly. We’ll need to start again real soon.”

She stood up, rocking back on her heels and slid back to the cell door.

“The next time you see me, I hope we’ll be friends again,” then softly under her breath “Otherwise she might actually kill me this time.”

The cell door closed with a click and Iruka was left alone with the tray of pills.

She’d given him an option.

He reached out, broken fingers trembling -clutching the pink pill. It shone, iridescent in the room’s dim light.

Death.

He never thought it would be so colourful.

This was what Anko’s kindness looked like.

He chuckled to himself and hurled the pill at the wall, watching as it splattered in a spray of neon sparkle.

Then he picked up the green pill.

He was tempted to take it. A second round of interrogation would finish him off. It’d be nice not to feel the pain but if he took this pill…there was no point. The point of the interrogation was to feel the pain. They wouldn’t believe they’d found the truth unless they pulled it from him, bloody and screaming.

But he wasn’t brave enough to throw it away.

He tucked it into his collar and turned again to curl against the wall in half dazed stupor.

***

Iruka struggled, unable to focus. He found himself drifting in and out, uncertain of how much time had passed.

When Kakashi appeared, kneeling against the cell door with a set of keys, Iruka was still lost in fog. His thoughts curled in and around themselves, flirting with reality; the cold floor and dimly lit cell trying to make sense of it all, before withdrawing – unable to linger too long.

The door swung open and Kakashi tumbled into the room, an embodiment of urgency and haste.

“We need to leave Iruka. Now.” He grabbed Iruka’s arm, firmly hauling him to his feet. Iruka stumbled trying to find his balance and failing, Hobbled, he slid into the curve of Kakashi’s arm, breathing him in and searching for his usual scent of an oncoming storm. But there was nothing.

Just the sterile blankness of the cell, of concrete – splash of pink still smeared down the side of the wall.

Kakashi tugged him towards the door, pausing to listen before pulling him through into the hallway.

In one moment, Iruka was in the T&I cell and then in the next instant, found himself in the wide expanse of the Academy’s training field.

It was exactly how he remembered it.

Students raced across the field, shrieking and laughing as they practiced ninjutsu. A rightness lit him from within. A gentle glow of certainty that this is where he belonged.

Naruto was there too, bright blonde hair shining in the sunlight. He was pulling faces at Sasuke who was in hysterics at Naruto’s failed attempt at the bunshin jutsu. Just how it used to be.

Before everything changed.

Before Mizuki.

Had the sunlight always been this warm? It was so much warmer than in his tiny cell.

The reminder rattled him.

He wrenched himself from Kakashi’s grip, overcorrecting and hit the ground with a wet thud.

The memory of his mutilated knee had him bracing for a wave of terrible sensation, but even as it gave way there was no pain.

“What are you doing?” Kakashi hissed, a single eyebrow creased in disapproval.

“What are you doing!?!?” Iruka spluttered back - hysterical.

What was the man thinking? Taking him from his cell, bringing him here?

Forget Mizuki – this was what real treason looked like; it looked like an escaped chuunin and his jounin accomplice.

Someone had to talk sense into him. No matter how skilled, Kakashi couldn’t just waltz into a secure facility and take a prisoner out for a little stroll.

It was a sweet gesture.

It was also completely crazy.

“Kakashi, we need to go back. This is all just a misunderstanding. Let’s go back now.” Iruka clutched at Kakashi’s sleeve desperately, willing the man to understand. Iruka needed to prove himself innocent. Needed to return to his life at the Academy, to the village. He couldn’t do that if they ran away.

Once they figured it out, they’d let him go. He clung to the belief. He couldn’t bring himself to believe anything different.

Kakashi was silent. Remote. Cold and as distant as the moon. Iruka tugged his arm again, but the man didn’t budge.

He simply looked at Iruka and shook his head. No.

Did he not understand? Panicking, Iruka pulled away completely, wondering how to get back to the tower. His mind told him if he could just return in time – just get back before they noticed he’d been gone…

Strong hands grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him harshly.

“We have to go, Iruka. They aren’t getting what they want from you. If you go back, you won’t come out alive. I’ll never see you again.” His hands tightened. “I won’t let that happen. I won’t let you become another name I visit on the memorial stone. So, come!”

Spurred by Kakashi’s command, Iruka's body began to move. Together, they hurtled across the Academy field, down the winding streets and past the busy shop fronts Iruka loved so much.

Then they were at Konoha’s gates. The border between the village and other.

One step beyond, and they’d be traitors to their village. One step beyond and they’d become missing nin.

The gravity of it froze Iruka in place. His feet became lead, limbs unresponsive. He was rooted to the spot unable to comprehend the enormity of what Kakashi was proposing.

Abandon Konoha? Betray Konoha? How could he leave. Everything he loved was in this village. His entire life was here. People, friends, places. Every element that made Iruka the man he was today; every prank, every tear and smile shared – Konoha was more than just his home. It represented everything he held dear. It was something he’d always place above himself. Above his own happiness and security. That was his ninja way – to care and protect. 

His love for others was his weapon.

You are the standard that you set. Live by your actions. It was something his mother had told him the day the Ninetails had attacked. She wouldn’t leave Konoha. She’d stayed to fight because that was her ninja way.

If he betrayed Konoha, he’d betray the fundamentals of what he believed in.

He’d be like Mizuki.

He couldn’t do it.

The thought of scoring his forehead protector, of destroying the symbol of the leaf…Iruka would never do it.

Konoha was his home.

Kakashi should know better than anyone what that meant. Home was precious people, and places. It was bright mornings and dark days; the place where Iruka’s parents had died but also where he’d found comfort and purpose.

Beyond the walls of Konoha there was no life that could satisfy Iruka. The certainty resonated deep within his bones.

He shook himself from Kakashi’s grip, with an apology, turning to run. To head back to T&I or turn himself over to ANBU, he wasn’t sure. He just knew he had to get away before Kakashi did something terrible.

Kakashi had been ready for it.

Hands flashed in Iruka’s periphery, lightning fast and grasping. They latched on to his collar, hoisting him high.

Unable to go without a fight, Iruka countered, hooking his ankle behind Kakashi’s knee, sweeping Kakashi’s leg from beneath him.

Kakashi staggered, but recovered quickly, smoothly slipping behind Iruka’s defences and securing his limbs. Iruka struggled. Throwing his body to the side then gasping as his flak jacket tore.

He hit the ground hard, gasping in shock, as weapons clattered around him.

Kakashi pursued relentlessly, hovering above him - an imposing shadow of sinew and muscle.

Beautiful and terrifying, and Iruka had only ever wanted to hold him.

That had been a hopeless dream. He remembered now.

Sweet glances across the clearing. Feelings of hope and curiosity. The tentative fluttering of something that might have been love.

Lies.

Hope had turned to embarrassment and shame. A wound had opened in his chest and he thought he’d die from it even though it shed no blood.

Did Kakashi think he needed to apologise?

He didn’t.

They were ninja. They always did what was right by the village. Even the Hokage, who had known Iruka since childhood had shown no leniency and Iruka’s best friend Mizuki had shown him that trust was a fool’s game.

The Hokage had been right to send him to interrogation.

If Kakashi felt guilty, there was no need. No need to apologise. No need to try and save Iruka now.

Absconding from the village wouldn’t solve anyone’s problems.

Iruka would stay and face whatever T&I had in store. He wouldn’t let Kakashi do this, wouldn’t allow himself to be the reason for Kakashi’s desertion.

He looked up at Kakashi, who stood above him like a vengeful angel. The sunlight was fiercely bright, casting Kakashi’s face in shadow.

“You don’t need to do this Kakashi. I don’t want this.” Iruka looked up at him beseechingly, begging him to reconsider. His shoulders were tense. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if Kakashi refused.

Kakashi remained silent, contemplative. For a moment Iruka entertained the hope he’d gotten through to him -surely, he understood what a terrible choice this would be. But then Kakashi’s jaw firmed, tightening in resolution.

Iruka found himself caught in Kakashi’s firm grip, being dragged to his feet.

“No. We need to go. You won’t survive another round Iruka.” His voice softened. “I can’t be responsible for that.”

The arrogance of it made Iruka’s eyes narrow. The assumption that he was to blame…Iruka couldn’t fault Kakashi for doing what he needed to but to believe he now had a right to change his mind?

“Tell me Kakashi,” he began, voice low and dangerous, “what makes you think you get a say?”

He swore, overcome with emotion.

“I can accept you did what was best for Konoha. I can accept you taking advantage of my feelings but not if you do this. Not if you take it all back. How am I supposed to believe that when you do something like this? What about the Hokage? What about Naruto? What do you think will happen to him if I disappear!?”

Iruka’s voice rose as his feelings got the better of him. He yanked his arm from Kakashi’s grip and started pacing.

Kakashi meanwhile just shrugged, face ruthlessly smooth. It was like looking at stone, blank and cold. Iruka couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Was uncertain he wanted to know. Kakashi didn’t need to wear a mask to be impenetrable. He was a fortress of his own making. Complex corridors and extensive labyrinth that defied Iruka’s understanding.

It was impossible to reconcile him with the man who’d bowed to the Hokage – or the man that had kissed him by the fire. That man, the man Iruka had thought he’d known - that man would never do this. His loyalty to Konoha was absolute. He was a man who’d do the Hokage’s bidding – go to any lengths to ensure Konoha was safe. A man who’d go as far as faking feelings for Iruka.

The thought stung.

But it was true. This version of Kakashi, so desperate to flee was not a version Iruka knew. Certainly, wasn’t the Kakashi he’d come to love. The Kakashi he knew would have lived and died for his precious people and Iruka would not be fooled into believing he was one of them. 

Not again.

The silence lengthened and Kakashi eventually sighed, looking out the open gate towards the forest in the distance. It was almost resigned, the way he folded into his casual slouch, tension leeching from his form. With his relaxation, the air seemed to shift. There was a sweetness to it which threatened to derail Iruka’s composure. A few cherry blossoms floated past, caught in the breeze. The sight of them caused Iruka’s brow to crease.

It’s the wrong season , he thought watching them catch another current and swirl towards the sky.

Kakashi smiled carefully at Iruka’s distraction and placed a gloved hand against his face, stroking his cheek.

“Why do you care what happens to Naruto, Iruka? Did you forget he’s the Ninetails? He’s responsible for killing your parents – for destroying the village. You don’t owe him anything Iruka. You’ve done enough.” He paused meeting Iruka’s eyes - pleading. “Please – come with me now.”

The blood drained from Iruka’s face, his entire body flinching at Kakashi’s words.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This was all very wrong. Kakashi would never say that. Those words were not from the same Kakashi that had told Iruka to give Naruto a chance. That Kakashi had been insistent, knowing what it would cost Iruka but not letting him run away.

If Iruka finally looked at it at face value and put away his wayward heart – it was all very simple.

This wasn’t Kakashi. It couldn’t be. Kakashi would never do this.

He’d been fooled before by the Mist-nin who wore Genma’s face but not this time.

He nodded absentmindedly to himself, an idea forming as he slid his palm into Kakashi’s outstretched hand.

“Okay Kakashi,” he whispered softly. “I’ll come with you”. Then squaring his shoulders, he pulled Kakashi closer. “But you’ll need to give me the codeword first.”

Kakashi’s expression didn’t waver, but tension filled the air -thick and syrupy with a pressure that forced sweat to break on the back of Iruka’s neck. His body sparked with adrenaline, ready for fight or flight and his fingers started vibrating with uncertainty.

Kakashi tried to speak, and then paused. Eyes lingering on Iruka’s mouth and then darting about trying to look everywhere but at his face.

He didn’t speak, didn’t even move – his hand still curled around Iruka’s in a parody of a handshake.

He doesn’t know? Or he doesn’t remember? Iruka suddenly felt a prickle of embarrassment, unable to tell which. Perhaps Kakashi had forgotten entirely. Just because it had meant the world to him didn’t mean Kakashi felt the same way.

Burying the uncertainty, Iruka kissed him anyway.

Iruka had spent years thinking about Kakashi. Memorising his mannerisms and quirks. The only people who’d have watched the man more closely were those that wanted him dead.

Iruka knew the curve of Kakashi’s nose beneath his mask, was intimately familiar with the plumpness of his lips, and since their mission - the way Kakashi’s mouth parted just ever so slightly as he breathed into a kiss.

Iruka’s senses fired wildly, collecting every point of available data. Everything he catalogued brought him to the same conclusion.  

Not Kakashi. It wasn’t him.

Spurred by the realisation his body moved reflectively. By instinct or fear a weapon found his hand and he lashed out years of training guiding him, tilting his hand and angling upwards with just the right amount of force to puncture cartilage and bone. The blade sunk cleanly, deep between Kakashi’s ribs and straight into his heart. 

Kakashi crumpled instantly, hand slipping from Iruka’s fingers as he collapsed to the ground. In horror, Iruka watched as an ugly gurgling sound erupted from him. Blood pooled at his mouth and as he watched Kakashi struggle for air, Iruka realised he must have punctured a lung.

He’d done that, he thought, dazed. It had been horrifically easy.

It’s slow watching a man die. He mused. Terrible but slow. 

He comforted himself, trying to look away. Too disconcerted by watching someone who wore Kakashi’s face die. 

Soon. Any second it will change. The illusion will fall. Whoever was masquerading as Kakashi. Whoever I just killed. They’ll show their real face.

But Kakashi’s face didn’t change. It settled, still and cold. The lack of blood bleached his face white, so pale it almost matched his hair. Iruka was suddenly consumed by terror and doubt, as Kakashi’s eyes went soft, unfocused and then completely dark. Devoid of any life.

For a moment, Iruka was still - almost calm. But the sight of Kakashi’s body laid before him, shattered his reserve and he tumbled to Kakashi’s side, feet tripping over themselves in disorientation.

Wasn’t Kakashi, wasn’t him. He tried to convince himself, but the doubt remained, lingering. 

Why isn’t his face changing? Please change. Change! Dammit.

Nothing happened and Kakashi’s eyes continued to stare at him blankly, open and unseeing.

Although his fingers itched, he couldn't bring himself to remove Kakashi’s mask. Too terrified to see beneath.

No, no, no. Please don’t be wrong. Please, please. His chest rebelled; hiccupping air as he fought to control an upswell of panic.

Oh god. He’d made a mistake.

Shakily, he reached out – chakra buzzing on his fingers, silently willing the man to live. It wasn’t too late. He’d seen medic-nin perform miracles. They’d brought Kakashi back from worse than a little blood loss before. Iruka wasn’t a trained healer but was willing to drain his chakra reserves dry if that was what Kakashi needed.

He brought his hands to Kakashi’s face, clumsily swiping blood from the man’s cheeks and forced bright blue healing chakra into his system. It fizzled and popped, flowing from Iruka’s fingertips with fierce intent before circling in confusion and petering out – like a recalcitrant ninken pup.

Minute after minute passed but Iruka didn’t falter, determined to bring Kakashi back and undo what he’d done. 

But his chakra refused to take - without anything for it to latch onto, his hopeless effort was wasted. The essence that made Kakashi was missing – was gone.

He’s gone.

Kakashi…

He couldn’t see. Tears seared his eyes even as he continued pumping chakra into the man. 

He couldn’t give up. Would never stop until Kakashi’s eyes focused and turned to look at him again.

There was no light, no sound. Only the steady flow of chakra and the crush of his chest as his heart shrivelled in on itself, flaking and petrifying into dust.  

“Oh, you poor fool,” a figure sighed exasperatedly. “You actually like him, don’t you?”

Iruka gasped, panting heavily between sobs, hands still frozen on Kakashi’s face. He could feel his chakra reserves dwindling but it didn’t matter. There would be no point. No point to anything. 

Please, please live Kakashi. Please. He begged silently.  

Why did he always get it wrong? First Mizuki, then Kakashi. Now this – irreparable loss.

He wanted to curl up and die.

The grief rose above him like a tsunami. He was drowning. He struggled for air unable to gasp without choking. Hot tears ran down his cheeks and he threw himself backwards away from Kakashi, curling into a ball and clutching at his hair. 

Let me go under, he silently begged. Let me never get up again. Let me stay here with Kakashi and never move again.

His fingernails dug deep into his skin creating great long bloody gashes along his forearms.

The nearby figure watched – silent but present, a witness to despair.

Eventually, Iruka’s tears settled into wet little hiccups. Sobs no longer shook his body, but his throat was hoarse, and his face was smeared with sweat and salt.

He drifted, remote and terrible. Chest filled with fractured glass and cotton wool.

Exhaustion took him and his eyelids lowered. He’d stay here and never wake up again. Let them take him back to T&I. They’d never get anything from Iruka ever again. He would stay here in this memory – a prison more effective than anything T&I could do to him.

“I’m sorry Iruka.” The figure finally said, crouching beside him and wrapping long fingered hands around his face.

“It’s time to wake up.”

***

Final: (Hagakure)

When Iruka awoke, Kakashi was leaning over him.

The man was grim. His single eye cast in shadow. He couldn’t have slept. Not with the way his clothes limply hung from his frame. Even his usually buoyant hair seemed wilted.

Blinking dumbly, Iruka took a moment to take stock. He felt bruised. Banged up around the edges, and worse inside his chest where a gaping cavity had formed.

He remembered the feel of the kunai in his hand. The tension of skin and muscle as it carved through Kakashi’s flesh. He promptly leaned over the bed and emptied his stomach onto the floor.

Hands stroked his hair gently and he opened his eyes feeling feverish as Kakashi tucked him back down.

“I killed you.”

The words came unbidden and he immediately bit his tongue worried that the dream might fracture.

Kakashi sat down and placed Iruka’s hands on his neck. Beneath the fabric Iruka could feel the steady beat of a pulse and the warmth that radiated. Alive.

“You’ve been in T&I all morning. The Mind Breaker brought you out of the genjutsu an hour ago, but you wouldn’t wake up. They decided to monitor you just in case.”

Still numb, Iruka could only feel light ripples of shock.

His mind was scrambled but he pieced it together piece by piece. Mizuki in the cell, Anko with her pills, and then Kakashi…

A light shudder ran through him.

“Did they find what they were looking for?” he asked weakly.

Kakashi nodded.

“Enough to confirm your innocence. We’re still tracking Mizuki’s contact.”

That’s right, he remembered now. The mission.

Oh God, wasn’t that humiliating. Iruka had thought he’d been baring his soul with someone he admired and trusted. Meanwhile Kakashi had been trying to fulfil his mission.

It must have been awkward for him, with Iruka’s obvious regard and grand proclamations of love.

Overwhelmed, tears slipped silently from under his eyelids and down his cheeks. 

Oh god, he was tired. 

He wasn’t ready to reflect on this yet. Couldn’t bring himself to recall the ease he’d felt with Kakashi, the smooth transition from strangers to sudden kisses in the night…to embedding a kunai in his chest.

In the back of his mind it began – the insidious voice that had become louder and louder since Mizuki’s attack.

You’re a fool. You have no purpose. No point. No reason to be alive.

Each thought was like a blow and he buckled against the barrage. He closed his eyes against the assault.

Kakashi didn’t let him wallow for long. He clasped their hands together, drawing them to his mouth and whispered soft reassurances.

“I’m glad you’re awake Iruka-sensei.”

Iruka tried not to flinch but didn’t succeed.

Kakashi’s face became grim and he immediately released his grip.

He straightened, eyes roving the room as if for threats and then drew his hands up placatingly – eye curving into an approximation of a smile.

“We weren’t sure when you’d wake.”

The atmosphere settled,  heavy and awkward. Iruka didn’t know how to reply and the awkwardness solidified becoming a barrier between the two of them.

They sat in silence. Iruka thought he could pick the hesitation in Kakashi’s posture. For a split second, Iruka would see him tense as if he planned to speak, then he’d deflate - the silence remained victorious.

Iruka still wasn’t certain what Kakashi was doing here.

Did they need to take him back to T&I?

His chest seized in terror and he forgot how to breathe, heart leaping in his chest.

No. He couldn’t go through that again.

There was nothing left for them to unearth. They’d already found each mortifying hope he held for the future.

The silence dragged on, and Kakashi looked just as wrecked as Iruka felt but it was little solace.

Iruka’s thoughts were sharp – some hurt too much to touch. He navigated around them steering towards the safer shores of self-loathing and recrimination. He could throw himself beneath their weight and never surface again.

But Kakashi was insistent.

He pulled himself together, finally moved to action and covered Iruka’s face with his hands, directing it upwards until their eyes met – held.

Something about him seemed gentler than Iruka remembered. There was something raw and understanding in Kakashi’s eyes that made Iruka pay attention to his words.

“Whatever you’re thinking right now. Stop. You are stronger than that. The Yamanaka clan has already assured me your recovery will be swift. Whatever you feel now is just the transitory effect of the jutsu.” His eyes slid away unable to hold but he continued. “It will wear off. Just give it some time.”

That was good and well for Kakashi, Iruka thought uncharitably, he didn’t suffer the urge to erase the past month of his life.

Perhaps even earlier, to the point that this weakness had started. That first time when they’d sat side by side on a bench and had an honest conversation.

Iruka had tumbled into admiration, swiftly followed by adoration. Kakashi was brilliant. Far too brilliant for Iruka. His weakness was his desire to covet not the attributes Kakashi had but Kakashi himself.

Disgusting.

No. This is not weakness. A softer voice reminded . Caring, compassion. Didn’t you decide a very long time ago, that this would be your ninja way?

Iruka Umino was strong. He would continue to be the person he wanted to be.

He breathed in slowly. The air was thick with the scent of medicinal herbs, but somehow it seemed overwhelmingly sweet.

Mizuki hadn’t broken him. Kakashi wouldn’t either.

He relaxed and leaned back into the bed pillows and closed his eyes. He felt more settled.

Felt more like himself than he had for a long time.

The shift in his demeanour prompted Kakashi to lean in closer, his expression solemn.

Iruka met his eyes and held. There was no feigned desperation, no shifting half flirtatious grin.

He’d seen what those expressions looked like on Kakashi’s face. This wasn’t it.

Instead, Iruka felt a sense of honesty. For the first time in the past week, Iruka realised he was seeing his own expression reflected back at him.

It was longing.

Kakashi’s lips curved slightly in acknowledgement at Iruka’s shocked expression.

“Kakashi?” Iruka asked softly.

He cleared his throat quietly, eyes avoiding Iruka’s before he started.

“I want to tell you something before you send me away.” He paused gathering courage then continued. “Iruka, there’s a reason you won’t find me in a bingo book with a list of known associates next to my name. I wasn’t obfuscating when I said things go badly for people who love me. There aren’t many people who do Iruka, because they mostly die. I’m often the one that kills them. They don’t usually assign these types of missions to me…I’m not good with them.”

It made sense. Kakashi by nature wasn’t particularly suave and if Icha Icha was his source material…

A flush rose on his cheeks. Only Iruka would have been taken in by it. That was embarrassing too. Kakashi probably could have received romantic advice from Gai-sensei and Iruka would’ve fallen for it.

Kakashi continued twisting his fingers into elaborate knots, looking everywhere but at Iruka. He’d removed his forehead protector but his sharingan eye was still closed, long scar trailing down beneath his mask. It made him look sheepish, his discomfort written across his features.

He scratched the back of his head, eyes flicking between Iruka and the ceiling. Finally, he laughed disparagingly.

“I couldn’t trust myself. I came to like you too much to be impartial. It made me unreliable. The fact that I hated the idea of hurting you was the very reason I had to be suspicious. Please believe I never wanted you to get hurt. I lied to you but doesn’t mean I didn’t mean the things I said...” he swallowed heavily, then muttered softly, “or don’t have feelings for you.”

Silence.

Iruka didn’t know how to respond. Didn’t trust himself to reply. It was too complicated to unravel. Lies and love; irrevocably intertwined for shinobi. Nothing to be done. That’s just how it had to be.

But Iruka was heartsore. He’d lost faith in his ability to judge a person – to make the right decision.

He didn’t even know how he felt about Kakashi anymore.

His heart throbbed, achingly. He could still feel the kunai in his hand, sliding into Kakashi’s chest.

He felt sick.

The silence of the room was shattered suddenly by Anko’s loud voice.

“Irukaaaa!! What did he do to you!?”

Her lithe form barged into the room, bowling over Kakashi in her haste to be at Iruka’s bedside. She’d drawn a kunai from her thigh holster and was brandishing it threateningly.

Kakashi was on his feet, placing a restraining hand on her arm before Iruka registered.

“It wasn’t me Iruka. Whatever he did. Protocol says they’re supposed to tell you if they use your face for an interrogation. He didn’t even ask!” She was so flustered that the air around her vibrated.

Iruka held up his hands placatingly.

“It’s ok Anko. I hardly remember anything anyway.” A lie. But Iruka already planned to take the entire experience to the grave.

She sniffed, dropping the weapon and wriggling out of Kakashi’s grip. The man let her go and she wilted next to Iruka’s bedside.

“I was so damn worried. Yamanaka’s a dick when he thinks he’s on a roll. I’m glad you’re ok.”

She patted the blankets in a motherly fashion, smoothing down the creases.

There was a brief period of stillness which was quickly broken by Anko’s fidgeting.

“It’s just so frustrating!” she broke out, standing to pace the room. “You went through all that and we still aren’t any closer to finding who was helping Mizuki!”

It was frustrating, Iruka concurred. He’d been found innocent but with no leads… Mizuki would get away with it.

“Has he been interrogated?” Iruka asked softly.

Anko nodded. “Three times but nothing usable. Guy’s got a lotta rage Iruka, and he really doesn’t like you.”

It was sobering to think his lifelong friend might have wanted him dead for a good portion of their friendship.

Conversation was cut short as Genma breezed through the doors, dragging a fatigued brown-haired man in tow.

“Iruka! You’re alive! Joy of joys. And look at Hatake Kakashi! He looks worlds away from someone about to murder all the members of T&I wouldn’t you say Tenzo?”

The brown-haired man shrugged. Genma nodded to himself, then facing Kakashi jerked his thumb across to the dour man.

“I brought this one along just in case you feel the need to hunt someone down while I flee.”

Tenzo grunted slouching further. The stance, something about it twinged Iruka’s memory and suddenly he was back in Mizuki’s apartment, a shadowy ANBU looming over him in the window.

Gasping, he sat up straight in bed, pointing a finger at the man.

“It was you!”

Kakashi looked back and forth between them, his eyebrows creased into a frown.

“You know him sensei?” he asked.

Tenzo watched him intently, dark eyes clearly conveying warning. Cautiously, Iruka shook his head.

“Erm…Not really, we must have just…crossed paths recently.”

The tension in the room abated and Tenzo shuffled forward.  

“Despite this fool’s ramblings,” he shot Genma a bemused glance “I need Iruka to look at something.”

He turned to Iruka and held out his arm.

“Do you recognise this?”

In his outstretched hand sat a small orange marble.

“I found something similar at the bridge crossing. The ropes must have been keyed to your chakra signature to burn so quickly. I tried to investigate further but then Genma disappeared and my priorities changed…”

Kakashi’s hand curled around Iruka protectively as he glared. Neither man seemed particularly impressed.

It was Kakashi who broke the silence first, voice gruff.

“Priorities aside – I’m glad you were there. We’d never have gotten over that chasm without you - though your warning system could use some work. A kunai three feet up a tree isn’t the easiest message to decode.”

Genma looked affronted on the man’s behalf and took the senbon from his mouth preparing to speak. Tenzo’s hand clapped down over his mouth – silencing the tirade before it could begin. Then looking at Kakashi, gave a shrug.

“Maybe for someone else – but it was you senpai.”

Wait. Wait. Senpai?

Iruka threw his hands out motioning for everyone to stop.

This is your precious kouhai!? He was following us the whole time!?” a beat and then Iruka followed up with “So that’s why he walks like you!”

Anko stuffed her hand in her mouth to keep from laughing while Genma, in horrified realisation began mouthing silently in shock ‘it’s true, it’s true.’

Kakashi just glanced at him quizzically

“Didn’t you read the mission scroll? The Hokage sent a three-man team to help you. Why do you think Genma kept wandering off into the woods and coming back dishevelled? They weren’t being subtle about it.”

Despite his serious expression, a rosy hue rose in Tenzo’s cheeks. Genma swung his finger, forcefully jabbing at Kakashi.

“What about you!? You were all over Iruka. Brooding in the corner like some droopy old dog.”

Surprise and indignation coloured Kakashi’s voice as he met Genma head on.

“I was concerned. I wasn’t brooding,” then under his breath quietly, “that’s an Uchiha thing.”

Genma scoffed.

“He was all over you though wasn’t he Iruka.”

A long suffering Iruka rolled his eyes and gestured to Tenzo’s outstretched hand.

“I recognise it.” He confirmed. “There was one in Mizuki’s jacket the day you – I mean that ANBU brought me to the Hokage’s office. I remember thinking it was odd. Pre-genin don’t use these marbles to test chakra affinity anymore.”

Tenzo nodded, placing the marble in Anko’s palm.

“This is one you saw that day. I didn’t understand its relevance at the time. Anko you have fire affinity like Iruka – channel some chakra into it.”

She nodded and released a surge of energy. The marble lit up and the light grew until words were reflected on the ceiling and walls.

It was information about Iruka. His address, Academy timetable and favourite restaurants swirled around them.

As if expected, Tenzo nodded and took the marble back. This time funnelling earth chakra.

“Funny thing is, I have the same chakra affinity as Mizuki. Which is why I expect – “

Lists began forming on the walls. Dates and times, even a copy of the genin test.

Then names. Some had been crossed out but at the very bottom was a single name that glowed in soft orange light.

“Gotcha!” Genma crowed, wrapping his arms around Tenzo’s side. The man stiffened and then relaxed, nodding in affirmation.

“It does appear to be a list of associates.”

“Well?” Anko demanded, already halfway out the window. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

Nodding, Tenzo and Genma blurred out of the room.

Exhausted, Iruka dropped back into the comfort of the pillows. It was always a small sign of victory when Anko left a room without summoning a single snake.

He met Kakashi’s eye and gave a small satisfied smile. They had a lead.

Kakashi’s throat bobbed and finally words tumbled out.

“I owe you an apology Iruka.”

It was unexpected but not unwanted.  

“I always do my best by the village. It wasn’t about you. I’m sorry.”

It was a concession, but the apology was pointless because Kakashi wasn’t at fault.

From that very first day Iruka had been relying on Kakashi. On his advice and opinion. It had been easier than making decisions on his own.

He vowed to never do that again. From now on, he’d speak out and raise his objections despite the cost.

The bigger issue was how to resolve his feelings for Kakashi. It was undeniable that he cared. Might even love him. But Iruka could not continue to lean on him.

They were ninja. They didn’t love that way. If they didn’t want to kill each other (and Iruka never wanted to hurt Kakashi), they had to be certain in themselves and make their own judgements.

Kakashi would do it for Konoha, for a mission. Iruka could learn to do it too.

The only way he could see to do that was to go back to the beginning. Forget this brief interlude and work towards what he wanted.

Heart thumping wildly, Iruka reached out a hand.

“Let’s forget about the past and start again. Nice to meet you. My name is Umino, Iruka.”

Kakashi paused, starting at Iruka’s outstretched hand in indecision. Then he grabbed it, pulling Iruka close. With his other hand, he tugged down his mask.

Iruka lost his breath. And stared. Stared some more.

Kakashi’s face...

was

painfully

beautiful.

Iruka’s eyes fluttered close and he laughed – a subdued but joyful sound.

“Typical.” Of course, the bastard was gorgeous. His sharingan spun like a lazy pinwheel and the scar cresting over his cheek only served to frame the paleness of his skin. Large lips framed by a dark freckle along his jaw left Iruka’s knees weak. His fingers ached with temptation to reach out and touch.

Kakashi saved him from his turmoil by bringing Iruka’s hand up to touch his face.

His skin was smooth beneath Iruka’s fingers, and he reflexively stroked. Kakashi leaned into the touch. Eyes closing. When he opened his eyes again Iruka could see something inside them had shifted. Kakashi seemed more certain now, drawing Iruka’s fingers down to his lips kissing them softly.

“Nice to meet you Sensei. Please continue to look after me.”

Iruka huffed out a weak laugh, because what could he say to that? There was only one option, one step left for him to take.

His head fell against Kakashi’s shoulder and he breathed his scent in. Kakashi was the tension in the air before the storm. The scent of incoming rain. The crash of thunder in the dark – the light to guide him home.

He breathed out.

Then drew back.

If Kakashi was really offering…if Kakashi actually…he couldn’t finish the thought. It was too terrible and wonderous a thing to hope for. But if it was true, how could he say no? He didn’t want to.

Uncertainty and betrayal and all. He’d take it. But this time with his eyes open.

This was the ninja way.

So much for new beginnings.

“Idiot,” he whispered. not sure if he was talking to Kakashi, or himself.

Then pulled the man into a proper heat-filled kiss.