In September, Naruto had been gone eleven months. That month, Ino and Neji passed Suna's chuunin exams, and Akatsuki exploded into chaotic violence in the wide, lawless territories between Grass and Rain country. From all reports, they were fighting each other.
"They've got no leader," Shikamaru said. “That’s their problem.”
It was a beautiful day in Konoha, crisp and clear. The trees were a riot of color. This was the time of year when the village of the Leaf looked like it belonged in the Land of Fire.
Akatsuki’s apparent collapse had brought a lull in low-level missions. With nothing better to do, half the Rookie Nine found themselves sprawled at the edge of the green behind their old academy, teaching pre-genin how to throw kunai.
Days into their new rank, Ino and Neji still wore the mix of hand-me-down field gear and teen fashion that made up the de-facto genin uniform. The pre-genin were just as eclectically dressed, only shorter and perhaps a little more brightly colored. Ino was offended to realize that half of them were wearing Icha Icha merchandise, the civilian breakout hit about ninja life. She herself owned a poster or two of its lead seiyuu, but at least she knew it was fiction. She rolled her eyes every time one of the pipsqueaks shouted, “What would the White Flash do!”
In reality, only Chouji and Sakura were doing any actual teaching. Whenever the children's attention wandered, Sakura recaptured it with intricate, controlled flashes of chakra dancing like ribbons over her skin. Sakura, so invested for so long in the appearance of lady-like elegance, seemed surprised by her flair for performance.
Ino curled her lip at the fuss. Sakura's flashy tricks were high level medical ninjutsu, skills taught to her by the hokage herself, and it was ridiculous to use it like this. A tiny firework burst between Sakura's fingers. The kids shouted in delight.
Ino settled her shoulders back against the stump she shared with Shikamaru and spread her fingers across the cool grass. She'd come for the sunshine, after all. Shikamaru propped on his hands, settling his butt into the stump like an old house slowly sinking into its foundation.
“They’ve never had a leader,” Ino pointed out. “My dad says they’d be really dangerous with someone in control but not before.” She flicked Shikamaru’s knee with a blade of grass. Two adoring pre-genin girls crouched near her head, giggling. They were braiding her hair -- badly -- as it lay bright and golden in the sun. To Ino, this was just the price of beauty; she could be magnanimous in the name of encouraging future ninja. More importantly, nobody was playing with Sakura's hair.
Ino remembered Anbu masks appearing in Suna’s tournament hall, pale smudges in the dark at the shoulders of senior leaders whispering dangerous news, followed by the slow spread of understanding, a contagious stuttering of the heart. It was true what she’d said. Who could control so many varied, explosive shinobi? No one, that’s who. Trust Ino -- knowing things was the Yamanaka family business.
Shikamaru’s assigned group of academy students launched their kunai into the forest, not a one finding a kill spot. With an aggrieved sigh, he held out the equipment bag for them to grab another handful.
“The fact that they're so disorganized now means they were controlled before," he said patiently. “We just never knew by whom.”
Ino blew an unimpressed breath out between pursed lips. "That’s a hunch. You like hunches because you don't have to do any good, solid intelligence work to get there."
‘Good, solid intelligence work’ was one of her father’s favorite phrases. She liked the way it sounded rolling off her tongue. Authoritative. Scientific.
Shikamaru exhaled slowly, eyes slipping closed: "True."
"Time!" came a bellow behind them. "Time, we're done!" Ino saw their old academy sensei stomping down the schoolhouse steps, waving his stopwatch over his head; practice over. He was ten minutes over time, but then he was a famous lecture-time napper. He'd probably slept through the bell.
He came to a stop beside them, and -- yes – his spiky hair was flattened slightly on one side from being crushed against the desk. He saw her looking and rubbed self-consciously at his neatly trimmed goatee.
Ino smirked up at him. "Kotetsu-sensei, you're the reason Shikamaru is as bad as he is."
"Probably, probably," her sensei said, "but let's hurry. Places to be!"
"Got a date?" She rolled to her feet, smiling sweetly up at him. He was such an easy mark. Hell, she thought suddenly, he was her first mark! No wonder she was fond of him. Kotetsu’s eyes crinkled self-consciously under the onslaught of her sugary smile. He laughed weakly.
"When you're my age, Yamanaka, you'll know the value of friendship, not just dates. Though," he added with a note of despair, "maybe make some friends that aren't such sticklers for punctuality, eh?"
"Got that covered," Ino said and drew back to kick Shikamaru off his stump.
Akatsuki had stopped plowing soggy craters into the prairie by the end of the week. They'd stopped plowing craters anywhere, in fact, and Ino, who spent every afternoon in Konoha's intelligence center, watched as each day of silence wound her family tighter with unease. She and the other youngest cousins took to leaving fresh tea and cookies on whatever surfaces weren’t covered with dispatches and reports. She couldn’t tell if it helped.
On Monday, Asuma-sensei took her off his team. Shikamaru, too. They were secunded now, he said, to the supervision of a chuunin field officer while he joined an elite scout team aimed at Akatsuki. Ino grimaced openly -- what was the point of learning support work when Akatsuki was at large?
"Sensei," Ino said witheringly. Shikamaru was asleep propped against the wall in his barely-worn field gear. Ino's chuunin gear had finally come in: stiff as a board and rough against her skin. She looked awful. What kunoichi would be caught wearing this stuff; she was supposed to be a seductress.
"You're getting too big for your old jounin-sensei," Asuma said. An unlit cigarette bounced between his lips as he picked lazily through his vest pockets for a lighter.
He was acting nonchalant, but Ino saw right through him. He was like her father on her first day at the academy. As though this moment was supposed to make somebody proud -- ridiculous! The kind of support team he was putting them on was basically Konoha’s janitorial staff. Her father, when he’d found out, had patted her hand distractedly and said, “Well, just stick it out,” before turning back to his operatives’ reports.
Yet, Asuma had insisted on standard issue gear for the first time in Ino's life ever, and then he’d rewarded them with access to the jounin locker room to get ready. Alright, that part wasn’t so bad. She couldn’t help but sneak looks at the mysterious scars in the floor, at the odd-shaped lockers that lined the walls. They’d been built for jounins' highly individual equipment, and she could almost identify whose was whose by shape alone. Ino was busy packing herself into her mother's old chuunin vest. It had been specially made, with four adjustable straps about the bust and shoulders, and half the storage moved from her chest to a pouch at her lower back. Yamanaka women didn't do unisex. Worst of all, in the five minutes she'd spent getting into it, her figure had gone from an hourglass to a sort of lumpy tree.
Shikamaru opened one eye, looking her over with disgust.
"Shut it," Ino said, yanking futilely on the waist strap.
"Alright," Asuma said. "Let's go."
He led them down one level and across the building to the main chuunin locker room. It was twice the size of the jounin locker room, built first and foremost for capacity. Big windows let in light and air. Every other wall was covered in lockers, and she could smell old sweat, dirt, and metal. Supplies covered the benches waiting to be packed, blades glinting next to more mundane supplies: flint, rope, mess kits, collapsible multi-tools, bleach-white field bandages. It was also full of people -- three teams at least, busy buckling in and packing up, laughing and talking shop.
Asuma walked past them, all the way to the back where a dirty white dog the size of a small cow sprawled under a bench. The dog belonged to a kunoichi with Inuzuka facial tattoos and a long braid that swung slowly as she spoke to her team mates. The other two ninja were men. The first had fine stringy hair hidden under his bandana-style hitae-ate, and one side of his vest bristled with senbon, a needle-like throwing blade. He even had one clenched in his teeth.
The last member of the team was broad shouldered and tan, his hair pulled back into a business-like ponytail. Long sun exposure had darkened the skin across his nose and cheeks and highlighted an old scar bisecting his face. Career chuunin, Ino thought with the tinge of pity she'd learned from her jounin parents. It meant mid-level missions like clockwork and little chance to be remembered.
She saw the moment the team realized Asuma was headed for them. The scarred ninja's face closed into blank courtesy, and the other two followed one after the other. A shiver went down Ino's spine at the synchronicity of it – boom, boom, boom. She tipped her chin up, rolled her shoulders back; her mother's vest led the way like the prow of a ship.
Asuma tapped the reassignment papers against his palm, causing the three chuunin to exchange a round of silent looks. It was the scarred shinobi who reached out to take the scroll. His gloves were a sun-faded gray next to Asuma's well-kept pair and the elbows of his jacket had been clearly reinforced. Only his whirlpool patch was a bright, perfect red.
"Yamanaka," the scarred ninja guessed without looking at the scroll. "Nara. Reassigned?"
"Temporarily," Asuma said. He was smiling for some reason.
The chuunin looked apologetic. "We're headed out immediately, I’m afraid -- "
"Yes, I know. Got space?"
Scar sighed deeply, looking his team over. "You couldn't have brought them by earlier?"
"No," Asuma-sensei said, and he was still smiling, "I wanted them to get the full Umino experience."
Ino's eyes shot suspiciously to ninja with the scar. He had a pinched expression, and he was looking at Asuma with irritation. As though Asuma – world-famous jounin son of the Sandaime – were a necessary but onerous part of his day. Ino shot a look to her left: Shikamaru was slouched but his eyes were open wider than their usual droop. What the hell was the Umino experience, those eyes seemed to say.
"Depends," Umino said finally. "How much can they carry?"
“Shit," Genma said under his breath, his back to the kids so they couldn’t see the smirk he was giving Iruka. "They're going to mess up your schedule."
Iruka zipped his vest, catching a whiff of the stale sweat that could never be washed out. Genma smirked harder. Iruka set his jaw. This was his job; Iruka always did his job.
And anyway, as long as they were back by Friday, Iruka’s schedule wouldn’t be in any danger.
He shot a glance at the two awkwardly stiff teenagers standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the other side of the bench.The first kid had a straighter ponytail than he had a spine; Iruka recognized him as the only graduate of those disastrous chuunin exams last year. The other one was as obvious a Yamanaka as there was, blonde, pale, and strong-jawed.
Iruka had bent his mission schedule out of shape time and again for Naruto, and as a result, he knew Naruto’s genin team – though when your team included the kyuubi, the hokage’s protege, and an S-class missing nin, who didn't, really– but Team Asuma was new to Iruka. This must be their first assignment away from their jounin-sensei, and Asuma had come to hand them off personally. Adorable.
"Nara Shikamaru and Yamanaka Ino," Asuma said, and Iruka hid a wince. Not just a Yamanaka, but a princess of the clan -- who was accompanied by the son of Konoha's Jounin Commander. So many ways to end a career, right here in front of him, all wrapped up in brand new uniforms a size too big. Iruka sighed.
These kids weren't Iruka's ninja, the boots on the ground, slogging through mud, couriers and recon and resupply ninja. These were ultra-specialized Shinobi with bloodline limits as delicate and particular as a thoroughbred’s legs. Konoha royalty.
Iruka couldn't imagine why they've been given to him, except to get a cursory glimpse of the fundamentals, the chuunin way of getting things done by getting your hands dirty and digging in. No short cuts. And Iruka knew they'd want short cuts. There was a jutsu for everything.
Asuma gave them each a hearty slap on the back before walking away, pulling out a lighter. Iruka and the kids watched him go unwillingly.
"Welcome," Iruka said.
"Sure," Ino said, shrugging with disinterest.
Iruka's hand tightened involuntarily around their reassignment orders.
“Why’d you get saddled with us?” Kenshi asked. She had her arm across Koguma’s shoulders rubbing his ears while he stretched in delight. Her eyes roamed the room, and Iruka realized she was scouting for extra field gear. Ino and Shikamaru clearly had nothing but whatever they had stowed in their vests. At their experience level, probably not much. The team was now understocked on field rations as well.
Shit, Iruka realized, he had two children to herd, protect, and train -- right now, immediately!
Train to do what? What did future jounin need from him? Soon enough they’d be undervaluing chuunin support, using flashy bespoke jutsu, and taking unnecessary risks with the best of them.
“Asuma’s gone to look for Akatsuki. It’s S-class,” Ino said, like Iruka’s team were simply the nearest available cubbyhole Asuma had found to stash them. Iruka didn’t want to feel uncharitable to her brand new gloves and baggy pants with unstained knees, but -- he had never been as good a person as anybody had wanted him to be.
“Jounin-sensei always embed their teams with field chuunin,” Iruka said. “I was expecting you next month.”
“Next month?” Genma whistled. “Iruka you’re cold.”
Ino frowned suspiciously. “What happens next month?”
“Winter resupply circuit,” Iruka said.
“Ha!” Kenshi laughed. “Inventory.”
Ninja’s best survival stories were peppered with outposts and safe houses and hidden supply drops. To jounin beaten and bleeding and fighting teeth and nail to protect Konoha from monstrous legendary nin, these outposts were what tipped the scales. They were always there. And stocked. And clean. And warm.
Iruka sometimes wondered if jounin thought these outposts were natural features of the landscape or maybe maintained by elves.
Iruka began to unpack some of the camp kit from their bags. For the full Umino experience, the kids would carry their share. Kenshi gave him a put-upon look -- she was particular about her packing. He was going to be hearing a lot about balance and weight ratios very soon.
Without looking up, he said, “I’ll need your packs please.”
“We don’t have any.” Iruka stilled in the middle of pulling the all-weather tarp from Genma’s bag. She still didn’t sound like she cared. This was all routine, and none of it fell on her. Shikamaru was staring aimlessly out the window, nothing more than a Yamanaka accessory. “Asuma-sensei didn’t -- ”
Kenshi had turned towards Izumo’s team before Ino finished speaking. Iruka flicked his fingers to stop her, getting a look from her that was both skeptical and unsurprised. Iruka tried not to bristle -- he was not that bad. The Umino experience! Ha! They didn’t know what they were talking about.
He looked at this watch, weighed his options briefly, and said, “You have 10 minutes.”
Ino cast a baffled look around the locker room; there were no spare field kits sitting out. “But -- ” Asuma was long gone. “Uh, maybe we should stay back? If you have to leave now?”
“Fucking great idea,” Genma muttered near Iruka’s ear.
“You’re a little young to have a delinquency on your record,” Iruka said.
Kenshi’s expression went half-lidded with smugness -- you awful son of a bitch. Well, tough. Iruka did not want to deal with the jounin these kids were going to grow up to be.
The kids' expressions were changing slowly - going from slack boredom to the pink flush of anger. Shikamaru slowly uncoiled from his slouch, eyebrows pulling down. He was gathering himself to speak. Iruka would now hear the cold logic the higher-ups had found so appealing. Born strategist, future commander.
Iruka cut him off with a sharp twist of his wrist, watch face brought glinting into the sunlight. “Ten minutes. Starting… now.”
Forget Friday. Iruka didn’t return to Konoha until the shadows of Sunday afternoon stretched across the streets and all the light was honey-tinged and warm. It was the kind of view to warm any ninja’s homecoming.
Iruka glared at it, a bundle of frustrated exhaustion from his skin to his bones.
Yamanaka Guukan, the radio engineer they’d escorted to the outpost, dropped a giant hand onto Iruka’s shoulder. “Umino-san, I’m sorry for interfering -- but restricting family jutsus? She’s a true Yamanaka. You can’t weigh her down with the academy techniques.”
“Thank you for your help, Guukan,” Iruka said woodenly, “but as their current sensei, I have to insist.”
Guukan gave him that same baffled look he’d given Iruka all week.
Iruka delivered his kohai back to the tower muddy and drooping with exhaustion. They were gone by the time he'd washed and changed into an old set of mission blacks that had been beaten to kitten softness by years of washing.
It’s almost Monday, he thought blankly, staring at the dirty walls of the chuunin locker room. He pulled a little, worn notebook bound in fawn-colored leather from his pocket. After a week of field work, his fingers were clumsy flipping to the latest page. His heart sank at the neat rows of numbers and dates. I was supposed to be starting my next mission Monday. Number 146.
Konoha protocols required 200 completed missions C class or above to be considered for Tokubetsu Jounin rank. Iruka had hit something of a snag on mission 128, when he had failed to apprehend an old genin teammate selling military secrets, been nearly crippled by a fuuma shuriken strike within a few centimeters of his spine, and accidentally adopted a lonely jinchuriki child named Uzumaki Naruto.
It had taken a year and a half to break 130. A year in which Iruka had seen Naruto finally graduate and join a genin team of his own. His beaming smiles had made any regrets hard to hold on to.
Now that Naruto had grown up and left Iruka – left Konoha -- so he could train with the legendary sannin, Jiraiya, Iruka was using his sudden jump in free time to catch up. And no matter how much Genma laughed at Iruka's schedule or the little book he kept it in, it was working. He was confident it was.
Genma was shoving his dirty uniform and vest into a rucksack. He jerked his head towards the door. “Food?”
“Yes, now,” Kenshi said, muffled by the towel over her head. Kagoma whuffed next to her under a towel of his own. Every surface around him, humans included, wore a spatter of water spots on their clothing from his enthusiastic body shakes. Now Kagoma shook from underneath a layer of towels that made him look like a ceremonial figure, the world’s first dog monk.
Iruka pressed a palm to his eye and let out a long breath. His shoulders ached from dragging 20 kg of radio equipment from Konoha to the Rain Country border. Storage scrolls were much better at reducing volume than mass. Damn, he thought, Sunday.
He’d forgotten in his initial posturing to his new charges that the radio engineer they would be escorting was Yamanaka. Guukan was a capitol-trained engineer and a field-rated genin, a combination of traits that made him exceptionally valuable to Konoha’s infrastructure. Somehow Iruka had remembered his technical expertise and not that he was a giant, blonde man with huge knuckles who could be expected to call Ino “Princess!” and try to take the pack Iruka had just finished loading for her.
A hand came down on his head. He looked up into Genma’s scrubbed-pink face. “Iruka,” he said. “It’s post-mission time. No worries allowed.”
Iruka grimaced. He knew the drill. “Right, right, I forgot.” He let Genma take the notebook in one hand and grip Iruka’s open palm with the other. The first was slipped respectfully into Iruka’s pocket, the second pulled Iruka up off the bench.
Dinner was the traditional post-mission meal. Noodles, fast and hot and just across the street. They took their seats next to other shinobi newly returned and mostly disarmed, with hair damp from locker room showers. The smell of chill air and damp leaves wafted in from the street and surrounded Iruka with the feeling of home. Around them, the hum of conversation rose and fell. Dishes clinked.
This was post-mission protocol; no worries allowed. It was usually Iruka’s favorite part of field duty. Tired, hungry, achey, and knowing he'd earned it. The shower and the first meal that followed it were the sweetest joys in Iruka's life.
Kenshi lifted her beer. “Here’s to good riddance, eh?”
Genma clinked his mug against hers. “Here’s to never being teenagers ever again, you mean.”
They turned to Iruka, holding their glasses high, waiting. But Iruka rubbed the back of his head, laughing weakly, and Genma’s eyes narrowed. He leaned in until Iruka could smell the yeast on his breath.
“Iruka,” Genma said.
“Look -- ” Iruka said, and he didn’t know why he was still laughing. Only that Genma and Kenshi and looked so happy to be done mentoring when Iruka was only getting started.
Iruka lifted his hands, palms up, apologetic. “The transfer orders were open-ended. We’re stuck with them.”
Genma glowered at him for a long moment. “What did you do to this guy?”
“To Sarutobi Asuma!” Genma shouted incredulously.
Kenshi pointed at Iruka, a question on her face. Iruka gave her an ironic smile -- Yes, it's exactly what you think -- and Kenshi sighed in resigned misery.
“Hey,” Gennma said, “hey.”
Iruka leaned forward, his voice dropping to a murmur. Like any good ninja, Genma couldn’t help but lean forward too -- moth, meet flame. “Sarutobi Asuma,” Iruka said pleasantly, “can’t read a resupply schedule to save his life. I had to take out an emergency team when he tried to route past a scout shack that fucking Iwa nin leveled two years ago.”
“In the middle of the last spring blizzard,” Kenshi added, refilling Iruka’s glass in a show of comradely support. “I needed medical intervention to keep all my toes.”
“It’s true,” Iruka said sadly.
“And what -- he’s still sore about it?”
“Worse,” Kenshi said, “he got the full Umino experience -- and he liked it.”
“Stop calling it that,” Iruka said.
Genma’s eyebrows went up. “You unloaded on the guy?”
“I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or suicide,” Kenshi said. She fanned her face with her hand, sighing. “Ah, it’s coming back to me now."
“And then I stapled the next three months of resupply and maintenance schedules to his jounin locker,” Iruka admitted.
“Which is difficult to do when your hands are still bandaged up from all the frostbite,” Kenshi said.
“It was,” Iruka agreed.
“Alright, I get it.” Genma shook his head in admiration. “Worst Jounin friend ever.”
“Ooh,” Kenshi said, “good suggestion. Best jounin friend - go.”
“What? We are not playing stupid games! This is post-mission time!” Genma waved his beer at her.
“Maito Gai,” Iruka said immediately.
“What!” Kenshi said.
Iruka nodded, deadly serious. Maito Guy for Hokage, campaign headquarters right here. He ticked off his fingers. “Always reads the chuunin schedules. Sends polite notes if they haven’t been updated. Plans accordingly. Perfect human being.”
Genma made a disgusted sound. He leaned his upper body over the table, forearms planted wide. Suddenly he was taking up nearly all the available space. Beers were moved protectively away from him, chairs pushed back an extra inch. This was how it always went: initial resistance followed by loud, overcommitment. Iruka smiled.
“Fuck that,” Genma said. “I’m going for prestige! I will be the best friend of the greatest ninja Konoha has.”
Kenshi tilted her head, pinching her chin between thumb and forefinger. “You know, I think Tsunade-sama probably would enjoy drinking with you -- too much. For village security, I have to prevent this.”
Genma waved this away, aggrieved. “No, no, I’m talking about active jounin, no old legends -- just now legends. I mean -- ”
Iruka was laughing, disaster mission forgotten. “You do not mean -- ”
Genma nodded, eyes narrowed. “Oh, I do. The shoe-in for Rokudaime -- ”
“No, say it isn’t so!” Kenshi said in a falsetto, hand over her heart.
Genma spread his arms wide, a maestro signaling the climatic cymbol crash. “Nohara Rin, the infamous ‘skin splitter’.” He drummed his hands on the table top: ta da!
Kenshi lifted her glass in a toast. “To the sweetest ninja to ever grace a bingo book -- and with the grossest, most violent nickname! Student of the Yondaime, only survivor of her genin team, terror of the third war.” Genma’s drum roll crescendoed.
Iruka suppressed an admiring shiver. Whenever he spoke to Rin he always got that tingle on the back of his neck that Kenshi called his 'classified material detector'. Nohara Rin had survived more assassination attempts than any other currently active jounin, though there was no good, public reason for her to be so popular a target. She was almost definitely ANBU, of the old school.
“And?” Genma looked at Iruka. “Her chuunin-approval rating?”
“Well,” Iruka said with a shy grin, “she’s never tried to use a supply outpost that didn’t exist -- on an unclassified mission, anyway. Can’t vouch for sealed files, of course.”
“Of which there are many,” Genma said.
Kenshi smiled brightly, eyes lighting up with an idea: “They should make an Icha Icha movie about her.”
Genma and Iruka spewed beer. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Iruka repeated incredulously, “Icha Icha?”
Kenshi looked between them in confusion. “You know the ninja cartoons the civilians are wild about. The White Flash?”
Genma was face down on the table, laughing into his arm. Kenshi reached over and slugged him, causing Koguma to jerk awake and bark directionlessly into the restaurant.
Genma came up gasping, hands up in the universal sign for Uncle. “Okay, okay, just -- have you read the books?”
“No…” Kenshi said slowly, pinking. She had her hand up for another punch. “Why?”
“They have some stuff the show, um, leaves out,” Iruka said, cheeks hot. He covered his face with his hand.
“Yeah, Iruka,” Genma said slyly, “what stuff?”
She looked between them, brow crinkling at Genma’s juvenile delight. “What? No.”
“Yes,” said Iruka sadly.
“Well, at least the name makes more sense now -- I mean, Icha Icha?” said Kenshi, and then they were sharing an incredulous laugh, driven by embarrassment. Iruka lifted his hand towards the bar, calling for the next round.
At chuunin morning exercises (mandatory), Iruka and Yoshino-sensei split the field between them, bellowing instructions at the crowd of chuunin panting their way through the obstacle course in puffs of white. In the middle of coordinating the upside down part of the 2-mile tree-run, Iruka heard abruptly, “You,” and there was Ino gaping at him, arms hanging down like dead ropes: “Of course, it’s you.”
“Natural talent,” Iruka said, and then he clapped his hands, bellowing, “MOVE IT PEOPLE. THAT’S TWO MINUTES ALREADY.”
He should have known better. Two weeks and three missions later, all the teenage genin hated Iruka. Not only did Ino own the hearts of most of the boys in Naruto's class, but the Yamanaka were proving as good at dispersing information as at gathering it. By now, most of the village seemed to know the misery that was being mentored unwillingly (underlined twice and highlighted) by Umino Iruka.
As Iruka walked down the street in his mission gear, a fruit seller leaned over his cart to call: "Going to give them another round?"
Iruka sighed. Not twenty minutes ago at the mission desk, Kotetsu had asked Iruka about his ‘boot camp’.
“Why is it only me?” Iruka asked Kenshi, who had gone by unnoticed by the fruit seller, despite the pony-sized dog always at her side. “There are three of us on the team.”
“Oh, the kids know who their enemy is. Also I swore to Hana and Kiba that I had nothing to do with it.” At Iruka’s disgruntled look, she added, “Come on, Iruka they’re going to get their training no matter what you do. Let them tag along and use their own jutsu. I mean, why bother?”
She was echoing Iruka's fears of futility too well, the words landing like a sucker punch on places already bruised. He said stupidly, “What if they self-teach themselves the wrong thing?"
Kenshi looked unimpressed.
"This is my chance to get us more jounin like Gai," Iruka tried.
Kenshi rolled her eyes. “Yeah, we definitely need more of those.” She slowed to a stop; they had reached the door of the flower shop, the entry hung with plastic strips to keep in the warm air. “Well, this is it. I’ll see you in an hour.”
A bell dinged as Iruka stepped into a humid, indoor forest. The whole room was green, overprinted with the bright colors of blooms in all shapes and sizes. Dotted here and there were flashes of white -- chrysanthemums whose meaning in the language of flowers was truth. Iruka followed the trail of white to a small door the same color and texture as the wall. A staircase behind the door led to a sparsely appointed but lively office.
The second floor office wasn’t itself too well hidden -- all the windows stood open; some had Yamanaka leaning out of them to chat to people on the street. There were flowers up here too, in small pots and in vases stashed between work stations. It was the nicest smelling office Iruka had ever been in. Much better than T&I.
A workstation consisted of a chair in front of a bulky, brown plastic machine - a microfiche reader. Each machine had its own ninja with his head bent towards the reader’s dim, translucent screen. Only about half were blonde, which meant the rest were the distant, brunette side branches of the Yamanaka or the 30% of Konoha’s intel division that came in from other clans. Stacks of newspapers and glossy magazines rested between microfiche readers and flower vases. At the back of the room, Iruka spotted trapped doors and ninja who weren't reading the microfiche in front of them. It was the entrance to more restricted sections.
A boxy TV was set up in one corner. Flat cell shading and action lines flickered wildly across the screen. It was the latest Icha Icha, Iruka was amused to note, much toned down from the books, which Iruka had to admit had some plot in between the steamier bits. An effeminate character with broad, male shoulders appeared on the screen in an action pose. He had one of those a deep, strong voices that always seemed to find their way into voice acting. Iruka would like to meet a real ninja who sounded like that.
He found Ino with her cheek on her hand, slouching so that her mouth stretched oddly to the side. The screen of her reader showed headlines of a newspaper from Grass Country, flickering as she slapped a heavy finger onto the forward button. Her work station sat next to an open window with Shikamaru asleep on the window seat. This window seat had couch cushions and a throw blanket in Nara colors. There was also an Akimichi lock box with a ration bar wrapper discarded on top of it.
Iruka looked around. The other window seats weren’t so decked out. This must be the Shika-Ino-Chou corner, he thought fondly. They may have hated him, but to each other, they were sweet.
Iruka shifted so his sandals creaked. Immediately, Ino looked up. So did everyone else in the room. Some of the stares were interested; some were cold. He overheard someone whispering hurriedly to their table-mate, just snippets: “power mad!” and “bitter about missed promotion!” These were recognizably some of Ino and Shikamaru’s theories about Iruka's teaching style. Iruka didn’t bother being subtle. He turned sideways and stared them down. Being overheard! How embarrassing!
Ino was gaping at him. As he turned back towards her, she rubbed some drool off her face and corrected her posture, transforming from bored teenage human to kunoichi in a blink. Iruka noticed that she’d adjusted her chuunin gear too. The bulky vest and baggy pants were gone. She wore a sleeveless turtle neck, utility waist pack and thigh holsters over fitted pants. It was all carefully regulation. Iruka couldn’t decide if she was complying with his demands or passive-aggressively flicking him off.
“Umino-san, hi,” she said brightly. Kunoichi power turned on. Iruka wished her courtesy weren’t rock-solid proof she saw him as the enemy.
“We have another mission. It leaves this afternoon.” He held up two fingers. “2 days only.”
“Already?” Ino said.
“We’re a very active team,” Iruka said stiffly, hearing an echo in his head: bitter about missed promotion. He added, “This one is optional for you. It’s B class, because the target is considered of interest to Hidden Mist.”
“Mist!” Ino said, perking up. “They hate us -- as though it’s our fault they don’t have their own jinchuuriki.”
“We don’t know that,” Iruka said reasonably. “Until recently, Konoha kept Naruto very well hidden, too.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Ino said, looking with interest at the open pocket of Iruka’s vest where he’d put the mission scroll. She wilted as she caught sight of her microfiche machine. “I can’t go -- I haven’t finished my quota.”
The refusal didn’t feel like weaseling out of a mission with someone she hated. It felt dutiful. Iruka looked again around the room, realizing that he’d never been in here before. He didn’t know what the ninja in this room did, though it clearly had something to do with newspapers.
Iruka pulled up a chair. “What do you do here?”
“It's the civilian periodicals division,” Ino said cautiously. When Iruka didn't immediately change the subject, she gestured at the stacks of magazines. “This stuff -- what we have in print -- is the local stuff that gets delivered here. The rest comes in through our contacts. They’re civilians so they can’t use storage scrolls."
Hence, microfiche, Iruka thought.
He nodded encouragingly. Ino's shoulders relaxed another notch. Nonchalantly, she added, "It’s the worst job ever, but the clearance is so low that -- well.”
She looked meaningfully at Shikamaru, who had no occupational reason to be here but was passed out on a bench done up like a daybed with no one looking at him sideways.
Iruka looked at the mix of clans, the coffee and tea in the corners, the tvs and window seats in a new light. "So, this is basically the intel division's lounge.”
Ino blinked as she gave the room the same once over. "Huh, yeah! And the thing is, everybody has to take a shift or we wouldn’t get through it all. It's the only place we've all got to be, all the time.”
They shared a hesitant grin. She lifted up her notebook. “This week, I spotted ninjas in the Wind Country daimyo’s birthday celebration and a ghost story that might have been ninjutsu." The disappointed slant of her lips revealed these results to be mundane. "Oh, also, I read two early reviews of the new Icha Icha movie. It’s not out in theaters yet.”
Iruka slid his eyes to the TVs. “Isn’t that what’s playing?”
Ino beamed. Of course. Ninja.
“Important work, huh.” Iruka lifted his eyebrows, inviting her laugh. But she leaned away, pulling on a shroud of disinterest. Iruka kept his smile on his face rather than sigh.
“Well, we have to make sure it’s wrong, you know?" Ino said. "Because if they ever start getting things too right…”
“They already get things too right,” a rough voice interrupted from the window. Both Iruka and Ino turned in surprise. Shikamaru hadn’t even opened his eyes. “They use the academy alphabet, almost, just not in the right combinations to make any real jutsu.”
Ino shoved a finger under his nose. “Ha! I knew you watched it.”
A hand lifted off Shikamaru’s stomach and waved lethargically. “It only takes half a minute to notice that.”
Iruka sat back, letting the moment go. Patience, patience. He had come in here expecting to be in the bosom of Konoha’s elite, and instead he had found another blue collar ninja group that would never appear in, say, the likes of Icha Icha. Surely that was worth the trip.
“It’s not so bad,” Ino was saying. Her voice had a bit of bluster to it, and she was keeping a weather eye on Iruka in small side-eye glances. He was the enemy again - what did he want? “There’s tv and cookies, and we have access to all the low level files. You wouldn’t think it’s cool, but it’s the only stuff that keeps Shikamaru awake.”
She reached over and pulled a file wedged between Shikamaru and the wall. He opened one eye lazily, like a tomcat casing a threat. The folder contained yellowed papers covered in graphs and statistics - projections for Konoha’s strength in ten years, twenty, thirty.
“They drop in classification level after twenty years," Ino said.
Iruka skimmed the file, keeping his own weather eye on Ino. He got to the second page, a summary of specialized clans, and he had a little Shikamaru moment of his own. "The council was expecting a lighting clan? A whole clan."
Ino shrugged. "Weird, I guess.”
"The supply plans still require us to stock outposts for lightning chakra affinity. I don't think there are three lightning nin in all of Konoha." He shook his head ruefully. "And this is why? Outdated projections."
"You and Shikamaru should hang out," Ino said. Shikamaru said nothing, apparently asleep again.
“How old did you say this was?” Iruka flipped to the first page. The official stamps were a different style. It looked retro enough to be stylish, like he should be seeing it on a notebook in a stationary store.
“Thirty years, I think.”
“That would be --” Iruka tried to remember his village history, a mix of academy lectures and his mother’s disapproving face, shaking her head as she told him history she had lived through. “Wow! They mean the Hatake.”
“There aren't any now, ” Iruka said. “None at all, but there were. Hatake --”
“-- Sakumo,” Shikamaru said, and, well, look at that; he was sitting up and wide awake.
It was odd how little of the story you heard these days. Hatake Sakumo, who had sparked the conflict that became the Third War by his refusal to let his teammates die anonymously behind enemy lines. Their rescue by one of Konoha's highest profile shinobi had destroyed any hope Konoha had of denying its involvement. And yet two decades later, he had nearly been erased from history. Shikamaru knew most of the story already, but Ino -- Ino was on the edge of her seat, lips mouthing the final, tragic outcome along with Iruka -- seppuku?! -- her features tight with distaste.
She sank back into her chair as the story ended. "But that's not a whole clan."
“It might have been, by now. If he had two kids, each with a few kids of their own... We might have had three active lightning jounin, and five more in the Academy or with jounin sensei. They'd be your comrades. "
"Where are they then?"
"I don’t know." Iruka stopped to think. "He had a family -- I remember that his son found the body.” It had been the thing his mother had disapproved of most strongly about Hatake Sakumo. More than the failed mission or the war that followed.
“We could look it up,” Ino said. She hit Shikamaru on the thigh and jumped out of her chair. Iruka smiled. Maybe this would be another good moment between them. It was better than fighting over Iruka’s insistence that they use standard Konoha signs -- the same collection Shikamaru had derisively called the academy alphabet. He sent a silent apology to Sakumo and Sakumo's son, who was undoubtedly dead in some unhappy way. Forgive me for using your tragedy to befriend these kids.
As Ino stood, she made a point of doing the locking jutsu on her machine with the standard signs. Just like the new uniform, Iruka couldn't tell if it was sincere or facetious. A glance at his watch told him he still had over forty minutes until he had to meet Kenshi to start prepping. They tromped over to the trapped doors at the back of the room, flashing their chuunin clearance as they went.
This was another place Iruka had never been. All the files he’d ever needed had been pulled for him by genin-level administrators. The rooms just past these doors were basically the entryway to Konoha’s secrets. The rooms were disappointingly mundane -- metal file cabinets and steel bookshelves and dust.
Sakumo’s public record was easy to find. The story matched the one Iruka had told. At the end of the file, two file codes served as ‘see also’s for Hatake Denko, genin housewife, and Hatake Kakashi, age 5 at the time of his father's death and an academy graduate. Iruka did a small double-take at the graduate status before moving on. All it meant, he thought grimly, was that it was even more likely the boy had died badly, graduated early at the start of a war.
Iruka had barely copied the codes when Ino snatched the paper slip out of Iruka’s hands and wandered off, reciting the subject prefixes under her breath. Iruka tried to share an understanding look with Shikamaru, but Shikamaru looked bored -- like this behavior was so normal to him that it didn’t even occur to him to be annoyed.
With a sigh and a shrug -- kids, right? -- Iruka followed after Ino, who had stopped in front of an aisle of shelves below a burnt out light. Iruka caught a glimmer of thread and realized the aisle was trapped. Extensively trapped. Jounin level.
“It’s classified?” Iruka said.
Ino turned to him, baffled: “Umino-sensei -- these are the missing nin files.”
Iruka shot a startled glance down the dark aisle. Missing nin were under automatic death orders. The ones who survived had to be a match for the jounin hunter nin that went after them. Sakumo’s wife had never made it past genin, and his son had been all of five years old at the time of Sakumo’s death. “You mean… dead missing nin?”
“No,” Ino said slowly, “these are the active files.”
Iruka stared at the racks of locked files in disbelief. An adult genin and a five year old... are missing nin?
Iruka only kept Ino and Shikamaru for six missions.
Six missions of heavy lifting, academy alphabet, and perfectly filed paperwork. Also six missions of grumbles and glares and arguing -- and offers by Kenshi to let Koguma eat the both of them.
There had been a few good times, moments Iruka clung to, usually found in the hard wooden chairs of the periodicals division while Ino doled out the best of the oddities she’d pulled out of the archives. “Here,” she’d say, “this is Senju Hashirama’s preferences for tea, analyzed by year.” Or “Have you ever wondered which ANBU aliases are most common by village? Konoha likes mammals.”
On the seventh mission, Ino met him at the door of the flower shop bouncing happily, and shouted, “We can’t go; Asuma-sensei is back!”
Sure enough, behind her came Asuma’s broad silhouette, parting the hanging plastic with a heavy arm. He had a flower tucked into the collar of his vest - welcome back. Shikamaru was right behind, walking with his usual lazy slouch but casting unmistakably grateful glances at Asuma’s back.
Iruka felt like a suitor showing up with chocolates to find the woman was already married.
“Asuma,” he said awkwardly. “Any news on Akatsuki?”
“Not much,” Asuma said, “but it looks like things might be tipping our way for once.”
“Is there any news about Naruto?”
“Huh? Oh, that’s right, you were looking after that kid, weren’t you?” Asuma rubbed his knuckles absently against his beard. “I can’t say much -- but, well, you don’t need to worry more than you already are, alright?”
Iruka grimaced but managed, “Thank you.”
Asuma wrapped a hand around Iruka’s bicep and gave him a little shake. His teeth were a white flash in his neat, dark beard, all confidence. “It’s me who should be grateful to you." He nodded towards his students: “You whip them into shape?”
Iruka’s stomach sank. Six missions and what had he done? Unsuccessfully convinced them to use a set of basic hand signs poorly suited for the kids’ own specialities.
He didn’t know what Asuma had been hoping for. After all, Asuma knew one thing about Iruka: that once, in the middle of a blizzard, a chuunin team had restored the safe house that had saved Asuma's team. That as soon as the last bit of firewood had been cut and stacked, the chuunin team leader had torn into Asuma at high volume, extracting a chunk of flesh for every frostbitten toe and missed hour of sleep inflicted on his team. It was the moment Asuma remembered every time he was grateful for the support of lower ranks.
Iruka valued Asuma’s respect -- yes, his one jounin friend, damn it, Genma -- and it hurt to be handing Asuma’s students back, knowing they were the perfect record of Iruka’s failure. Worse, Asuma’s high opinion would erode slowly, ticking downwards with each small complaint Ino and Shikamaru leveled against Iruka over the next few days.
Iruka bowed sharply. “Good luck on your mission, Team Asuma!”
Three days later, Iruka trailed Kenshi from the tower to the academy, water from the shower still drying on their skin. Iruka had a wrenched shoulder from a Mist nin nearly throwing him off a waterfall and a circle of punctures on his calf from Mist’s disgusting habit of filing their teeth.
Instead of going home, they were joining the quarterly supply and repair visit to the Academy, a process by which a dozen chuunin and genin descended on the little building to replace broken chakra wire, repair chipped kunai, and reset the outer defenses -- a delicate collection of jutsu that had to be calibrated to overlook pre-genin but snare enemy jounin. The tedium had led the Yondaime to classify the Academy repair circuit equivalent to a C-class field mission. Since Iruka had started his special schedule, he had never missed a rotation. Mission number 153, here we go.
They leaned against the cabinets under the window of Kotetsu’s classroom while Kotetsu filled out inventory at the table - or maybe he was asleep; Iruka thought he’d heard a gentle snore. They were all dressed down, Iruka in his ancient pair of mission blacks, Kotetsu with an old sweatshirt thrown over his day uniform. Kenshi looked the most professional by dint of being the only one without bleach spots.
“At least they liked you enough to tell you?” Kenshi said.
Iruka gave her a look, unwinding the small, pre-genin-sized spools of chakra wire with lethargic fingers, checking for knicks and weaknesses against his fingertips.
“Yeah, no,” she laughed, “they still hate you.”
Iruka spread his hands to take in the empty classroom. “I wasn’t meant for teaching, I guess.”
“Don’t worry, you’ve got, what? fifty? more missions, and then you can move up in the world.” Kenshi finished winding another length of chakra wire and put it in its labeled drawer.
Iruka made a noncommittal sound. It was fifty more missions before he could take the test.
Kenshi eyed him. “That had better not be doubt, Iruka. I'm sacrificing my personal life and soul for this.”
Iruka shook his head. "Do you know what my mother would do to me if I gave up the career track before I made tokubetsu jounin?”
“Break your toe bones and smear your name?”
Ah, Iruka thought, the benefits of having a T&I veteran for a mother. “Worse,” he said. “She’d forgive me.” He tipped his head back, studying the ceiling tiles. “I wonder -- do you think any of the other jounin-sensei would want their kids to -- ?”
“You have a problem,” Kenshi said flatly. “And I’m telling you right now, I can handle either three missions a week or bitchy teenagers who don’t know how to lay chakra wire.”
Iruka sighed. “I just -- how else could we change anything?”
Kenshi gave him a pained look, but before Iruka could drag her into a political discussion during post-mission time, Kotetsu sat up abruptly and hissed, “Silent and deadly, seven o’clock.”
He’d gone still like a hunting dog on a scent, staring out the window past Iruka and Kenshi to the rooftops across the street. Both Kenshi and Iruka twitched with the effort not to whip around and look. After a beat, Iruka remembered to keep unwinding wire.
“Which mask?” Kenshi asked, much too interested for a seasoned shinobi.
“Got a favorite?” said Kotetsu.
“Shouldn’t we grow out of this?” said Iruka, even as he was searching the opposite wall for something reflective enough to give him a view out the window. Kotetsu shamelessly tipped his whole body sideways out of his chair and craned his neck towards the window. It was the single worst example of stealth Iruka had seen all year, and Iruka threw a spool of wire at him in disgust.
Kotetsu nearly toppled over batting it away. Arms flailing as the chair legs thumped back to the floor, he shouted, “Iruka, what the hell! If you were an academy teacher, you’d be able to get away with this shit too.”
Iruka crossed his arms. “I thought academy teachers were role models."
“Academy teachers,” Kotetsu said seriously, “are people who can nap with their eyes open."
Exasperated, Iruka turned to look out the window himself, but the ANBU, if there really had been one, was already gone. When he turned back, disappointed, Kotetsu was smiling, finger gun cocked at Iruka - caught you. Iruka rolled his eyes.
"Well?" Kenshi said.
"Some kind of bird," Kotetsu said. "I didn't get a good look."
Huh, Iruka thought, I thought Konoha was supposed to prefer mammals.
A soft footstep sounded in the hallway, and they all froze. Iruka found himself looking not at ANBU but at Ino, also post-mission in a pink sweater and ankle boots with too many zippers. Huh, Iruka thought stupidly, I remember when I owned civilian clothes.
He hadn’t expected to hear from his erstwhile students, well, ever again, really, and he flailed for a moment before finally blurting out, “Ino.”
“Uh, yeah, hi,” Ino said uncertainly from the doorway, rubbing one foot against her calf, her hands clasped behind her back. She was carrying something, Iruka realized. “I brought, uh.”
She darted forward to hold out a folded newspaper like an offering.
Iruka could already tell it was a civilian paper because it wasn't in code. For a moment, Iruka didn’t understand why she had brought it here. Ino seemed uncertain herself, casting glances at Kenshi and Kotetsu with a light flush on her cheeks.
She was embarrassed to be here, so why would she -- Naruto. Iruka fumbled at the paper. For Ino to bring it here meant that it was about Naruto, a kindness from Naruto's school friend towards Naruto's adopted older brother. Iruka noted through a haze of mild panic that she didn't look upset, a good sign. Actually, underneath her embarrassed grimace, she seemed to be smiling.
He flipped the paper over.
MOVIE STAR NINJA SAVED BY REAL-LIFE NINJA!
The slender gray-haired figure sitting near Jiraiya was a minor celebrity, a voice actor from the hit action romance Icha Icha, saved from a runaway cart. Iruka had never heard of him, but had probably heard him, during visits to Ino’s desk in the Periodicals Division, where the intel division hid its addiction to Icha Icha behind the excuse of civilian surveillance.
Iruka's fingers twitched, eyes jumping to the top of the page: The Grass Country Examiner, a major newspaper, internationally distributed. He felt sick. Naruto was supposed to be hiding.
“How long have you had this?”
“Just got it.”
“Thank you for bringing it over,” Iruka said. He started walking towards the door.
“No problem." Ino shrugged. Some deeply buried parental training caused her to add awkwardly, "Thanks for taking us out with you -- uh, I guess?” He wondered why she was still here, and then she blurted out, “It’s really highly flagged.”
Iruka stopped. “Flagged?”
“I had to send it right up the line, barely got a copy. I thought it was just funny, but -- ”
He looked at her standing there with her feet awkwardly close together, one hand gripped tightly in the other. She was nervous -- afraid?
“It’s flagged because there will be a mission,” he told her. He grabbed his bag as he turned to leave, saying, “Kenshi, I’m sorry -- ”
“They're going to send jounin," Kenshi said. "He’ll be fine." Iruka kept moving. He heard her heave a sigh that was half a groan, and she called after him, already half-out the door: “Do you want me to get Genma?”
Iruka waved her off. It would be easier to add one name to the roster than three. He didn’t realize Ino had followed him until he heard her tiny, sweet girl voice pipe up next to his shoulder, “What’s going on?”
“Naruto’s location is top secret.” Iruka held up the paper. “Konoha will send a team, counter surveillance and reconnaissance probably.”
“Because it was flagged.”
“And you're going to join it.”
“Yes.” Iruka pulled his collar up as he pushed out of the school, using the newspaper to shield his face. The sky was pink in the west, and the wind was biting as he kicked through the fallen leaves that had drifted into the path.
“I'll come, too,” Ino said.
He turned to look at her, her legs pumping as she took two steps for his every one. She had her lower lip pushed out like Naruto on his third request for ramen. Iruka said automatically, “No.”
“I care about Naruto, too, you know.” Her expression clearly doubted Iruka could have any other reason to deny her.
“It will be hard enough to get one extra name on there.”
“I know counter-surveillance! I’ve been training in it since before I joined the academy.”
Iruka hesitated. She’s a true Yamanaka, Guukan had said.
“-- and I’ve done all the stupid stuff you’ve asked me to do, and this is the stuff I’m actually supposed to be doing --”
“Alright,” Iruka said.
Ino skipped a step in surprise, her breath coming out in steamy puffs. She said warily, “The stuff I know isn’t standard jutsus.”
Iruka glared right back. “I said alright.”
They stood there, looking at each other in the cold while Iruka’s nerves vibrated like piano wire. Ino pursed her lips, thinking, and let out a little outburst of satisfaction. "Hmm!"
In the locker room, Iruka threw his vest over the ancient, faded mission blacks he was already wearing. Ino had nothing at hand but the baggy uniform and specially altered vest she’d worn on their first few missions. They crossed the hall to the mission office as fast as they could without running.
Ino started to head for the line at the desk, but Iruka skipped it entirely, cutting around the table to the open shelves at the back where missions scrolls were filed before assignment. Nobody yelled or acted like anything odd was happening, and Ino cast a startled -- and rather amateur -- glance between the mission desk staff and Iruka rifling through the unassigned scrolls. “Um, you work here?”
“Sort of,” Iruka said absently. “I helped design the assignment process.”
“Is there anything you don’t do?” Ino muttered.
Iruka found himself smiling. “I’m too nice for interrogation.”
Iruka was expecting a B or A-class. He found instead a placeholder for an unranked, most-confidential mission, already assigned. He stared at it, hit by a moment’s doubt. Lifting the sheet, he shouted to the chuunin behind the mission desk, “Where did this go?”
The chuunin barely looked up from stamping paperwork. “To the hokage’s office. Briefing’s happening now.”
Iruka used his mission desk clearance to unlock the jutsu on the lockbox above the cabinet. Inside was a wide-format log book. He flipped open to today and found a mission with no name, the line marked only with a leaf stamp -- classified -- and the list of names next to it. Two of the names were leaf stamps -- undoubtedly jounin -- followed by the names of four chuunin. Only one counter surveillance specialist, good.
Iruka pulled the pen out of the binding and wrote Umino Iruka and Yamanaka Ino underneath the last name, listed specialty: counter-surveillance.
When he looked up, Ino was giving the notebook a bug-eyed look. Iruka waited until she looked at him, and then he said quietly, barely moving his lips, “Is that your undercover face?”
It had a magical effect. Her back straightened, her weight shifted casually to one leg, and her face smoothed out into a pleasant blankness. Iruka smiled at her, and only a slight widening of her eyes betrayed her surprise.
Iruka slammed the log book shut, and headed for the stairs.
In theory, any mission could end up unranked and unnamed if enough of a rush were put on it. In practice, they were almost always A or S-class missions, highly classified but too time-sensitive to wait for the ANBU screening process. Iruka had never taken one, but he’d designed how the mission desk should handle them.
Iruka’s worry -- which had been running at a healthy medium, tempered by faith in Jiraiya and self-awareness of his own bias -- was ratcheting up with each step he took towards the briefing room. He’d stopped feeling guilty about the soft sounds of Ino’s steps behind him. If Naruto was in danger, Iruka would take whatever tool he could get.
At the door, Iruka put up a hand. He could hear the murmur of the briefing inside. The female speaking in a deceptively soft lilt was Nohara Rin. She would be leading the mission, one of the two jounin whose names had been hidden by a leaf stamp in the log book. Iruka’s throat tightened. If she thought her student was in danger --
He heard a pause in the discussion and the shuffling of papers on the desk -- Rin had turned away to check something. Instantly, Iruka opened the door and slipping silently inside. In two strides he was at the back of the group and standing calmly like he’d always been there. He exchanged a nod with an Aburame in dark glasses and a half-mask. Hello, good to be working with you, all professionals here.
Ino ran into his back just as Rin turned around with a map. Her brow furrowed slightly when she saw Ino and Iruka at the back of the group. He could feel Ino rigid next to him, probably projecting terror to all around. Iruka had no place to go but forward. He met Rin’s eyes and nodded with honest gratefulness. He tried to put it all on his face -- that he was desperately glad to be here, and that he thought he had her to thank for it.
Rin paused, head turning a few degrees as she thought. She would have looked calm if it weren’t for her preternatural stillness. Iruka wondered how many of the other ninja here were ANBU during regular business hours. Maybe he and Ino stuck out for more than one reason.
“Our destination is River City in Grass Country,” Rin said finally, eyes sliding away from Iruka to the other chuunin in the room. Iruka’s shoulders unknotted, and Ino let out a little sigh next to him, pinking when he shot her a sideways glare. It was probably a good thing he’d never be in a position where she needed to respect his maturity again or he’d be embarrassed by the terrible example he was setting.
“River City has been called the ‘Missing Nin Capital of the World’,” said Rin. A murmur of laughter went around the room. Everyone knew that. It was practically an understatement. “It’s location between Fire and Stone countries makes it politically difficult for either Iwa or Konoha to enact large scale manhunts without antagonizing the other. This also makes it dangerous to enter as Konoha nin. Our first principle will be speed, our second silence.
“River City maintains a successful economy of both above-board and black-market businesses through a system of shared control between yakuza gangs, which function both as corporations and political infrastructure.
“One of these, the Riverside Yamadas, has invested heavily in the civilian animation industry.” Rin gestured to a poster of Icha Icha held up by a chuunin at the front of the room. “Animated stories are quite popular outside of the nin villages because they allow filmmakers to depict, well, the kind of fantastical battles only ninja ever see. It’s called anime. Jiraiya and Uzumaki Naruto were visiting these studios at the time of the incident.”
She pronounced anime carefully like she’d never said it before. Some of the chuunin next to him were nodding thoughtfully. He could feel Ino staring at the side of his head. When he glanced at her, her eyes widened comically, clearly intending to send a message. Probably You old people! You don’t know what anime is?
Iruka tried to put on a sympathetic face that said, They’re so embarrassing, and not, Oh, is that what it’s called? When he’d been a kid, the ninja villages had all been in lockdown because of the third war, then because of the kyuubi attack. Civilian goods -- clothes, art, popular culture -- had only started making their way back into Konoha in the last few years. Icha Icha was at once proof that civilians romanticized stories of ninja life -- see, the White Flash and all his catch phrases -- and proof that ninja found civilian pop culture and excess -- in the wide variety of Icha Icha merchandise -- just as exotic.
“...and secure the kidnap victim,” Rin was saying.
Iruka jerked his head back to the front. That wasn’t Naruto was it? No, he thought she’d implied that the kidnap victim wasn’t shinobi. It had to be a cover mission, a public excuse to be scouring the area. Just how classified was this mission? Had someone already found Naruto? Akatsuki was still out there, after all.
Ino stayed close as everyone grabbed their packs and began the rooftop journey towards the gate. So far this was all routine.
They didn’t find out the second jounin on the mission was Sarutobi Asuma until the team stopped for their first break, several hours after sunset. Ino went rigid with horror as he appeared next them. Asuma had a puzzled look on his face, like he was trying to figure out which question to ask. Iruka was content to let him puzzle it out; after all, their story was that they had every reason to be here and no need to explain --
“We’re counter-surveillance specialists,” Ino blurted out. Iruka hid a wince.
Asuma blinked. “Who assigned you?”
Ino froze, but Iruka let his surprise show on his face. He looked from Ino to Asuma as though confused by the question and explained calmly, “The mission desk.”
“The two of you?” Asuma said.
Iruka had nothing at all to say to that. With the antagosnism between them so well known, the mission desk was unlikely to have chosen them for such a high level assignment. Oh, well, he thought, I guess this is my karmic payback for being too harsh. Then, into the silence, he heard Ino say, “Yes,” with the kind of wounded pride he remembered from making her carry the camp garbage in her pack.
When Iruka turned to stare at her, she gave him the most affronted face: Stuck with you again! He hoped his narrowed eyes looked more irritated than impressed.
Asuma chuckled. “Maybe now you’ll see he’s not so bad, huh?” Ruffling Ino’s hair despite her squeak of protest, he took off to conference with Rin.
“Exactly how bad did you say I was?” Iruka asked suspiciously.
“The worst,” Ino hissed.
It took two days to reach the border of Grass Country, and Iruka’s legs were burning at the pace. He hadn’t needed to sustain a chakra-run for this long since his chuunin exams. Ino was just as worn out, crashing hard and without protest next to Iruka every night. She didn’t complain once about being expected to do the same jutsu as everyone else. Asuma kept giving Iruka encouraging punches to the shoulder every time he saw them working together. Iruka could feel a bruise forming.
As they got closer to the border, the landscape flattened out and the trees began to thin as the prairie started to take over. Iruka started to see signs of non-shinobi military presence, bases of infantry and samurai maintained by the daimyo. Konoha too maintained a strong presence out here. Iruka’s sensei had once told him that Grass Country was the table across which Leaf and Stone arm-wrestled for power.
On the afternoon of the third day, Ino dropped onto the branch next to him and whispered, “Are you sure we’re on the right mission? They keep talking to me about looking for anyone targeting the kidnap victim.”
“It’s a classic cover mission. ANBU use it all the time,” Iruka said.
Ino gave him a narrow glance but didn’t say anything about Iruka knowing ANBU protocol. Which -- score one for the home team, because Iruka would probably never find out what an ANBU mission was really like. There was a good chance Ino would.
“Okay,” she said slowly, “but then, why hasn’t anyone talked to me about the real mission? Did they talk to you about it?”
“...No,” Iruka admitted. Aside from basic directions and securing the camp each night, no one had talked to him at all. He gave her an apologetic shrug.
Iruka waited until they got to River City before he flat-out asked Rin about her concerns for Naruto. Shit, he thought at the look of surprise he got in return.
“Jiraiya has already moved Naruto,” she said. “Our more time-sensitive concern is for parties showing interest in the other individual.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Iruka said stiffly, a sinking feeling in his stomach.
He pulled Ino aside during the perimeter check. “Ok, it’s not a cover mission,” he said, wincing at Ino’s bug-eyed glare.
“You’re the one that made us go in late to the briefing!”
“Yes, I was,” Iruka said sadly. Clearly, he hadn’t learned enough about consequences during his wild years.
Ino was studying her fingers like she was assembling bullet points in her head, one per finger. “What mission are we on, then?”
“I don’t know,” Iruka said. “I misunderstood -- ”
Ino shook her head. “No, you gave Rin the ‘Thanks for letting me help, Naruto’ nod during the briefing, and she let us stay.”
“Yes,” Iruka said, surprised. “You noticed?”
“Yeah.” Ino wiggled her open fingers, half-rolling her eyes. “It was pretty sharp, I guess. Kunoichi-style.”
Iruka rubbed the back of his head, a little embarrassed about the spot of warmth that put in his chest. Ino made a disgusted sound and looked away, fumbling for the storage pouch at the back of her vest. She pulled out a tightly folded piece of smudged paper, which she opened into the article that had gotten them into this mess. Creases had obscured the photo where the newsprint had worn off in transport.
“We’re heading for the same town,” she said, bent over the article, nose to newsprint, “and Rin let you come as Naruto’s dad. So there’s gotta be something else here.”
“The actor, maybe?” Iruka said skeptically. His brain kept repeating Naruto’s dad over and over.
Ino gave him a betrayed look. “Iruka-sensei, that’s Kakeru.”
“The White Flash!” Ino had the same face she’d worn when Rin had explained ‘an-ee-may’ to the mission team.
“Oh,” Iruka said. “I guess -- do you suppose he’s been kidnapped?”
“Ugh, I hope not; they haven’t finished the series.”
Iruka blinked and shot her a look: really? She gave him her best teen grimace back.
There was nothing to do but complete the perimeter check. Ino’s techniques were chakra-focused, looking for signs of jutsu and chakra-concealment. Iruka was more mundane, fully aware that not everyone chasing you could be a sensing-type jounin. He looked for cigarette butts and rations wrappers and weapons caches.
It was Ino that found the surveillance tags, hidden in the grass at five hundred foot spacing around the city. “It’s a tripwire.”
“Hidden stone,” Iruka said, looking at the character style. “Damn.”
A small sparrow dropped low next to them, causing Iruka to pull a kunai before recognizing Nohara’s summons. The tiny hitae-ate around its neck fluttered in the wind. It gave them an address.
“The objective is secure. Please narrow your search radius to five blocks around the target,” it said politely.
“You found it?” asked Iruka.
“We found him,” said the bird.
The car took Kakashi to the edge of downtown.
A member of the Riverside Yamadas waited with Kakashi's producer under matching black umbrellas in front of a downmarket office building with a downmarket sign that read Kiss Kiss Shinobi Productions. The yakuza had the baffled look of someone who had meant to make a dirt cheap smokescreen for pornography but had accidentally created the number one title in children's programming.
“Those guys are jokes,” said Kakashi’s part-time bodyguard, sprawling across the back seat so that his toe nudged Kakashi’s thigh. His knuckles drummed against the window.
Kakashi called him Rabbit -- a bit of dark humor, as though he were some country’s ANBU on a deep-cover assignment. Even here in Grass Country where ninja were assumed to be missing nin until proven otherwise, people would look an extra second when they heard Rabbit’s name, wondering maybe just maybe. In return, Rabbit called Kakashi Kakeru, which was Kakashi’s stage name, even if his employers didn't realize it was assumed.
“Even your mom thought they were jokes,” said Rabbit.
“My mother overlooked telling them to their faces,” said Kakashi.
“Yeah, yeah,” Rabbit muttered. He pitched his voice high. “Yakuza money is real money, good enough for me, Kakeru, eat your vegetables, Kakeru, stop hanging out with that bunny guy, bla bla -- I remember.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kakashi said, looking out the window at the gray, rain-spattered city.
The driver came around to the back door, umbrella held high. Kakashi’s producer was hovering just behind.
"You don't mind coming in, do you? I know you asked for today -- " said the producer.
"It's fine," Kakashi murmured.
Rabbit popped out the other door, goggles pulled down from his forehead to cover the glints of red in his irises that came and went with his moods. His scars were less noticeable in the overcast light, and he carried a big box of letters, the mail sliding around as he swung it under his shoulder. Kakashi wondered how long he would stay this time.
The Yakuza, broad-shouldered in an expensive sport coat, eyed Rabbit sideways -- the way he walked in big swinging steps, hands full, the entire time narrating to Kakashi about the weather, the building’s peeling paint, and the effect of humidity on Kakashi’s hair, hidden beneath a flat gray cap.
“What are those?” asked the Yakuza suspiciously.
“Fan mail, you jackass.” Rabbit bumped the door open with his butt and disappeared inside.
The Yakuza glared after him in frustrated silence, trapped by the conundrum Rabbit presented. The tactical sloppiness of his behavior meant Rabbit couldn’t possibly be ninja -- or it meant he was very, very dangerous ninja.
Kakashi trailed after Rabbit, lifting his hand to the Yakuza in a bored wave as he passed. He wore his usual flat cap and sunglasses and the same worn out denim jacket he’d had since high school, when he’d bought it for the pockets. The PA at the door was distracted by the sounds of Rabbit already inside, and her surprised, “Kakeru-san!” sent a wave of quiet rippling through the room, packed full for the read-through.
This was Kakashi’s favorite place in the world and his favorite people. They were the people that lived between -- between Stone and Fire, between the missing nin that sold their blades in River City’s back rooms, between the Yakuza that ran River City’s neighborhoods like independent nations with exceptionally open trade agreements.
Rabbit dropped the box of fanmail in front of one of the newer PAs. “We’re done with this. I marked the good ones, if you want to reply.”
“Uh, thank you… sir,” said the PA.
“He doesn’t bite,” Kakashi said quietly. He reached into the box, coming up with a large envelope postmarked Land of Wind. “This was a good second grade class. They're raising a litter of sand kittens abandoned by their mother. Could we send them something nice?”
“Of course, Kakeru-san,” said the PA. “I’ll write something up and show you before you leave.”
Kakashi took his usual seat by the window and flipped open the script. Around the room, people peered at Kakashi over their own copies. He wondered if the rumor that he was ex-yakuza was going around again.
“Hello, Face,” said Miroko, dropping into the next seat. When Kakashi shouted catchphrases at laughable villains through a microphone, Miroko was the one screaming encouragement next to him. Her voice would be transformed on screen into that of Kakashi’s stocky protégé, known for his outsized hats and the source of most of the dirty jokes that made it into the show from the books.
"Hello, Diva," Kakashi said.
"With this face? There's a reason I work in animation." It was true – her chin would have better suited a heroic, male general. "I’m surprised they didn’t just hire you to stand in front of magazine photographers and give me your lines.”
“Me too,” Kakashi said honestly.
Miroko laughed. The real reason she worked in animation was that she could voice six different characters in six different styles without collecting six different paychecks. During breaks, she was teaching Kakashi accents. Her voice dropped to within an octave of Kakashi’s own, just a little thinner: “White Flash Strike!”
“Hey, that's pretty good," Rabbit said, appearing over Kakashi's shoulder. Miroko tossed him a salute, a thanks for his admiration.
Then the director was stepping forward, clapping his hands for order, and the spotlight shifted reluctantly away. “Alright, everyone! Our episode arrives tomorrow -- six hours before air. We need to be ready to record at top speed!”
“You have it easy, you know,” said Rabbit.
Kakashi lifted one eyebrow as he leaned against the window frame. He was watching the park across the street, the tree branches dark and skeletal in the light rain. Before Rabbit had surgically attached himself to Kakashi’s life, Kakashi had spent a lot of time on the grass, watching the leaves. Grass Country had been new and strange, and his mother had been so silent; Kakashi had needed somewhere to hide from the realization that no one needed him or wanted him or wanted him dead.
He turned away from the window to look over his mother’s old room -- a futon folded in the corner and the rest boxed up. After a year, most of his things were still in his tiny boyhood bedroom, full of animal knick knacks and posters. At this point, the refusal to move in was more lethargy than grief.
Rabbit’s face had crumpled at Kakashi’s look. “No, I didn’t mean -- there was no question for you, where to go when she died.” Rabbit shook his head. “Of course. You barely remember Konoha. If my uncle died right now, if there was nobody left, I’d have to decide --”
Kakashi watched Rabbit’s trembling lip and was reminded that he was being guarded by a psychologically unstable mess. His mother would have found Rabbit's sentimentality off-putting. Her most favorite advice had been Have you thought about what happens tomorrow? Kakashi had inherited that from her, along with her head for numbers.
“I thought he was your grandfather,” Kakashi said. Rabbit grabbed Kakashi’s shoulder in the kind of crushing ninja grip that didn’t quite bruise but very clearly could. Kakashi’s attempts to derail Rabbit's emotional outbursts had stopped working years ago.
“Kakeru,” Rabbit said, “you understand what it’s like for a loved one to be sick.”
Kakashi turned away. Denko had not just been his mother but also his protector, his teacher, his business partner. Rabbit’s uncle was the source of Rabbit’s hurricanes of rage, a need for vengeance that spun up out of blue skies. At those times, Kakashi didn’t see Rabbit except behind a mask in blurry newspaper photos. Rabbit had been playing mild-mannered bodyguard for months now -- they were due.
In the living room, the furniture had been pushed to the edges of the room to make way for a tarp across most of the floor. The afternoon sun glinted off of weapons -- dozens of them, blades big and small, some absurd, some damaged, some with handles rotted through from spending years buried in the mud of Grass Country battlefields. Each had a hand printed tag affixed - origin, condition, price. A small low table held sharpening stones, oils, cloths, sandpaper, other small tools -- Kakashi’s kit, paused in medias res when they’d left for the studio.
“Are you really going to close the shop?” Rabbit said. “ You could hire a shop girl. Don’t you have someone in your rolodex of favors?”
In the political vacuum of a country squeezed between two great powers and regularly flattened as collateral, where an antique shop was naturally a weapons shop, Kakashi’s rolodex of favors didn’t have a lot of shop girls in it.
“Maybe no shop girl -- open by appointment only,” Rabbit mused.
Kakashi looked at the buzzer above the door that still went off several times a week, even though the shop itself had been closed since his mother had become too sick to open.
“I don’t like the shop,” he said finally. “We don’t sell to very nice people.”
“Nice people?” Rabbit said. “In Grass Country?”
“Should you still be here?” Kakashi asked. “Your friends made a mess without you.”
"They can't make anything but messes," Rabbit snapped with a flash of anger that faded a moment later back into the attentive friendliness he showed Kakashi. He nudged his foot against the tarp that carried all that was left of Denko’s inventory. “You really found a buyer for all of this?”
“Some of it,” Kakashi said. Just a few more to sell and he'd be done with it forever. “Somebody will want the rest eventually.” He looked at Rabbit and shoved his hands back in his pockets. “You have what you need?”
Rabbit held up the paper he’d copied carefully from the rolodex; an account number written at the bottom. He rubbed his red nose with the back of his other hand. “Everything.”
At Kakashi’s nod, the paper disappeared and so did Rabbit, out the open window and up to the roof. Across the street, a child ran through the park wearing a White Flash shirt, white on blue. Kakashi stopped to watch, his head full of imaginary comrades who fought not for profit but for each other and the fun of it.
The ninja found him when he came back from dinner, a take-out sack swinging from one fist and the street lamps just coming on in the twilight. He’d mistaken the first for a new door guard and the second for his mother’s landlord, coming to check on him. He wondered if he should have noticed them sooner, but Kakashi's senses were primed for the kind of temper tantrums that had human collateral, not doormen with too many pockets.
"Please sit down," the landlord said. "We'll be with you in a moment."
“How can I help you?” Kakashi said. He took off his coat and scarf, moving casually to the hall closet to hang them. There was a trap here that would set off a sequence of chakra tags outside -- designed to mimic combat and generally make a lot of godawful noise to those with chakra senses. It would also alert the Riverside Yamada. If the ninja in Kakashi’s living room were Grass nin, they could be bought. If they weren’t, they would flee to avoid detection.
But when Kakashi pulled the small handle on the wall, nothing happened. The wire was hanging uselessly from the ceiling, cut.
“The chair, please,” said the landlord behind Kakashi.
The ninja moved calmly, one of them humming as she set a locking jutsu on the window. The jutsu included a key that could be used by other ninja to open it, a sequence of hand signs Kakashi recognized but couldn’t reproduce. He didn’t remember the internal chakra forms that went with the signs.
At this point, Kakashi was not panicking. The shinobis’ lack of passion and the passcode jutsu identified them as professionals working in a team. They were members of a hidden village, legally sanctioned, and this was business. Maybe they were Grass nin checking up on the Yakuza hierarchy. Kakashi represented a decent investment for the Riverside Yamadas. Or maybe this was about the shop -- someone come to insist on a commission.
Kakashi watched them take in his mother's home, the hallway cluttered with an even mix of weapons cases and cardboard boxes labeled things like living room knick knacks and donate. There were still a half dozen swords and spears not yet packed away after Kakashi’s inventory. The weapons were ninja in origin, obvious by the odd range of shapes and sizes.
“You run the shop downstairs?” asked the landlord.
“Not anymore,” Kakashi said. “We’re closing. Half-off sale.”
A hiss of air from the window marked the opening of the passcode jutsu, and a burly, bearded ninja came in. Even ignoring the advantage of numbers, he had fifty pounds on Kakashi. A fourth ninja stepped away from the wall as though she'd anyways been there. Her hair was short-cropped and dark red, increasing the harshness of the slashes tattooed on her cheeks. The big ninja with the beard and the half-smoked cigarette glared at Kakashi like a bear pulled away from a meal, but he deferred to the woman when she sent him away with a nod.
She was strong then. A jounin, maybe, and Kakashi felt a cold shiver pass down his spine. He stepped carefully away from the closet, keeping his hands out of his pockets and in sight. Why was there a jounin-led team of real nin in a region famous for the lack of hidden village influence? These weren’t local thugs. These were the people Kakashi played on TV.
At least when Jiraiya came to Grass Country, he had the excuse of eccentricity.
The woman moved fluidly, but between each movement she came to rest the way a mountain did, unmoving and immovable, any changes detectable only by the most careful instruments. She planted one hand over her heart, and her stare was soft but direct. Kakashi was just beginning to be unnerved when she said firmly, “Do you remember me?” and made it a hundred times worse.
Kakashi’s fingers snapped towards the chakra sign inked invisibly into his palm. His panic button, though it was a faint hope for Rabbit to make it in time.
The whole of Kakashi’s life before age ten was a dim, blurry country locked behind the walls of Konohagakure, frustrating and puzzling Rabbit by turn. He’d never been able to find a reason for Kakashi’s poor memory -- whether jutsu, seal, or unhealed wound. For this woman to believe Kakashi should know her, these had to be Leaf ninja.
The woman was suddenly breathing his air. Two jabs into the meat of his deltoid, and his arm went numb, panic button untouched. Kakashi had forgotten anybody could move that fast. Rabbit never used speed like that against Kakashi.
She had one hand against his neck -- don’t move -- as she lifted Kakashi’s numb arm with the other, pushing the sleeve back with her thumb. She gave his wrist a puzzled look. Kakashi told himself he’d known she wouldn’t find anything -- it would have taken a sharingan to find it, and Konoha no longer had any.
“I’m sorry for startling you,” she said.
Kakashi stared at her in bafflement. That seemed a little polite for hunter nin on a kill mission.
They made him sit down with his hands palm-up on his thighs while they searched his apartment. His fingers were shaking. They had blocked both his failsafes; they could overpower him in a second. He was no longer in control of his own survival.
It was funny. He’d stopped believing years ago that this could really happen.
The number of ninja seemed to fluctuate as they searched. Now there were four in uniform, two in plain clothes, then suddenly only three, all in uniform. No one wore headbands. He saw a small blonde girl staring at him from the entryway, wearing pants too big for her and an awkward vest that seemed as used as the pants were new.
Kakashi had a moment of dissociation looking at her, like a waking dream. She was an archetype, the famous child killer that haunted the ninja mythos. Kakashi had been that child until he'd been found wanting, a weakness in his genetic line. He’d spent long nights wondering if he carried the same flaw as his father. His mother must have thought so, to flee in the dark leaving her husband behind in a grave.
He came back to himself to find one of the uniformed ninja wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his bicep. The ninja was sitting on his heels, splitting quick glances between Kakashi and his equipment. Kakashi sat back minutely and looked away. He hadn't realized he'd been so affected by the girl.
"It's a test for compulsion jutsu," someone said above him. “It’s useful in kidnappings.”
It was one of the uniformed ninja, his face bisected left to right by a scar. Miroko would love that. The blonde girl was standing a pace behind his hip, watching Kakashi with interest. She caught his look and shyly pushed her long, blonde bangs behind her ear. It was the same moment Kakashi realized her vest looked odd and bulky because she was a very well developed young woman.
He looked hastily at the man who'd spoken. This ninja had naturally bronze skin that had been darkened further by the sun. His black eyes, black hair, and black eyelashes looked like accents added to an ink drawing, but overall his features were blunt and square. Compared to Kakashi, he had a core like a tree trunk. If he appeared in Icha Icha, it would be as a virtuous farmer. Kakashi would have been happy to follow him home.
“Kidnapping?” Kakashi said. “Who got kidnapped?”
For some reason, this caused a furrow to appear in the farmer’s brow, the edges of his mouth pulling down. "I thought -- has anyone been unusually interested in your meeting with Jiraiya or the boy with him?"
"Have you had any memory gaps?" said the girl.
"No," Kakashi said. Not until just now. He looked clinically at the hand the mountain woman had numbed. Without Rabbit, he wouldn't know if he'd been altered. Their jutsu would work exactly as silently as they were intended. Kakashi had become a civilian extra in a shinobi film.
Why weren’t they killing him.
This was his mother’s nightmare. But where Kakashi had imagined poisoned knives in the dark, there was a well lit living room and a uniformed medic asking him to remain calm.
He noticed slowly that the scarred man and the girl had a tendency to walk around or through the others, never bothering to check in with their jounin team leader. Everybody else moved around the jounin like they were in orbit. Every few seconds, the scarred man and the girl glanced Kakashi’s way and exchanged a heated look. Their fingers twitched, first his, then hers, then his again, like an argument.
A bag thumped to the floor at Kakashi's feet. He recognized his own luggage, the one he'd packed to visit his mother a very long time ago when she'd first called to say she was sick.
"Ready?" asked the bearded ninja. “We’ve got Stone nin headed our way.”
He wasn't taking to Kakashi. The medic with the blood pressure cuff nodded.
"Where are we going?" Kakashi asked, though he already knew the answer. It was a week of travel by horse cart along roads too poor for automobiles. He might live if Rabbit found him before they arrived.
"Konoha," said the bearded ninja. And then the girl was running over, bending over to stare with wide-open eyes into Kakashi’s face. A weird dizziness overtook him, and someone’s hands came down on his shoulders like iron bands holding him still. Kakashi’s jerked away, futilely, but too late -- everything was blurring away into darkness.
Kakashi had never woken up already standing before.
Blank white walls were the first thing to swim into focus. Gravity came right behind them, and Kakashi swayed backwards into a pair of hands that settled him neatly onto something soft.
It was a cot. The hands belonged to a medic. Sunlight streaming through the window glared off of white sheets and stainless steel -- a hospital room. The tree outside looked six storeys high and as big around as a car.
Konohagakure, he thought, sick. They were already here.
Kakashi tried to move his arms but came up against something cold and hard around his wrist. He jerked awkwardly twice before he realized his hands were cuffed together and dropped them to the top of his knees, his pulse thrumming in his fingertips like an explosive force just beneath the skin.
The bearded man, the red-headed woman who'd known him, and one of the medics were the only people he recognized. In a chair against the wall, slouching like a student forcing herself through the last hour before dismissal, a sturdy blonde woman in her twenties sat with her shirt absently gaping open over impressive cleavage. "There's nothing interesting here," she complained. "Just dump him."
"We know what we should be doing," said the bearded man, shoulders stiff. An unlit cigarette in his mouth had been nearly bitten through.
"Asuma." The redhead sounded like it'd been cut out of her.
“He’s a black market weapons dealer,” said Asuma. “If you wanted to save him, you should have done it twenty years ago.”
In Grass Country, we call them antiques, Kakashi thought. They’re the only old things we’ve got. You gave them to us, you and Stone.
"You want him, that one-eyed asshole wants him," said the blonde with the chest. "And what for? You're going to start a political deathmatch, which I don't fucking need with Mist breathing down my neck."
"No," the redhead said. "I'll take responsibility."
"Oh, you bet you will," said the blonde. She leveraged herself out of her chair and walked out, trailing two of the medics and the bearded man Asuma.
"Find someone who'll watch your back,” Asuma told the redhead on his way out. “He's a stray, and you don't know he's not feral."
What followed was the most thorough medical exam Kakashi had ever experienced. The redhead never left, and she never took her eyes off him. That her gaze was clinical did little for the embarrassment.
He didn’t understand what this was. Hidden Villages didn’t have exceptions to how they dealt with missing nin. Were they trying to play him with this push-pull between Asuma and the redhead? But what for, unless he had something they wanted? Kakashi closed his eyes and took in a long slow breath, cold settling in his veins. Obito.
He was glad the woman had stopped him before he’d pressed the panic button.
"Wouldn't this be easier as an autopsy?" he said finally, shivering as the medic stuck small needles into his bare skin, consulting a boxy handheld monitor that kept giving disappointed dings. He’d been told to keep his hands flat on his thighs, fingers spread. For his safety.
The medic hissed at him in disapproval. Kakashi ignored her. He had no asset here except the redhead's apparent attachment to him. Even if false, it was worth something; why waste effort to fool someone you intended to kill today.
The redhead said calmly, "You've been provisionally pardoned."
"For good behavior?" Kakashi said.
"As a gift to me," she said. "This is a rescue, Kakashi. You had to know it was a matter of time; every village would find you useful. We're just the ones with reason to want you whole at the end of it."
Kakashi doubted that. He flinched when she called him by name. Even his mother had only called him Kakeru. Sense memories were the easiest for a shinobi interrogator to pull. Better not to have a memory of someone calling you by your real name. For the last twenty years, out loud it had been only Rabbit, Kakeru, and Mother.
"Done," said the medic.
"Done?" said the redhead.
"He's harmless, basically chakra dead - nowhere near what we have on file. We'll know more once the tests come back, but I'd guess the damage Yamanaka Ino reported is the result of atrophy from disuse."
"Please tell the hokage right away."
"Of course, Nohara-san."
"Your name's Nohara?" asked Kakashi.
Nohara shot him another of her wounded looks. "How can you remember so little? Are you sure he's not sealed?"
"If he is, it's top notch work," the medic said, loading her equipment with a lot of clanking onto a small cart. She gave an encouraging pat to the folded pile of clothes next to Kakashi on the bed. "And quite frankly no one at that level exists outside of a village."
"T&I will know more."
"T&I?" Kakashi said. There was something wrong with his pockets; the contents had all been switched around. He remembered only the strange stare of the little blonde girl, and then suddenly he’d been in a Konoha hospital, standing up, pockets gone through. Swallowing nausea, Kakashi asked again, emotionless, "T&I?"
"Torture and Interrogation," Nohara said blandly. "Our next destination."
That was an awful, slow walk down a sterile hallway wearing a face like stone, stomach flipping over. He tried to remember Rabbit's advice, the barriers he'd said Kakashi already had, standard issue and easy for Rabbit to repurpose, the exercises Kakashi had found useless when he'd assumed capture meant instant death. He barely heard Nohara say, "I'm forbidden to reassure you about it," and, "Recovery often occurs in less than a week."
Her demeanor changed when they entered the examination room on a windowless lower level and she saw the fair haired man inside. Strawberry blonde with a square jaw - it seemed too approachable a description for a professional torturer.
"Fu," Nohara said flatly. The room chilled, and Kakashi went still. That was killing intent, mild but unmistakable. "I requested Anko and Yamanaka Eri."
"They're busy," Fu said. He had an oddly expressionless face. "I come straight from Ibiki."
Nohara had a hand on Kakashi's arm, letting him go no further than the threshold. She slammed her palm onto the wall by the door. Almost immediately an echoey voice asked, "Do you require a response team?"
"This is Nohara Rin, S-class authorization. Send me Ibiki."
But when Ibiki arrived, a scarred giant in a long coat glinting with the awful instruments stuffed in its pockets, he said irritated, "He's the only qualified Yamanaka available. They're all over at the prison trying to figure out which Mist POW started a riot last night."
"I'll wait," Nohara said.
"You won't," Ibiki snapped. "Not without an objection better than the lack of favors he owes you. He's got the same orders you do, and he knows if he damages your boy, I'll rip his liver out."
"My objection is stronger than that. If he's all you've got, I won't accept the full procedure."
"Mine are the most objective results you're going to get, Nohara," Fu said.
Rin glared him down. "Minimal sweep only -- and I'll be monitoring. Don't make me intervene."
"Give in, Fu," Ibiki said. "Shizune's certified the kid as civilian. It's not worth it."
"Fine," Fu said. "But I'm not taking responsibility if you damage him yourself, Nohara. I know you're forbidden to practice medical jutsu these days."
Nohara never took her hands off Kakashi, but after the first few minutes he stopped noticing. There was nothing she could have said to reassure him about this.
The next few days passed in disoriented glimpses of a bedroom ceiling and tree branches through a window. Sometimes Nohara was there, sometimes a new man with thick eyebrows and expressions dramatic enough for a theater mask. Sometimes the faces watching looked like masks because they were, abstract animal representations in white porcelain and weeping blood red accents. These were nightmare images, his mother's bogeymen, and Kakashi thrashed away from them, never escaping.
When he became lucid for long periods, he stared at the ceiling and wondered how the studio was doing without him. Were the Riverside Yamadas pressuring them? Did they miss him?
Eventually, Nohara came back. "I'm sorry for putting you through that. You've been verified -- exactly as you appear. The only mental blocks Fu found were those placed when you were young, standard chuunin field blocks. We have everything that could be behind them on file, so he wasn't able to justify a more dangerous probe."
Kakashi couldn't help himself: "It could have been worse?"
"Yes." Nohara smiled like they were sharing a joke. Kakashi closed his eyes. He couldn't look at her, jolted back to the feel of her nails digging into his arm, the only anchor in the absolute vertigo, the upside down, falling, spinning nausea of his mind rifled through and tossed aside. “The good news is that you will only need a limited escort."
"Do you want it to be me?" she asked curiously.
"No," Kakashi said honestly, raw.
"Then it won't --"
"I want Fu," Kakashi said impulsively. He didn't want his fate kept like a pet by one person. More egg baskets, more horses, he thought stupidly. "He already knows anything incriminating."
"What? No -- you have no idea -- no," she said, furious, and Kakashi braced for a blow. She blurted out, her voice strained to breaking, "Anybody else."
Kakashi stared at her. He saw her face move in turn through surprise, to regret, to determination, and Kakashi believed she hadn't meant to make the concession. This round's victor: Kakashi, through dumb luck. He tried to think of anyone, anyone at all who hadn't obviously belonged to her or been demanding his blood.
"The blonde woman at the hospital," he said, "with the chest."
Nohara let out a surprised laugh. "No. I'm sorry, no - too busy."
Kakashi tried to focus. His memory felt like it was behind fogged glass. He said, "The scar and the girl, from my mother's apartment." The ones who had seemed distracted; the ones not hanging on every flick of Nohara's eyes.
Nohara was silent, studying her hand on the bedspread. "Yes," she said finally, "you can have them."
And Kakashi sank back into the bed, wondering what he'd just negotiated.
The scarred man was Umino Iruka.
Kakashi looked at him and thought, Who the fuck is this.
Umino’s uniform and vest showed signs of fading in the sun. His forearms under his rolled-up sleeves were thick with corded muscle; there was sunburn peeling on his nose. Even his fingers looked lean and fit. His voice was a rough tenor, perfect for the role of the innocent and tender farmer in which Kakashi had cast him at first meeting, and he had the distracted mannerisms of someone paid to do a job and doing it.
Paperwork changed hands at Umino’s arrival, handed over by the dramatic mourner Kakashi had thought he'd dreamed. His name was Gai, and he had an athlete's ideal proportions, a green leotard and, inexplicably, a dying potted plant under one arm. He’d been useless for information, more emotional that Rabbit on a bad day, and Kakashi wondered if Nohara had been scraping the bottom of her barrel finding babysitters.
"Kakeru-san, I will be your escort during your stay," Umino spoke by rote. "Please follow my instructions as there are some parts of Konoha which are dangerous or off limits."
“Do you know what day it is?” Kakashi asked.
“The seventeenth of October,” Umino said. A week, then. Kakashi only remembered one day of the last seven.
“What day is that?” Kakashi said.
“It’s Tuesday,” Umino said, looking thoughtfully at Kakashi. People might forget dates, but they could usually keep track of days of the week. Kakashi had probably just told him everything he needed to know about Kakashi’s experience in Konoha so far -- that and Kakashi’s tendency to lean towards the nearest wall.
“Were you busy?” On a very basic level, Kakashi still had no idea who Umino was.
“You were assigned to me late, weren’t you?”
Kakashi appreciated that Umino stopped to think about the answer. “My current missions required general skill sets. The roster wasn’t difficult to shift.”
"Will you be escorting me long?"
"Until they tell me not to," Umino said. He was looking over the apartment, lips twisting in disapproval. The bedroom where Kakashi had lain delirious had turned out to be a dingy studio, furniture scarred from years of hard use and poorly plastered over cracks in the walls.The fridge was full of old milk, the cabinets full of ramen. The only saving grace was the window, big and south-facing.
Outside the window, a cat-masked ANBU sat on a roof in the full sun, his shadow projecting into the street. People who noticed the source of the shadow detoured rather than walk through it. Umino’s lip-curl turned into a puzzled frown. Slowly, still looking out the window, he said, “Was there something you wanted to see during your visit…?”
"It depends on when the execution is, I suppose," Kakashi said, watching Umino's face carefully.
Umino whipped around. "What? Who told you that? Just because you’re here -- " And then Umino faltered, shooting another puzzled glance at the ninja out the window. He finished uncertainly, "Not to mention the entire next generation would revolt. They have your face on their shoes. Well, not your your face, but -- urgh."
Kakashi took all this in quietly. As a performance, it was admirable.
“There won’t be an execution,” Umino said with a decisive jerk of his chin. Kakashi shrugged. What was there to say to that? He nearly laughed when Umino had the gall to look offended.
“We’ll need to go to the Tower to pick up your visitor’s pass and the escort orders,” Umino said, “which I will be happy to show you, have no death orders.”
Konoha was not what Kakashi had expected.
To the inhabitants of Grass Country, the hidden villages of Leaf and Stone were the teeth on the jaws of Fire and Stone countries snapping shut. But here within Konoha’s walls, Kakashi was looking at a country town, wooden buildings and winding cobbled roads that had never seen a car. There wasn’t a single building taller than the trees. Electrical lines passed overhead, hopping between traditional slope-roofed architecture and blocky modern buildings, but Kakashi saw more messenger birds than telephones. Even the clothes were odd, more brightly colored versions of fashions that had been hot ten years ago. There were children everywhere, apparently unsupervised.
Mixed in with the crowd were dozens of uniformed ninja in their many-pocketed vests, calling out greetings to each other and stopping at produce carts to pick up eggs or flour or fresh vegetables.
They just so obviously lived here.
Kakashi couldn’t stop watching them from behind his sunglasses. He pulled down his hat to hide the flinch when a pedestrian in too-short khakis and ten extra buckles abruptly walked straight up the wall of the big administration building. So, he thought, muscles knotted tight, it’s not just the ones in uniform. But no one laid a hand on him, or even looked at him sideways.
Umino took them up the steps of the tower and into a thin current of shinobi funneled to a large room at the back of the building. Signs along their path proclaimed “MISSION DESK” with an arrow pointing down the hall. Umino glanced behind them once as they walked, turning back with an expression gone suddenly stiff. People walking towards them were slowing down, eyes widening, veering to walk close to the walls.
Kakashi turned around.
The cat-masked ninja had followed them inside and was walking calmly down the middle of the hall. Silence followed him, people stopping as he passed them, the crowd parting for him like waves before the prow of the ship.
Kakashi glanced at Umino, looking determinedly ahead. He guessed, “They don’t normally do that?”
“No,” Umino said shortly. “Normally, you don’t ever know they’re there. It -- I don’t know.”
“But definitely no execution?” Kakashi said dryly.
Umino shot him a narrow look, and to Kakashi's surprise, he murmured, “Well, I suppose there might be space after lunch.”
And then, because he was a heartless assassin raised from birth to kill, Umino left Kakashi on a bench outside the mission desk, staring at the sign above the door (CIVILIANS LEFT. SHINOBI RIGHT) and trying to ignore the ANBU who’d come to a slow stop twenty feet down the hall, mask turned silently towards Kakashi.
Kakashi’s hands had made fists in his lap by the time Umino came back. He was followed by a familiar hulking figure, the bearded man Nohara had called Asuma. Instead of looming murder, Asuma’s whole demeanor had been transformed, smiling broadly, laughing at Umino. He was an attractive man, and Umino -- Umino’s face was flushed and open, welcoming the attention. Kakashi tensed. Was this why Nohara had been willing to grant his request?
Asuma’s face closed as he saw Kakashi huddling on the bench. To Umino, he said, “I don’t care how old he was. Watch your back. Protect Rin.” And then Asuma stalked away, giving an approving nod to the cat ANBU as he passed, Umino staring after him with a puzzled expression the whole way.
“Do you… know what that was about?” Umino asked, walking over to Kakashi carrying a rectangular pouch on a leather cord, the front pressed with some kind of seal, and a small scroll.
Kakashi raised both eyebrows: are you serious?
Umino smiled ruefully, “No, I suppose not. That’s alright.” He opened the pouch in his hand, pulling out a folded piece of paper and holding out the empty pouch. When Kakashi didn’t take it, Umino waved the pouch impatiently. His face was tipped towards the papers, reading. “This is your visitor pass. Put it on.”
Kakashi dipped his head to put the pass around his neck, and so he missed the moment Umino understood.
“Well, you have no field ranking,” Umino mused, reading from the pages. “Not surprising, but -- hold on. I don’t think this is right -- ?” Kakashi felt a brush of air across his cheek like a door suddenly shut and looked up to find Umino on the opposite side of the hallway with his back to the wall, papers crinkling in his hand. “By the first, you’re missing nin.”
All along the hallway, ninja spun to face Umino, stance wide and weapons out. Kakashi’s heart stuttered; he froze. Somebody shouted, “What’s that, Iruka?” They looked at Umino, and then they were looking at Kakashi. The air crackled and hissed with gathering chakra. Kakashi shrank into the bench. He could already feel the kunai sliding sharp and cold between his ribs.
“I’m sorry,” Umino said. “It’s alright!”
Someone else shouted, “Are you kidding me, Umino? Is he missing nin or not?” There were bare blades out all along the hall. Nobody stood down until the masked ninja lifted his hand and called in a strong, certain voice, “Everyone, stand down. This one's mine."
With a cracking and groaning, wooden doors folded out of the walls, blocking light and sound and shutting Kakashi and Umino into their own private booth. A moment later, the cat ninja walked through the walls. He said to Umino, “Perhaps, you had better read that scroll now.”
When they left the tower, Umino didn’t walk in front of him anymore, giving directions as Kakashi walked ahead, the back of his neck tingling.
“This isn’t the place I was before,” Kakashi said, hesitating with one foot on the stairs of an apartment building. The siding was freshly painted, and there were garden plots with healthy bushes in the courtyard.
“I know. That was -- a cesspit.” Umino sounded like he was trying to recall an earlier indignation before the shock at the tower had wiped it out. “There are some temporary rooms attached to the chuunin locker room. I’ll get that set up tomorrow.”
The apartment was nicer and clearly lived in. Umino deposited his sandals on a rack next to shoes of similar size. He watched Kakashi take a circuit of the guest room, the painfully orange comforter, the mess of shoes (a smaller size than the entry way) and unfolded clothes in the corner. There was a picture on the windowsill -- Nohara and three grinning children, blond hair, black, and pink.
The blond -- Kakashi blinked and bent closer. The boy was young in the photo, pre-pubescent, but the violently orange coat was the same one Kakashi remembered outside the studio that day. Kakashi had known Jiraiya, the village nin with all the freedom of missing nin and the only shinobi his mother willingly spoke to. He hadn’t known the kid with him, Naruto, who’d been so loud and so frustrated by Kakashi’s refusal to change expression. After a decade of Rabbit, the kid hadn’t stood a chance.
He looked self-consciously at Umino in the doorway, but Umino didn’t seem surprised by Kakashi’s interest in the photo. Of course -- Kakashi thought he had been safe because Jiraiya was safe, but Jiraiya hadn’t been the danger. Nohara had appeared just days after Kakashi had been signing autographs for her protege. Stupid, stupid.
“This is your home,” Kakashi said.
Umino flushed. “A little brother. You, uh, you met him.”
Kakashi filed that away, next to the absence of any genetic resemblance. He sat on the bed, bouncing a little. “Is this alright, for a missing nin to be here?”
Nothing. Umino looked at the floor, the first time he’d taken his eyes off Kakashi since the tower. Kakashi was surprised to find he still appreciated Umino’s reluctance to answer impulsively. “I have no idea,” Umino said finally. A wry smile played across his lips. “You’re a little nontraditional.”
“Thank you,” Kakashi murmured.
“You’re not the first person I’ve rescued from that apartment.” Umino straightened, and when he next spoke, it was with his official-guide-and-escort voice. “You have free access to the living room, the bedroom, and the bathroom. Do not enter my room. It will be trapped. The door to this room is trapped, and I will be locking you in for the night. However -- please,” Umino faltered, wincing, but soldiered on: “please feel welcome in my home. Let me know if there’s anything I can get you.”
“Do you really think I’m dangerous?” Kakashi asked, suddenly exhausted. The prospect of sleep only made him despair of another day of wondering minute by minute if someone he didn’t know would decide his life wasn’t worth the hassle.
“Do you really think I’m lying to you about your execution?” Umino reached behind the door and pulled out Kakashi’s duffle bag, the one that had been packed for him in River City. “I’ll give you a few minutes. Please come out when you’re ready, and I will serve dinner.”
Dinner was rice and pickles -- Umino’s simple contribution -- and a pre-prepared homemade curry he pulled from the fridge. Kakashi wondered if he had a girlfriend who gave him these things, or if this was the work of an attentive mother. Certainly, Asuma didn’t seem the cooking type. As he ate, Kakashi kept his hands above the table at all times. Umino got an oddly guilty expression when he noticed this, which irritated Kakashi, as though Kakashi should feel bad about reminding his own jailor that he was a prisoner.
After dinner, as Umino was putting the dishes in the sink, someone knocked on the door.
“They canceled our mission!” came the shout as Umino answered it. Kakashi couldn’t see anything past him except a glimpse of skinny girl legs standing on the doorstep.
“‘We’ don’t have any more missions,” Umino said dryly.
The legs made an impatient hop. Somewhere up above, the voice wheedled, “Sensei, our training’s not complete. I only know, maybe, five boring signs, and I don’t know how -- uh -- to -- read a mission manual, or file paperwork.”
As these examples of Umino’s presumed expertise got flimsier and more insulting, the speaker leaned farther to the side until Kakashi got a glimpse of a blonde head and a round face. She was the girl assassin from his mother’s apartment, the one who’d stared into his eyes right before everything went black.
Umino was doing that thoughtful, stop-and-think act of his, and after a moment, he stepped back, letting the door fall open.
The girl darted in eagerly, skidding to a stop in the middle of the living area as she 1) noticed Kakashi sitting there and 2) remembered to be wary of Umino’s easy acquiescence. She looked suspiciously around the apartment and at the ceiling like she was expecting a bucket of something to fall on her.
Umino disappeared into the kitchen and came back with mugs of cocoa, oddly domestic in his combat-scarred hands. Kakashi stared -- Umino had to be messing with him. There was no way he could be unironically serving cocoa to his missing-nin prisoner. But Umino’s face was frustratingly serene.
“You’re really tall," the girl said shyly, inching up to the kotatsu. "Your knees get everywhere.” Kakashi thought What? but she was already charging ahead. “How do you like Konoha, Kakeru-san?”
“It’s alright," Kakashi said slowly. She’d called him Kakeru. They couldn’t both be playing the clueless outsider, could they? "I could do without the invasive medical exams and the death threats.”
“Umino-sensei,” the girl said, horrified, “you can’t let them be mean to him. He’ll leave.”
Umino put Kakashi’s cocoa in front of him. The third one went onto the table near the girl. “Well, I can’t be remiss in my duties, Ino, and that includes security.” Umino paused just long enough for the girl’s face to redden and her lips to part, and then he said: “He is a Leaf missing nin after all.”
And, ah, here was why Umino had put the mug on the table. The girl -- Ino -- flinched in the middle of sinking down to the floor, overbalanced, and went scurrying backwards across the carpet. She fetched up between a bookshelf and a coat rack, looking between Umino and Kakashi with an incredulous expression.
Umino sipped his cocoa. Kakashi swallowed irritation at being used as a joke between friends when he was right there, keeping his hands politely in sight.
With an angry huff, Ino rolled onto her knees, her arms crossed furiously. “That wasn’t a funny joke.”
Wordlessly, Umino held out the papers from the pouch in the visitors pass.
A few moments later, Ino’s eyes went round, round, round. She stared at Umino and then at Kakashi, looking up and down his body in a way that would have been insulting if Kakashi had been in a position to care. “He’s missing nin? But missing nin are -- did they just…. forget about him?”
“He was very young,” Umino said with a shrug.
“Not that young. He was chuunin.” Ino planted her finger on the relevant line. She turned to Kakashi, adding helpfully, “26 years in grade -- that’s more than Umino by a decade.”
“Thank you, Ino,” Umino said, annoyed.
“I’m 32,” Kakashi said, tired of the play they were laying out for him. Rabbit was the strong one; Kakashi had been so bad at being ninja, his mother had stolen him to save his life.
Ino and Umino both stared at him. “Age six?” Umino squawked.
After that, Umino made Ino read the scroll, apparently unconcerned that Kakashi was just on the other side of the table. Kakashi tried to remind himself that he had asked for this, for both of them. And maybe he’d been hoping to find a political rival to Nohara, but he’d have to be satisfied with this -- two absurd journeyman ninja feeling their way through a highly classified assignment like a puppy on his first set of stairs.
He didn’t understand the amount of leeway Umino had dragging Kakashi across Konoha and into places that were clearly functioning organs of the hidden village, spreading files across his tabletop, and stowing Kakashi in his spare bedroom. If this was artifice, it had the high resolution feel of a movie set compared to daytime TV. Maybe it wasn't a scheme but an abandonment. Gates closed, lost property retrieved, and Kakashi was doomed to be foisted onto a series of mid-level ninja who would be first terrified then fascinated by his bizarre pedigree. Kakashi would rather be home.
“So,” Ino said, “You’re that Hatake kid.”
“Sure,” Kakashi said, slouching over his cocoa mug. His sunglasses were sitting on the table. He still wore his scarf and his flat cap pushed back in a way the studio’s publicist would never have allowed.
The visitor pass paperwork was spread out in front of them. Kakashi had pushed the pages around politely, reading enough to notice that no part of the paperwork said “missing nin”. Umino and Ino both had made the leap from rank and years in grade. Kakashi suspected most of it was fabricated, but he had no interest in reading things he might or might not remember in front of an audience. They had everything of his that they could take; he wouldn’t give them further gifts.
“How much do you remember?” Umino asked.
“And what happened to your mom?” Ino said. “Did the hunter nin get her?”
Umino turned an interesting color, choking on his cocoa. Kakashi studied a seasonal watercolor set hanging on the wall, and said casually, “She died of bone cancer last year. You just missed her.”
“Oh,” Ino said.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Umino said. There was something to their reactions that suggested more than simple courtesy, but Kakashi only shrugged, giving Umino his best soulless missing nin expression, face slack with disinterest, and he watched Umino pull back, his face shuttering.
Kakashi set down his cocoa. “You say there won’t be an execution.”
“No,” Umino said. “No, I don’t think so. Probably -- no.”
“Execution?” Ino hissed. Umino held up a hand.
“But missing nin usually are. Executed,” said Kakashi. “That’s right?”
“You were just a kid,” Ino said. “You didn’t choose to leave the village.”
“Hmm,” Kakashi said. You just missed her. “And that’s unforgivable? Leaving?”
“Yes,” Ino said fiercely. “Everything you are, you get from the village. A shinobi’s wealth is knowledge. You don’t just get to take it and run. It’s ours.”
“Well,” Umino said. “It helps that you’re harmless, for a missing nin, and you’re also Konoha’s best hope for a lightning clan.”
“You’re going to teach me lightning ninjutsu?” Kakashi said skeptically.
“Probably we’re going to teach your children lightning jutsu.”
“What if I don’t want kids?”
“It’s probably for the best if you do,” Umino said, irritated enough to match dry tone for dry tone. “For your own safety and well being.”
“Is that part of your job as escort? Will we tour the famous ninja brothels?”
“Ugh,” Ino said, “you know those only exist in Icha Icha.”
Umino did a double-take. “Have you read the books?”
“They’re pretty tame, sensei,” Ino said mulishly.
“You -- no, I don’t care. You,” Umino snapped at Kakashi “To be clear, my job is to convince you to want to stay here. I’m your soft sell, Kakashi-san. Don’t waste it.
The look Kakashi gave him was cold and flat. “You own my children, my teeth, my blood. Who cares about what I want?"
When he pushed away from the table, Ino and Umino -- who had both been kneeling to Kakashi’s cross-legged slouch -- reflexively came up on their toes in preparation to leap from kneeling to standing. Kakashi stared at them. He had his weight on his heels and his hands in his pockets, and they looked liked they expected him to go for the throat. He said, disgusted, “Are you happy in a life where you can’t even believe someone like me is safe?”
He took a step towards Naruto’s room. “I’m going to sleep. You can lock me in if you want.”
As the door shut, Kakashi heard Ino murmur, “Wow, he hates us.” And from Umino: “That’s… probably true.”
Kakashi pushed the door until it latched.
The first time Kakashi woke in the dark, he saw the too small bed and the shadows of posters on the wall, and for a moment, he thought he was in his old room in his mother’s home. He listened, half asleep, for the quiet sounds of Denko puttering around the apartment, a lifelong insomniac. The shock of coming awake, of remembering, hit him in the chest and left him struggling to breathe.
After, he lay curled on his side, lead-limbed and sick with the kind of apathy that made him wonder if a simple prison cell wouldn’t have been easier. He lay in bed until sunlight crept over the windowsill. He lay there until it had spread across the covers, warm through the radioactively orange duvet, and then until it had filled the room. He must have sunk into unconsciousness eventually because the next thing he knew, Umino was cautiously touching his shoulder, and Kakashi could smell burned eggs.
"I have to transfer escort duties today. I have a mission outside the village. Please get ready and follow me.” Umino hesitated, adding awkwardly, “You can bring a journal or a book if you like."
Kakashi rolled back over.
The eggs were cold when Kakashi sat down at the small table. Umino kept disappearing in and out of his room with items to add to a small pack and vest sitting on a chair by the door. He stopped once to pour a spicy sauce across Kakashi’s eggs, an apologetic, “It’s the only way, they’ll be edible, sorry,” before he went back to tinkering. On another pass, he dropped Kakashi’s hat and scarf and a pile of dogeared novels onto the countertop. The second from the bottom had a bright orange cover, which was how Kakashi recognized it as Icha Icha Paradise. It was dog-eared too.
When Umino next walked by, Kakashi turned away from the table and held the book up silently. To Kakashi’s amusement, Umino turned a little pink.
“Everybody reads them. I thought maybe -- it’s just an option. That one on the top is much better -- ”
“It’s alright. I like them.”
“You do?” Umino stopped his packing to look at Kakashi, eyebrows high with surprise. “You don’t get tired of all that Icha Icha?”
Kakashi propped his chin on his hand, studying the cover. “In my home, we had a jar for saving money to pay the Yakuza protection tax, anything we looked at and thought, we can spare this. We didn’t always have enough.” They had broken his mother’s arm once, before Rabbit came and made it so they never had to pay the tax again. “When I read these, I think -- they're a place I’d rather be.”
Umino’s nose wrinkled as he thought about that -- like he’d smelled something sweet where he’d expected sour. “That almost makes me willing to admit I like them.”
“Also, the sex is pretty good,” Kakashi added blandly, but it was too late, Umino was smiling at him.
To his irritation, Kakashi was beginning to buy the act. Umino was too ill-equipped, constantly re-adjusting and given to acts of random, mundane kindness -- like a pile of travel-lounge novels stacked precariously next to a plate of bad eggs.
It just vanishingly possible that this wasn’t planned.
Later, Kakashi stood at the railing outside Umino’s third floor apartment, awkwardly holding the bundle of his scarf, books, and a half-opened box of crackers while Umino locked his door. There was an old, bruised apple in his pocket because Umino’s eating habits were terrible and his kitchen was the wasteland of a bachelor pad.
From up here, Kakashi could look over the jumble of peaked roofs to the squat, asymmetric tower that was both Konoha’s tallest building and its political heart. Every roof he could see had a rooftop door or skylight for easy access. If he ever got out, Kakashi could tell his producers: the real secret to writing authentic ninja was more pockets and more doors.
“Huh,” Umino said, looking around.
“What?” Kakashi said.
“Nothing, I just -- I’d gotten used to him being visible I suppose.”
Umino took him to the tower to the mission desk again, but this time he brought Kakashi inside, past the sign that read: “CIVILIANS, LEFT. SHINOBI, RIGHT.” No ANBU followed them, but people turned to look all the same. Umino had to greet nearly everyone they passed, all pretending not to care about Kakashi, who kept pulling his hat down and his scarf up. He made sure his pass was visible outside his coat, the embossed cover flashing in the overhead lights.
They went right, towards a long table staffed by shinobi. One of them was a woman in her fifties with the same broad jaw and brown skin as Umino, a little paler like she didn’t spend as much time in the sun. She was frowning at a small paperback whose cover said Puzzles to Keep the Mind Sharp. Absently her left hand fiddled in the air as though playing piano keys. Next to her, a little jointed wooden doll filled out paperwork with big, awkward loops of handwriting.
Kakashi recognized the chakra-powered puppetry from memories of much larger puppets, a deadly wooden menagerie owned by a baby-faced boy in a cloud-patterned cloak. Kakashi had seen only glimpses; Rabbit was very strict about which of his associates Kakashi was allowed to go near, and so Kakashi knew more about shark-souled swords and blood-limit genjutsu than he did about puppets.
“Iruka!” the woman grinned. “Mission-ready?”
Umino pulled Kakashi behind the desk as the woman turned in her chair. The uniformed shinobi waiting in her line sighed and started trying to worm his way into the lines for the other desk staffers. A low grumbling shuffle passed back through the waiting ninja. Kakashi felt his shoulders tightening as curious heads started popping out of line.
“Umino,” Kakashi said, so perfectly even that he sounded bored. His eyes were locked on the ninja in line staring openly back. “You’re going to leave me here for every ninja in Konoha to decide individually if they like me sitting in their front office?”
Umino couldn’t hide his uncertain glance at the gawkers on the other side of the table. “This is Umino Kohari. She’s retired jounin -- no one will give her any trouble.”
Kohari nodded absently at this handover, looking instead at Umino with an expectant, encouraging smile. With a sigh, Umino told her, “B-class. Four days -- no combat expected.”
Kohari sat back, lips pursed. Kakashi was already forgotten. “These days you’ll need an A-class to see action. Those will come if you -- are you still bringing those kids along?”
“Yes,” said Umino tiredly. Kakashi knew suddenly that Kohari wasn’t just a clan member; she was Umino’s mother, the one who stocked Umino’s fridge with homemade food. Loud, invasive, a source of both support and interrogation, and a world away from Hatake Denko’s quiet distance.
His mother. This was worse than the cocoa.
“Mother,” Umino said, holding out the scroll, “please read this, right now, before I go.”
But Kohari ignored it. “I’m not deaf, Iruka. I’m aware of who he is -- someone announced it yesterday, just outside.”
Somebody in line coughed loudly. Umino turned red. “I made a mistake.”
“You made an assumption,” Kohari said, her mouth pulling down. “That’s never safe -- especially when Skin-Splitter Nohara is the one handing out the mission! What impression did you make on her with that? And now what are you doing -- foisting your A-class charge off on me for a no-blood B class? 'I’ll be right back, mum, I just need a break’?”
Kohari turned back to her paperwork, head shaking slowly. Umino was frozen above her, expression thin and worn like he’d been stretched. One staffer over, the ninja handing in her paperwork had forgotten to leave, too busy eavesdropping, and the person next in line gave her a shove.
Kohari held out her hand, palm up. “Well, give it here. If you’re going to do it, get it done.”
Moving stiffly, Umino put the scroll in her hand. “Come here,” Kohari said to Kakashi, and when he stepped forward, she tied a little string of chakra wire around his wrist. “There you go, that will tell me if you try any chakra molding, so don’t.”
“I can’t mold chakra,” Kakashi said. “It’s in my medical evaluation.” He could nearly hear this information rushing through the line of shinobi like a wind through trees. This was -- this was a logistical shitshow. There was no way this was a controlled environment, no one could manage this many variables to the point of nuance. It was like -- it was like Umino wasn’t faking anything. Like he told the truth like it was a disease.
Kohari blinked at Kakashi, for the first time looking more aware of him than she was of Umino. “Interesting,” she said.
Kakashi’s childhood had been a landscape of time alone, little parental intervention except extracted promises to stay away from ninjutsu and ninjas. His mother had once given him a carefully folded list (in the Hatake family cipher) of ways to spot shinobi observers. An odd thing to give Kakashi, since he had surpassed Denko in age and field experience by age 6, but it had seemed like everything ninjutsu had faded from his memory like colors left in the sun. Eventually Kakashi had thrown the list away when he forgot how to translate it.
His mother had liked it best when Kakashi was outside, running, tumbling, flying kites - she kept buying them, even on their shoestring budget, traded for payment-in-labor or on credit, and Kakashi had no choice but to learn to fly the increasingly intricate designs. Books had seemed too clinical, too adult for her, and it had taken Kakashi years of sneaking books back to his room, under his covers, before he understood that his mother had been trying to give him her best guess of what happy civilian childhood looked like. She wanted that life for her son with a yearning that meant Kakashi could make the sun come out for her just by doing a somersault through the leaves. It had been little more than an upwards tilt at the edge of her mouth, but Kakashi had known how to read his mother’s face.
He was, if nothing else, happy that she had died believing she’d given him -- well, something like it. For values of civilian life that included Rabbit, his mother’s least favorite person in the world.
“Well,” Kohari was saying with false cheer, “you’ll have time for A-class once Asuma needs his kids back. They say Akatsuki’s on the decline.” Kakashi looked at the wall, rather than have to pretend he found the entire sentence confusing and not just who Asuma’s children were or why Umino had stolen them.
“Yes,” Umino said, swallowing thickly.
She made Umino kiss her cheek before he left. It looked more like obeisance than affection. Denko had always wept before Kakashi’s missions. It was one of the few memories of Konoha that had stayed with him.
He could have handled it if Kohari had been a cousin or an aunt, but somehow a mother was too impossible, and Kakashi sat three hours in a chair against the wall behind the desk staff, watching numbly as her chakra puppet filled out paperwork and fetched pens, crackers, tea. Once, she stepped away from the table, and the chakra puppet collapsed behind her. But Kakashi could still hear the soft clacks and knocks of a moving puppet body, puzzling until he found the source in the stiff movement of her right leg, a prosthetic.
Kakashi looked away. He wanted less than anything to have an insight into Kohari’s relationship with her son, the way she hung on every detail of his missions, a vicarious participant.
On the other side of the room, there was a desk whose customers were all in civilian clothes, handing over cash and receiving hand-written receipts for scrolls that were then tossed with practiced ease into bins labeled D, C, B, or A. Some of the civilians Kakashi recognized as couriers, wearing the livery of businesses or wealthy families, others just looked like shopkeepers. None of them thought Kakashi was worth staring at.
He read Umino’s books, ignoring the occasional murmurs of interest and Kohari’s bold-faced lies of deflection -- “Who’s that?” and “Oh, Iruka’s friend,” and “That Iruka; he knows everybody,” -- until the room suddenly faded into silence.
Kakashi looked up into the fishbelly-pale mask of an ANBU standing in front of him, all the desk staff twisted around in their chairs, a mix of wary and deeply, hungrily interested.
He thought, Ah, here we go.
The ANBU wore a crow mask and was the shortest person in the room except for the huddle of ten year olds glued to the legs of a shinobi at the back of the line.
“Come with me,” said the ANBU to Kakashi, holding a small scroll out for Kohari. Kohari opened it with practiced fingers, eyebrows lifting as she scanned. Kakashi’s fingers tightened on the open book, unsurprised when she said, “He’s yours.”
Kakashi waited, but no ANBU in a cat mask appeared to intervene. This was it, then. This was the moment when Nohara’s overplayed empathy and Umino’s bumbling goodwill -- cocoa and mothers -- would be pulled back and the knives brought out.
It meant Kakashi would finally find out what they really wanted. He closed a steely, mental hand over his breathing and his heart. Part of his brain refused to obey, throwing out possible futures in different shades of death, badly. He wondered how long he could say no if they asked about Obito. He'd never been tortured before.
He stood, picking up his clothes and snacks and books, but the ANBU stopped him by lifting a hand. With a wave, he indicated that Kakashi should put his items on the table. Another wave and Kakashi added his hat and scarf and sunglasses to the pile. The ANBU patted down Kakashi’s pockets next, adding the apple into the scroll along with a small piece of paper with Umino’s name and address, a sort of informal “if lost, return to”. Kakashi hadn’t thought of that as a kindness until it had been taken away from him.
A scroll was produced and unrolled, along with a quick flash of hand signs, and all of Kakashi’s things folded themselves away between the characters inked across the parchment. The scroll, no bigger than a cigar, went into the ANBU’s pocket.
Mission desk work had now stopped. There was no one in the room (including the civilians across the way) who wasn't trying to get a good look. Kohari had the transfer scroll open for a second read-over like even she found the public pat-down a bit much. Finding nothing, she turned her back with the sigh of someone used to the labyrinth of military bureaucracy.
Kakashi’s brain produced an immediate and useless fantasy that if Umino were here, he wouldn’t have given Kakashi up with just a sigh.
Kakashi followed the ANBU outside empty handed with his head bare, the cold wind stinging his cheeks. They had to walk in the street because Kakashi couldn’t walk up walls, and the crowd parted for them like reaped wheat. The ANBU turned down a side street and then another until the crowd thinned to nothing.
They stopped in a narrow alley, muddy water puddled down the center, thick with rotting leaves. The ANBU turned his face up towards the roof, and Kakashi saw silhouetted against the blue sky the ANBU in the cat mask. The two of them paused, looking at each other, and Kakashi felt a flash of hope.
But the cat ANBU did nothing, and after a moment, the crow ANBU gestured to Kakashi to step through a small, shadowed doorway.
Everything went black when Kakashi stepped through. Not the black of unconsciousness but the black of total, disorienting blindness. Kakashi stumbled to a halt and jerked away from a touch on his arm, slamming his shoulder into a rocky wall.
“You are not permitted to know the route,” said the ANBU. “I’ll guide you.”
It took twenty minutes of nervous misidentifications of every sound, of awkwardly navigated stairways and door frame bruises on his shoulders before Kakashi saw light again. Lamplight bloomed so suddenly in front of him that he threw up his arms to brace for impact. He found himself in a windowless room full of cold, stale air. Damp stone walls made an odd backdrop to the heavy, wooden office furniture.
There was an old man at the desk swaddled in bandages. His head drooped like his neck had trouble holding it up, but his single eye was fierce and hungry. His hands gripped the handle of his cane with vigorous force.
“Hatake Kakashi,” the old man said in a gravelly rumble, the sort of voice you’d expect to come out of a dragon, “I knew your father. He could have one of our greatest.”
The old man looked him over as though he could see Sakumo’s flaws on Kakashi's skin. Kakashi said nothing, certain now of violence.
“What do you think of our village?” said the old man.
Kakashi’s skin crawled with the waiting. If they were planning to hurt him, he wanted it to start, so he could see it and understand it and break it down into pieces he could swallow and compartmentalize and survive. He hoped. Maybe.
“It’s… pleasant,” he said. “Nice trees.”
“You have a lot of shinobi here. You’re well supplied. The villagers are safe and happy.”
“You wouldn’t know much about us from the shinobi out there,” the old man warned. “They may keep our roads clear and our outposts stocked, but the real danger of Konoha, we don’t show easily.”
Kakashi did not miss the implication -- Hatake Kakashi, you are in the presence of the real danger of Konoha.
And Kakashi believed him the same way he’d believed the sincerity of Umino’s home, his cocoa, his mother. Here in this spooky subterranean office were the teeth Kakashi had been looking for, hidden behind the close-lipped smile of Konoha’s country-town exterior. Kakashi made himself ask, “How can I be of use to Konoha?”
But when the old man laughed, it was friendly, if a little arrogant, and Kakashi felt a knot of tension forming at the base of his spine. He lived in a city run by Yakuza. He knew anticipation was an important part of intimidation, but he couldn't help thinking, Just bring it out already.
The old man stood, moving with the heavy, rocking steps of someone whose joints had betrayed him. Kakashi dug his fingers into his thighs and pressed his feet hard into the floor to keep from moving.
“My name is Shimura Danzo. It is my job to see that Konoha is never outmatched by its enemies." The old man put a shaking hand to Kakashi’s shoulder. “You don’t know it because you were stolen from us too young, but your family is part of our strength.”
Kakashi said nothing.
“I would like you to work for me.”
“You want me to have children?” Kakashi asked evenly.
Danzo made a show of being taken aback. “Hatake-san, I would be deeply pleased, but there is no rush. I’d rather say, that children are something we can offer you.” He shook his head at the rashness of youth. “I am interested in your expertise in… acquisitions.”
“The antique shop?” Kakashi said carefully, hiding surprise.
“The… antique shop,” Danzo agreed, his eyes crinkling like a friendly grandfather. It felt hollow after a day of Umino's frenetic honesty -- held up against Danzo’s oily smiles, Kakashi could not explain Umino any other way. “I hear you have a gift for finding weaponry that has been misplaced.”
“You mean war relics."
“Yes -- Konoha’s heritage belongs in Konoha. We have let too much power run loose when it should be here, under protection and under control.”
But the sketch he handed Kakashi was for a sealing weapon, a gourd to lock away people and souls, and any salvage professional worth his salt knew all the famous sealing weapons came from Hidden Cloud. There was a table of maps also, marked with battlegrounds and combat progressions -- the gourd's last known locations. Masked shinobi waited at the corners of the room, more bird masks and one that looked like a snake.
“I am happy to help,” Kakashi said.
Afterwards, Danzo's ANBU deposited Kakashi on the street, his throat burning and eyes sun-blinded. He stumbled into a shadow and stood with his eyes closed, recalculating. The hard sell he'd been steeled for had never come. There had been no pain except the hand the crow ANBU had pressed to his neck at the end, the touch hot like a red stove.
"For your silence," the ANBU had whispered. “We will see you again.”
Kakashi put a hand to his neck, timid, but the skin was cool to the touch and unbroken. The heat had passed through to the back of his tongue, hovering there like a bad cold.
It felt like Konoha was playing Good Cop, Gooder Cop -- offering Kakashi family and home and professing interest in his skills.
Why two soft sells? Danzo had been quick to imply that he was the true first mover, the skeleton beneath Konoha’s outer flesh of cobblestones and trees. And if Danzo was Konoha's inner strength --
The hokage, Kakashi thought. The hokage is the outer strength, the administrator that keeps the outposts stocked and the roads clear. Nohara had to be in the hokage's camp to be moving so publicly; Umino too by the free reign she had given him.
Kakashi wondered how long Danzo would be content to stay hidden. There had been too much bitter ego behind his talk of the real danger of Konoha. Kakashi thought of Nohara’s delicate hope that Kakashi remembered her, and of Umino, trying to balance mission schedules with the inconvenience of chaperoning Kakashi.
He didn’t like either of their chances against that old snake of a man, hiding in a labyrinth underneath the streets.
Kakashi staggered through three puddles before he stopped and leaned against a building just to breathe. He felt like a rock had been removed from his lungs.
For the first time in days, he expected to be alive tomorrow. Every breath felt fresher, sweeter.
There was one problem -- his ticket to life and limb appeared to be an antique shop he hadn’t opened in a year. What had Rabbit done when Kakashi disappeared? Had he finished cleaning out Denko’s things? Had he looked for Kakashi? Rabbit couldn’t come here, of course. He wouldn’t. No, he’d know better. No.
Kakashi started walking, kicking at leaves. His ears were cold and stinging painfully, and he had his hands shoved in his armpits for warmth. The crow ANBU had given him the storage scroll without bothering to unpack the jutsu holding his things. It was in Kakashi’s pocket, a useless, heavy lump.
Would Danzo let Kakashi out of the village to find his lost war relics? Could he go home, even for a little while? More importantly, was it really Wednesday?
Kakashi counted one day with Nohara, one with Umino -- but there was a whole fuzzy period of delirium in between, and he had no idea how long they’d taken to get him here from Grass Country. Recording would have finished before he ever set foot in Konoha. Either Miroko was the new White Flash or the Riverside Yamadas had started flipping tables. Kakashi tried not to think about it. What had happened, happened. It was done. Think about tomorrow.
He headed for the tower, navigating by always turning towards the busiest street or away from glimpses of the village walls. There were many people in civilian clothing out and about, and here, for the first time in Kakashi's life, his hair was not worth commenting on. On this street alone, he could see yellow, white, black, blonde, pink.
He stopped by a booth selling octopus skewers, drawn by the hot smell of the spices and grease, but when the stall keeper pointed at him, Kakashi held up his hands; he had no money. He said hoarsely, "Could I have a little water?"
The shopkeeper winced at Kakashi's scraped-raw voice, and waved him to the side of the cart to ladle some water into Kakashi's hands. It was like a balm to his throat, and he drank three handfuls before bowing his thanks and moving on.
He'd just caught sight of the tips of the tower's horn-like crest, when he heard someone shout, "Kakeru!"
Kakashi had never realized how pleasant it could be to have someone call him by his name.
He looked for Umino or for the cat ANBU, but it was someone Kakashi had never seen before leaning out of a second-storey window above him. The man was somewhere between Ino and Umino in age, with hair the color of harvested wheat and the classic ninja headband hanging casually around his neck. As Kakashi blinked up at him, a woman with a frost blonde braid popped out, leaning on his shoulder. Another window opened, admitting two more shinobi, also fair-haired. One of them was holding a magazine. "Wow, it is you. Kakeru-san, hold on!"
Two of them ducked back inside to the sounds of muffled shouting and what might have been a scuffle. Kakashi stood uncertainly in the street.
"What the hell was that about?" said an irritated voice from about the height of Kakashi's shoulder. It was a teenage boy with bloody slashes tattooed on his cheeks and a puppy asleep on his shoulder. Next to him a child with the same tattoos sat on the back of a big, fluffy dog, a basket of vegetables in its teeth. The boy kicked his feet playfully in a flash of white and blue, and Kakashi realized – those are White Flash sneakers.
“Are you a Nohara?” Kakashi asked.
“What?” said the older boy, and then he groaned. “I’m Inuzuka!” He slashed his hand across his cheek. “Ours go up and down in the middle; hers go diagonally to the side.”
Feeling stupid with survival, Kakashi asked, “If I get the tattoos, can I get a dog?”
The teenager’s face contorted just as the blond and the braid burst out of the shop next to Kakashi in a rush of warm, perfumed air. The lettering across the shop window proclaimed Yamanaka Flowers.
"Kakeru-san," said the blond, "what are you doing in Konoha?"
"Ignore him," said the braid, "we know why you're in Konoha. Do you want to come up? We're huge fans."
"Fans?" said the teen, narrowing slit-pupiled eyes. "What the hell are you talking about?" The braided woman bent down eye-to-eye with the younger boy, ignoring his caretaker completely. The teen went red, baring fang-like canines. “Hey! Hey!”
Braid pointed at Kakashi: "He's the White Flash."
And the little boy looked up and up at Kakashi towering above him. Kakashi's ears and fingers were numb with cold, and he felt like the crow ANBU had given him strep throat -- but layered over it was a deep and rising gratefulness for the air he breathed, for the softness of his socks when he wiggled his toes, for the easy feel of his arms swinging at his sides as he walked.
He had worth to someone in Konoha; he would get to breathe this air, put on these socks, swing these arms out tomorrow.
So these strangers didn’t bother him, not their odd interest or unnecessary excitement. He waved absently at the boy. The boy's lips formed a silent Wow, a reaction so sincere it startled Kakashi into giving him a second look. Kakashi lifted two fingers in the White Flash’s signature ‘peace salute’, surprised by his own smile when the kid clapped both hands over his mouth.
“Jeez,” said the teen.
"Actually,” Kakashi said, “I'm trying to get to the tower?"
The braid rubbed her chin, frowning thoughtfully at Kakashi's visitor pass. "Lost your escort, huh? We can send someone to the tower, but you should wait here – we have tea and cookies, and it's warm."
Kakashi followed her up, and why not? Nobody was going to kill him.
They took him up to a room with yellow walls and flower vases between ninja tapping away at bulky machines Kakashi remembered from his school library. He'd barely gotten through the door before he was handed a cup of tea and a buttery cookie. Someone squeezed some honey into the tea at his nod, and another person appeared with milk. People all around were smiling – nowhere were the stares accompanied by the blades he'd seen yesterday in the tower.
In disbelief, he noticed the old TV in the corner, playing an early episode of Icha Icha, Miroko's old man voice whispering out of the elderly shaman character. He had known that his paychecks reflected Icha Icha’s success, but somehow he hadn’t expected it to look like this, all these people delighted by a story he’d helped to tell.
For Kakashi, Icha Icha had always seemed as small as the walls of the recording booth. It was the place that had been separate from the rest of his life, safe from the unpredictable weather of Rabbit’s vengeance, never directed at Kakashi but oppressive all the same, dragging Kakashi into a frantic crusade that came and went with his moods.
Now in Konoha, he was discovering a startling, tangible connection between himself and the children of Konoha -- and now the adults -- who looked to him for... what? They wanted his attention, his voice, his agreement that Icha Icha was something good. That the White Flash with his exaggerated mottos about friendship was not a foolish dream. People had asked for these things in the fanmail the studio gave him, but they had been words on a page without faces and voices, and Kakashi had never minded that the studio’s PAs wrote all his replies.
"Over here, over here," said the braid, ushering him to a seat in front of one of the machines. The screen showed a slightly out of focus blow-up of a newspaper headline: MIST DAIMYO REFUSES FIRE COUNTRY DELEGATION.
Kakashi sat up straighter -- newspapers.
"I'm Yamanaka Hitomi,” said the braid. “That's Yamanaka Eiji and Nara Sachiko, and – " She kept going, naming everyone who'd come over or was just craning their neck from their seats. They each lifted their hand as their name was called. "We're the Civilian Periodicals Division of Konoha's intelligence branch."
“Hello,” Kakashi said, distracted. Everybody waved back. He pointed at the microfiche reader. "Do you have other newspapers?
“Yes, of course.”
“Grass Country?” he said carefully.
Eiji and Hitomi shared a whispered conference, heads bowed. Kakashi waited with baited breath. Eiji darted away and came back with a newspaper folded open to an interior page. Kakashi took it gratefully, staring at his own face in the corner above a small box of text. The photo was one of the shots from the Kakashi’s photoshoot for Animate magazine.
But there was nothing here about kidnapping. No diplomatic outrage, no hope of release negotiated by the Hidden Grass Village.
“Ah,” Kakashi said, “it seems I’m visiting my mother’s family.”
“You finished recording before you left,” Eiji said. “That’s lucky.”
Kakashi shook his head.
“But -- the episode is out.”
Eiji went to the TV in the corner. Kakashi followed slowly after, passing through the crowd with his hand closed tightly around the newspaper. The episode came to life on screen, the same script Kakashi remembered from the read-through the day he’d been taken. Almost immediately the White Flash appeared, taunting his enemy in his signature deadpan style. It sounded just the way Kakashi had done it himself during practice.
“It sounds just like you,” Hitomi said.
Kakashi stared at the screen, feeling his face go blank. Miroko must have stepped into his place, and the studio didn’t want to draw attention to it. After all, it was Kakashi’s face all over the pages of Animate magazine, hair artfully tossled. It was his name at the top of the fan letters pouring in. He felt disoriented and sick with it. He should be happy they had not suffered from his disappearance, but -- this had been his happiest place. These were the only people in Grass Country who needed him, and it turned out they... didn’t.
He turned away from the TV, pulling out the small storage scroll the crow ANBU had returned to him. “Could you please help me unpack this? It has my scarf.”
“Sure,” Eiji said. He looked impressed as he unrolled it. “This is fine workmanship. Do you have to return it? You should keep it if you can.”
Kakashi nodded without hearing him. While Eiji worked at deciphering the kanji on the paper, Kakashi caught sight of an Icha Icha poster on the wall. The poster had sharp creases lengthwise and crosswise, which was how he recognized it as one of the free posters included in entertainment magazines. Of course it would end up here.
“Are you really fans?” he asked. It suddenly mattered that in Konoha, to these people, Kakashi was still Kakeru.
"Of course,” Hitomi said, and then, a little sheepishly, “It was an accident. Somebody put the poster up, and we noticed that the White Flash was making a real seal. So we convinced Inoichi that we had to watch, as a joke, and – well, you’ve seen what our day job looks like. It's kind of nice thinking that everybody out there thinks we blast mountains apart and save villages populated by kittens."
"That was a good episode," Kakashi said.
"Also, Hitomi will probably kill herself if Hideo and Junko don't have a true love kiss by the end of the season.”
"I'm not the one who stole three copies of the Icha Icha issue of Animate magazine from the archives," Hitomi snapped.
"That was Ino!"
"Yamanaka Ino?" asked Kakashi. There was someplace else he’d heard the Yamanaka name; if he could just remember. "Actually – most of you are Yamanaka, aren’t you?"
Hitomi beamed. "We're the intelligence clan. Specializing in telepathic interrogation and control." Kakashi must have gone pale, or more likely, a little green, because Hitomi said in a reassuring tone, "Some of us just read a lot of field memos and write fifty page reports about weather patterns. The telepathic jutsu take special preparation, and anyway, most of us can't do them easily."
"Can Ino?" Kakashi asked. This was where he’d first heard the name Yamanaka -- in an interrogation room.
"Oh, sure, she can – but she's going to be the head of the clan. She'll be jounin, for sure. Do you know her?"
"She was my escort yesterday."
"Her and Umino?" said Eiji. Kakashi shot him a startled look. "Gossip travels pretty fast here."
"Did the gossip say anything about me?" Kakashi said. Out of habit, his fingers crept towards the knot of chakra in his palm that would call for help -- for Rabbit -- but it was a daydream. Umino and these kids might think Konoha was home, but Kakashi had seen the shinobi in uniform everywhere, the patrols on the walls. This was a military camp, and Rabbit wasn't the kind of cuddly missing nin Konoha would waste time repatriating.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Kakeru-san," Eiji said, "but we have your entire public bio since you first showed up in Grass Country records, including grade reports from elementary school. Nice job in math, by the way! If you're really missing nin, I'm just glad you're back in Konoha."
Kakashi stared at him.
"Also, seriously," Hitomi said, "Ino and Umino were in the same room – without drawing blood?"
"They're on a mission together! Right now!" somebody shouted from the back. "Shikamaru too."
“What?” Hitomi said. “Chouji!” There was some shuffling, and the crowd pulled apart to reveal a heavy-set boy with a wide face and thick red hair like a lion’s mane.
The boy shrugged. “Umino won’t let her escort Kakeru-san unless he continues as her sensei.”
Eiji whistled. “That cold bastard.”
"What about Umino?" Kakashi asked.
All of a sudden everyone was talking at once. "He's a hardass!" from the back. "He sleeps with a rules and regulations handbook under his pillow every night," from the left. In the front row: "And he hates jounin.” From Eiji: "He thinks family jutsu are unnecessary flair. His apartment's probably got no furniture except one of those wooden planks monks sleep on."
Kakashi leaned away, overwhelmed. A new voice broke in, calm where the others had been passionate. It was a dark haired woman with a high forehead, the only person at the front of the crowd who wasn't a Yamanaka. She said, "He's also trying to teach Yamanaka Ino, who's as close as ninja get to a princess, how to use a standard jutsu and do missions no one will ever congratulate her for. And as you might have gotten from all that, it isn't Umino who complains about it."
"Aw, Sachiko," Hitomi said, "he forbade her to use her own jutsu even if under attack. Just because she complains about it doesn't mean she's wrong."
"Also, Ino's version is like therapy," said Eiji, dropping Kakashi's scarf and sunglasses and apple on a table next to the TV. “Umino runs us to death at morning exercises. This is all we have.”
“You mean you’re out of shape and whining about it,” Sachiko said.
“What does Umino... do?” Kakashi asked.
“Umino is a shinobi’s shinobi,” said Sachiko. “Anything having to with infrastructure, he’s been involved somehow. He worked on the mission assignment protocols, on the supply schedule for distant outposts, and he built the new chuunin training schedule. He’s one of those people that knows how all the gears turn. If you wanted to know how Icha Icha merchandise makes it into a town whose location is redacted in public records -- Umino could probably tell you.”
“Ah,” Kakashi said. “Thank you.”
"What's this?" someone said loudly from the back of the crowd. "Shouldn’t you be working?"
The edges of the crowd dove for their workstations, and the middle started to wobble, parting for a tall man with a blonde ponytail shading towards red. It was Yamanaka Fu, and Kakashi had to slap his hand against his thigh to keep from calling Rabbit and killing them both.
Kakashi remembered Rin’s fierce refusal when Kakashi had picked Fu as his escort and the way she’d treated the Yamanaka like an enemy in the interrogation room. All these things made sense now that Kakashi had met Shimura Danzo.
"Hatake," Fu said, and half the intel division whipped around to stare at Kakashi. "I'm here with your new paperwork. You won't need an escort any longer – though the long range surveillance will continue."
"Ah," Kakashi said, gut twisting with remembered nausea, "could someone drop me off at the apartment where I'm staying? I don't know where it is."
"I have something better," Fu said. "The hokage has given you back your house."
The house --
The house was a neat trick, Kakashi had to admit. On the surface, a generous gift.
And beneath the surface -- a boarded-up wreck without power or running water, a cluster of traditional buildings and overgrown gardens left empty all the long years Kakashi had been gone. Opening it had taken three ninja untangling a series of seals and wards over the course of an hour. They’d left Kakashi alone with the empty rooms and dunefields of dust fetched up in corners.
But the Hatake name was carved on the gateposts and on the chests of linens, and it was his.
For twenty years, he and his mother had been the family that appeared from thin air, and now here were rooms and rooms of history tying the Hatake to Konoha like a lead weight. Each breath he took here felt grounding, like his feet were sprouting roots. He slept on a musty futon in his parents’ old room, desperately glad to be near them.
As for Danzo’s second gift, the right to travel free of escort --
Without a guide, Kakashi had no food or funds. He drank and washed at public fountains. He spent the day foraging like a man at the dawn of civilization, trekking back to the first, sad apartment where he’d spent his delirium to steal all the ramen he could carry. He learned the route to the intelligence division, and every day ate a lovely lunch of tea and cookies. He’d long since made a dinner of Umino’s single, mealy apple and stale crackers.
Even hungry and cold, Kakashi stood on the steps of his house and thought, this is the part of Konoha that is mine. It filled a space in him that had been empty since he’d heard Miroko’s voice speaking the lines that had been his. Maybe it had been empty even before that.
When he looked towards the sky, sometimes the figure on the roof was the tall cat. Other times, the short crow. Kakashi knew that on these latter shifts, all he needed to do was raise his hand, and he would be brought back to Danzo, malleable and ready to agree to anything for a small advance. Clean bedding, running water, good food.
Kakashi had been the kept man of dangerous ninja before, and he had experience with carving out small areas of freedom. He would not owe Shimura Danzo before he absolutely had to. He had other cards to play first -- the first of which was Umino Iruka, shinobi’s shinobi, due back from his bloodless B-class any day now.
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you to be wary of people bearing gifts?” said the cat ANBU sadly from the tree. Kakashi had gone from fearing him to loving him as a brother -- the ANBU had bought Kakashi two meals in the last two days.
“You act like I had choices,” Kakashi said. He was wearing only a pair of loose cotton pants he’d found in a chest. They were shapeless, clearly intended for exercise or sleeping, which meant he was in the odd position of wearing clothing that had belonged to his parents but not knowing to which parent. The morning air was cold on his bare torso and feet, making him hop a little on the chilly paving stones. He’d washed his clothes in the fountain last night and hung them across the garden. He patted cautiously at his coat, testing for dryness.
“There will be choices eventually,” the ANBU said, sounding downtrodden.
“Like the choice to go home?” asked Kakashi, though Grass Country had begun to feel like a place viewed in travel magazines, distant and puzzling. The studio that had been his haven didn't need him anymore, had probably forgotten him, and Rabbit was out of reach. He could not coexist with Konoha -- the touch of one was poison to the other.
The ANBU let out a heartbroken sigh.
“You know, Umino was much better at handling these questions,” Kakashi said.
“Umino was born ornery.” The ANBU twitched suddenly. “There’s someone -- many someones at the gate.”
“Right on time,” Kakashi said, yanking his shirt down over his head.
The gateway was full of teens carrying dust mops and buckets, shovels, ladders, toolboxes. At the front of the pack, a girl with pink hair pulled back under a handkerchief was consulting a scroll. “Hatake Kakashi, you filed a D-class for cleaning and repair?”
“Yes, that’s me.” Kakashi smiled his friendly person smile.
“I’m Haruno Sakura, your mission leader,” the girl said. “Please show us what you need.”
The whole house was soon overtaken with conversation and running feet. Kids were dumping dustpans in the street and throwing open windows to air out upstairs rooms. There was a gaggle of them on the roof repairing a hole, and another few clearing out the well. Haruno Sakura presided over all of this, bellowing commands to three groups at once while also tearing thick vines out of the courtyard fountain with one hand.
“This is a legitimate mission assignment,” the ANBU said wonderingly. He had the scroll Haruno Sakura had brought, and he was studying it like he was looking for the strings and mirrors. “How did you pay for this?”
“Publicity tour,” Kakashi said, smiling as only someone who’d eaten a hot breakfast could. “I signed photos yesterday in the Yamanaka flower shop. 20% off for families of four or more.”
Konoha had so much of his history: his parent’s house, his parent’s things. Even Icha Icha was now Kakashi’s past, and here it was, alive and well within Konoha. Think about tomorrow, his mother had always said. Maybe Kakashi wasn’t the same sort of person after all.
The ANBU frowned. “But I bought you dinner yesterday.”
“You’re very kind,” Kakashi said.
Konoha had become familiar. Kakashi knew to turn left here for the tower, right for the Intel Division flower shop. As he walked, he pulled down his scarf to below his chin and left his sunglasses on top of his head. He didn't mind being recognized. Children in Icha Icha sneakers waved at him, and he waved politely back at their parents. Once, at other end of a block, he saw Nara Sachiko arguing with a shop owner over a broken toaster, and they exchanged the distracted nods of people recognizing each other in the street.
This could be a good place, he thought, if it weren’t for the traps hidden underneath.
He turned to the girl walking next to him, studying a grocery list as she brushed her pink hair out of her eyes with a hand in a thin black glove. Judging by her exposed knees and arms, they weren’t for warmth.
“We can pick most of this up on our way back from the hospital,” she said.
Kakashi rubbed the back of his head. “Hopefully, I can pay you back by then.”
“I’m sure you will. The hospital is always short-staffed.” Her eyes widened. “I didn’t mean -- it’s alright if you don’t! I can’t believe they didn’t even give you an allowance or something.”
“It’s fine,” Kakashi said. They walked along in silence until Kakashi added, “I saw you in a photograph in Umino’s house.”
“With Rin-sensei, you mean?"
"She told us about you, you know. She was trying to convince -- to convince us that it wasn’t worth hating people who were gone. It was better just to miss them.”
Kakashi hesitated. “Do you… know how I know her?”
Sakura turned to him in surprise, her green eyes wide. Kakashi winced internally, he should have asked if he knew Nohara, instead of giving Sakura hints about what he thought he already knew in the question. Nohara’s soulful looks could be no different from Danzo’s intimidation, a way to manipulate Kakashi in unknown territory. A ninja would have known better.
“You were on her genin team,” Sakura said.
“I don’t know what that is,” Kakashi said. In River City, the absence of his memory had never bothered him except when Rabbit wouldn’t leave it alone. Now it felt like a blind spot, another reason to hunch his shoulders in expectation of a blow he’d never see coming.
“It’s -- it’s like your best friends,” Sakura said. “Well, no, it’s the team you train with after you graduate from the Academy -- the introductory classes. Konoha gives you a jounin-sensei, you and two other students. They’re the closest friends a ninja can have.”
“So, Nohara is my best friend,” Kakashi said skeptically. “Who else?”
“Uchiha Obito,” Sakura said, oblivious to the knockout blow she’d just delivered. “He died in a cave-in. Do you remember him at all?”
Kakashi stumbled, feeling dislocated in space, and he, scrambled for something, anything. “What is Nohara like as sensei? She seems -- quiet and sad.”
“Oh, you have to watch out for her!” Kakashi froze: where? but Sakura’s voice was one of frustration, not fear. “You think you’re getting away with things, but you’re not. She waits until you get enough rope to hang yourself; then -- WHAM.” Sakura sighed. “She’d let us mess up completely and then make us fix everything.”
Kakashi frowned. Rin had never claimed that Kakashi wasn’t exactly what Asuma had said he was. She’d just insisted that it wasn’t enough to kill him. And then, just like Danzo -- she’d set him loose. Was she watching through Cat as carefully as Danzo watched through Crow?
There was no one visible on the roofs right now, but Kakashi felt a shiver all the same.
“You saw Naruto? Was he happy?”
“He was loud,” Kakashi said. Sakura smiled. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Oh,” Sakura said awkwardly, her eyes dropping to the ground. She took in a long breath that caught in her chest. Kakashi shot her a puzzled look -- Umino had been so easily flustered by Kakashi’s perusal of Naruto’s room, clearly affectionate and embarrassed by Kakashi’s witnessing of it. He hadn’t acted like this -- struggling to speak through unhappiness.
“You might as well know; everyone does -- he’s the nine-tails jinchuriki. He has more chakra than any ninja in the world, and so would anyone who stole the kyuubi from him.”
Kakashi rocked to a stop, his head filled with memories of furious, impassioned whispers after dark, sketches of a monstrous statue laid across the table, years of looking hidden behind a back-alley salvage business, never, never letting his mother know.
“A jinchuriki?” he echoed.
“He’s going to be hokage some day.”
“He can’t do that if he’s on the run all over the five great nations.” On the run from Rabbit and his gang of unpredictable thugs. Kakashi shied away from it, disbelieving. This must be the paranoia of those who listened to too much to bar room gossip.
Sakura snapped around to give Kakashi a look like iron. “There isn’t anybody else.” She leaned forward, one hand sweeping out in emphasis. “Ever since the Yondaime died, all of Konoha’s hokage have been from past generations. If Tsunade steps down, the council’s next choice is Shimura Danzo, who’s been on medical leave for as long as I’ve been alive.”
At Danzo’s name, the crow ANBU’s jutsu flared to fever hot at the back of his throat, and Kakashi felt like he was breathing past a baseball. He couldn’t speak to ask a question, but it didn’t matter: Shimura Danzo, the man who would have been hokage. Kakashi was certain now the Danzo didn’t intend to stay hidden; after all his window of opportunity was closing as quickly as his life expectancy.
“There are no younger jounin?” Kakashi asked, hoarse.
“Not Kage-level. Well, maybe Gai-sensei or Rin-sensei,” Sakura said, and Kakashi did a double-take, “but they don’t have the support of the council.”
“Gai? With the eyebrows?”
“His temperment’s not good for diplomacy, of course. And Rin-sensei -- nobody knows about Rin-sensei. As a genin, she was expected to make tokujo as a medi-nin. Then she was kidnapped by Mist for almost a year. When she came back, she couldn’t hold the focus for medical ninjutsu, but she took out every competitor at her jounin exams.”
“Skin-splitter Nohara,” Kakashi said, and Sakura gave a queasy nod.
They reached the hospital, a long, low box of a building with a forested courtyard in front of the wide glass doors. Sakura disappeared inside.
Kakashi had spent all the money he’d earned on autographs on his D-class to fix the house, but this was why -- so people like Sakura would listen to Kakashi when he asked questions. He needed all the people he could get if he meant to stay in Konoha on terms other than Shimura Danzo’s.
Sakura came darting back around the corner. “Nurse Hanako is about to go off shift. Next is Senior Nurse Yui, she has bad hips, and she'd rather sit at the desk.”
“And she’ll let me work for free,” Kakashi said deadpan.
“Well, just at first! You could try the school, but -- well, Kotetsu-sensei -- ” Sakura looked apologetic. “It’s just that you look like a lot of paperwork waiting to happen.”
Kakashi looked down at himself, dressed in old work pants, sweater, and boots, everything above the ankle unearthed from his parent’s dusty things, and a Konoha visitor’s pass hanging around his neck. The clothes didn’t seem any weirder than what he saw people wearing in the street, but he was coming to accept that all ninja could spot his lack of field experience just by looking.
He heard footsteps on tile, and a stocky woman walked past, pulling her coat over her medic uniform. Sakura wrapped her hand around his forearm like a vise and yanked him into the lobby where an older woman was just settling down behind the high reception desk.
"Hello, Nurse Yui,” Sakura said, standing on her tip-toes to lean her elbows on the counter.
"Hello, Sakura-chan," Nurse Yui said, sorting clipboards, uninterested. Her hair made a blue-tinged cloud surrounding her tiny, wrinkled head.
"Uh, I was wondering -- " Sakura started timidly, completely at odds with the brusque confidence with which she'd directed her agemates to fix Kakashi's house.
"Who's your friend, Sakura-chan?"
Sakura flushed. "Oh, he -- " She turned her hand in a circle below the edge of the counter, an emphatic 'go on' gesture.
“Hi," Kakashi said. Nurse Yui stared at him flatly. "I'm Hatake Kakashi, and -- ” Sakura nodded encouragingly. He guessed, “-- and I have nothing to do.”
Sakura winced. Nurse Yui pulled off her reading glasses and squinted at him. He held up his visitor’s pass. “Hatake…?” she said.
“He’s chuunin, and he needs work,” Sakura said. “He’s got serious pathway damage, so no field work, and -- “ she finished weakly, “he’s a friend of Rin-sensei’s.”
Kakashi nodded seriously.
“I should say so,” said Nurse Yui. She tipped the glasses in her hand towards the hospital courtyard. “She carved his name into that tree a very long time ago.”
Both Sakura and Kakashi turned to stare out the glass doors at the towering tree in the courtyard. It had a trunk big enough to swallow a car. Sunny leaf shadows danced across its bark. Kakashi felt a hundred years away from it. He tried to imagine a scenario where being crushed on by Skin-splitter Nohara wouldn't be terrifying, but then, she had been young once, too. It made Sakura’s description of a woman shaped by grief seem suddenly possible.
“Well,” said Yui, sounding nearly fond, “I suppose I can find something. You can’t wear that, however.”
She sent Kakashi into the first floor supply room with Sakura standing guard over his privacy to change into a pair of scrubs made for his height but not his circumference. Nurse Yui shook her head again at his boots - very unprofessional. A pair of shinobi sandals were located in his size in a bin on the lowest shelf.
Kakashi stuck his fingers out the holes at toe and heel. “It’s winter.”
Sakura bit her lip. “You can wear socks, but everyone will laugh at you.”
Maybe weeks ago that would have been an effective threat. Today Kakashi was a penniless hostage begging for work, a woman with a gruesome nickname might still be in love with him, and an evil old man in a cave was probably using him to stage a coup. Not to mention that his best friend might actually be strong enough to fulfill all the nightmarish promises he whispered to Kakashi in the dark on the bad days.
“Socks,” Kakashi said firmly, but he made sure to keep the desk between Nurse Yui and his feet.
Nurse Yui assigned him the task of taking attendance. Armed with a clipboard roster, Kakashi walked the floors of the hospital popping in to rooms to ask residents if they were still here or if perhaps they’d been discharged or were dead. The halls were chilly, and Kakashi wrapped his scarf all the way up to his ears and let himself whistle a little. It echoed softly down the quiet halls.
On the second floor, he didn’t get a chance to speak before a thin, childish voice was saying, “Dad, did you -- um.”
Kakashi looked up, blinking into the eyes of a blue-eyed, platinum blonde child whose face echoed the Yamanaka of Intel Division, Kakashi’s cookie and tea suppliers. Her left arm was in a full cast all the way up to her shoulder and strapped to her waist. Kakashi wiggled his fingers uncertainly: hello.
The child pointed. “You’re the White Flash.”
Ah, this Kakashi understood. It hadn’t stopped being surreal -- that the place that had stolen him for his past wouldn’t stop being delighted by his present. On autopilot, his fingers kept wiggling.
The room was a large one, and it was full of children ranging from preschool to middle school ages. Six patients here, and already another child in a hospital gown was pushing past him from the doorway. She turned back, calling behind Kakashi to others across the hall.
The walls were hung with posters of animals and flowers and -- Icha Icha. The White Flash was everywhere. The were three half-finished coloring books on the table with the Flash in combat pose and half the kids were wearing oversize White Flash shirts over their scrubs. The Yamanaka who’d spoken had Animate magazine open on her lap.
The door opened and an older boy of about thirteen came through on crutches, his leg in a brace. He wore hospital scrubs and his shiny black hair looked like it had been styled with a straight edge and an iron. He had the thick eyebrows of a much older man. The girl from the hallway came back to pull him forward by the hand.
“Hello,” said Kakashi.
“Hello,” said the teen, smiling. His arms were heavily muscled -- another child assassin. The foot that stuck out the end of his brace was swollen and bruised like the leg had been crushed, and Kakashi felt sympathetic pins and needles shiver through his bones.
“Lee,” said the dark-haired girl, “this is the White Flash.”
Lee rubbed the back of his head self-consciously. “I don’t know who that is, Nanami-chan.”
A gasp went around the room. “You train too much, Lee,” said Nanami. One of the kids jumped up to his knees in bed, pulling down the bottom of his t-shirt to display the picture of the Flash on the front. Another kid came down off her bed to show Lee her coloring book.
“White Flash-san,” said a thin boy in the nearest bed. His skin was pale against the dark blue of the White Flash t-shirt he was wearing. “What kind of ninjutsu is the White Flash Strike?”
“Oh, show us,” said Nanami.
Kakashi looked down at his clipboard. Room 214: Yamanaka Ichiko, Aburame Atsuo, Yaguya Miho... He checked off the first name: present.
Then he tucked it under his arm, and said, “It’s a secret."
Umino found him an hour later. Kakashi looked up to see him in the door, eyes darting over the room with a puzzled expression. There were children sparring in the space between the beds, refereed by Lee, who periodically reached out with a crutch to rap an offender on the head or the rear. Kakashi was kneeling next to Atsuo’s bed while Ichiko sat at the foot on top of the covers. Kakashi’s job was to hold the book still while Ichiko colored enthusiastically with the hand not in a cast.
Kakashi’s first thought was, I think that’s him, isn’t it? Yes, there’s that scar.
Umino was still a stranger. Almost everything Kakashi knew about him had been learned in his absence -- from the Intel Division, from the kids who’d cleaned Kakashi’s house, from the cat-masked ANBU. Trapped between Danzo and Rin -- and Obito -- Kakashi had looked to Umino as an outsider, the man Nara Sachiko had promised him to be, the shinobi’s shinobi who knew how the gears worked and whose most outrageous ambition was to trick a Yamanaka princess into following proper procedure. Umino Iruka, the ninja every ninja had an opinion about.
With all this in mind, Kakashi had forgotten, well, Umino. No wonder every Leaf nin could spot Kakashi’s civilian status with a look if this was what a field active ninja ought to be. Umino’s waist and thighs looked like tree trunks made of muscle, his hands long-fingered and callused. He had his sleeves rolled up past the elbow, revealing several inches of skin a paler brown than his face and hands, the mark of someone who spent a lot of time outside but only in uniform.
Kakashi looked at him and believed the complaints of the Yamanaka, that this was a man who would not bend on his convictions. He looked like a morality play -- hard work can be beautiful.
Virtuous farmer, Kakashi thought, and then, I would definitely follow him home.
Umino had his arm in a sling and a white bandage standing out against the tan skin on his forehead. His eyes looked bruised with exhaustion, and his expression was confused like he was too tired to understand what he was seeing.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Looking for employment,” Kakashi said.
Umino cracked a wan smile. “As a children’s nurse?”
“I think I have a knack.”
Ichiko twisted around to tell Umino seriously, “He won’t tell us the White Flash Jutsu. It’s a secret technique from a secret temple on a mountain.”
“Grass Country doesn’t have any mountains,” said Atsuo, still sore over this point.
“It has one secret mountain,” Kakashi repeated. He lifted one finger. One mountain. One. Atsuo gave a persecuted sigh.
Umino’s lips parted in a flash of white teeth -- a surprised smile. One of his canines was a little crooked. Kakashi wondered if that was natural or battle-won.
This was good. A good first step.
“You know, it bothers people that you care so much,” Kakashi said. At Umino’s baffled frown, he added, “I’ve been hanging out with the Yamanaka.”
Ichiko’s head came up, smiling sunnily on cue.
But Umino didn't melt at her angelic face; instead his smile disappeared, and Ichiko looked uncertainly at Kakashi. Kakashi nudged the coloring book towards her, swallowing disappointment.
“Who’s watching you? What happened to my mother?”
“Your escort mission was canceled.” Kakashi reached for his visitor’s pass for proof, but Umino held up his hand, a pained look on his face.
“No, it’s okay,” Umino said vaguely like he was having trouble putting words together, “I believe you -- it’s…” He trailed off, putting a hand over his face. “Urgh.”
Kakashi’s eyes widened as when Umino started to sway, a sick, green tint to his skin. Kakashi jumped to his feet, dodging round the bed to get his hand under Umino’s elbow. The coloring book nearly slid off the bed.
“I’m fine,” Umino said, but he let Kakashi pull him over to a visitor’s chair against the wall, sinking into it without resistance.
"Should I get the nurse?"
Umino shook his head, and then grimaced like he regretted the motion. "No, it's a standard toxin. We're all inoculated against it, just have to wait."
He didn’t seem to notice Kakashi blinking at him, reminded that despite the children and the trees and parks and friendly food stalls, Kakashi was in the middle of a village designed for professional murder. Nothing to worry about, we all get poison-proofed at birth. Kakashi took a breath. Remember, you want to leave this room his friend.
This was the life Kakashi had been meant for. Bred for, even.
Looking for a distraction, he pulled out the new visitor’s papers Fu had given him. Umino took them mechanically. Kakashi would never have asked Fu about the changes, but he’d trust what Umino told him -- and he wanted to show Umino that Kakashi trusted him.
“Huh,” Umino said, resting his head wearily against the wall, the papers held up in front of him. Standard toxin, don’t worry. “You’ve got full chuunin rank now, medically discharged -- so no field rating. The hospital actually could hire you. That’s good.” He dropped the papers to his lap and stared tiredly up at the ceiling, adding absently, “You should try for a field rating, though; there are better jobs, even inside the walls.”
Does that come with standard toxin inoculation? “That’s good,” Kakashi said. “I like eating. Eating likes money.”
Umino huffed a laugh, and then blinked, pulling away from the wall. Kakashi followed his gaze to Kakashi’s feet, to the woolen socks bulging out at toe and heel.
“Blending in, huh,” Umino said.
Kakashi wiggled his toes self-consciously. “Bloodless B class, huh,” he said, remembering Umino's mother's disdain for a mission without combat. Umino didn’t look like someone who’d avoided combat.
He wasn't prepared for Umino's reaction. Umino dropped his face into his hands, ignoring completely the sling on his left arm. The papers slid off his lap towards the floor; Kakashi caught them hastily before they scattered.
“I don’t understand how anyone teaches children," Umino mumbled into his hands.
Kakashi reached out uncertainly. He had never seen this part of shinobi life; Rabbit had always gone to his uncle when he’d been injured, never returning until he was recovered, as though unwilling to sully Kakashi with violence. But Umino -- Umino’s whole posture broadcast defeat, hands clenched in his hair and his breaths ragged.
"We can’t get them to do anything we say," Umino said, soft and despairing, "and just when we think they aren’t listening, that they’ve shown in every way that they don’t care, we can damage them so badly.”
On Atsuo’s hospital bed, Ichiko had turned around, watching anxiously, but Kakashi shook his head, and she turned back to her coloring book. Lee had the other children corralled, and Kakashi could hear them playing still, distracted from the adults by the door. They didn't seem like such difficult charges. Kakashi liked the time he'd spent with them more than anything else he'd done in Konoha.
He tried to remember which children Iruka had been tasked with teaching and found the memory of the blonde girl Umino had bantered with across his kotatsu. “Is your friend alright -- Ino?”
“She’s not injured. The Mist nin didn’t hurt her,” Umino said, heavy with self-directed disgust. “But she didn’t know the jutsu when we needed her to, and I said -- ” He let out another sigh and turned away, blinking quickly.
Kakashi couldn't imagine how wrecked Umino must be to share these things with Kakashi, who by rights should have been the worst possible audience. It was exactly as Kakashi remembered -- Umino, a shinobi with an honesty affliction. After Danzo, after Rin, after Obito, Kakashi could have fallen towards that affliction at bone-breaking speeds. There was a desperation in the attraction, driven by his circumstances, but that only made the feeling more potent not less.
Remember why you are doing this, he thought. To survive.
“Have you taught before?” Kakashi asked.
“No.” Umino laughed unpleasantly. “Clearly, there’s a reason why.”
“What I meant,” Kakashi said slowly, “is that any of these kids here could probably tell you that nobody learns by doing things right the first time.”
Umino stared at him, uncomprehending. “That isn’t -- ”
“Sure, it is,” Kakashi said. “They’re kids. They’re terrible at everything, but they’ll be better later, right?”
“They can hear you,” Umino whispered.
Kakashi shrugged. “I’ve already told them they’re my favorite residents of Konoha.”
“Oh, well, that’s alright then,” Umino said sarcastically.
“Umino,” Kakashi said with a great sigh of disappointment, “these moments are for you to care about yourself, not others.”
This seemed to derail Umino, finally. His head pulled back, his nose wrinkled as he really looked at Kakashi. He had the expression of someone trying to find the tripwire that would trigger the jaws of the trap. Kakashi enjoyed it; Umino was looking at him -- not the White Flash, not the weapons dealer, not the child assassin tragically lost. It was better than Danzo’s calculation, a hundred times better than Nohara’s quiet grief.
Kakashi slid his hand daringly over Umino’s where it was clenched on his thigh. He said in his White Flash voice, “I believe in you, Umino Iruka.”
Iruka looked down at the hand covering his own, baffled. Who is this person, he thought. He felt foggy in the brain and worn thin, his fight with Ino like a weight on his shoulders he hadn’t yet figured out how to carry. His thoughts were a constant, clashing refrain of I’m so sorry, mixed in with I meant every word. Why don’t you listen?
Kagoma had been the one to separate them when the shouting had turned to tears and screaming and chakra bleeding over into clenched fists. Kenshi had banished Iruka to the corner chair to wait for his medical evaluation -- official ruling: unfit for human company -- where he’d sat with his mouth pressed against his hand to keep his frustration from pouring out. He’d been aware like a constant itch of Ino’s rigid back on the other side of the room, Shikamaru standing between them, a deeply aggrieved barrier.
Iruka had stayed like that until someone had said: “You know, Iruka -- ”
It wasn’t a medical nin, but Ino’s cousin and Iruka’s academy classmate, Yamanaka Eri. He had one of Ino’s clean uniforms rolled up under one arm and a tray of hot tea in his other hand because he was one of those people with gift for being liked by everyone. Ino had snapped at Eri in a stuffed-up voice, "Don't even talk to him!"
“Whoever I’m speaking to,” Eri had said, “I thought you'd like to know that your missing nin is upstairs teaching my daughter the color spectrum."
And so Iruka had gone up to the second floor. Iruka had always been like this -- fail at one task, find another and work harder.
The hospital was quiet, sunlight stretching across the floor from the windows at the end of the hall. By the time Iruka had reached the children’s ward, he’d started to wonder if Eri hadn’t just been fabricating a story to get Iruka out of the room.
But when Iruka had opened the door, he’d seen children shouting Icha Icha attacks at Rock Lee while a tall, slender figure in ballooning scrubs knelt next to the bed of a young Aburame, holding a coloring book still for Eri's daughter. Kakashi wore his ever present scarf over what appeared to be a legitimate nurses’ uniform, his hair nearly the same color as the sheets.
And he seemed relaxed. His shoulders were loose and the expression on his face a strange mix of amused and half-asleep. He looked up and saw Iruka in the doorway.
What on earth, Iruka thought. Hatake Kakashi was a prisoner with an uncertain future, and Iruka had done nothing for him except lend him a few books and use him as leverage over Ino. Now Kakashi was looking at him like Iruka was someone Kakashi happened to know that he was pleasantly surprised to see.
Iruka was not in a mood to take forgiveness from Hatake Kakashi. Iruka’s current rating of his own life performance was rock bottom, failing grades across the board in angry red ink, and he was the kind of stubborn self-critic who expected everyone to judge him as harshly as he judged himself.
Instead, Iruka found himself in a chair Kakashi had helped him into, breathing through a wave of dizziness from the mild poison Mist nin smeared over everything they owned. In four days without Iruka, the man had transformed. Even the children liked him. Kakashi had put his hand over Iruka’s, and Iruka hadn’t cared that Kakashi was missing nin with no reason to be fond of Iruka; he’d needed the comfort too badly.
After they’d brought Kakashi to Konoha, Kakashi had disappeared into the bureaucracy of the Tower, and Iruka had all but forgotten him. He’d been busy clinging to any connection he had with Ino. He'd shown up at the Civilian Periodicals Division with ideas on how to find information on Akatsuki or Naruto. Iruka had thought it had gone well, that he’d begun finally to build a foundation between himself and Ino and Shikamaru.
Then he’d opened his locker and found it plastered with magazine photos underneath a centimeter of shellac. Kenshi had burst out laughing, a perfect I told you so. She’d thrown in the towel weeks ago on convincing Iruka to give up on the impossible.
“Who the hell is that? He's good looking," she'd said, and Iruka had answered honestly, "I don't know." There was still a week until Rin would come to him with her request to chaperone Kakashi, and Iruka had thought Kakashi was just Kakeru.
The photos pasted inside his locker door had been from the Icha Icha issue of Animate magazine. The close up was a high angle shot of Kakashi in a pea coat and loose knit gray scarf, propping one boot¬-clad foot on the lowest rung of a stool. The foreshortening made his face the biggest thing in the picture, chin propped on his hand with his fingers curving over the lower part of his face. His hair had been mussed up in way that made something flip in Iruka’s belly. A few years ago, he would have happily hung those photos on his bedroom wall and gazed at them for hours. It was, he’d thought depressingly, probably the closest thing to common ground he and Ino had.
In real life, Kakashi -- Kakeru -- was a completely different animal. Whatever had happened to his hair in those photos must have been built on the corpses of a dozen cans of hairspray, lives lost in an epic battle against his cowlicks. His clothes never fit -- even when he wasn’t wearing hospital scrubs sized for an Akimichi. His arms were bony, his face too sharp. His eyes always seemed to be on the edge of drooping shut, whether he was happy and relaxed or coldly disdainful.
And all of it became disgustingly, disturbingly endearing when paired with tiny, sick children and their coloring books.
Iruka rubbed a hand over his face. Wake up, he thought. Missing nin.
“You -- you seem happier,” he managed finally. Kakashi shrugged with his hand still on Iruka’s, his scarf over his nose like a bandit. It doesn’t change his expression that much, Iruka thought a little hysterically.
“When I first came here,” Kakashi said, “I didn’t know how Konoha worked, so I didn’t know what life to expect. But now I understand -- Konoha is just like any other place.”
His voice had a sharp, ironic undertone that implied Kakashi wasn’t talking about the hokage or the mission desk. Iruka frowned. He had been assuming that four days had simply given Kakashi time to adjust. Now that seemed ridiculous -- to suggest that in four days, Kakashi had: 1) lost his escort, 2) given up enough attachment to his home to seek employment, and above all, 3) decided he trusted Iruka to interpret his new visitor’s papers.
Something had happened.
“What does that mean?” Iruka asked casually.
But Kakashi shrugged again, looking with apparent boredom at the wall a few feet to the left of Iruka’s head. He said, “I only mean that the place I live has not changed that much.”
Oh, that was good, Iruka thought. Sharp enough to be worthy of ninja -- but which similarity exactly did Kakashi meant to highlight? He shot a glance at the papers Kakashi held in his other hand, wondering whose name was in the approval box and if Iruka would know them.
He said lightly, “Don’t let anybody hear you compare Leaf and Grass like that -- somebody might think you were calling us Yakuza.”
Kakashi stiffened, and Iruka jumped on it, What does that mean? before he noticed that the same hush had settled over the children. The brawlers had all ducked behind Lee, who was standing military straight with his face towards the door, his arms respectfully at his sides.
There was an ANBU in the doorway wearing the mask of a crow. Something was off about him -- he was short and too slight, a boy’s body, the skin of his arms lustrously young and translucently pale, nearly hiding the thin battle scars. Iruka felt something cold roll down his spine. Konoha was not at war; it should not have any ANBU Naruto’s age.
Kakashi stood slowly. His expression showed he wasn’t surprised to see the boy in the crow’s mask.
“Hatake-san,” said the Crow, “your presence is requested.”
“Hang on,” Iruka said. “Requested by whom?”
“Hatake,” repeated the Crow, ignoring Iruka.
“Like hell,” Iruka heard himself say, even as the rational part of his brain watched in detached horror: Iruka, what the hell are you doing. “He’s got a pass that marks him as a chuunin of this village; you can follow procedure --”
He started to stand but came up against Kakashi’s hand on his chest. “It’s alright. I’ll go with him.” Kakashi's tone was calm, but the words were too quick, and his fingers had tangled in the fabric of Iruka’s uniform shirt. He looked Iruka in the eye: “Please don’t.”
Iruka watched them walk down the hall, worry rising up. Whatever was wrong with that ANBU, Iruka was afraid it had something to do with the fact that it had taken only four days for Kakashi to decide Konoha was just like Grass Country.
He’d a taken a step towards the window, determined to head straight to the hokage’s office when he heard the alarms go off. A siren in three short bursts followed by one long screech. Full alert -- casualties incoming. Iruka spun on his heel and ran for the entrance, all the adrenaline from the mission rushing back into his veins.
Kenshi met him on the stairs. “Iruka!”
“What’s happened?” he said. It couldn’t be Kakashi -- even forgetting he'd been gone less than five minutes, if an ANBU had meant to kill him, they wouldn’t take him to the hospital afterwards. It had to be mission casualties, serious ones. He racked his brain -- who was out? He hadn’t seen the schedule; he didn’t know.
"Three Suna nin just brought Asuma in. Iruka -- it looked bad.”
Iruka pushed past her, taking the stairs three-by-three.
A Shika-Ino-Chou huddle had formed on the hard plastic chairs near the operating room doors. Nobody knew anything, only that Shizune and Tsunade and Sakura had all gone inside and not come out. Whatever Asuma’s condition was, it was dire. Iruka felt sick with worry.
He had arrived on tail end of the chaotic flood of medi-nin into the OR. They had left behind a nearly empty room, a few chairs pushed out of place, a smear of blood there on the floor next to a discarded bloody bandage.
Ino’s face was pale everywhere except her eyes, red and puffy from crying. She’d never changed into the clean uniform Eri had brought her. Chouji looked just as bad. Only Shikamaru had maintained his composure, his face white as wax, staring at something a hundred yards away.
Iruka walked silently up to them, feeling stupidly grateful when Ino took his hand in a grip that ground his bones together.
“It was Akatsuki?” Iruka asked, gripping back as tightly as he could.
“He was protecting Gaara,” Ino whispered, her legs pulled up onto the chair, the hand not breaking Iruka’s fingers wrapped around her knees. “Suna’s medic said Tsunade was the only one who’d be able to help him, and Gaara sent his own ANBU to get Asuma-sensei here fast enough.”
“I thought -- what if we’d been there? Shika and I and Chouji, we’re Asuma-sensei’s team, we should take care of him like he takes care of us, but -- ” she looked away, her voice choked with tears, “we’d probably just have made it worse, huh.”
Iruka swallowed thickly. He didn’t know what to say, feeling too sharply the distance between them, the absolute foolishness of thinking that he, a nuts-and-bolts field chuunin could have been capable of shaping Konoha’s elite. They had always been out of his league.
“The outcome would have been uncertain no matter who was there,” he said uselessly. "There's no one in Konoha who could face Akatsuki without fear of death."
Ino gave him a look that let him know exactly how reassuring he wasn't. Iruka sighed.
They waited like that, Ino curled into her chair, Chouji pacing, and Shikamaru sitting like a statue with his fingers steepled.
Ages later, a soft step sounded behind Iruka where he was crouched in front of Ino’s chair. He turned to see Yamanaka Inoichi towering over him, long glossy hair hanging down the back of his long coat. Iruka was awkwardly aware that he had no idea what the head of the Yamanaka thought of his daughter being the center of Iruka’s personal crusade. The kind of support work Iruka did was as far beneath Inoichi’s notice as an ant was to the sky.
“Daddy,” Ino said, letting herself be pulled into her father’s embrace. The rest of the elder Shika-Ino-Chou stood behind him. Chouji got his own hug; Shikamaru accepted only his father’s hand on his arm. The moment Shikaku touched him, Shikamaru’s shoulders sank like his chuunin vest weighed much more than it should.
Inoichi gently pushed his daughter away. “Ino, Shikaku’s come to tell you what we know.” And then, terrifyingly, he looked to Iruka. “Umino-san, could we speak for a moment?”
Iruka gave him a crisp nod.
Inoichi took him into the small administrative office behind the reception desk, totally uncaring of the large STAFF ONLY sign. Iruka closed the door behind them and stood with his hands clasped behind his back.
Inoichi wandered aimlessly in the small space between the desks piled high with paperwork and unopened boxes of hygienic gloves and masks. When he spoke, his voice had a natural volume and depth that Iruka remembered from Inoichi’s announcements at all-shinobi meetings.
“You need to understand that Ino thinks Asuma is an idiot.”
“Sir?” Iruka said, startled. Inoichi picked up a toy on one of the desks, a small stuffed bear with a Leaf headband. He turned it over in his hands thoughtfully before putting it down with an approving Hmm! He looked up, apparently noticing Iruka -- and Iruka’s confusion -- for the first time. Inoichi gave a small half smile.
“Oh, she loves him, he can do no wrong, blessed are the streets he walks on, etc. -- but she’s had his number from day one, if you know what I mean.” Inoichi shook his head. “He’s never understood how to handle her or Shikamaru.”
Iruka thought of Asuma’s easy-going goodwill with his team, the way he seemed to roll with whatever his three students came up with next. It had never occurred to Iruka that it might not be a calculated leadership choice.
“What I’m trying to tell you is,” Inoichi had stopped pacing now, “if Asuma told Ino the sky was going to fall tomorrow, she’d come to me for a second opinion. If you told her, Umino, I’d come home to find all our shit in the basement with the roof reinforced. You understand?”
Iruka stared at him, struck dumb.
Inoichi lifted a heavy blonde eyebrow. “So maybe be a little more careful about telling her she’s going to be a bad jounin who gets all her teammates killed. I like what you’re trying to do, Iruka, but it isn’t life or death -- loosen up.”
Iruka’s fingers dug into his palms behind his back. To hear his own words repeated by Ino’s father made them seem doubly cruel. He was her teacher, the experienced adult, and no amount of anger justified striking someone in your care, verbally or otherwise.
He bent sharply forward until his head was below his waist, arms stiffly at his sides. “Please accept my deepest apologies. My frustration did not justify speaking to her in such a way way.”
Inoichi had gone back to the desk toys. Iruka wondered if he was looking for distractions to avoid reducing the chuunin who’d hurt his daughter into a smear on the floor. And yet -- if you told her, Umino, I’d come home to find all our shit in the basement...
“She’s not meant for your sort of work, you know,” Inoichi said. “I’m not convinced, but -- I’m interested. As long as she consents, you have my blessing to continue her training.”
“I don’t think she’ll do that, Inoichi-san,” Iruka said quietly, “but I appreciate your willingness.”
“Iruka,” Inoichi said, dropping one large hand onto Iruka’s shoulder. His expression was wry, “weren’t you listening? Don’t waste information freely given -- that I can’t abide.”
“Yes, Inoichi-san,” Iruka said, staring.
When they stepped back into the waiting room, Ino told Iruka, “Sakura said they’d started surgery, and they won’t be done until tomorrow morning.”
Iruka thought about the unbelievable thing that Inoichi had told him -- that Ino trusted him -- and for a moment he was going to say, It will be alright, or maybe, Tsunade is the best medi-nin in the five villages, something to make her feel better right now. But he felt that trust settle onto him like any of the other responsibilities he accepted too readily and cared too much about, and he said only, “We’ll wait here then and see.”
He turned to Inoichi, Shikaku, and Chouza, bowing. “I know you are busy in the wake of the news of the attack. Please allow me to stay here while you complete your duties to the village.”
“Thank you, Iruka-sensei,” Inoichi said, his smile approving.
“Oh my god, Dad,” Ino protested, but it didn’t have the heat it usually did.
Sensei, Iruka thought stupidly.
Iruka felt the chakra signature as he was putting his key in the lock.
The sun was warm on the back of his neck through the chilled air. His back ached from sleeping across three hospital chairs, but he was smiling.
The chakra signature felt like a little colorless buzz of warmth coming from behind his locked door -- muted and without the hints of emotion that came with strong chakra control: a civilian. He loosened his arm in its sling and nudged the door with his foot, his free hand on a kunai behind his back.
The door swung open on his small, tidy apartment, daylight from his windows stretching across the floor. Iruka saw a white head bent over the kotatsu. Kakashi. There was a bruise just coming in on his cheek, a sickly blue tinge on his creamy skin, and he hadn’t looked up as the door opened. His hands were busy with something on the table.
Iruka’s hand relaxed around the kunai.
An assortment of blades lay on top of two of Iruka’s most faded towels. Some of them had been stored in Iruka’s weapons’ chest, but others had been hidden around his apartment in case of attack. The kunai Kakashi had in his hand, a notch in its edge and the handle repaired in nonstandard red wrapping, was one Iruka had last seen taped inside his heating vent.
“Excuse me,” Iruka said -- quite calmly, he thought -- setting his mission pack next to the shoe rack and slipping off his sandals, “where did you find those?" A glance at the hallway mirror told him, yes, there in the corner of his kitchen stood the ANBU Cat, arms hanging loose and unconcerned at his sides, not a whisper of chakra to hint at his presence.
Kakashi shrugged. His shoulders had the same stiff hunch as when Iruka had first met him, none of the looseness Iruka had seen in the children’s ward. Iruka glared at his bent head. The bruise was just below his left cheekbone, sharp on one edge and diffuse on the other. It looked too small for a fist, more like some kind of thin staff or a kunai handle coming in fast from the side, and Iruka couldn’t stop himself before he’d bent down and tipped Kakashi head to the side, better to get a look at it.
Kakashi stiffened, but after a beat, his hands started up again, eyes downcast. The slow scrape of sandpaper set Iruka’s teeth on edge. He vividly remembered the damage he’d done to the Academy kunai during his first lessons on weapons maintenance. The rough sound of sandpaper on steel set his teeth on edged, and he had to take in a breath, to remind himself that it was above his pay grade.
"You weren't home. Where were you?” Kakashi asked like it was any other day and this was a reasonable question to ask an assassin with a grip on your jaw. There was a hollow thread to his voice, and he readjusted his grip on the kunai like he was having trouble holding it.
Kakashi’s injuries irritated Iruka the way things done poorly always irritated him. Rin had asked Iruka personally to make Kakashi feel like a citizen, but instead Konoha was treating Kakashi like an uncooperative asset. Why? What could he possibly know? Kakashi’s studio had been owned by Yakuza, Kakashi could very well have been Yakuza, but what did Konoha care about local Grass politics?
“Where were you?” Iruka countered, a monumentally stupid thing to say with ANBU standing behind him. The worst case scenario being that Kakashi would answer, not understanding the dark humor behind it -- that it was an unanswerable question. ANBU secrets were meant to stay secret.
He felt a sting of regret for abandoning Kakashi for a mission that had ended with he and Ino bloody and screaming at each other -- but Kakashi hadn’t been on Iruka’s radar. He had been a humorous anomaly. If anyone had asked, Iruka would have said he thought Konoha was cleaning house, tying up loose ends -- and maybe trying to soften their image in the process. If they hadn’t wanted people to know that Konoha had Kakeru, they would have kept him in a cell.
He had reached for the towel to pull his equipment safely out of Kakashi’s reach when he finally really looked at the table.
There were eleven pieces laid out. A mix of kunai, shuriken, and one heavy iron tetsubo with an overabundance of spikes that Iruka kept next to the bed. (Sometimes simple was best.) The blades on the right side of the table gleamed like liquid silver. Their edges looked sharp enough to split a hair. Iruka’s sharpening kit sat open on the floor next to Kakashi’s knee. A series of sandpaper squares in progressively finer grades had been lined up along the table edge, waiting for Kakashi to finish removing the surface rust caused by the heating vent's variable humidity.
Iruka picked up a kunai in disbelief, testing it against the pad of his thumb and feeling skin part. His armory hadn’t looked this nice when it was new.
“This isn’t making you look less like missing nin,” Iruka said weakly.
Kakashi gave him a bored look. “Missing nin aren’t as good at this as I am,” he said with a certainty that made Iruka narrow his eyes thoughtfully.
Iruka turned to the ANBU. “You let him in?”
“I disabled the lethal trap on your bedroom,” said the Cat. “He managed the rest, eventually.”
And opened the front door and the weapons chest, but Iruka wasn’t going to argue.
He curled his fingers around the edge of his sling, worrying at a loose thread. Kakashi had come here looking for Iruka. Even allowing that they’d arrived earlier than polite -- say, 7 o’clock -- it was now only a little after 11:30. Kakashi’s work on Iruka’s weapons collection was not only excellent; it was fast. Professionally fast.
“This is what you did in Grass Country," Iruka realized. The missing nin capital of the world. He let out a long breath, understanding. Kakashi probably knew more about the missing nin in River City than Konoha’s own operatives.
“It’s what my mother did.”
Iruka knelt, picking up the finished weapons one by one. Iruka maintained his own equipment, but this was on another level. A once-a-year sort of expense. It was almost worth the pain of re-hiding everything. “How did you get into Icha Icha from weapon’s maintenance for Grass Country’s missing nin?”
Kakashi’s hands stilled on the kunai in his hand. His neck had gone rigid -- probably from the effort of not looking at the ANBU in the kitchen.
“A shinobi named Jiraiya suggested it,” Kakashi said finally. “I thought it sounded -- nice. Fewer death threats if I made a mistake.”
“Jiraiya?” Iruka repeated incredulously. “Toad Sage Jiraiya? The sannin?”
“He used to bring me an apple on my birthday,” Kakashi added in the same casual tone he’d used in the hospital.
An apple as a gift -- that’s the kind of silly gesture a person makes to a child, not a grown man, Iruka thought, watching Kakashi’s hands on the kunai. So Jiraiya has been visiting you since you were a boy. But why didn’t we know where you were until now?
“Are you writing this down?” Kakashi murmured.
Iruka started. “I -- ”
“Forgot my pen,” said the ANBU Cat.
Iruka sank back into his pose, elbows resting on the table but inside he was vibrating with tension. Kakashi treated the ANBU’s eavesdropping as the price of giving Iruka information -- none of it world shattering, but a shinobi would never offer something like that for free. A few days ago, Iruka would have assumed it was an amateur mistake -- the act of someone who hadn’t been raised to view information as currency.
Now, Iruka had a hilarious thought: I am the target of a seduction.
It wasn't sexual, he didn’t think, but Iruka had no doubt he was being wooed. Was Iruka the best target Kakashi could hope for? He was a puppet, not a puppet master.
“Are you alright?” Iruka asked as firmly as he could, interested more in the reaction than the answer.
Kakashi’s eyes snapped up, a suspicious furrow in his forehead. The directness of his stare and the way he searched Iruka’s face a beat too long seemed hopeful, maybe even desperate. Someone who was alright wouldn’t need hope like that.
Kakashi opened his mouth -- and coughed, a wet phlegmy sound that made Iruka lean back. When the cough faded, he turned the question back on Iruka, “Are you alright? Were you at the hospital all night?”
“A friend of mine was attacked, but he’s going to be alright,” Iruka said, watching Kakashi thoughtfully. “Yesterday, Akatsuki attacked Suna’s jinchuuriki, Gaara; Asuma was injured protecting him.”
“Asuma -- ” Kakashi said, sounding wary. Then he frowned. “I thought Gaara was the name of the Kazekage. That’s not -- nobody could target a kage.”
“Akatsuki can,” Iruka said. Kakashi had spent most of his life as a civilian. It wasn’t surprising that Akatsuki seemed to shake him.
Kakashi had spent the whole conversation avoiding Iruka’s eyes, hiding in the familiar motions of his hands. Now he was suddenly present, gaze sharp on Iruka’s face, cheeks flushing pink under the bruise. “They’re after your son, too, then. The boy jinchuuriki. They -- Akatsuki. All of them. They’re hunting a child.”
He didn’t sound like he was asking for confirmation. He sounded like he knew.
“Not my son. My friend,” Iruka said. History would tell the inspiring story of father and son hokages; Iruka didn’t need to get in the middle of that. “I’m like -- an adopted older brother.”
Kakashi wasn't paying attention. His hands were white-knuckled around the kunai, and the sandpaper had started to crumple. Iruka found himself sitting back from the force of the presence in front of him. In the kitchen, the ANBU took one small step forward, silent but somehow thundering in Iruka’s head.
“How can you care so much when you know you can’t protect him?” Kakashi said. His voice echoed the disdain he’d shown when he’d first come to Konoha, and Iruka’s head went up, spine stiffening. “You aren’t a match for Akatsuki."
"No one is," Iruka said.
Kakashi’s grip on the kunai, the coldness of his voice -- it was like he was angry. "Wouldn’t it be smarter to care about safer people?”
“It doesn’t matter what’s smarter because it’s not a choice,” Iruka said. “I thought -- you sounded like you admired that, yesterday.”
He hated how hurt he sounded. He’d been proud of himself for spotting Kakashi’s kindness and careful overtures for what they were. He hadn’t realized he’d fallen for it anyway, charmed by the sharp, gangly man folded up in front of his living room table.
Stupid to forget how little Iruka knew about him. This coldness was Kakashi, too. It was the first Kakashi Iruka had ever met.
“A place of people who cared like you -- that could be admirable." Kakashi's voice faltered, but when he turned to Iruka his eyes were cold and flat. “But caring isn’t everything. Have you noticed that caring too much is what makes people do the worst thing they’ll ever do?”
“No, I haven’t,” Iruka said through clenched teeth, “but if I had, I would say it depends on what you care about.”
Kakashi looked at him for a long moment with that bizarre, empty expression. It made him seem uncaring, unconnected -- like missing nin. It was the same way he’d looked when they’d brought him in, and Iruka thought with a jolt, this is what he looks like when thinks he’s going to die.
“I think -- I should probably go,” Kakashi said.
Yes, Iruka thought immediately, and don't bother wooing me anymore either.
Except -- Iruka pressed a frustrated hand to his forehead. “Why did you come here? To go through my underwear drawer for knives?”
Kakashi looked down at the weapons on the table like he’d forgotten they were there. “You said if I got my field rating, that things would be -- better -- here.”
“Is this what asking for help looks like to you?” Iruka snapped. “If you want training, petition your jailors. I’m not on the payroll anymore.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Iruka saw the ANBU shift. Iruka knew Kakashi’s petition would get nowhere. Tsunade, Rin, Shikaku, the council, all these people had better things to worry about than arranging a nontraditional training schedule for a student who would never be combat ready. Especially not when that student was a prisoner they weren’t done ‘working over’ by the looks of it.
Still shaky and furious, Iruka felt meanly glad. With an uncertain glance at the table of weapons, Kakashi left through the front door without waiting for the ANBU to follow. He took a weaving path like he was disoriented, a tall hunching figure with his hands in his pockets and his chin pulled down to his chest.
“Why do you like him?” Iruka asked without looking up as the ANBU stepped out of the kitchen.
“You’re mistaken," the ANBU said. "ANBU don’t like anyone.”
Kakashi was already at the end of the walk starting to head down the stairs when Iruka pulled the door open. He’d wrapped his scarf up over his cheeks, hiding the mystery bruise. The ANBU was nowhere in sight.
Iruka shouted after him, “I'll look -- I can't work for free, but I'll look for something. No promises!”
Kakashi turned to stare at him blankly, his expression as much a mask as the one the ANBU wore. Iruka felt another spark of irritation and couldn't help slamming the door behind him. He stared at the peeling beige paint around the peephole, wondering what the hell he was doing.
“I won't look very hard," he muttered.
“You’re assuming his paperwork is real,” Shikamaru said skeptically.
“I’m assuming,” Iruka said with the calm of someone who’d been exploiting loopholes longer than Shikamaru had been exploiting language, “that whoever wrote his paperwork was competent and meant exactly what they wrote down.”
The houses on either side of the Hatake compound buzzed softly with chakra warding, but the Hatake gate was silent, the wood splintering and gray and rough against Iruka’s fingers.
Inside, weeds had overgrown the cobblestones of a courtyard surrounded by three buildings with broad porches and sloping tiled roofs. A path of flattened grass led to a side door where what looked like a squatters campsite had been set up -- camp stove, fire pit, water pails. It was haphazard, nothing like the orderly field camps Iruka was used to.
“That looks like its going to fall apart,” Shikamaru said, eyeing the cooking station skeptically.
The side door opened onto to a spacious kitchen of appliances with edges too round, colors too deep and clashing to be fashionable today. Iruka heard the click-click-click of Ino trying the gas stove, followed by the creak of a faucet that didn’t flow. When she appeared at Iruka’s shoulder, her expression was unsettled. She’d grown up in a house even bigger than this -- in good repair, filled with family, wealth, and fully staffed.
In the corner, a small wooden stove crackled and popped happily. A futon sat next to it, piled high with blankets and comforters. A bare foot hung off one end of the futon, a tuft of silver hair stuck out the other. Civilian, Iruka thought while Ino threw open the window and shutters, letting in a rush of light and cold air. A soft grunt came from under the pile, and a hand tightened in the sheets, pulling them away from a pale, sleep-creased face.
An elbow poked up from the blanket pile as Kakashi rubbed sleepily at his eyes. He blinked at them groggily.
You asked for this, Iruka reminded him with a lift of his eyebrows. It was oddly disarming to be standing here watching Kakashi wake. Iruka would never be in this position with a shinobi unless they were intimate or family. He wondered, did jounin like Asuma groan when they woke up?
Kakashi folded back the duvet and sat up like a drawbridge being reeled in. His eyes were barely open, and he seemed to be managing even that much by a combination of blinking and squinting. He looked up at Iruka, his hair wild and his cheek imprinted with the wrinkles from the sheets.
“You didn't have to do this," he said.
“No, I didn’t,” Iruka agreed. He dropped the pack onto the floor and started pulling out pieces of a uniform, draping them across Kakashi’s legs while Kakashi watched with passive interest. Ino had wandered off, peering into the rest of the house.
“Your -- uh -- you seem to do okay with her,” Kakashi said lightly. His just-awake voice wasn’t ready for the false cheer, and he had to clear his throat. “Is that… going better?”
“Don’t,” Iruka said.
“Don’t?” Kakashi pulled one arm from underneath the covers to rub a thumb over the whirlpool patch of the uniform shirt.
“They teach entire courses about seduction, you know. I’ve taken three.” Iruka looked up from the pack to fix Kakashi with a stare. “Don’t try it on me.”
“I’m not --”
Iruka dropped a pair a sandals on top of the shirt Kakashi was holding, knocking it back to the bed. The shoes were heavier than Iruka’s; Kakashi’s feet were enormous. He turned back to the pack, rifling through it for extra leg wrappings. “If you want an ally, just ask for one.”
There was a long silence; Iruka refused to look up from the pack. When Kakashi finally spoke, he sounded flat, worn out, like someone trapped someplace they didn’t want to be. “I don’t have a lot to offer an ally, Umino-san.”
“Lucky for you,” Iruka said with all the false cheer Kakashi had failed to rally, “I'm too low-ranked to choose friends for strategic value. Also, you can call me Iruka,” he added with a dry smirk, “since we’ve become close.”
Kakashi was staring at him, arms awkwardly full of borrowed gear. His expression had the same kind of buried hope Iruka had seen yesterday. Iruka looked away, uncomfortable and not certain what he was signing up for.
“Well? Get dressed already.” He stood and went outside to see if Shikamaru had figured out how to fix Kakashi’s cook stove.
And so, Kakashi developed a new routine.
He continued to see no sign of Nohara, and Umino continued to be a lean-muscled mix of bullheaded honesty and practical ninjutsu. Kakashi kept an eye on the people they passed, afraid at any moment of spotting Rabbit and then Rabbit dying at the hand of Leaf hunter nin. He still -- he still couldn’t believe the things Sakura and Umino and Ino had said about Akatsuki.
Umino woke him up earlier now, and Kakashi watched him destroy the hopes and dreams of professional killers through a megaphone. These were chuunin morning exercises. Kakashi lay on his back at the edge of the practice field with a thermos of tea, a box of crackers, and Umino’s stack of novels, turning pages with fingers wrapped in borrowed gloves.
After morning exercises, they had a six-hour shift processing paperwork at the village gate. Umino seemed to know every mid-level ninja that passed through and more than his fair share of jounin. Former comrades laughed at his ‘grounding’, and Ino’s gloomy friend Shikamaru spent as much time on his back in the grass as he did stamping travel papers. Old merchants with their carts took in Kakashi’s scarf and sock-sandal combo and asked him skeptically if he was really a ninja. Kakashi told all of them straight-faced, “I’m the White Flash,” and out of the corner of his eye he saw Umino -- no, Iruka -- turn to hide a smile.
Sometimes, they sat on the edge of the wall, and Iruka showed Kakashi the fingers of new construction that marked out a fifteen-year-old swath of destruction. There were parts of River City that looked nearly the same. The architectural memories of war. Kakashi sipped his tea.
Some days, Kakashi saw a Crow on the roof as the shadows stretched into evening, and he spent those nights penning letters of inquiry to old contacts and pouring over maps of Third War battlefields. Danzo’s shinobi brought him broken pieces of steel and pottery from distant places. Sometimes they came back bloody, because no matter how carefully Kakashi instructed them, he was a civilian who couldn’t walk up a wall or across a ceiling -- twenty years of experience at pulling rusty blades out of the ground and not losing an arm over it.
No one had touched him since Danzo had struck him on their second meeting, once across the face with the butt of his cane and once just below the knee to knock him to the floor. He’d wanted Kakashi to know the truth behind the fragile exterior. Now, the facade of friendly old man was back in place, appearing every so often to make observations that made Kakashi’s blood run cold. Things like, “It’s good you chose Umino. You’ve heard that his son is the nine-tails, of course. I’m impressed.” or “Are you worried what the kyuubi will think, Hatake? Remember, you’re under our protection, now.”
“You know, you’re welcome to join us,” an old woman said one morning while Kakashi sipped his tea at the edge of the practice field.
“I’m not really a shinobi,” Kakashi said watching Iruka spot someone through a backflip.
“Oh, we’re the retiree and civilian component.” She pointed to a dozen people at the back of the field following along. The older ones wore mission blacks, the younger an assortment of sweatsuits and sneakers. While the shinobi on the field moved through the more obscene acrobatic exercises, the group at the back had returned smoothly to tamer calisthenics.
Kakashi was curious to see if it was allowed. Each evening had become a pageant of Iruka trying a new loophole at the mission desk to get Kakashi’s service at the gate onto his record, complete with compensation, and each evening Kakashi went home with a new edit penciled onto his visitor’s papers while Iruka flipped between simmering frustration and apologies. Kakashi knew Danzo was behind it -- Kakashi was not permitted to feed and clothe himself except at Danzo’s hand.
He followed the old lady to the back of the field where he became their tallest and least flexible member, laughed at by men with bald heads and big old-man noses who could nonetheless put both hands flat against the ground with their cracking knees unbent. The women loved his bored expression as he followed them through increasingly ridiculous poses. The ones who weren’t retired were shopkeepers and tradespeople, the civilian support for the ninja village. One of these, a carpenter with green eyes and pink hair -- “So you know there’s ninja in my family somewhere.” -- had started attending after his daughter’s acceptance into the Academy. “I’ve got to keep up, you know,” he said.
On the field, Sakura flipped easily through a series of hoops twenty feet in the air.
“Erm,” said the carpenter. “Well, maybe just make a good showing.”
Iruka slowed to a stop on his next pass, eyebrows lifting, and the exercising shinobi ran on without him. Kakashi stretched his fingers to the sky, his scarf bunched up around his ears and the cold air tickling the strip of pale skin exposed between jacket and pants.
Kakashi blinked back, half-lidded and bored. “I’m blending in.”
“Seamlessly,” Iruka said, starting slowly to smile.
All of this careful balance ended the day Kakashi went home and found Rabbit, Uchiha Obito, head of Akatsuki, his best friend and the scourge of the Five Kages, sitting cross-legged on his kitchen table, a red and blue cloud-patterned cloak pooling around him and big, orange-tinted goggles over his eyes.
“This is better than the cells, let me tell you,” Rabbit said looking around. “Though you could work on the heating.”
“What are you doing here?” Kakashi said and bit his lip on a wince. That wasn’t what you said when your best friend came to rescue you.
Rabbit frowned, hard to see under the goggles. “I thought you’d been taken. That’s what happened, isn’t it? Kidnapped? Stolen? You know that gets you rescued, right?”
Kakashi looked away. “I didn’t want -- aren’t you worried about hunter nin?”
“Nah.” Rabbit slouched bonelessly over his crossed legs. “Konoha’s headliners aren’t so big, and I know how to avoid Rin.” His head lifted slightly, locking onto Kakashi as he said casually, “Did you see her? What’d you think?”
“She’s our genin team,” Kakashi said as neutrally as he could,“right?”
Rabbit let out a sigh, staring morosely at the floor. “It was supposed to be the three of us forever, you know? But then you disappeared, I died, and they -- they ruined her. I was going to be an uncle. I was going to put your babies on my knee and show them how to throw a kunai with style ‘cause neither of you could have pulled that off.”
“Obito -- ” It felt strange to be so careful; he’d never been afraid of Rabbit before.
No. That wasn’t true -- he’d often been afraid of Rabbit, hadn’t he? Every time Rabbit made a sweeping decision, everytime he made something happen without care for consequence. Like the day he’d told the Yakuza, laughing, that Kakashi and Denko would never again pay protection tax.
“They ruined my fucking life.” Rabbit had his hand around the edge of the table, and the wood began to crack with a loud snap. “They killed my family, my clan.”
But Kakashi had never been hurt, had he? An uncomfortable feeling started in his stomach, unease crawling up his spine. He hadn’t been hurt, no. Only he’d gotten in the habit of agreeing. Rabbit had always been so sure, about everything. And it was easier, safer, not to question.
“Does the hokage scare you?” Kakashi asked, his hand clenched behind his back. This was his last bastion of doubt. No one could threaten a kage.
Rabbit cocked his head like a fox listening for the next rustle in the grass. “No,” he said.
Kakashi let out a breath, light-headed. Next question.“Are you here looking for me -- or for Naruto?”
“You on a first name basis then?” Rabbit said, annoyed, and Kakashi thought, Idiot! because the reason Kakashi called Naruto by name was Iruka. As long as Kakashi had known him, Rabbit had never been able to decide if he loved Konoha or wanted it to burn. Today was a day for burning, and Kakashi would not let Rabbit have Iruka, the only good thing the Leaf had ever given him.
“I got your note,” Rabbit was saying, “all your notes. I thought you were dead, and here you were pen-palling with all these jerks about historical ceramics. What did they tell you?”
“The jerks?” Kakashi said, wary of Danzo’s jutsu like a hand around his throat.
“No -- Konoha!”
Kakashi wrapped himself up in every memory of Rabbit laughing next to him, of Rabbit standing between the Yakuza and his family, and then he said, “They told me you hunt children for power.”
The table cracked in half, and Kakashi’s heart stopped. The shattered halves fell to the floor as though through molasses, hitting the floor with a crack like an artillery shot. A rush of air stirred the dust in the corners. Rabbit landed lightly on his feet, his cloak floating down behind him.
A knock sounded on the kitchen door.
Kakashi flinched back a foot. He looked anxiously at Rabbit, throwing up a hand in a plea for patience, but Rabbit only let out a sigh, grabbing a fistful of fabric and pulling it over his head. Underneath the cloak, he wore a Konoha field uniform, beaten and dusty, a small medic patch sewn into the collar. Muttering and sighing, he opened Kakashi’s oven and stuffed the bundled red fabric inside.
Kakashi reeled with disorientation. That was the Rabbit he remembered, a combination of social clowning and obliviousness, all at a volume twice that of a normal person. This was his best friend, the person who had learned the streets of River City alongside him and who owned more White Flash merchandise than any grown man should and never stopped looking proud of it.
Rabbit reached for the door and stopped -- staring at Kakashi’s hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll go with you,” Kakashi said. “To be rescued. I want to leave, just let me take care of him.”
Rabbit turned to stare with narrow-eyed interest at the closed door. Shaking Kakashi’s hand off, he flung it open to reveal Iruka on the other side, today’s amended visitor pass in his hand. The late afternoon sun caramelized the edges of his hair and lined his face in gold.
“Kakashi, what -- ” Iruka started and gaped at Rabbit in surprise.
“Hello!” Rabbit said. “I’m Tomo Usagi; Kakashi and I went to Academy together, but he doesn’t seem to remember me. Is that usual? Sorry to intrude!”
“Umino Iruka, and no, I think that’s normal,” Iruka said. He stared at Rabbit’s neck, clearly off balance and trying to regain his footing. “I’m sorry,” he said, pointing. “Border medic?”
Rabbit rubbed a thumb over his medic patch proudly. Kakashi wondered if the previous owner was still alive. “Just back from a six month posting, yeah.”
Don’t come inside, Kakashi thought. Just drop the papers off and leave.
But Iruka lifted one foot over the threshold and then another. Kakashi felt his stomach turning, acid at the back of this throat. Iruka glanced from the papers in his hand to Kakashi and then to Rabbit. He was barely even paying attention.
“Um,” Iruka said. “Sorry, are you jounin? I know most of the chuunin.”
“Nah, but I’m surgical class -- that’s a free pass on morning exercises,” Rabbit said cheerfully. Outrageously, he tossed Kakashi a wink. See how much I know about Konoha’s inner workings?
Iruka rubbed the back of his head self-consciously, which -- which Kakashi had never seen him do. And in the whole time he’d been inside, he hadn’t looked once towards the broken table. It was around a slight corner; it was just possible he really hadn’t seen it.
But Kakashi knew with a sinking, awful certainty: Iruka had seen it, Iruka had heard it, Iruka was going to do his job -- and Rabbit would kill him, blood spilling across the Hatake family kitchen floor.
With Iruka gone, Kakashi’s whole future would become a choice between Danzo or Obito. And maybe Obito would be a more pleasant experience, but it wouldn’t change what Kakashi would become in his company. The dream he’d chased from his mother’s shop to the Icha Icha studios -- teammates fighting for good and for each other -- was a dream he’d never see.
“Wait,” Kakashi said and reached out to wrap his hand in the fabric of Rabbit’s sleeve.
“Wait,” Kakashi said while Iruka was counting down in his head. It took all of Iruka’s self control not to smack his hand away when he reached for Tomo Usagi.
But to Iruka’s surprise, the medinin didn’t lash out. Instead, he relaxed into Kakashi’s hand, turning into Kakashi’s orbit even though it meant giving up all the careful ground he’d gained trying to herd Iruka away from the door.
They really do know each other. No way to tell Ino, unfortunately.
“Iruka,” Kakashi said, “Tomo-san was going to take me to dinner, but I thought -- could I talk to you first?” He looked at Tomo. “Alright?”
And Tomo had his hands up, backing off. “Don’t let me intrude.”
Iruka stared after him, torn. Tomo had known the medical exclusion on attendance for morning exercises, and his chakra felt like a surgeon’s -- so well-controlled it was like touching a wall of ice. If it weren’t for the broken table, Iruka might just have told him Kakashi wasn’t allowed uncleared visitors and sent him on his way.
“Kakashi -- ” Iruka said, but now Kakashi had his hand in Iruka’s sleeve, fouling up all his attack lines and pulling Iruka away from Tomo even as Tomo retreated farther into the kitchen.
“Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi said, “do you remember when I told you that Icha Icha was a place I’d rather be?”
‘Yes,” Iruka said, studying Kakashi sharply. Iruka-sensei? Kakashi looked sick with anxiety, basically translucent. He was never comfortable around powerful ninja, but this was too much.
“I think that your Konoha, the one that Sakura and your son believe in, is the same as Icha Icha for me,” Kakashi said, looking everywhere but at Iruka. He sounded a million miles away. “I think I’d like it to be a real place.”
“It is a real place,” Iruka said. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you believe in Nohara Rin?”
All the hairs rose on the back of Iruka’s neck. There was a desperation in Kakashi’s questions that said these were the questions of a man who’d twice in his life been stolen in the middle of the night and woken in a new home he hadn’t chosen. The desperation of the powerless. Over Kakashi’s shoulder, Iruka could see Tomo standing in the corner of the kitchen, studying tears in the old wallpaper and humming.
“Yes,” Iruka said. “Naruto trusts her, and she protects everyone in our village as her family.”
Kakashi didn’t say anything for a long time. His breathing was picking up like someone on their way to a panic attack. Iruka’s patience ran out, and he reached for Kakashi’s arm, ready to body-flicker out the window and run for hokage’s office. Unless Tomo was S-class in taijutsu -- and his chakra suggested he leaned towards ninjutsu -- they’d probably make it.
Kakashi jerked his arm away, looking startled when Iruka caught it easily anyway. “They’d never let me go home, would they?”
“We’re working on your field rating -- ” But Iruka had the proof of how poorly that was going in his own hands, another restriction penciled in at the bottom of Kakashi’s visitor pass. At Kakashi’s look, he admitted, “You’ll always live here.”
Kakashi nodded, his expression so resigned that Iruka felt hollowed out with sympathetic loneliness. His hand tightened around Kakashi’s arm. My Konoha -- Naruto’s Konoha -- is real, he thought fiercely.
“Please listen carefully,” Kakashi murmured.
“What?” Iruka said, trying to decide how closely Tomo was watching them and how many steps it was to the window. Vaguely, he heard Kakashi start to speak -- quickly and by rote, like he’d been practicing the phrasing in his head. He stared past Iruka at a spot on the wall.
Kakashi said, “Shimura Danzo intends to seal Naruto using a compulsion jutsu, I don’t know what kind, and to keep him inside a sealing gourd from --” A wet, choking cough tore out of his throat.
“What?” Iruka shouted.
“What?” Ino shouted from the window, totally forgetting to stay under cover.
Kakashi jerked forward, coughing in big full body hacks. Iruka grabbed uselessly at his arms as he pitched forward, spitting blood on the tile. Iruka staggered under his weight, bringing them both to the floor with Kakashi convulsing against his lap, fingers scrabbling at his own throat, at Iruka’s shirt. A terrifying line of red trailed from his ear, stark against his pale skin. Iruka pulled at the scarf around Kakashi's neck, afraid Kakashi's convulsions would pull it tight. He turned Kakashi onto his side, thinking, Keep the airway clear, what else, what else? Is it poison?
“Holy shit, that’s a silencing jutsu,” Ino said. She was inside the house now.
“Kakashi!” It was Tomo, knees hitting the floor and chakra boiling up so hot the wallpaper started to curl.
“Do you really know him?” Iruka asked.
“Of course I fucking know him,” Tomo shouted, voice raw. “Give him to me, I’ll take him -- where?”
“The hospital,” Iruka said incredulously. He jerked, trying to shift into something resembling a defensive stance as Tomo’s arms came around Iruka and Kakashi both. Ino threw herself against Iruka’s back.
Iruka felt a swooping sensation like the floor had fallen out from under him, and the light around them turn gray and desaturated. The blood trail from Kakashi’s ears looked black and cold, his skin corpse-white. Iruka caught a glimpse of smooth gray stone, and then they were collapsing on a scuffed linoleum floor. It was the hospital’s second floor reception desk, unmanned after hours.
“What,” Tomo shouted, furious, “isn’t this the combat ward? It’s still the combat ward, isn’t it?”
“Stay with him, Iruka-sensei,” Ino said, taking off down the hall. Iruka stared after her, feeling a stupid mix of pride and panic with Kakashi shuddering in his arms.
He turned to Tomo, pacing in panicked circles. “Hey!” Tomo stared at him in shocky confusion. “Can you help?”
“I’m a research surgeon,” Tomo said, despairing, hands tight in his hair.
Iruka snarled at him, “Can’t you -- his chakra? Something? What is it doing?”
Tomo dropped down to the floor, rubbing at his goggles with his sleeve and putting his hands to Kakashi’s throat on his chakra points. “The convulsions have closed off his airway -- ”
Ino came bolting back into the room followed by Sakura and several nurses, footsteps pounding across the floor. Kakashi was lifted up onto a gurney. “Leave the breathing to me!” Sakura said, and Tomo dropped immediately away from Kakashi’s throat, moving down his body pressure point by pressure point to stop the convulsing. Sakura had her hands on Kakashi’s throat, doing something to lessen the awful tinge of blue at his lips.
Iruka hovered behind them, clinging to Kakashi’s hand. Naruto, he thought, what is Danzo going to do to Naruto. Sealed in a gourd?
“What’s wrong with his chakra?” Sakura asked.
“It’s a silencing jutsu,” said Tomo. His panic was fading as he worked. Kakashi didn’t seem aware of anything around him. The convulsions had stopped, but so had everything else -- Kakashi’s fingers were slack and cold in Iruka’s hand.
“No, not that, there’s something keeping the silencing jutsu away from his chakra -- “ Sakura said.
“Is there,” said Tomo, murderous.
Kakashi was rolled into this own room while Sakura and Tomo shouted terrifying things like, “not enough oxygen to the brain,” and “the jutsu’s reached his heart.” Nurses rushed equipment over to the bed in a rattle of wheels. Someone finally pushed Iruka towards a corner where he was startled to feel a small hand close around his own -- Ino.
There were suddenly ANBU in the room, a crow and a hawk and an unmasked Yamanaka with a red highlight to his blonde hair.
“You are ordered to stop medical treatment immediately,” said the Yamanaka.
“That’s Fu,” Ino whispered. “Why is he here?”
“Medical treatment is required,” Sakura snapped without looking up, her hands still on Kakashi’s neck. “I’m the only oxygen he’s getting.”
“He violated his confidential agreement,” said the Yamanaka. “Death was the intended outcome.”
“What confidential agreement?” Tomo snarled, head coming up and hands curling into seals.
“I need you, shinobi!” Sakura bellowed, an echo of Tsunade in her voice. “They’re not your business!”
Iruka came to his feet holding a kunai, letting his killing intent stain the air. These were the people who intended to hurt Naruto, and he didn’t know what they would do to keep the secret Kakashi had spilled. Ino was most likely to survive -- she was too highly ranked to kill cleanly. He shifted to put her between himself and the window.
Iruka saw the ANBU Crow shift slightly to square himself with Iruka. Here is my opponent.
Yamanaka Fu reached for Sakura. The two ANBU with him turned to face Ino and Iruka -- a clear message; they would not be able to get to Fu. It didn’t matter, Iruka thought, beginning to crouch in preparation to leap, they would try anyway.
Fu screamed, his hand bent back in a crushing grip. Nohara Rin stood between Fu and the bed, and the air in the room turned heavy and thick like the inside of a sauna. Iruka’s ears popped and his knees made a bid to give way. His heart started beating erratically and too fast. The lights flickered; a crack ran down the window.
“Is that chakra?” Ino asked in disbelief.
Iruka had felt this kind of oppressive chakra only once before when Naruto had lost control of the kyuubi seal. As he gasped, Rin turned her head, checking on them out of the corner of her eye. Her pupil had gone a reptilian yellow, and a line of small bony spikes peeked out of her short red hair like a crown.
“She’s a jinchuriki,” Iruka breathed. By Kakashi’s bed, Sakura hadn’t blinked but Tomo let out a furious sound, shoving his goggles up with the heel of his hand to rub at his eyes. Neither of them turned away from Kakashi.
“Please, continue, Sakura-chan,” said Rin. “I will deal with this interruption.”
And just as easily as that they were gone.
Iruka and Ino sat and listened to Sakura and Tomo work. Tomo was some kind of sensing nin, and together they hurried to track down all traces of the silencing jutsu before Sakura ran out of tricks to keep Kakashi alive. It was like untying the most difficult and dangerous knot in the world.
At one point, stepping away from the bed to take a deep breath and shake out his hands, Tomo frowned at Iruka and demanded, “Who you anyway? Why are you here, holding his hand?”
“He’s my responsibility,” Iruka said. He protected Naruto. “Is he going to be okay?”
“Yours, huh?” said Tomo skeptically, lips pressed tightly together, but then he was turning back to Kakashi, muttering, “Alright, where did this seal come from? Hidden until something pissed it off, huh?”
“It’s amazing,” Sakura said, wiping at her forehead with her forearm. “The way it suppresses his chakra is what kept the silencing jutsu from taking hold fully. How did they miss this on the exam?”
“That one’s easy -- this is the Yondaime’s work,” said Tomo. “There’s no one at his level.”
“The Yondaime!” Sakura said. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” Tomo said, and then in a murmur to himself, “Why did you do this, old man?”
It took two more hours of frantic almosts and near-misses and double checks before they declared Kakashi out of danger. Iruka looked around and realized that there was no else in the room -- only Sakura, Tomo, Iruka, and Ino. He was certain he remembered more nurses around at the start of the procedure. Where was Shikamaru? Had he not followed them to the hospital?
Sakura stood back, wiping sweat off her forehead. Iruka peered cautiously past her at Kakashi, lying sweat-soaked and feverish in the bed. His face and neck were smeared with blood, gruesomely red splashes of it streaking his clothes. He didn’t react when Iruka touched his hand, but he was breathing shallowly on his own. Iruka stared at him in wonder, baffled by what Kakashi had done for him and his -- for Naruto.
Behind him he heard, Sakura say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
Iruka turned away, watching Tomo warily.
“Tomo Usagi,” said Tomo with the same bluster he’d used to ask why Iruka was holding hands so familiarly with his patient. “Just finished a border shift.”
“Oh -- welcome to the main branch,” Sakura said. “I’m very glad you’re here.”
Tomo waved this away, bent over with his hands on his knees as he caught his breath, but his eyes were on Kakashi. “Nah, you did pretty great yourself. He’d be dead if you hadn’t kept finding those loopholes.”
He jumped when the door opened, and Rin came in, her eyes brown and no horns hidden in her wine-red hair. Iruka wondered what she thought of Iruka with his hand around Kakashi’s wrist like a worried lover. Iruka wasn’t sure what he thought of it himself, only that he’d gotten used to seeing Kakashi at the back of his practice field, tackling every exercise with a deadpan expression and his ridiculous socks and scarf.
But Rin didn’t look at Kakashi or at Iruka or even at Sakura. She was looking at Tomo Usagi with his big shinobi goggles and his lip jutting out in a combative pout. Iruka went tense, shifting slightly to a more stable stance.
“Thank you,” she said.
Tomo started in surprise before he scoffed, arms crossed over his chest like the laughable bully in a school movie. “Sure thing,” he said, taking a step back so that he was framed in front of the window. “I’ll be seeing you. This village can’t keep taking every fucking thing that’s mine.”
And then he went translucent in a wave from his spiky black hair to the toes of his shinobi sandals and disappeared without even a breeze to mark his passing.
Iruka, Ino, and Sakura all dropped into combat positions. Rin turned her head towards the door, and at her nod, ninja flooded the room. The ANBU Cat, Fox, and Bear with Maito Gai, and a chuunin counter-surveillance team. “Make sure he’s gone,” Rin said.
The ANBU slid the window open and disappeared into the courtyard with Gai and up to the roof. The chuunin team started combing the room.
“That was not a new transfer, I guess,” Sakura said, eyes wide. Iruka found himself crowded onto the bed next to Kakashi’s hip as the surveillance team inspected the window. Most of them were Aburame -- that was as thorough as counter-surveillance got.
“That was Uchiha Obito,” Rin said, tired, “the man most likely to be head of Akatsuki, and the last member of my genin team.”
Iruka’s fingers dug into Kakashi’s wrist, startled terror gripping his heart. “What? Why was he -- “
Rin gave a helpless shrug like someone who wanted to laugh against her own better judgement. She looked at Kakashi -- skinny, unconscious, bloody, and alive -- and her voice was wry. “Kakashi was our idol, you know. We knew there was no way we could ever be as strong as him. I guess neither of us can let him go.”
Iruka’s hand tightened around Kakashi’s forearm, slender and smooth and unmistakably civilian. Akatsuki? It wasn’t possible. Why would he have protected Naruto?
“Is Obito the reason Konoha never found Kakashi and his mother?” he asked. Swallowing, he made himself ask, “Is Kakashi Akatsuki?”
Rin looked up, her smile dimming to something somberly professional. She said, “There are some things you should know.”
Kakashi opened his eyes to a shadowed room and a moonlit window looking onto a forested courtyard.
The window was even with the lowest branches, and so he knew he was in a second floor room at the front of the hospital -- that meant the general inpatient ward for combat casualties. Not intensive care, that was good, and the ever present electric buzz of his chakra felt depleted but healthy. He blinked groggily at the window -- there was a woman standing there with Rin’s tattoos, but she was too old, her hair too short. Rin had turned ten only weeks ago, and Obito had cried when they cut the cake. Where were they? Rin? Obito? Minato-sensei?
He closed his eyes and sank back into unconsciousness.
The next time he woke up, it was daylight, and and he recognized the bland color scheme of Konoha’s hospital. He started at the ceiling in a daze, thinking Danzo and Obito and I’m alive. His hands jerked, and he was startled to find them free and unbound.
He felt disoriented, without any plan. When he’d told Iruka Danzo’s intentions, there had been no next step, only an understanding that he had no acceptable future.
For years, all of Rabbit’s whispered fantasies of new worlds and vengeance had seemed to Kakashi to be understandable desperation in a place where violence was the everyday business of survival. Kakashi had thought they were the same as Icha Icha was to Kakashi -- an escape. Even when Rabbit had been at his worst, Kakashi had never looked deeper than the surface. Violence was normal. There were bullies on every corner; what mattered was which bully was your bully.
Kakashi looked around. The room was sterile and anonymous, like the one where he’d woken when he first arrived in Konoha several weeks ago. There was a numbness in his throat, as though it should be hurting much more than it did. Nohara was sitting in a chair by his bed, her hands clasped between her knees.
Kakashi surprised himself by being glad to see her.
“You were -- ” here last night, he tried to say, but only the first two words had any volume, barely more than a whisper. I had strange dreams.
“Yes,” Nohara said softly. “I have to sneak around Iruka.” At Kakashi’s frown, she added, smiling wryly, “He’s a little sensitive about your safety. I never counted on you risking your life for Konoha so soon.”
Konoha isn’t who I was trying to save, Kakashi thought. Iruka -- he’s alive.
As he shifted, something slid off the bed and hit the floor. He blinked -- there were files all over his legs, stacked in ordered piles, one of which was now spread across the floor in a streak of white on beige. A chair had been pulled up to the foot of the bed, next to a plate of Yamanaka cookies resting on the blanket.
The ANBU Cat stood in the corner of the room. There was a bandage sticking out from under his mask on the left side of his head. Kakashi felt some of the tightness in his chest slowly ease.
“Shit,” Nohara said, looking at the mess of papers on the floor.
The door opened, and Iruka came in, his head turned to speak to someone behind him. He was whole and healthy, and Kakashi closed his eyes, sinking bonelessly into bed in relief. This was good, this was fine. If he just went back to sleep, maybe no one could tell him that they’d caught Obito or killed him. Or worse -- that they hadn’t caught him at all.
“Double shit,” Nohara said under her breath.
Kakashi opened his eyes to see Iruka staring at Nohara, his eyebrows pulling down unhappily. Sakura ducked under Iruka’s arm. “Rin-sensei!” she said, coming over to set a wooden box on the bedside, moving a vase of flowers out of the way. She muttered under her breath to Nohara, “Sorry, sensei, he came back too fast to send the signal.”
Kakashi was completely at sea by this point, not the least by how normal Nohara seemed when for weeks, she been nothing less than a force of nature in his life. And what did Iruka have on her? Kakashi caught her eye and mimed punching a fist into his opposite palm, eyebrows lifting curiously.
Rin blinked at him and then smiled softly. She dropped her eyes and gave his knee a perfunctory pat, murmuring, “I’m saving that for someone much more unpleasant.”
Iruka watched her go with a disapproving expression.
“What,” Kakashi whispered. Someone unpleasant? Obito? Danzo? Were they both free?
“You’re not supposed to talk,” Iruka said. “Your throat is pretty damaged. Sakura -- ”
“Here,” Sakura said, handing Kakashi a glass of water with a bendy straw sticking out of it. Iruka helped Kakashi to sit up against the pillows. The water felt strange on his numb throat, and it was hard to swallow. Sakura slipped her hands past the water glass, touching Kakashi’s throat, fingertips shifting in different combinations like she was playing a musical instrument.
Chakra points, Kakashi thought confidently and then, What are chakra points?
He found himself staring down at his bare wrist where last time he’d woken in handcuffs. It was good to be free, but dead would have been safer.
Iruka took Kakashi’s hand, shaking it softly as though to pull him away from bad thoughts. “You’re safe here.”
Kakashi blinked at the hand so confidently wrapped around his own. When did that happen?
Iruka noticed Kakashi's surprise and dropped Kakashi’s hand, flushing with embarrassment. Oh, Kakashi thought, it hasn’t happened yet. That makes more sense.
Iruka started to pick files up off the bed. “Sorry, about this, we were just -- “ He noticed the files on the floor on the other side of the bed. “ -- oh, damn.”
Kakashi had to lurch forward to catch Iruka’s hand before it moved out of reach. Sakura made a small squeak, darting out of the way. Iruka turned slowly to look at Kakashi’s fingers intertwined with his. When he didn’t pull away, Kakashi leaned back against the pillows, pulling Iruka and Iruka’s hand with him. He slurped at the straw in his water glass.
This was nice, as far as stays of execution went. More than nice.
“Sakura?” Iruka asked, making a good show of professionalism even though holding Kakashi’s hand meant he couldn’t stand quite straight.
“He looks good. His throat’s healing well.” Sakura took notes on a clipboard hanging at the end of the bed, sneaking small glances at their hands and biting her lip on a tiny smile.
“Is Danzo dead?” Kakashi whispered hoarsely. He braced himself for an invisible hand to close around his throat at Danzo’s name and for the painful, uncontrollable seizure that followed -- but it never came. He broke into a smile, eyes crinkling at Iruka whose face was slowly transforming from pleased to horrified.
“You idiot!” Iruka’s hand snapped tight around Kakashi’s fingers. “Why did you say that if you thought the jutsu wasn’t gone? Do you know how long it took to untangle it the first time?”
Better to know than not know. Kakashi shrugged. He felt giddy, like before nothing had been within his reach, and now everything was. He tightened his hand around Iruka’s and didn’t care about the incredulous look he got in return.
“This is my future,” Iruka said despairingly to Sakura. “I’ve attached myself to someone who shrugs in the face of mortal danger.”
“No, Danzo is not dead,” someone said, and Kakashi jumped -- the woman he’d seen at his evaluation was standing behind Iruka, her arms crossed under her breasts. She looked like she’d been up all night. Small flyaway hairs had broken free of her pony tails and there were circles under her eyes.
Kakashi pointed at her, lifting his eyebrows at Iruka. There, see, that was the question I asked.
“You want him to be dead?” asked the woman, watching Kakashi with narrow, interested eyes.
That sounded like a trap waiting to happen, and so Kakashi only shrugged.
But it seemed Iruka had been expecting that, and he shrugged mockingly at the same moment, deftly turning Kakashi’s non-answer into a visual satire. When Kakashi shot him a wounded look, he got an unimpressed glare in return -- not quite as intimidating when Kakashi still had a death grip on Iruka’s hand. It felt like an undeserved gift in the middle of pain and fear, and Kakashi’s wasn’t planning to let go for anything.
Iruka pointed at the woman at the end of the bed. “That is Senju Tsunade, the Godaime Hokage of Konoha! Shrugging is not a real answer.”
The hokage turned to the ANBU Cat. “Are they always like this?”
“They seem to be getting worse,” said the Cat.
Kakashi started badly -- the hokage? -- and tried to hide it, also badly. He still wasn’t used to the way that powerful ninja in Konoha didn’t bother to announce themselves, like it didn’t matter to them whether the people around them knew what they could do. Even the hokage looked only a little older than Sakura except for her presence, her feet planted wide as she looked Kakashi in the eye without any pretense of shyness.
“Look, kid,” said Tsunade, “why’d you out Danzo now? I can’t kill him if he hasn’t done anything. All you gave me is a difference of opinion on handling our jinchuuriki -- calm down, Iruka, I’ll crush him if he tries it, don’t worry.” She looked back at Kakashi. “Couldn’t you have waited until he had a coup in the works?”
Kakashi frowned. He does. Isn’t that obvious?
“Shimura Danzo,” Kakashi said in his hollow whisper, “asked me what I thought would bring Uzumaki Naruto back to Konoha -- his adopted parent’s illness or if it would take that person’s death. I outed Danzo for that person, not for you.”
Tsunade’s eyebrows rose to her hairline.
“What?” Iruka said in a soft, shocked voice, but Kakashi stared straight ahead at the hokage. He liked Konoha, the way the children ran free in the streets, the way civilians argued with ninja over prices and smiled to see them in their shops. He liked the trees and the smell of his parents’ house on cold mornings.
The hokage wasn’t a part of Konoha that Kakashi was willing to die for. Not yet.
“Hmm,” the hokage said. She was smiling. “Well -- Danzo is under investigation, and he’s losing his stupid secret ANBU division, which makes you Shikaku’s favorite person, and gets you this guy,” Tsunade jerked her thumb over her shoulder at the ANBU cat, “for free indefinitely.”
“But you’re still paying me, right…?” murmured the Cat.
“Sakura!” Tsunade roared. “You’re up!”
Sakura opened the wooden box by the side of the bed, spreading the contents across Kakashi’s legs above the sheets. It seemed to be made up mostly of paintbrushes and bottles of dark ink with prescription labels.
“Your pathways are shit, kid,” Tsunade told Kakashi. “This is chakra-charged ink; we use it in pathway repair.”
Sakura turned Kakashi’s arm over and laid it on his thigh. She uncapped one of the ink bottles and painted a stripe up the inside of his forearm to his wrist. It felt like a line of tiny static shocks humming along his bones. He gave a full body twitch.
“The good part,” Sakura said, “is that it doesn’t need to be precise, so Iruka can help you do it instead of coming to the hospital every day.”
Iruka stared at the little kit of brushes and ink and turned bright red, stuttering, “Uh, Hokage-sama, maybe a nurse -- ?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Iruka. Coming to the hospital is a pain.” She smiled slyly, pointing at Kakashi. “Kakashi, you want Iruka to do it?”
Kakashi stuck his thumb up on the hand still holding Iruka’s, his expression deadpan. Iruka put a hand over his face. “Let the rumors start,” he muttered.
“Alright, kids, I have a living, breathing Sarutobi to check on, and then probably Mist assassins to dodge, since Rin’s confirmed for everyone that she’s got their damn Sanbi.” She headed for the door, calling, “Sakura!”
Sakura quickly boxed up the ink and brushes, handing the kit to Iruka with both hands and a quick bow. Iruka took it with a sigh.
That left them alone in the room, except for the ANBU Cat standing silent sentry. Iruka hooked a chair with his foot and sank into it, staring uncertainly at their clasped hands. Kakashi started to feel self-conscious -- the impulsiveness of survival had worn off.
“Well,” Iruka said. “I -- thank you.”
Kakashi shrugged. He hadn’t expected to be around to thank.
“Not for me, or not just for me,” Iruka added, “but for Naruto and for believing in me when I believed in him. You were right, that time -- I can’t protect him usually, and that means I am that much more grateful for those who can.” He bowed over the chakra kit on his lap until his forehead brushed the sheets. “Thank you.”
Kakashi blinked and looked away, overwhelmed. He’d never been a protector, only the protected, and he hadn’t expected it to feel like this -- purposeful and strong and part of something.
Iruka put the kit back onto the table, and he was rubbing furtively at his wet eyes. “Here,” he said, “you should see this.”
He handed Kakashi a letter, and Kakashi got as far as the greeting -- To Namikaze Minato -- before he understood that he was reading a letter written by his mother. He skipped to the end; the date was two years after they’d moved to Grass Country. Iruka handed him another one, addressed To Sarutobi Hiruzen and dated only a year ago. He looked up at Iruka in confusion. The file Iruka had was thick -- dozens of letters.
“You’re not missing nin,” Iruka said.
Kakashi shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Your mother blackmailed the Yondaime when she found out you’d be jounin by age twelve. We don’t know how -- maybe his guilt over not doing more to prevent your father’s death -- but he gave her an undercover mission, one outside the village and with no return date. The only payment she requested was a seal to block your memories and your chakra, to make you just like any civilian boy. It’s the same seal that protected you from Danzo’s silencing jutsu.”
Iruka looked down at the bed, absently smoothing the sheets with his free hand. “Your mother’s reports were letters written personally to the hokage. They never made it onto any record. But she never sent the Godaime a letter -- that would have been when she got sick, I think? The only person in Konoha who knew what you were was the person who’d inherited the Yondaime’s personal correspondence.”
“Nohara,” Kakashi whispered.
“Nohara. Asuma had Hiruzen’s, but he never opened the box.” Iruka shook his head ruefully. “You messed up of lot of political scheming when you spoke up so early, you know. I think Rin meant for Danzo to make a fatal mistake over you, instead of just an embarrassing one.”
“And that’s why she’s banned from the room,” Kakashi whispered.
Iruka flushed. “I didn’t ban her.”
Kakashi looked down at the letters on his lap, written in his mother’s graceful calligraphy. “My mother did this to protect me.”
Iruka nodded. “I’m sorry I won’t get to meet her.”
“She wasn’t as scary as your mother,” Kakashi agreed.
Iruka let out a surprised laugh. “I talked to Tsunade. She repossessed your house from Danzo, and it’s yours now, legally. She also gave me permission to erase every added restriction on your visitor’s pass. And you’ll have more than just gate duty. If we work at it, you’ll be able to leave the village -- with protection and on approved missions, but it’s something.”
Kakashi lifted his eyebrows and pointed skeptically at his own chest.
“Yes, you. Sakura had to undo part of the seal on your chakra and memories -- you should be able to mold chakra with time and practice. You might even remember some of your training.” Iruka smiled. “I hope you’ll be patient with me, considering your last sensei was the Yondaime Hokage.”
Kakashi tapped his thumb against Iruka’s fingers. “Will you be strict, teacher?” he murmured.
It sounded worse than he’d meant in his worn out whisper, a middle of the night sort of voice, and Iruka swallowed before he said evenly, “Very strict.” He looked down at their hands clasped together in Kakashi’s lap. “I hope that one day you will consider this your home.”
Kakashi smiled. He spoke for Iruka’s ears alone, so quietly there was no way the ANBU could hear him:
“Iruka-sensei,” he said, “there’s no place I’d rather be.”