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In My Head (And In My Heart)

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The voice had been with him for as long as he could remember. In his earliest memories, the voice was more of a presence. It hadn’t spoken back then but he’d always known that it was there with him, silently watching. By the time he had been assigned to a genin team in an attempt to socialize him with children his own age the voice had begun to speak in short, random bursts that startled him at first. Sometimes it was a single word like “stop” or “bad”. Sometimes it was half a sentence like “turn back, fast”. Back then it seemed that the voice would only speak when it was trying to help with something; warn him of danger or point out when Obito was trying to put frogs down his shirt. When he was eight years old his father died and the voice sang to him softly while he sat next to the motionless body. For weeks that sweet song was the only thing that helped him sleep.

As Kakashi grew older the voice matured with him and its vocabulary expanded. He had to learn the hard way not to mention it to anyone, though. Young and naïve, he’d once assumed that other people also had a presence in their minds. His had always been there so it only seemed natural that others would have one too. But he’d been wrong. Minato-sensei had given him worried looks until he lied and said he’d only been talking about his inner thoughts. He’d been saying voice in his head but he’d meant his thoughts. The lie satisfied his mentor and Kakashi kept the truth to himself after that. He knew the voice wasn’t his own thoughts, wasn’t a part of him. It was separate. It saw things he didn’t, knew things he didn’t, and thought in different patterns then he did. He wasn’t scared though. Above all else he knew that the voice would never do anything to hurt him.

When he’d lost Obito and gained a single Sharingan eye in return he’d been terrified and the only one he’d told was the voice. To everyone else he’d been calm, the perfect shinobi, but to his most intimate life partner he was able to confess his fears. Having an active Sharingan inside your head at all times and constantly draining your chakra was scary. Especially when you did not have the lineage to prepare yourself and your body seemed intent on rejecting it. The voice had quietly helped him through the loss of his friend and lent him strength through the trials of the new addition to his body. The voice had helped him train with it, helped him survive it.

The day he had lost Rin – the day she forced him to kill her – he would have gone insane if not for the voice. He blamed himself but the voice didn’t. He felt responsible but the voice told him that he wasn’t. This time it convinced him to seek counsel from his sensei, something he never would have done on his own. Between the voice and the older blonde shinobi he was eventually able to pick his young self up and keep going.

When the Kyuubi attacked the village and Kakashi lost the last person in his life who was precious to him, his only comfort was in the voice. The voice mourned with him but it felt withdrawn in a way that made Kakashi question again just how separate they were. Did the voice love Minato-sensei too? Is that why it mourned? He had tried to ask but all he got for an answer was a sense of gloomy amusement.

They certainly weren’t the same, that was for sure. It became clearer with every day that passed. The voice had a personality which vastly differed from his own and its own opinions as well. They didn’t fight often, but it did happen. They would bicker silently inside his head and he would wear a scowl sometimes when it seemed there was nothing for him to be scowling at. People found him strange and unsociable. They spoke about him when they thought he couldn’t hear but he didn’t care. He didn’t need people. He no longer even wanted other people. Friends and precious persons were unreliable; they all died. The only friend he needed, the only one he never needed to worry about losing, he carried around with him at all times.

Kakashi’s teen years were shrouded in blood and darkness while serving in the ANBU black ops. When the nights were hard to sleep through and his conscience ate away at him for the things he was ordered to do, he spent hours talking to the voice inside his head. It had developed a sharp sense of humor that cut through his depressive mood swings. He knew that without that presence he carried with him he would have long ago succumbed to the stresses that his short life had pressed down upon him. He had seen things and done things that no one his age should have. The other ANBU both respected him and feared him. He was deadlier than all of them and younger by far. But more than that he was silent and self-sufficient. He never seemed to need anybody and it unnerved them. Kakashi knew better. He needed the voice.

By the time Kakashi reached twenty years old he had begun to wish his mental companion were a solid being, a separate body he could physically touch. He never told those thoughts to the voice, not even in his darkest moments. The nights he spent curled in the corner of his bedroom, biting his tongue to hold back the sobs, he wished there were arms around him. Instead he contented himself in the soft lullaby that was still the only thing that could always calm him. Over the years the voice had deepened like a boy turning in to a man and he’d never heard anything quite like the quiet crooning that echoed in his mind whenever he cried.

As they grew together Kakashi started thinking of the voice as the Voice, with a capital letter, and eventually he thought of it simply as Voice. It had no name that it had ever asked him to use and for some reason he had never thought to ask for himself. So, for lack of any other moniker, he had taken to referring to it as Voice. When he called out for Voice in the recesses of his mind, seeking conversation, he sometimes caught a faint feeling of amusement for the title. Sometimes he caught a strange sad wistfulness, although Voice always denied being sad. Always.

Voice saved his life on missions, offered amusing commentary when he was conversing with other people, and generally kept him company whenever he wanted. Though they frequently went hours without speaking it was very rare for even a single day to go by when he did not speak to Voice. In fact it had happened only three times in his life. Only three times had he called out and not received an answer.

It took until Kakashi was twenty-six years old before he found out that Voice was not in his head. Voice was a real person.

*

It was spring and Kakashi was returning from an A-rank solo mission. He’d wanted to get out of the village and de-stress before the Sandaime tried to force yet another genin team on him. This would be the fourth one and he wasn’t sure why the old man kept trying. Chatting with Voice while dashing through the tree-tops was as natural to him as breathing; he’d been doing it all his life. When Voice commented on the gathering storm it was no surprise to him. Voice had always known his surroundings.

The attack just after did surprise him though. One moment he was smiling as Voice teased him about an embarrassing misunderstanding he’d suffered in the village he’d just come from. The next moment there were three foreign shinobi on the branches of the next tree and he was forcing himself to an abrupt halt. He eyed them warily. The mission had drained him considerably so he wouldn’t be able to risk using his Sharingan right now. Not to mention that the rain he’d been dashing through had half numbed his fingers and it was coming down harder by the minute. He didn’t feel up to fighting, but it looked like he was going to have to anyway. The three figures in front of him had slashes through their headbands – missing nin.

Help is coming.

Kakashi wanted to ask how Voice knew that but he didn’t bother. Voice just…knew things. And Kakashi never got an answer when he questioned how. So instead he sent a mental acknowledgement and squared his shoulders.

‘How far?’ he asked silently.

Three minutes.

Three minutes wasn’t too bad. He could last three minutes, although more could happen in even that short time frame than most genin would believe. Battles had a way of blowing out of control faster than the blink of an eye and people who reached jōnin level could move even faster than the blink of an eye. Kakashi took a defensive stance but refrained from jumping straight in. If he could avoid the fight now and send reinforcements after them later he really wouldn’t mind. Right now all he wanted was to fall asleep to the sound of his lullaby. One of the three foreign shinobi, a woman with a Cloud Village hitai-ate around her neck, grinned at him in an unbalanced sort of way. Her teeth were filed to points.

Creepy bitch.

Kakashi almost laughed but stifled it. All traces of amusement flew out of him when that creepy bitch leapt towards him, her hands flashing through the signs of a jutsu he recognized. He needed to dodge – now!

The tree he’d been perched on disappeared in to splinters when her wind jutsu slammed in to it but Kakashi was already two trees away. He sent a Phoenix Flower Jutsu their way, forcing all three of them to dodge in different directions, and closed in on the one who landed nearest. The man was large and his movements were as cumbersome as his appearance promised. Kakashi needed nothing more than taijutsu to take him down. His first few strikes were blocked clumsily, then he feinted right with one hand even as his left swung in with a kunai, thrusting the weapon deep in to the man’s neck. He kicked the corpse away from himself and turned to deflect a handful of shuriken that came spinning in from behind.

The third shinobi, a young looking man with a Mist Village headband holding back his hair, came at him with a frontal assault, trying to distract him while the woman with the pointy teeth prepared another jutsu. Kakashi found himself being herded so he fled around the trunk of the tree they were balanced on and bounded off in a different direction. From the frustrated noise of the kunoichi, she needed him to stay relatively still for what she wanted to do. Kakashi was happy to disappoint.

Unfortunately the young Mist shinobi was fast. He followed hot on Kakashi’s heels, harrying him with shuriken, sometimes tossing kunai with exploding tags attached. Luckily the rain kept the fires from spreading. Finally the enemy seemed to let up for a moment and Kakashi turned to take a defensive stance and survey the area to plan his next move. When he did, he saw his mistake. He wasn’t being herded before, he was being herded now! They’d kept him running to keep him from seeing their plan. All the shuriken he’d dodged were actually thrown in a very precise pattern, the exploding tags forcing him to change direction, and the kunoichi was standing directly at the center of what looked like some sort of ritual marking.

She was baring her teeth again while her hands made signs. This time, Kakashi didn’t recognize the jutsu but there were a lot of hand signs and he didn’t have his eye uncovered to watch them. Even without that it looked like it was going to be bad. He was gritting his teeth and coiling his legs to dash over, hoping to strike her down before she could finish, when suddenly a new figure dropped out of nowhere. They were wearing a dark cloak to ward off the rain, hood pulled up so their face was cast in shadow. Their hitai-ate was hidden somewhere within the folds of black material, leaving their loyalties unknown.

Whoever they were it was soon apparent they were on Kakashi’s side.

Here to help.

That was all the confirmation Kakashi needed, although it helped that the newcomer landed directly behind the grinning kunoichi, plunging a kunai in to her kidney without so much as a how-do-you-do. She screamed in surprise, instinctively curling back against the pain, and the cloaked shinobi dealt her a backhand blow that rendered her instantly unconscious. Her body fell limply to the side. Then it was two against one again, this time in Kakashi’s favor.

Seeing his second comrade fall the remaining enemy rushed straight at Kakashi once again, this time growling in anger. Even though their combo attack had failed and he was now outnumbered the young man didn’t seem at all afraid; he came forward with renewed vigor. Apparently he’d been holding back before. Kakashi barely held him off, tired as he was, and a sudden suiton almost took him right in the face. His new ally appeared at the last second, grabbing him by the arm and swinging him up on to a higher branch.

Dodge you idiot!

That was unusual. Voice didn’t normally speak during battle unless he was helping. He usually saved his commentary for after, praising or chastising as he saw fit. His new ally let go of his arm and launched himself at the enemy, engaging in a flurry of taijutsu to force them away from Kakashi. The silver haired jōnin slipped around behind them, hoping to find a blind spot, but the Mist nin was good. Even when attacked from both sides he held his own. The three of them danced a deadly dance through the branches, trading blows and dodging blades, until finally the cloaked shinobi saw an opening.

Without knowing how he knew Kakashi was sure he was supposed to play the diversion. So he unleashed a burst of rapid kicks at the Mist nin’s head, spinning in the air to act as both physical and visual distraction. When he had the majority of the enemy’s attention, his ally seamlessly spun in and immobilized them from behind. Without hesitation Kakashi’s hand whipped out and opened the exposed throat, not bothering to flinch when warm blood sprayed out on to his vest but only barely resisting rolling his eyes. He hated cleaning arterial spray. The three of them hung motionless for a few heartbeats, then the cloaked shinobi loosened his arms and the corpse of the final enemy slid limply out of his grasp, free falling through the air to hit the ground with a squishy thud.

Kakashi tried not to look like he was heaving for breath. If he’d been tired before he was close to exhausted now. Using fire style really took it out of him. He should have used something else but he hadn’t really had much time to consider it. Now he was paying for it. His companion tilted their head and stepped towards him. Strangely, considering he had no idea who this was, he let them. The stranger put a hand on his shoulder and pressed down, guiding him to sit on the branch and press his back against the trunk of the tree. They knelt in front of him, head still hanging to one side as if in question.

“Your help was appreciated,” Kakashi mumbled. The stranger nodded once but didn’t speak. Their hood was drawn so far forward that their face was entirely hidden. He could have seen through the darkness with his Sharingan but it was still covered. He cursed his low chakra levels, squinting to try and catch a glimpse in the stormy gloom. When it was clear that the stranger was not going to speak, Kakashi sighed. “I need to get back to the village,” he said, moving to haul himself to his feet.

The stranger shook his head, putting a hand on Kakashi’s chest and pushing him back down.

Rest now, Kakashi.

He froze. His tired mind finally kicked in to gear as he stared at the figure crouching before him. He’d never met this person before. He couldn’t even see their face. Yet he trusted him in battle; they moved together flawlessly, like they’d been training together for years. He allowed this person to come in to his personal space, to touch him. He’d done it all without thinking. As if he knew them.

“Wha…” he couldn’t even formulate a proper question. The suspicion was only half formed in his mind. It was impossible. He couldn’t comprehend even the possibility of it.

The cloaked shinobi lifted the hand from his chest and instead reached up and – so softly the touch was barely there – ran their fingertips down the side of Kakashi’s masked jaw.

It’s nice to finally meet you.

Kakashi suddenly found that he couldn’t breathe. He thought maybe the whole world might have just stopped spinning. He gaped up in to the darkness of that hood as his heart tried to beat its way out of his chest.

“Voice…?” he was only half aware of his own whisper. The hooded shinobi slowly nodded, stroking his face one more time before shifting back and standing up. “You…you’re real,” Kakashi choked, tilting his stare upwards. “You’re real?! I thought you were…I thought you were just…all this time you’ve been…you’re…”

The figure stood there silently and he could feel their gaze resting on him. The presence in the back of his mind that had been there since he’d been a child, it felt different. He could feel Voice but it was like the presence had shifted. Because Voice was…there. In front of him. Outside of him.

Rest now. I will alert the disposal squad. The figure turned as if to leave. Kakashi scrambled to stand up.

“Wait! You can’t-you can’t go! How can you be real?! Who are you?” As soon as he gained his feet he felt his knees begin to shake. Voice was right, he needed to rest.

The shinobi, who it seemed was a physical manifestation of his strange second personality, stopped moving. They still didn’t speak aloud and made no move to reveal their face. Kakashi frowned and clenched his fists.

“You’ve let me believe my whole life that you were just in my head. Why? Why didn’t you…why couldn’t we…” he trailed off, unsure of how to put in to words how much he had wished for this. “How could you not tell me you were real?”

Because you asked me not to be.

Startled, Kakashi spluttered indignantly. “What?! I never – what?! What do you mean? I – no never mind. Whatever. You must have a…a name. A real name. What is it?”

If I tell you my name, you’ll come looking for me.

“Well of course I will! Don’t you want me to?”

You wanted it this way. You wanted me to be nothing more than a voice. So I never revealed myself, even though I’ve wanted to. Now, I don’t know what you’ll want. Right now I suppose you’re in shock and you haven’t quite processed things. When you know what you want, maybe. But…

When the flow of words in his head stopped, and he felt the hesitation, Kakashi prompted him, “But what?”

I’m afraid Kakashi. I’ve always been afraid.

“Afraid of…me?” The idea seemed ludicrous. Why would Voice be afraid of him? If there was ever anyone he would never hurt, it was Voice.

I’m afraid I won’t be good enough. I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. What if I’m not what you pictured?

“That’s…I don’t know, I never pictured anything….I mean I didn’t think you were a real person so it was kind of a moot point. Voice please-“

He was cut off when the cloaked figure stepped forward and Kakashi found himself being embraced. The arms wrapped around him were strong and the chest was hard and flat, definitely masculine. It fit the mental impression of his voice. Though he’d always sounded male this was a good confirmation. Their bodies fit against each other like puzzle pieces and Voice was warm despite the rain still coming down around them. It was over too soon. Voice stepped back, fingertips lingering as they pulled away, dragging down his arms. Kakashi tried to catch those hands but they twisted away from his grasp.

Goodbye.

“No! Wait!”

He was too late. The figure in front of him turned and let his weight drop to one side, falling in to a controlled dive. He flipped and landed gracefully on the forest loam, then took off towards the village. Kakashi made to follow, only to have his shaky legs buckle underneath him. He really did need a few minutes to rest. So he tried to call out mentally, the way he always had. ‘Get back here!!’ he called desperately in his head.

I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.

Then the presence was gone, the way it was when Voice was ignoring him. Kakashi wanted to scream in frustration. Instead he flopped back against the wet trunk of the tree and surveyed the battle field around him, his mind running in wild circles.

Voice was real. All those nights he’d spent wishing for a true physical companion, he could have had it! Out of nowhere he found himself blushing, some of the implications hitting him. Somewhere out there, there was a real live person who knew quite literally every single secret he had. Somewhere, presumably in Konoha, was a person who knew his every weakness, his every embarrassing moment, and could track his every movement. He frowned. There were three things wrong there.

First of all, if Voice was real, an actual person, how did he always know where Kakashi was? How did he always know what Kakashi was doing? He couldn’t possibly always be there, Kakashi would have sensed someone stalking him even when he was younger. To stalk him for twenty-six years (Less? Was Voice older than him? Younger?) would be an impossible feat.

Second of all, how in the seven bloody hells did this guy get inside his head in the first place? Why could he communicate at will, find his way in to Kakashi’s every thought, but Kakashi couldn’t do the reverse? What kind of twilight zone shit was this? Voice could hear his thoughts unless he tried to hide them. Why couldn’t he hear anything more than what Voice intended for him to hear? That was super unfair.

Thirdly, was Voice from Konoha? Or was he just acquainted with the village? If he lived in Konoha, how had Kakashi never known about him? It was one of the biggest villages for sure but sooner or later all the faces of the active shinobi started to become familiar. Sooner or later you worked with everyone. Kakashi would have recognized the sound of him speaking, wouldn’t he? So how did he miss this?

Dropping his head back against the tree, Kakashi squinted up against the rain. He was soaking wet, would probably come down with a cold, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Voice was real. Voice knew literally everything about him. All Kakashi could say for sure was that Voice was a man, he appeared to be shorter than him by a few inches, he was skilled in battle, and he had large tanned hands. Kakashi regretted not being able to memorize those hands with his borrowed eye. They were his only true physical clue. Height could be falsified by slouching or wearing lifts. He groaned and closed his one good eye. One stupid little fight that he was too tired to get through on his own and his whole stupid life had been turned upside down.

His inner angst was cut short by the rustling of leaves from nearby. Instantly alert, Kakashi snapped his gaze over to where the sound was coming from. He waited, breathing shallowly, hoping it was just an animal. If he got attacked right now he would not be able to defend himself. He didn’t have much to live for but he’d be damned if he died before figuring out this Voice fiasco!

“DYNAMIC ENTRY!”

Kakashi groaned again, this time in exasperation as Might Gai appeared out of nowhere, spinning out of the leaves that he’d seen rustling and spraying water in all directions. His self-proclaimed rival greeted him with an enthusiastic thumbs up and a broad sparkling grin.

“Yosh! My Eternal Rival I have come to aid you in your journey back to the village! It was brought to my attention that you fought a mighty battle and defeated three foes on your own. It gladdens my heart to see that your youthful fighting spirit burns as bright as ever!”

Kakashi stared at the green clad man for a moment, trying to take all of that in. Somehow when Gai spoke Kakashi always seemed to hear every word as if it was individually capitalized. It was hard to listen to sometimes.

“Wait, who told you I needed help?” he asked. Maybe Gai knew who Voice was!

“I did not ask his name,” Gai admitted. “In fact, I did not even see his face. He sought me out and asked that I assist you to the hospital to be treated for chakra fatigue.”

Kakashi sighed. Voice was always harping on him to go to the hospital. Now that he had revealed himself as an actual person, of course he would bully him using other people. And of course he had chosen the one person who would not be suspicious if he didn’t reveal his face. All Gai needed was ‘Kakashi needs your help’ and he was full steam ahead. On the one hand, it was nice to know his sort-of-friend cared about him. On the other hand, it was annoying. Voice was crafty.

“Alright, let’s get this over with,” he grumbled. His reluctance did absolutely nothing to dim Gai’s enthusiasm. Kakashi allowed the man to sling an arm around his waist and support his weight as they began the journey back to the village. They weren’t that far out; it was actually worrisome that the shinobi he had fought with had managed to get this close to the village without being detected by the patrols.

Was Voice on patrol? Kakashi wondered if it was worth getting his hands on the roster for the day.

When they reached the hospital the nurses were expecting him. When asked who had alerted them that he would be in need of medical attention they had looked at each other and frowned. They’d both heard from so-and-so, who had been told but what’s-her-name. They weren’t really sure who had alerted the staff. Kakashi searched through his mind, looking for that presence that he knew was there somewhere. When it seemed Voice was still hiding from him, he cast out a general blanket sense of annoyance.

He felt a sense of sheepish apology and then he was alone in his mind again.

*

Kakashi settled back in to his bed, folding his arms behind his head and staring at his ceiling. It had been a week since he had uncovered the single biggest discovery of his life and he still didn’t know who Voice was. Truthfully, his mind was still in turmoil over the whole thing. He was elated to find out his most secret wish was true all along. Yet, he also felt a sense of betrayal at having such a big truth hidden from him for so long. It was very confusing to feel two such extreme emotions clash with each other over the same subject.

Voice had been quiet mostly over the last few days. They were speaking – it was hard to imagine a world where anything would make him stop speaking to Voice – but they were avoiding the touchy subject that hung over them like a dark cloud. Kakashi didn’t know how to ask the questions that he knew would not be answered anyway. Voice was good at deflecting and if he couldn’t deflect he was capable of just disappearing. If he wanted to hide Kakashi had no way of finding him. Above all else, he needed his friend like he needed to breathe. Still this wasn’t just another ordinary fight they were trying to work past. This was genuinely life changing.

Also life changing: Kakashi had passed his first genin team ever. He was now responsible for three small lives and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He’d been responsible for other people’s lives loads of times in his career. As team captain it was his duty to protect his comrades. But that was different; those people were trained shinobi, they could defend themselves. Kakashi had never been expected to teach people how to do that. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be a very good teacher.

It was this that he was currently talking about with Voice, his doubts about his capabilities for teaching the younger generations. It was a safe topic, he thought. It should have absolutely nothing to do with their strange situation.

‘The Sandaime asked me to go see the homes of these three kids,’ he was saying silently. ‘Two of them live alone. If you consider who they are, it doesn’t really surprise me. I mean, the Uchiha obviously lives alone. And the Kyuubi kid? I was surprised to find out he had a guardian at all! I’ll need to look this guy up, ask him if Naruto’s ever had any incidents with the fox demon.’

You want to meet…the fox-container’s guardian?

‘Well yeah,’ he replied, not understanding the hesitancy. ‘I mean, who else would know the kid better? I don’t remember what his name was though. Something-sensei. I know it was a guy.’

…Iruka. The fox-container’s guardian is called Iruka-sensei.

Kakashi sat up on his bed, eyebrows raised. ‘Do you know them?’ he asked. There was silence in his head and he groaned, flopping back down. He supposed that was touching too close to their sensitive subject.

I’m sorry

‘Can you…tell me anything about this Iruka guy?’ Kakashi tried.

Well, he’ll be happy to talk to you about his charge.

‘So a willing guardian?’

They are very fond of each other. Like brothers, you might say.

Kakashi chewed on that. ‘I wonder why they don’t live together then. I saw Naruto’s apartment. Even I’m not that messy. Not even with eight dogs bumming around the place.’

His head filled with a sense of amusement and he smiled triumphantly. He liked amusing his friend. If he came up with something funny enough he could almost hear the sound of laughter. Most people wouldn’t consider it but you don’t laugh inside your head. Mostly he just got vague senses of the emotion. On the flip side, it was very possible to glare inside your head. Voice was very good at mental glaring.

‘Anything else you can tell me about them? If I’m going to be working with Naruto I’ll probably want to stay on the good side of this Iruka-sensei.’

Iruka-sensei…tries to be kind to everyone. He loves children. Naruto is energetic, to put it mildly. He’s enthusiastic but you might have to explain things to him five or so times before he’ll get it. He’s a fan of doing, not thinking. There was a long pause in which Kakashi sensed Voice was mulling over whether or not to say something. I think Iruka-sensei will like you.

‘You trying to get me a date or something?’ Kakashi joked. It was an old joke that he’d used countless times. Kakashi never dated. Contrary to popular gossip, he rarely had sex either. In his entire life he could probably count his sexual encounters on his fingers. He just wasn’t a fan of most people. Not to mention having a running commentary in his head sometimes made it awkward to try.

His joke fell flat when he got no response and Kakashi stared at his ceiling for a while, wondering why it was okay to joke about him dating other people but not this Iruka guy. Voice sounded like he liked him. He pushed the thought aside. Maybe they were just getting too close to the stressful topics again. It was making things weird between them and he hated that weirdness.

You should go to sleep. You’re supposed to be meeting your team in the morning.

Kakashi grinned and shrugged at his empty room. ‘Nah, you know me. They’ll learn eventually that when I say eight o’clock, I mean ten.’ He could feel disapproval seeping through his mind but only grinned wider. Voice had a thing about being punctual. That was another thing he harped on all the time. ‘Besides…I don’t want to go to bed yet.’

Not sleepy?

Kakashi hesitated. He’d pushed it enough times already, what was once more? ‘I just want to keep talking to you, is all. Be nice…if I could talk…you know…to you.’

Kakashi…

‘I know you said I’m all confused and in shock and stuff but come on! It’s been a week! You’ve been with me since before I can remember and all I have is the sound of your voice. I want a face, now that I know you have one.’

What if you don’t like my face?

‘Are you still worried about that? Look, how can you be disappointing? I already know you! What’s there to be disappointed about?’

What if I’m hideous? What if you know me already and it changes your whole opinion of me? What if you know me and don’t like me?

‘How can I like one version of you and not the other? And how could I possibly talk to you and not recognize your voice?’

There was no answer for a long minute that seemed to stretch forever. Kakashi frowned as he waited. There was something heavy in the silence that felt significant, though he couldn’t have said why. Theories and ideas ran through his head, one after the other, until finally Voice spoke again.

What you hear is how I’m supposed to sound. My true voice. But I don’t sound like that anymore.

‘Uh…what the hell does that mean?’

I was injured, a few years back. It changed how I sound. So…you wouldn’t recognize my voice. Not even if you spoke to me every day. Which you don’t by the way, so don’t panic over that. 

‘You were…injured.’ And suddenly a whole other can of worms opened up in Kakashi’s mind as new realities occurred to him. Voice was a person. Which meant he’d been living, hurting, getting injured, bleeding, all while talking calmly in Kakashi’s head. He’d been out there somewhere, living a fully separate life with his own aches and pains, his own emotional turmoil…and Kakashi thought he had some disembodied voice at his beck and call. How many times had Voice put down his own problems, his own god damned injuries, to deal with Kakashi’s?

You feel…worried all of a sudden.

‘Those times when you didn’t speak to me…it’s only happened a few times. Were you…were you injured?’

…yes. The only times I’ve not spoken to you, it’s been because I was in the hospital. Can’t talk when I’m unconscious. Luckily I’ve never lost more than a day at a time.

‘So you were lying in hospital beds, chatting me up. I never even knew you were…in pain or anything. Voice…I don’t know anything about your life.’

And he says he knows me.

He sounded amused but Kakashi felt serious. ‘Voice…how many times have you put yourself on hold to deal with me? How can you do that? See, this is why you should have just told me! You’ve helped me through everything in my life! I could have helped you too!’

I…Kakashi can we…can we just stop talking about it?

‘No! Okay? You keep dodging and I’m – I want an answer. You had nothing to be afraid of, not really. You knew I couldn’t hate you. You knew you’ve always been the one person I trust with everything. So why could you never tell me that you’re real?’

You asked me not to be.

‘What does that even mean?!’

When Minato-sensei died, you told me you were glad I wasn’t a real person. You said you never wanted to love a real person again, that you loved me because I was safe to love.

Kakashi was floored. He didn’t remember saying anything like that. But then, he’d almost gone off the rails after losing his sensei; some of that time was still a blur to him. Still, what an awful thing to say. He felt his chest contract and put a hand over his heart. It felt like he’d just torn a hole through himself.

‘Voice…I’m so sorry. That was horrible of me. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to hear that.’

I survived.

‘Don’t do that. You’re allowed to hurt. I hurt you, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation…I never said anything because I thought you weren’t real and I didn’t want you to know I was wishing for the impossible…but I’ve spent years wishing you were a person. I’ve wanted…something to hold on to.’ He swallowed, even though he knew the action wouldn’t translate in to his thoughts. ‘You’ve been my best friend my whole life. I wanted to make you smile. Hug you. You would sing me to sleep and I wanted you to be there to – I don’t know – lay with me or something.’

Oh…

‘Oh. That’s all you’ve got? I’m pouring my heart out here!’ Kakashi felt a sense of victory when Voice sent him his amusement.

I don’t know what to say. I thought…you wanted me to stay as I was. I wanted to be with you like that too but I thought you’d be angry or disappointed. Or worse…I thought you’d stop talking to me if you knew there was a real person out there who knew so much about you.

‘I’ll admit, that hit me kind of hard. But so what? I trust you.’

I’ve never told anyone a single thing, I promise.

‘Like I said, trust. So…can I see you then? Can I know you?’

…I’m still scared. It’s weird, Kakashi. I’m so used to hiding from you.

‘How about we make it a game? You can give me clues.’

I don’t think you’re going to guess it.

‘Don’t underestimate me. Besides, even if I don’t, it’ll get you more comfortable, won’t it?’

I suppose. Alright. One question and then you’re going to bed.

‘Just one? You’re so stingy!’ He could almost hear laughter again, and he realized how desperate he was to know what Voice’s laugh really sounded like. ‘Okay, have we ever met? Do I know you?’

No. You’ve never technically been introduced to me. We’ve interacted but I know you wouldn’t remember me. To you I sort of…fade in to the background.

‘That was quite possibly the most fascinatingly frustrating answer you could have given me.’

Sorry.

He didn’t sound sorry at all. In fact, he sounded smug. Kakashi wrinkled his nose but didn’t press the issue. He was making headway here. He’d pushed his luck this far, perhaps it was best to quit while he was ahead. He had hundreds of other questions that were bursting to come out, especially now that Voice was finally, finally, finally opening up a tiny bit on the subject. He kept them to himself, though.

He gave an over exaggerated mental sigh. ‘Bed then, I suppose. You too?’

I should have been asleep an hour ago.

‘Oh…sorry.’

Don’t be. I like talking to you. You know, you’re my best friend too.

Kakashi felt the hole in his chest close a bit. A warmth spread through his body and he found himself smiling. ‘Sing me to sleep?’ he asked.

Voice didn’t answer. He just started singing that sweet lullaby that he’d been singing since they were children. Kakashi was asleep before the second verse.

*

His new team were certainly not impressed to have him casually arrive late the next morning but he largely ignored their grumbling. They were headed to the mission room to pick up their first mission as Team 7 and he found himself downright terrified. Not in a this-could-do-me-harm kind of way. It was more of an I-really-don’t-want-to-have-to-go-through-this kind of terrified. He hadn’t done D-rank missions since he was six years old. Now he was saddled with two overly competitive boys who probably weren’t going to take well to simple tasks like walking dogs and pulling weeds.

Still, he was in a really good mood despite the feeling of oncoming doom. He’d woken up to Voice wishing him good luck for his day and convinced his friend to answer a second question about himself. Kakashi now knew he was older than his friend. How much older Voice wouldn’t say, but it explained why in his earliest memories Voice had no words. Obviously he hadn’t learned to talk yet. Kakashi had gotten the unique experience of listening to his mind learn new words. He probably heard all his new words before Voice even learned to say them out loud. Kakashi thought that was pretty cool.

The mission room was all but empty when they walked in, something he was grateful for. He didn’t fancy the thought of having to placate three impatient genin. There were two chūnin on duty, both of them free at the moment. Kakashi made to head towards the closest one but then stopped as Naruto dashed by him with his arms waving excitedly through the air.

“Iruka-sensei! Check it out, my first mission!” The blonde bounced across the room to the second chūnin. Kakashi blinked and gave the man sitting there a quick once over. So this was Iruka, the guardian to their resident jinchūriki. He had brown hair spilling out of a high ponytail, his hitai-ate holding stray locks out of his face. His skin was a smooth tanned brown and his eyes a warm melted chocolate. They sparkled as he greeted his charge with a big, welcoming smile. Across the bridge of his nose an old scar ran almost from one side of his face to the other. It should have distracted from his features. Instead, it added to them.

‘You didn’t tell me Iruka-sensei was cute,’ he cast the thought out.

He didn’t get a reply in words, just a feeling of shock. At the same moment, the man he was assessing looked up and met his eye. He immediately flushed and looked away, concentrating on Naruto. Kakashi wondered if maybe he was intimidated. A lot of people couldn’t look the Copy-Nin in the eye. He’d have to change that if he wanted to be able to talk to the man about his new student. With that in mind he casually followed the path the young boy had taken and approached the brunette with his eye turned up in a smile.

“You must be Iruka-sensei. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Hatake Kakashi and I’ll be teaching Naruto from now on.” The chūnin looked at him askance, then gave him a shy smile.

“Uh, um, hello. Yes, I’m Umino Iruka. The pleasure is mine.” He seemed hesitant, like he couldn’t quite believe who he was talking to. Kakashi resisted the urge to sigh. Sometimes it was nice to be recognized but most of the time fame was nothing more than a huge bother. It made people strange.

“Iruka-sensei is the best!” Naruto cut in. “He’s way more awesome than you could ever be Kakashi-sensei! He’s not lazy or perverted or anything!”

Kakashi frowned and muttered, “I’m not perverted.” The man behind the desk shook his head, looking like he was trying to hold back a smile. When he had his face under control he shook a finger at his charge.

“Naruto, that was rude. You shouldn’t speak that way to your jōnin-sensei. I’m so sorry Kakashi-sensei, Naruto has never understood the finer points of manners.” He looked sheepish, as if he personally accepted the blame for Naruto’s behavior. Kakashi shrugged. He’d been called a lot of worse things in his time. It was his own fault anyway for bringing that book out on the first day of training. But he had really wanted to know what happened next.

“Maa, it’s fine,” he said.

Iruka turned his attention to the other two children standing quietly to the side. “Sakura, Sasuke, it’s nice to see the both of you. I hope you’ll all work hard for your new teacher.”

“Of course Iruka-sensei!” Sakura beamed at him and Kakashi remembered that Iruka had taught all three of these children. If Kakashi could get him comfortable enough to have a conversation, he’d be an absolute gold mine of helpful information. He probably knew them better than anyone else. He was the only adult in two of their lives and Sakura’s parents were civilians. They’d had no helpful answers when Kakashi had met them yesterday.

“Well, I suppose you’d like to get your first mission started. Now, Naruto, I’ll hear no complaining from you. We talked about this, you’re starting small.” Iruka handed a small scroll to Kakashi, who unrolled it and peered at the contents. Their first mission as Team 7 was to find a missing cat.

‘I’m being reduced to animal control. I may die from boredom before these kids even learn anything.’ As before, his only answer was a nonverbal sense of amusement. When he raised his gaze to the chūnin on duty he seemed to be holding back a smile again. Probably he was amused by the overeager expressions from the three genin gathered around Kakashi’s feet.

“Have any of you ever heard of Tora?”

Over the course of that first day Kakashi learned to both love and hate Haruno Sakura. She was one of the few things able to reign Naruto in – who had way too much energy, way too much – but she was annoyingly obsessed with Sasuke. She was also very cruel to Naruto, who obviously had an unrequited crush on her. Sasuke hated both his teammates and quite possibly the whole world. He was a grumpy kid. Their little love triangle promised to be equal parts amusing and annoying.

They had found Tora but Kakashi had refused to help capture the stupid beast. This was their mission. If they couldn’t figure out how to catch a simple cat then they were hopeless. Of course, this particular cat was famous for being elusive and vicious, but still. Kakashi found himself mildly impressed when his team managed to pull off some teamwork and work together with little encouragement from him. Perhaps this generation wasn’t as useless as all those others teams he had failed over the years.

Afterwards they all trooped back to report their success and return the cat to the Daimyo’s wife. Iruka-sensei was no longer on duty when they arrived so Kakashi handed their report to some random person and walked off. It wasn’t until he had wished his team a good evening and walked halfway home that the thought hit him.

He hadn’t even bothered to look at the man who accepted their report. Hadn’t done more than glance at him. How often did he do that? Was that what Voice meant about fading in to the background? Had Kakashi come across him one day and treated him the same? Realizing he’d stopped walking in the middle of the street he set off again, frowning to himself. Maybe that had even been the very man he was looking for! He thought about it, then dismissed the idea. They’d been on the side of rotund. He couldn’t see much of Voice before under that cloak he’d been wearing but he definitely hadn’t been that large. Kakashi pledged to pay more attention to the people around him.

His walking and musing was brought to a halt when he was intercepted a few streets from his apartment and invited out for drinks by Asuma. Bothered by the idea that he had been unintentionally ignoring his best friend for years, he agreed. This would be the perfect opportunity to put his new attention span to work. Asuma looked a bit surprised that he had come along so easily but chose not to mention it. They fell in to step, chatting about their new genin teams. Kakashi eyed the bearded man surreptitiously. Did Asuma know Voice?

The bar they walked in to was crowded and the lighting was low but the air was mostly free of smoke at least. Kakashi hated stewing in someone else’s second hand cancer cloud – ironic considering who he had come here with. Asuma led the way to a table near the back where Kurenai was chatting with Raidou and Aoba. They slid in to the booth and waved to the bartender for a couple of beers.

Kakashi settled himself back against the padded seat, right away ignoring the conversation at his table as his eyes roved around the bar slowly, inspecting every likely person. He recognized most of the faces even if he couldn’t always put a name to them. Some people looked only vaguely familiar. Very few faces were completely new to him. He studied every face that he couldn’t immediately remember. His only clue was tanned hands, so all the people with pale skin he disregarded. The dim lights weren’t helping, casting people in to shadows, making it hard to tell a true tan from a patch of darkness.

Looking for someone?

Voice sounded teasing and Kakashi wished he could raise an eyebrow. He was still aware of the others sitting at the table with him though. He was a master of having secret conversations and not letting on to those around him.

‘Why, are you here?’ he asked lightly in his head, not truly expecting an answer.

Maybe, maybe not. I can see you though.

Kakashi’s gaze sharpened and his eye flickered rapidly from person to person. No one was looking directly at him. Voice wasn’t that obvious. So he looked around for places he could be seen from outside the establishment. His reconnaissance was interrupted when Asuma accidently jostled him while using his hands to tell a story. He looked over at the bigger man while listening to him apologize but when he turned to go back to looking around he found his view was blocked by the people from the booth behind him. They were all standing up, preparing to leave.

“Oh, Iruka-sensei!” Kurenai’s voice called out. One of the people standing up turned around. When he spotted the woman who had hailed him, he smiled politely and bowed.

“Kurenai,” he greeted her. Then he greeted each of them in turn, saving Kakashi for last. His voice and expression didn’t change, but somehow his eyes looked brighter. Kakashi sort of waved back absently then he resumed his perusal of the bar’s occupants.

“I just wanted to thank you for your advice about Hinata. You were right, she’s definitely unique for a Hyuga.” Iruka smiled again and scratched at the scar across his nose.

“I’m just glad that she has someone so understanding to oversee her training. How is your squad looking, Asuma?” While his friends chatted with the ponytailed man, Kakashi scowled around the room. He thought about asking Voice for a clue as to his actual whereabouts but in the end didn’t bother. For now, Voice wanted to hide from him.

“Looking for someone?” The repeated sentence startled him and Kakashi looked up to find Iruka looking down, an innocently curious expression on his face.

“Yes,” he answered simply. The chūnin peeked over his own shoulder, then turned back.

“Who are you looking for?” Kakashi was silent for a beat, then sank down in his seat, feeling a bit embarrassed. 

“I don’t know,” he muttered, knowing there was no way to explain himself without sounding even crazier than he was already thought to be. The way Iruka scrunched up his nose in confusion made his scar wrinkle and Kakashi absently noted again how cute he was.

“You’re a bit strange, Kakashi-sensei,” Iruka told him. Asuma and Aoba burst out laughing.

“Strange isn’t even half of it,” Asuma agreed, clapping the silver haired man on the shoulder. “Strange just isn’t a strong enough word to describe this one.” Kakashi glared at him but it went ignored. Iruka, on the other hand, grinned even as he stuttered out a hasty apology. 

You are pretty strange, though.

Kakashi perked up as his friend spoke to him again. ‘I hear voices in my head, so I suppose I’ll have to give in on this point.’

It better just be me in here. I’m not sharing headspace and I’m not sharing you.

The possessive note took him by surprise but Kakashi found that he was warmed by the sentiment. As Iruka and his friend were trading goodbyes, he cast out a wave of affection across the unmeasured distance between himself and Voice.

‘Maa, as if I’d let anyone else in. You’re all I need.’ He felt warmth from his friend and was comforted by it. For the first time since sitting down he turned his attention to the people he was here with and joined in on the conversation. He didn’t need them like he needed Voice but being friendly never hurt.

*

In the weeks that followed after Kakashi’s life was very different than it had been in the years before. Most of his days he spent with his new team either leading them through mundane D-rank missions or training them to get a feel for their abilities. Through Naruto, who stopped to chat every time his favorite sensei was in the mission room, he got to know Iruka a little more and they developed a sort of quasi-friendship. He found the young shinobi to be a really nice person, which only made him feel guiltier that he couldn’t truly give the man his concentration. Most of his spare attention these days was absorbed with the mystery of Voice. Almost every day he learned something new about his constant companion.

Voice never gave away anything identifiable. He wouldn’t reveal anything about his appearance or his work but Kakashi learned a lot about his private life. He learned that Voice had been orphaned at twelve and still lived alone. His favorite food was chocolate, would do pretty much anything for it, but he hated maze-gohan. He’d given Kakashi a panic attack one day when the jōnin had asked about the last injury he received.

Any old injury? Because I did get a paper cut today. Very painful. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.

Kakashi had rolled his eyes and thought back, ‘Seriously, what was the last serious injury you had? When?’

I took a fuma shuriken in the back. Recently, within the last six months.

‘…I beg your pardon? I think I must have heard that wrong.’

I’m in your head, it’s impossible for you to mishear me.

‘You got hit in the spine with a fuma shuriken?! And I didn’t even know?!’ Even though his friend was obviously fine, panic had welled up in his chest and made it difficult to breathe.

It missed my spine. Mostly. I’m still walking, it just aches sometimes when it rains.

Voice had acted terribly blasé about the whole thing but Kakashi had been shaken. He could have lost Voice to that shuriken and he would have never known why or where he’d gone. He would have been all alone, screaming in to the void with no answer ever again. The very idea of it unsettled him, made him look forward to finally meeting him even more.

Some of the things he learned were confusing. When he asked Voice if he was currently on the active duty roster the answer was ‘technically’ and he hadn’t explained himself further. When asked what his most enjoyable mission ever had been, he’d said ‘an ongoing one’. He answered mundane questions like his favorite color – green – easily enough, but anything that could be used to trace him made him clam up.

Three weeks had passed since Kakashi had first learned his friend was real when he suddenly found himself saddled with a fidgety genin team and a C-rank mission in to Wave Country. Escorting the bridge builder didn’t sound like too much work, in fact it sounded boringly easy, but Kakashi felt antsy at the thought of spending an unknown amount of time away from the village right now. How long did it take to finish building a bridge? He was no closer to figuring out who Voice really was, they hadn’t even met, but he was still reluctant to go. Leaving felt different now. What if something went wrong and the only time they ever touched was a quick, half stunned hug with both their faces covered with respective masks?

Then something did go wrong: a missing nin named Zabuza and his terror of a protégé, Haku. Their encounter in the forest and subsequent battle on the bridge were worrisome. Kakashi had never before fought with teammates he was so unsure of. They were improving, he knew that, but against shinobi of this caliber what could they do? Sakura did as he had come to expect of her, talk big but accomplish little. Sasuke gave his all and put up a good fight, as Kakashi could have guessed he would, but in the end he’d fallen to his opponent. Naruto, though, had shocked him by unleashing some of the Nine Tails chakra and saving his teammate.

The incident reminded him that he had meant to speak to the jinchūriki’s guardian about the possibility of just such a thing occurring. He’d gotten to know Iruka a little but always when they spoke he was half distracted by his own personal drama and it slipped his mind. While he and Sasuke recovered from their injuries and Naruto and Sakura oversaw the completion of the bridge, Kakashi asked Voice to remind him to speak to Iruka when he returned. For some reason, Voice seemed amused when he agreed.

On the journey back to the village he pushed his team to travel fast so they managed to cut their travel time down by almost half a day. They straggled in through the main gate as the moon settled above their heads and he let the youngsters head home to sleep while he walked in the opposite direction to see if the mission room was staying open late tonight. If he could hand in the report now he would have nothing to drag him out of bed tomorrow. He could spend the whole day lazing around at home. Of course he’d spent most of this mission lazing around in bed but that was forced rest because of injuries. Forced rest was never as relaxing as it should be.

To his good cheer the mission room was indeed open and the only soul in the room was the very man he had promised himself he’d talk to. Iruka looked up when he slumped in through the door, offering him a bright smile and a wave.

“Welcome back, Kakashi-sensei. You’re all back later than I thought you’d be. Did it really take that long to build the bridge?” He accepted the report from Kakashi’s hand but didn’t look down to read it yet as he might have if there were others in the room waiting for his attention.

“Maa, we ran in to some…difficulties,” Kakashi admitted, rubbing the side of his face tiredly. “Actually, something happened that reminded me I need to have a conversation with you regarding Naruto…and the Nine Tailed Fox.”

Iruka raised one of his eyebrows then quickly furrowed them both worriedly, asking, “Is he okay? Is Naruto okay?”

“He’s fine. His seal slipped a bit though it’s still holding. I was hoping we could have a conversation soon but I’m kind of beat at the moment. I don’t suppose we could sit down some time? Naruto tells me you’re fond of Ichiraku’s.” He smiled in amusement when the younger man blushed, wondering if his offer was being taken a different way then he meant it.

“O-of course. Any time! Just, um, let me know.” Iruka stammered through his blush in an adorable way that had Kakashi holding in a chuckle. He didn’t want to offend the man by laughing at him.

“Good. Well, if everything is in order here, I think I’d like to head home to my bed now. You have yourself a good night Iruka-sensei.”

 Iruka crinkled his nose and muttered, “Oh fat chance, I hate working the graveyard shift.” Kakashi winced in sympathy. Working until two in the morning didn’t sound like fun to him either. He’d fall asleep on the desk for sure. Iruka, however, struck him as the type to stay awake on pure ethics.

 He bid the chūnin goodbye and trudged away. The walk to his house felt interminable but he had too little energy to move any faster. When he finally did reach home he didn’t bother turning on any of the lights or even getting undressed. He left his shoes by the door then wandered through his apartment in the dark, bumping dog toys with his toes and cursing when he stepped on one and the squeak made him jump two feet in the air. At last he reached his bed, flopping down in an uncoordinated sprawl and just lying there for a few minutes, wondering if he could sleep like that. It was too cool though. He felt grimy as he wiggled about to get the blankets around him, travel dust all over his clothes and everything, but he figured he’d just wash the sheets the next day. 

 Sleep came quickly but it did not come calmly. As had happened sometimes when he was overtired after a mission, he had nightmares. The first nightmare to wake him was of Zabuza’s face grinning down at him from outside the water prison. Just as his dream self watched his three genin get slaughtered because of his carelessness, the real him shot up in bed, wide eyed and panting. When he laid back down he was pulled under again quickly, only to find himself in a new nightmare. Now Zabuza and the Nine Tails were battling and he was trying to save Sakura, who kept insisting she was going to avenge Sasuke. In the way of dreams, Kakashi knew that Sasuke’s death was on his shoulders. Kakashi startled awake as he held a dying Sakura in his arms, the Nine Tailed Fox bearing down on him with bloody fangs.

 ‘Are you awake?’ he called out sleepily with his mind, wondering how late it was. How much had he managed to sleep?

 Yes but why are you? You should be sleeping after your journey.

 ‘I keep having bad dreams,’ he admitted, feeling a bit like a child. A soothing sense of calm trickled in from his friend and his tense muscles relaxed a bit.

 I’ll watch over you.

Kakashi felt his eyes drifting shut, sleep overtaking him yet again, and he just barely managed to think ‘I wish you were here,’ before he fell in to darkness.

He was dreaming again. It was worse somehow when he knew he was dreaming because he still couldn’t stop it, could only watch it happen. Zabuza was holding him in the water prison again but instead of his three young charges it was Obito and Rin outside, facing off against Naruto. The jinchūriki’s eyes were red and his teeth elongated. All three of them were dripping with blood, their clothing and skin torn to shreds. Kakashi screamed for them to stop fighting each other, screamed for Naruto to calm down, but it did nothing to help. He knew this whole scene was impossible. These people had never even lived at the same time as each other. That didn’t make it hurt any less to watch Rin throw herself on to Naruto’s clawed hand, impaling herself there as she had once done the same to him.

This time when Kakashi jerked awake he realized after a moment that he wasn’t alone.

There was a muted chakra in the room with him and something warm and solid was against his back. Kakashi held his breath. The thing against his back continued to breathe softly. Whoever they were they did not move but he could feel the way they lay on the bed, stretched out behind him and pushed up close. Their breath puffed warmly against the back of his neck and for one insane moment he wondered if he smelled bad. Then sanity returned and he was both angry and indignant. Seriously, what the fuck?

Just as his muscles tensed to turn around and deal a deadly blow to the creep who dared to sneak in and lay in his bed with him, he was stopped by a familiar, welcome voice in his head.

I hope you’re not planning to hit me. That wouldn’t be very nice.

Kakashi froze, staring wide eyed in to the shadows on the walls of his bedroom. Allowing himself to inhale again, he thought cautiously, ‘Is that…you?’

You did say you wished I was here. So – here I am.

A hand suddenly brushed his hip, crawling around his body to rest on his chest, hugging him from behind. As if in a trance, Kakashi slowly looked down at the hand, studying it in the darkness. The fingers were long and seemed almost elegant the way they splayed wide across the material of his shirt. There were no easily recognizable marks or scars, he noted.

‘I could turn around right now and I’d see you,’ he felt compelled to point out.

But you won’t.

‘Are you sure?’

Yes. You won’t because I’m asking you not to.

Kakashi didn’t answer at first. He struggled with himself for a while before whispering “Damn it,” to himself. From behind his head there came a soft breathy noise; Voice was chuckling quietly. Stunned, he reveled in the sound of it. It wasn’t a true laugh but it was still music to his ears.

Still looking down at the hand on his chest, he brought his own up, lacing their fingers together and squeezing. Voice squeezed his fingers back with a sure grip, using the rest of his arm to briefly tighten his hold. It felt wonderful. It felt like safety and comfort, and he wanted to stay here like this forever.

Go back to sleep. I’ll watch over you, as promised.

‘But…you’re here. You’re actually here. How can I possibly go to sleep?’ The fact that they were so close had his mind racing – albeit it was a sluggish, drowsy kind of racing. That breathy chuckle came from behind him again, in time with the sense of amusement he felt from the other man.

It’s late and you’re exhausted still, I’m sure you’ll find it easy.

‘Will you stay?’

I’ll be gone in the morning. But I’ll stay until you fall asleep again.

‘I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay. I want to turn around.’

Voice was quiet, though Kakashi felt his chest expand and contract as he sighed, whether from sadness or annoyance or exasperation he didn’t know. The exhalation of air flowed down Kakashi’s collar in to his shirt, warm, and he felt a little creepy for enjoying the sensation of it.

You can’t even see me anyway.

He was going to ask what his friend meant when he felt the body against his shift and sit up a bit. The hand holding his own pulled on him, encouraging him to roll on to his back. Unable to believe it was that easy, but very eager about this turn of events, he followed along with the direction. His back touched the mattress and he looked up right away. Stretched out on his side, weight help up on one elbow, Voice hovered above him, pressing them together from shoulder to hip. He was wearing a sweater with a deep hood that was pulled up to shroud his face in the night. Kakashi took one look at the choice of clothing and groaned, rolling his eyes.

“I feel like that’s cheating, somehow,” he muttered. “Letting me see you without actually seeing you.” His words sounded strangely loud in the quiet room. The hooded head shook from side to side, silently laughing at him while feeling suspiciously smug.

Kakashi stared at that faceless figure for a time, trying to study what little he could. He contemplated just reaching up and jerking back that small flap of material hiding the secret he most wanted to uncover. It would be so easy. But his companion was right: he would never betray his trust like that.  He was distracted from grumbling internally when Voice lifted his hand out of Kakashi’s grasp and brought it up to the jōnin’s face, pressing a palm to his cheek. Kakashi realized belatedly that the one item of clothing he had managed to shed before collapsing was his mask and that his face was bared. He flushed lightly, embarrassed at feeling so vulnerable without it.

I’ve seen your face before, though not often. You rarely look in the mirror.

“Is that how you always know what I’m doing? You can – you can see through my eyes?!” It was strange talking out loud after so many years of having strictly internalized conversations but it felt right with them both finally being in the same space. He didn’t have time to truly appreciate that when they’d first accidently come together.

Yes. If I want to. I can see both what my eyes are looking at and what your eyes are looking at. I experience the whole of your vision, including the peripheral, like a movie screen. I can choose to focus on whatever part I wish, which is how I see things that you don’t. Since I’ve been doing it my whole life, I’m very good at seeing through two sets of eyes at once. I used to walk in to things a lot though.

Kakashi was downright flabbergasted, there was really no other word for it.

“Honestly, what kind of messed up jutsu did we get hit with? How can we do all this?” he asked.

It’s not really a jutsu, it’s closer to a bloodline limit. Something passed down from my mother’s ancestors. The ability didn’t show up for a few generations in some of the branch families, long enough that when my mother was born she was not considered to be part of the clan. But it resurfaced in me. Blood will out, as they say.

“So what is it exactly?”

Well…the way I understand it, I imprinted on you. At some point as a baby I laid eyes on you and…I don’t know how it works really. Our minds were instantly and irreversibly connected. I was only a few months old at the time; my mother told me it was rare for the imprinting to happen so early.

“What do you mean by imprinting?”

That’s the term she always used. She liked to toss around the word soulmates too but I suppose I just decided that I needed you forever.

“Well I can’t argue with that. I need you too.”

Voice’s hand was still touching his cheek, playing with the stubble on his jaw. Now he moved it to lay gently across the jōnin’s eyes and blocked off his vision. Curious and completely unafraid, Kakashi let him, wanting to see what he would do. He felt the man shift against him, pushing their bodies even closer, and then a warm pair of lips placed a soft kiss to the center of his forehead. He hitched out a light gasp, smiling foolishly. The lips lingered on his skin, leaving a second caress before pulling away. When the hand was removed from his eyes he reached up and caught it, bringing it to his mouth and kissing the palm. Voice hummed aloud, a happy little sound.

You really should get to sleep Kakashi. It’s very late.

‘I don’t want you to go,’ he reverted to speaking in his mind when his throat constricted with a wave of affection. How was it possible to need someone so much and yet not even know who they were?

I can always come back. I probably will now. You’re very addicting.

Kakashi grinned up at him and thought, ‘You could do both. Stay. Then come back and stay again,’

Voice seemed to pause, then he very carefully lowered himself until his head was resting on Kakashi’s chest. He curled his body around the jōnin’s until it looked as if he meant to spend the night there. Kakashi wrapped both his arms around the broad shoulders and held tight, hoping. He’d never felt so complete before.

Sweet dreams, Kakashi.

Closing his eyes and letting his body relax back in to the bed, Kakashi tightened his hold even more. He never wanted to let go and he silently communicated that to his friend. Voice sent back a similar feeling, which was encouraging. When Kakashi fell asleep for the final time that night it was deep and dreamless.

He woke up alone, the sheets beside him long gone cold, at half past eleven in the morning.

*

Despite starting the day with a feeling of disappointed loneliness Kakashi enjoyed his lazy time off. He lingered in bed for a few minutes before relocating to the couch and settled in there instead. His ninken gathered around the living room with him and they spent the day watching horrible television dramas and doing routine maintenance on his gear. He sharpened weapons and stitched up clothes, mended the hole in one of his weapon pouches, polished his hitai-ate, anything to keep his hands busy.

Off and on he sensed Voice in his mind checking on him but they didn’t speak for the most part. There was a mood of contentment between them. The night before had bonded them in a way they’d never been able to experience before and they felt closer to each other than ever. Kakashi could still feel the ghost sensation of warmth on his forehead. He found his fingers drifting up every so often to touch the spot he’d been kissed. Every time he did Pakkun felt the need to tell him he was grinning like an idiot. Not even his grumpy ninken could spoil his mood though. The pack knew about Voice; he’d never kept it from them that he talked to someone in his head. They’d taken the news of Voice’s physicality with almost as much shock as he himself had but were much more patient than him on the subject of meeting him. 

Kakashi held on to a naïve hope that Voice would come to him again that night, but he fell asleep alone. When he woke the morning after he felt incredibly refreshed and ready to face three hyperactive genin. Well, two hyperactive genin and one consistently mellow genin. Sasuke could definitely be a downer when he put his mind to it. The three of them were waiting for him on the bridge when he finally showed up. Sakura and Naruto yelled at him for being late as per usual then they all headed over towards the Hokage Tower to pick up today’s assigned mission.

They spent the next couple of days doing exactly the kind of things he had dreaded doing when he had originally passed his very first genin team: walking dogs and pulling weeds. Most of the time Kakashi found an excuse to sit back in a handy tree and read one of his books, keeping watch over his charges out of the corner of his eye. Naruto somehow managed to mess up even the simplest of tasks in his zeal to compete with his supposed rival. At times like those Kakashi actually felt himself empathizing more with Sasuke. He knew exactly how it felt to be on the receiving end of that kind of attention. At least Naruto didn’t issue weird challenges with even weirder punishments. Kakashi was glad that Gai was busy with his own team these days.

Just as he was growing a bit complacent, enjoying the easy life for a few days, things started to get interesting again when he spotted the Hokage’s signal bird in the sky as they were heading home from yet another lifeless D-rank.  He’d been hearing rumors around town and catching hints from Voice – who seemed to know a lot about what went on in the village – so he had a pretty good idea already of what the news might be. Still, one should try not to stand up one’s own Hokage. Without explaining himself he bid the team goodbye and poofed away. They looked to be starting another love-triangle fight anyway, something he was more than happy to skip out on.

Before responding to the summons he stopped by the mission room to hand in their short report to Iruka. Thanks to the blonde on his team he had the scarred man’s schedule almost memorized and handed reports only to him when possible. They chatted briefly about Naruto’s continued growth with Iruka blushing and laughing nervously. Kakashi wondered what it was about himself that made the other man so anxious around him still. Their conversations were always riddled with blushes from the chūnin. Hoping to make Iruka feel more at ease, he offered to walk together to the Hokage’s office when the young man mentioned he had been summoned as well. Iruka had smiled shyly and scratched at his scar the way he did when he didn’t know what to say. They arrived at the gathering together then split up to go stand with their peers.

Big news, but I don’t think it should affect you much.

Kakashi pretended to listen to Asuma while he thought back, ‘Why shouldn’t it affect me? I have a genin team. If this is what I think it is, why shouldn’t it involve us?’

They’re a bit…untested, don’t you think?

Kakashi sent over a sense of teasing exasperation and replied, ‘Well what other way to test them than with an actual test? Like, oh I don’t know, say the chūnin selection exams?’ For some reason Voice felt a bit affronted, which Kakashi didn’t understand. What did Voice care if he entered his team in the chūnin exams? Voice turned sulky in his head and refused to say anything further, leaving Kakashi feeling off balance as the Hokage began to speak to them. His friend’s actions confused him.

When the Hokage called him and the other rookie team leaders forward and they all nominated their teams, there was a general murmur of shock throughout the room. Already upset by his friend’s strange sulking, Kakashi reacted very badly when his other new friend also questioned him. He could understand why Iruka would be hesitant to see his recently graduated students participate in such a rough competition so quickly, he really could, but he was feeling flustered to have doubt come at him from all sides. He hated feeling flustered. It was Iruka’s poor fortune that Kakashi took his frustration out on the scarred man, purposefully making a distasteful joke about crushing his favorite student. He immediately felt bad for it but pride kept him from apologizing in a room full of people. He was sighing inside though, hoping he hadn’t just lost a friendship that was only just beginning to flourish.

He paid little attention to what was being said for the rest of the meeting except to note that the Hokage had decided to hold a preliminary of some kind to test the rookie nine. He left in a low mood, walking slowly back to his apartment with his hands shoved in his pockets. When he arrived home he took a look around and decided it was much too stifling to be inside at the moment. Instead he walked over to the bedroom window and crawled out, pulling himself up on to the roof. He sat on the edge of the building, his legs dangling above the open window, and rested his elbows on his knees, watching the afternoon sun crawl across the sky. It was getting closer to the dinner hour and he hadn’t had time to eat lunch because of his team, but he found that he wasn’t hungry. He felt like crap and he wasn’t sure why.

Is this really what’s best for them?

A wave of relief rolled through him when he heard Voice speak, so intense that his balance wavered and he had to sit up and lean back from the edge a bit. ‘I think it is. I can understand why Iruka would worry for them but he should have more faith; they’ve improved quite a bit. I know they won’t succeed. They’ll definitely fail this exam. But it’s an important experience!’ He slumped back down to rest against his knees again. ‘I don’t want to hurt them. I shouldn’t have spoken to him like that. I kind of acted like a dick.’

There was no kind of. You did act like a dick.

‘Aren’t you supposed to be on my side?’

Not if I agree with him.

Kakashi frowned. Having Voice take someone else’s side felt incredibly lonely. He took a deep breath and thought, ‘They’re strong enough that they will not get hurt. But all Naruto and Sasuke do is complain that they’re ready to handle more. They need to experience, in a controlled environment, what exactly it is they think they’re ready for. They need to be shown they’re wrong.’

Silence reigned between them for a few moments.

I didn’t think of it that way. You’ve really thought about this, haven’t you?

‘Well, yeah. They’re my responsibility now and I want to do everything in my power to make sure they grow as strong as they can. They won’t pass this time around but I believe they’ll make it in the next attempt. Well, perhaps not Sakura. That girl needs to learn to pay more attention to her own skills instead of drooling over Sasuke.’

I’m sorry I doubted you. Forgive me?

‘Maa, I’ll always forgive you. I could use a hug though.’ Relief made him giddy, which in turn made him cheeky. He could sense the almost-laughter welling up in their connection.

I’ll think about it. You’re going to have a visitor soon.

‘Oh?’

The Hokage asked Iruka-sensei to test his former students, to see if they were truly ready for this. He’s with Sasuke now, I believe, but Team Ten still remains to be tested. It seems he intends to speak with you afterwards.

‘Was I supposed to…meet him somewhere?’

If you sit up there on that roof long enough, I’m sure he’ll find you on his own.

Kakashi smiled. ‘So no hug?’

Maybe later.

That wasn’t a no, so Kakashi let himself be foolishly hopeful again. As suggested, he hung out on the roof for a while. Since he didn’t have anything else he was supposed to be doing, he took the opportunity to watch the sunset as it lit the sky on fire over Konoha. He couldn’t remember the last time he stopped to appreciate the beauty of nature. He wondered what Voice was doing but didn’t ask. Instead he simply poked around in his mind for that sense of connection and expressed his feeling of lethargic happiness. He got the impression that it had made his friend smile, wherever he was.

The moon was fully over his head by the time Kakashi felt a presence land on the roof line behind him, chakra pulled in tight to avoid giving himself away. Unsure if Iruka was still mad, he didn’t turn around right away. Without looking away from the beautiful view in front of him he asked, “How was it?”

“We went to the trouble of having a preliminary exam but all nine of the rookies passed,” Iruka’s hoarse voice admitted. “As you say, their skills have definitely improved.”

“Well, the actual chūnin exams won’t end at this but-“ Kakashi was half turned around, ready to explain why he’d acted like a horse’s ass earlier, when Iruka held up a hand. He stopped talking in midsentence.

“I wanted to apologize Kakashi-sensei, for speaking out of turn. I see now that I was wrong to doubt you. And the others, of course. I should not have questioned your decision.” The chūnin scratched at the bridge of his nose and rocked back on to one heel. “I do hope you’ll forgive me for causing such a scene for you.”

Déjà vu filled him at the man’s choice of words but also happiness. Kakashi had somehow managed to piss off two people and have them both turn around and forgive him in one day. And both had admitted he was right! It was like his birthday came early. He offered Iruka a smile and pulled his feet up on to the roof, standing up and affecting his typical casual slouch.

“Maa, Iruka-sensei, I owe you an apology too,” he said. “But…thank you for seeing what I had hoped you would see. They’ve come a long way in a short time.”

“That they have,” Iruka blushed and looked down at his feet, his words quiet.

“Did you have somewhere you needed to be, sensei?” Kakashi asked. “Since I have you here, perhaps we could have that conversation about Naruto. The incident in the Land of Waves concerned me quite a bit.”

Iruka cleared his throat, still blushing, but he nodded and murmured, “No I don’t have to be anywhere for now, we can talk.”

Kakashi dropped his hands in to his pockets and smiled in a friendly manner.

They stood there on the roof chatting about their energetic student. Iruka told him about Naruto’s childhood, explaining some of his personality quirks. He set Kakashi’s mind at ease about the fox sealed away inside the boy, saying there had never been cause for worry before. When he was overcome with emotion it was sometimes possible to sense the presence of a different chakra within him but that chakra had until now never made it past the seal. Between them they figured it was because his teammate’s life was in danger that he had managed to call on the power within him.

The conversation drifted away from its original intention as they started swapping stories about Naruto’s antics in general. He was a funny kid and things were never boring for long when he was around. Even when he was at his lowest he always found a way to motivate himself, something Kakashi silently admired. He relied on Voice. Naruto relied solely on himself.

“As much as it pains me to admit it about someone so precious, sometimes Naruto just…doesn’t understand enough to be upset about something.” It was the closest Iruka had come to admitting that Naruto just wasn’t that smart. The roundabout manner of the admission made Kakashi laugh.

“He’s a knucklehead, through and through,” Kakashi agreed. “Sometimes I have to explain the same things to him four different ways and he still doesn’t understand. Yet somehow he always ends up getting it after he tries it for himself a few times.”

Iruka grinned sheepishly, saying, “Yeah, he’s a fan of doing, not thinking.”

Kakashi blinked as the feeling of déjà vu came over him again. He could swear he’d heard those words before. He shrugged the feeling away though. If he didn’t remember, it couldn’t be all that important.

“I’ve had to incorporate that in to my teaching style,” he commiserated. “They all learn so differently. I have to explain it three different ways every time I want to teach them something new.” Iruka gave him a thoroughly unimpressed look.

“Try it with a classroom of thirty students,” the chūnin deadpanned. Kakashi laughed again.

“No thank you,” he declined lightly.

Kakashi found himself torn. He enjoyed spending time with Iruka; he was pleasant company. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay and keep talking or go inside. He had no guarantee that Voice would actually appear. He could make Iruka go away and then have to spend the rest of the night alone and it would be his own fault. He waffled back and forth until finally deciding. No matter how pathetic it made him, the off chance that he could be close to Voice again was too much to resist. However, his lucky day continued to be kind to him as Iruka announced out of the blue that he should get going.

“Thought you said you didn’t have anywhere you needed to be,” Kakashi teased him out of habit.

“Well I didn’t then, but I do have somewhere I need to get to now,” was his cryptic answer. They murmured polite goodbyes and the teacher dropped over the side of the building with a wave. Kakashi stayed out on the roof for a bit, looking out over the tops of the other buildings. He wondered if he could spot Voice coming; maybe he’d get a clue out of which direction he came from.

After a few minutes, he decided it was a stupid idea. If Voice could see through his eyes he’d know Kakashi was watching the rooftops and he’d come by a more hidden route. With a sigh he hauled himself over to the edge and lowered himself down to the still open window. He swung feet first in to his dark bedroom and blinked to accommodate his vision. When he’d gone out it had still been early enough that he didn’t need to turn on the light but he would now.

Only a few steps in to the room, he halted in his tracks. As his eye adjusted to the stifling darkness a figure slowly became visible. There was someone sitting on his bed. Someone wearing a hooded sweater who raised a hand and wiggled their fingers at him playfully. Kakashi grinned, elated.

“Hello,” he greeted his friend softly.

Hello.

“How long have you been there?” Had he made the man wait?

Just got in actually. Glad you took a minute. Had to dig through half your closet to find this.

The figure plucked at the concealing garment he wore. Kakashi narrowed his eyes. Not only was he hiding, he was hiding in Kakashi’s own damned clothes! Then he berated himself for wasting so much time. Had he been just a little bit faster, he might have seen! Angry with himself, Kakashi crossed his arms and huffed.

Aw, don’t be mad. Still need a hug?

Kakashi decided that wasn’t playing fair, offering up something so impossible to resist. He nodded anyway though, walking over to the bed demurely. When Voice raised his arms to greet him Kakashi tackled him. The chest he collided with let out a surprised grunt and fell back on the bed. He followed the momentum, wrapping his arms around the solid chest and burrowing his face in to the collar of his own shirt. It smelled like himself, which was weird, but he didn’t mind that much. He ended up sprawled half on top of his friend, the chest under his jerking up and down as Voice fought not to laugh outright. They laid like that for a while. Kakashi wondered if all best friends cuddled or if they were closer than other people because of their mental connection. He had this need to be close as possible, to touch as much as he could. He closed his eyes when he felt a hand run soothingly down the back of his vest, smiling.

“I haven’t asked you anything in days, you owe me something nice,” he muttered in to the thick cotton his face was buried in.

Isn’t this nice?

“Well, yeah. I meant tell me something about you.”

Hmm. Anything in particular?

“Do you ever sing that lullaby for anyone else?” He felt Voice shift, as if he was looking down at the top of Kakashi’s head, then he lay back down.

No. There’s a kid in my building who sleeps on my couch sometimes so I think he’s heard me singing to you but I’ve never intentionally sung it for anyone else. That’s your lullaby, only yours.

He couldn’t have said why that pleased him but it did. He was so wrapped up in how smug he felt that his favorite song was reserved for him personally that he almost disregarded the rest of what Voice had been saying.

“Do you actually sing it out loud when you sing it for me?”

Sometimes. My mother sang that for me when I was in the cradle. I find it very comforting. When you’re sad, I’m sad, so I’m kind of singing us both to sleep.

“I’ll try not to be sad anymore,” Kakashi offered nonchalantly. He heard that quiet chuckle that he’d quickly come to cherish. The hand stroking his back stopped at his waist, fingers worming their way between his vest and his shirt before resuming their caresses. “I could take that off, you know.”

You’d have to move. I’m pretty comfortable.

“Yeah, you’re right. Maybe if I fall asleep on top of you, you’ll be trapped and stay until morning.” He discovered then the unique sensation of being glared at both mentally and physically. Voice shoved lightly at his shoulder with the hand not currently petting him.

I’m a shinobi, silly. I think I can get out of a simple hold without waking one man.

“Maa, what about waking the Copy-Nin?”

Arrogant prick.

“Your arrogant prick.”

Voice felt pleased, like that comment made him preen. It was the second time he’d shown a slight possessiveness of Kakashi and the silver haired jōnin found that he liked it. He liked being claimed, having someone that wanted him to belong to them. He’d belonged to Voice since he was a toddler trying to figure out why he never felt alone even when no one was around. Apparently, he’d belonged to Voice from the moment his companion had laid eyes on him. The idea was thrilling. Irreversibly connected was the way he had phrased it. Kakashi liked the sound of that.

I like listening to you think.

Now that took him by surprise.

You like belonging to me. That’s what you were thinking about, yes?

“Can you tell exactly what I’m thinking? Like, all the time?”

No, it takes more concentration and I just get vague impressions. Like how I can tell when you’re amused. I get…impressions and feelings, sometimes a half-formed idea. It’s like a string of clues that comes together and I can guess at your thought. Just now you were thinking of belonging, of me, and of happiness. So…you’re happy that you belong to me.

“Why can’t I hear you?”

You could if you knew how. The connection is equal. I just know more about how to manipulate it. If I showed you how, you could swim around in my head the same as I do to you.

Kakashi frowned and let out a short growling noise. “You’re not going to show me, are you?”

And have you figure everything out in one go? Absolutely not. Work it out on your own, oh great and powerful Copy-Nin.

Kakashi let his frustration bleed through the connection as strongly as he could. In return Voice sent back a tendril of remorse followed by warmth. As they lay there, Kakashi wondered how long it would take before Voice stopped being afraid to show himself. He had waited twenty six years to finally be able to touch his best friend. Would he have to wait years more to be able to see him? He wasn’t sure he’d be able to wait that long. Had he known years ago that Voice wasn’t just in his head, they would have met face to face a long time back.

 Are we going to stay up late every time I come over?

He felt a rush go through him; Voice planned on coming back. Often, by the sounds of it!

“I’ll go to sleep like a good boy if you promise to stay.”

He felt something press in to the top of his head: Voice giving his hair a quick kiss. The hand stroking his back paused and clutched at his shirt, pulling him in closer.

Sleep.

Kakashi nosed the edge of the shirt out of the way and pressed his face in to a warm neck. Amazingly, it didn’t even occur to him that with the side of his neck exposed he could have seen the face. Right then he was occupied with inhaling deeply and smiling against the fragrant skin he’d found. To his sharp senses Voice smelled like sandalwood and old books. Kakashi breathed it in as he drifted off, still sprawled half on top of the body under his.

When he woke up he was alone again but remained spread out on his stomach. The sweater he never wore that Voice had borrowed was laid out across him like a blanket. Huffing in disappointment, he dropped his face back in to the sheets.

*

The next week flew by. Now that he was on board with the idea, Voice was excited for his students to go through the exam. Kakashi wasn’t sure if it was because Voice was excited for him because it was his first time training genin or if it was because, after watching them through his eyes, the other had also grown to be fond of them. Either way they were both filled with pride when the three younglings showed up with faces brimming with confidence.

It didn’t surprise Kakashi at all when his team passed the first part of the chūnin exams. They did have great teamwork when they put their minds to it and the written portion usually somehow incorporated the necessity of working together, no matter who the proctor was. The fact that it was Ibiki this year only worried him a tiny bit. Mind games might intimidate Sakura but one of the boys was too stubborn to give in and the other was too stupid to give up. Sakura, he knew, would draw strength from them.

When they moved right along with the second exam Kakashi wasn’t sure what to expect of his students. Certainly he was rooting for them but the Forest of Death was pretty dangerous and the other participants in this exam were years ahead of those three. As it turned out, he had nothing to worry about. At the end of the five days the tired little squad of misfits showed up bearing heaven and earth in their hands. Kakashi was glad to see them, although his enjoyment over their success was dampened by the curse mark Sasuke had been stuck with.

Because of how many people had managed to make it so far a second preliminary round was held straight away. He’d never heard of a chūnin exam that had so many preliminaries but he supposed it was a good thing. The final test was supposed to be a tournament. Having so many take part would drag the whole thing out for way too long. What worried him was when that new curse mark riding uninvited on Sasuke’s neck started acting out during his prelim fight. It looked like it was already growing out of control. As much as Kakashi wished he could stay and witness the rest of the genin push each other around, he needed to do something about that mark. They headed to another section of the tower to take care of it away from prying eyes.

He was certain that sealing it was the best option. The part that made him reluctant was that the seal’s strength would base itself off of Sasuke’s will. Was the boy strong enough for this? Even as he drew the circle and painted the words in his own blood, Kakashi wondered if this would be sufficient or if there was something else he could do. When it was over and Sasuke sat panting on the stone floor, he tried to impress upon the young boy the importance of remaining strong in the face of this. Sasuke passed out in the middle of him talking.

Kakashi was taking a moment to amuse himself with the first time Sasuke had ever been too tired to argue with him over something when an unwelcome voice came from behind him.

“My, how you’ve grown.” Kakashi felt his body go rigid. “To think you’ve become strong enough to perform the Curse Sealing Jutsu.”

Slowly, he turned his head, looking behind himself with his one good eye. Fear was not something Kakashi was accustomed to any longer. Even when faced with opponents he wasn’t sure if he could vanquish he still remained calm and soldiered forward, greeting the possibility of death peacefully. Yet, as he took in the face of Orochimaru, legendary sannin, fear clawed its icy way up his throat. His legs locked and all he managed to croak out was, “You.” He was amazed that he managed to sound relatively normal. Inside his heart beat wildly and he wanted to run away for the first time in longer than he could remember.

“Long time no see, Kakashi,” Orochimaru was smirking as he spoke. Kakashi felt himself gripped with panic, unable to move. Copy-Nin or no, this person could tear him to shreds without breaking a sweat, he was sure.

Kakashi? I take my eyes off you for one minute! You’re projecting yourself all over the place. What’s wrong?

That sweet sound in his mind brought life back in to his limbs and Kakashi managed to turn around to face the man in front of him. Swallowing discreetly, he communicated with his friend.

‘Are you safe?’

What?!

‘Are you somewhere safe?’

 As safe as I can be in my own village, I suppose. What is going on?

‘I don’t know yet. Wherever you are, stay there. I’ll tell you later.’

Voice was likely to be livid with him later, he felt reluctant even now, but Kakashi didn’t care. As long as his companion stayed safe he didn’t care about anything else. Hearing Voice and knowing that he was somewhere – anywhere – but here gave him strength. Kakashi put a stern hand on his fear and brutally shoved it away. Voice was something to fight for, something he needed to protect. Not to mention the helpless boy on the floor next to him. Orochimaru was talking, dismissing him, but he stood tall and did his best to appear calm.

“What do you want with Sasuke?” he growled back. He wouldn’t be able to threaten someone like Orochimaru but it wouldn’t do to give him the advantage of knowing just how badly he affected Kakashi.

He was completely unprepared for Orochimaru to start talking about the Sharingan in his left eye, expressing his jealousy and admitting to a desire to have that power for his own. He called it a gift. Kakashi had never truly thought of it that way. To him it was neither a gift nor a curse, it was a responsibility. He knew someone like this snake would never see it the same. He saw it only as a power to be used, a weapon to be wielded.

Kakashi tried to deflect him away from the boy he was guarding, asking him what his plans were, what game he thought to play. Almost casually Orochimaru admitted to being the one behind the creation of the Sound Village. He spoke of pawns and chess pieces, expending people as he saw fit. Kakashi let him talk, using his words to draw anger and hatred, wrapping himself in them as a shield against the fear that weakened his knees. He was particularly disgusted at the notion of sacrificing people.

When the man began to walk towards him, Kakashi clung to his shield of anger in place of bravery. He gathered his chakra in to the lightening blade he had worked so hard to develop, hunkering down as if he meant to leap forward and strike. The snake stopped walking, a petulant frown on his pasty face.

“I don’t care if you are one of the sannin, the three shinobi of legend,” he fronted. “I swear, take one more step towards Sasuke and one of us will die here!” It sure wasn’t the most threatening line he’d ever come up with but under the circumstances he thought he could be excused. Still, it was a bit disconcerting to have someone so powerful start laughing at him all of a sudden. Even though he knew he didn’t truly pose much of an obstacle for this guy he found himself a bit insulted. He could at least pretend to take Kakashi seriously.

Instead of attacking, however, he taunted the jōnin. Orochimaru spoke as if he knew Sasuke better than the boy’s own teacher, stating with perfect confidence that Sasuke would eventually come to him for power. When the enemy turned his back and began to prowl away in to the shadows, Kakashi felt his Chidori dissipate. The snake’s parting taunt about taking the chance to kill him struck Kakashi like a blow to the face. He barely reacted when the sannin started moving again, silently vanishing among the pillars surrounding them.

A moment passed in which he realized he was suddenly shaking from head to toe. Anger had run out. He was terrified again.

“One of us will die here?” he muttered to himself. “I must have been out of my mind!”

Straightening took more effort than it should have. It was difficult to convince his muscles to move. When he turned and looked at the boy still on the floor, he felt shame. Would he really have been able to fight? Would he have been able to protect Sasuke? He wasn’t sure and that bothered him. These kids really needed to get a lot stronger a lot faster.

Dropping Sasuke off at the hospital was a quick journey but Kakashi was glad for the trip. Expending the energy to dash through the Forest of Death with a body on his back was just what he needed to steady his limbs right then. That, and it was nice to have a few minutes alone to compose himself. He didn’t want anyone to see him so shaken or the shame would double. The civilians and lower ranks who lived in this village felt safer knowing that people like him were around and they liked to pretend that their big bad shinobi guardians weren’t afraid of anything. Normally Kakashi embodied that pretense. At the moment he was falling short.

After making sure that the black haired boy was in good hands and under guard, he used a teleportation jutsu to transfer himself back to the tower in the middle of the forest. He made sure to slouch casually and greet the other two members of his team with a lazy, “Hi.” Sakura and Naruto reacted just as he expected them to. The normalcy of the interaction was soothing, enough so that he was able to calmly point over Sakura’s shoulder to inform her that she was being called upon for the next match.

 As the pink haired kunoichi squared off against her blonde counterpart, Kakashi sighed, poking through his mind.

‘So…I could use a hug.’

You’ll get a damn hug when you tell me what the hell just happened! You were…panicking! You don’t panic! Ever! You made me panic!

‘Well excuse me for getting a little worried. I was looking Orochimaru straight in the face and thought to myself that I wasn’t really up for getting eaten alive.’

Orochimaru?!

‘Like I said, I’ll explain everything later. I’d just…like to do it…after a hug?’ He felt a little awkward, trying to phrase the question without actually asking it. He’d given up weeks ago on asking his friend to come over to see him. Voice showed up when he wanted to, Kakashi accepted the limitation. Today, though, he desperately needed to be with his friend, feel those strong arms around him. The edges of fear were still tracing their way around his limbs, and he wished he could think of an excuse to sit down.

Tell me when you’re headed home. I’ll always come if you need me, Kakashi.

‘Thank you,’ he replied. Even in his own head he sounded meek. He’d been feeling so good earlier, having his team get so far in these tough exams. Now he couldn’t wait for the day to be over so he could pretend all of this had never happened.

And somehow, the day managed to get worse. After watching Sakura’s spectacularly unspectacular fight, then sitting through Naruto’s surprising match, he headed over to check on Sasuke quickly. Upon arriving he found the entire ANBU guard he had assigned wiped out by one young genin – who appeared was not a simple Leaf genin after all, but a spy for Orochimaru. And he outsmarted Kakashi, reanimating a corpse and pretending to be one himself.

By the time Kakashi ran in to Naruto on the way out of the hospital, he was in no mood for more shit. As soon as the jinchūriki started going on about a favor, Kakashi cut him off right away and steered him in the direction of Ebisu-sensei. He’d spoken to his fellow elite jōnin days ago. Naruto protested, but Naruto protested almost everything so Kakashi ignored him and left him in the hands of the sunglasses wearing ‘closet pervert’. He was so done with the whole day he didn’t even stick around to ask about that.

As he trudged his way out of the hospital, he glanced up at the sky and silently called out, ‘I’m headed home. Uh…you busy?’

I’ll meet you there.

Not knowing how fast his friend intended to be, Kakashi hurried his steps. He slipped in through his bedroom window and left it open, tearing off his vest and throwing it in the corner. The unnecessary violence of the act suited his fidgety mood. Then he found he didn’t know what to do with himself. It wasn’t even time for dinner yet, so food was out. He didn’t want to read while waiting – he wouldn’t be able to concentrate. He didn’t care to pick up around the place.

He was still standing there aimlessly staring at nothing when a pair of arms slid around his waist. Instinctively, he leaned back, sinking in to the much needed embrace.

I’ve got you.

“Maa,” he started to speak, then realized he had nothing to say at the moment. He felt crappy and ashamed of himself; he just wanted to curl in to a ball of humiliation.

One of the hands holding him lifted up and fiddled with his hitai-ate, pulling it down so it covered both of his eyes. Kakashi sighed and just let it happen. His reward was for Voice to step around in front of him and pull him in to a fierce hug. Kakashi hugged him back just as hard. They stayed like that until he felt the sadness and tension slowly drain away from him. Just being with Voice made him feel better.

Tell me what happened.

‘Didn’t you see?’ he asked silently. Speaking was too much effort.

I can’t keep my eyes on you quite all the time. Usually I can but I was involved in a summoning with a former student and I was still woozy from it until a couple hours ago.

‘Involved in a summoning?’ That rang some kind of bell in his mind but he was too drained to think.

Not important at the moment. Talk.

Kakashi started speaking slowly, silently. He didn’t notice when he started speaking out loud, his words rushing out faster and more anxiously. He spilled everything, even his embarrassing rush of cold fear and the way his knees had almost shook right out from underneath him. Voice stayed silent through the whole thing until Kakashi ran out of words somewhere at the point where he was talking about the scene in the hospital just before.

Voice took a little bit to let it all sink in, then he unwound his arms from Kakashi’s waist and stepped back a half inch. Kakashi felt his mask being pulled down and then there were hands framing his face, guiding him to bend his head down a little. Voice took a moment to caress his cheeks then kissed him softly on the center of his forehead, the same as he had done the first night he’d come here.

I would have been afraid too. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

‘Do that again.’ Kakashi felt heat flood his cheeks and was sure he was blushing, though it was worth it when he received another kiss. ‘I like that.’ He couldn’t make himself say it out loud. Voice sent him his affectionate amusement.

Oh good. I like it too.

‘I’d return the favor if I could. Unfortunately, I can’t see right now.’

The hands on his face disappeared. He heard a slight rustling and a clinking noise. More rustling.

Lean forward slightly. Just an inch.

He did as he was asked and his chin bumped in to something hard but warm. Smiling, Kakashi pursed his lips and kissed Voice on the forehead. He’d probably been listening to the man removing his own hitai-ate, which meant he wore it in its proper position, which was something Kakashi could consider a clue. A lot of people failed to wear their protectors in the proper spot. For good measure, he peppered three more kisses on to the skin he could reach before Voice jerked away with a breathy chuckling sound.

Oh calm down, you.

“Just getting them in while I can,” he murmured with a grin. He felt a hand caress his cheek again and turned to place a kiss there too.

You’re not making it any easier to go, you know that?

Kakashi’s smile faded. “You’re going already?”

I’m sorry. I’m actually supposed to be somewhere right now. You were more important though.

“Oh…” Kakashi frowned, but it wasn’t so bad. He did feel better. It felt especially nice to know Voice cared about him so much he came rushing over even though he had other responsibilities. Not that he doubted that. How much Voice cared for him was something he would never doubt.

I have to go but…when are you leaving with Sasuke? Will you be here tonight?

“Yeah, we’re not going until he’s fit to leave the hospital. So, I’ll probably be around for at least a week.”

And you’ll be gone until the final tournament?

Kakashi was overwhelmed by the sudden flood of loneliness he felt from his companion. Seems he wasn’t too happy about their impending separation either but it was what was best for Sasuke’s training. He nodded blindly, then bowed his head and thought, ‘Come back here. One more before you go.’

This time, Voice leaned all the way in to him. Kakashi let his lips linger on the smooth skin. Before Voice could pull away, he turned his face and rested his cheek against the top of the other man’s head. He could feel the way the hair was pulled back, though without his vision he couldn’t have said if it was in a braid, a ponytail or a half ponytail. It was the second clue he’d stolen in just a few minutes: Voice did not have short hair.

I’ll come back tonight.

Kakashi didn’t answer, just sent him the feeling of how much that pleased him. Then Voice was twisting away from him and the physical sense of his presence was gone. He was still there in Kakashi’s head though, which the jōnin was grateful for. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his day all alone. Pushing his hitai-ate up so he could see out of his right eye, Kakashi found that he had calmed enough to concentrate on reading so he did that, burying himself in the lewd adventures of Junko and her lover.

Voice did come back that night but it was sometime after Kakashi had passed out on his couch. He woke up to find himself being carried piggyback like a child and he couldn’t bring himself to protest. He was too sleepy to think of stupid things like badass reputations. He mumbled when he was lowered on to his bed, reaching out to pull Voice down with him. His friend snuggled in to his chest without saying anything, allowing Kakashi to drift off again peacefully.

When he woke alone, he wasn’t bothered. He was used to it now.

*

The next few days were fairly uneventful for Kakashi. He learned through disconnected gossip tidbits who had actually ended up training Naruto and he couldn’t have been more pleased. Not expected to even practice with his remaining student, he took his time off and did a whole lot of nothing. Mostly he hung around in trees, enjoying the nice weather with a good book. Orochimaru’s words did weigh on him, so he shared the incident with his Hokage. The Sandaime agreed that his plan to train Sasuke away from the village for a while was the best course of action. Having the Hokage approve his plan made him feel even better about it.

What really made his week a good one was the fact that he got to see Voice every night to make up for the time they would be spending away from each other. Seven nights in a row he fell asleep tangled around his best friend, chatting quietly in their minds. Despite having gone their whole lives without so much as touching until only a few months before, the thought of being so far apart was painful now. He knew, logically, that he could not stay in the village forever. There would be longer missions again once his team grew strong enough to handle them. But right now all he could think of was how much he would miss his companion’s scent and the warmth of his arms.

Finally Sasuke did get better and Kakashi helped bust him out of the hospital without alerting the staff. They gathered their prepared packs and snuck around in the village’s shadows so no one would know which direction they had gone. When they’d originally decided to go away for this training, they hadn’t meant to be so secretive. They’d merely wanted a calm environment where they weren’t likely to have the other contestants stumbling across them. Now it seemed their plan was necessary to keep the young boy safe. Sasuke took the challenge of leaving unnoticed at midday as a chance to test his skills. More than used to sneaking about enemy territory at all hours, Kakashi simply followed behind, obliterating the odd footprint that the boy missed.

They hopped the western wall together, dropping in to the forest and breathing a sigh of relief that no one had spotted them or tried to stop them from leaving. A few minutes in to the trees they came upon the west road and followed it, since that was the fastest was to get where they were headed.

Kakashi was not surprised but Sasuke was definitely startled when they turned a corner to find someone standing in the middle of the path just around the bend. The genin instinctively drew a kunai, but the silver haired jōnin stopped him with a hand on the top of his head, ruffling his hair. Even without the presence in his mind, greeting him with a feeling of amusement for the student’s reaction, he would have recognized that dark hooded cloak. Who else would be dressed like that in this weather?

Uncaring that Sasuke was watching him intently, Kakashi walked over to the cloaked figure and drew him straight in to a hug. Voice hugged him back tightly, sighing softly in to his neck. They parted quickly for the sake of their audience, though both of them were reluctant to do so, and stood facing each other. Kakashi stared in to the darkness where the face should have been and whispered under his breath, “I’ll miss you.” Voice bowed his head.

Miss you more.

Kakashi smiled and then called back to his student, “Come along, Sasuke.” With a final goodbye touch disguised as a friendly clap to the shoulder he stepped around his friend and walked away. He could hear Sasuke’s footsteps giving the covered man a wide berth as he hurried to catch up.

“Who was that?” the boy asked in a suspicious voice. He’d never seen his teacher voluntarily touch someone before, let alone hug them.  Kakashi contemplated his reply carefully.

“My most precious person,” he said finally.

“Who was it though?” The way Sasuke looked at him, he seemed surprised the jōnin even had any precious people.

“I have no idea,” Kakashi admitted cheerfully. “I don’t even know his name.” He took a twisted delight in the confusion that his answer fostered. If he had to be confused, at least someone else was confused with him now.

Training one genin exclusively, day in and day out, turned out to be another whole new experience. It was very different from team training. He saw a lot of himself in this boy, enough that he decided to show the youngling his own personal jutsu. Kakashi had never taught the lightning blade to anyone before, but he hoped to use it to connect with his student and make him open up more. He felt pride when it was picked up so quickly, more so when it was wielded so well right from the start.

At night, he and Sasuke slept in tents at the bottom of the cliffs that they were using for their training grounds. Every night found Kakashi lying on his back with his arms behind his head, staring at the canvas ceiling and having long conversations with Voice. He kept his companion updated on Sasuke’s progress if the other wasn’t watching. In return, Voice did some spying and passed along little scraps about Naruto’s training with his new sannin sensei. Apparently the blonde was trying to learn how to summon toads. From the way Voice talked, it wasn’t going very well. Kakashi could guess that Jiraiya was paying more attention to finding pretty girls to peek at then the kid he was supposed to be helping.

The one bump in the road on their time away happened when a red-haired genin from the Sand Village found them. Kakashi could feel the boy’s killing intent so strongly he fully expected to see him fly around the rocky ledge snarling in rage. He was surprised then to see him calmly walk out, face completely blank, almost bored. Strangely it hadn’t taken much to make the weird boy leave. His eyes had locked on to his soon-to-be opponent with a look that said he’d very much like to consume him. Kakashi had shivered when recounting it to Voice. That look didn’t usually appear in a shinobi’s eyes until much later, after killing many people and learning to enjoy it. Kakashi very much hoped he never saw that look in his own eye. He was relieved when the Sand boy left with no trouble.

Even spending all day every day training intensively, then devoting his nights to speaking with Voice, it seemed to take forever for three weeks to pass. Kakashi wanted to go home. Not because he missed his village or because he was drained from a mission and wanted a rest. No, he wanted to get back to his friend; hold him again, touch his hand, anything. He wondered if this is what it felt like to have a family.

For all that he was counting the days until he could go back, Kakashi actually woke that morning without realizing what day it really was. He and his student slowly rose from their tents and ate a leisurely breakfast. They were halfway up the cliff when Sasuke questioned if they really had time for training before they needed to get back. Kakashi stopped walking and gaped at the boy.

“I…shit.”

“This is why you’re always late isn’t it? You forgot what day it was!” Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly then turned and led the way back down. They tore down their tents and gathered everything in to their packs, setting off in the direction of the village. At first they set a rather normal travelling pace. Then as they noticed the sun rising higher and higher in the sky, they picked up speed. Halfway home they were flat out running.

When they bounded in through the west gate they made no secret of their entry, just flashed past the chūnin on duty and kept going without missing a beat. They dropped their packs at his apartment because it was closer and Kakashi glanced out his window.

‘How late am I? Whose match is going on?’ he asked silently.

I don’t know, I’m not at the stadium.

Kakashi raised the eyebrow hidden behind his hitai-ate. That could rule out a lot of people. He wondered if Voice realized the huge whittling of suspects he’d just allowed.

I haven’t really been watching you today. I seem to keep drifting off in to my thoughts.

Kakashi smiled and thought, ‘You do feel distracted. I’ll let you know what’s going on when I get there.’

Then he reached out and put a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. Hoping against hope that they weren’t going to jump right in to the middle of some other pair’s battle, they both disappeared in a swirl of leaves. When they appeared again they were standing directly in the center of the exam stadium and Genma was giving him a look that was half completely unimpressed with his timing and half relieved that they had finally made it. Which Kakashi hoped meant they weren’t too late to participate.

He made a glib comment about getting stuck in traffic, let Naruto and Sasuke jibe each other, then asked the question he was dreading. His chronic inability to pay attention to the time hadn’t disqualified his student…had it? Genma led him around by the nose for a bit, then put him out of his misery. They had arrived with exactly one second to spare. Kakashi heaved a sigh of relief before heading off to go scout out the spectators.

He arrived in the stands with no fanfare, quietly strolling along behind the rows of seating and taking a good look around, memorizing as many faces as he could. It was kind of an anti-recon mission. Everyone here was not the one he wanted and there were quite a lot of people here. He tried to make a list in his head of people who would be unable to attend the event. Voice was obviously fond of Kakashi’s team, he would want to come and see them fight, so whatever was holding him away had to be a duty of some sort. Kakashi moseyed over to stand with Gai and Lee, who in turn were standing with Sakura.

The raven haired genin in the arena did well, as was expected. Most of the lords and important persons who had come today were here to see this very match and they were not disappointed in the slightest. He even managed to pull off the Chidori without a hitch, impressing his onlookers.

Then suddenly everything was going to hell in a hand basket. Somewhere in the middle of Sasuke’s match the Sand Village and the Sound Village attacked in tandem, taking the Hokage prisoner inside a large barrier jutsu. As inconvenient as it was, Kakashi was glad for the genjutsu that put most of the spectators to sleep. At least this way there wouldn’t be panicked civilians running about getting in the way. Besides, sleeping civilians weren’t likely to be any kind of threat or target so they were probably safer that way.

As he flipped here and there, thinning out the Sound nin’s numbers, Kakashi glanced over to check out the barrier holding the Sandaime. When he saw the snake sannin reveal himself to be the one under the guise of the Kazekage, his blood ran almost as cold as when they had come face to face.

‘Orochimaru!’ he cried out urgently in his mind.

What?!

‘Orochimaru has taken the Hokage prisoner!’ This time, the claws that gripped his chest and made his heart stutter were not from fear of an enemy in front of him. Voice had said he was not in the stadium, but the village was under attack in other places too. Where was he? Kakashi was desperate to know.

I will join the fighting when I can.

Kakashi launched himself out of the way of an incoming kunai. He spun in the air and kicked out, catching his enemy in the throat. He listened to the gurgling noise his foe made while trying to figure out a way to ask his friend not to fight. Voice seemed to be skimming his mind again because he spoke before Kakashi could.

I am a shinobi of Konoha and I have as much right to defend my village as you do. I’m not going to sit back and watch just because you want me wrapped in pillows.

He didn’t sound insulted, just a little exasperated, like he was used to people doubting his abilities. As he met a new opponent in midair, rebounding off each other’s blades, Kakashi replied, ‘Please tell me you’ll be careful.’ It was all he could ask. Voice was right.

I promise to come back to you if you promise the same.

‘You have yourself a deal,’ he agreed. Then he was summoning Pakkun and sending his ninken off with Sakura, Naruto, and Shikamaru. The young ones left to go after their comrade, leaving him and Gai to fight side by side against endless waves of Sand and Sound. It was just like old times.

It became a blur, as drawn out battles like these often did, and he soon lost himself in the rush of combat. His muscles worked until he felt numb. His limbs grew so heavy he had to concentrate twice as hard just to maintain his speed. The kunai in his hand was suddenly his last and his weapon pouch was run dry of all but the exploding tags he so rarely used. Still he fought on until, without warning, the enemy began to retreat.

The barrier encasing their leader with Orochimaru dropped and the evil mastermind could be seen being carried away by his henchmen. ANBU made to give chase and were driven away like feathers on the wind. When Kakashi and the others who had been fighting within the stadium made it up on to the roof, it was already too late. They found him resting among trees with a calm smile upon his face.

The third Hokage was dead.

Kakashi looked down upon the body of their leader, feeling the familiar chill blankness come over him. He might have called it sadness, were he not so well trained as a shinobi. Now that he had a moment to stand still his thoughts turned inevitably to Voice again. He was afraid to call out for him, afraid of not getting an answer. He stared down at the Sandaime, so still, and clenched his fists at his sides. Unable to think in proper words, he sent out a searching thought, a formless plea for the other man to reply.

I’m okay.

Kakashi felt a shiver go through him, running from the top of his head down his spine to his toes. Nothing had ever sounded as beautiful as that man’s voice did right then, when he most needed to hear it.

And you? Are you injured?

‘No,’ he thought slowly. ‘But the village has taken a loss.’ Voice felt reluctant, as if he didn’t want to ask, but he did anyway.

Kakashi, what’s happened?

Kakashi finally closed his eyes to the scene before him as he cast the words in to the space between them, feeling their weight double for having to be the one to deliver such a message. ‘The Sandaime is dead.’

Voice did not answer, but he didn’t need to. Their minds were connected and Kakashi could feel his devastation.

*

They did not see each other that night. As much as they needed each other there simply wasn’t time. Those who were able to continue on were kept busy through the night and the next two days as well. There were enemies to flush out, bodies to collect, patrols to send out, and so on. An attack of this magnitude caused chaos that needed sorting and they were forced to do it without a strong figure to lead them.

A central hub of activity was set up in the mission office and Kakashi found himself going in and out of that room so much he gave some thought to declaring it his new home. Every time he entered the one face that never changed was Iruka. The brunette chūnin seemed to be running quite a few things on his own, giving orders to jōnin who were grateful for a little guidance. He looked as haggard as Kakashi felt, so he made a point of bringing his friend coffee a couple times. The look Iruka gave him when he did was a drowning man searching for air, unsure when he would find it, but not ready to give up the fight.

Voice was a constant presence in his head. Somewhere, his friend was also working nonstop to bring the mayhem to order. They spoke sparingly; both understood that if they spoke too much it would be impossible to resist going to see each other. There were important things to do right now and their personal wants would have to wait. They could always sense each other though and Kakashi could feel the jagged hurt that his friend was carrying around, the hurt of losing someone dear to you. He wanted nothing more than to gather his friend up and hold him close until those jagged edges smoothed over.

Eventually he reached the point of burn out the day before the mass funeral was to be held. He didn’t even try and make it to his apartment. He was standing in the middle of the mission room, just finished speaking with someone about the recently secured perimeter around the village, when he realized that his knees were ready to give out. He glanced around with a half lidded eye and spotted, miraculously, an empty couch in one corner. Most of the other couches in the room were taken up with prone figures limp with exhaustion. Kakashi wobbled his way over before anyone else could claim the spot and collapsed face down, one arm trapped underneath his chest and the other hanging over the side. In the instant before sinking in to darkness he was struck by a feeling: Voice was watching him. Not watching through his eyes but there in the room watching him fall prey to sleep. He had less than a second to be bitterly disappointed that he hadn’t the energy to look around before he was out like a light.

 He woke up around nine hours later at five in the morning. The room was still busy but there were significantly less people around. Kakashi turned his head and scanned the room, absently noting that Iruka had finally managed to go home – or at least somewhere that wasn’t here. When he hauled himself up in to a sitting position something warm slid off his shoulders on to his lap. He frowned and plucked at the green material. Someone had laid their vest out over him while he slept. Discreetly raising it to his nose, he sniffed lightly. His best friend’s scent greeted him and he allowed himself a small smile. Knowing Voice, no one would remember seeing him cover the Copy-Nin with a make-shift blanket on his way out.

Kakashi went home to change in to his mourning clothes and was standing at the memorial stone as dawn touched the sky with its steely gray fingers. He stood in the rain and traced his eyes over the familiar names carved there, picturing their faces in his mind. Many more names would be added here after today. He was sure he remembered overhearing someone volunteering for the task at some point in the last couple of days. Then he would have more faces to remember, more memories to forget.

Kakashi let his thoughts drift, floating about where they would. He felt Voice wake up and reach for him, and they silently held on to each other for a brief moment before speaking.

You’ll catch a cold, standing in the rain for so long.

‘I was just…thinking.’

You were thinking of your mistakes. You always do when you’re there, no matter how many times I tell you things aren’t your fault.

Kakashi’s lips twitched in the ghost of a smile at their age old argument. ‘Maa, perhaps I was just remembering. Paying respects and all that.’ He could feel how Voice would be shaking his head.

I’ll see you at the funeral. You’d better be there, mister.

Then his friend was quiet, getting himself ready for their day of burials. Kakashi let his thoughts drift again. It wasn’t until someone else approached the stone that he glanced up and checked the position of the sun. He was late. He waited for the woman to place her flowers down for Hayate, then they both flickered away and appeared among the rest of the mourners, listening to the eulogies and looking at the pictures up on the dais.

Kakashi had already placed his flower on the casket and was standing back in his row when he heard Naruto speak up, asking his guardian sensei why people risked their lives for others. It surprised him, that question from that boy. Of all people, he would have thought Naruto would have come to that conclusion by himself. He couldn’t help but listen in. As the chūnin spoke, it was as if he knew exactly the words that Kakashi had needed to hear.

“Well,” Iruka seemed to pause, thoughtful. “When someone passes away, it’s the end. His past and future, all the dreams that he once had, they disappear along with him. This is true even if he died honorably in battle as so many have. As Hayate did. All the ties that bind him to the living are severed. All but one, the most important of all: people. Parents, siblings, friends, lovers, the people who were important to him. And these people, the ones left behind, are joined together in a great circle by their shared memories of him. A circle of friendship, trust, and sacrifice that grows larger and stronger as time passes. It’s hard to explain it. We remain in the circle together; we have no choice. It’s important to us.”

When Naruto hummed and said, “So we do it because we have to” Kakashi felt that he was wrong. That wasn’t it. They didn’t do it because they had to, but because it became impossible to resist the want to. Kakashi did not have to worry about Voice but he could not help it. He was not required to give his life for another, but he knew he would throw himself in front of any blade that threatened his most precious person. Not because he had to but because he wanted to. There was no choice because he would choose the same way every time.

Naruto mumbled something about being sad that the Sandaime was gone and Kakashi found himself speaking without thinking.

“Think how sad it would be if he died for nothing,” he said. His thoughts were with Obito and Rin. “But he left us something priceless. Don’t worry, you’ll understand one of these days.” He meant to say the bonds that were strengthened by the survivors, closing ranks to make up for the sudden holes in their hearts. Naruto said he understood and Kakashi wondered if he really did. This was, after all, the first time Naruto had ever lost someone.

He could feel the presence in his head wrapping tendrils of warmth around him. Voice approved of his words. He wondered if the other was near enough to hear him, or if he was just watching through Kakashi’s eyes again. The funeral was large, every Leaf shinobi who could stand was here; Voice could be anywhere.

‘Are you close?’ he asked, not expecting an answer.

Closer than you think.

Kakashi knew that looking around himself wouldn’t do him any good, but he did anyway. He couldn’t help it. As expected, there was no one looking at him that he could see, other than the people that glanced at him curiously, wondering why he had turned in their direction. Heaving a deep sigh, he turned back to face forward again, respectfully watching the rest of the gathering place their flowers down in remembrance.

After the funeral, Kakashi somehow found himself roped in to walking his students home. With the official mourning over, the spirits of his three young charges were lifted and they were all sporting smiles as Naruto waved to Iruka while they all headed off. They were all lucky to have their homes escape the destruction that much of the village had suffered in the attack. When each kid had wandered off, Kakashi put his hands in his pockets and simply let his feet take him where they wanted, not paying a lot of attention. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with himself now.

He had walked about for an hour, maybe a little more, when his vision went wild with absolutely no warning. It was as if one eye were seeing what was in front of him and the other was seeing something else entirely. It was so confusing that he had to stop walking right in the middle of the market, in his shock unable to even apologize to the old man who walked in to his back. Somehow he could see, as if he were there himself, a panoramic aerial view of Konoha. It took a moment before he recognized the view from the top of the Hokage Monument.

Care to join me?

As suddenly as it had come, the double vision was gone. Kakashi blinked and looked around like he almost expected it to happen again.

‘What…how did you do that?’ he demanded.

I gave you my eyes for a moment.

Feet moving on autopilot in the direction he was given, he realized how difficult it must be for his friend to keep an eye on what he was doing all the time if that’s how it looked. It was like having two movies playing on two screens at the same time. You could watch one or the other, or you could try to watch both. Trying to watch both, however, was sensory overload. Kakashi was halfway to the carved faces before his overwhelmed brain could straighten itself out enough to think again.

‘How did you do it, though?’ he asked. ‘I thought I would need to reach out to you, to be able to do that.’

I told you, I know how to manipulate the bond.

He’d never heard his friend call it a bond before but he liked the way it sounded. It was a good word to describe the connection that allowed them to speak to each other the way they did. He was thinking of that while climbing the long staircase that wound up the side of the cliff. At the top, he paused and tried to think back to what he had seen in that strange double vision. From the angle of the view, he guessed Voice was on top of the third face. He supposed that was appropriate.

When he made his way to the top of the Sandaime’s giant stone head he saw a lone figure standing with their back to him. Their brown hair was loose, fluttering in the light breeze. Whenever it swung down the silky looking tresses brushed the top of his broad shoulders. He had a sturdy masculine build with a trim waist. He was still dressed in his funeral clothes, the same as Kakashi.

Most importantly, he wasn’t wearing a hood.

Pulling his mask down to his chin Kakashi approached his friend slowly, feeling cautious. Was Voice really going to let him see his face? He came to a stop only when his chest was pressed against that firm back, putting his hands on the other man’s hips and burying his face in the swaying hair. It felt as silky as it looked and carried the faint lemony smell of his shampoo mixed in with his natural scent. It was intoxicating. Voice leaned back in to him.

Hello.

Instead of returning the greeting Kakashi squeezed the hips under his hands then gently tugged him to try to make him turn around. He was amazed when his wordless request was complied with right away, no hesitation. Holding his breath, he raised his eyes slowly.

The mischievous look on that face was familiar. It was his own damn face. Kakashi gaped and Voice doubled over, holding both hands up to his mouth to keep the laughter inside.

Oh man, you should see your expression!

Kakashi’s shoulders drooped with disappointment and he bit out, “Seriously? You henged your face in to mine?”

Needed something to cheer myself up.

He rolled his eyes and turned away, flopping down to sit in the dirt. Voice sat down next to him but Kakashi crossed both his legs and his arms, looking pointedly in the other direction.

Don’t be mad. Wasn’t it just a little bit funny?

He stayed firm, allowing his bottom lip to jut out in an over exaggerated pout. Voice shifted around beside him but he refused to look. He was therefore very surprised when he found himself with a lapful of his best friend. Voice was kneeling over him, sitting back on his crossed legs. The other man’s arms wound around his neck and pulled them close until their foreheads were touching.

“That’s playing dirty,” Kakashi mumbled, even as his lips betrayed him by smiling. His own gray eyes stared back at him warmly. He was grateful that the Sharingan had been left out of the partial henge.

Are you going to hug me or not?

Kakashi caught him around the waist and pulled him even closer, nuzzling his neck and placing a light kiss there, since he had the opportunity. Voice twitched when he did. There was a pause, then he returned the gesture. Kakashi was glad his face was hidden. For some reason that made him blush.

After a while of simply holding each other Voice sat back on Kakashi’s legs again. His knees were bracketing the jōnin’s hips, keeping their lower halves in contact while they gazed at each other. Voice was grinning with his stolen face.

Better than a dark hood, right?

Kakashi raised an eyebrow and said, “It’s a bit creepy.” His head filled with almost-laughter. He raised both of his hands and ran his fingers through the brunette tresses before him, winding the straight locks in to corkscrews around his thumb then watching them unravel.

“Do you ever wear your hair down like this?” he asked.

No. With my job that wouldn’t be a great idea.

He was smiling gently. Kakashi wondered if that’s what he himself looked like when he was smiling back at Voice. Probably. It was an affectionate expression.

“You should. You have very nice hair.” He paused and frowned suspiciously. “This is your real hair, right?” He got a wide grin in response. Then Voice leaned forward and wrapped him in another hug.

I missed you. Kami, I missed you so much.

Kakashi silently communicated that he shared that sentiment as he burrowed in to his friend’s neck again. He could happily stay like this for hours. Even when staying in constant communication their time apart had been as hard as he had thought it would be. Being back together felt good. Knowing that they were close but too busy the last couple of days hadn’t been enough. This was enough – holding Voice, feeling him and smelling him and hearing his heartbeat. Speaking of, the other man’s heart was racing. Kakashi could feel the thundering against his own chest.

“Will you promise me something?” he murmured. Voice nodded without saying anything. “Promise me you’ll tell me who you are soon. However you define soon is up to you. I just want the promise.”

He waited while his friend turned that over, thinking about it. Slowly he nodded again, sighing softly against Kakashi’s skin. His breath was warm and it ran down inside the jōnin’s collar again. As he had that time before, he found himself enjoying the sensation of it and then feeling like a creeper for doing so. He wondered if Voice knew that he liked it and what he thought of that.

Soon. I’m sorry for being so difficult.

“You say you’re afraid of me being disappointed but I think you’re afraid of something else. Something you don’t want to tell me. Whatever it is, I’m sure there’s no reason to worry.” He could feel Voice smiling against his neck and it made him smile as well. They seemed to echo one another quite a bit, especially when they were together like this.

Their gooey moment was interrupted when they sensed an approaching group of people. Apparently they weren’t the only ones who thought sitting on the Sandaime’s head was a good way to say goodbye. Pulling apart a couple inches, the two of them stared in the direction that their company would be appearing in a half a minute. Then they looked at each other. Kakashi’s mask was down and Voice was wearing Kakashi’s face on his own anyway. They both agreed they didn’t want to get caught like that.

Feeling like a school child caught doing something naughty – and giggling appropriately – Kakashi scrambled to get them both standing then grabbed his friend by the hand and ran. They dodged behind a misshapen rock formation just as four people came in to view wearing somber expressions and holding a picnic basket. He recognized some of the chūnin who had worked as the Hokage’s assistants. While they spread out a blanket and reminisced quietly about their fallen leader Kakashi formed the hand seals for a teleportation jutsu. With a soundless puff of smoke the two of them disappeared from the top of the monument.

He brought them to his apartment, both of them still smirking as if they’d gotten away with some great prank. It was still pretty early in the day but it had been quite a number of hours since either of them had eaten anything so Kakashi fixed them a quick meal. It was odd sitting there and munching on food with Voice. Up until now, most of their interaction was limited to stolen moments before falling asleep. Doing something as mundane as sitting at the table felt strange, almost surreal. When they were done eating the residual exhaustion of the last few days started creeping up on them both. They bundled up in each other’s arms on the couch, falling asleep to whatever show happened to be on the television.

Kakashi woke up stretched out on the couch, television off and the blanket from his bed draped over him. Smiling, he drew the cover up over his head and snuggled back down, drifting off again. He could afford a few more hours to himself. A well-rested Copy-Nin would get more done than a half-rested one.

*

It turned out very soon that it didn’t really matter how well rested he was. Even at one hundred percent his borrowed Sharingan was no match for a fully developed natural pair. Kakashi hadn’t expected the two low lives he was tailing the next day to turn out to be Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigake Kisame, and he certainly hadn’t expected to experience three excruciating days of torture in less than a single second. The Mangekyo Sharingan was truly terrifying.

He had felt every pierce of every blade, over and over for endless hours. Each second had stretched unbelievably, making three days seem more like three weeks. Then it was over and Kurenai was asking him what was going on and he realized that only a moment had passed in reality. His vision blurred and he was barely able to control himself enough to stay on the surface of the river they were facing off on. The short conversation he managed to snarl out with Itachi took the last of his endurance.

He was horrified to confirm their target truly was Naruto but he couldn’t stay conscious long enough to think much about it. He saw Gai arrive, driving Kisame back from attacking their comrades, and then his body gave out. He fell in to the water, sinking down with Voice crying out in his mind.

Kakashi? Kakashi?! Answer me! KAKASHI!

Then there was blackness, restless and filled with evil.

*

A gentle touch and a strong light drove the black from his mind in one great sweep, enough that he was able to struggle to the surface and open his eye groggily. A distantly familiar woman was standing above him with her hand on his forehead. Another woman he didn’t recognize was beside her holding a pig, of all things. Naruto was at his feet grinning like he’d won some prize and Gai was there grinding his teeth in impatience over whatever.

Kakashi?!

‘Voice…what’s going on?’ Even his mental words were slurred, he was feeling that foggy.

His friend didn’t answer, but he could sense the other man’s swirling panic and the way his thoughts were instantly scattered by hearing Kakashi speak. The people in the room were looking at him expectantly, so he made the effort to painstakingly haul the top half of his body up off the mattress he appeared to be lying on. He felt like death incarnate. Looking around he was met with the familiar sight of the same hospital room he always seemed to end up in. So, evidently he’d been unconscious long enough to seek a specialized medic.

“Way to go Grandma Tsunade!” Naruto bounced about, his usual eager self. If he had the energy Kakashi would have raised his eyebrows. Tsunade? As in, the legendary sannin Lady Tsunade? Did Naruto honestly just call her grandma? The woman in question was looking down on him with the corners of her mouth twisted in a frown.

“Disgraceful, to be completely taken out of the game by two low life punks like that. I thought you were supposed to be the best.” It was hard to believe a legend like her was even here, even harder to believe that her first impression of him was that he was a little more useless than the rumors made him out to be. In addition to feeling like death, Kakashi now felt very small.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” he managed to mutter. His throat felt underused, making his words come out all gravelly and hoarse.

“Okay, that’s Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto exclaimed. “Now just one more and you’re all done!”

Gai leapt out from behind the privacy curtain he’d been half hiding behind and babbled, “Rock Lee! He’s right next door! Next door!”

The blonde sannin dropped the hands that were on her hips and sighed but turned and left the room without saying anything else. Naruto waved to him as he bounced after her. Gai didn’t even spare him that much. Kakashi was abruptly alone, wondering what the hell was going on. One more? Had she been going around treating people because Naruto…wanted her to? What was she even doing here in the first place? The fact that all three of the sannin hadn’t been to Konoha in years until recently was fairly well known.

Hurried footsteps in the hallway outside barely registered to him. The door to his room slid open but before he could look up someone was there with their arms around him. He recognized the scent of Voice. His friend was trembling from head to toe and if he squeezed Kakashi any tighter he was in danger of cracking a rib.

‘I’m okay, geez, what’s wrong?’ It took so much less effort to just say it in his head.

“Don’t you ever scare me like that again.” Kakashi’s eye widened in astonishment at the sound of someone whispering in his ear. He’d never be able to match a whisper to a normal speaking voice but it was more than he’d ever heard so far. He was further stunned to feel wetness soaking in to his left shoulder. Was Voice crying?

“How-“ he paused to cough away the roughness in his throat “-how long was I out for?”

Weeks! You were in a coma. If not for Lady Tsunade agreeing to the council’s decision, you might never have woken up.

Voice made a strangled sort of noise and clung tighter. Kakashi could practically hear his ribs creaking, but didn’t protest. He ran his hands soothingly over his friend’s back, pressing a kiss to the side of his head. His mind was in turmoil as he let that information sink in. He had lost several weeks just lying here like a bump on a log. That Mangekyo was even more powerful than he imagined if a single instant was all it took to bring down a foe almost permanently. If the expertise of Lady Tsunade was needed to reverse the coma he was sure any other victims of that horrifying other world were destined not to recover.

“The council’s decision?” he wondered aloud, remembering the rest of the news he was supposed to be processing.

She has agreed to be our fifth Hokage.

Well. What a great impression he’d made to his new Hokage. How wonderful. It looked like he was going to have his work cut out for him proving to her that he was someone she could rely on. But that could be dealt with later. For now, he had someone to comfort.

When he gently tried to peel his friend off his chest he felt the discreet hand seals being made behind his back. When the other man sat up he was wearing Kakashi’s face again. This time, though, he’d forgotten to take his hair down. It was up in a high ponytail the way he must wear it out and about during the day. It looked strangely familiar too, although Kakashi was much too scrambled to place where he might have seen it before. He concentrated on the tears running down that mirror image of himself. He used his thumbs to wipe them away then cupped the man’s falsely pale cheek.

“No more of that,” he said. Voice smiled weakly and fisted the front of Kakashi’s tight navy shirt. Due to his need for a mask, he was one of the few patients who consistently escaped the awful hospital clothes.

I’ve been so scared. You just wouldn’t wake up, no matter what I did.

“I imagine you visited often? Maybe I’ll check my visitor’s log, see who’s been waiting by my bedside.” He tried to smile teasingly, but it came out kind of strange. His mask was still up and his face was half numb from inactivity. Voice shook his head.

I’m a better shinobi than that. You won’t find anything suspicious on that log.

Kakashi noted that he hadn’t denied that his name would be on there. He wondered if that meant something. “Well I’m fine now,” he said as reassuringly as he could manage. He didn’t manage very well going by the doubtful expression Voice adopted.

You look like hell.

“Well thanks for that, now I feel all pretty.” This time he did work up a teasing tone. “Nothing some actual rest won’t fix. And maybe a kiss or two. Couldn’t hurt, ya know?”

Voice gave his breathy chuckle and shook his head but he did lean over and give Kakashi a kiss on both cheeks. The jōnin hummed happily. Then Voice helped him lay back down and stroked the hair away from his face, tracing the scar across his left eye with one thumb.

Rest. I was actually on my way to meet someone when I felt you wake up. I kind of…dropped everything and ran. Now I’ll probably be late.

Kakashi just shrugged slightly. This was the second time Voice had done that for him. He wondered if the other man would ever give him the chance to do the same. He could live without having his friend’s life threatened, of course, but he’d like the chance to be there for him when it was needed.

Kakashi closed his eyes and obediently allowed himself to fall asleep. His dreams were filled with warmth and the feeling of someone tracing their fingertips across his cheek. A voice kept whispering in his ear, “Don’t you ever scare me like that again”. Deep in dreamland, Kakashi vowed he never would.

*

He’d been correct when he said his sorry state was nothing a bit of natural rest couldn’t fix. He woke up later that day feeling worlds better – enough so that he was released from the white prison masquerading as a place of healing. Only after he ran in to Sakura on his way home did he find out that Sasuke had been in the exact same condition, waking only a few minutes before Kakashi himself.

Sakura gave him a rundown of all that had happened while he’d been in his Sharingan induced coma. Halfway through their conversation Naruto found them and took up his portion of the tale, explaining how he and Jiraiya had found Lady Tsunade, battled Orochimaru and Kabuto again, then returned to wake their injured comrades. The blonde ball of energy rambled his incredible account until his words began to run together, then he took off down the street as fast as he had appeared.

“I have to go find where Iruka-sensei went,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s not like him to be late twice in one day!” He waved while turning a corner and Kakashi and Sakura waved back a bit bemusedly.

“I don’t think he’s sat still for five minutes since he came back,” Sakura mused, seemingly to herself. After catching her teacher up on the rest of the current gossip, she also headed off saying something about buying more flowers. Kakashi ambled the rest of the way home and spent his afternoon playing with the eight ninken who had been suspiciously calm about his absence.

Pakkun told him – after a belly rub for a bribe – that someone had come by to let them know about his being in a coma a couple of weeks ago. Whoever it had been they hadn’t shown their face but the dogs had all recognized his scent as the one that frequently lingered in Kakashi’s bedroom. The jōnin thought it was rather nice of Voice to inform his ninken about what happened to him. He also thought it was annoying that Voice was smart enough to cover his identity even around them.

The next morning Kakashi was fighting fit and ready to finally do his part in helping the village recovery efforts. He spent a hot, exhausting day assisting with the rebuilding of homes. At some point he ran in to an old ANBU comrade discretely using his wood style jutsu to put up walls in the blink of an eye. It was so good to visit with his old battle buddy that he made a point of stopping by the same district the next day as well, putting in some muscle-work hauling timber before spending the afternoon on a simple D-rank with his students out on a farm. The third day, though, he knew he’d have to get down to what he really should be doing.

He reported directly to his new Hokage and she informed him that his genin team was going to have to take a back seat for a while. Due to the number of dead and those still out of commission with debilitating injuries, Kakashi was being put back in rotation for missions more appropriate to his skill level – as she saw it. His team were going to have to fend for themselves because he was about to be very busy.

His first mission was S-rank only by virtue of its secretive nature. He was gone and back in less than a single full day. More than the pay and praise, his reward was falling asleep to Voice stroking his hair while his lullaby played in his head. It was doubly rewarding because they didn’t get a chance to see each other again for a while.

After that he had an A-rank that took him a couple days and involved an actual battle. The two Sound nin were tired and low on chakra from hiding out in Fire Country for so long, but even well-rested they would not have been a match for him. It was nice to stretch his muscles nevertheless. He dispatched them with ease, recovered the property they had spirited away during the attack, and skipped on home to ask for something more worthwhile for him to do. Any newly promoted chūnin could have taken those two losers.

He put in two more short but sensitive missions in two more days before he thought Lady Tsunade might be turning her poor first impression of him around, which was pleasing. She finally gave him an assignment that was actually his speed.

Upon hearing of his team’s return from the Land of Tea and the fact that Sasuke had once again landed himself in the hospital, Kakashi thought he should look in on the young ones before he left. He was horrified to find the two boys in the middle of a fight, going at each other with deadly intent. To his distress, Sasuke had turned the Chidori against a comrade. Naruto was wielding a newly learned jutsu that looked familiar – he’d seen it first in the hands of the fourth Hokage.

After breaking up the fight between the two teammates – and having a small chat with Jiraiya – Kakashi went to find Sasuke. He found the hothead up in a tree, brooding up a storm, and realized yet again how much of himself he saw in that kid. Knowing the boy wouldn’t want to sit still to hear a lecture, he wrapped him up in chakra wire before dropping on to the branch to have a talk with him.

As he expected, Sasuke was angry and confrontational. As he tried to explain the dangers and disillusionments of living only to seek revenge the raven haired pre-teen finally exploded.

“Maybe if I was to kill the most important people in your life, everyone who’s ever meant anything, maybe then I’d listen to you because maybe then you’d have some idea how I feel!”

Kakashi could feel his spine wanting to stiffen and his hackles rising on instinct. He kept his stance casual by sheer force of will. Sasuke couldn’t know the pain his words were bringing up and it wouldn’t help the situation to snap back with as much fire as he was receiving.

“Hmm. It’s an interesting theory but I’m afraid you’re a little late to put it to the test.” He forced a smile on to his face, trying to communicate that he was fine when really he wasn’t. “Everyone you’re talking about has already been killed. I’ve been around longer than you have kid; I’ve seen my share of troubles. You’re not the only one who knows what it’s like to lose somebody.”

He was cut off as Sasuke butted in, exclaiming, “What about that guy we saw when we left for my training? You said he was your most precious person!” Kakashi felt a pang in his chest. He hoped Voice wasn’t watching this conversation.

“Yeah,” he agreed softly. “And I don’t even know who he is. My most precious person and I’ve never seen his face or learned his name. Kind of puts things in to perspective, doesn’t it?”

That put Sasuke off balance, which he considered a good thing at that point. He tried to tell the boy that they were both lucky to have made new comrades to fill the void left behind by their deceased loved ones, but he wasn’t sure if it got through. He gave a final warning about using the Chidori responsibly and then let him go. He had a mission to get going to and Sasuke looked like he might revolt if he was held in restraints there any longer.

Kakashi left, but he only made it a few minutes on his way before Voice spoke sadly in his mind.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to cause you pain.

Kakashi twisted up one corner of his mouth in a wry expression that went unseen as he replied, ‘I did say I’d wait until you were comfortable. I might not understand why you hesitate but I’m not going to force you.’

Things seem to keep getting in the way lately.

‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll get over myself.’ This earned him a small flicker of amusement. Voice always liked it when he poked fun at his own ego.

Be safe Kakashi.

He took his friends parting words to heart, utilizing more caution than he used to while stalking his prey. After being gone for two, maybe three days – he wasn’t sure, it was confusing going without rest between missions – he came back to discover Sasuke had abandoned the village. Naruto and a team of genin had been the only ones available to give chase and word was that they were all in serious trouble. Kakashi tried to follow them but he arrived too late.

He found Naruto at the base of a waterfall, unconscious and badly wounded. Though the jinchūriki was still wearing his own headband, another lay on the ground next to him, a clean slice running through the ancient symbol of the Leaf Village. He didn’t need Pakkun’s nose to tell him that it belonged to Sasuke. They wanted to follow the deserter but rain had obliterated the trail and Naruto’s life was more important. Kakashi headed back to the village with the blonde on his back, feeling another little piece of his heart breaking away.

Even though it felt as though the village should stand on ceremony for the loss of another good shinobi, it was Sasuke’s choice to turn missing nin and Kakashi’s missions didn’t stop. He hadn’t seen Voice in days and hadn’t stopped for a full night’s rest in even longer. It was starting to wear him down but he kept at it anyway. Konoha needed everyone working at double capacity. They couldn’t afford to look as weak as they really were. Everyone else was just as tired as he was, so he took the mission paper from his leader and headed out once again.

As he bedded down in a tree, using his pack for a pillow, Kakashi reached out for his friend, feeling lonely.

If you could just stay still for at least one night…

Voice didn’t finish his sentence but Kakashi could feel the offer in it anyway. It seemed his companion was finally capitulating, and just when he had no time for personal business. He vowed to sneak in to the village the next time he came home, to put off reporting in and steal some time to himself. If he was lucky, some time to their selves.

*

As fate would have it, that particular S-rank was well labelled. What was supposed to be a quick task blew way out of proportion and Kakashi was still slogging through the woods a couple weeks later, living off the land and trying not to fall asleep on his feet. By the time he dragged himself across the border in to familiar territory he was considering shocking the masses by actually admitting himself for chakra fatigue. It could have been chakra fatigue, he reasoned, or it could be simple weariness. Either way, he needed a bed, preferably one filled with feathers and containing a man whose face was still up in the air. Right then, he honestly didn’t care about that. He just wanted to stop moving.

The hours it took him to traverse the space between border and home stretched so long he thought he might be having flashbacks of Itachi's Mangekyo Sharingan. His one eye drooped so badly he almost missed the man wearing a prison uniform that was trying to sneak about and hide in a clump of bushes. Only marginally curious, Kakashi dropped down behind him and jabbed a pressure point on his neck. The man dropped before he ever knew he wasn’t alone and Kakashi hauled him up over one shoulder. Even more unenthusiastic about the new weight to carry, he kept going.

Only a couple miles from his destination he came upon a second man dressed in prison clothes. Kakashi supposed he should be worried about the obvious prison break that was happening but all he did was sigh. This prisoner appeared to be a former shinobi. He sensed Kakashi’s presence and made to put up a fight. Kakashi knocked him out by swinging the body of the already unconscious man at him. It was crude but it worked, probably because his opponent wasn’t expecting him to be that crass. Neither was Voice, who he could feel almost-laughing at him.

‘Whatever, I’m so tired,’ he grumbled silently. Voice just kept sending his sense of merriment.

He made his way in to Konoha feeling mightily disgruntled. Having to return these two runaways was putting a stopper in his plan to slip in quietly and have some alone time before reporting in. Walking the streets, he felt his curiosity rise a tiny sliver when he noticed just how many others were escorting people in prison outfits. He found the Hokage trying to stop Naruto from doing…something. Naruto was almost always doing something.

Kakashi dropped the prisoners at her feet and, keeping his tone light, tried to put her off giving him a new mission by asking what it was Naruto had done. For a while, it seemed to work. She seemed distracted by telling him about the mass escape, admitting that it was well under control at this point. He strolled along beside her as she returned to her office, letting her talk and only listening with half an ear. His mind was drifting to thoughts of slumber when she asked him to go find Iruka – whom he also hadn’t seen in weeks – and lend him a ninken to help track down Naruto. That sounded like an easy task he was more than willing to go do, so he made to go with a flippant comment about leaving things in her hands.

She stopped him by handing over yet another S-rank mission.

‘Boy, she’s a real slave driver,’ he sent out to his friend. He got no reply, but was distracted in the next second as the door opened and the man he’d just been told to go find walked in to the office. He envied the well-rested look Iruka was sporting.

“The Iruka Squad has finished rounding up all the inmates M’Lady,” the chūnin started to say, then he cut himself off with a funny little bah noise. “Oh, Kakashi! I-I beg your pardon.” Iruka made him a tiny bow and Kakashi almost smiled. It was nice to know some things hadn’t changed. Iruka still got weird around him.

“Not a problem, Iruka, good work,” Tsunade praised the sensei more easily than she did Kakashi. The silver haired man wondered how this guy had impressed their Hokage already while he was having to work so hard for it. When he turned and placed a hand on Iruka’s shoulders he got a blush just as he’d thought he might. It cheered him a bit.

“Looks like you and I won’t be getting a break any time soon, Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi said. He reached down and grasped the man’s hand, pulling it up so the palm faced the ceiling. Then, without explaining himself, he performed the summoning jutsu, depositing a tiny ball of fur straight in to the startled shinobi’s hand.

He heard Pakkun say, “What’s up, sonny boy?” and had to hold in a rather unmanly giggle at the face the brunette was wearing.

“Well Iruka-sensei, I leave the rest to you!” He hightailed it out of the office to head straight out on his new assignment, chased by the sounds of a confused chūnin.

That…was cruel.

‘No, that was funny.’

You nearly gave him a heart attack.

Reaching the large village gates, Kakashi waved tiredly to the two nin on duty as he answered, ‘Maa, if he doesn’t want me to tease him like that, he shouldn’t look so cute when he’s all bamboozled.’ The pause in his mind carried a sharp sense of shock.

You really think Iruka is cute?

‘I told you that when I first met him. Why, don’t you think so?’ Just past the gates, he leapt in to the closest tree and picked up speed as he launched himself from branch to branch back the way he had just come from, mourning that he wouldn’t have a chance to rest.

I don’t know. I suppose I’ve always thought of him as…average?

‘Well there’s no accounting for taste.’

I could say the same of you.

Kakashi laughed out loud, since there was no one there to hear him. The sound was swallowed by the empty canopy around him. ‘Go on then. If Iruka’s not your type, who is?’

I always thought you were fairly easy on the eyes.

Kakashi snorted and said, ‘Yeah, you liked my face so much that you stole it for your own.’ Voice was surely laughing out loud wherever, if the waves of amusement rippling through his mind were any indication. He wished he were there to see it. His friend was silent for a long time, hours actually, before he softly spoke again.

I want to see you when you get back.

‘Me too. I’ll try.’ It was all he could promise but Voice understood. Such was the life of a shinobi.

*

It took him three days just to arrive at the location named in his mission briefing and when he got there all he found was the days-old remains of the camp his targets had made. The trail led south so he followed the signs in that direction, keeping his eye peeled for broken twigs, footprints in the mud, and the telltale signs of a careless male relieving himself in the bushes. He tracked the group for another week, getting farther and farther from home as he went. By the time he found them he was once again relying on ration bars and whatever local fauna he came across to keep his belly full.

The group of three he was meant to eliminate turned out to be a group of four but he’d faced worse odds before. It helped that they didn’t seem to realize they were being followed, giving him the element of surprise and allowing him the choice of how to use it. He stalked the four of them until they made camp for the evening and watched how they settled themselves down, each off in their own space. Two of them were disconnected, each sitting alone facing off in to the night, completely uninterested in their companions. That left two huddled on opposite sides of the fire, not speaking.

Kakashi took out the two firebugs with a pair of silent kunai thrown from the shadows. They both went down with a muted rustling of clothing, blades lodged in their tracheas. Odds now looking even better, he crept closer to the nin crouched among the tents carving something out of a block of wood. He pulled another kunai from his pouch and approached the man from behind. In the exact same moment Kakashi moved to cut the man’s throat, he opened his mouth to call something to one of his group members. The result was a loud gurgling noise which alerted the last remaining target,

Frowning at his bad luck, Kakashi spun to face his final mark. She had leapt to her feet and was eyeing him up and down in an assessing manner. She carried a well sharpened tanto in one hand and her other fist was encased in a ring of brass knuckles. Kakashi let her circle him slowly, doing his own assessment. She looked quick but not all that strong. Probably smart, as she had covered both mid-range and close-range combat with her two weapons. After all that time he had spent tracking these people he wasn’t in the mood for a drawn out fight so he went with a long range jutsu, hoping to find her weak spot.

The woman hid from his katon by calling up a wall of earth. While she cowered from his flames he dashed around to one side of the mini cliff and pulled in a deep breath before releasing another of the largest Fireball Jutsu he could manage. He was frustrated when he saw she’d managed to dodge until he noticed the blackened skin running down one of her bare arms and the smoke rising from the same leg. Her movements were pained and she held her weight obviously to one side.

The pain slowed her but didn’t stop her completely and Kakashi had to use his kunai to deflect a handful of shuriken even as she dashed to close the distance between them. Personally, close combat expert or no, with that many burns Kakashi would have wanted to keep his distance from an armed assailant. It was her mistake to his advantage though, so he let her come. She came at him with her tanto swinging fiercely, a shine of fear in her eyes. In some nearly forgotten corner of his heart Kakashi pitied her the way she had to die, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from killing her. Her injuries had made her attacks unbalanced, giving him an easy opening to slip under her guard and drive his weapon in to her heart. She looked surprised, then her face went slack and he let her fall backwards off his blade.

As efficient as always.

‘Well, hello there! Fancy having you here!’ His friend’s presence was an instant cheer to his mood and he was feeling giddy with over-tiredness. The combination turned his brain to mush.

Don’t flirt with me over a corpse. That’s just bad taste.

‘Well who else would I flirt with? I just killed all my other options.’ He made his way about the campsite, collecting his kunai and cleaning them on the dead shinobi’s clothing.

You’re so weird Kakashi.

He shrugged to himself. There was no denying that he was a weird guy, but so were almost all people in this profession. Ninja were weird, it was a simple fact of life. When you devoted your life to killing people in the name of protection it tended to put your head a little sideways after a while. He’d passed the point of feeling guilty after every single kill a long, long time ago.

Mission complete? Are you coming home now?

‘Yeah, though it’ll take me about a week to get back.’

I was thinking of spiking the Godaime’s sake. She can’t send you away again if she’s not conscious.

‘Her…sake?’

The Godaime has a drinking habit. And she drinks at work.

Voice’s words carried a heavy tone of disapproval. Kakashi was distracted by the mental image of Tsunade collapsed face down on her desk, snoring on top of a pile of mission briefings. In his imagination her chest was too large and it made her head doddle a few inches above the work surface.

I’m glad I can’t see whatever it is your imagining.

‘Could I show you somehow? Because it’s absolutely hilarious in here.’ Leaving the fallen where they lay, Kakashi hitched his pack up higher on his shoulders and turned to leave. It was night and he should find somewhere to bed down, but he wanted to be far enough away that he wouldn’t smell the blood here.

Yeah, if you knew how to find the connection between us you could send me anything you’re thinking of. Like this, watch.

Kakashi missed a step and started laughing as an image of Tsunade wearing a big feathered hat flashed across his inner eye. It immediately changed to Naruto wearing the hat, then Kakashi himself. He actually had to stop walking, holding his sides, as the imaginary him pranced and blew kisses.

‘Maa, stop that! I need to breathe!’ He couldn’t remember the last time he laughed so hard. Voice felt satisfied and mischievous.

Do you have any idea how much havoc we could wreak on each other with this? It’d be a total conversation killer to have stuff like that pop up in your head. Oh! What about this!

Kakashi doubled over as he suddenly imagined a horrified Gai wearing totally normal civilian clothing, none of which was green. ‘Stop! Please stop! That’s awful, who takes away Gai’s greenery?’ Thankfully for his continued sanity, the images stopped. When he’d calmed down, Kakashi stood straight and wiped tears of laughter from his right eye. ‘Thanks, I needed that.’

I know.

Still smiling to himself, Kakashi shook his head as he started walking again. If he ever figured out how to get inside the other man’s head, it was war.

*

As he had estimated, it took seven days for him to make it back to Konoha. Not having to abate his pace to try and track a group of idiots, the return trip was a lot faster than the journey out. On his way to the Hokage Tower he ran in to Iruka – literally. They came around the corner at the same time and the chūnin had his eyes closed and arms above his head as he stretched and yawned. Kakashi let the smaller man bounce off his chest then caught his arms to stop him from falling on to his rear.

“Ah! I’m s-sorry, my mind was…um…on something else. I wasn’t watching myself. I mean my steps! I mean – ugh…” Iruka trailed off and scrubbed at his face with his hands. Kakashi watched the man struggle, glad for the mask that hid his grin.

“You alright there, sensei?” he asked. Iruka nodded, heat rising in his cheeks.

“Yeah, sorry. I was just going to go home and have a nap. I need to be somewhere later and I’m really tired.”

Kakashi nodded, tilting his head as he replied, “You do look a bit rougher than the last time we saw each other. Not been sleeping well?”

“Not really,” the chūnin shook his head. Kakashi definitely sympathized. He could do with some proper rest as well.

“I won’t keep you then. Sleep well, sensei.” He was about to step away but the soft look in the brunette’s eye stayed his feet.

“It’s good to see you, Kakashi-sensei.” Before Kakashi could answer, Iruka moved around him and headed off in the direction of home. Kakashi watched him go with a curious gaze but dismissed it quickly. He had other things to do. Forcing himself to start walking again, he continued on towards the Hokage Tower.

As he passed through the streets he couldn’t help but notice how much better the village was looking already. Most of the small damage done like holes in walls and broken windows had been repaired and a lot of the rubble cluttering the roadways had been cleared out. Builders were working hard to raise new buildings in the place of the ones that had been completely demolished. The people looked happier, livelier. Well, the civilians did. A lot of the shinobi he spotted had dark circles under their eyes like he knew he must have as well. They look satisfied though, glad that their home was so elegantly rising out of the ashes.

The Tower was a bustling hive of activity even this late in the day and Kakashi was left cooling his heels in a waiting room for so long he dozed off leaning against a wall. When Shizune came to fetch him he startled awake so obviously that she had to press her lips in a line to keep from giggling at him. He ignored her mirth and followed her to the Godaime’s office.

“Ah, Kakashi. Welcome back.” Tsunade didn’t even look up at him. It seemed she couldn’t; there was so much paperwork piled on her desk she could barely peek her head above the stacks. Kakashi handed her the report he’d filled out while waiting, dangling it over the top of the paper mountain and waiting for her to pluck it out of his fingers.

“Sorry it took so long. They were a lot farther out than we thought they’d be.” Since she couldn’t see him, he lifted a hand and rubbed at a crick in his neck.

“Good work,” Tsunade’s words were slightly muffled by paper. “I’m sorry I’ve run you so ragged. You’ve held up well though, you deserve a little rest. Take a couple of days off before your next assignment. I can’t have one of my top shinobi collapsing in the middle of a mission.”

Kakashi stared, slack jawed, at the white sheets separating the two of them. He’d never been tempted to kiss a woman before but right then he almost wanted to. Shaking away the strange urge, he knew he needed to leave fast, before she changed her mind and took back the incredible offer. Time off! Finally!

He hastily bowed and gave her his most heartfelt thanks, then fled.

When he reached his apartment, still floating on clouds of disbelief, he poked around in his mind for that sense of presence – but there was none. Whatever Voice was doing he wasn’t reaching out for Kakashi at the moment. The jōnin frowned. His good news would have to wait. Instead he took the leisure of a long shower, scrubbing away the grime of travelling that river baths never seemed to properly clean. Donning fresh clothes – and boy did it feel good to wear clean clothes – he thought about the lure of his soft bed.

He was tired, that was definite. However, he had no idea when Voice would be looking for him again and he weighed the pull of sleep against the pull of seeing his friend. Surely Voice would be available soon, he reasoned, and if he went to bed now he probably wouldn’t wake until the next day even though it was only dinner hour now. The desire to see Voice first won out, so he needed to find something to do to keep himself awake until then. Considering the time, when his stomach rumbled he wasn’t surprised. He decided to treat himself to dinner in the market place.

He was not startled in the least to find Naruto eating at Ichiraku’s though he didn’t expect to also see most of the rookie nine all gathered together, chatting. He waved at Ayame behind the counter and indicated he’d like his usual to go. She nodded while covering her ears against the loud burst of laughter from the group of genin taking up all the seats at her stall.

Kakashi hovered at the back of the group, perfectly fine with not being noticed. He watched them eat and play, shoving each other about, and wistfully wondered what it would be like to have such a close group of friends. If he’d been less uptight in his own tender years he could have had that. His teen years he’d been too afraid to let anyone else in. Now it just seemed silly the way he’d acted like he could survive as an island with just the disembodied voice in his head for companionship.

Inevitably Naruto said something or other that set Sakura off and she began flailing her fists at his head. Unwilling to strike her back, the blonde just held up his arms and tried to hide from the worst of her blows. Kakashi smirked at their antics, glad to see them getting along the same as always. Next to them, Shikamaru was leaning away from the attack zone and rolling his eyes.

“Leave off, will you Sakura? If we have to take him to Lady Tsunade for a third time it’ll be troublesome. I’m not really up for a lecture.” The only one among them to be promoted to chūnin, Shikamaru seemed to take on an instant big brother attitude towards them all, even though he was likely unaware that he did it.

Raising an eyebrow, Kakashi finally made his presence known by asking, “You were in the hospital a second time, Naruto?”

“Kakashi-sensei!” his two students greeted him cheerfully, causing warmth to blossom in his chest. If nothing else, he had these two runts to care about him now, though he heard Naruto was leaving to travel with Jiraiya soon. Not to mention Sakura’s new apprenticeship with the Hokage herself. The Uzumaki boy spun in his seat and waved off the comment like it didn’t matter.

“Nah, it wasn’t anything bad. I got a little roughed up and Grandma Tsunade made me go get looked at but I was fine!” He grinned before Sakura thumped him over the head one last time, turning it in to a scowl.

“A little roughed up? You got a fuma shuriken embedded in your back!” she shouted. Naruto grabbed his aching crown with both hands.

“Well I told Mizuki-baka if he ever laid a hand on my sensei again I’d kill him! You know the last time we fought that bastard Iruka-sensei took a fuma shuriken in the back for me! I was just returning the favor!”

Every muscle in Kakashi’s body froze and he felt time slow down and the air around him solidifying as he stared at Naruto, processing what he had just heard. Without his express command his hand shot out and gripped his student’s shoulder harshly. Naruto flinched and looked up at him with wide, frightened eyes.

“He did what?” he choked out. Naruto blinked, confused.

“Wha-? You mean Iruka-sensei? Yeah, when I graduated the academy it was because Mizuki tricked me in to stealing the sacred scroll for him and that’s how I learned how to do shadow clones. Mizuki attacked me with a giant shuriken but Iruka-sensei threw himself in front of it and it got lodged in his spine. Then I totally kicked Mizuki’s butt! It was awesome!”  Kakashi wasn’t sure if he was breathing or not. His chest was so tight and there wasn’t enough air. The hand holding the young boy was shaking ever so slightly.

“Naruto…” he stammered slowly. “Has Iruka-sensei ever been injured…in his throat?”

The jinchūriki gave him the oddest look. “Why are you asking weird questions about Iruka-sensei?”

“Just answer me, damn it!” He tightened his grip, uncaring that his fingers were digging in to the genin’s shoulder. All the young ones were looking at him funny. He couldn’t have given less than half a flying fuck. Naruto gulped nervously as he answered.

“Um, yeah. The summer before we all started at the academy he got hurt on a mission. Some guy was trying to use that freaky taijutsu that Neji and Hinata use-“

“Gentle Fist,” Sakura interrupted automatically.

“Yeah, that! Anyway, some guy tried to imitate that but botched it. He caught Iruka-sensei in the throat and his vocal chords got all torn up. He got rushed back home to the hospital and they stitched him together but he’s never sounded the same. He’s all hoarse now.”

Amidst her peers, Ino frowned and muttered, “I always thought he sounded like that because he yelled too much. Huh.”

Kakashi felt like the earth was shifting out from underneath his feet. His mind was racing, dropping bits and pieces of their conversations in to a line as so many different things fell in to place at once. So many clues that he’d picked up came together to form a picture in his head: long hair in a high ponytail, tanned skin, shorter and younger, orphan, hitai-ate worn in the proper position, kind and funny and strangely fond of the three children in Kakashi’s genin team.

He could remember Voice saying, ‘There’s a kid in my building who sleeps on my couch sometimes’. He looked back over the last year since he had found out that Voice was a real person. Iruka always smiled just when he said something funny to Voice. The way Iruka always seemed to echo Voice, saying things the same way his friend did or even repeating them verbatim. They always had the same opinion on things.

Kakashi felt stupid.

Kakashi felt lighter than air.

Swallowing hard, he snapped back to reality. The children were staring at him, probably wondering if he’d gone mad, but he didn’t pay any attention to that. His hand was still squeezing Naruto hard enough to bruise so he loosened his hold, shaking the boy’s shoulder once.

“Thank you,” he told him brokenly. Then he turned and pushed his way through the crowded street, abandoning all thoughts of dinner. He made his way past the people and in to an empty alley way then scaled a building and hauled himself up on to the roof. Heart thundering in his chest and pulse roaring in his ears, he flashed across the roof tops towards where he knew Naruto lived. The way Iruka had looked at him when he’d said it was good to see him, his eyes had been so soft and caring. They were the eyes of someone who had truly missed him, how could he have overlooked that? Kakashi flew across the village, moving faster than he ever had before in his life.

When he arrived at the building where Naruto’s apartment was he dropped down the front and headed for the apartment listing in the foyer where civilians could buzz their friends to be let in the front door. There was no keeping out a ninja but they frequently used the windows anyway. And there he was: Umino Iruka, only one floor down from his ward. Kakashi rushed up the stairs to the third floor and came to a screeching halt in front of apartment 3C.

Still barely able to hear past the blood rushing in his ears, Kakashi pounded his fist on the wooden door, keeping it up when there was no immediate answer. The rest of him jittered, unable to stay still. If the chūnin didn’t open up soon, he was tempted to break it down. Or burn it. Fire style jutsus took a lot of energy but he wasn’t above using them to get what he wanted here.

After a few minutes, only seconds before Kakashi was ready to bust out the pyrotechnics, the door swung open to reveal Iruka himself wearing a very confused expression. His hair was sloppily twisted to one side, starting to break free of its tie. He wasn’t wearing his vest or headband and his eyes were drooping. Obviously he’d just been woken up from the nap he’d mentioned. Kakashi’s hand halted in the act of knocking and hung in the air between them. For a few moments, they both just stood there staring at each other.

“Kakashi-sensei?” Iruka mumbled groggily. “Is something wrong?” Kakashi took a ragged breath in.

“It’s you…” was all he could manage to say. Iruka blinked uncomprehendingly.

“What’s me?” he asked, rubbing at one eye.

Kakashi searched through his head and there it was. Voice was reaching out to him now and his concern was bleeding through the connection. So Kakashi used the link and asked, ‘Is it really you?’

In front of him, Iruka stiffened, lowering his hand and giving the jōnin a suspicious look.

“Kakashi-sensei, are you alright?” the man asked. Kakashi took a step closer. Iruka didn’t move away, just watched him warily.

“It is you. I know it is.” His words came out husky and awed and Iruka was staring back at him. He looked nervous, but no longer confused. That felt like a confirmation.

“Kakashi-sensei…”

“Voice?” the whisper had a desperate ring to it. Iruka’s eyes widened and he gasped sharply. “Kami, it is you!”

Iruka’s face flushed and he looked down at his feet, shuffling his weight. Kakashi took another step forward, the front door swinging shut behind him. As if in a dream he reached out a hand and tucked his fingers under the brunette’s chin to gently raise his face back up. Their eyes met and at the same moment he could feel the presence in his mind flooding him with emotions. He could feel the man’s terror and nervousness but also his tenderness and joy.

“I found you,” Kakashi breathed. “I found you!” Then he surged forward and scooped his friend up, wrapping his arms around him and holding on to him for dear life. Unable to stop himself, he murmured once again in a quiet undertone, “I found you.”

Kakashi…

Iruka clung back and buried his face in the jōnin’s shoulder. Kakashi breathed in that familiar scent of sandalwood and old books and thought if his heart beat any faster it might stop and then he would die the happiest man on this planet. It felt like he couldn’t get close enough. He pressed forward until his friend was forced to step back then kept going until he found a wall to press them in to. The other never once uttered a protest.

Once they were as close as he could make them he drew his head back and waited for the chūnin there with him to do the same. When he did, Kakashi pulled down his mask and cupped his friend’s cheek. They gazed at each other in wonder.

“Iruka,” Kakashi whispered dazedly. “Your name is Iruka.” His face split in a grin so big it hurt. Iruka had tears gathering in his eyes and Kakashi felt like his own might be a bit damp as well.

“How did you find me?” the brunette muttered, fisting his hands in Kakashi’s vest like he was afraid he’d pull away. Kakashi stroked his cheek tenderly.

“Naruto. He said something and it just fell in to place in my head.” He leaned forward to rest their foreheads against each other, still grinning madly. “I can’t believe you’ve been right there in front of me this whole time. How did I not know?”

Iruka shrugged with a guilty look on his face and asked in a small voice, “You’re not mad?”

“Mad?!” Kakashi exclaimed. “I’m not mad! And you worried yourself over nothing because I’m not disappointed either. Iruka…Voice…Kami I’ve never been happier!” He tilted his head down so he could rain kisses across Iruka’s scar, making the chūnin blush furiously as one tear escaped his eye. Kakashi kissed it away. He couldn’t believe this turn of events. Absently he vowed to buy Naruto a year’s worth of ramen coupons for finally giving him this.

Iruka hummed under his affections, a smile finally making its way on to his face. He still looked a little apprehensive but Kakashi could feel in his head how much the younger man shared his happiness at finally truly standing face to face. He felt hands pushing his headband up and off his face; it tilted off his head and fell to the floor with an echoed ringing noise. When Iruka leaned up and kissed him on the forehead Kakashi closed his eye, basking in the familiar sensation. As the younger man pulled away from him he opened the eye that had been covered. Iruka looked in to his Sharingan without a hint of fear, watching the tomoe spin lazily, recording an image him. It was quite the image too with him all rumpled from sleep and flushed with emotion. Not wanting to drain himself more than necessary, he closed the eye as soon as he had the memory of this moment firmly tucked away.

They stood staring at each other for a very long time, just drinking in the sight of each other and swimming in the feeling of contentment. It registered distantly in Kakashi’s mind that they were pressed together fairly intimately but as neither of them seemed to mind he disregarded it. He was happy where he was. Why move? After a few more minutes, however, Iruka ducked his head and yawned slightly, making himself giggle.

“Sorry,” the brunette mumbled. “I was going to nap so I would be able to come see you tonight without passing out.”

“Hmm, and instead I came to see you.” Kakashi felt a little smug as he pressed his pale forehead against a warm tan one. Iruka just smiled.

“I suppose this makes a later visit unnecessary. I’m still really tired though.” He was wearing a sheepish expression but Kakashi could see the way his eyes were still drooping and slightly unfocused. He didn’t just look tired, he looked as exhausted as Kakashi felt.

“Iruka?”

“Hm?”

“Can I stay?” The jōnin raised an eyebrow at the hitch of his friend’s breath.

“Yes, you can stay,” Iruka whispered.

“I’m not leaving,” Kakashi warned him. “I’ll still be here in the morning.”

Iruka smiled a dopey, happy smile and said, “I’d like that.”

Kakashi stepped back and allowed his companion to step away from the wall. He let his hand be taken and followed the younger man through the apartment, down the short hallway and in to the bedroom. Iruka paused, shuffling his weight again as if he expected to be judged for something. He felt very vulnerable in Kakashi’s mind. The silver haired man unzipped his vest and draped it over whatever piece of furniture happened to be to his left then moved around his friend and sat down on the edge of the bed. Iruka looked down at him and bit his lip. Smiling softly, Kakashi reached out and pulled him closer by the hips. When they were close enough he buried his face in the flat stomach he was level with and hugged the trim waist.

A pair of hands worked their way in to his hair and gently held him in place. He looked up to see Iruka looking down, face full of wonder. Small tears were slipping down his cheeks again, one after the other. Kakashi frowned and nudged the belly he rested against with his chin.

“Hey, no crying,” he murmured. “You don’t feel sad, why are you crying?”

“Because you see me,” the brunette hiccupped. “You’re looking at me and you can see me. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, Kakashi. It was so hard sometimes, to be invisible.” The jōnin’s heart clenched. He had no idea what to say to that.

“Maa, come to bed. I’ll make you stop crying.” He tugged on the back on Iruka’s shirt. Wiping at his eyes, the younger man nodded meekly. Kakashi scooted backwards across the bed and burrowed in to the light green blankets. Everything here smelled like sandalwood, making his nose twitch interestedly. Iruka crawled in next to him and they lay on their sides facing each other, as close as they could get. Still reeling, Kakashi brought up his fingers to roam his friend’s face, tracing the shape of his nose and the line of his identifying scar, stroking his cheek and brushing aside the messy tendrils of hair. Iruka closed his eyes and let him explore.

Don’t ever leave.

“Just try and get rid of me.”

Without opening his eyes, Iruka smiled.

Kakashi?

“Yes…Iruka?” they both shivered in pleasure at the use of his actual name.

Will you sing me the lullaby?

Kakashi found that the request made his throat tighten with emotion, so he sang inside his head. He’d never been the one to sing it before but it felt fitting that now be the first time. It must not have sounded too bad because Iruka drifted off the sleep before he finished it once through. Kakashi laid awake for a while after. He found himself opening his left eye again, creating a new memory of his lifetime companion peacefully sleeping while he silently sang their lullaby.

*

The sun was up. Kakashi could tell because it was shining directly in his face. He thought that was strange because his bedroom window wasn’t positioned right to do that unless he’d fallen asleep the wrong way round. Still, he was warm, comfortable, and surrounded by his favorite scent. Everything smelled of Voice, almost like he was still there.

His eyes snapped open as memories of the night before flooded in. He was greeted with the wonderful sight of Umino Iruka, still sound asleep, face only inches from his own. Half of the scarred man’s hair was still valiantly hanging on to its ponytail while the rest was spread around in a wild halo about his head. His lips were parted and he was mumbling something as he dreamt. Kakashi laid still for a while and just watched. If he never moved from this spot, this moment, he would be completely okay with that.

His contemplations were derailed when the younger man began to stir. In his opinion those snuffling noises the chūnin was making were the cutest thing in the world. Brown eyes fluttered open slowly, widening when they spotted him. He grinned and shifted his head forward on the pillow to bop their noses together.

“Good morning, Iruka,” he purred. The other blushed but he grinned as well.

“It is, isn’t it?” was the answer. Kakashi shuffled so their noses rubbed side to side, making Iruka giggle.

“I can’t remember ever having a better morning,” he agreed with a happy sigh. His whole body felt as bright as the sunshine streaming in through the window.

“How long can you stay?”

“I didn’t get a chance to mention last night. The Godaime gave me a couple days off to rest. I’m all yours, whenever you’ve got the time.”

Iruka gaped at him, his disbelief and excitement ringing in their connection. It was such a funny face and Kakashi was already filled with such lighthearted joy that he could not help laughing and rolling over on top of the other man. The brunette offered no resistance as he was rolled on to his back, Kakashi now hovering above and supporting his weight on his elbows.

“That’s incredible timing,” Iruka managed to say. It came out strangely breathless. “I have today off as well. I don’t even have mission desk duty.”

“A whole day to ourselves? One of us must have pleased some kind of deity.” With one hand he teased the rest of those brown locks free of the strained hair tie, smoothing them down around his new favorite face.

“Anything in particular you’d like to do?”

He shrugged and mumbled distractedly, “I don’t care. As long as I’m doing it with you.” The rush of pleasure in his mind was heady.

“You know, you can’t act like this in public,” Iruka pointed out with a flushed face. They were meshed so tightly together that it was hard to separate one body from the other. Their legs were entwined and Kakashi was half on top of the chūnin, their faces barely an inch apart.

“And why not?” he grumbled, leaning down that last inch to kiss the end of Iruka’s horizontal scar.

“Y-you just can’t!” the shade of red that graced his cheeks was lovely. Kakashi laughed at him and lifted one shoulder in a shrug without pulling away.

“I guess we’re not going out in public then. We can have a lazy day inside. Just you, me, and the TV. Or a book or a deck of cards or whatever you want.” He stopped talking briefly as his stomach growled loudly. “But maybe we could have breakfast first?”

“You’ll need to let me up for that.”

He hesitated, weighing in his mind how much longer he could go without food, until Iruka rolled his eyes and shoved the jōnin sideways. He grumbled at the separation but followed along quickly.

Without needing to ask Kakashi knew his friend would make pancakes. It was one of the things he had learned in the past few months; Iruka’s favorite breakfast was the same as his own. He pulled himself up to sit on the countertop so he could watch as ingredients were pulled out and mixed together. He would have offered to help but he was too busy watching the way Iruka moved about the kitchen with short, economic movements. Even if he hadn’t already given half his heart to this man he would still have enjoyed watching him move. In a word, he was graceful.

When the pancakes were ready they ate quickly, washing them down with some orange juice. As it turned out neither of them had managed to eat dinner the night before so they were both starving. Once they had cleared their plates they retired to the living room where they ended up sharing an armchair, Iruka sprawled across Kakashi’s lap while they mostly ignored the television one of them had turned on. They focused on each other instead – or rather, on Iruka.

Now that his identity was no longer a secret the chūnin was free to reveal anything about his life since he didn’t have to worry about whether it could be used to identify him or not. Kakashi cheerfully took advantage of this, asking question after question about the most random things. Even the smallest, most insignificant parts of Iruka’s life fascinated him. He wanted to know everything, to know the younger man inside and out the way he did for Kakashi.

At some point they found themselves talking about the pranks that Iruka had pulled off when he was younger. Evidently, he’d been quite the prolific little hellion, managing the pull one over on some high risk targets like Ibiki or the Sandaime. They both collapsed in childish giggles as he recounted the time he had stolen all of Anko’s bras and strung them up outside her apartment like a birthday banner.

“And when she pulled on one, she tripped the chakra wire trap I set up and they all flung out on to the road!” Kakashi threw his head back and roared with laughter at the idea of rough-and-tough Anko with all her undergarments on view for the world to see.

“I wish I’d seen that,” he chuckled. “That would be great to hold over her.”

In his lap, Iruka raised an eyebrow with a playful expression. A moment later Kakashi was convulsing in helpless glee as an image played in his mind of a young purple-haired genin chasing a handful of brightly colored bras down the street, people looking on in shock. It took a long time until he could breathe properly again but when he could he squeezed the man sitting on top of him.

“Are you ever going to show me how to do that? Get inside your head?” He didn’t loosen his arms, just kept holding him tightly. It brought their chests closer and he liked being able to feel their hearts beat against each other. Far from complaining, Iruka let his head fall to rest on Kakashi’s shoulder and snuggled in.

“I suppose there’s little danger to it now,” the chūnin admitted. Kakashi stilled as a thrill of excitement went through him. “Alright. It’s kind of hard to describe the way it works. It’s like finding a door inside your head and following a tunnel. When I come out the other side, I’m in your head.”

Kakashi blinked and said as eloquently as possible, “Huh?” He felt a little surge of amused affection, then Iruka softly kissed his neck. He felt himself blushing as he had last time.

“Okay, I’ll close myself off. Look inside your mind and see if you can find a trace of the connection.”

The sense of his presence was abruptly gone and Kakashi felt the loss even though they were still wrapped up in a warm ball of limbs. Ignoring the feeling, he closed his eye and searched around. As he always did when his friend pulled away, he found nothing,

“I can’t find anything. When you’re there usually there’s this…I don’t know, a light? I can feel you in the light and send my thoughts there.” Iruka hummed; the vibrations against his neck sent a shockwave down his spine.

“Where you usually find the light, look for something else.”

It felt akin to staring in to an empty room and waiting for something to pop out of nothing. Still with his eye shut tight he tried to pinpoint the spot where the sense of presence usually radiated from. For an agonizing minute there was still nothing. Then in a flash he realized what it was he was seeing – it was an inversion. Instead of a light it was now a hole, a lack of light. Reverent, he mentally pressed his own awareness in to the dark hole.

As his friend had said, it was like going through a tunnel, an insubstantial one. At one end was the silence of his own head. At the other was the bundle of light he had known since he was a child. He pushed towards the light and it was like being enveloped in warmth. It felt like he was suddenly floating in an entire ocean of that light that didn’t physically exist. He was surrounded on all sides by the presence he’d only ever felt as a single point.

Kakashi opened his eye with a gasp, staring blindly. He was inside Iruka’s head, on the other end of their connection. In his arms Iruka shuddered and the light surrounding him rippled with the pleasure of having him there. He could feel how welcome he was. He could feel the way Iruka’s whole mind was thrumming with happiness.

“This…is…intense,” he whispered out loud. Then in silence he added, ‘Is this how it feels to you?’

He was startled to feel his friend hearing him. It was a very strange experience, listening to someone listen. The brunette head against his shoulder nodded.

Kakashi thought of all the things his friend could do with their connection, all the things he wanted to try himself. He gathered his concentration again and tried to make sense of this vast bright ocean. Iruka simply stayed quiet and let him play. It took less time than he would have guessed before he figured out how to go deeper and listen to what Iruka was thinking. If he had to describe it, he would have said he was at the center of…wherever he was. And in that center he could read vague impressions and concepts. He could see happiness and himself and an endless stretch of loneliness. Apparently, Iruka was thinking of how good it was that he wouldn’t have to hide anymore.

Right as he was floating there in the thought center, it changed. Now he could see himself, worry, and a different kind of loneliness. This one was an anticipated solitude, like he thought Kakashi might leave. He had the impression from these clues that the man was still hiding something but he decided not to worry. He would show his friend he was here to stay.

Absently he ran one hand up Iruka’s back, digging the heel of his palm in between the shoulder blades. The sense of how good that felt assaulted him from all sides. Smirking, he dug his palm in again, grinding in a slow circle. Without knowing exactly how he knew, he could tell Iruka was holding in a moan.

Stop that.

His words were strangely clearer here inside the man’s own head. They rang like bells all around and came from outside of Kakashi’s mind rather than inside. Kakashi chuckled at him.

“But you like it,” he teased. “I can feel how much you like it.” He ground his palm in a third time, dragging it down the length of back he could reach.

Yes. I like it. Now stop that.

Kakashi laughed again, but did as he was asked. As an apology, he turned his head and kissed the younger man’s temple.

Abruptly he found himself rushing through that insubstantial tunnel back in to his own mind. The light was gone and he was met with silence. It was incredibly disturbing. He blinked down at Iruka with a displeased and confused frown.

“What was that for?” he grumbled. “How did you do that?”

“Can’t give you all my secrets at once, can I?” Kakashi mock growled at him. Iruka soothed him with a soft kiss on the cheek. The growl changed to a purr and the chūnin laughed.

They had a late lunch and spent the afternoon going through mementos of Iruka’s childhood. Kakashi started constructing a timeline in his head, matching up points in his life with what his friend had been doing at the same time. He discovered that on days that marked great milestones in his own life his friend had often skipped class at the academy and held a private celebration all by himself. The day Kakashi had officially enlisted in ANBU Iruka had hidden in his room and cried. The day he had officially retired from the organization Iruka had baked a cake and toasted the two of them with sake on his own. Even though he’d still been legally too young for sake.

The jōnin’s favorite part of the memories was looking through the box of photos they’d dug out. Tiny Iruka was incredibly cute. He had chubby cheeks and a permanent toothy grin. His clothes were always dirty or torn from playing. Interestingly only the oldest photographs showed him without his trademark facial scar. Kakashi held a picture in his fingers of a three year old boy with an unmarred face toddling about a random living room and asked for the story. 

“I got it during an attack on the village. I was part of a group being evacuated but I was scared and wanted to find my parents. Some of us kids made a break for it and got caught by one of the enemy. I think he just meant to smack me out of the way but I got jostled by one of the other kids and the guy’s kunai got me instead.” He stopped and grinned sheepishly. “Actually, when I screamed it caught the attention of some black ops nearby. I got us in to trouble and then saved us to make up for it. My parents were furious though.”

“More trouble for you,” Kakashi teased.

“It’s funny but now that I think about it that was the last time I ever thought of my parents first when there was danger. I think after that my first thought always went to you.”

“Did you ever…” he didn’t know how to phrase it.

“Did I ever try to make contact with you?” his friend suggested.

“Yeah.”

“Well, I tried to get closer. I liked to watch you. Before your sensei died I didn’t know you thought I wasn’t real. I wondered why you never came to see me but didn’t want to push. So sometimes I would go places where you would be and I’d stare at you for a while until my mother came to get me.”

Something he’d never considered before occurred to Kakashi now, an idea that made him swallow nervously. “Did…um…did your parents…know? About me and our connection?”

“Of course they did,” the sensei answered. “My mother was the one who helped explain things to me.”

He was afraid to but he asked in a quiet voice, “Did she approve of me?” He fiddled with another photograph. This one showed a five year old with a brown ponytail enjoying some kind of festival in Konoha’s town square. His tiny yukata was chocolate smeared.

“She did.” Iruka’s words make him peek up at him hopefully.

“Really? I wasn’t exactly…a nice kid.” His friend reached over and stroked his bare cheek. He hadn’t even bothered with his mask all day.

“She said she was glad I had chosen someone who would grow up so strong, strong enough to protect me.” A fond, wistful smile touched his lips. “I used to babble at her for hours, telling her what you did that day, how great you were. She never once complained. The connection worried her but she was happy for me that I was able to experience the good parts of it.”

Kakashi frowned and lowered the picture he’d just picked up, turned to fully look at the man sitting next to him.

“Why would the bond worry her? What do you mean the good parts? You make it sound like there’s some kind of evil downside.”

He was apprehensive when his friend shifted his weight a few times with shadows crossing his eyes. All this time together and Iruka had never once mentioned that there might be some kind of danger implicit in the bond they shared. Finally his chūnin took a deep breath and confessed in a tiny whisper.

“When I said we were irreversibly connected I meant it. The bond is such that…if you die, I die.” Kakashi stared at him. “There have been a few of my ancestors who survived their partner’s death but all of them…well they give up. After the other half of your soul dies there’s not enough left to live for.”

Kakashi distantly felt the way he’d begun trembling as his mind forced him to recall how many times in his career he’d stood on death’s door, inches from the end. He thought of all the dangers he’d seen and the fights he’d been in, all with a sense of peace thinking that he would be dying for something good. And all of this time, from when he was little more than a baby, he’d been unknowingly carrying another life in his hands as well. So many times he could have killed his best friend. It wasn’t until he felt a warm touch on his cheek that he noticed he’d begun to hyperventilate. His companion called his name but he couldn’t respond. Couldn’t even move. His mouth hung open in a pant while he struggled for air, his chest heaving and his stomach threatening to rebel. The room was fading to gray until he felt a pair of lips gently kissing the center of his forehead.

“Kakashi, it’s okay, breathe,” Iruka mumbled. He was sitting astride the jōnin’s lap the way he had that time on top of the Hokage Monument. Kakashi scrambled for something to hold on to as horror ran rampant through his body.

“It’s not okay! How can that be okay?! I could – oh Kami – I’d die to protect you, you know that? But what good would that do if you die too?!” He felt hands smoothing his fringe back from his face.

“Shh, hey, calm down.” Another kiss to the forehead. “Kakashi, I don’t want you to die for me. Do you think I would ever want to live without you?” Hands tugged at his hair, forcing him to meet Iruka’s eyes. Before the chūnin could say anything else Kakashi blurted out the major source of his panic.

“How can I possibly go on missions now? How can I walk in to danger knowing that if I don’t make it you won’t either?” He was shaking from head to toe, clutching desperately at his friend’s back.

“Because if you don’t the danger will come to us,” was the soft yet blunt answer. “Kashi, we’re shinobi, and you are the best of us. This job has so many dangers but even if we both stayed in the village there’s always going to be another attack someday. Danger will find us no matter where we are. We can’t hide from the world. I’ve always known about this…side effect of imprinting but I’ve never regretted it. I’ve watched you walk in to more battles than I can count and I have never been afraid. Not for myself. If you die and I survive-“ he grabbed Kakashi’s face and pinned him with a dead serious expression. “-I won’t live long.”

The jōnin shuddered in revulsion at the thought of it, his most precious person taking his own life. Again. It was an incredibly cruel thing to say. Even if Iruka didn’t truly mean that he would take his own life the idea of it was still horrifying. With a whimper he buried his face in Iruka’s chest.

“Iruka,” he whined, unable to say much else. The younger man understood. He cradled Kakashi’s head and murmured to him soothingly.

“You’ll just have to try extra hard to stay alive, right?” The chūnin said eventually. He had nothing he could say to that.

They were both silent for a very long time, just taking comfort in their snug embrace. Kakashi eventually felt his breathing return to normal yet his chest stayed constricted. He had a couple days to himself but when that was over he would be expected to do his duty and take another mission. And he just knew that the Hokage was going to keep throwing the S-class missions at him, the most dangerous ones. Earning her respect was suddenly coming back to bite him in the ass. His friend was right, he couldn’t hide from the world, but he knew that from here on he would be using a lot more caution. It wasn’t just his own life now.

When he finally drew in a shuddering breath and let the last of the tension in his stiff shoulders dribble away Iruka kissed him on the tip of his nose and gave him an encouraging smile. He smiled back and nodded a bit as if to assure the younger man that he had survived his panic attack. He looked deep in to his friend’s eyes and asked one last thing, looking for something lighter to talk about.

“Kashi?” he questioned. Iruka blushed a deep shade of red.

“Sorry,” the chūnin mumbled. “I used to call you that when I was young. Couldn’t pronounce the whole thing out loud. Sometimes...I still think of you as Kashi.” He looked thoroughly mortified.

“I like it,” Kakashi told him softly, running fingertips up his arms. Iruka blushed even deeper but he smiled in relief.

The rest of their evening was a bit subdued after that as Kakashi tried to wrap his head around the inconceivable. He found himself clingier than ever – which was saying something. They’d hardly gone more than a couple minutes at a time without touching since he arrived in this apartment. Now they physically wrapped around each other no matter what they were doing, even cooking.

Something else he hadn’t done since arriving: take a shower or change his clothes. They fell asleep snuggled together again but the next morning Iruka insisted they visit the jōnin’s place to pick up some essentials. No one said anything out loud. It was just kind of understood that Kakashi probably wasn’t going to be staying at his own apartment anymore. So they got him some clothes and his toiletries. He gathered up some of his spare weaponry and packed some of his books. All of it would find new spots around Iruka’s home, now to be referred to as their home. Kakashi’s place was left to the dogs – literally. They said hello to the eight ninken, who all greeted the chūnin without a hint of surprise, and explained that Kakashi would stop by to take care of them now and then but he’d be living somewhere else now. The thought of living apart now that they were finally fully acquainted never even crossed their minds. The fact that they’d be sleeping in the same bed really didn’t occur to them as weird. At least it didn’t to Kakashi. He vaguely wondered again if all best friends were this close and why he’d never picked up on it. It wasn’t important enough to keep his attention for long though.

As they were finding room for his uniforms in Iruka’s closet Kakashi suddenly stopped and clenched his fists furiously.

“That traitorous little fleabag!”

Iruka nearly dropped his armload of clothes in surprise as he snapped his head up with an articulate, “Wha-?”

“Pakkun!”

“What about him?”

He twisted the fabric in his hands, pretending it was the little dog’s neck.

“He knew! He knew it was you! He knew your scent when I lent him to you to track down Naruto during that prison break, he had to have made the connection then. And he didn’t say anything! That miserable little-I’m gonna kill him!”

His friend sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck and looked away guiltily.

“I…may have asked him not to mention it…”

Kakashi gave him a withering look, huffed, and went back to shoving things in to the closet. Betrayal, that’s what this was! He grumped and sulked as he tossed things about. Push over that he was for the man, he forgave his friend after two hugs and one dose of big doe eyes. Pakkun, however, he planned to skin alive the next time he summoned him.

Moving his things had taken most of the morning and Iruka had a short desk shift in the afternoon. It was only for a few hours and yet Kakashi was loath to be alone at the moment. He wanted to spend every possible moment together. So the mission room earned itself an extra decoration for the day. Many of the shinobi who came in to receive or report a mission were terribly confused to find Hatake Kakashi sitting cross-legged on top of the desk next to Iruka, his nose in a bright orange book. More confusing to them was the fact that Iruka seemed to be completely fine with this, even the fact that he was blatantly reading his porn in public. The sensei accepted reports and handed out missions as if having a jōnin take up half your work space with his person was an everyday occurrence. He simply worked around the older man, occasionally actually using him as a paperweight.

Genma nearly suffocated on his own senbon when, for lack of anywhere else to put his papers, Iruka poked Kakashi in the side but didn’t say anything. Without looking up from his book, Kakashi had leaned a bit to the side, enough that his friend had room to slide some papers under his ass. Then he’d settled back down and continued to read. No one in the room had been privy their silent conversation.

You’re taking up all the room. I have nowhere to put these.

‘You can stick ‘em under me if you like.’

Kind of works I guess.

The strange scene played out again when Iruka needed his papers back. This time it was Sakura who happened to witness it while running an errand for her mentor. Kakashi had seen her staring out of the corner of his eye. He wondered what about his being used for a paperweight made her blush like that. He had largely ignored the strange looks he’d been receiving all day so it wasn’t that hard to shake hers off. That is, until the Godaime herself appeared in the room a few minutes after Sakura disappeared.

The overly busty blonde woman paused in the doorway, hands on her hips, and looked directly at him. Her eyes slid between him and Iruka, the chūnin unaware as of yet that they were being watched, being too busy with his own work. It wasn’t until his friend asked him to release some more papers, him tilting his bottom out of the way, that their Hokage slowly make her way across the office towards them. She looked perplexed, an expression not normally seen on her face.

“Hatake, might I ask what you think you’re doing in here?” she asked. Some of the people close by fell quiet and listened in. It wasn’t everyday one got to see the Copy-Nin potentially get a dressing down. “I thought I told you to take a few days off and rest. That means no missions.”

Kakashi didn’t even bother to peer over the top of his page as he answered, “Maa, I haven’t taken any missions.”

“You’re in the mission room, brat.”

“I’m not disturbing anyone,” he protested. She frowned, looking ever more baffled.

“If you’re not trying to run yourself in to the ground with more work, then what are you doing?”

He finally lowered his book and looked her in the eye. Their minds connected, perhaps a bit too closely at the moment, he could feel that he and Iruka were both looking at her with the exact same innocent expression.

“I’m just spending some time with my friend, Hokage-sama. Isn’t that alright?”

Completely taken aback by an answer she was obviously not expecting, Tsunade looked back and forth between them. She took in the very unflustered chūnin and the very calm jōnin and blinked a few times, seemingly at a bit of a loss. They were both fighting not to laugh. It would ruin the whole thing if they laughed in her face. Eventually she crossed her arms under her cleavage and leveled him with a suspicious look.

“Well you’re not hurting anyone – including yourself,” she allowed. “I suppose you’re fine so long as you stay out of trouble.”

“Oh don’t you worry. If I get in to any trouble I’m sure I’ll hear about it from Iruka first.” He grinned and put a gentle hand on the top of his friend’s head. The chūnin blushed as all eyes in the room suddenly swiveled to fix him with incredulous stares. He was sure they had all caught the familiar form of address. They looked even more incredulous when he snapped back.

“You’ll hear about it alright.”

Kakashi chuckled lowly and took his hand back.

“Speaking of which, hold these for me.”

Obligingly, he tilted to the side and let his friend slide more reports underneath his bottom. The Hokage watched this exchange with buggy eyes then suddenly clapped a hand in front of her nose and excused herself, fleeing the room. He felt Iruka’s curiosity but he really didn’t have any idea what that was about either. Everybody in this village was crazy.

For some reason, the fact that he had a friend was juicy news to his fellow shinobi and it spread through the village like wildfire. By the time Iruka’s shift had ended they’d started seeing people poking their heads in the door just to catch a glimpse of the two of them calmly going about their own business. Kakashi wasn’t even really doing anything as far as they knew. Nothing that could disturb them at least. He was pretending to read, turning pages every once in a while to keep up the fiction. In truth, he had followed their link in to his friend’s mind and was learning how to steal the other man’s vision for his own.

It didn’t always work and when it did he couldn’t always keep it up. The confusion of two different sets of eyes was hard on his unprepared brain. He kept at it though. If Iruka could get used to it enough to walk around safely while doing it so could he. He felt triumphant every time he could suddenly see a mission report in front of him instead of the book he was staring blankly at. Once, he used Iruka’s vision to catch someone blatantly staring at them from across the room. Without looking up he raised a hand and flipped them the middle finger. Shocked, they scrambled out of the room and he let himself smirk under the mask.

When they were finally able to leave Asuma was their last customer. The bearded man was there with his team, picking up something to keep them occupied the next day. Iruka handed them a scroll, wished them luck, then stood up and stretched. His eyes still closed, he flapped one hand at Kakashi while walking around the desk.

“Up,” he ordered absently. Obediently, Kakashi unfolded his legs and hopped off of his perch at long last. In front of them, Asuma gaped so wide his cigarette fell out on to his shoe.

“Are we going somewhere for dinner?” Kakashi asked, ignoring his fellow jōnin and holding his book in front of his face so he wouldn’t have to look at anyone. “I’ve got a craving for shogayaki.”

“I think I have everything to make that if you’d rather eat in.”

He hummed in a pleased manner and they walked out side by side. Iruka fiddled with the papers in his satchel, using Kakashi’s peripheral vision to keep himself walking in the right direction. They strolled home in this manner, both of them focusing on different things in their hands and paying little attention to the rest of the world. Kakashi was exceptionally good at walking while reading. Iruka was long used to watching two things at once. They made quite the pair, skillfully picking their way around the crowds without actually looking directly at anything.

News of them had traveled and Kakashi could hear people whispering with his sensitive ears. Only every few words were audible but generally people seemed shocked to see the two of them together. He resisted the urge to huff and ask any of them why they thought it was so weird that they were friends. Couldn’t anyone else see how perfect they were for each other? He didn’t let it linger in his mind for too long. Others didn’t matter much. What really mattered was Iruka’s opinion and he could read that straight from his pretty brunette head.

They cooked together as soon as they arrived home, ate quickly, and then curled up on the couch. Iruka read a book while Kakashi spent more time practicing his double vision. He could hold the connection for longer now and force himself to focus solely on what his friend’s eyes were showing him. Any and all attempts to pay attention to both views at once failed. He was good at multi-tasking but multi-seeing was a whole different level of difficult. He wanted to be able to do this though. He kept practicing right up until they both crawled in to bed.

Falling asleep with his most precious person’s head on his chest was almost as wonderful as waking up in the same position. He was not, however, a fan of the blaring alarm clock going off just to the right of his head. With a grumble he swatted at the offending device until that horrid noise stopped then buried his face in the chocolate hair that smelled so wonderful to him.

“Mph,” Iruka mumbled. “Have to get up.”

“No, have to stay in bed,” he rebutted.

“It’s Monday. I have class.”

Kakashi groaned and tightened his arms for a moment, then let go, making sure to advertise his reluctance loudly within the other man’s mind. Iruka smiled and kissed his cheek on the way by. He stayed in bed and reveled in the residual warmth until he heard the shower stop then crawled out and stumbled to the bathroom to perform his own ablutions. By the time he was out and pulled on a clean uniform set breakfast was ready.

After they had eaten Kakashi made a general nuisance of himself as his friend tried to get ready for his day. He interrupted the man with hugs, pulled at his hair, and hid the books he needed to bring to work. He could feel the irritation in their connection but knew that Iruka could in return read his childish reasons for acting this way. They’d had a wonderful couple of days in each other’s company but now he wouldn’t be allowed to follow the sensei to class as he had followed him to the mission room. Being annoying guaranteed that Iruka’s full attention stayed on him at least until he had to go.

Finally he had to give up his delaying tactics and allow the younger man to leave the apartment. In order to milk their remaining time together he walked his friend all the way to his class, where they said goodbye in the silence of their minds, trading soft, wordless gazes. When they had separated he had every intention of going back home to mope. Somehow, he instead ended up settled in a tree on the academy grounds, strategically positioned with a fine view of a certain classroom. He felt Iruka’s amusement at his insistence to stay close. He could also feel that the chūnin was glad to have him there.

For a good portion of the morning he simply lay in the tree with his eyes closed and allowed himself to float inside the ocean of welcoming light that made up his friend’s mind. He listened to the play of emotions and watched the changing thoughts in the bright center. It was unsurprising to see how genuinely fond the man was of each of his students. Kakashi found that a tiny part of him was irrationally jealous over this. He wanted Iruka to belong only to him. The rest of him realized how utterly ridiculous it was to be jealous of children but he was pretty good at ignoring that rational part of himself when he wanted to.

Sometime close to midday his attention was drawn to a pair of civilians who broke out in to a fight a little ways down the road. The professional in him was entertained with critiquing their poor fighting form and clumsily thrown punches. The child in him egged them both on. Eventually some civilian police officers arrived to break up the spat, though only after two black eyes, one broken arm, and two solid kidney blows. The officers who had come had to restrain the men from attacking each other again when they started calling insults back and forth.

Once the fun had been broken up and the two idiots dragged away, the crowd dispersing to spread the gossip, Kakashi checked the position of the sun. He was happy to see that it was almost noon – more specifically, almost lunch break. His friend had not packed a lunch to eat so he hopped out of his tree and strolled off to go pick up something for the both of them. Knowing the other man’s love of ramen he headed straight towards Ichiraku’s. When he arrived and asked Ayame for two portions to go the look she gave him was faintly incredulous. He wondered if it really did seem odd to people, him having someone to spend his time with. He had spent most of his life in self-imposed isolation.

He arrived back at the academy just as the bell rang to signify the start of break. He crossed the yard as waves of children flowed out the exits, hopping in through the window in an attempt to avoid most of the traffic. Iruka looked up and greeted him with a warm smile. Kakashi walked over and placed their takeout on the teacher’s desk. He looked around quickly before pulling his mask off, bending down, and dropping a quick kiss to Iruka’s cheek. Hands caught his collar before he could stand straight, holding him in place so the chūnin could kiss the tip of his nose. He was smiling goofily when he stood up.

The two of them ate quickly then chatted while Kakashi amused them both by closing his eye and attempting to navigate around the room using only Iruka’s vision. It was hard to grasp proper depth perception when he was watching himself from several feet away. Every time he bumped in to a desk with his knees his companion would burst in to laughter. He was quiet himself, reveling in the sound. He’d been waiting for so long to find out what ‘Voice’s’ laughter sounded like. The answer was golden bells and he took every opportunity he could to enjoy it.

When their hour was up they said goodbye with a quick hug, separating just before a swarm of kids came tramping back in to the room, hair full of twigs. Kakashi beat a hasty retreat out the window and found his way back to his new favorite tree. He was settled in his previous spot, book open but mind in the classroom, when Naruto found him.

“Kakashi-sensei…what are you doing?” the jinchūriki called up as he stopped near the base of the trunk.

“Reading?” he waggled his book as he answered teasingly.

“Why are you reading here?” Naruto looked around, his gaze landing on the distant open window, then he frowned. “You better not be perving on Iruka-sensei!” Kakashi choked on nothing and did his very best not to die of laughter. The boy was even serious!

“Did you need something?” he questioned.

“Not from you!” Naruto sniffed and stuck his nose in the air. “I was gonna see if Iruka-sensei wanted to go for ramen tonight. I’m leaving with the pervy sage soon, I want to see him before I go.” He squinted up at the older man. “I guess you could come too. If you want.”

Hiding a smile under the mask, Kakashi had to resist laughing again as he answered, “How could I turn down such a gracious invitation? I think you may want to wait a bit before you go and talk to him though. Konohamaru is being a bit of a horror so it might not be a good time.”

He realized his mistake when the boy below him quirked an eyebrow. “How do you know?”

They both turned as a familiar voice suddenly bellowed, “KONOHAMARU!” The sound carried out the window; they probably heard him three streets away. Kakashi smiled down at his student.

“That’s how,” he said, relieved. The blonde nodded even as he winced in sympathy. He’d been on the receiving end of his share of those bellows, Kakashi knew, so the jōnin took pity on him. “How about I pass on your message for you? We’ll meet you at Ichiraku’s an hour after his class is over. I’ll warn you though, he might not each much. We had ramen for lunch today already.” Naruto gave him another suspicious look.

“You had lunch with Iruka-sensei? Hey! You never told me why you were asking those weird questions the other day!”

“Um…” he shrank down on his perch and rubbed the back of his head, unsure of what to say to explain himself. He was rescued from the awkward moment when he felt a familiar presence coming closer, hopefully to save him from this whole conversation.

“Naruto, quit bothering Kakashi.”

He watched the young genin turn to throw himself on his guardian with unbridled enthusiasm, then grinned and hopped out of the tree. He could feel his friend’s affection for the boy but this he found himself less jealous of. Naruto had a way of worming himself in to people’s hearts. It was like a special power or something.

“Are you done with classes? Can we hang out?”

Iruka shook his head with a smile. “No, I’ve got a clone watching over them. I just thought I’d come out here and rescue Kakashi from your incessant questions.”

“Hey!”

Kakashi could feel how Iruka was almost-laughing in their heads. He wanted to wrap the other man up and take him home to listen to that sound by himself. Instead he put his hands in his pocket to combat the urge, watching Naruto and Iruka banter back and forth with a rhythm of familiarity. Finally the instructor shooed his old student away.

“I have to get back in there. We’ll meet you an hour after class, now get going.”

Naruto waved cheerfully to them both and bounded away. He’d only gone a few steps when suddenly he halted and turned back to narrow his eye, his suspicion taking them both in this time. Miraculously he said nothing, just stared contemplatively for a second before heading off again at a slower pace. They watched until he was out of sight, both trying to appear innocent and unassuming as possible. When they could no longer see him they shared a chuckle, Iruka leaning briefly against Kakashi’s side.

“You did that on purpose didn’t you? He never mentioned dinner to you.”

The chūnin gave him a mischievous look, but all he said was, “I’ll see you after class, Kashi.”

Kakashi tracked him with one eye until he disappeared too, then looked up to check the time. There was still a couple hours left, so he decided to fill the time actually doing something instead of climbing up in to the tree. Even he could only take so much sitting around and he’d done nothing particularly active in the last couple of days. He was still a fundamentally lazy person though, so he teleported towards the training areas instead of walking.

Two of the training fields were taken up by genin teams running drills with their team leaders. Another held a lone figure who appeared to be working out some frustration by demolishing wooden dummies in a rather effective manner. The fourth field held the promise of distraction in the form of Might Gai, who was as overjoyed to see him as ever. The spandex lover’s team of genin were panting for breath a few feet away from their teacher, sprawled on the ground in various degrees of exhaustion. Ten Ten sent him a pleading look. Obviously these kids needed a break, so Kakashi asked Gai to spar with him for a bit.

“But of course, Esteemed Rival! I accept your manly challenge! If I cannot defeat you I will do one thousand back hand springs with only one hand!” The Green Beast gave him a thumbs up and a sparkly grin.

Kakashi tilted his head to one side. “Yeah, so…are you going to try to hit me or just talk about it some more?” He goaded.

As much as Kakashi had desperately needed some down time it was good to get some simple training in, exercising without having to worry about life and death or the safety of the village. He and Gai pounded on each other for a while, using only taijutsu and banning the use of his Sharingan. Off to the side the three genin watched the match with interest. Lee shouted encouragement for his role model rather loudly. Despite the violence of the activity it was a strangely peaceful way to pass the time.

In the end Gai had won one round and he had won another. His fellow jōnin was all fired up for the tie breaker, then the visibly deflated when Kakashi declined.

“You can’t leave it like this! We must finish! How will I know if I’ve won the challenge?”

“Sorry but I do have to get going. I’m going to need to shower before we go for dinner now. Iruka won’t like it if I make us late.”

He watched Gai’s jaw drop in utter shock, waved casually, then disappeared in a puff of smoke. It had perhaps been a bit over the top to announce his intention to actually be on time for something. His rival might very well have a fit from the surprise. But the reaction had been too funny, so it was definitely worth it. Not to mention how entertaining it was to think of Gai struggling his way through whether or not to punish himself for losing the challenge.

Iruka came out to meet him as soon as he arrived, smiling and hefting his satchel up higher on to his shoulder.

“You’re right, a shower would be a good idea,” the tanned man said in lieu of a greeting. “A fast one though; I could use a quick rinse myself. After spending all day in that hot room, I stink.”

“Maa, you always smell fine to me,” he replied as they fell in to step. Iruka raised a curious eyebrow.

What do I smell like?

‘You smell like home.’

His friend thrilled at that answer and sent him a burst of affection, making them both sigh happily. 

Kakashi hopped in to the shower as soon as they got home, soaping himself down thoroughly to remove the layer of sweat that he had worked up. When he stepped out he eyed the uniform that lay scattered on the floor. It was coated in dirt and sweat now. He didn’t really want to pull that grime back over his nice clean skin so he tossed it in the hamper and wrapped a towel around his waist. He’d get another set instead.

Iruka was coming out of the bedroom when he stepped out of the bathroom and they almost walked in to each other. The younger man brought up his arms instinctively to head off the collision, ending up with his hands splayed against Kakashi’s bare chest. Iruka froze, wide eyed.

“You’re…naked,” he breathed. Kakashi smiled and leaned over to nuzzle just under his friend’s jaw.

“Mm, my clothes were gross.” Iruka seemed dazed for some reason so he stepped around the man and gently nudged him towards the bathroom. “Didn’t you want to shower too?”

That did the trick, galvanizing the brunette to scurry away and shut the door behind himself abruptly. Shaking his head in bemusement Kakashi pulled a clean set of jōnin blacks out from the closet and dressed leisurely. Then he flopped on to the bed and tucked his arms behind his head, his mind drifting aimlessly while he waited.

He listened to the sound of the water hitting the tiles in the next room, smiling when he heard it stop. There came the squeak of feet on a slippery floor then silence. He wondered if Iruka would brush his hair in there or if he’d let Kakashi play with the wet strands first. He got his answer when his friend came padding in to the room wearing pants and an undershirt, scrubbing at his head with a small towel. His exposed shoulders rolled nicely with the action and the towel tangled his hands when Kakashi reached out to snag him around the waist. He yelped as he was pulled down on to the bed.

“Kashi!” he grunted. “I’m trying to get ready. We have somewhere to be, remember?”

“Promise we won’t be late, I just want to play with your hair for a minute.”

He pulled the younger man almost on top of himself, pressing them together so Iruka’s face floated above his own, chocolate hair falling around them in damp curtains and shutting out the rest of the world. The chūnin smiled softly, going quiet to indulge him his wish. He lifted the hand not holding his friend’s waist and ran it through the tresses that he loved. Freshly shampooed, they felt even silkier than usual and the lemony smell was twice as potent. They lay like that for a couple of minutes, not saying anything, just looking in to each other’s eyes and smiling while he played and petted.

Finally Iruka leaned down and gave his nose a tiny kiss. “Come on,” he mumbled. “Let me finish getting dressed. We should get going.”

Kakashi sighed in disappointment but let the chūnin get up anyway. He watched those fine shoulders disappear under a navy uniform top and flak vest. He watched the hair get pulled up in to a ponytail. And he smiled because he was the only one who got to see his friend like this, the same way Iruka was the only one who got to see him without his mask.

Five minutes later they were on the street heading for the ramen stand. They made light conversation while they walked, keeping their voices just loud enough for them to hear but no louder. It created a strangely intimate atmosphere so the two of them looked a bit like kids sharing secrets. Others on the street gave them weird looks and tried to stay out of their space. By the time they reached their destination their heads were so close a light breeze would have knocked their temples together. They were abruptly pulled apart, however, by an orange and yellow streak tackling the younger of them.

Iruka staggered back with an air of resignation and a wry smile, letting his ward babble out a garbled greeting loud enough to draw attention from all directions. The youngster ushered his guardian in to the stand then glared at Kakashi behind the other man’s back. Kakashi, of course, sent an image of that glare to his friend’s mind.

What did you do to him?

Kakashi grumped. Why did people always assume that he’d done something? ‘Nothing. I don’t think he likes us being friends.’ Iruka sent him a fluttering of exasperation.

He’ll just have to get over it.

Kakashi’s smile was conveniently hidden in his mask as he ducked under the banner and entered the shop. Iruka had deliberately sat so there was an open seat on both sides of himself. Naruto occupied one so Kakashi slid in to the other, allowing their legs to press together. The two of them listened as their student talked about the training he was going to do with Jiraiya. Neither of them ordered any food, offering instead to pay for the genin’s meal. Teuchi honestly rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

Three bowls of pork ramen later, as well as one bowl of shrimp and two of beef, Ayame had joined in with the satisfied hand rubbing while passing over the bill. Naruto patted his stomach and grinned.

“That was great! I sure am going to miss Ichiraku’s while I’m gone. Can we eat here again when I get back?”

“You haven’t even left yet,” Iruka grumbled good-naturedly. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” He was rummaging through his wallet. Kakashi peeped through his friend’s eyes, saw that the large bill would all but clean him out, and reached for his own wallet as well.

‘Let me get half,’ he offered silently. He handed over a few notes, which Iruka took without looking, and Naruto gaped.

“Kakashi-sensei never pays!” the genin exclaimed. Kakashi offered him a slightly offended frown.

“Oh? Who bought you ramen after that mission when you absolutely had to walk the biggest dog? Or after the one planting potatoes for the old farmer? Or what about-“

“Alright, if you paid for those all by yourself how come you’re still making Iruka-sensei pay for half this time?!”

Kakashi let his head drop down to his chest in defeat. Nothing he did would ever be good enough for Naruto. The boy was one hundred percent convinced he was nothing but a dirty pervert with no redeeming qualities. He sighed and shoved his hands in to his pockets, not even bothering to answer. He listened to Iruka scold the young genin for being so rude – not to mention ungrateful – to his own sensei and eventually settled for rolling his eyes. People had been determined to think the worst of him all his life. Expecting someone as boneheaded as Naruto to think any differently was expecting too much. The three of them strolled away from the ramen stall together, speculating as they walked on all the wild awesome jutsu that the young blonde was going to learn during his travels with the Toad Sage. The two adults found themselves giggling silently to each other at the more vivid expectations, though they gave no outward hint of such behavior.

Finally they made their way to dropping Naruto off at his door, one floor above their own destination. They had almost made it away with no questions but the short genin turned back to them at the last moment. He fixed them with a critical eye, narrowing his gaze and looking back and forth between them slowly.

“Why didn’t Kakashi-sensei just go home?” he asked, ever eloquent and tactful. Kakashi offered the boy his biggest smile even though it was still hidden behind the mask.

“I’m going home right now,” he answered. Naruto snorted.

“Good, don’t keep bothering Iruka-sensei!" 

Kakashi felt a burst of protective indignation slash through the inside of his mind a mere second before he heard Iruka’s roar of, “Naruto! What did I say not twenty minutes ago about being rude?!” Despite being insulted again the Copy Nin just kept right on grinning, buoyed by the warm feeling of having his most special friend jump to his defense so quickly and so sincerely. Their student hardly looked chastised; he actually jutted his chin forward stubbornly.

“He’s been hanging around you an awful lot lately,” the boy said. Iruka, hands on his hips, leaned down until their noses were but a breath away from each other.

“I don’t see how that is any of your business, young man.” They matched wills for a long moment before Naruto huffed and turned away, making a tactical retreat in to his apartment. Kakashi followed behind Iruka as his friend stomped all the way down to their floor and in to their apartment. Then, because their minds were so connected, he was not surprised at all to be on the receiving end of a tight hug.

He pulled Iruka under his chin and buried his nose in brown hair, breathing in the scent of sandalwood. He could hear Iruka muttering to himself about protecting him and not letting anyone say anything bad about him ever. All he did was smile and sway their bodies back and forth in the quiet living room.

*

Kakashi’s first mission away from Iruka was nerve-wracking. Their minds stayed in touch the entire time, even when they weren’t saying anything, and he found himself checking through his friend’s vision every time he could spare a moment of concentration to do so. Knowing what he did about how Iruka’s continued survival depended on his own, he found himself putting extra effort in to his stealth. A battle avoided was a battle won, as his sensei used to say. Strange how he would apply that only now, so many years later.

His peeks through Iruka’s eyes showed him how life without Naruto in the village seemed quieter. Kakashi’s one remaining student was flourishing as the apprentice of the fifth Hokage. This left Kakashi with no students to train and he found himself busier than ever with missions. This time, however, it was made bearable only because when he did find the time to spend a night in the village, he did so at home with Iruka.

Coming home tired and aching only to be wrapped in the arms of his most precious person was a kind of bliss he had never known. Iruka said nothing if he slipped in to the bed still smelling faintly of blood, only held him close and whispered how happy he was that Kakashi was home. Waking up in the morning with Iruka’s head on his chest or tucked in to the back of his neck never failed to start his day off with a warm smile. Kakashi wondered sometimes if this is what it felt like to have family. Although, he didn’t see Iruka as a sibling. Thinking of them as brothers didn’t seem to really fit. After a while he realized that ‘friends’ didn’t quite cover it either.

The word problem was something he used to occupy his mind sometimes when his missions were boring and he wanted to let Iruka concentrate on his day. He searched his vocabulary in his native language as well as the three foreign languages he could speak looking for the right word to sum up what Iruka was to him. The best he came up with in the end was ‘partner’ because they were equals and shared everything. Other than that the only thing he could think of was ‘mine’.

It took several more months and a mission that lasted for two for him to pinpoint the word he really wanted and figure out why ‘friends’ wasn’t good enough.

It was the first long mission he had taken on since discovering the true identity of Voice. He had been on several that had him out of the village for up to three weeks at a time but never a full month, let alone two. Keeping in contact mentally simply wasn’t the same as being able to look in to Iruka’s eyes or see his smile. Kakashi dearly missed the sound of his laugh. He tried his best to stay upbeat, amusing his partner as much as possible just to get that mental sensation of almost-laughter. It was the closest he could get and he soaked it up as much as he could.

Every night was lonely but he fell asleep with the sound of his lullaby singing inside his head. On the nights when he was weary but unable to stop for breath he buried himself deep in Iruka’s consciousness and watched his dreams. They showed up as flashes of feelings and impressions and he found respite in guessing what those dreams were about. Sometimes Iruka seemed worried about him and he was always sorry to make his partner worry. Usually, though, the dreams were the fanciful oddities that only occurred in slumber and left them both with a sense of peace.

When he had at long last accomplished the goal of his mission his excitement must have been palpable in his mind as he turned and bolted towards home. He could feel Iruka’s amusement bleeding through and it made him smile under his mask.

Don’t wear yourself out before you get here.

‘I will stay awake at least long enough for a hug.’

Just one? Stingy.

Kakashi laughed. He felt buoyed by the idea of going home, especially now that home wasn’t an empty, lonely apartment with only cold memories echoing between the walls. He felt almost as if he could do acrobatics through the trees but instead used the energy to push himself faster until the foliage around him passed in a blur of green and brown.

It took a week to make it to the Village Hidden in the Leaves. He had slept only three times in his haste and only when Iruka convinced him that it would take longer to arrive if he passed out from sheer exhaustion. Last night had not been one of the nights he slept but adrenaline pumped through his veins at a rate that the most intense thrill seekers would have been jealous of. It was seven in the evening when he passed through the gates and he could feel Iruka waiting impatiently for him at home. He signed himself in with Izumo and Kotetsu, reported briefly to Tsunade that he had arrived and would give a full account in the morning, and then made a beeline for the apartment building that housed his most precious person.

Iruka was just coming down the hallway when Kakashi slipped in through the window. They crashed together in a tangle of arms, Kakashi lifting his partner a few inches off the ground and continuing his forward momentum until they collided with the wall. Iruka laughed as Kakashi nuzzled the junction between shoulder and neck until the lycra of his mask slipped down below his chin.

Kakashi peppered kisses across the scar on Iruka’s nose, up his temple, and across his forehead. He kissed every available inch of skin down the other side of his face, dotted a few on his chin, and went to make his way back up his favorite scar. It wasn’t until after their lips had collided that Kakashi realized what he had just done and ground to a halt. His whole body froze and the two of them stared at each other, wide-eyed.

It wasn’t the action itself that had startled him. It was how natural it had felt, how right. The two men panted for breath, chests heaving against each other, and said nothing for almost thirty seconds during which Kakashi noticed something. Still submersed in the deepest center of Iruka’s mind he could taste the cautious feeling that filled the other man, the way his whole being held its breath to see how he would react.

Kakashi looked at Iruka and wondered how he could have possibly been so blind.

“Oh,” he breathed, experiencing second-hand the sensation of his air whispering against Iruka’s lips. Iruka’s eyes were gathering water as the corner and Kakashi unwound one hand so he could reach up and brush them away. “How long have you been waiting for me to figure this out?” More tears fell as Iruka gave him a tremulous smile.

“Since I was a child!” he croaked.

“Oh Iruka…” With that he leaned down once more and took Iruka’s mouth with his, pressing against him with all the passion that had never existed in any of his previous romantic endeavors. He caught Iruka’s chapped lower lip between his own and suckled on it gently, drawing a desperate moan from the other man.

Mine.

He made some sort of unidentifiable noise that seemed to come straight up from his toes while his hands came up to tangle in Iruka’s hair, disturbing the neat ponytail.

Mineminemine!

They parted to gasp for air, only for Iruka to grasp him by the upper arms and drag him back down. He shivered when a warm tongue flickered out in invitation and parted his lips to drag his own against it. The hands on his arms tightened and they both tilted their heads for a better angle, a deeper kiss.

My soulmate…

He didn’t have the mental power right then to register it, but it was then he realized that the word he had been looking for had been given to him a long time ago, when he had known this man only as Voice and was first learning the true nature of their special connection. And here it was again now.

It was Iruka who first slid away from the wall, dragging Kakashi with him down the hallway. It was Kakashi who reached to undress them first. It was Iruka who let out a few more tears of joy. It was Kakashi who said the first ‘I love you’.