Iruka put the last barrier seal in place and primed it with chakra, half turning back to his three former students, who were standing behind him and watching.
“It’s important not to use too much chakra, or you’ll activate the seal before you’re ready,” he said. “Though if you want to practice your chakra control, this is a safe way to do it. But only with safe seals like barriers. Not with one of these, for the love of God.” He removed an explosive tag from his pocket and waved it at them. “I’m talking to you, Naruto.”
Naruto made a face. “I’m not stupid, Iruka-sensei! I won’t practice with explosions until I’m really good. It might even take me until next week.”
Iruka cast a despairing look at Sasuke and Sakura. Sakura obediently punched Naruto on the arm.
“You’ll blow yourself up, you moron!”
There was a chuckle from behind Iruka, who turned to see Kakashi exiting the building around which Iruka had been setting up the barrier.
“Is it all clear?”
“Yep,” Kakashi said. “Not that I expected to find anyone hanging out in an abandoned hospital. It’s pretty creepy in there.”
“Do you think there are ghosts?” Naruto asked.
“Ghosts don’t exist,” Sasuke snapped.
“Do too! I’ve seen one, so there! It was all pale and thin and it sighed at me and then disappeared.”
“That was just Kakashi-sensei, idiot.”
“If there are any ghosts,” Iruka interrupted, “they won’t be around for long.”
He shooed the four of them away from the crumbling wall of the building. Konoha’s old hospital had been abandoned fifty years ago when the political centre of Konoha had shifted away from the south wall and further north into the heart of the expanding village. The whole neighbourhood surrounding the hospital was rundown and much of it was slated for demolition. Naruto’s flat wasn’t far from here, and Iruka hoped his building would be among those knocked down and rebuilt as new, affordable housing.
The hospital demolition was a C rank mission that should have been designated to two chuunin, but then Iruka had mentioned it to Kakashi in passing, and Kakashi had decided that it would do his students good to see the power and flexibility of seals, and had asked the hokage if Team Seven could accompany Iruka instead. Considering that Iruka could technically handle the destruction of a few buildings by himself, and that the second chuunin’s presence would have been purely for health and safety reasons, the request had been approved.
Iruka herded the children and their instructor back to a safe distance from the small two-storey building at the back of the complex where he’d decided to begin demolition.
“OK, this is what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m going to go and place the explosive seal in the centre of the building and then I’ll come back out, set up the barrier and then activate the explosion. It’s going to be very noisy, so you need to put on the ear protection I gave you. In fact, do that now.”
“Is one explosive tag enough?” Sasuke asked doubtfully as he slipped the pair of industrial earmuffs over his head, not quite covering his ears while he waited for an answer.
“This isn’t the sort of low-grade tag you’re used to,” Iruka replied.
“This is an Iruka-sensei special,” Kakashi added, grinning beneath the mask. “These are the reason you should never get on the wrong side of a seals expert.”
Iruka smiled, pleased at the praise, but Sasuke still looked unconvinced. Seals got a bad rep because they were difficult to use in direct combat, but Iruka didn’t mind. After all, direct combat was for those who’d failed to take out the enemy sooner.
Kakashi touched him on the arm. “Should I come with you?”
“No, stay here and keep an eye on the kids. Do not let them any closer to the building. And put your earmuffs on.”
Kakashi saluted. “Yes, Captain.”
He pulled the muffs over his ears, and Iruka reached up to adjust them, huffing out a sigh. Kakashi smiled and let him.
Once inside the hospital building, Iruka pulled the blueprints out of his pocket and unfolded them. He’d already calculated the best place to plant the explosive tag and had marked it on the plans, along with the quickest path to get there from the building’s entrance. It wasn’t a large building, and it would only take him a few minutes to set up the seal and leave.
The walls and floor were covered with a thick layer of dust and grime, and there was old graffiti on the walls. Iruka held up a torch seal, which shone a soft white light over the ground in front of him to augment the weak trickle of sunlight that made it through the dirt-encrusted windows. Worst of all were the spider webs, which occasionally brushed against his skin and caused Iruka to shudder and frantically check that no spiders had crawled onto him. He was glad he’d left Kakashi outside.
When he found the room marked on his blueprints, Iruka attached the explosive seal to the wall, sticking it in place with the chakra he used to prime it. He turned and started to head back the way he’d come, and then stopped dead as he felt the presence of a second shinobi, faint but close behind him. Pure instinct made him dodge even as he whirled around, the blow aimed at his head missing by inches. Iruka grabbed another barrier seal from his pouch and activated it, surrounding himself with an impenetrable shield.
The shinobi who’d attacked him was wearing a Konoha hitae-ate with the village symbol struck out. Missing nin. Kakashi hadn’t noticed him because he’d been suppressing his chakra.
“It’s bad luck for you that you found me,” the missing nin said. “Forget about leaving here alive. I don’t usually bother killing chuunin, but I’ll make an exception for you.”
Iruka repressed the urge to sigh. Some people had none of the luck and none of the brains. It was almost enough to make him pity the shinobi threatening him. He brought his hands together and made the sign to activate the barriers around the building’s perimeter.
“As last words go,” Iruka said, “those were kind of shit.”
The seals around the edge of the building suddenly flared with chakra and a barrier shimmered faintly into view, connecting the seals at the base with the single seal that Iruka had placed on the roof and creating a dome-shaped shield over the whole structure. Kakashi’s spine straightened. Something was wrong.
“Wait a second,” Sakura said, shouting to be heard through the earmuffs. “Shouldn’t Iruka-sensei have come out first?”
And then the explosion ripped through the building in a roar of fire, shaking the ground enough that Kakashi had to reach out and steady Naruto before he fell. It went on for what felt like a very long time.
As soon as it was over, Kakashi ripped off his earmuffs and dashed up to the barrier wall. The fact that it was still standing meant that Iruka was alive, but what had happened? It wasn’t like him to worry them by leaving through another exit and not coming to find them.
“Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto said hesitantly behind him. “Where’s Iruka-sensei?”
The barrier died. A gust of smoke blew outwards, and Kakashi turned and took Naruto by the arm, pulling him away from where the building had stood until moments ago.
“All of you, get back.”
Even several metres away, the smoke still stung their eyes and burned acrid at the backs of their throats. Kakashi was glad of his mask, and he pulled Naruto’s t-shirt up to cover his mouth and nose, Sakura and Sasuke copying the movement.
“Stay here,” Kakashi said. “I’m going to go and find Iruka-sensei. Do not move from this spot.”
He darted back towards the rubble before any of them could reply, casting a quick wind jutsu to blow most of the smoke away from him and increase visibility. In front of him lay a huge pile of bricks, wooden beams, broken glass, and other detritus, parts of it smouldering and hot. He concentrated and clearly felt Iruka’s chakra signature from somewhere in the middle of the destruction.
“Please be OK,” he muttered, and then started moving across the wreckage less carefully than he would have done in any other circumstances. He kept the wind jutsu active, but the smoke continued to rise in huge black gusts, and it was difficult to see any distance. The ground beneath his feet shifted and almost threw him off balance more than once, but by moving quickly and constantly, he managed to avoid any accidents.
He felt Iruka’s barrier before he saw it, half buried but resolutely intact. Kakashi found a piece of stable ground beside it and rubbed the soot from the barrier wall. Inside, he could see Iruka sitting on the ground, one hand to his head as though injured, although the small space inside was free of smoke and untouched by the explosion. Kakashi could make out the grimy linoleum of the corridor floor. Even the dust hadn’t been much disturbed.
Iruka didn’t look up when Kakashi banged on the barrier and called his name. Cursing, Kakashi hurried around to the other side and rubbed a new hole in the soot. Iruka glanced up at the movement and then held up the barrier seal questioningly.
There was plenty of rubble around the barrier, but it wasn’t deep enough to bury Iruka if he deactivated the seal.
“Let it down,” Kakashi said loudly. Iruka frowned at him and shook his head, uncomprehending. “Drop it. Oh, for God’s sake.”
He raised his hands and made a ‘cut it out’ gesture. Iruka still looked unsure, but then looked at the seal, shrugged, and deactivated it.
Immediately, the smoke rushed in to fill the void, and Kakashi blew as much of it away as he could as he hurried to Iruka’s side, who was still on the ground, coughing. Kakashi caught the neck of his shirt and pulled it up over Iruka’s face, much as he had done to Naruto, and then dropped the jutsu so that he could slide an arm under Iruka’s knees and another behind his shoulder blades and hoist him up, ignoring the surprised noise Iruka managed to make between coughs.
“Idiot,” Kakashi hissed into Iruka’s hair, tasting the smoke and not caring.
Only when they’d made it – slowly and carefully, this time – through the rubble and back to where the kids were practically vibrating with nerves did Iruka manage to gasp out, “Put me down.”
Kakashi set him on the ground and immediately started checking him over for injuries, but Iruka appeared to be unharmed, and he pushed Kakashi away irritably, coughing the last of the smoke from his lungs.
Once he was certain Iruka was all right, Kakashi roared, “What were you thinking?”
Iruka frowned at him and tried to sit further upright, only to list back to the side. He raised a hand to his head again, and Kakashi tried not to panic. There was something wrong, something he couldn’t see. The churning fear in his gut only made him angrier.
“What happened?” he demanded. “Are you hurt?”
Iruka looked at him helplessly and shook his head. “I can’t hear,” he said, too loudly.
His earmuffs were still dangling uselessly around his neck, Kakashi finally noticed. He gripped Iruka’s chin and turned his head from side to side. There was no blood coming from his ears and when he gently touched the skin over Iruka’s ear canals, he didn’t flinch away. No real damage, then, just some temporary hearing loss.
“You idiot,” he growled. “Why did you-?” Iruka was still staring at him blankly. “Oh, fuck it.”
Kakashi tore his mask down, ignoring Iruka’s shocked expression. “Read my lips, Iruka. Why the hell did you do that?”
“There was a missing nin hiding in the building,” Iruka said, still too loud. “He attacked me so I blew him up.”
“You should have used a chakra flare to alert me. I could have disabled him, there was no need for you to senselessly risk your life like that!”
“There was no risk,” Iruka said, far too calmly for someone who’d been standing at the centre of an explosion. “My barriers can take much more than that.”
Kakashi gripped him by the shoulders, and Iruka’s gaze flicked up to meet his eyes for a moment before returning to watch his lips.
“Do you know how much you scared me when you set off the explosion?”
“You should have trusted me,” Iruka said.
Kakashi shook him, not hard but enough for the anger to melt out of him, and then he let his head fall forwards onto Iruka’s shoulder, the smell of smoke strong where it had been absorbed by the fabric of Iruka’s shirt. Iruka tensed minutely, but then relaxed, and a hesitant hand came to rest on his head.
An insistent finger started poking his arm, and Kakashi looked up and remembered that his genin team existed.
“Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto was gabbling. “Your face! You have a face!”
It was a mark of how shocked Sasuke and Sakura were that neither of them called him an idiot.
“Ah,” Kakashi said.
Naruto leaned closer, squinting as he inspected Kakashi’s face. Kakashi pointedly leaned back.
“What a let-down,” he said, backing out of Kakashi’s personal space and shaking his head in disappointment.
Kakashi spluttered. “What do you mean, a let-down?”
“It’s just a normal face,” Sakura said, looking as disappointed as Naruto. “You tricked us. We thought you were hiding it because there was something weird or embarrassing about it, but you were attention-seeking all along.”
“Maybe he was hiding the mole,” Sasuke suggested, pointing to the small mark beneath Kakashi’s bottom lip.
“It is a pretty big mole,” Naruto agreed. “I’d probably want to hide it too if I had something like that on my face.”
Beside him, Iruka snickered, and then Kakashi felt a soft finger press beneath his lip. He felt a strange fluttering sensation at the intimacy. It had been a long time since someone had last touched his face.
“Now it’s big,” Iruka said, removing his finger and laughing again. Kakashi was puzzled until Iruka held up his soot-blackened hand and wiggled his fingers.
Kakashi ignored his team, two of whom were giggling and one smirking, in favour of giving Iruka an injured expression. Iruka smiled and rubbed his thumb over the mark he’d made, no doubt smudging the soot further, but even though Kakashi pouted, he felt a thread of disappointment when Iruka let his hand drop.
“It’s a nice face,” Iruka said, at almost normal volume.
“Good. It’s the only one I have.”
“I should deafen myself more often if that’s the only way to see it.”
Kakashi’s lips quirked up in a smile, and Iruka watched it, fascinated. “Maa, sensei, so unimaginative. There are other ways, if you put the effort into finding them.”
Iruka tilted his head an inch closer. His finger brushed Kakashi’s, maybe by accident.
“No need to worry, Kakashi-san. I’m full of imagination.”