11 Years Ago
Perhaps it was the sound of the boy's weeping that first attracted the spirit.
"I'm sorry," Iruka whispered. He knelt before the memorial stone, his fingers tracing over the imprint of his parent's names over and over – set side by side in death as they had been in life. "I'm trying to be strong. I want to make you proud, but I... I..." he paused, choking back a sob. "I failed. Sensei said I could try for genin next year, b-but he thinks I don't have it in me. He..." And again Iruka broke off, nearly bent double with his hands wrapped around his stomach.
"Now, now, don't fret child..." whispered a voice, so soft it could have been a sigh on the wind.
Iruka's head snapped up. But aside from the memorial stone and the names those who had fallen defending Konoha, he was alone. "W-who said that?"
A soft breeze stirred from the west, bending the stalks of the long grass by Iruka's feet.
"Those who do not have power are not truly powerless."
"Who are you?" Iruka stood, twisting around. "Show yourself!"
It came flowing along the field, like a hundred dark bits of wind all forming together from every direction. Iruka stepped back, pressing his back against the warm stone, but the shape stopped just short of his feet, gathering itself, and stood. It was fully as tall as Iruka. A dark shadow as flat as an ink-drawing and pure black, but with eyes a pure blazing white.
Its many tails waved over its head; its shape was that of a fox.
Iruka's knees felt weak. He clutched at the memorial stone with one hand, the other pulling out a kunai by pure instinct from his belt – a dulled practice weapon, issued to pre-genin, but it was the only thing he had. "The Kyuubi!"
"No," said the spirit-fox, and Iruka realized that the voice was soft... feminine. "I am Tsuki. The one you know as Kyuubi is my brother."
"Your brother? That demon killed my parents!" Iruka yelled, raising the kunai to chest height. He hoped the demon did not hear how his voice cracked. "And if you take one step closer, then... then I'll kill you!"
Tsuki flicked her long pointed ears, but did not move. "Oh? I didn't think you found it so easy to kill, little one. "
The boy flinched, despite himself. Those words had come perilously close to what his chuunin-sensei said just today: Iruka lacked the killer instinct. He nearly always hesitated before exploiting a weakness – a fatal flaw in the ninja world.
"I don't care!" he snapped. The kunai in his hand trembled, but did not lower. "A ninja should be proud to die protecting the village."
"I see that you want to protect those you love. You want to be strong for them." The demon fox paused. Somehow, he got the impression she was smiling. "I could help you."
Iruka stared. "W-what?"
"The strength you seek is within you, little one, but you still need the key to access it."
"What?" he repeated, dumbfounded. The kunai lowered, just a little bit. "You're offering to help me? But...Why?"
Tsuki regarded him with solemn, fathomless white eyes. Her many tails waved slowly, like gently bending cherry-branches in a spring breeze. "To preserve the balance. Your village has one container for my dark brother. How will he grow, knowing only hate and fear from all those around him? How will he learn to protect if no one has ever shown him how to do the same?"
It took a few moments for Iruka to fully understand, and once he did he felt his stomach roil in something very close to nausea. "I don't want anything to do with him!" he growled. "I hate him! He killed my mom and dad!"
"Kyuubi killed your parents. The baby did no such thing."
"There's no difference," Iruka insisted, "If you want to 'protect' him so much, why do you need me? Why do you need anyone?"
She shook her head. "Spirits such as I have no physical form. We must be invited in by a conscious thinking being. Never jailed inside an unwilling baby."
Iruka recoiled instinctively, back flat against the memorial stone. "You want me to become a jinchuuriki for you? N-no! Never!"
"You are young, yet, the will of fire only the tiniest seed in your heart. With me, you will become strong."
Run! , the sensible part of Iruka screamed as he stood stock still against the cool stone, like a deer caught in the bright glare of a light. She's a demon! It has to be a trick! Don't listen! Run!
Tsuki cocked her head to the side, almost as if she could hear his thoughts. "Others like you have their own powers – some inherited the ability to see what you never could, to invade other's minds, to call upon summons to aid them in battle. Yet you, with a heart purer than most, are left nearly powerless. I could help you seize that potential, little one."
Iruka himself remembering his sensei's words again, despite himself. The shining image of a ninja headband drifted up in his mind's eye. If he could use the fox's strength to aid his own...
"You're saying if I do this, if I allow you in," he put a hand to his chest, "you'll give me the power to protect the village and the people close to me?"
"No, child. You will protect those you love. There is a difference." She moved closer, one careful mincing step which made no sound and bent no blades of grass. "You do not understand this power yet – very few do. All of my strength will be sealed in your heart. You will never be able to topple buildings like my brother, Kyuubi. Love is much more subversive than that... you could topple entire countries at worst, at best, save them from the fiercest storm."
Iruka found himself trembling again; fear and excitement warring equally within his mind. He closed his eyes, shaking his head. But it wasn't a no. Not yet. The fox sat by, patient and watchful, waiting for him to collect his courage. And finally, the boy opened his eyes, and took a deep breath.
"What do I need to do?"
The fox tilted her head again in that pose that somehow looked like a smile. "Place your hands on the stone, and clear your mind as best you can. It will be painful, but it shall pass."
Iruka carefully tucked his kunai away in his pouch and hesitated for one last moment. He wasn't afraid of pain. He was afraid of losing himself. But he was more afraid of failing his parent's memory.
The sensible voice in his head was still shrieking Run, run, run! But he pushed it aside, and, holding his breath, put his hands on the memorial stone.
The fox spirit shrank back to the ground and flowed forward again, up the base and over the stone in a river of shadow. And once she reached his fingers, never pausing, slipped in between the tiny gap between skin and fingernail.
The moment the last of the spirit slipped within everything exploded into a blaze of heat exploded along every nerve, every chakra pathway... his heart... Iruka reared back, screaming, blood pouring from his fingernails. His eyes, if he could have seen a reflection of himself, were blazing white.
Then, there was a cool touch against his forehead, a murmur deep inside his mind to be still, the pain would not last... and Iruka knew no more.
When he woke, several hours later, he was on his back looking to the darkening sky. He clutched the dull-edged kunai in his hand, the point still dripping blood.
And carved onto his chest, scrawled in what he would later realize was his own handwriting, was a circular seal.
By the next day the seal would fade – healed by the spirit-fox's regenerative powers.
Naruto was so hungry his stomach hurt.
The four-year-old tottered along the side of the street, one hand massaging his empty belly, the other casually trailing along the walls of the buildings which lined the marketplace. He had learned the hard way to stay out of the middle of the street. People didn't stop for him, and if he wasn't careful, he could find himself literally under someone's feet.
The merchants didn't like him much either, and yelled or threw things at him if he got too close, or if he lingered too long in their doorways. But as Naruto stopped in front of what looked like a small shop, he found he couldn't help himself. It smelled so good in there. Maybe no one would care if he was extra, extra careful...
Moving as quietly as he could, the little boy peeked under the long banners, set to give customers more privacy. There was one customer sitting at the bar, but Naruto paid him little attention. The rich, meaty smell of cooking food was even stronger in here and he felt his mouth actually watering...
"Hey!" The merchant had turned, his back to the stove, and waved a rolling pin threateningly. "Get outta here, you brat! Stop bothering my customers!"
Naruto flinched back and would have turned to run, but someone said, "Wait," and put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. It was the man at the bar – well, maybe not completely man-grown, but so much older than Naruto that it didn't matter anyway. Plus, he had a ninja headband. "It's alright, Teuchi."
"Let gooo!" Naruto whined. When the old lady at the orphanage grabbed him like that, it always meant trouble. He tried to twist away, but the ninja-man held firm.
"You look hungry."
Naruto stopped wiggling at once. He blinked up at the man, noticing for the first time he had a long scar across the bridge of his nose, extending to both cheeks. It didn't make him look scary, though. "Yeah...?" he said, suspiciously.
The ninja paused, then let go his shoulder to pat the stool next to him. Naruto took the cue and scrambled up, and after another hesitation the man pushed his half-finished bowl to him.
Naruto dived in at once, scooping up a handful of noodles in a dirty hand and shoving them into his mouth.
"Hey!" the man yelped, but when he reached to pull the bowl away, Naruto growled at him. It scared the others when they tried to take his food away at the orphanage, but this ninja only growled back – a sound that instinctively straightened Naruto's spine – and cuffed him lightly over the head.
"Cut that out! You're acting like a—." The ninja swallowed whatever he was going to say and instead shoved chopsticks in Naruto's free hand. "If you're going to eat at a restaurant, you're going to be civil. Use these."
The boy stared at the unfamiliar utensils before he looked up again at the man. "How?"
The merchant barked out a laugh – which turned into a stifled cough when both the ninja and Naruto glared at him.
With a sigh, the ninja turned spent the next minute or so curling Naruto's fingers around the sticks. "Like this," he said, and squeezed his fingers so that the end of the chopsticks clicked together. "Now give it a try."
Naruto did. It took him nearly a half dozen attempts to get a noodle in his mouth. He still ended up slopping more broth down the front of his orange shirt. But by the time he had finished the bowl he had gotten the hang of it, more or less, even though he still much preferred his hands.
"It's good! Thank you, shinobi-san!" he said, through a half-chewed last bite. The noodles were gone, so he picked up the bowl and slurped the rest of the broth down – missing entirely the apprehensive look that came over the ninja's face.
"My name is Iruka," the man said, after a quiet minute.
Naruto grinned at him, showing off suspiciously pointed canines. "Naruto!"
Iruka nodded then, slowly, as if he didn't really want to ask, but couldn't quite help himself said, "No one ever taught you how to use chopsticks before, Naruto?"
"Uh-uh." He shook his head and kicked his feet happily under the bench. Now that his belly was mostly full, he didn't mind sitting and talking. And the merchant wasn't even yelling at him for being there! "I gotta eat fast or the big kids steal my dinner."
An odd expression crossed Iruka's face, making the scar scrunch up. "And Etsuko-san doesn't stop them?"
Naruto shrugged. The old lady at the orphanage didn't like him very much and told him not to come back today. She always changed her mind by the time it got dark, though. Well, most of the time. "It's okay."
"No," Iruka said, quietly. His hands, resting on the counter-top, had curled into fists. "It's not."
Three days later, Naruto found the ninja again at the ramen stand. The merchant glared at him, and gave a sniff at his approach, but Iruka simply waved him over, inviting him to sit at the next stool over.
This time he ordered an entire bowl, just for Naruto. And after some quick reminders on how to properly use chopsticks, the two ate.
"That boy is taking advantage of your good nature," Teuchi warned, once Naruto had finished his meal and left to go play.
Iruka shrugged and reached up to scratch idly at his scar. It had been six months to the day since he had first met Naruto, and although he was wary at first... the kid wasn't so bad. And if Naruto was aware of Kyuubi at all, he didn't show it. He had a heart bigger than his stomach – which was saying a lot.
"I do enough D-rank missions so that it's no strain on my wallet," he said. "I'm taking the chuunin exam soon, anyway."
This only earned him a pointed look. "You know what that child is, don't you?"
Yes, but you don't know what I am. He only shrugged again, and smiled, thinking that he was fortunate – very fortunate – to have come away from his sealing without any outward sign, like Naruto's whisker-like markings. Perhaps it was because he was older, or that he had been a willing vessel instead of an infant sacrifice.
"Naruto is member of this village, and it's my duty to protect him," he answered, and somewhere deep in the landscape of his own mind he heard Tsuki growl an affirmative.
For Kakashi, the mystery of Iruka started the night the Hyūga child had been kidnapped.
"Hyūga Hanabi has been missing for over ten hours," Sandaime said, addressing a standing room only crowd of jounin along with a few select ANBU agents and chuunin. "As some of you are aware, this is not the first attempt made with this family. We suspect whoever has taken her is after the Byakugan."
Something tugged on the hem of Kakashi's pant-leg. He looked down to see Pakkun lifting a paw to get his attention. "Boss," the summon murmured, jerking his head slightly to the left. "You hear that?"
He hadn't, at least, not until the dog pointed it out: A soft growl so low it was nearly inaudible.
Kakashi glanced casually behind him and to the left and saw to his amusement the sound was coming from one of the chuunin – that academy sensei Naruto was always chattering about. The same one who had made such a fool of himself when Kakashi nominated Team Seven for the exams. How interesting.
The chuunin locked gazes him for a moment, and Kakashi saw a flash of dangerous intent in them – the growl cut short. Then the man narrowed his eyes ever so slightly, a silent chastisement, and made a brief gesture to turn around and pay attention. As if Kakashi were one of his students.
Kakashi stared openly for a heartbeat longer than was strictly necessary. But his mind had already slipped into a sheath of steel – a cold place of black and white as it often did when preparing for a mission. He had no time to play right now.
He turned back, vague amusement tingeing his thoughts. So. It looked as if the academy-sensei had a soft spot for all his charges, not just one loud-mouthed blond boy.
Pakkun, still looking back at the man, was unsettled. "Something about that guy isn't right." He didn't elaborate, and while Kakashi agreed with him, this wasn't the time or the place. He turned his attention back to the Sandaime.
It took Pakkun longer than usual to find the missing girl's trail. After two false starts, Kakashi was forced to admit that whoever had orchestrated this kidnapping had been highly skilled. Not only managing to sneak into the very heart of Konoha, but taking off with a rare bloodline and managing to cover his tracks? Honestly, Kakashi was looking forward to Ibiki's interrogation once he brought the nin in, just to see how they did it.
"Boss," Pakkun said. They were outside the village, now, having picked up a trace of the Hyūga girl's scent among the trees outside the training grounds. "This trail is hours old, and I smell blood."
Kakashi grunted an affirmative and increased his pace, nearly sailing from branch to branch. The sun was quickly setting to the west and there wasn't a breath of wind to stir the leaves. It was sure to be a dewy night, making the trail that much harder to follow.
Oddly enough, it wasn't the girl Kakashi thought of, who surely must be hurt or scared if she was even alive at all. Or even the parents who must be experiencing a thousand little deaths waiting for news of their youngest child. No. As he leapt from branch to branch at such a speed the ground became a brown and black blur under him, Kakashi found himself thinking again of the academy sensei. The prim, gentle-faced man who couldn't keep the little growl out of his throat in the meeting.
I'll make sure the girl comes home safe for him, Kakashi decided, picturing again of the slightly narrowed eyes, the hint of a barely controlled temper. He wondered if—
"Boss!" Pakkun was a few branches ahead. He stopped, suddenly, pawing at the bark to refresh the scent. "They passed by here not too long ago."
"I thought you said we were hours behind."
"Maybe they had to stop for some reason. I don't know—"
A scream rent the air – nearly blast it apart; the mortal scream of the dying. It was followed – no, cut off – by a roar so loud it made the very leaves around them tremble.
Kakashi had heard a roar like that once before. Just once.
"Go back to the village!" he ordered, "Bring as much backup as you can find."
"Wait, Boss! You can't just—"
Ignoring Pakkun's warning bark, he dropped from the branch, hit the ground and was off running towards the sound with his headband up, Sharingan exposed.
It was impossible. How could the seal have broken?
As he drew closer, the demon's killing intent buffeted him like a living windstorm. And that, too, was familiar. Kakashi ducked his head and plowed through it, feeling the intent needle at his skin like a thousand darting pins.
He burst into the clearing and searched out ahead...
... It was not Naruto.
The Kyuubi had been bigger than a house and as visible as a forest fire even on a cloudy moonless night. This demon was also fox-shaped, but smaller, as big as a full grown man. It shone a dazzling silver like liquid moonlight. The chakra output alone was enough for him to want to squint his Sharingan shut – like looking at a living, silver sun.
If it were any other circumstance, he might have found it beautiful.
The fox roared again. It reared up slightly upon its hind legs, the front claws ripping and ripping at some bloody piece of meat that had probably been alive at one point. A claw caught on a scrap of flesh, lifting the body slightly – enough for Kakashi to see that it was a man.
Kakashi did not make a sound, but the fox's head snapped up anyway. It stared at him across the clearing, pointed ears pinned back, and Kakashi had one crazy moment to think that he had seen that very look of slight chastisement before...
With his sharingan squinted, Kakashi could hardly see, could hardly predict...
The demon struck, faster than a viper. Kakashi leapt to the side. The many tails swept forward like a ladies fan, and an invisible force threw Kakashi back. He hit hard against the trunk of a tree, and knew no more.
He was woken to a soft touch on his shoulder. Kakashi stiffened and he reacted in automatic defense before he had time to fully wake, before he could process sound and visuals.
When his brain unmuddled enough to process his senses he found himself straddling another man, his knees pinning the other man's arms down, holding the point of a kunai to the side of his neck.
"—Umino Iruka, Konoha shinobi," the man was saying – no, had been saying, like a low calming chant. "I'm not your enemy. I'm Umino Iruka—"
Kakashi released a held breath. "Iruka-sensei," he said. "You should have more care. My sleeping body mistook you for a threat."
The chuunin narrowed his eyes. "You weren't sleeping. You were unconscious and I was afraid you were hurt."
But Kakashi was no longer listening. It was the narrow-eyed glare that had reminded him. The fox...
He whipped around: the clearing beyond was silent and still, spilled with moonlight, but otherwise completely undisturbed.
The chuunin was twitching, trying to rise, but with arms and body still pinned by Kakashi's knees. "Kakashi-sensei—"
"Where is it?"
Kakashi was not looking at him, but did not miss the way the other man tensed, just for a brief moment. "Where's what?"
"The demon fox," Kakashi replied, still scanning the clearing. His sharingan showed only grass and trees. "It was just here."
Iruka took in a sharpened breath. "The Kyuubi? But no, that's impossible! Naruto—"
"This was a second fox."
" Another one?"
"Iruka-sensei." Kakashi twisted back to regard the man under him. "If you insist on repeating back what I have just told you, we will be here for some time."
Iruka reddened and twisted again, attempting to free his arms. "If this is your idea of a joke, it's not funny! Get off me."
"Ah sensei," Kakashi curved his eyes up happily. "You'll find I never joke." But, with a lithe rolling motion he stood up anyway.
Iruka huffed and, much less gracefully, stood, shaking out his arms to return the blood. To his credit, he soon had a kunai out and with a nod, indicated he was ready.
Together, the two ninja advanced carefully through the clearing.
The storm wind gales of killing intent had vanished, leaving behind only a slight smell of ozone. Even the grass remained wholly undisturbed as if what Kakashi had seen was a ghost rather than a solid body. But another smell was rising in the still air; metallic and rich, it could be mistaken for no other. Blood.
They found the body of the enemy just where Kakashi had last seen it. The body itself had been ripped to ribbons, the torso no more than an empty cavity with a wide berth of entrails and blood spread about in all directions. Yet the head had remained intact and Kakashi did not need his Sharingan to see that this was not a Leaf-nin. The headband with a crossed musical note was enough to confirm that.
Iruka knelt by the body. "Whatever did this wasn't the Kyuubi," he said, and aside from the slight wrinkling of his nose, had taken on the calm tone of a professional. "The bodies it left behind here... burned. This looks more like an animal attack."
"I know what I saw, Iruka-sensei."
The academy teacher glanced up sharply at this, but whatever he was about to say was interrupted by a soft sound, just behind the nearest patch of trees.
They found Hyūga Hanabi there, lying on the ground and curled up as best she could with her hands and feet bound. Iruka was at her side at once, cutting the rope and lifting her into his arms. Her body was as limp as a doll's, her blank white eyes focusing on nothing.
"Hanabi-chan?" he shook the girl's shoulders slightly to get her attention.
Kakashi sighed and bent down. Honestly, did the man not recognize a simple genjutsu when he saw one? "She's under an illusion, Iruka-sensei. Most likely to keep her quiet while being transported." And with a quick movement of his fingers he said, "Kai."
The girl jerked at once, blinking, struggling to get free. Iruka set about calming her with placating words, assuring her that she was safe and asking details about the kidnapping.
Kakashi listened with only half an ear. His attention was again on the still, silent clearing. Mission accomplished, and easily – too easily. Like a plot in a bad novel: girl recovered safe and sound, enemy ninja torn into fun-sized pieces, no casualties and miraculous sighting of a strange demon. Everything all wrapped up and packaged in a neat little bow.
"Maa, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said, casually turning back to them. "How did you say you found me again?"
The teacher glanced up and Kakashi saw him stiffen slightly as he noticed Kakashi regarding him with the sharingan eye.
"We must have been accidently heading in the same direction," Iruka said, then nodded to the girl. "Hanabi-chan should be seen by the medics."
The man's chakra output seemed... normal. Unremarkable, even.
A sharp bark followed by several chakra flares signaled the arrival of Pakkun with his backup.
Kakashi pulled the headband down over the sharingan eye and crescented his other. "Reinforcements have arrived. All's well that ends well, eh sensei?"
Iruka nodded and got to his feet with the girl still in his arms. "Yes, thank goodness."
Kakashi did not need Obito's eye to see that the teacher's smile was strained.
"You want to know about Iruka-sensei?" Naruto repeated, for the second time.
Kakashi sighed and flipped another page of his book. "I see where he gets it from."
Naruto gave him a side-long glare – difficult, seeing as he was nearly bowed in half by the sheer weight of the boulder on his back. It was a simple exercise in chakra control; something all genin had to go through to learn how to control their stamina by trudging up and down a hill all day long with it on his back. As resident Jounin-sensei in charge, Kakashi was there for moral support and to make sure his student didn't crush themselves. In theory.
Also, Jiraiya was busy today.
"What do you want to know about him?" Naruto asked, and Kakashi could almost see the protectiveness coming off in waves around the boy. Interesting...
"What are his likes? His dislikes? What kind of man is he? Any hidden bloodline limit? That sort of thing."
"He's a good teacher," Naruto said, then scowled up at his current sensei. "No, he's the best! He bothers to teach people instead of sitting around reading perverted novels all day." Another glare, just in case Kakashi hadn't gotten it.
"I am teaching you. Look at all you're learning." Kakashi lowered his book and offered Naruto a bright smile. Not that anyone could tell behind the mask. "Besides, I'm supposed to report to all my student's parents, and since he is like your mother—"
The boy's step faltered and it was only Kakashi's quick chakra-powered nudge that shifted the boulder enough to fall to one side instead of landing flat down on top of him.
Naruto straightened, sputtering and red-faced, with more than just embarrassment. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Now, now." Kakashi held a lazy hand to forestall a rant. Naruto, when sufficiently upset, could reach decimals that Gai could only dream about. "I am just pointing out the fact that he does seem to make meals for you—"
"No! He just takes me out at Ichiraku's—"
"And encourages you when you're feeling down."
"Because he cares about people!"
"And does he make you clean your apartment? Make you eat your vegetables?"
Naruto's answer was something between a squawk of denial and a growl.
"So he is your mother," Kakashi concluded, snapping his book shut.
Naruto's face could have put a whole new meaning to the color fuchsia. His hands were claws by his sides – literal claws, Kakashi noted. Had the whisker-like scars actually deepened in color on his face, too?
The volume of the boy's voice could have scared birds from the trees. "IRUKA-SENSEI ISN'T A GIRL SO HE CAN'T BE MY MOTHER! He's a great ninja! The best— Even if I did have to save him that one time. But when Mizuki-baka threw a giant shrunken in his spine, Iruka-sensei still went after him!"
"In his spine," Kakashi said, flatly.
"Yeah, believe it!" Naruto turned and touched a finger to a spot right between his shoulder-blades. "Right here! He henged into me and tried to draw the baka away and when Mizuki... when he said..." Naruto faltered for a moment, his rant losing steam.
Kakashi, who had access to the mission report, as it had included his perspective student at the time, and knew the great secret Mizuki had revealed, simply waved boredly for him to go on. "Yes, yes. And?"
"Then I kicked his ass! Mizuki-baka, I mean." Naruto grinned widely, showing pointed canines. "Iruka-sensei graduated me! And I got ramen later on."
"I see," Kakashi said. And he thought he did. "So he is not your mother. He is your big brother."
Strangely enough, Naruto didn't seem as offended by that. He simply shrugged and reached up to rub his hitai-ate.
Kakashi sighed. "So if you are done training for the day, I can just leave..."
Naruto startled. "What? No! I'm getting stronger even if you have to stay all day!" And he set about hefting the boulder onto his back again.
Kakashi followed him, acting as spotter as Naruto made his slow way up and down the hill – occasionally giving him his own brand of cryptic tips when he felt the boy was bothering to listen. It was all with only half a mind, though. The rest was chewing over what Naruto had said.
There had been no mention of any injury other than Mizuki's in the formal mission report.
Iruka had had a bad couple of days.
He never remembered what happened after he had allowed Tsuki to come forefront in his body. Not at first. Those types of memories usually trickled in weeks afterwards in dreams or through sudden vivid flashes of insight as he went about his daily life.
No, the clearest point after finally catching up with the missing-nin, and seeing Hanabi hanging limply in the man's arms, was of standing again in the field with fresh blood caked under his receding fingernails – dead enemy nin on one side and a crumpled Hatake Kakashi on the other.
It was easy to put two and two together.
Hatake had been dazed, but not badly hurt. And it was more than clear that he had seen the fox.
Iruka had spoken with Tsuki later that night, deep in the landscape of his own mind: a place filled with soggy rice paddies, the oddly flat stalks gently waving an imaginary wind.
She assured him that the man had only taken her by surprise. That Iruka's seal could not be seen, even with the Sharingan. That it only glowed upon Tsuki's ascension, and that by the time the Jounin had been awake Iruka had successfully suppressed her chakra once more.
Iruka found himself torn the next morning's class. Hanabi had not been physically injured, aside from a few bruises, but it still made the mother-hen in him want to gather up all of his chicks, to tuck them close and keep them safe.
But he was a shinobi. So his class was instead treated to a grueling day of drilling on break-away holds, and a refresher lecture on when and how to hit certain nerve clusters in a fight. And then, twenty laps around the academy to build stamina.
None of it dispelled the odd, lingering feeling of a threat hanging over Iruka's head. And maybe he could have brushed it off as an aftereffect of the kidnap scare: He tried not to show favoritism, but Hanabi was one of his special students. Hard working, talented, and strangely independent for a Hyūga.
Yet... he'd had such feelings before, since his sealing. It had never turned out well. The last time had been in the hours before Mizuki had turned traitor...
The evening air was warm and sweet upon his face as he walked home, a bag of groceries tucked under an arm. He had bought enough for two; it had been a few days since Naruto had come around begging for a meal and –
There was a soft sound behind him, like the sweep of fabric over cobblestone. Iruka acted on pure hair-trigger reflex; kunai palmed and whirled about before his sack of groceries even hit the ground.
He caught a glimpse of mismatched eyes – one steel blue, the other red – just for a second.
The street lights glinted, highlighting the musical note on the other ninja's hitai-ate. Iruka slashed with his kunai in a vicious cut. The tip caught fabric and ripped, but the man had leapt too fast – backwards and up, and Iruka was forced to substitute himself with an unlucky trashcan as a hail of shuriken flew down at him.
The jutsu bought him a few extra seconds – just enough to slap an exploding tag on a shuriken of his own and throw it. Again, the other nin leapt away, but the explosion was loud enough carry. In a hidden village of ninja, even small explosions were enough to grab attention. He hoped.
He could feel Tsuki's presence in his mind and realized, belatedly, she had been yelling at him for some time now, but he had been distracted – no, he could hardly hear her. It was as if her voice were coming to him, muffled, through thick gauze.
The enemy nin came at him again. His lips were pulled back showing teeth filed into points. Iruka struck a weapon out of the air with another kunai and executed a deft twist, sticking to the wall of a nearby building, momentarily out of range.
Why hadn't anyone else shown up yet? It was only early evening. There should be someone... And why was this missing-nin here? How did he get this deep in the village? Tsuki was still yelling, but he couldn't hear – no, this was wrong.
The missing nin's hands were flashing through seals: Tiger, Ox, Sheep...
Iruka looked away, knowing that if he guessed incorrectly it would mean his death, and stabbed himself though the hand with his own kunai. The shock of pain – real pain, for his body had reacted in time with his mind – was enough to waver his chakra, just for a moment.
And that was enough to break the genjutsu.
He found himself standing in the middle of one of the training fields with no recollection of how he got there. Well, that was how those illusions worked. While he had been fighting the missing-nin in his mind, he could have been easily moved.
"Sensei," came a chiding voice, not too far away. And as Iruka concentrated on the pain in his hand, the last strings of the illusion fell away. He saw Hatake Kakashi standing before him, sharingan uncovered. "You did not need to go that far. I would have dropped the jutsu before you were injured."
Iruka grit his teeth. Is this real? he asked quietly, inside his mind.
The spirit's answer was a silent affirmative. She was lying low in the face of the copy-nin's eye. Iruka took her cue and focused on the here and now. Tsuki's power could not aid him. Whatever happened next, he was alone.
"What is the meaning of this, Kakashi-sensei?" he demanded.
Kakashi stayed silent, allowing Iruka to pull the kunai from his own pierced hand, and gave a grudging nod at the chuunin's grunt of pain.
"I was... testing a theory."
Iruka's stomach clenched. "What? What are you-"
Suddenly, Kakashi was right in front of him and Iruka barely blocked the man's palm-strike in time.
Where the missing nin in Iruka's mind had been dangerous, Kakashi was fast and immediate and his hits were hard, his body nearly unyielding when Iruka managed to strike back.
When he did manage to hit the jounin. For the most part, Iruka was kept on the defensive.
It became a taijutsu match, for Kakashi stayed within arm's reach nearly at all times and would attack with furious intent each and every time Iruka reached for his weapons pouch or bent his fingers for a jutsu.
Worst of all, Kakashi moved with such easy grace it was like he wasn't even trying. Even the sharingan whirled slowly, as if it were bored.
... Come to think of it, he sensed no killing intent from the Jounin. And the shape of his mask was twisted slightly about the mouth, as if in a feral grin.
Iruka's own eyes narrowed. Was that how it was, then?
He redoubled his attacks, which meant nothing to a genius like Kakashi, except that his movements became less bored and more fluid, like a deadly dancer.
"Good," Kakashi said, when Iruka completed a combo set of punches and kicks. The Jounin blocked them all with ease, of course, but the hits had driven him back a few steps. "Almost textbook perfect."
"Is that what this is? Some kind of training?" Iruka demanded, then had to pause, blocking a kick with the side of his uninjured hand. "I'm not one of your students! How dare you—"
"Sensei..." The word was strung out and Iruka wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a rebuke or a purr.
The ground became more uneven as Iruka was driven back from the field and to the edge of the woods. Iruka feigned a stumble – a fatal move in front of a real enemy, but he knew now that whatever this was, it wasn't serious. He hit the ground flat on his back, his fingers flashing through the seals.
It wasn't much of a henge; he'd failed students for better ones. Just a burst of chakra right behind Kakashi that made the man whip his head around to check –
Iruka scraped a handful of sandy soil from the ground and aimed it right for the Sharingan eye.
Kakashi stepped back and Iruka leapt up into a dead run...
For the count of maybe five steps he thought he'd actually make it. Then something knocked him to the side. His back hit the rough bark of a tree trunk. A blur of movement, and his wrists were grabbed, crossed up over his head and pinned at the sleeves by two shuriken before he had time to so much as draw in a breath.
Iruka kicked out, but Kakashi was there too, blocking his body with his own. He was so close Iruka could see grains of sand peppering the black mask.
Despite it all, he bit his lip to keep back a laugh.
Kakashi tilted his head slightly to the side, considering. "You aren't afraid?"
Afraid? His heart was thudding so loudly he could hear the blood in his ears. His breathing was ragged and he was pumped to the gills with adrenaline, but...
"I would be, if you were trying to kill me." He would be long dead by now if that were the case.
"You broke one of my best illusionary jutsu," Kakashi said. His voice was level, nearly so cool it was removed, but Iruka knew better than to trust it. "Yet you pretended not to recognize it when the Hyūga child was under one. Why?"
Iruka swallowed. "Kakashi-sensei, I—you've had your fun, but—"
"With some training, you could be promoted to jounin." Kakashi paused and those mismatched eyes narrowed. "Furthermore, you know it. Why are holding yourself back?"
"I—I like to teach."
"You could teach your own genin team."
Iruka stared directly into those eyes, trying not to waver. "It wouldn't be the same."
Kakashi suddenly pressed closer, the length of his body nearly against Iruka's. Maybe in any other circumstance it would have been sexual. Maybe it was supposed to be, but whereas Iruka had felt no fear in his battle before, feeling trapped with this deadly, elite shinobi against him, he was starting to now. It made his hackles go up.
"At least I'm not the one playing games, Kakashi-sensei," he spat. "You have no right to lecture me on the choices I've made in my own career. Let me go."
He wasn't sure how he expected the Jounin to react, but it wasn't how he did. Kakashi reached up and plucked one of the shrunken from Iruka's sleeves, releasing his injured hand. Immediately Iruka tried to strike, but Kakashi merely grabbed his wrist in a steel grip and brought his hand down, examining the wound very closely. Iruka drew in a quick breath – the bleeding had slowed as a consequence of it being held over his head, but Tsuki's healing effect usually meant it would be on its way to scabbing over by now, at the very least.
It was raw and new as if she were not there at all.
Kakashi had produced a bandage from somewhere and was carefully dabbing at the wound. And as he studied it very closely, Iruka knew that he knew. Or at least, strongly suspected.
"Your favorite student told me quite the tale," Kakashi said, his tone casual as he wiped clean the blood and set about wrapping the hand. It was an uncomplicated wound – Iruka had made sure not to hit bone or tendon in his stab. "He says you put yourself in harm's way for him. That you took a strike directly to the spine."
"That's ridiculous," Iruka snapped. "You know Naruto exaggerates, and him being – Well. He has no concept of how an injury like that would affect others."
He tried to jerk his hand back, but Kakashi held fast. He was not done wrapping the wound. "Hmm, if you say so." Coming to the end of the bandage roll at last, he tucked the end in, almost solicitously, then looked up to meet Iruka's gaze. "But you are hiding something."
There was no point in denying it. "You're asking a shinobi to reveal his secrets, Kakashi-sensei?"
Kakashi's expression didn't change. He didn't shift or even blink an eye. Yet somehow the air between them seemed thicker.
"I'm a very curious man, sensei."
He is still like a little boy, Tsuki whispered, from the center of Iruka's own mind. He pulls his classmate's hair because he doesn't know what his feelings yet are.
Iruka licked his lower lip, and he saw Kakashi's eyes flick to his tongue, just for a moment before snapping back again. He wondered if Tsuki was right. And he wondered how he felt about that.
"If you really wanted to know... You could hurt me," he said carefully, feeling like he was treading on very, very thin ice with this man. "Or report me to Ibiki-san. But you believe – you know that whatever it is I'm hiding, I'm not a threat to the village."
Kakashi stayed silent, but in that silence Iruka felt a tacit agreement.
"Instead," Iruka continued, "You brought me here to, what, test me? You didn't have to do that. You could have –"
"Yes?" Kakashi prompted, when the other man broke off.
Iruka steeled himself. "You could have asked me to—to dinner."
There was a moment of silence. Then, "Yes, well... This didn't seem like polite conversation one should have in a restaurant."
Despite everything, Iruka felt the corner of his mouth twitch up. "Nevertheless, now you owe me for the groceries I lost, and the injury to my hand." Kakashi was staring at him with such fixed intensity. Iruka felt himself losing his nerve under the sheer weight of it. He was the first to look away, muttering, "If I'm being too forward, please tell me."
There was a short silence and for a moment Iruka thought he had misread the situation, after all. Then Kakashi let out a long breath; a small huff of a laugh at the end of it. "You are not what you seem." And it might have been Iruka's imagination, but he thought he heard a glint of grudging respect in those words. "So are you implying you will tell me your secrets if I take you out to dinner?"
"No," Iruka said and dared to look up again. The other man's sharingan eye was closed; the implicit threat gone. "I'm saying that you'll have better luck getting to know me if you take me out on a proper date. Not this twisted version of one."
In answer, Kakashi reached up to tug the other shuriken out of his sleeve, releasing his other hand. Out of respect to the truce, Iruka didn't bash him over the head. Although he still sort of wanted to. A lot.
"Maa, what's a proper date without a little bit of blood?" Kakashi asked, reasonably.
Iruka didn't dare let his guard down again until he was safely home; barricaded behind shut blinds and every ward he could think of. Only then did he unwrap his hand.
The wound had stopped bleeding after Kakashi had tended to it, and had already sealed over on both sides with what looked like day-old scabs. Iruka flexed his fingers experimentally and found only a lingering ache.
Iruka cast another glance around his apartment: all was quiet, the only chakra signatures around were his civilian neighbors, probably asleep as this time of the night. Satisfied that at least for right now there was no danger, he sat crossed legged on the floor, closed his eyes, and sank into his own mind.
He found himself standing among the rice paddies and Tsuki's voice floated up somewhere from the high stalks, answering his unasked question. "You are not my first vessel, nor the first to come under suspicion from others. I can choose to delay healing your wounds if the need is there." A gentle wind blew in, scented like rain. It felt almost like a caress to his face. "But I do hate to see you hurt."
Iruka bowed formally. "Still, thank you for your assistance tonight."
The tall stalks parted to each side in front of him and Tsuki stepped into view, looking much as she had when she first appeared – a silver fox-shaped shadow with height and width, but no depth. As if she had been drawn onto the landscape with an ink brush.
"I like your scarecrow."
Iruka frowned. "That arrogant... man-child doesn't belong to anyone, much less me."
"Darkness has touched his heart, but will never encase it. He is strong." She paused, and then added more significantly. "He also cares for Brother's vessel."
"He takes too many chances with Naruto."
"Yet the boy flourishes."
"Yes, well... I give more credit to Naruto than him." But Iruka felt himself remembering again the fight this evening. To think he could have lasted even that long against an elite Jounin – under his own power and skill...
He found himself rubbing the thumb of his right hand over the palm in his left. In his own mindscape there was no wound, yet the skin there still felt slightly heated where Kakashi had carefully wrapped the bandage. And even in the height of the pitched battle, Iruka had not been hurt. He had been too focused on surviving to think on it then, but looking back... it had been almost exhilarating.
"He is one who pushes others to be the best of themselves," Tsuki said, reading Iruka's thoughts as easily as her own. "And you find that attractive."
Iruka shot the spirit a narrow-eyed look. "One dinner. Just one," he vowed. Then groaned, his face falling into his hands. "Tsuki, I have a date with a man with the Sharingan eye. What was I thinking? This is going to be a disaster."
She cocked her head to the side. "You will have to be very careful, my vessel."
"Ah," Kakashi said brightly, stopping so abruptly he collided shoulders with the chuunin walking along side him. "And we're here."
They were in a district in Konoha frequented by civilians more than ninja, and it showed with more electric wires spread between close buildings and every walkway and staircase with an attached handrail.
He had stopped at a gap between two buildings – right before a little square of darkness that could have easily been mistaken for someone's open cellar. Even the stone steps leading down seemed unremarkable, aside from being a little dirty and cracked.
"There?" Iruka asked, doubt heavy in his voice.
Kakashi rolled a shoulder in a shrug, his hands in his pockets. He had worn his standard vest and uniform and was pleased to see Iruka had as well. It paid well to be prepared. "I did have reservations at seven," he confessed.
"... It's eight-thirty. They will have given your table away by now."
"Which is the reason I have brought you here instead." Kakashi curved his eye up at the other man in a smile. "Shall we?"
He saw doubt flicker over Iruka's expressive face as clear as day, then replaced by steady resolve. Iruka gave a single nod. It was a lot to ask of a ninja to show trust and walk into an unfamiliar situation with another, and Iruka showed good common sense in Kakashi's opinion by falling a half step behind – one hand held casually to his side where, if Kakashi wasn't wrong (and he hardly ever was), a stash of easy to reach weapons were kept in a hidden pocket.
Despite himself, Kakashi found himself more and more pleased by the behavior of this pert chuunin. It had been a mistake ever to label him as bland. Iruka had demonstrated a good deal of skill the night before. Yes, Kakashi still could have killed him if it was a real fight, but he suspected Iruka would have made him work for it.
And despite his initial... misgivings, there had been no sign of any secondary chakra. Kakashi had scanned the man up and down with his sharingan throughout the match. Even Naruto had that sense of "other" chakra when he was pushed.
So Kakashi had to lay that theory aside. It wasn't as much of a disappointment as it should have been… It would have been a shame to drag the man to Ibiki's doorstep. There were things about Iruka that did not add up – in his honest moments, Kakashi had to admit that he was not as bothered as he could be about this. Yet, after everything he had put him through Iruka still had the guts to come on to him.
First Kakashi was interested, now he was intrigued.
There was no additional lighting in the dark staircase, and as they descended they were plunged into almost total blackness. Kakashi's night vision was superb even without using Obito's eye. And as he glanced over he noted Iruka's gaze sweeping side to side with intent and purpose: he could see as well.
Iruka caught his gaze and stopped short. He looked cute when he scowled, Kakashi noted. It crinkled up the scar across his nose.
"Are we actually going somewhere, Kakashi-sensei, or is this another one of your tests?"
"Both," Kakashi admitted, continuing downward. He was pleased when Iruka followed.
Someone had strung a taunt chakra wire across the fifth step down. Kakashi exaggerated his step over it in silent warning: Minor maiming was acceptable for first dates, but probably considered rude for second ones. He waited until Iruka had done the same, shooting him a questioning look, before he continued. "You've heard of the Underground Restaurant?"
Iruka took in a sharp breath. "Yes. I found it on accident years ago with my genin team. It..." he trailed off, eyes unfocusing. Kakashi understood: eating at the Underground Restaurant for the first time was quite the experience one would not soon forget. "But when we went back a few months later... it was gone."
"It's owned and run by retired shinobi," Kakashi said. "They make sure the restaurant is hard to find, and relocates before it becomes well known. Usually, the hunt is half the fun – watch your step here."
"I see them." Iruka picked carefully around several sharp blades which jutted alarmingly far out from the walls. There was a suspicious green stain on one. Anyone without good quality night vision or something to light their way would surely have been cut and poisoned.
Kakashi had paused to examine a low hanging root – just to make sure it was a root and not some other trap (so far it seemed to be clear) when Iruka remarked, "Wouldn't this be easier for you if you uncovered your Sharingan?"
"Maa." He waved the question away. "I like the thrill of a challenge." Which sounded much cooler than 'Every time I do the owner calls me a cheat and refuses to let me in' which was the real truth.
But the other man was regarding him with a direct, skeptical gaze, so Kakashi hastened to change the subject. "Thank you for coming with me, Sensei. I found this corridor last week, but as I was already late for a mission..." he shrugged.
The other man rolled his eyes. "You? Late?"
"I was... very late," he said, smiling under his mask. And, mostly sure that the root was just a root, he continued on.
The stairway soon leveled out to a flat, still pitch-black hallway.
Iruka reached out and snagged the back of Kakashi's shirt, hauling him backwards before his foot left the last step. Kakashi was too good to completely lose his balance, but for a moment he was leaning against the chuunin's chest, steady and warm.
"What is it?"
Iruka's eyes were darting back and forth. "It thought I felt a pulse of chakra, just as you were stepping down."
Kakashi had felt no such thing, but was content to observe quietly as Iruka knelt down, bracing one hand against the wall and holding the flat of the other above the floor. He still wore a bandage on the hand, Kakashi noted, although he smelled no blood.
After several long, long minutes of silence he prompted, "Iruka-sensei?"
The other man didn't answer. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't a jutsu, because Kakashi could detect no chakra. Iruka's eyes were closed, his breathing even and head cocked slightly to the side; by all intents and purposes, listening to something that Kakashi could not hear.
Finally, Iruka opened his eyes and reached into his vest, pulling out a small slip of chakra paper and a pen. "There's an array of seals on the floor. This should trigger the trap and make them briefly visible, I think." He scribbled what looked like the kanji for a simple low-level lighting tag as he spoke. After completing the necessary seals over it, the paper began to glow a light blue. Then Iruka crumpled it up and tossed it lightly onto the floor.
The result was spectacular – the entire hallway lit instantly in a veritable carpet of deadly red seals which completely covered the floor and swirled up both walls. The unfortunate tag burst into flame and was gone in several seconds. Then the seals vanished, plunging them back into darkness.
Iruka stood up. He looked a bit ill. "Who did you say ran this place again?"
"Former ANBU," Kakashi remarked. "He must not be in the mood for many customers tonight. However," he pointed upwards, "the ceiling appeared to be clear. Shall we?"
No ninja worth his stuff would have difficulty using his chakra to walk upside-down on a ceiling. In near pitch-black darkness with a few more chakra wires and poisoned blades scattered around for fun, it was a little more challenging. But, by staying close and working together, they managed it.
Once they reached the end of the hallway, Iruka sketched out another light-tag and dropped it to the floor. They saw a clear spot along the lit seals – a two foot by two foot square in front of an equally bare spot in the wall. Presumably the door.
Both shinobi dropped down, executing a perfect flip to land on their feet – Iruka staggered a little at the rush of blood from his head and this time Kakashi was the one to steady him before he could step out of the square, catching him by the shoulders until he regained his balance again.
"Thanks," Iruka muttered, blushing furiously.
Kakashi smiled at him, a twist of lips under his mask, and reached over to knock on the wall.
A seem opened where there was none before. The segment of wall, now a door, swung inwards.
The man inside, a crooked figure with a face like leather, took one look up at the two of them and snorted. "Took you long enough to get past my traps. You're getting soft, Hatake." Then his watery blue eyes settled on Iruka. "Well now... I remember you. Not many genin find my place. Chuunin either. Well?" he snapped, before either of them could be offended. "I can't stand here all day with the door open. I'm trying to keep this place a secret, you know."
The interior of the underground restaurant was dark, lit by lamps shaded in deep red paper. Kakashi counted three low tables, each placed in its own shadowed corner. One was occupied by a group of three shinobi, but their faces and identities were also concealed in the darkness.
They were seated to the table furthest from the door. Two small one page menus were already laid out.
"These prices," Iruka murmured, flipping over his own menu to look at the back. As if expecting to see the real list somewhere else. "I had forgotten about that. How could they possibly stay in business?"
The menu itself was a simple list of top quality alcohol. Food would come later – whatever the chef felt like cooking that night. Even then, the cost of drinks was far below rock bottom.
There was a very good reason the restaurant needed to remain hidden.
"I suspect, being former ANBU, they intimidate their suppliers." Kakashi grinned under his mask at Iruka's scandalized expression and leaned across the able to point at an item. "I recommend this one."
The other man blinked, clearly calculating how much a bottle of imported sake from Sugar Country would cost in real-world restaurants. Then he set the menu away, looking up to meet Kakashi's lazy gaze. "Just how many times have you found this place, Kakashi-sensei?"
"I try to come at least one a year if I can find it." Kakashi rested his chin on his hand, shamelessly returning the stare. "The first time was shortly after I made jounin." He'd found it alongside Minato-sensei, his new eye still aching and a hole in his soul so large it seemed it would never scar over. "Tell me, how did you manage to find this as a genin?"
Iruka's face reddened slightly and he broke the gaze between them to reach up and scratch self-consciously at the bridge of his nose. "Oh, it was actually an accident. My genin team was doing a D-rank as punishment. I think it was to find a missing messenger bird. Anyway, I was crawling through the ductwork of an abandoned building in the warehouse district, and fell through right in the middle of the dining area. That man," his eyes flicked to the door and Kakashi understood it as the host, "caught me and the rest of my team when they came to check on all the noise. He said since we found the place we might as well stay and..." he trailed off with a soft smile. "It was the first time I got drunk and the first time we failed a D-rank. Sensei was so angry."
The waiter, a man in a stylized ANBU mask, came by with a bottle of warmed sake – the same they had discussed, from Sugar Country – brought before they could ask for it (these were nin-owners after all), and served with several small cups.
Kakashi and Iruka toasted to their health and their talk turned to other subjects: Iruka, he found, was a good conversationalist. Not as witty as Kakashi himself, of course, but pointedly intelligent and an active listener.
Dinner was served, each dish masterfully prepared. Kakashi took particular delight in the kobi beef which was sliced so thin it seemed nearly translucent. Iruka seemed to favor the lightly dressed salad topped with fresh apple slices.
And the sake flowed – more than it probably should have.
Kakashi wouldn't fully realize how drunk he truly was until the next day. He and Iruka left the restaurant the same way they had come – after leaving a large tip – deciding it would be fun to avoid the traps again.
Somewhere in the middle of their upside-down walk, between avoiding trip lines and stepping on odd tiles which seemed to repel chakra, Kakashi had slipped his hand on Iruka's back, under his vest to hold onto the back of his shirt... and his hand stayed there.
They made it to the staircase with no one bleeding – and laughing, although Kakashi couldn't quite remember why.
Iruka had an arm thrown about Kakashi's shoulders, even though he himself was a little less than steady on his feet. When Kakashi turned to remind him to watch again for the upcoming poisoned blades, their noses nearly collided.
Then Iruka was kissing him, his mouth feathering gently over the outline of Kakashi's lips through the mask. His touch, the sheer boldness of it, sent lightning down Kakashi's veins and pooled in his groin. He yanked down his mask to kiss Iruka properly, pushing the chuunin against the wall to steady him.
Iruka made a small noise and his fingers were tangling up in Kakashi's hair. He tasted like sake and smelled of clean soap and some slightly metallic scent that he knew he had smelled before, but couldn't quite place...
The kisses were sweet and unhurried at first; pausing in between to chuckle between them, and Kakashi couldn't remember ever feeling like this before – when he had time to simply taste and touch.
"You're smiling," Iruka murmured, between breaths. They were pressed together, not an inch of space between them, with hips gently rocking in a slow rhythm.
Kakashi captured his mouth for another kiss before saying, "You're a surprising man, sensei." Iruka's noise of agreement sent another flare of heat through Kakashi's body. He dipped his head to nibble at the juncture between Iruka's neck and collar – the metallic scent was rising and it meant something, but it couldn't have been as important as the debate going on in his head: whether to try to continue this right here, right now, or simply teleport him to his apartment.
"I want to bring you home," he decided, "find what other secrets you hold."
He had meant this, of course, only in the most lewd way possible. But Iruka tensed suddenly and pulled back.
It should not have been so easy for the other man to duck away – not as tipsy as Iruka was – but somehow he was out of the embrace of Kakashi's arms and stepping away.
"I... I'm sorry, Kakashi-sensei. This is a mistake."
Startled, Kakashi grabbed for the man's wrist... and missed. "Wait—"
He caught only a glimpse of Iruka's eyes; the whites too bright in the dark, almost a silver sheen, before the other man teleported away.
The next morning, Kakashi woke up hung over, horny, and seriously put out.
He wandered over to the academy a few hours after assigning his team a boring list of D-Rank's (which was not vengeance for his own foul mood), only to find that Iruka-sensei had been assigned for the day to help with the upcoming chuunin-exam finals. The substitute did not know where he was working.
As he was still hung over, horny, and getting one of those bad feelings he could never explain to anyone, Kakashi went so far as to raid the records office to find out where the other man lived. But it seemed no matter what he did, or where he went, he just ended up missing Iruka every single time.
There was no doubt after that: he was being avoided.
Normally, this wouldn't have stood for long. Konoha was not a large village and Kakashi was a genius, after all. But at the same time, Sasuke was being let out of the hospital soon, and he did have to teach him the fine art of the Chidori while keeping the dark seal under watchful care. He didn't have time for this nonsense.
So, reluctantly, decided that the mystery of Iruka could wait. At least until after the Chuunin Exams. By then, either his students will have advanced or not, but he would surely have more free time…
Iruka was in the middle of a lecture on the five different categories of traps when the claxons sounded.
He hesitated for a moment – he hadn't been told of a drill today – before clapping his hands together for attention, and in his best 'sensei voice' saying, "Please make an orderly line to the door. No running, please."
While the kids scrambled to obey, he stepped to the window. Out in the distance, beyond the rise of the Hokage's tower, a thick pillar of smoke was rising from the southern wall.
Trouble, Tsuki murmured, from his mind.
The Chuunin Exam finals were today. Naruto...
The thought triggered a brief pulse of heat to the hidden seal on his chest. Resolutely, Iruka made himself turn away and step to the head of the line.
I'll trust Kakashi to watch Naruto, he thought, as much to calm Tsuki as himself. Out loud, he said, "This is not a drill. Once we leave the academy grounds, you are all to follow me to the evacuation caves behind the Hokage's Monument."
"Sensei, what's going on?" called a girl in the back of the room.
Iruka swallowed hard, wishing he knew himself, and ignored the question. "As shinobi in training, I expect each of you to be calm and move quickly. The other sensei and I are your captains now, and you will listen to our orders. Is that understood?" He let his gaze sweep over the class and got solemn nods and paled faces in return. It was good enough.
"Let's move out!"
Iruka counted himself lucky; the majority of his class was near graduating age. He caught more nervous looks, but no tears as his class trekked up the long trail to the shelter of the emergency caves. They did so well, in fact, that he gave permission for some of his steadier students to go back and help the other classes with younger children.
Just as they reached the apex of the trail – the shelter not far beyond – he saw a large crack split the Third's stone face. He and Konohamaru shared an ominous look.
In addition to himself, there were four other chuunin-sensei, each arriving with a class in tow. The caves were well known to the village, and large enough to hold several hundred adults with provisions to last them for days. They were soon joined by a long line of civilians, some with clothing stained with soot and dust, and murmuring about a possible invasion.
Iruka helped direct the new arrivals to the safest point in the back of the caves, before joining the other teachers near the mouth. From their position up high, they could see more billows of smoke forming in other parts of the village.
"Look there. Over the stadium," one man, a middle-aged chuunin named Jokaru, said.
A shining dome had formed near the towers. It seemed to be the focal point of all the movement.
A younger teacher growled, "We should be helping them."
"Our place is here," Iruka snapped, though his voice had come oddly distorted. Tsuki was growling in his mind, too close to the surface. He hastily covered it with a cough, as if he had gotten road dust caught in his throat.
"Iruka-sensei is right," Jokaru added. "Our duty is to stay here and protect the next generation and those who cannot protect themselves."
As if his words were an omen, there came a cry from the cave.
"Sensei!" A young Inuzuka child yelled. "I smell something in the trees!"
The chuunin turned towards the nearby forest, but there was... nothing. No movement, no sound. Not even the call of the forest birds. It was as if the forest itself were waiting...
Tsuki broke into his thoughts. The child is right. There is something out there. Something big.
"Get back!" Iruka shouted. Some of the braver children had inched out from the safety of the caves, but at his order they jumped back. And not a moment too soon.
It came from the depths of the forest itself – so large that it snapped and felled two large trees as it emerged. Three snakes! No, one very, very large white snake with three separate heads. Its body, when it raised itself up to look over the scene, was bigger around than Iruka's classroom was wide. Each head by itself was the size of a man.
The chuunin-sensei formed themselves up in a line across the mouth of the cave, and Iruka could feel his comrades' chakra bristling – the killing intent rising up as if in a shield between the enemy and the children and civilians inside.
Jokaru struck first – an earth jutsu that caved in the ground under the massive snake. But the sinkhole was too small to completely fell it, and a moment later all five chuunin leapt out of the way as a head snapped down towards them.
Iruka focused on the nearest head and threw a barrage of kunai tipped with explosion tags. Each one bounced harmlessly off the scales as if they were as thick and polished smooth as steel.
The snake whipped its head towards him and Iruka crossed his wrists, taking the impact from the wide snout and letting it toss him away. He flipped in mid-air and came down on his hands and feet some twenty yards away.
A shrill scream rent the air. Naoko, one of the female sensei, was thrashing senselessly on the ground, yellow foam falling from her lips. At least one of the heads was venomous.
Kenichi was engaging another head with a large chakra sword; sparks coming up whenever he made a hit, but the snake appeared uninjured.
But it was clear they were only delaying the thing. The three-headed snake was moving closer, steadily forward, to the cave.
No. He could never let it reach his students. He would throw everything he had at it first.
Iruka took a deep breath and placed his hand over his heart, to the power behind the seal. Everything around him seemed to take on a silvery shimmer – his senses sharpened, all the vital points becoming clear.
He sprinted towards the snake and vaulted up the body, travelling the length of the spine at a dead run.
The eyes, he thought. It had to be a weak point.
He leapt again when he reached the rise of the snake's body, aiming for the middle head, the largest and easiest to hit. There was nothing to cling onto at the top of its head but a bit of horny scale which served as an eyebrow. Iruka grabbed onto it with one hand and thrust a kunai down with the other. It all happened within a flash of a second.
The snake screamed – there wasn't another word for it. Its long neck arched and twisted backwards, then shook desperately back and forth, trying to throw him off. Iruka held on by sheer strength, his snarl twisted, not human...
He aimed for the other eye and thrust down again, but the tip only met hard scale. A miss. The snake's entire body – all three heads – was coiling backwards, and he didn't have time-
He didn't see the trunk of the tree – only felt the impact when he hit.
Something, a few somethings, went crunch deep inside him.
Oh, he thought, dazed. That's me?
He must have fallen, because when his vision cleared he was surrounded by dry grass and broken chips of bark. The snake had scrapped him off and moved on, surely heading for the children again... he could hear their screams, sharp and clear.
"Tsuki..." There was the taste of blood on his tongue. Not a good sign at all, he knew, but he felt oddly detached. He wasn't worried about himself.
... It was going after the students, his children...
Moving his arm made sharp splinters of pain pierce his entire body. It took everything he had to place his hand over his heart and seek the seal. "Tsuki... Use me." The seal came fully unlocked under the last of his chakra, and somehow that hurt more than anything else. "...save them."
And as his vision tunneled, and then was filled again with silver and flat rice-stalks gently waving in the breeze, he thought lastly of Naruto's face... and Kakashi.
Jokaru swore as Iruka went down. He had heard the force of the hit all the way from the cave's mouth. The other chuunin would not be getting up soon, if at all.
Naoko was dead from a venom-laced bite, and he did not see what had happened to Kenichi. That left only himself and Toshio-sensei to defend the cave.
Some of the old had pushed themselves forward from the crowd of civilians and children – retired-nin of low rank, most likely. Chuunin and genin who had made it long enough to retire back into the general population. They had grim, steady expressions, but were surely out of practice and lacked weapons.
The snake had collected itself once more and was rearing up again. The head in the middle streamed blood from an eye. Iruka-sensei had been the only one out of all of them to land a hit.
Jokaru exchanged a glance with Toshio. He gave a slightly strained grin and nodded back. Three down and two left... this would likely be their last attack.
"Aim for the heads on either side," Jokaru said. "If we can—"
A sudden flash of silver, and several of the children screamed anew as a wave of killing intent rolled over them, so thick Jokaru could almost taste it. He did not realize he'd fallen onto his knees until he came back to himself – staring at his hands clawed into the dirt. He looked up and saw... the Kyuubi? No, it was smaller, man-sized, and shining a brilliant silver...
The demon fox charged from the trees and leapt up, sinking its teeth into the neck of the far-right head, directly under the jaw. The head in the middle struck at it, but the demon twisted in air and released before it was hit; the claws dragged bloody furrows in the long body as it fell.
It landed gracefully, between the cave and the snake, and hunched down as if ready to strike again. No, Jokaru realized, it had put itself between them. By Kami, the thing was trying to protect them!
"What—!" Toshio gasped. He had an arm across his mouth, as if trying not to inhale the thick cloud of chakra emanating from the demon. "What's happening?"
"I don't know," Jokaru admitted, but he wasn't about to sit back and do nothing while they were being handed this gift. He turned to the people behind him. "All of you! Pass the word along to move as far back from the mouth of the caves as possible!"
If worst came to worst, either the snake won or the fox turned on them, he could collapse the mouth of the cave with another jutsu. Buy them needed time.
Toshio, acting as lookout at the cave's entrance, was waving him forward. His face was grim. "I don't think we have much time left." And he pointed to the battle still raging outside.
The head on the right was dead, or very close to it. It lolled limply to the side, swaying like a broken thing each time the snake moved. The fox had slashed ribbons into the head on the left side, but it had not been fast enough.
The middle head with its damaged eye, had managed a hit at last – two arm-length fangs impaling it through the belly. The fox thrashed and shrieked and snapped its fangs madly. Its many tails were trapped under its own body.
"It needs help!" Jokaru said and without pausing to let himself think about exactly what he was doing, rushed out of the shelter of the cave, fingers already completing the seals.
Earth Release: Sand Trap!
The soil under the body of the snake's great body destabilized. It was a small jutsu, not usually effective against such a creature at full strength.
But it worked very well as a distraction.
As the earth liquefied to sand, the heavy body sank downwards, and the head with its neck curved and pumping venom into the fox, lifted.
It was enough. With a twist, the fox flicked its many tails forward. A blast of wind, which tossed the snake's head back and away.
Jokaru's entire vision was suddenly filled in scale and white. The second head had spotted him and even bleeding heavily, it was fast. The chuunin jumped away just in time.
But the fox had done its job well. Some of the impenetrable scales had been scraped away. And when Jokaru threw a kunai tipped with an exploding tag, this time it struck true.
Toshio followed his example and when the tags exploded, the snake's second head was taken cleanly off.
The fox engaged the third and last head again. It fell upon the snake with brute strength borne of desperation; a growling, snarling silver devil. The tails threw up clouds of dust in every direction. When it cleared, the snake was finally dead – the fox worrying the back of its head like a dog with a bone.
"What now?" Toshio muttered as they stared on.
The fox stopped and lifted its head at the sound of his voice, and for a moment chuunin-sensei and demon stared across the bloody field of battle.
The fox was… not in good shape, Jokaru noted. Its muzzle was flecked with blood and the same yellow-foam Naoko had retched up before she died. It was bleeding freely from both sides. As Jokaru watched, warily, the fox pressed a paw against its side. It was a very human gesture.
"It saved our lives," he murmured. They would have been at the snake's mercy without its help. Jokaru didn't know what this thing was, but he could recognize that, at least.
So, with Toshio hissing a warning at his side, Jokaru bowed to it. "You saved the lives of my students and my comrades. Thank you, Kitsune-sama."
The fox bobbed its head once in a return gesture – and Jokaru thought, for just a moment, he caught a glimpse of a familiar line across the bridge of its muzzle… but that was impossible…
Then, as the children, civilians and living sensei gathered to watch, it turned and limped away into the forest.
The third was dead.
Kakashi organized the remaining shinobi as best he could; sent out three man teams to comb the streets for any more Sand or Sound nins, and tried not to think of what had come of his own team...
... They were tough, he told himself. Tougher than some gave credit for. As long as they stuck together, they would be fine.
Kakashi was speaking to Asuma, Genma and several masked ANBU when a young woman in civilian clothes came sprinting up to them.
"Excuse me, Jounin-san, ANBU-san," she said, huffing between breaths. "Someone said I should report to you with my news?"
"Yes," said Asuma. "Go on."
"I've come straight from the evacuation site. Jokaru-sensei says to tell you they we were attacked by a large snake summon. Several chuunin-sensei are dead and..." she hesitated, "that it was repelled by a demon fox."
Kakashi had the interesting feeling of his heart contracting and plummeting to his sandals all at the same time.
The ANBU were too well schooled to react, but it looked like Asuma's cigarette was about to fall from his mouth as he gasped, "What?" Then, to Kakashi, "The Kyuubi?"
"No sir," the girl said, mercifully before Kakashi had time to collect himself again. "It was smaller and silver and..." again, that hesitation. "...And it protected us. From the snake, I mean. Even though it was injured, it saved us."
"What happened to the fox?" Kakashi demanded. "Where is it now?"
The girl gave a little bob, as if wanting to bow in apology. "That's just it. After the fox killed the snake it vanished into the forest. Some were sent out after it, but there wasn't any sign. Jokaru-sensei wanted to report the sighting in— in case it returned."
"Thank you," Asuma said, after a stunned moment. "You are dismissed."
The shinobi waited until the girl was out of sight again before speaking. "A demon fox fighting one of Orochimaru's summons? Could it have been your student, Kakashi-sensei?" one of the ANBU asked.
"No." Kakashi was careful to remain standing as he was – casually, almost boredly leaning against a nearby wall, his shoulders relaxed. No waver in his chakra. Nothing to indicate the slow roil of emotions just under the surface. "The Fourth was very careful when he made the seal, and I had Jiraiya check it for any sign of breakage. There was none. Whatever this is, it's different. Excuse me." He turned to leave.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Kakashi paused and glanced over his shoulder. "To test out a theory."
Asuma looked doubtful and stepped forward to follow, but one of the ANBU held him back. Perhaps they recognized the underneath of his calm facade. Perhaps they simply trusted him: Kakashi had worked with Falcon and Rat before. They were good men.
As soon as Kakashi was outside their view, his casual walk turned into a casual stalk through the lengthening shadows. Then, a casual jog. And finally, as the simmering anger under the surface turned into a full on boil, he practically flew from roof-top to roof-top.
If Iruka – if it had been injured, there were only a limited amount of places it could go to be safe. Kakashi was familiar with the ways of canines, having raised and trained his summon pack himself. A fox may be different, but he was willing to bet that once injured the beast would want to crawl back to its den and lick its wounds. That meant either Iruka's own apartment, or the Academy.
The jounin came to a stop at the building next to Iruka's apartment, balancing on the edge of the rooftop to survey the area with his sharingan. This district had been untouched by the invasion, and there was no great output of chakra to be seen anywhere. His eye caught the odd detail, however, of a single long cut along the eastern wall. As if something large had scaled up the side of the building, and slipped its claw.
The wards around Iruka's window were down, too. No one had bothered to put them back up, or couldn't.
Kakashi entered easily through the window, sharingan spinning and weapon drawn. The apartment was spartan, nearly empty. He was assaulted by the smell of sour vomit and that odd metallic scent. The only light streamed through the open window, and bathroom door open.
"Iruka-sensei?" he called cautiously. Nothing jumped out at him from the shadows.
There was a small sound from the bathroom, a rustle of clothing and an odd arrhythmic thumping. Kakashi advanced slowly, and flicked on the bathroom light.
Iruka was there, lying curled in the bathtub vest and shirt gone. Even turned away from Kakashi, he could see the other man was a mess. Two gory holes through his back oozed blood, even though Kakashi had not seen any in the apartment before. The smell of vomit was strong here. The source of the thumping was made clear - Iruka's legs were twitching in what looked like uncontrolled spasms, heels hitting the sides of the tub again and again.
With one hand still holding kunai, Kakashi cautiously reached over and rolled the other man to face him.
It was horrific.
Every facial muscle on Iruka's face was a-twitch, his lips peeled back in a frozen, unnatural, snarl. He had been impaled straight through; the bloody holes were in the front as well, half covered by Iruka arms which were locked, tight into ridged claws against his chest. And above his heart glowed the whirls and lines of a seal. It was bright silver, shining just as the fox had been.
"Sensei—" Kakashi began; unsure if the man could even hear him. But the eyelids snapped open at the sound of his voice: Iruka's familiar warm brown eyes were gone, replaced by a blank space which shone a brilliant, unearthly white.
Clawed hands – real claws now – clutched at Kakashi's shoulders. The thing wheezed. "C-can't... the venom... He's..." The words were thick and highly distorted. Iruka's body seized at once – back arching off the bottom of the tub before crashing back down. "He's... dying."
Kakashi stiffened. "Then I'm speaking to the fox?"
"Yessssssss..." the thing in Iruka hissed, through clenched teeth.
"Then why?" The kunai felt light and warm in his hands. He had brought the point up to Iruka's neck, even as the thing had grabbed for him. "If you're the fox, then why did you save the village? Or the Hyūga girl? Why do you help us?"
There was an answer, but too garbled and pained even for him to understand. Iruka's body leg's still twitched pathetically, a rivet of blood escaping one nostril.
He's dying, the demon had said.
Reluctantly, Kakashi lowered the weapon. He felt torn in a way he hardly expected. If it were simply Iruka, the other man would be halfway to whatever was left of the hospital right now. If it were truly just the fox, he would have slit its throat. Perhaps he should, anyway, but... he remembered the sound of Iruka's laughter in the underground restaurant. The playful, yet skilled way he had sparred with him.
He didn't want him to die.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Kakashi asked, at last, pulling away from its grasp.
It seemed to take a long time for the thing to answer, and when it did its words were choppy and pained.
"Cold... may slow... poison."
Ah, so that was the reason why he was lying in the bathtub. The demon must have dragged itself there before it succumbed.
Slowly, watching for any indication of attack, Kakashi pushed back the plastic curtain and twisted the cold water knob.
The demon made a choked gasp as the blast of water hit him, but made no other noise of protest. And as the water slowly filled the tub, the demon closed its eyes and turned its head away, as if intent to ignore Kakashi all together.
The jounin watched quietly; noted with his sharingan eye how the odd chakra seemed to flow over Iruka's body. When Naruto fell under the influence of the Kyuubi, its red chakra settled over him like a cloak. This seemed to travel almost in waves, starting from the seal around the man's heart and pulsing out in regular bursts.
He shut the water off when it reached to the man's chin.
"Is there anything else?" he asked, feeling wholly inadequate.
There was no answer. Just quiet gasping breaths and the slosh of water as Iruka's limbs jerked spasmodically.
If this were any other situation, Kakashi would have known what to do.
As it was, he could only sit and wait. Either the demon would heal its vessel, or it would not. Either way, Kakashi would be ready.
The sun had long since sunk down below the sky before Kakashi finally noticed a change. He had not left the small bathroom for a moment, only moving to drain and refill the tub when the water became cloudy with blood.
The chuunin let out a long exhaled breath all at once, like a long pent-up sigh. The arms unclenched, his face relaxed out of that unnatural grimace. The seal around his heart darkened and then slowly faded to nothing; The silver chakra was gone – Kakashi could only see Iruka's now, as if the other had never been there at all.
His heartbeat was strong and steady when Kakashi touched fingers to his wrist.
"Iruka-sensei." Kakashi tapped the man's cheeks with the flat of his hand, trying to rouse him, but Iruka was non-responsive. Passed into oblivion as if in a coma. Even after hours of being submerged in cold water, Kakashi could see gooseflesh just now rising along his arms and chest.
Kakashi lifted the plug and let the cold water drain away for the last time. Then he stood there, staring. Just... staring.
How many were aware of Iruka's status? He somehow greatly doubted that the man would have been allowed to teach children if it was known that he associated with a demon.
For that matter, how much was the man and how much was the demon? Kakashi flashed again to the night of the Underground Restaurant, and with it came a red hot feeling through his heart, uncomfortably like betrayal: Had that been Iruka laughing alongside him, or the fox?
Kakashi sighed, rubbed the back of his head and forced his feelings away like the professional he was supposed to be. There were far too many unknowns and if he had stumbled upon a classified S-class village secret, he needed to find out more information before proceeding.
It felt very much like an excuse, but as Iruka started shivering – a combination of cold, wet clothing and what was probably shock – Kakashi found himself gingerly kneeling down again and stripping him methodically out of the wet, ruined clothing.
He would find this shinobi's secrets once and for all, and then proceed from there.
He was running through the forest so fast the trees seemed like a blur. The scent of the missing girl was strong now; he could smell her fear and that increased his rage. He was all fours now, his long limbs sheathed in silver flicking out in distance-eating strides.
Closer... closer... he was nearly in range now – could almost hear his enemy's living heartbeat.
He burst into the meadow – saw the enemy-nin turn still holding the girl, limp in his arms. It took only two long bounds to reach them. Iruka caught the flash of the white in the man's eyes in sudden detail...
The next few minutes were still a blur, even to him.
He heard the mortal scream of the nin... smelled blood – he was coated to the elbows up in it.
A sudden presence behind him! He turned, snarling, his thoughts only to protect the girl; to pay back the enemy-nin one hundred times fold until there was nothing but scraps for the carrion birds to carry off the next morning.
The shinobi stood across the meadow and stared in shock before making his move. Iruka flicked his tails, sending him crashing back. He leapt forward, intending to finish him off...
Leaf headband... Silver hair... No... NO!
Iruka jerked abruptly back into consciousness, smacking his forehead against something hard.
"Wha—?" He tried to shift away on instinct, only to nearly topple sideways. He was clad in a fresh pair of his blacks, his hands were bound behind his back, feet tied at the ankles and laying, slumped over, against his own low living room table.
Hatake Kakashi sat casually across on the other side of the table, watching him with Sharingan uncovered.
"What is the meaning of this?" Iruka snapped, wildly confused. He managed to pull himself upright, but only barely; a heavy lethargy tugged downwards at his limbs. It felt a lot like chakra exhaustion. But why? How?
Kakashi made no move to help him. The look in his eye as hard as steel.
"Which one am I speaking too?"
"Umino or the fox?"
A cold chill swept over Iruka, then. For a moment, he could only stare at the other man. He knew. He knew.
"I'm Iruka," he said, heart in his throat.
"I would like to speak to the demon, please."
Iruka swallowed and shook his head, but not out of denial. The shock was wearing off and his memories slowly filtering in again: The last thing he remembered was the evacuation... the snake...
"Kakashi-sensei," he said, and his voice was firmer, a little less hysterical this time. "Are my students safe?"
"You don't remember?"
That made him catch his breath. "What happened?"
The jounin stared coldly at him, then shrugged one shoulder. "The official report is that a spirit of the forest arrived and saved the children and civilians. It is all very mysterious, I'm sure."
Your body was injured. Tsuki whispered, and Iruka got the impression of a fox shape laying, panting and exhausted, among the watery reeds. When he found us, you were very near death.
Kakashi leaned forward slightly as she spoke, catching Iruka's attention. The Sharingan spun faster than he had ever seen it before, giving Iruka the uncomfortable feeling the other man was somehow focusing on what was deep inside of him. "Ah," Kakashi said. "There it is." He then curved his eye up in an odd, somehow false smile. "Let me speak to it."
"Speak to—No." Iruka shook his head again, hands flexing against his shackles. The fact he couldn't break them meant they were probably chakra cuffs. His vest was gone; nothing he could use as a weapon within easy reach even if he could get up – which was doubtful. "This isn't what you think, Kakashi-sensei. I'm not a danger to—"
"Iruka-sensei," Kakashi's voice broke over his own with the force of a whip crack. "If I thought of you as any sort of a threat, you would not have woken up and we would not be having this conversation." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. "Now, the demon. Please."
Iruka stared at the man, a hundred odd snippets of thoughts and feelings bouncing around in his mind. He wasn't sure if he was terrified of the other man's coldness, or impressed by how calm he was, or just... tired. So tired.
But he was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Kakashi could not be talked from this. He'd clearly seen too much.
Finally, reluctantly, Iruka gave a silent nod and bowed his head, 'stepping away' from his own body. He felt Tsuki's presence bubbling up to fill the void – like how pockets of air would rush in to replace water out of a tipped bottle.
She looked up, tipping her head to the side to regard the shinobi. "I am Tsuki."
Kakashi saw the change come over Iruka immediately. As before, the silver chakra was so bright it hurt his Sharingan eye to look at it. He was forced to squint it shut, but the effects were quite visible through his natural eye.
A silver sheen seemed to settle over Iruka, like a semi-translucent cloak emanating from the once again visible seal upon his chest. It covered the man, ending in elongated points above his ears, and a fan of ghostly tails waving gently behind him. Kakashi could feel its power crawling against his skin like thousands of tiny millipede legs. Iruka's tanned face seemed more shadowed than before, lined on the cheeks as if with two ghostly whiskers. And his eyes… Iruka's brown eyes were gone again, replaced by brilliant shining white.
It cocked its head at him, as if analyzing Kakashi was closely as he was it. "I am Tsuki," it said, and while it used Iruka's vocal cords... it wasn't his voice. There was a softness to the words, a lilt which was distinctly feminine.
"What are you?" Kakashi asked.
"A spirit," it – she, said. "Willingly invited."
An unpleasant feeling twisted in Kakashi's stomach, but he was careful to keep his face blank. "Then you can leave your host willingly as well?"
"Yes, but not without his death."
Kakashi looked pointedly at the glowing seal, visible even behind the fabric of Iruka's shirt. "If you can take over this man's body, why are you still here?"
The demon fox opened her mouth in a low huff of a laugh, displaying pointed canines. "You think in terms of Kyuubi. I am not my brother."
There was a chink of metal and the demon brought her arms forward, broken chakra shackles hanging from one wrist. Kakashi tensed, but the demon merely folded her fingers neatly on the table – a pose Kakashi had seen Iruka take in a dozen or more meetings. The similarity made his skin crawl.
"One action requires its opposite reaction," she started. "When your people sealed Kyuubi inside its vessel, they thought him jailed. They knew nothing of the forces they were tampering with. You have no grasp of his power. Even imprisoned, Kyuubi cannot help but draw it in. Such power goes beyond the elements, and so must have its opposite. Ying and yang. Day and night. Tsuki and Kyuubi."
"Maa, you are very poetic for a fox," Kakashi drawled.
The demon twisted its mouth into a smirk – too large and odd to be human. "Where Kyuubi goes, I must. And so must he, when I leave." She spread her hands. "It is the balance. We are the same – we are opposite."
"How does Iruka-sensei fit into this?"
"Without Iruka, Kyuubi's vessel would have never survived past its sixth year. The unbalance would have been too great. Your villagers hated the sight of him, and he would have grown knowing nothing but that hatred and distrust. He is your student – you know his heart – he would have done something rash in vengeance, perhaps enough to break the seal. Your people would retaliate with more unbalance. I needed a host to counteract that."
A spark of anger flared deep within Kakashi's heart. He remembered, vividly, Naruto's fierce defense of his favorite sensei. The man who was half-parent, half-brother to him. "So you forced—"
"No," Tsuki said, and for the first time Kakashi could see a flicker of annoyance cross Iruka's distorted features. "I saw into Iruka's heart and knew it was good. It was his choice and of that, he needed only power. The rest fell into its own place."
Kakashi was surprised at his own surge of relief. It wasn't only for Naruto's sake – If he was pressed to admit it, he might say he was fond for the boy – but also, strangely, for Iruka's.
Perhaps the spirit saw some of this. She sighed. "Naruto-kun is not Kyuubi. Iruka is not me." She raised her hand, long sharp nails tapping the seal. "This keeps our minds separate."
He was silent for a moment, chewing over the words in his mind. Then, a startling thought came to him, all at once. "If Naruto were to die and if the Kyuubi breaks free, what happens to your host?"
She smiled sadly. "If Naruto-kun dies, then so will Iruka. Thus is the balance."
Iruka heard the entire conversation like a distant spectator inside his own mind. He listened quietly, and without any surprise at the answers she gave – they were the same conclusions he had drawn, in bits and pieces over the years.
And although he was certain she wasn't showing outward signs of it, he could feel Tsuki's power wavering. She had done much over the last day – there were limits even to a spirit's strength.
He felt, in some place far away, Tsuki reach up and touch the seal; closing it.
And Iruka found himself suddenly in possession of his own body again. He slumped forward, and would have knocked his head once more against the table if there wasn't a sudden hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
"She must like you," Iruka grumbled, bracing himself and pulling upright. It took much more effort than it should have. "She's hardly so straightforward, even with me."
Kakashi was staring at him with the same intensity, and he couldn't read the expression on his face. "What she said was true? You were a willing host?"
Iruka leaned back, propping himself against the couch and let out a tired, bitter chuckle. "I was eleven years old, a lonely orphan and about to flunk out of the academy. Then here comes this... spirit offering me power and telling me I could use it one day to save the village. No," he said, "I didn't know all of... this at the time. But I haven't regretted it."
A silence fell upon them, then. Iruka looked around, noting the slowly brightening light through his windows – early morning. How long had he been unconscious? He ran his fingers over his scalp; his hair was half-undone from his tight pony-tail. He probably looked like a wreck. He sighed and looked at Kakashi. "So, what now?"
"What now?" Kakashi asked, and there was the bite of cynicism in his voice. But he was still close to Iruka, hand still on his shoulder. "Do you mean how we begin to recover from Sound and Sand's betrayal? Or the fact that there are two jinchuuriki's running around in the village? Or how I'm sworn to report and eliminate any threat to Konoha?" The fingers tensed, then released. Kakashi looked away.
"Yes." Iruka swallowed. "That."
Again, Kakashi shrugged, still not looking at him. Then, "The Third is dead."
"What?" The news hit Iruka like a hammer blow. He sucked in a deep breath, bending over the table. "How?"
"Orochimaru took the place of the Kazekage," Kakashi said, dully. He reached up and rubbed between his eyes, and it occurred to Iruka that he was nearly as exhausted. "He was behind the entire invasion. We were all kept out by a barrier – there was nothing we could do. The Sandaime went down fighting... in the end."
Iruka swore lowly under his breath and then struggled to rise, forgetting that his ankles were still bound. "Get these off me," he said, as Kakashi turned to stare at him. He couldn't deal with this right now. There was so much to do. This… whatever it was between them could be settled later. Konohamaru needed to be checked on, and the rest of his students... Naruto...
But Kakashi was still staring. Then, to Iruka's exasperation, he said, "I'm afraid I can't let you do that."
Iruka temper flared. "What else do I need to do to convince you?" he blurted, in exasperation. "I've been a jinchuuriki for all these years without any incident, Kakashi! Tsuki herself told you she's here for Kyuubi's sake, and she's risked my life – both our lives for the village. What else do you need? What—"
He was stopped, very suddenly, as Kakashi disengaged the ankle restraints and in one fluid movement, hauled him to his feet. The world spun around Iruka. He gasped, holding onto the Jounin for support as his knees threatened to buckle.
"You may not have realized this, but you were very close to dying only a few hours before," Kakashi said. His voice was unusually soft. "I don't think you would make it halfway down the block before passing out again."
"I wouldn't!" he exclaimed, affronted. But he didn't let go of Kakashi's steadying arms, either.
"Hmm," Kakashi murmured. "Not to mention it would be suspicious if you came busting out in the open, in mostly one piece after the snake incident." This close, Iruka could see Kakashi's lips curve upwards under his mask. "You need a good cover story."
"What, that you found me knocked out in the wood and nursed me back to health?"
Iruka regretted his words the moment they left his mouth – especially when the look in Kakashi's blue eye changed, seeming intense and brittle all at once. Looking at him, Iruka could almost see the struggle being waged in the other man's head – it was there plain as day, provided one looked underneath the underneath.
"You are going to report me, aren't you?" he asked, quietly.
To his credit, Kakashi did not sidestep the issue. "I'm still trying to decide that."
"… I see."
The moment lengthened; neither Iruka nor Kakashi moved. And standing like that, together, so close to this man, Iruka felt as if they were both teetering on the edge of something. Of several somethings: Kakashi turning away and reporting him in for what he was. Kakashi covering for him – trusting him not because of the restraint he'd shown so far, but because he wanted too. And everything in between.
Iruka's mouth felt dry. "I think," he said, unsure what exactly what he was doing. Shouldn't he be begging for his life? Trying to convince the other man of his loyalty? "I think, then this would be considered a very bad third date."
Kakashi stared at him for a moment. Then the tension in his long frame relaxed. Just a little. "Maa, we don't seem to have a good track record so far, do we?"
"No." A pause. "I'll understand if you turn me in... If I were in your shoes, well. I won't resist." Iruka smiled then, mostly to himself. "I suppose it's only far then, if I told you my secret. The one you asked me about during our first date."
"Another one, Sensei? This wasn't enough?"
Iruka nearly laughed at the sudden look of wariness on other man's face. It made the confession easier. "I am a good fighter," he said. "But I hate to kill. I hesitate when there is a weakness, even if it is my enemy. I don't need to tell you what kind of a flaw that can be in our line of work."
"Those who would rather incapacitate than kill usually don't make it to Chuunin," Kakashi murmured. He stepped forward, guiding the other man to sit down on his couch before releasing him. Something had changed, relaxed in his demeanor, although Iruka could not say what. Perhaps he had come to his decision. "It's the same with Naruto, although I don't see that as a flaw, sensei. Not with him."
Iruka opened his mouth, but Kakashi cut him off.
"The Third's funeral is tomorrow. Stay here until then."
It seemed nothing short of an order and he turned to leave, stopping only when he reached the door to look over his shoulder. "Thank you for your secret, Iruka-sensei."
Then he was gone.
It didn't take much effort for Kakashi to arrange things to his liking. By evening Jokaru and the remaining academy staff was under the impression that Kakashi had indeed found Iruka, woozy from injury but otherwise fit for duty in a few days. (And if Jokaru-sensei gave him an odd look, well at least the grizzled chuunin had the presence of mind to keep his mouth shut. The fox had saved his skin, and they both knew it.)
He trusted Iruka would listen to him and recluse himself indoors and out of sight at least until the funeral.
Kakashi trusted because it was Iruka, and something about the man simply inspired trust. It always had, from the moment Kakashi had taken note of him.
The next day, after the funeral, when Kakashi had done his own private grieving, he found Konoha's two jinchuuriki at their usual seats at Ichiraku's – Naruto yammering Iruka's ear off about how he defeated Gaara. (Quite the accomplishment, although Kakashi would never say so within the boy's hearing.)
Watching them from his shadowed corner, Kakashi took note of their positions; Naruto all energy and boisterous excitement, slurping bowl after bowl of ramen. Iruka calm, sensible and eating neatly from his bowl. Looking at them like that, Kakashi thought he could see a glimmer of what Tsuki had told him: Ying and yang, two parts of the same energy that made the whole. The same, yet opposite.
Something in Kakashi's heart loosened. His decision became clear.
When the boy had said his goodbyes and left his former teacher and brother in spirit with the bill, Kakashi slid liquidly into the empty seat.
"Ne, Iruka-sensei," he greeted.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Surprise, wariness and hope all seemed to flash through Iruka's brown eyes at once. His smile, though, was open and honest.
It occurred to Kakashi, in a roundabout way, that without a Hokage, there was no one to officially report his findings too, anyway.
"I was thinking," Kakashi said. "Since every one of our dates has gone wrong, we should start over again."
Iruka blinked several times. Then another slow smile spread over his handsome face, the canines showing just a hint of point.
"You mean, from night one?"
"Yes," Kakashi said. "I'll meet you at training ground ten at dusk." Then he teleported. It seemed more dramatic that way.
As he walked around his small apartment, collecting weapons and condoms (one never knew how a first date could go, and an unprepared shinobi was an unsatisfied shinobi) Kakashi reflected that he might be insane for trying to start a relationship with someone who had, quite literally, two different personalities.
Oh well, he thought, tucking a small tube of lube in a vest pocket normally reserved for solider pills. Normal was relative.
And anyway, the council was sure to assign some unlucky bastard as Fifth Hokage in the next few weeks. He was going to have his hands full thinking of a new excuse for not reporting Iruka then, too.