Genma was laughing with Kotetsu and Izumo. Kotetsu's spiky head rose above the group; he’d hit his growth spurt a full year before anybody else. Their breath misted as they huddled together, crowded around something Genma had cupped in the palm of his hand. He’d flip it over, letting them get a glimpse of it before grabbing it away again, hooting with triumph. At the end of all this, they’d suddenly hush up and look furtively around. Mizuki had his back to them, standing stiffly with his chin up.
Iruka recognized the victory circle of a successful dare the moment he entered the street, even though it had been a while since he’d been a part of one. He'd given up all that not long after his academy graduation four years ago.
Genma looked up. “Iruka, Iruka!”
“You have to see this,” added Kotetsu.
The huddle closed around him, and Iruka let a little swagger slip into his stance, feet planted and arms crossed. On this front, he was the man to impress. And if Mizuki hated it, it had to be something career-limiting. In other words, something good.
Genma held up a photo pinched between his first and second fingers. Iruka’s smile froze on his face.
The photo showed two people shot through a screen of leaves at a distance. They were identifiable as ANBU by the pale shapelessness of their faces and the dark blur of their cloaks.
“What are you doing with this?” Iruka snatched the photo, studying it with the faint hope that it would turn out to be fake.
“What am I doing with this?” Genma asked incredulously. “I took it. Me! I won’t be chuunin my whole life, Iruka.” Kotetsu pounded him on the back in triumph, belatedly shooting a nervous look around the street for observers.
“You’re an idiot!” Iruka whispered. “These guys don’t like to be seen. They leave no trace – now you’re a trace.”
The smile was fading from Izumo’s face. Kotetsu shoved his hands in his pockets and stuck out his jaw defensively.
“Come on, it’s just a bad photograph,” he muttered. “It shows nothin’.”
“Oh geez,” Izumo said in his high, boyish voice.
Genma rolled his eyes. “Who cares. They shouldn’t have gotten caught. I’m providing a service – weeding out the slow.”
“They’ll weed you out, that’s for sure,” Iruka said. He tapped the photograph against Genma’s chest. “Where are the negatives?”
Genma touched his pointer finger to the pad of his thumb and zippered his lips shut.
Iruka gritted his teeth. Even for Genma, this was a bit much. “Genma – !”
A bell sounded from inside the old brick building that housed the chuunin administrative offices. People passed them on their way to it, hands shoved in pockets and shoulders hunched against the cold. They were all ninja, and the more paranoid among them walked with steps that didn’t crunch in the snow. They turned to look at the huddle curiously, at Iruka shaking the photograph while Genma held his hands up and away to either side in a clear hands-off gesture.
Iruka’s skin prickled at their curious stares. He shoved the photograph into the inside pocket of his vest, cursing. Together, they followed the crowd through the building’s open doors. Genma walked in backwards. He touched a finger to his lips and pointed it at Iruka. Iruka couldn’t tell if he was sharing a secret or a kiss, but he looked like an idiot.
The room was overflowing with Konoha’s chuunin. They filled up the mismatched old folding chairs and lined up along the walls all the way to the podium. It was Iruka’s second monthly rank meeting as a chuunin. People he didn’t know kept offering suggestions on how to break in his new tactical vest, still stiff and new-smelling, or at least dirty it up a bit. A few years ago, these individuals might have found their own vest dirty, missing, or swapped out with someone else’s of a very different size or shape, but today, Iruka just thanked them politely.
Genma and Izumo had been chuunin a few years already, and they knew to grab seats in the back by the radiator or else spend the meeting shivering in the drafty old building. Iruka squeezed in next to them and tried not to fall asleep in the current of warm air coming off the radiator. The ANBU photograph felt like an extra spot of warmth against his chest.
Yoshino-sensei had gotten through the seasonal safety update and was handing the meeting over to Hyuuga Masao for the village highlights when the big, double doors at the back squeaked open, cutting across the quiet. A draft of cold air washed up around Iruka’s ankles and woke him out of his daze.
Chairs creaked as people turned around to check out the latecomers. Iruka could pick out the more advanced chuunin by those that managed to do this without turning, using only reflective surfaces scattered through the room. To his irritation, Genma was one of these. Iruka had never been vain, and he was pragmatic to the core; he turned all the way around and knew he had the better view.
The group that had come in wasn’t that noticeable except that one of them wasn’t chuunin. He was a gawky, skinny kid with dark brown hair and elegantly almond-shaped eyes that Iruka hoped he’d one day grow into. His name was Tenzo, and he had made jounin two weeks ago with a lot of pomp and circumstance about his exceptional youth.
From his pinched expression, he’d probably been dragged to the meeting by the other two: a petite chuunin nurse Iruka had seen at the hospital – though never working – and a tall, slouching man who had been a chuunin for longer than Iruka had been able to form complete sentences. Friendship transcended rank, Iruka guessed. He zipped his vest up a little tighter around the photograph.
“Shit, it’s the Hatake,” Genma muttered, eyes aimed at the side of a polished brass display case near the front of the room.
“Who?” whispered Izumo. Kotetsu scoffed at him.
“The son of Konoha’s white fang.” As soon as Kotetsu dropped this name, Mizuki rotated back into their orbit like he’d been magnetized.
“He had a son?” Mizuki asked.
“Oh yeah, fast-tracked,” Genma whispered, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Chuunin at six; the Yondaime’s protégé.
“No way a six year old even has the coordination to grip a kunai,” Izumo complained.
“War time promotion? Nepotism?” Kotetsu guessed.
“Alright, just tell us what happened,” Mizuki hissed. He had been planning his rise to elite status since the day Iruka met him, and he had a horrified fascination with fall-from-grace stories.
“Nervous breakdown,” Genma said.
Iruka had deeply hoped not to be a part of this conversation, but at this bit of defamation, he had to step in. “He lost an eye in the Third Shinobi War."
“Either-or.” Genma flapped a hand in dismissal. “How about both?"
“How do you know, Iruka?” Kotetsu asked
“Because he told me.” Eyebrows went up; Izumo mouthed You know him? -- and several covert glances were tossed toward the back of the room where Hatake Kakashi slouched unremarkably in the corner. Iruka hesitated, uncertain how much to say. “Well, he told me he lost it running with scissors, but I checked; the injury’s public record.”
“ And what else is a matter of a public record?” Genma asked sing-song. Iruka sighed.
“He never takes missions.”
“Never?” Mizuki looked green at this career-killing move.
“He hasn’t left the village since the nine tails attack – ” Iruka started. Genma traced a circle in the air with his hand: come on, come on, and Iruka rolled his eyes before finishing obediently, “ – because he’s an unstable psychological burn out.”
“The bright ones always are,” Genma said with a dramatic sigh.
They had to wriggle their way into a spot at the back. Kakashi didn’t mind; the close quarters made it harder for Tenzo to sneak out, not that Kakashi wouldn’t slap a binding jutsu on him the instant he tried it just to remind him of the chain of command. Kakashi was a great believer in shared tedium. The mundane became enjoyable when you had people to share it with – or maybe it was just the look on Tenzo’s face that was so entertaining.
“I have a certificate that says I don’t have to be here,” Tenzo said.
Kakashi put on an expression of affected interest. “Did the hokage sign it himself?”
Tenzo sighed heavily.
Rin managed to win a seat on a trunk jammed into the back corner just by wearing her medic uniform to the meeting. Everybody remembered Tenzo from the hokage’s speech at the last promotion ceremony, and somebody found him an honest-to-goodness chair next to Rin’s trunk, squeezing his shoulder in congratulations for his promotion. Tenzo nearly glowed at the praise. Nobody gave anything up for Kakashi, which was as it was supposed to be. He propped himself up next to Rin, using his string bean proportions to lean sideways between her and the wall.
Tenzo watched him with a mix of unease and irony. Tenzo was a pretty traditional kid. It bothered him sometimes to watch his superiors be treated without the deference he felt they deserved. He whispered to Rin, “They have no idea, do they?”
Kakashi looked at the room full of people ignoring him. He didn’t have Tenzo’s natural love of protocol. If all these people disappeared tomorrow, the biggest effect it would have on him was that he wouldn’t have to be here pretending to listen. He supposed if they did disappear, he wouldn’t have any more missions to keep them safe, and that would make him angry, that there wasn’t anyone around to take advantage of the work he’d done for them to be happy.
“Give up, Tenzo,” Rin said. “He doesn’t care about anything but his day job.”
Kakashi looked at Rin’s lap where she’d pulled out a stack of paperwork in other people’s handwriting and was methodically whiting-out large portions of it.
“Whose work are you fixing now?” he asked. “Shouldn’t doctors be able to do that themselves?”
Rin laid down another line of white like it was the law. “I would let them do it, if they did it right.”
The meeting ended eventually. They hung back as the attendees started to work their way to the doors because Kakashi didn’t like picking his way through crowds he didn’t have to; and because Tenzo wanted to leave so badly. Also, Kakashi was comfortable. Rin teased him sometimes about how sedentary he was. If he hadn’t literally been raised to it since birth, Rin argued, he would have been a farmer, not a shinobi. People who heard this laughed, but Kakashi didn’t like that kind of thinking because the questions it raised couldn’t be answered. It led to melancholy and phantom regrets.
Rin had fallen into some kind of groove , filling out paperwork like it was giving something back. Kakashi fell into a groove of his own watching her pen strokes. It was Tenzo who noticed the new recruit moving through the crowd and signaled to Kakashi by tapping his foot against the trunk.
The kid was bigger than Tenzo, though not much older. He was strutting among his peers, a poisoned senbon clasped between his teeth in that particularly ninja combination of recklessness and precision.
Kakashi thought the recruit wasn’t stupid enough to tell his friends about the offer he’d been made, but the Organization had made mistakes before. There was no reason not to help the kid out with a reminder that ANBU didn’t need masks to hear. The recruit hadn’t been with the Organization long enough to have seen their faces after all.
Kakashi waited until Shiranui was even with them, waiting in the press of people filing out around the edges of the room, and said without raising his voice: “Hey, new kid.”
It wasn’t Shiranui who turned but the young man standing next to him, dark-haired and sun-browned. He was Shiranui’s height but broader, and his unstained chuunin vest was just beginning to show crease lines around the ribs and shoulders.
Ah, hence the confusion.
It wasn’t until the young man’s eyes widened in recognition that Kakashi recognized him: Umino Iruka. The left side of Kakashi's face tingled in memory. His reactions had been so primed to killing intent that he’d been unprepared for the blow a child had landed without it. Kakashi had wondered sometimes over the last few years when the Organization would hear from Umino next, but despite his string of front-page mischief as a pre-genin, Umino Iruka had dropped off the radar.
Well, he'd certainly gotten taller since Kakashi had last seen him.
As soon as he saw Kakashi, Umino shifted just enough to put the left side of his body exactly 180 degrees away from Kakashi. It was subtle, but Kakashi suspected he was hiding something, a physical object judging by his stance and behavior. Based on his recent chuunin status, probably his left inside vest pocket. Disappointingly amateur.
Kakashi’s intended new kid – Shiranui Genma – turned his head, not immediately realizing who Kakashi was talking to. Kakashi watched Shiranui’s face as he realized Kakashi was looking at him. First his eyebrows went up a little, his mouth relaxed – curious. It was followed by a moment in which his eyes widened but nothing else changed – realization. Then his eyes got wider still as they focused on Kakashi, infamous chuunin dropout, and his lips pressed together in an attempt to conceal his reaction – realization part two.
Kakashi gave him a guileless smile.
Tenzo looked at his watch and swore. Kakashi liked when Tenzo swore because even Tenzo sounded embarrassed. “I’m supposed to meet my team leader at the gates in fifteen minutes."
“Your first jounin mission!” Rin clapped.
“Shut up,” Tenzo muttered.
Still stuck in the crowd in front of them, Umino interrupted shyly, “No, that’s really good. Good luck.”
“Uh, thank you.”
“Where’s your kit?” Kakashi asked. He was better at ignoring these interruptions than Tenzo.
“I have it all here,” Tenzo said, standing up like he planned to leave immediately. But Kakashi stared at him blankly, unable to give explicit orders in front of an audience, until Tenzo obediently started going through his vest and belt pack. Halfway through patting down his pockets, he paled.
“What?” Rin said.
“I’m out of tags.” He looked at Kakashi, no doubt remembering that his tags were smeared across a half mile of deer path between Konoha and the Iwa border, mixed with the ashes of two and a half rock nin. If Kakashi hadn’t been too chakra-drained to stay conscious when they got back, he probably would have reminded Tenzo to restock.
“I have some.” Unbelievably, Umino opened one of the front pockets on his vest and pulled out a thick stack of chakra tags. The pile had been subdivided into smaller sub-stacks secured with different colored paper bands. Umino fanned them out, reciting: “Pepper, smoke, exploding, exploding-pepper, and tracking.”
“Tracking?” Kakashi repeated.
“Um, it’s slow-drying paint, basically. To mark whoever set off your tag.”
“Iruka makes the best tags,” Shiranui said, having finally recovered enough to speak. “Which is good since we only make chuunin pay.”
The crowd had continued to flow around them, thinning out until Shiranui and Umino were finally missed by one of their cohort. A young chuunin with face tattoos and decorative wrapping across the bridge of his nose pushed back through the crowd.
“What’s taking so long?” His expression changed to interest as he saw the paper fanned out in Umino’s hands. “ Hey – Iruka, you gotta give me some more of those.”
Umino shot him a disbelieving look. “You still haven’t paid me for the last batch!” Then he did a double-take, noticing that Kakashi had smoothly lifted a few of the packets and was inspecting their workmanship carefully, holding a single tag up to the window.
The characters were precisely placed, revealing an artist with a solid understanding of the chakra-flow mechanics behind the tag, and the ink had not been allowed to bleed. They had been stored properly as well – flat, dry, and no detectable fading from sun exposure. The only indications that these were not professional level were lingering inexperience in the penmanship and the subpar quality of both paper and ink.
Kakashi returned them to their owner. “They’re good, for amateur level. Your character placement makes up for the cheap materials.”
Umino went red.
“Hell, didn’t realize you were an expert,” snapped the friend with the facial tattoos.
“They’re acceptable,” Kakashi said clearly. He was allowing his subordinate to take them on a A-class mission; it wasn’t his business to pad the facts for thin-skinned, part-time ninja. “You said you want to be paid for these?”
“I have cash,” Tenzo said quickly.
“They’re a promotion gift,” Umino said, glaring at Kakashi.
Rin jabbed Tenzo in the side, who said, “Thank you, Umino-san.”
Umino filed out behind his friends with the rest of the crowd, still protecting whatever it was he had in his pocket.
A few weeks after he turned twelve, Iruka had gone out to practice tree-walking, accompanied by a slingshot he’d made during after school shinobi arts and crafts. He’d fallen asleep on a branch waiting for Mizuki, breathing in the smell of the clear day and the cool dampness of the forest. He woke to the whispering sound of a shinobi moving at speed through the leaves. Iruka had his slingshot out in record time, loaded with one of the eggs he’d brought from home. He let fly at just the right moment; his timing had never been so perfect.
It wasn’t Mizuki.
Iruka tried to catch Genma's eye to return the photo after the meeting, but it was like the Genma that had gone into the meeting was not the same one that came out. He stood in the snow a few seconds, staring down the street with an unfocused look. Then he took to the roof tops without so much as a goodbye, leaving Iruka standing in the snow with incriminating evidence in his pocket.
Iruka had to force his hand to hang naturally instead of clutching at his zipper. There was only so long he could hang around looking for Genma, and Genma had to know it. Iruka was supposed to have tea with the hokage, and then he was on rotation for after school extension at the Academy from four to six. In Genma’s head, forcing Iruka to drink tea with the hokage while hiding a borderline treasonous photo in his pocket was probably a glorious prank in and of itself. And Genma had noticed that the more often Iruka had tea with the hokage, the more reluctant Iruka got to enact elaborate payback and pranks of his own.
Iruka got as far as locking himself in the tower’s third floor bathroom with the photo and a book of matches, but when it came to lighting the match, he quailed. The picture was just too good. ANBU were the bogie man of every ninja child. There was no way he could bring himself to erase it without Genma agreeing to it.
Cursing, he stuffed the photograph back into his pocket and scribbled a note onto a blank tag – Clearing out old photos. Let me know if there’s any you want to save! - Mum He underlined “save” four times and drew a saccharine smiley face just in case Genma didn’t understand what would happen if he didn’t come by and rescue it. He snuck onto the tower roof to wrap the note around the leg of one of the mission office’s messenger birds, marking it with a chakra tag that would recognize Genma.
Then he went back to tea with Sarutobi Hiruzen, Sandaime Hokage of Konoha. When the Sandaime asked how Iruka was enjoying his new chuunin responsibilities, Iruka answered honestly that he felt a little light-headed.
"Are you still taking missions with your team?" Sarutobi asked. His assistant finished refilling his tea and retreated to the outer office. Iruka clutched his cup like it was the only source of warmth in the room.
One of the windows stood open to the air, the preferred entrance and exit for special couriers and the ANBU that made up the hokage's elite guard. The sounds of the street drifted in, people talking and working, carts crunching through the dirty snow and slush.
Heaters had been set up around the small, low table where they sat, and the hokage himself had put some kind of jutsu on the wood so that it emanated a low, constant heat. Four shinobi in smooth porcelain masks with stylized animal faces stood at the edges of the room. Iruka kept shooting sideways looks at them, trying to figure out which one was Hatake Kakashi. He could probably rule out the two that seemed to be women.
"Yoshino-sensei is the head of chuunin training," Iruka said. "She doesn't take too many missions outside the village, and Hayate is tokubetsu jounin now, but he makes time to go with Anko and I when he can."
"That's very kind of him," said Sarutobi.
"Yes," Iruka said warily. He never knew how to take these meetings. He was being checked up on, he knew, a follow up on the Incident of the Unwise Egg, but he kept expecting them to tail off eventually for good behavior.
Instead, every week like clockwork, there was another inquiry into Iruka's happiness and progress over very good tea. He'd even taken the Sandaime to see his parents' names on the memorial stone, and the hokage hadn't made one twitch of disapproval when Iruka had cried. At that moment, it didn't matter that his meetings with the hokage had started as a punishment; the Sandaime himself had told Iruka he valued the sacrifice Iruka's parents had made for the village and had put an arm around him until he felt better. Iruka would carry that with him for the rest of his life.
"I know you will do great things for our village," Sarutobi said, sipping his tea.
Iruka nodded mechanically.
Genma’s reply didn’t come back until Iruka was teaching at the academy’s after school extension, trying to draw a recognizable kunai on the board. Iruka dreaded every time he ended up on this rotation because he was just so awful at it. It turned out that liking kids and being nice were almost no help at all when it came to controlling the divergent attention of twenty-five pre-genin. Iruka’s back up and supervisor, senior instructor Fujisawa-sensei, had fallen asleep over his paperwork in the back row about fifteen minutes into class, so it was Iruka or nothing in a two hour battle to maintain his white-knuckled grip on the reins.
So far he’d confiscated five pencils, a hair tie, a frog, and an erotic novel Iruka was trying to pretend Izumo’s cousin hadn’t found in Fujisawa-sensei’s bag. He had a pair of civilian twins in the hall holding buckets, and there was an hour to go.
At least everybody was paying attention when the senbon came sailing through the cracked window and pinned a scrap of paper to the side of Iruka’s desk with a tiny thwack.
Dearest Mum, I love all my memories. Or else. Your adoring son
Iruka crumpled the note.
He stepped out of the classroom behind Fujisawa-sensei at 6:05 feeling like he’d survived a high wire act without the use of chakra. Genma was waiting just outside the door, his back against the wall. He let Fujisawa-sensei pass him before he pushed Iruka back into the classroom.
"Ok, you were right," he said as he went from window to window pulling blinds with a swish and a thunk. "Where is it?"
"Did you get caught?" Iruka asked, watching Genma duck his head out the door to check the hall.
Genma hummed noncommittally. "No, but let's play it safe. Right, Mum?"
Iruka rolled his eyes. "Let's go then."
"Wait, wait - go where?"
"I didn't keep it on me. It's at the tower."
"Where at the tower?"
Now Iruka was the one checking the hall. He leaned in. "On the fourth floor under the mews by the empty conference room no one uses. I hid it behind the baseboard in the hall."
Genma went white. "The conference room with the chakra-locked closet no one can open?"
Iruka gave him a weird look. "That's it."
Genma collapsed back against the wall with a sigh. "Well, it's -- after dark it's probably surrounded by pre-genin exchanging dares."
Iruka started to absently tidy up the desk. "You think kids still do that? I thought they'd have found someplace new."
"After the stories you told us? Ten to one those are still circulating. That's when I knew you were trouble - when you figured out you didn't have to open that closet as long as you could convince us you had."
Iruka smiled nostalgically. "I forgot about that."
"Forgot? You told us you found a body in there! You said it was the body of the last kid who'd gotten in and couldn't get out. You described his mummified bodied in exquisite detail, including the texture of his crumbling skin, the beetle larva in his eye socket, and said he'd finally died when starvation had driven him to eat discarded office supplies dating back to the Shodaime. I didn't sleep through the night for a year."
Iruka laughed self-consciously, a hand behind his head. "You guys wouldn't stop asking me about it! And it was the only reason you even knew who I was."
"Well, you've straightened out, that's for sure," Genma said. Iruka shrugged uncomfortably. After a moment, Genma slapped a hand against the wall. "If we're not going to get that photo, let's go run the roofs in the red light district. I'll buy the drinks."
Iruka thought of the ANBU stationed silently at the corners of the hokage's office. He was almost certain Kakashi had been the tall, skinny one in the crow's mask. He called ahead to Genma as he locked the classroom door, "Will the drinking be before or after the roof climbing?"
Kakashi was not in Konoha. He was on the same mission for which Tenzo had left so quickly, but Kakashi's version came with a dog-faced mask and an entirely different set of paperwork.
He watched Tenzo through the trees a few hundred feet away. Tenzo and his team, led by Nara Souzuu, walked along a thin woodsman’s trail in formation around a man in unmarked shinobi fatigues wearing chakra-draining cuffs around his wrists and ankles. He was one of the last of the captive Iwa nin to be released by Konoha after the Third Shinobi War, which had ended so disastrously with the kyuubi's attack six years ago.
The exchange was part of a project masterminded by the Hokage's strategists to lease control of a valley outpost along the Grass Country border, which had traditionally been under Iwa control. Any attempt to interfere with the transfer could be politically fatal to the negotiations. Even an unsuccessful attempt would have to be acknowledged through official channels by the escort team. Kakashi and his team were there to intercept any threats and remove them... unofficially.
Kakashi went back to patrol. As the leaves whispered past, he opened his left eye. Minute details of movement, trajectories, and chakra structure instantly flooded his senses. Soon after, the Sharingan began its insistent, hungry tugging on his chakra.
Kakashi slammed back into town on the edge of exhaustion. They hadn't been able to determine if the two enemy nin they'd found stalking Tenzo's team had been real missing nin or only posing as such. They were bringing the bodies back to T&I's research division sealed inside of scrolls no bigger than the pockets of a standard mission vest. It was a much less tricky proposition to seal a dead body than a live one, and ANBU's storage seals were the best, but time was still key.
They dropped the bodies off at R&D, and Kakashi split off for medical. Post-mission exams were mandatory. Even after six years, the Sharingan was still an unknown quantity. It had become infected twice in the time since Obito had given it to him, both times sending Shikaku and Danzo into such a frenzy of worry that there had been no need for Kakashi himself to be anxious about it. Their fear over losing the Sharingan had single-handedly made Rin into the youngest ANBU medic in the history of Konoha.
But Rin wasn't the one waiting for him in the exam room. Kakashi tried not to sway towards the door frame. The biggest symptom of chakra exhaustion was impeded motion -- from depressed reaction time to full body paralysis. He still hadn't gotten that part of the Sharingan figured out.
The new medic was a woman, a common bias in shinobi villages where a male with medical-level chakra molding skills would be directed towards T&I and other offensive applications. She turned around, a pair of blue glass earrings bobbing with the motion, and snapped on a pair of latex gloves. Her own personnel file lay open on the desk. It suggested she had probably worked with the Organization before and was aware she would be asked to confirm her security clearance.
"Where is Nomura Rin?"
"She isn't available at the moment. My name is Hanako. I have been field-rated as a first responder and hold an S-class clearance level with additional approval for covert operations."
"Nomura Rin is the only one cleared to examine me."
The look of tried patience she gave him confirmed his suspicion that she had worked with the Organization before. She was used to jumping through this hoop, but Kakashi's hoop was special. "Nomura-san is with another patient. I assure you --"
"She doesn't take patients while I'm in the field. Where is she?" Kakashi froze. "Is she injured?"
The medic -- Hanako -- gave him a startled look that quickly softened. "She's safe in the village. The hokage asked for her assistance with a special patient – ANBU-san, wait —"
Kakashi went back into the hall and started opening doors, not even bothering to nod at the medics and patients who looked up warily. He was too drained to sense Rin's chakra, but she would be back here in the restricted rooms somewhere. Unless she had been called to the tower –
He heard the faint sound of crying, hiccupping unpretty weeping with an echo like it came from two sources. Kakashi headed towards it, Hanako trailing behind sighing.
Rin was in the room with two masked ANBU standing as far from the table as they could get. Both stood straighter as Kakashi walked into the room. Rin had her back to him, but he could tell she was crying, her shoulders shaking. Kakashi’s jaw tightened.
The other source of the crying was the young boy sitting on the edge of the table, blond hair sticking every which way and blue eyes scrunched up in misery. His knees were scraped and bruises had started to show around the middle of his swollen forearm, visibly broken from the subtle but unsettling bend in what should have been the straight stretch between wrist and elbow.
Kakashi stopped like his feet had grown roots.
"Oh, help," Rin pleaded when she saw him. "I can't stop crying, and he can't stop crying, and I just -- why did they bring him to me?"
The door swung open behind him. Kakashi's new medic saw the boy on the bed and made a startled sound. Then she turned right back around and went out the door. She didn't come back.
The boy had Minato's eyes and ridiculous hair and Kushina's solid bone structure, and to a shinobi with elite sensing abilities, the air within an inch of his soft, little boy skin sizzled with malevolence. He had been named after the village in which his mother had been born: Whirlpool. Naruto.
Kakashi made himself come forward and hold the boy still while Rin set the bone. She had to stop twice and wipe her running nose on her sleeve. Naruto screamed more loudly when the bone was set, but Rin would have blocked most of the feeling from the limb as soon as he'd been brought in. Naruto seemed to be crying mostly because she was crying, both of them weeping for Naruto's dead parents and for Obito even though only one of them knew it.
Unbelievably, as soon as the cast was set, Naruto raised his good hand hopefully for a high five, still sniffling and tear-streaked, and said quaveringly, "Thanks, ninja-san."
Rin barely met the high five before she burst out crying all over again, cueing Naruto to start bawling, clutching his new, bright orange cast to his chest. She managed to brush his hair back and plant a kiss at his hairline before one of the masked ANBU picked him up and carried him away.
Rin put her face against Kakashi's chest. He was sticky and dirt-encrusted and she wrapped both arms around him like she wanted to crawl inside him. His heart beat against his ribs. She said, “Tell me again how many villages have teams looking for the kyuubi."
"All of the big five. Kushina's son would be their top priority, and Minato's team would be the first place to look. They already have."
"I know, I know." She looked up at him, face blotchy and wet. "I'm going to talk to Gai. Naruto will start the academy this year. He's Minato's son, and with Kushina's strength, who knows how early he'll graduate? I need to know his jounin-sensei is someone we can trust. Someone who won't hate him and who can kill anybody who does." She drew a breath. "If it can't be you, I want it to be Gai."
"Yes," Kakashi agreed. He felt the tightness in his chest ease a little. Gai would never refuse such a request from the heart.
"You'll make sure the hokage agrees."
Rin wiped her eyes, breath shuddering out like someone who'd run a great distance. Her eyes seemed to focus on him for the first time, frowning at his arms still hanging at his sides even while hers encircled his rib cage. She gave him a shove, watching his awkward attempt to right himself with a critical eye.
"Alright," she said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand, "on your back and off with it."
"Yes, ma'am," Kakashi said.
Iruka was staggering home from one of Yoshino-sensei’s cross-team trainings when he ran into Kakashi again.
He had thought, when he first made chuunin, that he might get some benefit from the fact that the head of the chuunin training division was his genin team leader. He had fond memories of perching on the posts around the training field with Anko and Hayate while Yoshino-sensei bellowed at a field full of chuunins to give her another lap, faster than their grandmothers this time.
Iruka, Anko, and Hayate had all been leftovers from other teams that had broken up or been promoted out. Nara Yoshino wasn’t even a jounin-sensei, but Konoha was hard up for jounin these days. They were a group of lost children, and Yoshino-sensei had never given them anything but certainty. They loved her for it.
Iruka found it slightly less lovable now.
“If I were a business owner in a ninja village,” Anko complained, pulling at her lip, “I would know to put more restaurants next to the training grounds.”
“Maybe I’ll start a food cart business,” Iruka mused. “Shift changes signaled by Yoshino-sensei’s yelling.” He leaned against Anko’s shoulder like a dead weight; Yoshino had made him do shoulder presses until he couldn’t lift his arms anymore.
“You can’t start a food cart business. You’re going to be on missions.”
“I’m marked for failure,” Iruka told her. It was more than he had told anyone, but he was so tired he felt like he wasn’t in his right mind. “I’m destined to be a training-field food-cart owner. Or the kind of hidden-village bar tender who makes drinks with names made up of field hand signals.”
Anko rolled her eyes. “They don’t black mark people for gluing teachers’ office doors shut, even if you do it while they’re still in them.”
“So what? Maybe I just want to eat dango whenever I want.”
“Ok, I’m in. You cook; I’ll slit the throats of our competition and catch squirrels for filler.”
Hayate walked by them on his way from the gate to the tower. His pack was dusty, and he clutched a thermos of his medicated tea, dark circles under his eyes. He had just returned from a mission with Inuzuka Kenshi and Sarutobi Asuma, who kept walking as Hayate stopped, large scrolls across their backs destined for the Hokage’s record rooms. A lanky, wire-haired hound walked lazily at Kenshi’s side, its shoulder bumping against her elbow. Iruka and Anko spent a moment staring jealously after Asuma, one of Konoha’s rare, elite jounin.
“What are you doing?” Hayate asked.
“Quitting. For dango,” Iruka said.
Anko made a disgusted sound. “Get away from me, tokubetsu jounin-san.”
Iruka had been the last of his team to make it past genin. Anko had made chuunin a year before Iruka in the same chuunin exams as Kotetsu and Izumo. Hayate had been tapped for tokubetsu jounin in swordsmanship a month before Iruka’s second, successful chuunin exam. Yoshino-sensei had cried at Iruka’s promotion ceremony, scaring them all more than when she yelled.
As walked along the greenbelt that followed the river to outskirts of the busines district, Iruka caught a flash of silver out of the corner of his eye and turned. Kakashi was lying on a bench under a blanket at the side of the path, apparently watching the clouds, hands clasped over his stomach in a pair of navy and red striped gloves. He wore no hitae-ate or tactical vest, only a small hip pouch and a simple eye patch over his missing eye. A civilian might mistake him for an active-duty ninja, but no shinobi would look at him without knowing he’d been off the roster for a long time.
Iruka hadn't seen him in the village for more than a week, but that was normal; Kakashi was so rarely seen in the village he had a reputation as a shut in. Iruka had never seen him just lying outside in the middle of January.
Iruka hesitated, trying to measure his responsibilities. He remembered Kakashi’s public dismissal of his carefully made tags and bristled. He should just keep walking.
"Iruka," Anko said, "keep up."
Iruka sighed. "I'll meet you there."
Anko followed his gaze, and her face scrunched up in disbelief. Ahead of them, Hayate stopped, looking back curiously. Iruka waved them on, already crossing to the other side of the path.
He stopped in front of the bench, hands shoved in his pockets. "Are you alright, Hatake-san?"
“Umino.” Kakashi didn’t look away from the sky above his head.
Iruka gave him a flat irritated look. “You’re very informal, Hatake-san.”
“I think we have an informal relationship, don’t you?” Kakashi mused.
“It’s rude to hound someone if he’s apologized and you’ve accepted,” Iruka said. And if he’s signed the nondisclosure agreement in the hokage’s office.
Kakashi tilted his head towards his left side. “It was memorable.”
Iruka threw up his hands, exasperated. “There isn’t anything there for me to hit! Next time I’ll aim for the right eye so I’ve earned this.”
Kakashi’s hands rested on his stomach. He lifted the fingers of one hand placatingly. “You’re very good with threats, teacher. I look forward to meeting the new shinobi who were taught by such an example.”
“I’m not a teacher. I’m just on chuunin after school rotation.”
Kakashi shrugged. He looked casually over the roof tops at puffy white clouds against their clear, blue backdrop. “The other day, what was in your pocket, teacher?”
For a moment, Iruka didn't know what he was talking about. His face went cold, then hot. He had a moment of panic – how did Kakashi know? Everything people say about ANBU is true – before his pragmatic heart took over. He still had his teaching stuff in his bag, including confiscated items; he usually waited until rotation ended to clean it out. He let his eyes skate sideways. “Nothing.”
“Umino, you’re no good at this,” Kakashi said.
Iruka looked both ways down the street and sighed like someone giving up. “You have to promise not to laugh.”
“Never in my life, teacher.”
“I’m not a teacher!”
Iruka unzipped the top of his vest and pulled out the copy of Icha Icha Violence he had confiscated from Izumo’s cousin. It was the second volume in a series that had been passed around quite energetically in the boys dorm of Konoha’s home for war orphans. Iruka had never had to hide these kind of habits from a parent, so he was drawing heavily on Kotetsu and Izumo’s experiences when he looked just past Kakashi’s head and said, “I – I like the storyline.”
Kakashi regarded the book with a skeptical, half-lidded stare. He’s not going to buy it, Iruka thought nervously. He stepped forward and placed the book on top of Kakashi's hands. Kakashi turned it clumsily in his gloved hands like he was gathering information.
Iruka, exasperated and not quite maintaining character, blurted out, “It’s an adult novel, Kakashi-san.” Is this what happened when a shinobi made genin at age 6? Had Kakashi somehow skipped the fast-paced education on life offered by the boys dormitories?
Kakashi opened to the first page. His eyebrows went up: "Hm."
Iruka bit his lip on a disbelieving smile. Icha Icha was one of the best selling erotic novel series on the shelves, and the manufacturers had given it a highly recognizable cover style – luridly colored covers with minimalist silhouettes on the back cover. Probably at least one of the people walking by had already recognized it.
He hadn’t – really this wasn’t quite what he had been expecting. Kakashi was arrogant and clearly enjoyed provoking people, but he had an almost detached, robotic quality. Maybe the way he’d spoken to Iruka at the chuunin meeting was just the way he always talked. There was something engrossing, Iruka decided, in trying to figure out how much of Kakashi's bizarre socialization was deliberate. He probably shouldn't be caught staring.
“I’m going now,” he said clearly.
"You should stay,” Kakashi said, still reading. “It's comfortable here."
"All the seats are taken."
Kakashi let the book fall open onto his stomach and squinted thoughtfully at the sun hanging low over the training fields to the south. "I can make room in two minutes."
Iruka made a face like Anko when she’d seen who Iruka was planning to talk to. He was trying to decide if he had reached the limit of his curiosity – definitely the limit of his duty as a good citizen – when he heard the sound of muted steps running on the packed snow of the path. It was Kakashi's friend from the chuunin meeting, the nurse from the hospital. Up close and flushed from her run, her subtle features were softer than Iruka remembered. From a distance, the dark tattoos on her cheeks gave her face a harsh angular look.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, swinging an empty rucksack behind her shoulder. She had probably been delivering first aid supplies to the morning training groups. She gave Iruka a startled look.
“Iruka, Nomura Rin. Rin-chan, Umino Iruka,” Kakashi said.
"Um, was your friend okay on his mission?" Iruka asked awkwardly.
"Tenzo? Oh, yes, and he said your tags worked well. The timing was a little more inconsistent than on the standard issues, but he was able to turn it into an advantage."
Iruka flushed. Maybe this was just what happened when you let jounin and ANBU inspect work you’d only shown to your chuunin best friends. "Thank you for your feedback. I will work on that in the future."
“You might consider deliberately varying the delay time. Labeled, of course."
"Oh! Thank you. That's a good idea."
Kakashi let his arm flop off the bench, waggling his fingers at her. "Rin-chan, Iruka would like to keep me company while you're gone."
"Oh? Does Iruka know that?" Rin asked, relaxing out of the slightly stiff politeness she’d had when speaking to Iruka. Iruka couldn't help rolling his eyes at Kakashi. She reached for Kakashi and hesitated, shooting a glance at Iruka, lips pressed together like someone chewing on a problem. She looked up and down the path. For the moment, they were alone. Iruka frowned in confusion.
Kakashi said, "It's okay; Iruka won't blab."
Iruka looked at Kakashi, startled. Rin sighed. She got one arm under Kakashi's shoulders and physically lifted him to a sitting position. The ease with which she maneuvered his larger body implied a proficiency with chakra-controlled strength far above her rank. A shiver went down Iruka’s spine.
Rin busied herself righting Kakashi’s sleeves and collar, tucking the blanket around his legs, and sticking the book into his hands where they had fallen naturally into his lap. She hesitated for no more than a beat as she read the cover, letting out a skeptical huh! before making sure he had a hold of it. For a moment, Kakashi’s head lolled back with nothing to hold it up, but he righted it, releasing a heavy breath.
Iruka was staring gape-jawed. Partial limb paralysis was the number one symptom of chakra-exhaustion. And it was rare. Under normal conditions, your body stopped you before you could use up that much chakra. Chakra-exhaustion required knock-down, drag-out fights to the death and suicide jutsu. For someone like Kakashi to reach that state entailed the sort of opponents for whom ninja of Iruka’s level carried blanket “Run; Do Not Engage” orders. Somewhere outside Konoha there were craters and scorched earth and blood in the water. What else could burn through that much chakra that quickly?
It explained why Rin had hesitated to help Kakashi with Iruka present; chakra-exhaustion was not an ailment for washed-out, off-roster ninja .
“You don’t need to stay with him,” Rin said. “He can breathe on his own and move a little. He just gets whiny when he’s bored.”
Iruka felt both embarrassed and worried, especially at the suggestion that Kakashi might not have been breathing on his own before this. He hadn’t realized he was talking to a casualty. “No, no, it’s fine. I didn’t realize – ”
Rin nodded her understanding. “You thought he was just odd. That’s alright; he is.” She opened her rucksack and pulled out a matching knit hat to Kakashi’s gloves. “Here. In case he gets cold.”
“I don’t need a hat,” Kakashi said.
Rin made a frustrated face. “He thinks he looks stupid in hats. As his doctor, I order you to put this on his head if he starts shivering.” She added helpfully, “He can’t fight you anyway.”
“Um, right,” Iruka said, letting the hat dangle from two fingers.
“I have to go on shift. Thank you, Umino-san.” She leaned over and kissed Kakashi at the edge of his hair above his eye patch. “Don’t die while I’m gone.”
“I’ll think about it,” Kakashi said.
Iruka looked away. He was guiltily aware that he had come over mostly because he was annoyed and because there was some shock-value in talking to a secret ANBU member in public. Kakashi was a secret weapon in black sheep’s clothing; he offered more intrigue in his little finger than that book he was holding had in its entire run.
“Sit down, teacher,” Kakashi said.
Iruka sat. He asked, more sincerely this time, “Are you alright, really?”
Kakashi shrugged, watching a civilian mother walk down the path, carting groceries and a toddler in a little wagon behind her. Iruka took the shrug for what it was: proof of limited motor control and the equivalent of Yes, I’m fine.
The path cleared out again. Iruka asked, “Why was it okay for me to see you like this? Because you don’t think I’ll touch a hot stove twice?”
“Because you have clearance,” Kakashi said like it was obvious.
“What are you talking about? I’m a chuunin on after school rotation.”
Kakashi gave him a baffled look. “You have S-class clearance.”
“No, I don’t,” Iruka repeated slowly. “I have a black mark.”
“You have S-class clearance,” Kakashi insisted, “and you meet regularly with the hokage.”
Iruka felt anger boiling up. He had lived with the consequences of his stupid mistake for four years; he’d done damn near everything he could to be the ninja they wanted him to be. They could at least pretend they knew what’d they done to him. “He’s checking up on me. Because of my black mark. I made chuunin years later than anyone I know. I get refused for every mission that’s outside the village above a C-class, even the ones in my skill areas. I have to make my own tags because I can’t pay the commissary fees, and all my friends think I gave up fun when I made genin because I wanted to be a grown up. Stop bothering me.”
Kakashi was frowning at him, sitting rigidly still. Iruka realized he was standing up, nearly shouting.
“Iruka – ” Kakashi started.
“Iruka!” Anko called, coming up the path. “Hayate got a table. Are you coming?”
Iruka wiped hastily at his eyes. “Uh, yeah, I’m coming.”
Anko stopped next to the bench, looking between them suspiciously. She looked uncomfortably at Kakashi. “Well, you want to eat?”
“No, thank you,” Kakashi said. “I’m cloud watching.”
Iruka looked self-consciously at Kakashi stranded on his bench island in the middle of the park. Iruka had never said all of that to anyone before. Kakashi was watching him intently; no more bored gazing into the sky. Iruka breathed in and out. He felt a little raw but – better somehow.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Do you – do you want me to bring you anything?”
“I have snacks.” Kakashi dipped his chin towards his hip pouch under the blanket.
“Okay.” Iruka hesitated. He turned decisively to Kakashi and said – while Anko made increasingly bulgy-eyed faces of silent protest, “Sometimes we go to the bars on Friday night. Usually the Knife-in-the-Back at the outside counter. Uh, if you’re feeling better...”
Kakashi looked at him for a moment. His expression didn’t change, but Iruka thought he was surprised. “I’ll think about it, teacher.”
Anko dragged Iruka away. They had reached the end of the path, the packed snow giving way to paving stones, when Iruka suddenly turned around. Kakashi’s shoulders tensed as Iruka ran up to the bench – no ninja liked to have people running at him without explanation.
Then he let out a horrified, “Argh!” when without warning, Iruka pulled Rin’s knit cap down over his head. Kakashi tried in vain to lift his arms high enough to reach it, but his chakra exhaustion kept him from getting above his shoulder. Iruka laughed and ran back to Anko with a lighter heart, breathing in the smells of cooking meats and vegetables and fresh rice wafting out of the front of the restaurant.
He was very, very hungry.
Iruka figured three days was a bit rushed for someone in Kakashi’s condition, unless Rin wheeled him over and arranged him in some corner before the bar opened. Which was good because Anko had already told everyone just whom Iruka had invited, and he was having enough trouble handling the questions without Kakashi actually showing up.
The Knife-in-the-Back was a Konoha institution, well known to cater to active-duty ninja up to the most elite ranks. Civilians and lower-ranked shinobi started at the counters along the street, trying to cajole their way further in to the more exclusive rooms, which moved progressively father into the building and – it was rumored – down into the bedrock. A shinobi had to be old enough or ranked enough or carrying enough years of field experience to get inside, and generally Iruka and his friends were none of the above.
Izumo had arrived early to stake out the stools now occupied by Iruka, Anko, Kotetsu, Genma, and Mizuki. Izumo looked more thirteen than sixteen, and it was an indicator of his expansive friendliness that he had managed to hold onto to such prime real estate by himself without being run off by the bouncers. On the other hand, the bouncers were all former ninja, retired by age or injury, and ninja tended to measure drinking age by rank instead of years. Yoshino-sensei had bought Iruka’s first bar drink herself after his chuunin promotion ceremony, setting it down in front of him with a cheerful, “Right to die; right to drink.”
They were flanked by a group of off-duty policemen on one side and a group of civilian teens attempting to take advantage of the lower age restrictions at ninja bars on the other. Hanging banners at their back and heaters installed at the edge of the awning helped keep back the cold, but true comfort required squishing happily together on the tightly spaced stools, excited by the warmth and the hormonal rush of physical closeness.
Anko bought another round of cheap, mouth-scouring but hot, hot sake. Iruka was doling out the glasses when he realized that Kakashi was wedged in next to him between Iruka and a raven-haired civilian girl, drinking Iruka’s sake, one finger holding his mask down to his chin. Iruka stared at him for a moment, struck. Kakashi’s nose alone was something to look at. His snow-pale skin was unmarred except for a thin line of shiny scar tissue trailing from beneath his eye patch and over one high, sharp cheekbone.
Iruka shouted in surprise. His friends, journeyman ninja all and trained in the art of noticing unannounced approaches, shouted with him. Up went Kakashi’s mask. Faces appeared, leaning over the counter or back in their stools to inspect the new arrival. Everyone was used to tuning out the sound of passer-by, the light touches of nearby chakra signatures on their experienced, chuunin senses. No one had felt or heard a thing from Kakashi. The off-duty policemen craned their heads curiously; the civilians had already stopped paying attention.
Kakashi lifted one hand in a wave, blank faced. “Hello.”
“Hi,” Iruka said.
“So you do know him,” Kotetsu said, eyeing Kakashi like – well, like one of Konoha’s least promising and most awkward shinobi had just punked all of them with his silent arrival. Doing nothing to help this impression, Kakashi lifted his eyebrows innocently and pointed a finger at his own face: who me? He seemed totally recovered from the park bench earlier in the week.
Mizuki turned nearly green. Genma – Iruka had never seen Genma make that face before. Maybe he was more concerned about his career than Iruka thought.
Crunching snow announced - how polite! Iruka thought – the arrival of Hayate out of the darkness, lifting the hanging red banners out of his way as he stepped up into the narrow, crowded space under the awning. Inuzuka Kenshi came in after him, her big dog Koguma a dim shape in the background, idly tracing some interesting smell in the churned up snow.
“Hey,” Hayate said, blinking curiously at Kakashi’s lean form propped up against the bar next to Iruka.
“Hi, Hayate,” Iruka said.
Kakashi murmured, “Do you know all the ninja in Konoha?”
“Yes,” Iruka said as sincerely as possible. He noticed that Kakashi was holding Icha Icha Violence in the hand he had propped on the counter, its orange cover reflecting brightly in the lights from the bar. Iruka closed his lips over a smile. It shouldn’t be charming.
“You aren’t supposed to read that in public,” Iruka pointed out helpfully. Kotetsu and Izumo leaned forward, catching a glimpse of the cover, and laughed, nudging their neighbors.
“I don’t spend much time worrying about what people think, teacher.”
“Well, if you keep reading that, they’re going to think a lot of things.” Iruka laughed.
“You’re very proper, teacher. Didn’t you once list Fujisawa-sensei’s address as an adult novelty store?”
“All that and more,” Hayate said mildly.
Iruka shrugged this off like it was nothing, even though his chest swelled to hear that Kakashi knew of it. “I was in school; I wanted to be noticed. Unlike you, I cared a lot about what people thought.”
Kakashi looked thoughtful. “I would have thought that someone who broke the rules didn’t care about appearances. I didn’t go to school; I’m not good at predicting the dynamics of a group.”
“Never?” Hayate asked skeptically.
“My father arranged an interview before enrollment, at which I was granted graduate status.”
Iruka stared at him. He hadn’t known that. Kakashi talked about people like a scientist observing them through a glass. Iruka envied him at the same time it made his skin crawl. A huge part of Iruka’s happiness had always depended on groups; if he couldn’t find one, he made one. Did Kakashi like it this way? Or was he trapped by the large, red S-LEVEL CLEARANCE ONLY stamped across most of his life?
“Are there more?” Kakashi asked, tapping the book against the counter.
“I think I still have the first three hidden under my bed somewhere,” Kotetsu said helpfully.
“First off,” Anko called from down the bar, “I wouldn’t admit that. Second, I certainly wouldn’t borrow someone’s personal copy.”
Kotetsu turned red, throwing a glove at her – badly – over Izumo’s head while everyone laughed.
“Try the bookstore,” Iruka suggested. “They’ll have all the sequels.”
“Good, I've finished this one,” Kakashi said. He paused before adding clearly, “You can have this one back, Iruka.”
Anko choked on her sake, coughing so hard she nearly fell off the bench. Kenshi burst out laughing. Mizuki put his face in his hands. Iruka felt his face heat, staring at the book Kakashi was holding out. He narrowed his eyes, meeting Kakashi’s bland look. He said sweetly, “Oh, you can keep it.”
“Thank you, teacher,” Kakashi said, eye crinkling.
Of course that was the night they made it into the more exclusive parts of the bar. Mizuki lorded it unsubtly over their new member. Iruka was just trying to pretend – for the sake of that nondisclosure agreement – that he hadn’t seen the minute nod Kakashi had given the doorkeeper before they made it in.
Iruka closed out the bar that night with Anko and Kakashi. Anko because Anko was Anko, and Kakashi because he had apparently progressed beyond the ability to get either tired or drunk. Iruka couldn’t believe he was still awake. They were the only three at a low table in the bar’s second interior room.
Not even Genma or Hayate had ever been this far in, and Genma had spent a good portion of the night trying not to gape at the décor. Their alcove had been hung with elaborate theater masks, each one broken in some way. Some were small imperfections, others catastrophic like the large, blue water buffalo mask shorn in two and hanging in pieces over Kakashi’s seat. The masks didn’t look like the ones worn by the Sandaime’s ANBU guards, but that didn’t mean that wasn’t what they were, just much older.
Iruka yawned. He had his chin propped on one hand, his other hand clenched around a glass of water like a lifeline. The bar’s bold colors seemed very bright, every movement a little bit more immediate.
Kakashi was reading a preview of the next Icha Icha installment in the back of Fujisawa-sensei’s book. Iruka couldn’t stop staring at the spot on Kakashi’s mask where it passed over the bridge of his nose. Bored, he nudged Kakashi’s ankle with his shoe. Without looking up, Kakashi nudged his elbow against the arm Iruka was using as a head rest, and Iruka nearly fell over.
Anko leaned forward with the intent, one-track look of a person who’d been drinking awful sake for four hours. “Iruka, let’s get a mission. Just the two of us, B-class. I’ve been eating cup ramen for a week.”
Iruka had never been accepted for a B-class mission. He said instead, “You could learn to cook.”
“Oh, whatever, you would eat out every day if you could and you know it.”
“At least I don’t plan my budget like I expect to make jounin next week.”
Kakashi looked up. “You’re going to take a mission? I’ll go with you.”
Anko and Iruka both stared at him. “What?”
“A three person B-class pays more,” Kakashi said.
“You done a lot of those lately?” asked Anko witheringly.
“B-class – ” Iruka started.
“I’ll pick it,” Kakashi said, looking directly at Iruka. “A good one.”
“Why?” Iruka looked around blurrily for a reason. “Because of the book?”
Kakashi bumped his elbow against Iruka’s. “You were right; it has a good storyline.”
In the hidden room behind the locked door of the closet in the tower’s fourth floor conference room under the mews, Kakashi cracked open his new copy of Icha Icha Paradise while Yugao read out the latest mission assignments.
The Organization used this room for administrative meetings and strategy planning. It contained a haphazard clutter of old furniture salvaged from other parts of the tower. Members of the Organization perched on whatever flat spots they could find, including the ceilings and walls. Kakashi, having no image to maintain except a completion record as long as Inoichi’s hair, usually preferred to lean against a desk.
At the front of the room, a thick old man half-wrapped in bandages sat in a heavy oak chair carved with dragons, one hand wrapped around the head of a cane. His lip had a disdainful curl. His name was Shimura Danzo, and his grip on Konoha’s history ran deep. He was capable of great charm in pursuit of his aims, but there was no one in ANBU who didn’t know that Danzo had been passed over for hokage in favor of Sarutobi and that he had never stopped resenting it.
Nara Shikaku, official head of ANBU and Sarutobi’s favored strategist, paced next to Danzo’s chair. He had a strong, attractive face and small, dark eyes, crow’s feet just beginning to show at their edges. His well trimmed beard contrasted with the wild ponytail of coarse black hair atop his head. At some point, he had fought and defeated a summoning master out of Hidden Mist and received a jagged series of scars running from his hairline to his chin. Speculation about what kind of monster had clawed its way across his face was a favorite pastime among his subordinates.
Kakashi knew that Shikaku hated when Danzo came to ANBU meetings because it meant that Shikaku had to be there too, lest more of ANBU resources disappear behind the mysterious curtain of Danzo’s private ANBU division, Root.
Yugao Uzuki stood between them, cat mask pushed back over her purple hair while she read from a sheaf of papers marked S-class clearance only papered with protective seals.
“Mission to the daimyo’s palace, Fire Country to evaluate the daimyo’s current non-shinobi military strength,” Yugao read. “This mission is currently unassigned. It is available to volunteers in order of seniority.”
Danzo curled his lip. For the last three years, seniority had given Kakashi first pick of all unassigned missions. Kakashi was Sarutobi’s animal, and Danzo knew it.
“Estimated departure and return?” Kakashi asked without looking up.
“Tomorrow. Estimated duration is two weeks. The mission is budgeted for one to two teammates,” Yugao said.
Leaning against the desk next to Kakashi, Tenzo shot him a hopeful look.
“Ah,” Kakashi said. “No, thank you. I will be on a public mission during that time.”
“Alright, who would you – public mission?” Yugao fumbled the sheaf of papers. Somebody fell off the ceiling behind Kakashi with a thump and a loud protest from whomever they had landed on. Yugao looked at Shikaku. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware -- is this mission related to Iwa’s outpost at Falling Water Pass?”
“No,” Kakashi said, “just a B-class courier mission.” Yugao and Shikaku exchanged a look. Danzo leaned forward in his dragon chair, brow furrowing. Tenzo’s expression sank.
Kakashi turned the next page in his book.
In a falling down house on the border between Grass and Fire, Iruka said for the first time honestly appalled, “You can’t read that on a mission!”
“I haven’t finished it yet.”
Kakashi looked at Iruka and then back at the book. “Just one more page?”
Going on a mission with Kakashi was not like Iruka had expected. He didn’t act like he did in the village, where so far every conversation has been a mix of arrogance, indifference, and spouts of dry teasing. Kakashi in the village came off a little flaky like he had nowhere to be.
The day they left for the mission, Kakashi showed up in full chuunin gear, pockets stocked not like Iruka did with everything he might need, but pared down to the essentials. Iruka wondered if it was as obvious to Anko as it was to him that the paring down had been the result of hard field experience, or if it just seemed that obvious because Iruka knew something most people didn’t.
Kakashi handed the mission scroll to Anko. When he spoke it was a calm, professional debriefing:
“We’ve been assigned to obtain a report from a contact in Grass Country. No interference is expected, but the report is confidential, so at least a 3 man chuunin team is requested. An expertise in traps is recommended. Anko has been listed as team leader. For the purposes of this mission, you should view me as chuunin level in taijutsu and ninjutsu; no genjutsu or special abilities. My expertise is tactics and field strategy.”
Anko’s eyebrows went up. Iruka wondered if this was okay. Maybe Kakashi’s unexpected competence here just added polish to his image as a burnt-out child prodigy; like a romantic glimpse into what he might have been. On the other hand, Iruka had thought that an important part of that image had been not taking any missions.
Maybe this was his fault. Maybe Iruka was going to be responsible for neutralizing one of Konoha’s covert assets. He was going to wake up with ANBU in his dormitory (again) while some delicate genjutsu kept everyone else asleep (again), and then they were going to spirit him off to the hokage’s office to sign another apology and nondisclosure form.
Last time it had been: “Sorry, I unmasked your S-class operative with my slingshot; I didn’t know he wasn’t feeling well,” followed by a signature on every page of a ten page document that boiled down to “I promise never to tell anyone who he is.” This time, they would just make him promise never to speak to Kakashi again. The thought made him angry.
Iruka could lose a few fingers and still only need one hand to count the number of conversations he’d had with Kakashi; it shouldn’t bother him so much to think he might not be able to have any more.
It was this stupid black mark he knew had to be on his record. He’d barely been genin long enough to tree-walk when he’d made himself known to the highest levels in the worst way. All he had to show for it was Kakashi. If Iruka wanted to spend his time talking to someone whose only settings for social interaction were ridiculous or robotic, well, Iruka felt like he’d bought and paid for it.
Kakashi was still reading Icha Icha Paradise when they went out to spend all the money they’d just earned. Word got around until they found themselves and their guests crowded into a corner booth several seats too small. Iruka had more elbows than he knew what to do with, and there was a dog the size of a pony lying across this feet, putting out the heat of a potbelly stove. Their table was probably responsible for most of the restaurant’s healthy din of conversation and clinking dishware.
Hayate lifted his glass in a toast. “Congratulations on your first B-class, Iruka.”
“It was your first?” Izumo said in surprise. He gave Iruka’s shoulder a congratulatory shake.
“You bet it was his first! And smooth like butter.” Anko held up her own glass so forcefully that beer slopped across her fried rice.
Iruka grinned, lifting his own glass. He didn’t know how he felt about that the fact that he’d told Kakashi about never winning a B-class assignment and Kakashi had gone off and come back with one. He had wanted getting his first B-class to feel like he’d finally earned the hokage’s trust, but on the other hand, now he had one. He felt more like a real ninja than he had since the day he made genin, back when he’d been on a team with Mizuki and Uchiha Kikka, and Inuzuka Tsume had been their jounin-sensei.
Kakashi had the corner spot on the other side of the booth and noticeably an inch more personal space than anybody else at the table. Genma was sitting next to him, looking wired, which was odd since Genma usually liked to play it smooth when he wasn’t crowing about a recent victory. Akimichi Chiyu, one of the late arrivals, was literally sitting half off the end of the bench next to Mizuki.
The strip of book under Kakashi’s left hand grew progressively thinner and thinner as they ate. At the bar last week, there had been some initial posturing as Kotetsu, Mizuki, and even Izumo had recognized Kakashi as an older person who was nonetheless below them on Konoha’s social ladder. Kakashi had accepted the questions fired at him by Iruka’s drunk and gawking friends, returning a series of dry, sometimes nonsensical responses until the aggression had slowly faded in the face of Kakashi’s straight-faced, unbreakable cool.
As aggressors went, Kakashi had probably seen worse.
Today, seeing Kakashi in the middle of this bustle of shouted comments and shared laughter, a clamor that made Iruka glad in his heart to be a ninja in Konoha, Iruka realized that Kakashi really hadn’t been joking about never belonging to any groups. Kakashi’s calm came off as confident, even a little arrogant, but it seemed to Iruka like he was walled off. Not like he was ignoring them, but like he had been never plugged in to begin with.
If all the people on the planet suddenly disappeared, Iruka would die of a lonely heart. Kakashi would probably just make tea.
Across from Kakashi, Hayate’s team mate, Inuzuka Kenshi leaned forward to ask Kakashi, “Good book?”
Kakashi looked up and his eye flickered to Iruka, who’d been half-paying attention to an arm wrestling match between Kotestu and Hayate for which he was supposedly the judge. Kakashi smiled, the only sign of it in the crinkling at the edge of his eye. He looked back to Kenshi and offered with all innocence, “I can read you a passage.”
Kenshi was no fool. “Oh sure,” she said, laughing, “How about we go find a karaoke machine, and you can read it from the bar?”
Kakashi seemed to think about it. Iruka remembered their conversation about pranks and public opinion and had a sudden, horrible vision. He leaned forward out of his seat, reaching across Izumo to slap his hand down against the table. He almost got a sleeveful of black bean sauce, and Izumo’s half empty beer glass wobbled dangerously.
“No,” Iruka said clearly.
Kakashi’s eyebrows drooped dramatically. Kenshi was laughing at both of them. As Iruka sat back down, he looked again at the book in Kakashi’s hands; the thickness of the paper on either side of the open page was equal. Sometime in the last few minutes, Kakashi had finished the book, and now he was just faking it.
Iruka dropped back onto the bench with a disgusted huff, bouncing Izumo and Kotetsu jammed in on either side of him. He rolled his eyes, feeling his cheeks heat up, and turned to snap at Kotetsu, “Man up, already!”
Kotetsu gave him a startled look, and Hayate slammed his hand to the table to win the match, rattling the dishes.
“Aw, man, Iruka,” Kotetsu said. Iruka was unmoved. Hayate raised one hand in an understated victory dance, never changing his hangdog expression.
In the background, Iruka could hear Kenshi laughing as Kakashi said, “Oh, this is my favorite part.”
Kakashi couldn’t quite figure out how the energy at the table was feeding on itself instead of running out.
He was surrounded by laughing, shouting young people jostling each other for emphasis, calling out across the table when they weren’t satisfied with the conversational partners they had next door. He felt like he was getting a glimpse behind the scenes of a movie he’d been watching his whole life. Most of his happy social interactions had been in small groups, dominated by people older than him, a long line of family, teachers, mentors, and team mates twice his age but with less seniority. Whenever Kakashi had needed to be animated and interested in this many people, it had always been exhausting.
It didn’t seem as exhausting now. He had an ambassador. Even though Iruka was sitting catty-cornered, Kakashi knew that Iruka wanted him here. He knew this because Iruka kept checking on him and reacting to what Kakashi was doing. Even if Kakashi wasn’t doing anything, Iruka’s expression changed.
He looked happier than he had at the park. Kakashi decided to get him many more B-class missions if that’s what he needed. The C-class limit on Iruka’s file was real enough; he knew too much about the Organization to be put in a situation with a high risk of capture, but that wouldn’t be a problem if Kakashi went with him.
Kakashi had never had anyone pay such close attention to him without an ulterior motive. Or without being Gai. It made it difficult for Kakashi not to act up. It was probably a good thing that Iruka shut down Kenshi’s karaoke plan right away. Kakashi wondered whose reaction Iruka had been looking for back when he used to regularly swap the signs to the hokage’s office with the signs to the third floor bathroom.
“How do you know Iruka?” Kenshi asked. She laughed a lot. Kakashi liked her and her big dog, Koguma, who licked his hand when he put it under the table.
“He made tags for a friend of mine,” Kakashi said.
“I know! Iruka makes the best tags, right?” She grinned. “It’s why he’s always got more money than the rest of us.”
Across the table, Iruka turned, eyes narrowed. “You said they weren’t professional level.”
Kakashi wondered if this was one of those social cues Rin was always telling him he missed. “They weren’t. You use cheap materials.”
Iruka nose flared like an angry horse. “Well, thanks again for that!”
“Does everything need to be S class for you to be happy?” Kakashi asked. “I said they were acceptable for use on a Jounin-level mission.” He thought that was pretty high praise for tags made in your spare time on the back of notebook paper. Kenshi let out a low whistle and leaned back like she was expecting a fight. Iruka turned red.
“Oh,” Iruka said. “Thank you.”
Kenshi squinted at them incredulously.
Kakashi looked up and saw Rin standing at the end of the table with – Gai. Rin was smiling, her hair pulled back from her shift at the hospital, emphasizing the perfect symmetry of the tattoos across her cheeks. Gai wasn’t wearing his preferred jumpsuit, which meant he’d just come from working with the Organization. Probably taijutsu training with the newer recruits. They must have heard the rumor that Hatake Kakashi had been seen at a social gathering with teenagers and gone immediately in search of proof. Gai’s expression was looking worringly overcome; there was definite wobbling around the eyes. Kakashi realized that his social experiment was about to move to the next level.
The whole table came to a pause when they realized there was a jounin standing over them, especially one as highly visible as Maito Gai.
“Ah, my friend,” Gai said directly to Kakashi, “I am glad to see that your lonely time has ended, and you are out among other young people in such a lively place!”
The whole table turned as one to look at Kakashi. Kakashi had never been in this situation with people he wasn’t allowed to kill. So Kakashi did what he would have done on a mission; he lied desperately.
“I lost a bet,” Kakashi said.
“He’s still paying up,” Iruka said without missing a beat. He didn’t even have to look at Kakashi for cues.
“For how long?” Rin asked.
“It was a pretty serious bet,” Iruka said. He glanced back at Kakashi and did a little double-take at Kakashi’s struck-stupid expression. Kakashi knew he was looking at Iruka like Icha Icha ’s Mito-chan after Kazuya-san saved her from the pirate band.
Rin pressed her lips together, secretly fond. She looked at Kakashi and tipped her head towards the street. Maybe they hadn’t come in search of a rumor after all. They probably wanted to talk about Minato’s – about Naruto.
Kakashi stood up from the bench and walked directly across the table without disturbing a glass or dish. He heard a few startled reactions followed by an impressed murmur. He might have to rethink his cover act if he was going to spend any more time with non-Organization members like this.
He thought he would be.
They stood outside the restaurant behind a screen posting brightly colored flyers. Blown snow had piled between the building and screen. Rin set the tone of the conversation by speaking so quietly that Kakashi knew communicating would mostly be about reading lips.
“How was your mission?” Rin murmured.
“I enjoyed it,” Kakashi said. “I got a lot of sleep.”
“Tenzo is heartbroken you left him.”
“I will be especially tender the next time I see him.”
“Your tenderness as a sempai is well known and admired throughout the Organization,” Rin said with affected solemnity.
Silence fell. Kakashi waited. Eventually Rin sighed, her sweet, teasing smile fading away.
“You surprised the main office when you notified them you were taking a public mission,” she said.
“Kakashi, Rin-chan and I maintain our public life in accordance to the needs of the main office,” Gai said seriously. “Your cover story is de facto only, the natural consequence of your refusal to take any mission outside the Organization.”
“I stay where I’m most useful.” Kakashi didn’t like frills. He had never seen the benefit to Konoha in taking himself away from real work to flounce about in public, deliberately underperforming.
“Until today?” Rin asked.
Kakashi looked out at the street. A brisk wind blew snow from the roof tops that rose up in grand swirls before drifting slowly down to the paving stones. “Is this a warning to look after my public image?”
“No,” Rin said. Kakashi’s hackles went up in apprehension.
“Something came into my possession while traveling in the Land of Wind,” Gai said. “A bingo book.”
“It identifies a Konoha ANBU, usually in a dog mask but having made appearances as wolf and fox, with a preference for lightning-element attacks,” Rin said. “The entry goes on to speculate that the ANBU member possesses a top level doujutsu capable of chakra analysis and genjutsu. The entry is titled ‘The Last Uchiha’.”
Kakashi stood like a stone. The intelligence leak she was describing was monumental: public dissemination of one of Konoha’s most fiercely protected secrets. He tried to process it enough to have a reaction, but his senses felt dull. He ran over his missions in his head, looking for the mistake that had led to this. He found nothing.
“I have not shown an attack preference, and the Sharingan has never been seen,” Kakashi said, voice cool.
“The entry is likely the result of the analysis of years of data,” Rin said gently. “You are the record holder within the Organization for completed missions. Someone made their career out of finding the patterns in that data.”
Kakashi stared at her feet. He knew this was how people retired from ANBU. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling.
The door opened. Iruka was standing there wrapped in a scarf. The whirlpool patches on his new chuunin coat were a blinding red unfaded by sun or washing. The warm lantern light from inside gave his skin a warm glow.
“Hi,” Iruka said.
“Umino-san!” Gai said effusively.
Iruka looked at him in surprise. “I’m sorry, have we met –” Iruka stopped, eyes widening. He had just realized why Gai was out here with Kakashi and Rin and why he knew Iruka’s name. Iruka looked helplessly at Kakashi. “He can’t... He’s too...”
It was easy to ignore the shock in favor of explaining things Kakashi knew by rote. “The Organization prefers taijutsu. It’s more anonymous. At taijutsu, Gai is best.”
Gai, always reliable in theatrics, winked at Iruka. His face was all smiles, but he hadn’t moved below the neck since he told Kakashi he’d been outed.
“Have you been telling him a lot of stuff like this?” Rin asked.
“His nondisclosure agreement and background check were equivalent to all the requirements for S- level clearance except being able to hit a moving target with a kunai,” Kakashi said. That Iruka didn’t believe this didn’t make it less true, and Kakashi found it made him angry that Iruka didn’t. Hadn’t someone explained? “He has S-level clearance.”
Iruka, who had been looking a little overwhelmed during this explanation, turned red: “I can hit a moving target with a kunai!”
Iruka rolled his eyes, but his shoulders were still up near his ears with nervousness. Kakashi was surprised Iruka had made it all the way out here without realizing he was going to be surrounded by ANBU. The door closed, hitting Iruka in the butt. Iruka jumped, and then set his jaw, stepping forward into the slush.
Rin’s expression went weak at this show of support. She was looking at Iruka the way she looked at Inuzuka puppies that fell asleep in her hands during a check up, but she turned to Kakashi and said, because it was true, “He doesn’t have clearance for this.”
Iruka gave Kakashi a worried look. Kakashi knew he had to go the tower and debrief with his superiors. They wouldn’t be able to keep him in the Organization without damage control. Kakashi didn’t know what that would be, but he knew Rin was right. Iruka had not been awarded S-level clearance through any official channel; his file just had the same boxes ticked as someone who had. It was a loophole, and they would close it because the stakes were too high. Kakashi had meant to talk to Iruka about what Iruka thought had happened four years ago. He’d have to ask the hokage to do it for him. Kakashi had favors owed to him still, or he’d go so far as to call in one of Minato’s. Iruka should not be suffering because Kakashi was an international target.
He finally sorted out how he felt about the news: he was irritated by the inconvenience. He would rather stay here and soldier through mundane conversations with an army of strangers for the chance to say more things that would make Iruka wrinkle his nose.
Iruka was still standing in front of the windows, and people in the restaurant could see him clearly. Kakashi stepped over to him.
“An idea occurred to me just now,” he said.
“You remembered that I’m a chuunin who can’t hit a moving target with a kunai?” Iruka said sarcastically. Then his nose wrinkled, and he whispered so only Kakashi could hear, apparently unaware that ANBU-level surveillance required lip-reading proficiency: “Are you okay?”
Kakashi reached out and snagged one pocket of Iruka’s coat. Iruka’s hands were in his pockets, and his skin was feverishly hot against Kakashi’s chilled fingers. While Iruka was busy trying to decide if Kakashi was crazy, Kakashi pulled down his mask and put his mouth over Iruka’s. Iruka’s nose was cold against Kakashi’s cheek. Iruka went rigid with surprise. Inside his pocket, his fingers clutched Kakashi’s, crushing the heat into them.
“See ya,” Kakashi whispered, settling the mask back over his nose.
Iruka stared at him bug-eyed as they took to the roof tops.
“Perhaps it’s time to transfer the eye to another host,” Danzo suggested, voice dripping with humility, but his eyes were too hungry to pull it off. “We have come so far with chakra-transplant techniques since Nomura Rin’s haphazard field surgery.”
Tension rolled up Kakashi’s spine. Obito.
“You know what,” Shikaku said, “I will watch you put that suggestion in front of the hokage.”
“Iruka,” Mizuki said. He had one hand over his eye like he was in physical pain. “He’s not a bad boy, he’s a wash out. You always make decisions like this. It’s embarrassing.”
“I do not,” Iruka said, annoyed. His right hand gripped his left under the table like he could still feel Kakashi’s cold fingers. “And I got kissed, not the other way around.”
“It’s not so bad,” Kenshi said. “He’s cute.”
Hayate turned to stare at her. Izumo lifted his head from where he’d been pretending to sleep ever since the conversation turned to kissing.
“Well, he’s tall,” Kenshi said. “And anyway, Iruka likes him.”
“I – didn’t know you liked guys,” Genma said awkwardly.
“I did,” Mizuki said in a voice of long suffering. He went from haughty to nervous as Genma and Kenshi looked at him speculatively.
The kiss out front had nearly gone unnoticed by the group inside. When Iruka had first made it known that he wanted out of the tightly packed booth to follow Kakashi, there had been laughing insinuations – what was there to worry about? Was Iruka jealous? But only Chiyu, tacked on at the end of the booth with a view of the front door, had actually been watching.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread through the group like a lightning strike. By the time Iruka made it back to the table, he had a group of wide, interested eyes staring back at him. The silence immediately dissolved into shouted questions and – from Anko – a few cheers. The plates had been pushed to one side, everyone leaning over the table to speculate on this delicious development. Iruka kept having to intervene self-consciously – they seemed to be assigning him a lot more credit than he deserved.
“I didn’t say I liked him,” Iruka said.
Mizuki gestured incredulously towards the front of the restaurant and stared expectantly at Iruka. Kenshi leaned on her crossed arms at the end of the table, giving Iruka an apologetic look like Mizuki had a point.
Iruka shrugged apologetically. “I didn’t know he was going to do that.”
Iruka didn’t mind all the attention so much. If he was honest with himself, he liked the way it made him feel important, made it okay that his cheeks were flushed and his heart still beat double-time. It was the speculation he didn’t like. He’d forgotten, standing outside with people who knew who Kakashi was, that Kakashi’s public face was very different.
“You have been paying a lot of attention to him recently,” Chiyu said hesitantly. “I don’t think many people do.” She was shy, and it had taken her most of the dinner to recover from not being able to sit next to Kenshi, the only person at the table she knew. After Iruka had stepped back inside, it had been the two of them that exchanged a look across the busy dining room, a shared: What was that?
“Oh, wow,” Kotetsu said, making a face. “You show the guy a little bit of kindness, and wham, you’ve got a barnacle.”
“And the longer you take to get rid of it, the harder it will be,” Mizuki added.
“He’s not deranged,” Genma broke in with exasperation. “Iruka can just say no.”
“Or yes,” Kenshi suggested.
Iruka shook his head helplessly. He had a whole mix of emotions about Kakashi – Kakashi was special, protected, scary, a jerk for his part in marking Iruka for lifelong failure as a shinobi. And most importantly, he existed on a different plane from those who had to trudge up the ranks the usual way. Talking to Kakashi had made Iruka feel a little dangerous, a little like he had a special privilege, and a lot like he was thumbing his nose at authority in the only way he had left, now that he’d given up troublemaking in a futile effort to erase the Mark of the Unwise Egg.
Iruka hadn’t realized how little any of those reasons had to do with Kakashi, the person, until Kakashi had kissed Iruka goodbye in front of Konoha’s second most affordable barbeque joint. Now Iruka felt embarrassed and a little bit like a jackass.
“Where did he run away to after that? That’s what I care about,” Kenshi said.
Iruka stared at her aghast. All of a sudden, he saw the hasty ANBU huddle and the last minute goodbye kiss from a new, chilling perspective. Horrified, Iruka said, “Probably on a mission to die.”
For some reason this caused Genma to reach out and squeeze Iruka’s wrist. It was Izumo who remembered the facts of public record: “He doesn’t go on missions, even if a jounin came to get him.”
Iruka made a frustrated sound. “Then they’re going to kick him out of the village for not being a ninja anymore.”
“His father was the White Fang. They won’t kick him out as long as there’s a chance for kids,” Mizuki said witheringly. “So if he keeps kissing you, I guess they might.”
Luckily, Izumo hit him for that one.
Iruka didn’t want to seem like a hysterical mess, but now that it had been pointed out, he couldn’t help believing that Kakashi had gone away to someplace dangerous and ANBU. Or else why would he do something like that? And there was nobody here who understood that it was even a possibility. It wasn’t like Iruka could go check on him later; he didn’t know where Kakashi lived.
Genma stuck with him the rest of the night.
In the morning, Genma stopped by again, shrugging when Iruka gave him a confused but grateful look. They had both skipped Yoshino-sensei’s morning workout. Iruka had no better plan than to go hang out near the tower and see if Kakashi or anyone Iruka could ask about Kakashi showed up.
“I figured now would be a good time to get that photograph,” Genma said, rocking back on his heels with his hands in his pockets. He’d tucked his hair back under his bandana-style hitae-ate and stuck a senbon nonchalantly between his lips. If Iruka went for bad boys like Mizuki claimed, Iruka should have fallen all over Genma a long time ago.
“Yeah,” Iruka said. And then, “Thanks.”
The tower wasn’t busy, being early and with a large portion of the roster currently at the training fields at the mercy of Yoshino-sensei’s whims. They passed by Hayate and Kenshi at a laundromat a block away from the tower, running their extra mission gear through the wash. Both being tokubetsu jounin, they were not required to attend the early morning workouts. Kenshi leaned out the door as they passed, calling, “Playing hooky, huh? Any news?”
Iruka and Genma came over to the doorway to speak with her. Iruka discovered that talking about last night was enough to make him flush. He was glad he could blame the cold. He kept glancing at the front doors of the tower over Genma’s shoulder, but he didn’t recognize anyone coming or going.
“No news,” Iruka said.
“We’re going to go to the tower and make a nuisance of ourselves until we get some answers or someone gives us his address or something,” Genma said.
“That’s sweet of you,” Kenshi said.
Genma winked. “I’m a champion of love. Don’t forget it.”
Kenshi laughed. Genma bent down to scratch Koguma behind the ears in a bit of blatant flattery.
“Ugh,” Iruka said, pulling his scarf over his face.
Once in the tower, Genma proved to be more paranoid than Iruka would have thought possible considering his flippant reveal of the photo a few weeks ago. He loitered in the foyer until they could walk up the tower stairs alone and made a point of thoroughly checking the empty conference room for occupants even though it hadn’t been used for years. Iruka found the chakra-locked closet, its worn door unchanged from his memories, and entertained himself fiddling with the chakra lock. The lock’s signature was so old any distinguishing features about the ninja who’d laid it down had worn smooth in the ether. Iruka couldn’t even tell if more than one person had worked on it.
Genma closed his hand over Iruka’s. “Don’t do that.”
“I don’t think there are any kids in here,” Iruka said, giving him a weird look.
“I’m not worried about kids.” Genma put his ear against the closet door. Iruka felt a chill on the back of his neck watching Genma breathe in and out slowly once, twice, before stepping back satisfied.
“Who are you worried about?” Iruka whispered as they crept back into the hall.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had S-level clearance?” Genma asked. He’d given up looking casual, senbon bouncing as he cast careful glances up and down the hall.
Iruka stopped, feeling cold and tired. He knelt next to baseboard, deliberately avoiding looking at Genma. “Why does everyone think I have S-level clearance?”
Genma crouched behind him with an eye on the stairs. “It’s on your record.”
Iruka pried at the baseboard, carefully maintaining his calm. “It is not. Someone would have told me.”
“Have you read your file?”
“Well – no,” Iruka said, flustered. “They’re above my clearance level.”
“Well, I read them. You’ve got the form and the background check. Everything but S-class field certification, which is really a whole nother category.” Genma stopped, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Are you just pretending you don’t know this? I just got S-level clearance, too, Iruka. We can talk to each other.”
Iruka stared at him.
“I don’t – you can’t tell me that.” Iruka made an incoherent sound of frustration and ripped the baseboard off the wall. The photo fluttered to the floor. “I don’t have S-class clearance. I did something stupid, and I got caught. I’m not even trusted to take combat missions outside of Konoha. I only got a B-class this last time because Kakashi got it for me.”
Genma laughed. Iruka bristled. “Oh, wow. That’s not a black mark – that’s a protective measure taken for people who are trusted with S-class secrets but not against S-class threats. Man,” he sat back on his heels, sighing to himself, “I wonder when your offer will come through.”
Iruka gritted his teeth. “My what?”
Genma waved his hand impatiently. “Usually when somebody unmasks ANBU in some way, they get a job offer. I mean, you were twelve – wow, we thought you were a great prankster, but we only knew the half of it, huh? – so I can see why they waited, but it’s got to come sometime.”
“Genma, what are you talking about?” It was the same as it had been with Kakashi. He had so much practice not talking about it that any attempt to peak under the lid made the whole thing threaten to boil over. There was no way – and how would Genma know anyway?
Iruka stopped. He set the broken baseboard down slowly and sat back on his heels, looking at the photo lying on the floor. “They made you an offer? For the photo?”
“No, not – that was a bit of a cheat. I took it after the first time they approached me.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I was mad about all this ANBU ‘mystery.’” Genma shrugged modestly. “I knew they had to meet in the tower to be close to the hokage, so I volunteered for mission room duty and spent two weeks sitting in the window, making a list of who came into the building and who came into the mission room. Then I compared the lists.”
“And that worked?” Iruka looked at his friend with new admiration.
“Eh, it was a mess, but eventually I started to notice some people who came into the hokage’s tower all the time but didn’t visit any of the usual places – the mission room, the records office, the hokage. And there were more people going to the fourth floor than really made sense.”
Iruka turned slowly to look at the door of the empty conference room, a sinking feeling in his chest.
Genma grinned. “Oh yeah.”
“And now, you’re – ?”
“Wehh-heh-hell, I don’t know.” Genma waggled his senbon, nearly bursting with pride. “What’s your clearance level?”
Iruka felt a bubble of jealousy inside his chest that threatened to burst. The lidded pot was rumbling. He rubbed helplessly at his eyes. “Genma, it wasn’t like that for me.”
“What do you mean?”
Iruka made a frustrated sound. “I mean it was awful. I unmasked someone by accident because I thought he was Mizuki, and they brought me in and treated me like an enemy agent with a pretty good henge. The officers in charge had an argument about whether it was better to be safe than sorry that didn’t end until the hokage showed up.”
“Safe than --? Oh, shit.” Genma had gone white. “Who did you hit?”
“Aren’t they supposed to be interchangeable? They acted like I’d endangered the whole village with a slingshot and an egg. Maybe I did.”
Genma put an arm around Iruka’s shoulders. “Or you unmasked a prima donna who didn’t have the brains to let it slide.”
“No, I found out later that he – the ANBU Hound – was the one who went to get the hokage. I don’t think he was great with kids; he didn’t talk to me until I threw up next to him, and then he told me a dumb story about running with scissors. But he wasn’t awful.”
Understanding blossomed across Genma’s face. Iruka had forgotten that he’d mentioned the running with scissors story when he’d told Genma about Kakashi.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Genma said. Iruka noticed that even after all this mutual S-class talk, they were still careful not to explicitly out anybody to each other. “The Hound has the longest record of anyone in ANBU.”
“Why do you think they came and got him like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it my fault? He broke his cover so I could have a B-class.”
Genma dismissed this immediately. “He took one rank-appropriate mission for the oldest reason in the book – he was trying to get a date. All questions raised by him breaking pattern are thereby answered. They’d smack his hand a bit, maybe, but what does the ANBU Hound care if his hand stings a little?”
“Yeah, but that was –” Iruka turned bright red, it sounded so cheesy. He laughed self-consciously. “— a, you know, a good bye kiss. It was straight out of a movie.”
Genma squinted. “Maybe he’s dumb.”
“Dumb as bricks I hope.” Iruka pointed at the photo. “Are you going to take care of that?”
“Right. Got a match?”
Iruka and Genma were shaking the ashes out of a fourth floor window when Iruka looked down and saw the top of Kakashi’s silver head leaving the tower. He looked the same as he always did, bored and going nowhere fast. Tenzo, the ultra-young jounin, was with him, shoulders hunched and walking a half step behind Kakashi. A weight lifted from Iruka’s chest. He flipped his legs over the windowsill and slid down the sloping roof tiles, jumping straight from the edge of the third floor to land in front of Kakashi in a small explosion of dust.
Tenzo moved instantly into an attack. Kakashi snapped out his arm and caught Tenzo’s wrist like a vice. Iruka’s eyes went round at this casual display of skill. Tenzo straightened with a flush on his cheeks when he recognized Iruka. His eyes were red.
“Are you alright?” Iruka demanded.
“Yes, we’re fine,” Kakashi said in bored voice.
They looked at each other for a second. Iruka frowned. He stepped up into Kakashi’s space, watching with satisfaction as Kakashi straightened up from his slouch. Kenshi had been right about his height; Iruka was looking him straight in the nose. Kakashi no longer looked bored; he was focused on Iruka like a hawk wondering which way the rabbit would go next. Iruka put his fingers on the edge of Kakashi’s mask. His heart was pounding; this was the same way he’d felt changing the locks on the hokage’s office when he was twelve.
Tenzo made some combination of a squeak and a cough and jerked to face the other side of the street. Kakashi threw both hands up on either side of his face like blinders.
Iruka stared at him, fingers hovering next to Kakashi’s cheek.“You are too weird not to be jounin. How have you kept your cover this long?”
Kakashi appeared to think about it. His hands looked like fish fins sticking out of his cheeks. He admitted, “I don’t really talk to anyone who’s not in the Organization.”
“That means,” Iruka dropped to a whisper so quiet Kakashi would have to lip read; it was lucky he was staring at Iruka’s mouth, “ANBU?”
Kakashi gave him a half-lidded stare.
“Right, right,” Iruka said. He leaned in between the fish-fin hands. “Did you mean it when you said I had S-level clearance?”
“Yes,” Kakashi said. “At the time.”
“What does that mean?”
“There are some arguments going on,” Kakashi trailed off. He pulled Iruka’s hands away from his face, chest rising with a sigh. He took a considering look around the street, at Tenzo’s rigid back and the shopkeepers and morning shoppers pretending not to look. Iruka grimaced. Alright, his plan to cover up a secretive conversation was not the best. In his defense, Iruka’s real skill has always been making his actions more public, not less.
Kakashi took his hand and towed him into the nearest business: the laundromat, past Hayate and Kenshi’s raised eyebrows and half-hidden smirks. Tenzo, now the approximate color of pomegranate juice and wearing an expression far too resigned for his age, trailed in behind.
Kakashi took Iruka to a cramped stairwell in the corner and shut the door behind them. The bulb was out, and the wood smelled like mold from years of steam. They sat together at the bottom of the steps. The door shifted minutely, and Iruka realized Tenzo had stationed himself outside it. Iruka wondered what had made him so miserable.
“Are you alright?” Iruka asked again.
“I’m sorry for the excitement,” Kakashi said.
“What did you mean when you said arguments? About me?”
“It’s – my cover, like you said. There are some people trying very hard to find out who I am...”
Iruka held tightly to Kakashi’s hand. “Are you in danger?”
“Probably not. In this kind of information game, my opponents don’t need to kill me to neutralize me. Which is why the Organization cares very much how I’m choosing to protect their secrets. It’s just bad timing that this happened while you were the most obvious liability. My fault.”
“I don’t want you to do anything special for me.”
“Why not? I like you.” Kakashi said it the same way he’d told Iruka that Iruka’s tags were cheap but acceptable: like it was fact. It gave the statement unexpected weight. Iruka flushed with guilt.
“I’m not – I’m not this nice person you think I am,” he said in a rush. “I was talking to you because it meant I knew a secret. I’m a troublemaker; I do dumb things just because they cause trouble.”
Kakashi thought about this. “But it was fun?”
“I suppose it won’t be fun if it’s not secret anymore.”
Iruka looked at him sharply. “Why won’t it be a secret? What’s happened?”
“Someone in Iwa has spent a lot of time sorting through rumors to identify missions by Konoha ANBU. A few weeks ago this person concluded there was a high likelihood that Konoha was concealing an adult Sharingan-user.”
For a moment, Iruka didn’t understand; he was too torn between relief that the ANBU summons hadn’t been his fault and a deep-seated fear of anything Iwa. He almost asked Kakashi for the next part of the story – a Sharingan! – but Kakashi had turned his head to look distractedly up the staircase, and Iruka found himself staring at the eye patch covering Kakashi’s left eye.
It couldn’t be.
Iruka broke out in a cold sweat. He had hit Konoha’s only working Sharingan with a egg. No wonder they’d dragged him in to see the hokage like they thought he was an enemy agent. ANBU had been as terrified of him as he had been of them.
“Oh god,” he said. Kakashi looked embarrassed, studying the shadows above Iruka’s head. “What happens now?”
“Retirement, usually,” Kakashi said, bored like he was viewing it from a distance.
“Retirement -- that’s -- couldn’t you just switch masks?” Iruka asked helplessly.
Kakashi gave him an unimpressed look. “ANBU’s purpose is anonymity. Even a single operative with one known characteristic can link Konoha to events from which it wishes to remain separate.”
“But – they can’t just keep you from taking missions.”
“No, but no more within the Organization. My code name, my clearance would be revoked. Mission records and promotions gained behind the mask would remain classified. I would need to requalify publicly.” Kakashi stared blankly at the wall. “Or I could become a farmer...”
Iruka dropped his eyes to Kakashi’s hand lying calmly between Iruka’s own, unable to explain why this felt so wrong it was clogging up his throat. He hadn’t realized he’d admired Kakashi as a shinobi and that it would hurt Iruka to see that taken away. He remembered Tenzo’s red eyes and hunched shoulders.
“You can’t quit,” Iruka said. “You can come teach at the academy with me, even if you don’t want to take anymore missions. I won’t be awful at it forever. And when you requalify, you can be a jounin-sensei.”
Kakashi’s hand tightened suddenly around Iruka’s fingers. “What?”
“A jounin-sensei. For the new genin. They never have enough.”
“I don’t know that they would – they haven’t – ” Kakashi was more rattled that Iruka had ever seen him. “They haven’t decided to retire me. They seem to think they can call the secret back.”
Iruka gave him a startled look. “Can they?”
Kakashi visibly gathered himself: expression blanking, shoulders dropping back into a slouch. When he spoke, it was his usual even tone. “It’s not the direction information usually flows.”
Iruka studied Kakashi in the dark. There was no expression to be seen on his masked face. Iruka wondered if Kakashi had even asked himself the most important question. “Do you want them to?”
Kakashi looked at the door and didn’t answer for a long time.
“How does it work – the Sharingan?” Iruka asked as they got ready to leave the stairwell. “I want our story to at least makes sense.”
“It sees chakra and movement best, even through barriers,” Kakashi said. Crammed together at the bottom of the narrow stairs, it seemed like Kakashi had all the limbs in the world. “And it remembers images perfectly.”
Iruka moved Kakashi’s knee out of the way so he could stretch his leg. “So we need something with moving or living parts that you wouldn’t be able to see through otherwise.”
“I’ve got nothing,” Kakashi said. He was looking a little fixedly at Iruka’s face. Iruka rubbed his nose self-consciously, and then found himself staring back. He had never seen Kakashi this relaxed, less slouching against the door than he was bonelessly sprawling against it.
Iruka crawled forward, jabbing a knee into Kakashi’s thigh and stepping on his ankle. Kakashi must have known what was coming because he made not a sound of protest, in fact reaching out and grabbing onto the Iruka’s chuunin vest to give him a boost. The vests had been designed so that shinobi could more easily pull or carry their team mates, but Iruka didn’t think this was the scenario they’d had in mind. He grabbed a hold of the collar of Kakashi’s coat and kissed him on the mouth. Kakashi barely got the mask down in time.
It felt unbelievably good. Not just the kissing part, but the strength of Kakashi’s thighs and Kakashi’s big hands where they slipped down to span Iruka’s hips. He’d meant only to get a second try at Kakashi’s good bye kiss, but it took on a momentum all its own driven by an engine that suddenly started burning low in Iruka’s belly. Kakashi ran a thumb along the shell of Iruka’s ear, and Iruka made an incoherent sound into Kakashi’s mouth.
“A pineapple,” Tenzo’s muffled voice came suddenly through the door, sounding miserable. Kakashi and Iruka froze, turning to give the door a startled look. “It’s hard to tell if it’s ripe on the outside. Also,” Tenzo added significantly, “since it’s a living thing, it will have chakra traces.”
Iruka looked breathlessly at Kakashi. For a moment, he couldn’t remember where he was. Kakashi asked hopefully, “Call a delay, teacher?”
Iruka set his jaw, hands fisting in Kakashi’s shirt. “No, we’re getting this done.”
“Whatever you want, teacher,” Kakashi said happily. Iruka rolled his eyes, trying to ignore Kakashi’s hand moving down his thigh.
“No, the other this.” He pushed himself off Kakashi, only bruising a few of Kakashi’s internal organs in the process. They took a moment to compose themselves. Luckily, this sort of chakra control was one of the first learned in a shinobi boys dormitory. Kakashi ruined Iruka’s concentration twice by kissing his ear, and Iruka finally had to stand with one hand on Kakashi’s face to keep them apart. Kakashi seemed to enjoy it.
When they came out of the stairwell, Tenzo still looked heartbroken, but this time Iruka knew what he was mourning. Genma had appeared in the laundry at some point and he, Hayate, and Kenshi were all giving him incredulous looks – did he really just lock himself in a closet with his beau while they were ten feet away? Iruka had meant that to be part of the cover story, but his swollen lips and red cheeks added more verisimilitude than he’d originally intended.
Hayate looked at Kenshi and mouthed, Pineapple chakra?
He could see the moment when Hayate recognized the look on Iruka’s face. He hadn’t seen it for a while, so it was understandable that it took him a bit. Hayate’s eyebrows went up. He said like a man reporting the news, “He rides again.”
Iruka clapped his hands loudly, derailing speculation. “Hi, everyone, I just realized – I really like pineapple. I want one right now.”
Kakashi was watching this, leaning against the laundry folding table. He kept looking past Iruka’s shoulder at Tenzo and communicating through eyebrow shifts and flicks of his eyelid. Tenzo might have been making ANBU hand signs behind Iruka’s back, but Kakashi’s hands were firmly in his pockets. If there was a conversation happening, it was a one-way lecture.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” Genma said, sighing deeply to express the burden Iruka had placed on him with his ridiculous behavior, “but the best out of season fruit market is on Karasuma street.”
“Alright!” Iruka cracked his knuckles. He had to keep moving or reality was going to set in. Genma’s ANBU photograph didn’t hold a candle to the stupid he was about to do. Kakashi fell into step next to him as they left the laundry, inordinately warm even with a foot between them in the winter air. Iruka felt like he was on fire.
The produce market was small and crowded. An elderly woman restocking in the corner watched them warily, her reading glasses swaying slowly around her neck. Plain wooden stands with raised edges held a colorful selection of fruits looking a little dreary after their long journey north. A small box of pineapples made a spiky green forest up against the wall.
“I really like pineapple,” Iruka announced for appearances’ sake.
“Sure seems like it,” Kenshi said. Hayate had his hand in a bin of kiwis, petting their soft, fuzzy skin. The senbon between Genma’s teeth bounced up and down. He glanced between Kakashi and the pineapples, and Iruka was honestly surprised not to hear a dirty joke.
Iruka stared at the box of pineapples. Simple was best. He snagged a fruit from the middle of the bin by one of its sharp-edged leaves. He held it out to Kakashi, the textured rind prickling against his skin.
“Kakashi-san,” he said seriously, “is it ripe?”
When Kakashi lifted a hand to his eye patch, Iruka’s knuckles went white around the pineapple, prickles digging into his skin. Four years ago had been an accident. This would be deliberate, and there was no one at the top who would believe otherwise. But Iruka had been held by ANBU as an enemy of Konoha; whatever happened now, he could handle it.
He got ready to look surprised, wondering idly who would be the first to bolt for the tower with the news. Kakashi met his eyes, looking not at all boneless like he had been in the stairwell but like he was wondering what happened next; he looked interested. Iruka flushed.
With a final shrug, Kakashi flipped the eye patch onto his forehead. Beneath it, a whole, healthy eye stared out, the skin above and below bisected by a vertical white scar barely thicker than a pen mark. The iris was malevolently red; comma-like tomoe spun idly around the pupil like a pinwheel on a calm day. It was the Sharingan: the Mirror Wheel Eye. Iruka stared dizzily into it.
Kakashi looked at the pineapple.
“It’s ripe,” he said.