What was going on in that old fool's mind?
Kakashi and his companion were resting again since they had left Konoha, far too soon in Kakashi's mind, but this was not one of his normal mission partners. Leaning up against a tree, Kakashi studied the other ninja once more as if it might change everything about him.
Hunched over swallowing air to steady his breath was Iruka Umino, a newly minted Chunnin. He was only 3 years younger than Kakashi, but every time Kakashi looked Iruka seemed so much younger.
He still couldn't figure out why the Hokage had set them up on this mission. Sure he was the natural choice to chase after the kidnappers, but Iruka, Iruka hadn't even been on a mission as a Chunnin yet, so why was he here? Kakashi hated when he had to pull more than his own weight. He was capable of quite a lot, but he needed teams that were on his page, not someone he had to take care of. Yet here they were waiting for Iruka to catch his breath once again, sooner than Kakashi had expected and it was slowing them down.
"We have to keep moving, or we'll lose them," Kakashi informed Iruka, straightening himself up and leaping into the nearest tree.
"I know, Hound," Iruka replied stretching himself out before joining Kakashi in the trees. The only thing Kakashi could say was good about the boy is he knew to keep quite.
Kakashi nodded to Iruka and started through the trees once again.
They made it to the outskirts of Kirigakure faster than Kakashi had expected. He was sure that the breaks would have slowed them down drastically, but at every turn Iruka had been at his heels no matter how fast Kakashi set the pace.
Iruka was setting up their camp, preparing for the rest they would need before facing down the kidnappers. Kakashi didn't care much about where he slept, usually preferring tree to the ground beneath, Iruka on the other hand seemed to be setting up for a night on the ground.
"It's much harder to keep yourself hidden down there, unless you're good with Genjutsu," Kakashi remarked. He knew everything that had left his mouth since they left was condescending, but he couldn't stop himself.
"I can take care of myself just fine," Iruka replied. Kakashi could here the frustration sneaking into his voice, making him wonder how far he could push until the boy broke.
"Really? Is that why the old man sent you?" Kakashi had to get something out of this mission. He had a fleeting thought that maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to do this when they still had work to do.
"That might have something to do with it," Iruka clenched his mouth together, but instead of the anger Kakashi was expecting he got a laugh before Iruka continued, "Did he really not tell you why I'm here?"
Kakashi grew silent, not liking the idea that Iruka knew something he didn't and the boy was trying to lord it over him. He leaped away from Iruka, deciding it was more important to focus on their mission. Scouting the area, his first checks were to make sure that they were safe enough for the night. Even though Iruka protested that he could take care of himself, Kakashi didn't want to find out he was wrong.
After the immediate area had been searched, Kakashi expanded his search wanting to see if he could pick up on any recent trail of the kidnappers.
"Let me out!" Kakashi heard the screech just barely above the sounds of the forest around him. North...
Kakashi sped up to catch up to whatever sound he'd caught.
There was a bright glow just starting to get in his vision range. Stopping for a moment, Kakashi masked his remaining chakra, the small amount he'd left free so that Iruka could keep up with him. Lifting his ANBU mask he adjusted the hair that fell over his sharingan so that it could use it to study everything. After resettling the mask he continued toward the light and the poorly masked chakra near it. Finding a branch just close enough, allowed him the advantage of sight and sound while still being hidden from their sight.
There were three men sitting around the fire with a small bag shaking by their side. Looking again with his sharingan, he could see what he was looking for. The bag had a great concentration of the Nine-tailed fox's chakra. He watched them listening for any hints of where they they might head when they started up again tomorrow.
Catching the words "West" and "cabin", Kakashi headed that direction until he found a possibility. Kakashi set up a few alarms that wouldn't be noticed, but would give him a head start if this was the cabin they mentioned. Taking one last walk around the property Kakashi decided to get back to Iruka, in hopes of managing at least a few hours of rest before taking on the kidnappers.
Reaching the campsite, Kakashi was surprised when a kunai went flying past his face.
"Hound?" Iruka's voice came from behind a tree.
Kakashi didn't answer, pulling the kunai from the tree behind him. "Trying to kill me?" he asked.
"I don't think I could manage that," Iruka mumbled leaving the protection of the tree. "I didn't feel your chakra, but heard someone coming. I just wanted to scare away whoever was coming."
"Sorry," Kakashi couldn't figure out why he'd care about Iruka enough to apologize. "I found him."
Those words hit Iruka hard. Kakashi watched as his eyes grew wide, very intent on learning more. "We have to go get him, now."
"No," Kakashi responded, startling Iruka. The other boy tensed, not happy with Kakashi's response.
"WHY?" Iruka raised his voice, immediately clenching his jaw to silence himself.
They let the silence settle between them before Iruka began to speak again. "Naruto needs us…we can't leave him with them for another night. I know he has to be scared, we can't leave him like that." His voice was steady, but Kakashi could hear the edge to it that held stronger emotions.
"No…" Kakashi said again, letting Iruka take a few steadying breaths, before he explained himself. "I know he isn't safe with them, but they won't do anything yet. I think I know where they're heading, and you need to rest or you'll be useless to me." Okay so the last part was a bit much, but Iruka would only know him as Hound and Hound wasn't known for his tact.
"Do you really think I'll sleep with him out there?" Iruka asked, not waiting for an answer before walking away to his bed for the night. "Nevermind."
Kakashi watched Iruka disappear before taking to the tree where he would spend his night. Why would Iruka care about Naruto? Kakashi had always thought he was the only one that cared about the jinchuriki. Well cared about might be a strong statement, Kakashi only watched the boy from afar, wanting to make sure that his sensei's most precious person stayed alive.
Securing himself to the tree, Kakashi relaxed into a light sleep to prepare for the day ahead.
Kakashi woke to the feeling as his alarms were set off. It was time to get there and see if he had found the right place.
Landing at the base of the tree, Kakashi looked around to find Iruka. He followed the path behind the tree and bush where Iruka had disappeared the night before. Kakashi was half way around the tree when he kicked something and continued towards where Iruka lay defenseless on the ground. It wasn't until a few steps later he realized that his foot was warm, hot even. Looking down he realized that whatever he had kicked, included a tag that was now starting a fire under his shoe. When he tried to stomp it out there was a sudden explosion from under his foot.
Kakashi righted himself, trained to not run away from the tag. Once the smoke cleared he noticed Iruka kneeling nearby and packing his things up, trying to hide the sly grin across his face.
"Someone set of my alarms," he notified Iruka, "It's time to find Naruto." Iruka nodded to him and sealed away his bag.
Just as Kakashi turned to wait for Iruka in the tree nearby he heard a yell, "Wait!"
Iruka looked panicked, and did a few hand signs with speed Kakashi rarely saw in a new chunnin. Everyone has their strengths, Kakashi thought to himself. As he looked around to figure out what Iruka's signs were for he watched numerous explosive tags and chakra wires appear nearby all leaving their locations and sealing themselves into a scroll in Iruka's hands. Kakashi realized that without his training to keep himself calm and rooted, he might have followed the path that lead through those tags. There was a tug at the corner of his lip growing into a bit of a amused smile. Good thing he wore his mask or Iruka might have seen the smile and ruin his reputation.
With a nod they started off, Kakashi at the lead. When they neared the clearing Kakashi made an abrupt stop holding out an arm to catch Iruka incase he couldn't stop fast enough. He didn't feel any weight on his arm when Iruka stopped on the branch at his side.
"Stay here," Kakashi ordered before he leapt away to scout out the cabin. After confirming Naruto's presence inside, he found two guards that he dispatched without a second thought. There were two more chakra signatures inside, far too little in Kakashi's opinion for the jinchuriki of the Nine-tail fox.
"Ahhhh!!" Kakashi watched a man come screaming out of the cabin holding his hand. He put the man out of his misery before taking a deeper inspection of the hand. It was bloody, blisters everywhere as if it had started to burn off.
Signaling to Iruka, he used the field signs to tell the boy to stay where he was while Kakashi checked inside. All genins were taught the codes, but Iruka didn't respond and Kakashi didn't have time to deal with it, so he went in anyway.
Creeping down the hallway Kakashi first noticed the final man crawling backwards. The man tried to get further away from something, but continued to run into the wall with nowhere else to go. Kakashi peeked around the corner to see what had frightened the man so badly.
There in the middle of the room was the small boy, but something wasn't right.
Naruto was incased in a bubble of orange chakra, sending waves of oppression out of him. The chakra bubbled and formed around him. Large fox ears rose from his head and a tail sat waiving behind him. Instead of his bright blue eyes Kakashi stared at deep red eyes slitted in anger. The whiskers at his cheeks, normally thin lines had grown to finger width, and there was a murderous grin on his face.
He could understand why the men were so terrified. That look would have been scary on an adult let alone the three year old jinchuriki.
When he felt a hand at his shoulder Kakashi thrust out his hand, holding a kunai at the throat of the stranger next to him. It took him a few moments before he realized that it was Iruka, and pulled the blade away from the chunnin's throat where it had left a small mark of blood.
"I told you to stay outside," Kakashi hissed at the younger boy. He watched Iruka ignore him and step around the corner grabbing the attention of Naruto's controlled body.
Kakashi sped to the man at the wall who was still paralyzed in fear. "Is there anyone else here?"
"Good," Kakashi replied slitting his throat before he could rebel.
Turning around he watched Iruka kneel to the ground and hold out a hand. "Naruto?" he called.
The boy's eyes flickered blue for a moment, and he hissed. Still the small boy stepped forward towards Iruka's outstretched hand. Kakashi had to warn Iruka before the boy touched him. If he was right the man from before had touched Naruto and would have lost his hand if Kakashi had not killed him.
"Don't touch him!" Kakashi yelled to stop them, both heads snapping to look at him.
"You still don't understand why I'm here…" Iruka's reply was soft, and pained.
"Come on Naruto," he said to gain the boy's attention once more.
The small hand was placed on Iruka's palm, the chunnin bitting his lip to avoid screaming.
Kakashi watched as the chakra around Naruto shrank away from his body and disappeared from sight. His whiskers shrank and red eyes softened back to their blue.
"Iruka?" Naruto asked, tears starting to fill his eyes. Iruka nodded to the boy and held out both arms.
"I want to go home," the boy cried, grabbing Iruka around the neck and sobbing into his shoulder.
"I know Naruto, we're going to take you home," Iruka replied, with the same sad smile on his face.
Kakashi watched amazed when the boy collapsed into Iruka's arms, realizing he must have fallen asleep from either the restless night or the overexertion of the demon fox's chakra. Iruka hoisted the boy up nestled against his chest, and looked at Kakashi.
"Time to go?" Iruka asked, watching Kakashi carefully.
"Yes," Kakashi replied, "Do you need help?" He noted the boy in Iruka's arms.
"Naruto?" Iruka looked down, his smile gaining a little warmth, "No, I can carry him. We may have to take a few extra stops though."
Kakashi nodded and started out the door not sure what had happened a few minutes earlier.
Nothing was said between them as they raced back to Konoha.
It wasn't until their third stop that Kakashi decided he wanted to know more.
"You've seen it before?" he wondered aloud.
"And the Hokage knew that Naruto would come to you."
Iruka settled himself against a tree and started stroking Naruto's hair.
Kakashi wanted to ask, but the words caught in his throat, but Iruka knew what he wanted and continued anyway.
"A little less than a year ago I stopped by the orphanage to help out. After helping with some of the chores, I found a group of older kids surrounding Naruto, beating him up. I tried to call them off, but it wasn't until the fox's chakra started to take shape that they ran screaming from him welts on their hands from where they had hit him," Iruka paused, and Kakashi wasn't sure if he was trying to be dramatic or this next part was harder for him to tell. "He was fighting with the chakra, it was hard to tell who was in control."
Kakashi swallowed, he'd seen much of the Nine-tailed Fox when it lost control. It's amazing that the small boy didn't break when that control slipped.
"When I called his name, he seemed to respond. Naruto latched onto me and the chakra disappeared. Since then he's always wanted to be near me."
"How can you not hate him?" Kakashi's words slipped out before he gave a thought to them. As much as he wanted to protect Naruto for Minato, it had also been his birth that set off the chain of events costing Minato and Kushina their lives.
"I just can't."
"But he's the fox!" Kakashi snapped.
"Naruto is not the fox!" Iruka yelled at him, stopping him in his tracks. Even with all of Kakashi's complaining at Iruka's expense, the chunnin had never responded in this way.
Iruka looked down at the boy in his arms groaning from the loud noises. "Naruto is not the fox," Iruka said in a calm tone, "he is a human being, and a young one that still needs help and guidance. It isn't his fault that he is the jinchuriki to the Nine-tailed Fox. People treat him as if he had a choice in the matter, but he doesn't even know that he carries it. How is it fair to treat him that way."
Kakashi wanted to yell at Iruka for being so tender, but he was right. Naruto had no more say in the matter than anyone else. Had the fox not been sealed in Naruto then more people would have died, their village wiped off the map. Sighing, Kakashi shook out his legs, "We should continue on." Iruka nodded, getting to his feet and stretching before he resettled Naruto and followed Kakashi on his way.
It was very late, or early for those that preferred to look at it that way, when they arrived home.
Instead of heading to the mission room they went directly to the Hokage's office to greet the elite guards at his door. Iruka was still holding Naruto to his chest as the guards checked them over and allowed them to see the Hokage.
"Ahh Hound, Iruka," he greeted them, "It is great to have you both home safely."
"It's good to be home," Iruka responded. Kakashi could care less about home, his missions kept him far from the village and for far longer lengths of time than the three days they'd spent following the kidnappers.
"I am glad to see that you have Naruto in one piece. Did you have any problems?" the Hokage asked, standing up to inspect the boy.
Iruka hesitated, but held his hand up to show the burned hand print in his palm.
"I see, you should have that looked at." Iruka nodded, but stayed silent.
"Take him with you to get checked over, then get him back to the orphanage. It's the best place for him, until we can find better arrangements."
"Yes sir," Iruka gave a weak smile before heading to the door. He bowed to the two of them, as deeply as he could with Naruto in his arms, and walked out the door.
Kakashi and the Hokage stood quite for a few minutes as if daring the other to speak first.
"He surprised you," the Hokage started, more of a statement than a question. Kakashi wasn't thrilled to admit the man was right, so he stayed silent. "I won't lie, Iruka has surprised me many times."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Kakashi asked.
"Tell you what?" The Hokage paced around his desk to take his seat once again.
"Tell me why you sent him with me."
"Sometimes one needs to see things for themselves," he said cryptically, "how would you have responded if I told you that Iruka was special to Naruto?"
Kakashi wanted to protest that nothing would have changed, but he knew better. If he had been told that before the mission, Kakashi would have felt the need to test Iruka, to prove that he wasn't that special, and fight him out of a underlying need to be the most important person in Naruto's life. Naruto didn't even know who Kakashi was, but the connection to Minato made Kakashi want to be close without ever having to talk to the child. It was wrong, but Kakashi couldn't control that desire.
"See." Kakashi hated that the Hokage seemed to know everything. "You react better to watching and observing the world, than being told what you are looking at."
Kakashi acknowledged his statement with a nod, deciding he didn't really want to hear anymore about himself.
"You may go now Hound, thank you for bringing them both back safe." Before he left, Kakashi saw the deep gratitude in the Hokage's eyes. The man cared about all of the people in his village, but this was something deeper, a love for those that had no family to care whether they lived or died.
Kakashi bowed and transported himself away.
It wasn't until he saw Iruka walking with Naruto and a guard by their side, that Kakashi realized he'd transported to the hospital instead of home or the memorial stone, where he spent far too much of his time. Maybe he would have to admit that Iruka had his own talents, ones that Kakashi would never possess.
After they disappeared into the safety of the hospital Kakashi transported himself to the stone to regale his new story to his silent companions.