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“What was he doing on an A-rank anyway?”

Tsunade’s lips press into a thin line at the question. “It was B-rank,” she replies tersely. “And you know very well I’m short-handed.”

“B-rank…” Kakashi murmurs to himself as he flips through the mission report. It’s only a draft, for now, hastily scrawled-out by the team’s captain on his way to the hospital. Kakashi can’t make out everything, mostly residual panic in the sharp lines and curt phrasing. He picks coherent passages out, here and there. Ambush is obvious. Outnumbered he’d already gathered from the gravity etched in the Hokage’s ageless face when she summoned him. It’s the last sentence that draws his eye and holds it.

Two survivors — Umino and myself.

“He’d never killed before.”

Kakashi looks up from the page in mild surprise. “Never?” He scans the report again. Hell of a first.

“You should know. You led the last field mission he was on.”

He lets out a breath as it comes back to him. It must’ve been the final straw. It was immediately after that mission that Iruka, still covered in dirt and freshly-patched injuries, petitioned the Third for a switch to the Academy. Kakashi remembers thinking it was a wise decision. The chuunin had hesitated at precisely the wrong moment, and almost gotten himself killed in the process.

“How’s he handling it?”

Tsunade eyes him for a moment and sighs. “Refused medical treatment, and counseling, went home and hasn’t left since.”

“Ah.” Kakashi is starting to understand why she’d called him here. He weighs his next words briefly, and risks insubordination. “Can I ask why me?”

She stares at him over her laced fingers, quirking a brow. “Do you really need to?”

Kakashi has no response to that. His slouch is one of resignation.

No, I suppose not.




He lets his head fall back against the wood. It’s been a conversation with the man’s door for hours. Or attempts at conversation, really, as doors aren’t particularly known for reciprocating. He’s taken to calling Iruka by name alone — sensei felt off when the Academy’s been closed this long, and -san fell by the wayside after the first dozen or so tries. Maybe rudeness will succeed where all else has failed.

Iruka’s dedication to silence is admirable. Even a hopeless recluse like himself would have caved in the first half-hour. He’d be concerned if it weren’t for the fact that he can clearly sense Iruka’s chakra, weak and tired but steady, somewhere in the middle of the room.

“I know you don’t want to talk to anyone.” He’d hoped to save this for when he got inside, but it doesn’t look like he has any choice. “I understand, and I respect that. I won’t make you talk to me. I just need to see you.”

He feels something shift at that. He has Iruka’s attention.

“Godaime sent me. I can’t go back there if I haven’t properly checked on you — you know how she is.”

But Iruka’s energy is stubborn, and inertia is stronger than Kakashi’s attempts to sway him. He looks up at the night sky, feeling a little bad for resorting to this.

“It’s either me or the psych-nin.”

When he feels Iruka on the other side of the door, he stands.

It’s cracked open enough for Kakashi to see him, but not enough for him to possibly interpret as an invitation inside. He makes do with what he can get, discreetly checking the chuunin’s status. He’s a bit pale, surely in need of a good meal and a long rest, but there’s nothing overly concerning — though he doesn’t like the look of dried blood near his hairline. If there’s a head wound there somewhere it may need treatment.

Iruka withdraws a little further from the light of the doorway, and Kakashi knows he hadn’t been discreet enough. Might as well be thorough about it.

“Okay, just a couple questions. I’ll be quick,” he adds before Iruka can slam the door on him. “Do you need anything?”

From the blank way Iruka stares back, he knows he’s not yet running at full capacity. “Like what?” His voice is brittle from disuse.

“Well, whatever you need I can try to get a hold of. Something to eat, a med-kit… tranquilizers…”

He notes Iruka’s gaze drifting, and knows he’s considering at least one of the three. “Oh,” he breathes into the silence, and withdraws a bit more. “No, but thank you, Kakashi-san.”

Kakashi senses the hand on the doorknob itching to close it, and rests his own flat against the wood, holding it open. “Just one more thing. Will you be safe tonight?”

It takes a moment to register, and when it does Iruka looks taken aback by the suggestion. “Yes, of course.”

“Had to ask.” Kakashi gives him an apologetic smile. “I’ll leave you to it. Try and get some sleep, all right?”



It’s almost silent, the impact of his palm meeting the road outside, sending lines spiderwebbing out over the dirt. In the center a puff of smoke appears, and dissipates, leaving a small dog where nothing had been.

“I want you to watch the man in that apartment,” he instructs Pakkun, making sure the ninken looks as carefully as he is indicating. “And let me know if anything changes.”

“You got it, Boss.”



He hears nothing. For two days there is no word from Pakkun, and he’s not entirely sure this is a good thing. Before Tsunade can get on his case about leaving Iruka high and dry he decides to check in again.

Though he starts to regret it at the first sight of his face.

“Ah, you’re not busy, are you?” Kakashi keeps his voice light, deliberately ignorant of the mood inside the room, and the fact that socializing looks to be the last thing Iruka wants to do. “Mind if I come in?”

There’s an ingrained sort of politeness in Iruka’s answer, stretched thin over what he’s really feeling, and what he really wants to say. “Not at all.”

It may be grudging, but he takes Iruka at his word. He follows him into the kitchen, noting the half-eaten instant ramen on the counter and the mug of tea on the table.

“Would you like something to drink?” Iruka’s eyes flit self-consciously between the various small messes as he moves through the apartment. Kakashi is willing to bet the place is usually spotless.

“No, I’m all right.”

Iruka takes the seat by his tea. It doesn’t seem remotely warm anymore but his hands curl around it anyway. Kakashi joins him, trying not to look too obvious in his concern.

“What’s this about?” Iruka asks a little tensely, and he knows he’s failed. Kakashi turns over a few ways of phrasing it in his head, but what tumbles out is among the least graceful.

“I think you know.”

The mug pauses on its way to Iruka’s lips, but only barely; it’d be imperceptible to most anyone else. He takes a sip and looks at Kakashi again. “Am I supposed to be writing something up?”

“Your captain will have finished the official report by now. I’m sure it’s sufficiently thorough.”

“What else is there?”

A loaded question. One Kakashi doesn’t answer right away. “For the time being, the Hokage thinks it best that you be placed—”

“—on leave. I know.”

There’s a pause. “You’ve been to see her?”

“I got her letter this morning.”


They lapse into a silence that’s less than comfortable. Here, he knows, is where he should broach the real subject. How to go about this is another matter entirely. Where to start? What would even help?

He’s beginning to question Tsunade’s logic in sending him. He’s thinking that maybe a distinction should be made between someone who’s been through this before  and someone who handled it well  when Iruka speaks again.

“Look, I appreciate the gesture, but I’m not sure this is necessary. I’m fine, really. The mission was difficult but I made it out in one piece.”

Kakashi’s gaze lingers, taking in the dark circles visible even in the low light. “Have you been sleeping?”

No answer. At least he doesn’t lie.

“You know, neglecting your body will only make things harder. And isolation is probably the worst—”

“Thank you, Kakashi-san,” Iruka says pointedly, something steely creeping into his voice. “I can assure you I learned how to take care of myself quite a long time ago.”

There’s deference in the way Kakashi inclines his head. “I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”

Muffled conversation can be heard from next door and the gulf of silence between them deepens. Bridging it starts to feel daunting. This isn’t the Iruka he’s come to know, the warm and gracious and easily flustered academy teacher with a soft spot for troublemakers. This is something he recognizes too readily — a defense mechanism. The sort of stripped-down coldness one falls back on when they don’t have it in them to be anything more.

He wonders at how long Gai endured it without giving up on him. He won’t be giving up on Iruka, either — he couldn’t even if he wanted to.

“They say routine is good,” he tries.

That earns him an almost-laugh from Iruka. “Had one. Now I don’t.”

“So make a new one.” Iruka looks profoundly unenthused and so he throws out some ideas. “Training, meal times, seeing friends.” He hesitates only briefly before pushing his luck. “I can think of one in particular.”

“I’m sure you’ve got enough on your plate,” Iruka argues, eyes wary.

“Maybe so. Once a week I could probably do. Twice if it slows down at all.”

“Not likely.”

Kakashi considers it, and concedes with a sigh. “Unfortunately I think you might be right, there.”

“I’d hate to take time away from your assigned duties.” Iruka sounds so relieved he almost doesn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. He does anyway.

“Well, this is one of them.”

There’s something strained in Iruka’s smile. “I see.”

Kakashi can feel the hospitality wearing thin. He rises to his feet. “I’ll be in touch, then.”

“I’ll be here,” Iruka agrees with a stiff nod. He follows Kakashi on his retreat from the apartment, seemingly ignoring the way he hesitates in the doorway.

“Goodnight, Iruka-san.”


Kakashi is left on the threshold, staring at the door shut right his face.



“This isn’t working, is it?”

Their third weekly visit is drawing to a close — the first in Iruka’s apartment, following a night at Ichiraku’s and another mainly consisting of a long walk through the founders’ quarter. Given the relative privacy here, he’d hoped to see Iruka’s standoffishness melting away. Another hour of insubstantial small-talk punctuating long stretches of silence has proved his hopes were in vain. Iruka hasn’t thawed one bit.

“I’m not sure what you expected,” he answers smoothly.

Kakashi leans on an elbow, hand under jaw, and considers him. “For you to drop the act, for one.” He watches as Iruka goes very still, his face inscrutable. “You’re acting like we don’t even know each other. Have I said something to offend you?”

Iruka is not staring at his tea, but maybe the table beyond it, or maybe nothing at all. “That’s not it.”

“Well what is?”

It’s quiet for so long Kakashi isn’t sure he’ll ever get an answer. When he does, it’s more or less what he expected.

“I just wish she had sent someone else.”

It still stings a little, but Kakashi doesn’t react. Only keeps his gaze on Iruka, steady and quiet, until he continues.

“I can’t talk about it when it’s you. All I can think is,” — and he breaks off with a laugh that’s heart-wrenching in its bitterness — “how pathetic this must look to someone who’s done it a thousand times.”

Kakashi takes a breath, letting slip a quiet hum on the exhale that only seems to agitate Iruka further. “You think that because I’ve killed more than you have, that it’s never affected me the way it’s affecting you.” Iruka holds his gaze but doesn’t clarify or object; it’s a tacit agreement. “How could you possibly know that?”

For one stunned moment all Iruka can do is blink. It seems he hadn’t considered it. “I guess I don’t.”

A single nod — and, point made, Kakashi sits back in his seat and waits. Waits for the thought process he can see on Iruka’s face to reach its natural conclusion; for the wall to start crumbling and their first honest dialogue to begin.

“Would you tell me about it?”

With surprising efficiency, Iruka shocks him into silence. He should have seen this coming. Would have seen this coming if the concept of talking about it were something that ever entered his mind. Behind the mask, a vague suggestion of a smile has frozen on his face and Iruka’s still watching, waiting, needing a response.

Kakashi manages a half-hearted chuckle. “That’s my line.” Iruka isn’t amused. Worse than that, he can see Iruka going cold again, closing in on himself. “Ah, I—” he starts, and stalls, rifling a hand through his hair in frustration. “I never actually… talked about it, so.” The furrow in his brow deepens. “I’m not… sure…”

“Seriously?” He chances a look at Iruka and is appalled to see pity there, mingled with indecision and the weight of his own sadness. He has to look away. “Well maybe I don’t have to talk about it, either. They do say these things get better with time.”

Iruka sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. Still seemingly very taken with the view out Iruka’s kitchen window, Kakashi responds dryly. “I wouldn’t count on it.”

Several moments pass in silence before Iruka lets out a sigh — one that sounds like weeks of weariness catching up to him. Kakashi expects him to say something else but he doesn’t. Instead he pushes his chair back and stands from the table, going to lean with both hands on the edge the counter. After a minute there’s the sound of him opening the teapot, replacing the lid with a soft clink.

“They were Sound,” he murmurs in a voice not much louder. “No real surprise there, I guess. We were just scouting ahead of a team of jounin — there wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the area.”

Kakashi falls absolutely still as he listens, even his breathing hushed so as not to miss a single word.

“And before I could even process what was happening they got Kousuke, and Temui, just… ripped their throats out and they fell right where they were. Our captain managed to take out a couple of them but I could see he was hurt. I had the kunai in my hand by then but I was just trying to get to him. The captain. I knew I had to get him out of there. He was losing so much blood and I didn’t want him to pass out.”

He waits for Iruka to continue, but there’s only the sound of him starting the tap and filling the kettle, placing it back on the stove. Kakashi peers into his teacup and finds it still half-full. He quietly drains it. It’s gone cold, and the dregs leave a bitter taste in his mouth.

“There was this… kid.” He watches Iruka’s back while he speaks, deathly quiet, tension visible in his shoulders and audible in his low tenor. “Couldn’t have been older than fourteen. Vicious, though. There was no reasoning with him. It didn’t matter that we weren’t even fighting anymore, just trying to get away. He got in between me and the captain. I told him to move, and you know what he did? Laughed at me.”

Iruka’s grip on the counter is paling his knuckles bloodless. Silently, Kakashi stands and moves to his side.

“You had to do it.”

Iruka’s eyes stay fixed on the kettle, staring so intently Kakashi can only imagine what he’s really seeing. It has a way of getting burned in the mind. “I know.”

“If you hadn’t, he would have killed you. And then your jounin backup would have done it anyway.”

“I know,” Iruka repeats, exasperated, and looks at him sharply. “The fact that I had no choice doesn’t make it any better. It’s that helplessness I hate, too.”

Kakashi’s brows raise as he considers this. He leans back lightly against the counter and offers a rebuttal. “Doing the right thing when it’s incredibly difficult is not being helpless.”

“The right thing.” Iruka repeats the words heavily, like they form an unsolvable riddle, a source of constant vexation. “You know, I have a feeling it’s only going to get harder to figure out what that is.”

Kakashi breathes out a humorless laugh. “I’ll drink to that.”

Iruka looks from the kettle on the stove, to the table, and meets Kakashi’s eye again. “You know,” he starts, quiet, conspiratorial. “I do have a bottle of sake I was saving for a special occasion.”

“Couldn’t get any more special than this,” Kakashi deadpans.

This time when Iruka laughs, it almost sounds genuine, if incredibly weary. He runs a hand over his slicked-back hair, dropping it when it reaches ponytail. “God, I think I might need it.”



They’ve almost finished the bottle by the time Iruka’s smile fades for the last time and doesn’t resurface. Kakashi doesn’t intrude on the silence that falls, that stretches until Iruka brings himself back to the present.

He glances over at Kakashi, settled beside him on the couch. “If you didn’t talk it through with anyone… how did you cope?”

The question seems odd. Kakashi isn’t quite sure what to do with it. How did he cope. Did he? Well, clearly he did, because he’s here now, and not nearly so cold or troubled as he had been. He’s stable these days, if not exactly content.

It’s the how that baffles him. Only it’s obvious, now that he thinks of it. He didn’t do anything. It was decided for him.

With a tilt of his head his voice goes vacant, as he examines the fact and wonders if it’d be as bizarre as it seems now to a sober mind. “They put me in ANBU.”

Iruka isn’t sober either, but Kakashi takes some obscure comfort in the fact that he looks horrified.

“Did it help?”

Kakashi weighs the various senses of the word and replies with the most substantial form he can offer. “It stopped my heart from beating out of my chest every time I had to use Raikiri.”

Iruka’s eyes do little to hide that he’s rapidly coming to a series of realizations. “You had to desensitize yourself to it.”

Kakashi nods. And then they’re both quiet long enough for him to grow uncomfortable.

“That last mission we were on,” he starts, both curious and eager to fill the silence with something not so explicitly about him. “Why couldn’t you finish the job?”

Iruka doesn’t answer him. He doesn’t have to, Kakashi realizes, belatedly. Killing is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is not to be trusted.

He continues along his train of thought, as much to spare Iruka the pressure to answer as anything else. “Well, I think you have a decision to make. If you stop going on combat missions now, you may freeze up the next time you get into that situation. I’m not saying you will, but it’s a possibility.” There’s not as much of a pause as there probably should be before he’s offering things he can’t promise. “I could ask Godaime to start sending us out together. You get practice, and I’ll be there in case you can’t follow through.”

Something stirs in the depths of Iruka’s eyes, but he drops them to the bottle in his hand before Kakashi can identify it. “I’m not sure I want to get used to it.”

He should have expected this as well. “That’s all right.” Iruka draws in a breath and lets it out slowly, measured; a fabricated calm. Kakashi is starting to hate how dejected he looks. “Really, it is. Not everyone needs to get used to it. There are different paths for a reason.”

Iruka’s lips curl into what could almost be called a smile if not for the words that leave them. “I’m too soft-hearted.”

He must feel the sharpness of Kakashi’s gaze on him, because he glances up to meet it.

“Don’t you dare think your heart is a weakness.”

It’s purely impulse that compels him to say it, and so he’s not sure what he expected, but it isn’t this. Iruka looks stricken. For one terrible moment Kakashi is sure he’s made him cry, but Iruka blinks and looks away to compose himself.

There’s no remedy for a silence this profoundly uncomfortable. He’s touched a nerve. Crossed some line invisible to him in his capacity as a near-stranger hoping to be a friend and confidant. Really, he doesn’t know what Tsunade was thinking. Sending him, of all people—

“Thank you.”

It’s so quiet, for a moment he’s not sure Iruka really said it, but then he looks at him and it’s right there on his face. Gratitude. Relief. The burden isn’t gone — it might never be — but it doesn’t seem to weigh so heavily on him now. Seeing this lets Kakashi breathe easier, as well.

He doesn’t know what to say in response so he doesn’t say anything. He’s still dazed by the fact that he’s helped Iruka, somehow, in a way that no one ever helped him. It’s a strange feeling — or mix of them, really — that fills his chest. He doesn’t particularly want to untangle it all, because there’s sadness in there, an old sadness, rusted over, that he doesn’t like to touch. There’s something else, too — newer, but no less daunting. He’s not nearly drunk enough to miss it.

He files away this strange new thing, this affection for Iruka, to deal with another time. It’s been a long night.