Title: Evanesce 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - ?
Rating: Kakashi/Iruka-Mature-h/c-Angst-on-con-semi-established relationship
Spoilers: General (everything Pre-Shippuden)
Summary: Iruka arrives back to the Hidden leaf after a simple but failed mission to investigate an abandoned shrine. Little by little, he realizes that maybe there was more to the mission than he'd thought. And those closest to him start to notice the same.
Thank you jinkamoo! <3
Cross-posted to: The Kakairu Livejournal Community
Iruka was in the middle of nowhere in a snowed filled wasteland.
The ice slick rock was much harder to traverse than the forests he was accustomed to. He grimaced as another blast of wind struck mid-leap, causing him to alight ungracefully on the edge of a cliff. It figured that he made perfect sense for a mission like this.
After all he had earned himself a small reputation for knowing more than the average of his age and experience. Most things that didn't include weapons he had learned on his own, spending long nights in the musty libraries pouring over everything from chakra paper infusion to the mystic chemistry of various inks of all Nations. As he got older the Third permitted him almost free reign in the less restricted levels of the Konoha archives stored deep beneath the Hokage mountain. The higher ups caught wind of his knowledge when it came out in the classrooms under his care. Which was why he was now slowly traveling through the snow capped mountains on the Iron border and wishing he wasn't.
Sighing shortly, Iruka consulted his maps to confirm his position.
The Academy was on an extended winter hiatus. The mission room position could always be filled with other available Tower chunin. All of that and his well recognized tenacity presented him as an obvious candidate for a long term non-combat assignment. That and the fact that he was more or less considered completely expendable should things go unexpectedly south.
He didn't take it personally.
It wasn’t so easy to pinpoint the exact location of the shrine, even using the detailed maps he'd been provided. Old shrines peppered the northern borders, particularly in the outskirts where villages became more remote and faith more a daily part of life. This region was in a perpetual freeze, surrounded by ridges howling with numbing winds that burned his throat and lungs. As he climbed, the altitude change brought his breath shorter and faster but he’d been prepared for that. What he was not prepared for was the wind to gradually reside and be replaced by an unnatural fog.
"This can't be good," he muttered to himself.
His mind hummed with caution as the gloom enveloped him, feeling like he'd been swallowed whole by the white silence. For a time he could see nothing but a short distance in front him, enough to gain handholds in the rock's crevices to steadily continue upwards. Climbing carefully up a steep rise he suddenly spotted the landmark above him, appearing and disappearing through the thinning frigid mist.
"Finally," Iruka panted in relief, his forehead resting on his forearm. "Finally..."
Some winding stone stairs had been gashed into the side of bedrock ran thick with veins of blue ice. Not that he needed them. It was easy now to cut through the crisp air and gain ground until he landed in a crouch before the towering gate.
Most gates were painted bright red and maintained in some way by locals. This one, like its craggy staircase, was weather-beaten and crumbling. At one time it may have been gilded, Iruka noted, the peeling of dried colored varnish. Some might call the scene sad but he called it well used.
The shrine itself was the very definition of abandoned.
Who was this shrine dedicated to? It was very possible the place was so old, that even the ageless deity it was built for had overlooked its existence. Iruka examined the exterior carefully, searching for any indication or symbols. But there were none to be seen. The frozen wood carvings were splintered and cracked, the stone foundations claimed by drifts of gritty snow. Iruka couldn't help but wonder at the glimmer that shone off the sheen of ice. It coated this once majestic structure making it into a thing of glass.
Shrines of this nature were less for prayers and more for housing the sacred, be they spirit or sacrament.
Just because the shrine was dead on the outside did not mean it was empty.
Chakra, buried deep in its roots, hummed to life when he reached out a hand to lay flat against its side. Iruka frowned. It was as if something had awoken at his fingertips. Inside the shrine the ice glittered less brilliantly, dull and humid. Offerings had been left here long ago and forgotten. Scattered by animals or time. The packed earth floor was muddy and coated in places with thick bluish moss along with the sweet sickening scent of firewood gone to rot. It was warmer in here, the chamber's only object revealed as a small stone vault emitting chakra like a small hidden shard of sunlight. Iruka peered closer. There plastered across its exterior lay a single yellowed strip of paper, marked with the unmistakable slashes and script of the ninjutsu.
Iruka cocked his head to the side, his breath fogging and hanging in the still air.
“Found you.” He spoke to it.
The report had been accurate. This was far from a standard seal and even among rarities, not described in any of his texts. In fact, he had never seen one even remotely close to it. At first glance, it might have be taken for a binding seal if not for the color of the strange ink. Dark blood red and magnetic to the chakra threads forming it.
Many seals were primarily combinations and nuances of other individual patterns but he'd never seen this particular configuration before. He also knew that despite this development he could break it regardless. It would just take a little longer than expected.
Unfortunately he didn't think that would mean days.
It was nice in terrible kind of way. Isolation wasn't something he thought he could sustain indefinitely but it brought a certain kind of ease. He could focus on the seal even with cold numb fingers, concentrate on his chakra and the brittle books he'd brought in his storage scrolls. There were no distractions and several different people asking several things from him at once. He was thinking about how just how much of his life was spent juggling around the lives of others that he almost missed it when the seal began to sizzle, the retreating crimson characters sparking, chasing each stroke of kanji like a fuse and melting into ash.
"Here goes nothing..."
He'd already set up wards in case there was something man eating or worse inside but all of the usual prelims to check had read negative. Everything was in the clear. Iruka had already jumped back a safe distance, his hand clutching a kunai. Oddly enough, no release of blades, burning fire, or bizarre chakra were unfurled. It was almost a disappointment. He waited several heart beats, ignoring the tight grip he held on his weapon. Still nothing. But then with a dull cracking boom the stone lid on the vault split down its center. Iruka stared in breathless hope. His arms flew up to cover his face when the slab abruptly exploded outwards sending grit and shards billowing across the chamber.
Iruka stood carefully from his defensive crouch.
Had he done it? Iruka breathed a laugh and coughed on the thick dust. He had. It was finished. The seal was broken.
He could retrieve what was inside and finally get out of this forsaken ice box.
With a thrill of excitement, he carefully knelt down to peer into the vault he'd been dealing with for days and nights on end. But then, as he searched he instantly felt his insides lurch. Making a small sound of confusion, he passed a hand through its small confines, fingers checking the rock seams and surfaces.
"No....no, no, no, no!"
The compartment the seal had been protecting was empty. Sagging back on his heels he simply stared at the vacant space in disbelief.
Iruka wished he wasn't alone then. Because he felt like killing someone.
He first noticed it as he made the long journey back to the Leaf.
It wasn't because it hurt more or appeared any differently from the usual bruises and scratches one tended to get when travelling via any means other than the ground with roads. Iruka just had no idea how he could have gotten a scratch that severe on that part of his arm. Pausing to rest on a high frost dusted branch, he rolled up his sleeve to examine the dull ache. There was a cut that went straight across the crease on the delicate skin inside of his right elbow. There were several others on his forearms that he knew were from whipping nin speed through the underbrush but this one was deeper. Flexing his fist, he didn't like how it was exactly where he'd have to feel it all of the time. With a shrug, he shouldered his pack and forced the minor distraction to the back of his mind.
If that was all the worry he had to bring back from a mission he counted himself one ridiculously lucky man.
As soon as he'd arrived through the village gates nine days overdue he'd gone immediately to his empty apartment instead of the Tower. The season was hovering on the edge of winter so it wasn't a surprise that he found his home as cold as it was outdoors. Dozens upon dozens of old books, manuscripts, and countless sheaths of yellowed paper used to prepare for the assignment were scattered all over the tables and floor. A few panes of glass in the windows were cracked for some reason. There were dishes still sitting in the sink. The air was stale and the power was out. And the appalling sight of it all was one of the best things he'd seen in a long time. He headed straight to the bathroom and slammed on the currently frigid spray of the shower. It took some time to peel layer after layer of cold weather gear off his body. After spending weeks of living in the shrine's dank interior of rotted moss, slushy mud, and decay it had all eventually started to mold his uniform. And the smell? Iruka gagged on a dry heave as he realized it was even worse now that he was in closed quarters.
"This," Iruka dropped the last of it onto the soggy pile on the floor. "...can be burned."
Too bad he couldn't toss himself into an incinerator too.
Well, he had the next best thing. Looking miserably at the shower he reminded himself that clean was clean. Gasping when the biting water struck the skin of his back, he numbly fumbled for the soap and started scrubbing vigorously. As the frigid onslaught soaked into his hair he tried very hard not to bite his tongue off between chattering teeth. Not lingering for long he grabbed a towel and began to think about what to do first. Eat something? Try to get his heat back on? Go to the Tower? Or lay down and just breathe?
"Just a few minutes," Iruka assured no one as he sunk down onto his futon, shivering his way into his warmest and thickest blanket. "Then I'll report to the...the..."
As good as his intentions were, he knew as soon as his head hit the pillow that a fifth option had won.
He didn't get to doze long before two furry summons appeared, one genin came to his door, and he came to realize he could see his own breath fog in front of his face while indoors. Pushing loose damp hair away from his eyes, he grimly decided that getting the power back on probably should have been his first priority. After the fourth summons he gave up entirely and made the bed. It was a hawk this time who politely left yet another scroll on his window sill before even more politely swooping away. Those guys at the Tower sure wanted an update. Too bad Iruka didn't have much to tell them. Actually less than nothing because that was exactly what the seal had been guarding. And then there was the urgent request from Izumo. Which had not so much to do with any potentially useful new seals and infinitely more urgent if Iruka had any say in anything.
Which he didn't.
He dug out a clean uniform and concentrated on the task at hand, his jaw trembling in an effort to keep his teeth from rattling out of his head. He paused with his shirt hanging in his hands. There had been no time to do it in the shower, he had wanted to get out from under the ruthless blast of ice as quickly as possible. But now... He held out his right arm, palm up to examine it.
Iruka frowned at the shallow cut inside his elbow, experimentally rotating his forearm to gauge the discomfort.
It was more annoying than painful. Iruka grimaced as he started to pull on his turtleneck. No. Nope. He was very wrong. Extremely wrong. He decided it actually did hurt as much as it was troublesome. The wound was exactly where he'd feel it whenever he did anything with that arm except keeping it straight down at his side. When he wasn't moving his arm it still ached enough for him to be constantly aware of it. He flexed his fist a few times wondering vaguely why the salve he'd used wasn't numbing it as well as it had the other minor abrasions.
Distracted, he almost missed the subtle shift in the air behind him and a slight deliberate sound. Iruka went still for a moment before he relaxed. Back in town for no more than a handful of hours and so many visitors already.
Iruka didn't turn around at the sound of the voice. But Kakashi was correct. A week and two days late. He had, after all, sent word to Lady Tsunade many days prior to warn of his delay and was expected more or less at the time when he finally caught sight of the perimeter walls. Even if the Hokage had been promptly alerted about his extended time in the field, he was pretty sure the jounin had gotten hold of that information before the message had even reached her hands. He finished getting dressed and managed to pull his hair up into a tight ponytail despite his cramped fingers.
"I got held up." Still facing the frost laced window, Iruka was attempting to tie on his hitai-ate. It took two tries, he couldn't stop shaking.
"It's a bit chilly in here."
"Is it?" Iruka asked. "I hadn't noticed."
Iruka zipped up his vest. "The seal took longer than I thought it would." It came out sounding like an apology. Maybe it was. He still hadn't turned to look at Kakashi. The presence of any shinobi was like a shimmering heat he could usually sense if not physically feel. With the jounin is was even more so. But Iruka felt nothing from the man behind him. It seemed the Copy nin had sent a copy in his stead.
"Was it fun?" Kakashi's provoking smile was in his voice.
"You should have seen all the snow ball fights."
"Well, at least I always won."
The ice bath hadn't helped with the stiffness in his muscles and much less with his mood. But it felt good to hear Kakashi’s voice after so long of hearing none at all. After he checked his vest pockets, he finally turned around to grant the clone of the jounin a small, if not exhausted, smile. "I found a seashell tho? On the way back. Right in the middle of a forest."
One pale eyebrow raised. Kakashi studied Iruka from his lean in the bedroom doorway. He should have known Kakashi wouldn't be fascinated by said seashell which was stashed somewhere in his muddy jacket still crumpled on the bathroom floor. Along with a peculiar pinecone and a piece of igneous rock roughly shaped like a triangle. Oh, and an iridescent feather from a bird he couldn't identify. To counter Kakashi’s silence, he figured he'd elaborate.
"I thought that when classes started up again the students could use some samples on how to identify foreign objects in an environment that would indicate--"
Kakashi cleared his throat, confirming that yes, he could give less than a damn about any fun forest finds. But Iruka knew well enough what the other was waiting for. He might as well give in and assuage Kakashi’s heavily ingrained and all prevailing sense of caution.
"Non-combat mission, remember?" Iruka tried. "C-Rank." Less than a D, he mused, if any rank under that should ever exist.
Kakashi continued to stare. With a short exhale of defeat, Iruka decided to drop all pretense and held his arms out in only mild exasperation.
"No injuries," he answered the question that was not being asked outloud. "Just need some sleep."
"So go back to bed."
Iruka checked his sigh. He shouldn't feel surprised that Kakashi was well aware he had been trying to get some rest just a short while ago. Were there any wards in the world that could keep the man out of anywhere he didn't want him to be?
"Mission room is down three people," he explained. "Izumo asked." More like begged. His co-worker had sent a nervous genin to the door with a desperate written plea and promises of any newborns Izumo may have in the future. "I can't let him handle it all, half the assignments will end up on the moon.” He wanted to groan nearly at the thought of it. “Besides, I still have to deliver my own report."
"That can wait."
Iruka was well aware of Kakashi's lackadaisical philosophy on that particular subject.
"You've been back for less than four hours."
"An entire four?" Iruka asked. "I must be slacking."
Kakashi made to step forward but Iruka raised his hand to stop him.
"You know the rule," he said blandly.
"The Rule," Kakashi sighed in mild frustration. "Sensei, you and your rules..."
"Unless, I've been gone so long it just slipped your mind?"
"No contact for the clones." Kakashi had at least some decency to look slightly ashamed.
"So you do remember."
Unthwarted, Kakashi began to move towards him again armed with a silent plea. As incredibly moving the display was, Iruka had seen this ploy often enough to know when to shut it down.
"Forget it," he firmly shook his head. "Not so much as a handshake."
"You know..." Kakashi dropped the act with a lopsided grin. "...your adventurous travels out in the cruel world have made you so heartless."
There was a huff of a laugh behind the mask and a dismissive gloved hand before Kakashi popped into a small cloud of smoke. Looking at the empty doorway where a Kakashi had just been seconds before, Iruka's tired smile turned into a slightly brighter one.
"Nice to see you too."
He gathered up his things and headed out, letting the winter air wake him up. His smile grew as he felt energy he didn't know he still had start to return in his flagging limbs. Glancing back over his shoulder he took in the bustling street behind him. Despite the weather it was filled with scent of grilled meat from the food stalls and the chatter of bundled mothers doing the shopping with even more bundled children. Things he hadn't been a party to for so many weeks. His smile deepened into something like content. It was good to be home.
The smile turned thoughtful as he weaved his way through the distracted pedestrians.
As for Kakashi...
Iruka had no problem waiting for the real thing. No problem at all.
The debrief he delivered had been just that--brief. As soon as it was known that the seal had hidden nothing of import, which in Iruka's estimation seemed gratuitous because there was literally nothing of anything, all interest in his mission evaporated. The only people left in the room were the specialists that wanted his notes on how he had used safety wards beforehand, and the configuration of the seal itself. After that, the only question left was why the seal had been locked there at all. Iruka had barely opened his mouth with his own theories before it was clearly stated that the mundane riddle was theirs to solve and not the chunin's. So, having been given a Thank You and a You Can Get Out Now, he wandered in a slight daze towards the mission room which was only one floor below.
It sounded pretty rowdy in there. For it was not often one could hear clear and complete shouted conversation from the corridor.
Taking a deep breath, he swung open the door and plunged into the chaos.
"Iruka!" Izumo practically shed tears at the sight of him. "I know you just checked in but-"
"It's fine, " Iruka held up a hand to stop him and grinned with what he was sure would appear to be a reassurance. "Just tell me where we're at."
It was almost like walking back into his apartment. Messy and familiar. But thankfully much warmer. By nightfall the state of things had gone down from chaos to a tenuous level of barely controlled mayhem. The filing was in such shambles that Iruka returned the next day and then again the day after that. Not many of the chunin noticed it was so soon after his extended mission and the weary jounin that filed in with their reports could have cared less.
Genma, however, seemed annoyed at seeing Iruka on dispatch. In fact he had been looking at him oddly the entire day.
"Tsunade didn't give you any leave? You’re entitled, you know." He was leaning in a half seat on the desk and not doing much of anything. Genma did a lot of that in his free time. That sitting around doing nothing thing. Iruka wasn't sure why he usually did it in and around the Tower of all places but what a jounin did for kicks was none of his business.
"I was undoing one seal," Squeezing his eyes shut, he rubbed at the scar across his nose. "Not fighting the Mist."
His comrade merely shrugged.
Focusing on the ledger in front of him, he absently pushed at the inside of his arm. He'd treated the cut as he should have but it was still irritating him. Every time he reached up to receive a scroll it burned, and every time he brought his arm back to rest at the table it stung just as badly. Sometimes if he moved particularly fast, the pain shot right up into his wrist. Like it did right then. With a small intake of breath, his hand spasmed and a scroll report clattered loudly onto the desk. The tall jounin who had handed it over narrowed his eyes in contempt and slight disgust. As he left, Iruka was glad there was no one behind him in the dwindling lines.
"What was that?" the bobbing senbon in Genma's mouth stilled.
"Huh? Oh, nothing." Iruka absently gripped at his wrist and quickly placed the scroll neatly into a stack with the others. "Don't you have a home?"
Genma's skeptical expression stayed in place. "Sure," he glanced up at the clock knowing the work schedule better than most of the chunin that were actually were supposed to be there. "Don't you?"
Iruka blinked when he realized the time. It couldn't possibly be that late. He was half way into a double shift and was supposed to have left hours ago.
"I-I should get going," he stammered, quickly checking his table was in order. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow."
Holding up a small black lacquered scroll, Genma tapped it against his own temple. "Mission tomorrow."
"I see." Iruka said. "I didn't know any A-Rank were going out this week."
Genma tilted his head. "You were there when the Hokage assigned it this morning."
Iruka suddenly didn't feel very good.
"Everything okay Iruka-sensei?"
Before he could answer that excellent question, he detected the presence of Lady Tsunade, entering the room more quietly than usual and flanked by two ANBU bodyguards. She said nothing, only gave a look that meant Genma should join her in her private offices. With a sigh, Genma pushed off from the desk and uncrossed his arms. "Duty calls. See you around."
Iruka managed a weak smile he hoped could be translated to Good Luck or Be careful. As they exited undoubtedly to discuss the A-Rank, Iruka gathered his belongings as fast as he could without looking as if he were in too much of a hurry. He wanted to go home. Tea. Food. Some sleep. That's all he needed.
It wasn't much of a surprise to Iruka that the quiet rest he craved was not going to happen. As soon as he opened his door he knew he wasn't alone even though none of the lights had been turned on. He took a moment to revel in the heated gush of air against his frozen face. Behind him everything was muted in dim purple twilight, the flat blanket of clouds above washed out and stark with a faint metallic scent that promised snow.
Carefully resetting the key seals in the entryway, he extended his withered chakra to recheck the wards he’d set on the windows and perimeters before feeling satisfied enough to enter. Stepping inside he realized all the curtains had been drawn to blot out the glow of street lamps and swathe the apartment in pitch black.
It wasn't as though Kakashi had some freakish habit of sitting alone in the dark for hours staring into space but he did know that the senior jounin had specific requirements for his own downtime. And there was no doubt of his legitimacy this time because no clone he knew of emanated that make of languid energy. Iruka couldn't recall when he first noticed he could sometimes easily spot a clone. Until he saw others with more far more skill unable to do so, he hadn't thought much about it.
Turning on a dim lamp in the corner, Iruka stepped noiselessly past the man lying in a comfortable sprawl in the sag of his old sofa. Besides all of the blankets Iruka owned, he noted the uniform gone with just the usual sleeveless singlet and mask attached. The jounin had been here for a while and, judging from the creases on his visible face, he'd been sleeping. Iruka hoped the soft yellow lamp was easier to wake to than the bright sodium kitchen lights he usually used.
"Working hard?" Kakashi stretched slowly without sitting up.
"Lots of activity at the borders," Iruka didn't attempt to stifle his yawn. The sight of the jumbled up fleece at the jounin's feet and the warmth roiling off the dull orange coils on the heater was making him even sleepier than he already was. "They're sending an A-Rank tomorrow." Kakashi most definitely knew that already but he said it anyway.
It had been two days since his return to the village and he'd only briefly seen a Kakashi once on the morning he’d had to rush to perform damage control at the Tower. Of course Kakashi wasn't going to say it. But the fact lingered in the silence between them. Two days and Iruka had barely been home.
"Are you hungry?" Iruka had food somewhere. The stuff that came out of bags and cans but he wasn't up for much more.
Iruka turned at the odd way Kakashi had added the 'please'. It was so reserved it sounded like a whisper not truly meant for him to hear. Having pulled himself up among the mess of pillows and cushions, Kakashi blinked up sleepily at him. The look wasn't expectant, angry or annoyed. It was faintly hopeful but mostly smug. How Kakashi managed to convey these two things at once made Iruka’s face warm despite himself. With one finger he tugged down the mask until he found an upper lip. Holding the jounin's chin, Iruka tipped the pale face up and grazed his cheek against the sleep warm one under him. Kakashi's body slowly tensed under his touch, his hand going carefully to the back of Iruka's thigh, the other resting into a light grip on Iruka's hip.
"After the tea."
Kakashi sighed softly in disappointment. The smug left his smile, leaving only hope remaining.
"Need to set the wards," Iruka looked back at his front door. Key seals were the only thing that kept a village full of nin out of your silver. If he had actually had any. "Then I'll put some water on-" A hand caught his wrist as he started to move away.
"I believe you did that already."
Iruka stared at him for a moment and let out a small laugh. Of course he had. Genma might have been right about taking a day off. All he’d accomplished today was distraction. Granted, Kakashi had been trained to be nothing but a series of dangerous diversions so he wasn't quite sure if attempting to reset already set wards was that much of a slip up. He ground his palms into his eyes and shook his head at himself.
Kakashi hadn't asked him not to but Iruka didn't switch on the overhead glare of the kitchen lights. He was very aware of the nin's honed perceptivity to light in general. Most especially, like now, when his sensitive left eye was uncovered. The gold glow of the faded lampshade in the living room seemed better suited to the quiet and calm. It was peaceful like he hoped the jounin's sleep had been.
The kettle needed to be filled and he made sure to top it off so he'd have some left for instant noodles afterwards. Kakashi had said he wasn't hungry but if he prepared the next morning’s miso soup in advance tonight, he might eat some. As he lifted the pot from the sink, he suddenly felt a white hot jolt shoot through his arm. With a hiss he dropped the kettle, wincing at the flare of pain and the sound of copper clanking back into the sink. That same spot. Again. Damn it. Ignoring the dull sparks that were running back and forth down his forearm, he gritted his teeth and picked the kettle back up. Jaw still clenched, he lit the gas stove and tried very hard not to feel like Kakashi wasn't watching him for any other reason than usual.
He stopped the question in its tracks by holding up two tins of loose tea.
"Kombucha or Genmaicha?"
Waking up alone wasn't anything new.
But, as more often than not, beside him on the bedside table there was a ceramic cup of coffee with a stamp sized seal that had kept it warm and steaming. When he arrived at the mission room for duty he became glad Kakashi had ended up interrupting his need for solitude the previous evening. Because almost as soon as he had walked through the door he overheard the tense buzz of voices discussing the unexpected missions sent out earlier. Three more A-Rank and one S-Rank had been dispatched before dawn. As soon as he heard those words, Iruka knew the reason why the jounin had showed up when he had. Iruka used his limited access to at least find out a little about the recent A-Ranks and found no timetable for the assignments. No one seemed to know anything about the S-Rank.
He probably would not see Kakashi again for quite some time.
Izumo gave him a half smile. "I bet you miss the Academy on weeks like these, huh?"
Iruka smiled absently back. S-Rank. He'd been watching the room to see which jounin he knew weren't out on assignment as of yesterday. Watching to see who wasn't around. Who might have gone out on missions in the dark of the morning with no timetables. Not that it mattered. There was no way of telling who was where, when or why unless you were Hokage.
"Okay," he braced himself and took in the teetering stack of scrolls before him. "Let's get started shall we?"
A week and a half came and went before the first A-Rank team returned intact. Another four days later the other two A-Rank teams straggled in, both missing a member from each of their cells. Gossip around the Tower was that it had been an extraordinary miracle that any of them had made it back at all considering the flurry of unchecked skirmishes in the north. Iruka half listened to the rumors. How the absent team members had been killed, been captured or reported as missing nin. Conjecture after any disaster was a Leaf shinobi's favorite morbid past time. All Iruka knew was that Kakashi was not on any of the teams and the S-Rank had still not returned.
"Iruka! Hey, Iruka!" Kotetsu had jogged up to walk beside him. "Genma is back. He had to check in at the hospital but they're releasing him today."
"I heard," Iruka nodded, feeling grateful all over again even if it was second hand news. "I heard Riichi was being released too."
"Yeah," the chunin grinned. "We're taking them out tonight. Get 'em drunk and get the low down."
Iruka never quite understood why everyone lived to swap their war stories. Maybe it was because the stories he heard in only brief snatches and murmurs came from one that didn't find all aspects of the life they lived to be anything worthy of pride. Let alone romanticized. He knew there were many more unspoken reasons besides a mutual attachment to Naruto that defined whatever it was that tied him and the Copy nin together. He preferred to imagine that one of them was a primary understanding-- dedication meant sacrifice. Not wanton glorification.
"You want to come?"
"I can't," Iruka feigned regret. "I have so much to catch up on before the Academy opens again."
"Maaaa, yer no fun sensei," Kotetsu joked. "Well, I'll fill you on the good stuff tomorrow!"
Iruka watched him bound up the stairs and clutched his mission ledger closer to his side. He had no intention of being anywhere but home this evening on the statistically high chance of Kakashi appearing wounded on his doorstep rather than the doorstep of the hospital. Looking out the window, he was on a high enough floor to see the village gates. It wasn't as if he hadn't performed this kind of private vigil before. Many times the jounin had been away for just as long or more.
But he always came back.
Iruka paused in the Tower stairwell, a wave of nausea making him reach for the railing. He let out a soft groan as the wound on the inside of his arm pulsed before settling back into the usual ache.
"Come on," he growled to himself. "Get it together."
With a deep breath he continued to the next floor and made his way down the curve of the hall. He was late for his shift because he’d gone to the clinic to have his arm checked again. It still bothered him but he had been assured it wasn't infected and he should just keep using the salve and try not to irritate it. Medi-nin seemed not to be able to do much more than say that. They were as confused as he was frustrated at what little affect their healing chakra seemed to have. But despite their suggestion, it was nothing he was about to go running to the Hokage about any time soon. The lingering scratch was an inconvenience, not a set of broken legs.
Time to get back to work.
Reaching his destination, his hand hovered uncertainly over an unexpected set of elaborate door latches. Looking up he paused in confusion. This wasn't the mission room. Staring at the unfamiliar set of double doors, a sick feeling started at the back of his throat and sank down to the pit of his stomach. His arm throbbed in time with his heart beat as he backed up a step.
A gentle voice startled him.
"O-Oh, Shizune-san," he managed. "Good morning."
"Good morning," she glanced back and forth between him and the doors. "Were you here to see Ibiki-sama?"
Iruka felt his mouth open and close again.
"He isn't in his tower offices today," she said. "He's is uh... currently offsite with Inoichi-sama."
Ibiki-sama? Inoichi Yamanaka?
"No? No, I was just... I was going... I was just leaving."
Before Shizune could question him any further he turned and practically stumbled away heading back to the staircase. The T&I admin offices? Those were on the top floor. He never went to the top floor unless he was passing it in on the flight of stairs to get to the roof. Stopping on the steps he looked down to the next landing below him. Level 6. Wasn't the mission room on Level 3? Maybe it was Level 2? His breath was coming faster and a clammy sweat had broken out on his skin.
"Tired," Iruka whispered, head down and eyes closed. "I'm just tired."
The hand gripping the banister abruptly flared in pain, ripping through his arm and up into his shoulder. His strained gasp echoed softly through the empty concrete stairwell and then everything was spinning. There was nothing but the feel of his body making hard contact with the stairs over and over as he tumbled. A sudden stillness told him when he had finally rolled to a stop on the landing. Panting for a few seconds, he attempted to sit up and to feel at the back of his head where it had cracked against the floor. No good. The world shifted again. A wave of sickness struck and he collapsed back hard onto his throbbing arm. He smothered his cry of agony into a harsh groan.
Great. Just great.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to will himself into some form of calm. But the small sound of an anxious gasp caused his eyes to fly back open in alarm.
A porcelain Cat mask was peering down at him. And if Iruka didn't know any better about the ANBU, he would say by its stance that it appeared... worried.
Kakashi never arrived expecting a parade, but a hello from the dozing gate chunin would have been nice.
Even just a wave.
Apparently if you weren't bleeding out and carrying one or more of your severed limbs no one paid you much mind. He laughed a little. The image he'd conjured really wasn't supposed to be all that amusing but if he was anything, he was easy to amuse. And it really wasn't the gate chunin's fault to have such an impressive lack of enthusiasm. If he had that tedious job, he probably would have installed a hammock and a Do Not Disturb sign. Hm. That actually didn't sound quite that bad...
"Kakashi-sensei!!!" someone was shouting. "KAKA-SENSEIIIIIIIII!"
Not quite the welcome wagon he expected nor necessarily wanted, but Shinobi and beggars could never really be choosers.
Behind Kakashi the gate chunin jerked awake with a sputtering sound, his posture assuming sudden alertness. They both watched Rock Lee galloping towards them like there was going to be a prize for his efforts. Not far behind there was Gai, standing in wait on top of a steaming yakisoba stand. Hands on his hips and owning a smile that exuded all the volumes of praise that Kakashi was certain he'd have the honor of hearing all the way to the Tower. Unsure if the young and extremely exuberant taijutsu artist barreling at him was going to slow down, Kakashi got ready to move out of the way or brace for impact. He had to do neither.
"You look well, sensei!" Lee was bowing profusely. "You do not appear to have been mutilated nor maimed in any way!"
Kakashi was just as pleased and surprised by that fact as well.
"You know what they say," he patted the bowed head. "Luck is always the last refuge of laziness and incompetence."*
He drew his attention wearily back up to the far distant Tower. If he lingered here for much longer there was no hope of avoiding Gai and the incredible scene that would undoubtedly unfold right in here the middle of the street. He chanced a glance back at the gate guard and saw his mouth hanging wide open. If it was because he recognized the Copy nin, or had just witnessed Lee, he could not be certain. Regardless, he would not subject the innocent chunin (who looked like he'd just fallen out of the Academy yesterday) to that sort of business. Kakashi wasn't a cruel man. Grinning to himself he used his waning chakra to make the rest of the journey and disappeared in a wisp of leaves. He'd find Gai later.
Tears of untold and precious youth were better enjoyed over sake anyway.
As he walked the halls he heard murmurs pointed cautiously in his direction. Accolades that shouldn't really have been uttered at all considering the shinobi making them should have had no idea what he had been up to. the leaf will never fall, the will of fire, returned without a scratch... and quite a few nods. It was easy to keep many things about the nature of an S-Rank secret but it was difficult in certain circles to keep the identity of any non-ANBU sent to complete it. Protocol and rules could only do so much at keeping nin from being nin. They liked a secret more than they liked a freshly whetted kunai.
"Sempai." An awed genin paused and gave a curt bow.
He nodded vaguely in return and wondered what stories about his mission had been circulating while he’d been away.
Hopefully it was something good and not like that last fable that involved him getting involved with a Sand prostitute and a rash. But he didn't truly care what people made up to pass their time. He liked to bend a little protocol himself from time to time. He saw Asuma emerge from the mission office. Spotting Kakashi right away, the big man barked out a laugh and gave him a lopsided grin around his cigarette.
"Glad you're back," Asuma gave him a hard punch to the shoulder as he passed by without stopping. "You're alive even."
Kakashi kept his footing and dignity by not slamming into the opposite wall from the blow. "Seems to be the consensus."
Entering the busy room, Kakashi experienced a pang of disappointment when he saw an unknown chunin sitting behind the dispatch desk where Iruka was supposed to be. Flipping his report scroll in the air in a blur of rotation he caught it and slammed it down in front of the startled nin. The chunin was young and his eyes were very wide. Thinking of the boy at the gate he briefly wondered if they were churning them out on the field a little earlier than usual these days. Speaking of children.
"So," Kakashi asked causally as possible. "School back in session?"
It took a moment for it to register; the chunin's round eyes fixated on the masked face now several inches from his own.
"O-Oh! No sempai! Another three weeks to go!" he was speaking much too fast. "They extended the winter break for repairs-"
"I see," Kakashi straightened and considered the trembling nin for a moment. "Thank you for your hard work."
"Uh, thank you for your hard work?" he answered uncertainly. "...too?"
Iruka always said weird inspiring things like that to returning shinobi and offering the sentiment back to the other side of the table made Kakashi feel extremely philanthropic. Resisting the urge to give the paper pushing chunin a pat on the head as he had done Lee, he turned to make his leave. Repairs at the school. That made sense. The Academy always seemed to fall to the wayside in the budget when it came to restorations. That's where Iruka surely was then. Most likely shouting orders at poor unsuspecting civilian contractors.
Kakashi stopped to see Kotetsu leafing through papers and sticking them seemingly haphazardly in a long row of jumbled filing cabinets.
"He's not at the Academy."
Having not expressly said he was looking for anyone, he was slightly annoyed that he'd been called out on his admittedly poorly veiled inquiry. Poorly veiled and, at this point, wholly unnecessary but Kakashi liked to pretend he had some modicum of privacy.
"So," he decided he was too tired to be irritated. "Where is he?"
"Izumo brought him home."
Kakashi took a second to wonder what that meant.
"He fell down some stairs," Kotetsu was trying to slam an overstuffed metal drawer shut. "We've been telling him for days to take it easy."
Fell down some stairs? If he had just been told Iruka suddenly didn't know how to read it would have made more sense. Stairs were not much of an obstacle for one that could manipulate chakra to walk on water. He was glad no one could see his mouth quirk into a smile.
"But you know him," With a grunt, Kotetsu used his shoulder to close the drawer the rest of the way. "He never listens."
"No," Kakashi agreed as he continued to the door. "He doesn't does he."
"Welcome home by the way!" he called out behind him. "Knew you'd make it back!"
Kakashi absently lifted a hand in response and left.
Izumo wasn't there when Kakashi alighted on the icy roof next door.
He was pleased that he could only sense one string of chakra, a steady flow of energy that he knew as well as the shape of its owner's eyes. He preferred his homecomings less crowded. It was practically a tradition if he actually stopped to think on it. Iruka wasn't a huge proponent of the practice because many of his returns were better suited for a medi-nin but everyone had their own priorities. After all, he had gone to the Tower first off like a good and dutiful operative should. With a report no less. Granted he just been there looking for Iruka but that was beside the point.
Kakashi involuntarily shivered as the wind picked up.
Winter sure had come early this year.
Oddly enough, the curtains were drawn, something that rarely happened unless Kakashi had done it himself. Glancing down at his dirty uniform he wondered if it was worth cleaning up first. It was a possibility but he was already right here and Iruka's building had running water just like anywhere else.
His hand paused just as he was about to knock on the door.
Kakashi experienced a brief burst of worry, wondering if maybe he should have brought something. What did one bring to someone who had just recently face planted down a staircase? Flowers? Candy? Skurikan? Perhaps a helmet. All of at least three which would likely earn him a punch to the face. The dilemma was solved when the door suddenly opened without him having to announce himself. Well at least taking a header down some steps hadn't hindered Iruka's ability to sense people lurking directly outside his apartment.
At first Iruka appeared apprehensive. He was quickly looking Kakashi up and down as per the drill whenever he came home from an assignment. There was the searching and finding no obvious signs of damage. No rips or tears. No gaping knife wounds or serrated flesh. Nothing but a filthy uniform. The warm and relieved smile that broke out across Iruka's face made him momentarily forget to even smile back. Kakashi took in the darkening bruise on the teacher's cheekbone and the flat bandage across his forehead which was missing the hitai-ate. The wind gusted, sending glittering flakes of frost up through the air and making Iruka draw back when it hissed through the doorway.
"Get in." Iruka ordered.
Kakashi paused inside to remove his boots and unzip his vest while Iruka leaned the door shut behind them.
Iruka’s smile hadn't wavered. The sight of it directed at him made something in Kakashi's chest clench and for a full minute it was a little hard to think. There were very few people alive in the world that the Copy nin ever allowed to touch him without his express permission. However, he didn't so much as flinch when Iruka yanked his singlet up to his neck to make sure he was actually in one piece. He allowed the calloused hands to travel, feeling for the burning seep of fresh blood or the stiff fabric covering an older wound. He waited patiently for Iruka to be convinced that he was well and whole. Only then did Iruka push one hand up into the pale hair at the nape of his neck and pull the other around to the small of his back. Kakashi could easily say that he was unreasonably happy being crushed by him. Closing his eyes, he released a held breath and allowed his head to rest on Iruka's strong shoulder. He didn't dare think to tell him to stop even when it started to do more than just hurt his sore body. This kind of pain was welcome. The long sleepless days of the S-Rank faded, the wet sound of metal striking flesh receded, the smell of churned earth and sweat melted away to nothing but the past...
"Your skin is cold."
Kakashi nodded into Iruka's neck, momentarily lulled by the steady beat of his pulse. Iruka, if possible, tightened his hold even further.
"I'll put some water on--"
"Wait..." he wheezed. It was getting increasingly harder to draw in air.
"B-Before you offer me tea...." Kakashi reluctantly pulled out of the suffocating squeeze to catch his breath. "....I have a few requests."
"Requests." The smile faltered. "What kind of requests?"
"I need a shower. And your green yukata."
"Why that one?"
"Because I like it."
"Your standards have never been incredibly high."
"I'm not done," Kakashi said quietly.
He lightly touched the violet bruise that traveled down Iruka's cheek. Iruka cringed slightly when the jounin's fingertips brushed against the swelling, brown eyes flickering down and away. Kakashi watched him carefully.
"I want to know how The Great Iruka-Sensei of the Illustrious Konoha Academy managed to be defeated by a staircase."
Iruka's smile shifted into annoyance.
"Laugh it up," he sighed.
"Yes. Stairs. You fell," he cupped Iruka's chin so he would look at him and not the floor. "Your gang of mission colleagues sold you out."
Iruka simply looked back at him but the smile he wore now could only be called wry.
"They said," Kakashi lowered his voice conspiratorially. "...that you haven't taken any time off since your solo."
"I don't need it."
Kakashi blinked. Iruka's face was still set with a warm gaze and that smile but he thought he saw it waver for a moment, like a cloud passing over the sun. If he didn't know any better he would have guessed that the teacher looked, if only for a second, afraid.
"I'll prep the bath," Iruka said abruptly as he summoned back the smile that had met Kakashi at the door. Twisting out of the hold on his chin, he headed towards the bathroom. "You could probably use a good soak."
Kakashi watched him disappear around the corner and listened to the muted roar of the water being turned on. Dragging his singlet off over his head he bunched it his hands, the warm air on his exposed face feeling wrong and uncomfortable having had kept the mask up for so long. But everything here felt right and his weariness was finally rushing up to meet him. He moved slowly towards the steam wafting into the hallway, the scent of some herbal soap, and the sound of Iruka already in the water beckoning him. Working a sore shoulder he let out a long exhale in anticipation of hot water dulling his aches and clearing his foggy mind. Of Iruka's hair-- loose and damp on his shoulders--and the fact that he didn't have to think about much else.
At least for tonight.
There were very few things that startled Kakashi.
He wasn't sure which was worse. The fact that he had been so exhausted that he’d failed to notice Iruka had left the bed, or that he also hadn't noticed him leave the apartment. This was a new one for him. Either that or he was just another one on the long list of fools that underestimated most every chunin in existence. The clock read well past noon. Running late. Heading for home and in no great hurry, he listened to the gravelly snow crunch under his boots while he planned the team's afternoon training session in his head. He was distracted enough to almost get run into by someone rushing around the corner of his building. But not that distracted. He caught a now uncovered mug of ascending tea, two flying books, and a woman with his hand under her back.
"Careful now," he admonished. "It's icy."
"O-Oh, Hatake-sama! Good afternoon!"
It was one of the other teachers from the Academy. He remembered her from various official functions over the years. Yet another chunin who had forgone the glorious glory of combat in favor of the forsaken trenches of academia. He watched her adjust her heavy hakama and very colorful scarf into proper place before handing her back her things.
"Good afternoon," he said affably. "I hear the school is ...," he faltered, what had he heard about the school besides it was a wreck? "... is well on its way to its former distinction."
"I was just running an errand for Iruka-san. To his apartment," she said primly. "He warned me you might be there and not to be alarmed or afraid."
Eyebrow raised, Kakashi wasn't sure how to take that so he didn't. "Errand?"
"Yes, Iruka-san seems to have left all his grading materials and texts at home. I am to retrieve them," she explained. "He does not like to leave the construction teams unsupervised you see."
Texts and all his materials? That was quite a bit of an oversight when you worked at a school. Even if it was on hiatus.
"I see well, uh, mind the wards sensei."
"Thank you, I certainly will Hatake-sama."
As she hurried away he made a confused face beneath his mask. Iruka had forgotten all that? Iruka did not forget much. With the exception of perhaps his very own birthday. Maybe it was all a matter of fatigue. It would be a cold day in Wind Country when he would admit that even he'd fallen out of a tree once or twice when he had pushed himself too far too fast for too long. His thoughts flashed to that look he had seen on Iruka's face when he had asked what had happened with the stairs. Kakashi had studied the faces of others long enough to know that kind of apprehension when he saw it. But this sort of trivial thing happened. No shinobi wanted to show weakness. Every one of them ended up taking some show of wounded pride sooner or later.
The tiny apartment was just as he’d left it.
More akin to a closet that dreamed one day it might become a room. A rolled up musty futon in the corner, no food whatsoever, and completely dark. Home sweet home. He liked Iruka's place a lot more. There you could find actual furniture and pictures on the walls. All this place was good for was to shut off in until he was needed again.
He considered opening the dusty blinds to let some of the gray light in but decided against it.
Team 7 had been under Gai's supervision while he’d been away and he knew they'd have a lot to complain (or cheer) about. He was practically looking forward to it. Iruka would probably like to hear how Naruto and the others were progressing. And perhaps hearing about his adopted jinchuuriki would take the teacher's mind off whatever it was that had him so scattered. The kid tended to do wonders for putting matters into perspective. Checking the clock once more he saw he was little over a half an hour late. That gave him time enough to have a decent breakfast and a stop by the memorial stone.
Back to the grind.
Iruka was prepared for the jokes.
His colleagues in the mission room rarely let him down. It didn't help that he arrived in the afternoon so they had had all morning to prepare. Have a nice trip? Did you enjoy the fall? That kind of thing. It eased off after an hour or so but mostly in part because no one could think up any more one-liners on how hilarious it was to hurtle down a flight of concrete. Also, Iruka's refusal to fuel them further with any come-backs accompanied by his complete lack of reaction made it distinctly less fun for the other parties involved. And as witty as the repartee was, Iruka was relieved when a wave of rambunctious genin teams seemed to all arrive at once leaving no one time to give it any more serious thought. Almost, anyway.
"Don't worry, Iruka," Genma always had to have the last word. "I put in a request to Tsunade for an elevator."
Giving a small ungrateful smile in return, he used his crossed arms to conceal his thumb pushing over and over into the crook of his arm. The pain. It felt even worse today. He jammed it harder just to feel the sting of the slice on his skin turn into a sudden burn. The room grayed for a second before it came back into sharp focus.
"Confirmed!" the small girl opposite him announced. "Mission complete!"
Trying hard to pay attention, Iruka found himself smiling automatically at the genin who proudly held up her papers, sealed, and signed by the owner of an escaped exotic bird. She explained loftily that she and her team mates had climbed the cliff of the First Hokage and had faced certain death.
"Ah, very good work," he said as he stamped her report. "Your sensei must be very proud."
She was saying something in response but his mind was far elsewhere. Far from the Leaf. The image of the shrine hidden up in the snowy mountains coming unbidden to his mind. He could see the stone walls glittering in sheer ice. The clear blue sky sharp and stark as the air. It was strange to feel a tug at the memory of it, as if he would really want to dwell on shivering in the meager candle light, stiff hands aching as he worked on the frost covered inscriptions in his scrolls. He could smell the oily thick smoke from the sputtering camp fires he had made to stay the chill. The wood he'd found was all around the outside of the ruins, brought long ago from the valley far below and left protruding from the frozen drifts like broken bones. The black kindling never properly took to flame, barely warming the snow for water to drink-
Iruka jumped at the near shout.
"COME ON." Izumo was doing crowd control at the doors so not all teams herded in at once. "KEEP IT MOVING."
The new group of genin to arrive at his station didn't even acknowledge him. They were all deep in an argument about which of them would be the one to explain to Iruka-sensei that they should get partial credit. Because apparently although they had successfully located the missing cat it just so happened, by no fault of their own, that the cat was dead. But they had found it and that counted didn't it? He barely heard them. Iruka kept rubbing at the burn on the inside of his arm. He was so tired.
"SO whadda ya say, sensei?"
Startled from his wandering thoughts, Iruka brought his attention back to the three eager but anxious genin at his desk.
"Does it count, sensei? Or what?"
"Does what count?" He had a feeling they had been saying something to him beforehand. The expectant looks on their faces made his stomach churn. "Uh... well..."
"Dead cat." Genma offered.
Oh. Yes. As soon as the jounin said it Iruka recalled it right away. The cut on his arm throbbed viciously under his hand.
"Irukaaaaaa," Kotetsu griped from two desks down, tipped so far back in chair he was liable to fall over. "Any day now on those D-Rank assignments? These guys are chomping at the bit over here."
Searching his desk he spotted the bundle of a dozen D-Rank missions half hidden under a fall of papers. "I have them," he heard himself say. Standing stiffly he carried them over to Kotetsu with a small murmur of apology.
"Get ready for this ladies," Kotetsu whistled as he unrolled the first one. "Park bathrooms and trash detail!"
The all-girl genin team waiting before him protested in high pitched unison.
Iruka practically fell back down onto his seat and found the three impatient genin still standing in front of him. They seemed to be waiting for something.
"COME ON! DO we get the credit or what?!"
Iruka honestly had no idea what they were talking about.
There was a hand on his shoulder.
"Why don't you head on home," Genma said. "These guys got this."
For once Iruka was inclined to agree that leaving in the middle of a work day seemed like a very good idea. His arm ached and his head was starting to compete. Feeling slightly dizzy, he took the stairs carefully with a sliver of paranoia that made him growl in aggravation. If he took another fall he would really never hear the end of it. When he finally stepped outside the brisk air felt good on his face for a change. When he got home he'd lay down and get the rest everyone kept going on and on about. He would not look over one single Academy lesson plan or even clean one single mug left in the sink. Steeling his resolve he took a deep breath and headed... he paused uncertainly.
Iruka blinked, eyes watering from the wind. Looking both ways down the busy street he read the oddly unfamiliar street signs that he saw every day. He stepped backwards with sinking dread and heard himself let out a small sound of distress.
He was going home.
The thing was that Iruka wasn't quite sure which way home was.