Iruka had been having the dreams for as long as he could remember. After his parents’ death they had gone away for a time; then they’d come back with a vengeance, and he had spent the whole year he was fifteen in a haze, not sure whether he was really Iruka or whether he was another, younger boy who skipped stones and laughed and still had a living father.
He wasn’t even always sure which one he wanted to be, which was the scariest part.
But the dreams subsided again after he made chuunin, and if he kept busy enough, they mostly left him alone. C-rank missions were pretty easy to get, and Iruka took shifts at the mission desk as soon as he had the clearance for it, just to have something else to do with his spare time. The more tired he was at the end of the day, the more likely he was to sleep through the night without interruption.
Iruka didn’t realize who he was in the dreams until the first time he saw his — no, the boy’s — reflection in a still pool. Iruka woke in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. He didn’t allow himself to try to go back to sleep for two nights and two days, waiting until his hands were shaking, and he felt like he was about to die from exhaustion.
I’m going crazy , he thought. I’m dreaming about the Shodaime — about being the Shodaime as a boy.
Iruka might once have told his parents, who had heard about his dreams over the breakfast table for years, but they had died in the Kyuubi attack, nearly four years past. There was no one else still alive who knew about the dreams, and no one Iruka trusted enough to tell. Iruka lived surrounded by people, but he was always -- intentionally -- too over-worked to socialize easily. By now most of his childhood friends far outranked him or had died in the field. It didn't seem like the sort of thing you told acquaintances, and Iruka was forced to realize that he had very few close friends, if any at all.
After that dream, after Iruka forced himself to go back to sleep and face his fears and realizations, it was almost alarmingly easy to identify people by his side as he slept. There was Tobirama, who would become the Nidaime. Over the course of the next few dreams Itama and Kawarama became more than just names in a history textbook, more than just the two brothers who hadn’t survived the warring states period. Uchiha Madara was the strange boy who skipped stones with Iruka's dream-self. And he would grow up to become a monster on the battlefield after his brothers’ deaths. Iruka woke with tears in his eyes some mornings, marveling that the tears were for Uchiha Izuna, or for Uchiha Madara himself. Iruka woke with tears in his eyes, and knew he wept for the unending mercy in Hashirama’s heart, his ability to empathize with men who would kill his family as soon as look at them.
This , he thought some mornings upon awakening from dreams that felt more real than real. This is the Will of Fire in its purest form .
But for all he learned from them, the dreams didn’t make Iruka a stronger shinobi. Iruka could empathize with his enemies, but he lacked the decisive, steel-firm nature that was — that had been — so essential to Hashirama’s strength in battle. Iruka still hesitated before he struck, and if not for Hatake Kakashi, Iruka would have died in the field on only his second A-rank mission. Kakashi, Sharingan Kakashi, was injured saving him. Kakashi would recover, but it would not have been a fair trade, an equal exchange, to lose the Copy Nin just for Umino Iruka. Iruka handed in his field papers the next day, and the Sandaime approved his application to teach at the Academy.
Teaching was a blessing. Iruka threw himself into it with an enthusiasm that surprised even himself, and he found that the dreams receded a little bit, becoming less overwhelming, and more of a pleasant respite from grading and classrooms filled with mud-bombs and misfired jutsu and childish rivalries. Even better, after a few months Iruka no longer woke wondering which life was the dream, which the reality. Dreams were missions and blood; real life was grading and lesson planning and endless, endless questions and pranks and ever-taller children.
It was easy to slip into a routine of teaching, working the mission desk and seeing acquaintances for drinks. If Iruka occasionally answered a historical question whose answer should have been a mystery, well, none of his students seemed to find it strange that their sensei knew what the Shodaime’s favorite food had been, or that Tobirama had been the one to stand up to their father on Hashirama’s behalf. After one of his fellow-teachers looked at him askance for an answer of that nature, Iruka took to spending time in the village archives every few weeks. The scrolls and books had been stripped bare time and again, mined by shinobi who hoarded knowledge, or just forgot to return items. As a result, the documentation of Konoha's founding was paltry at best, but it provided Iruka an excuse just in case anyone else noticed.
It was a comfortable enough existence, if a lonely one. And when Iruka slept, Hashirama wasn't lonely at all. Sometimes that reflected intimacy almost seemed like enough.
Soon enough, teaching Naruto’s class brought more than enough excitement to Iruka’s waking life. Once the rookie nine had graduated, it was Konohamaru’s attempts to one-up Naruto’s pranks that kept Iruka busy. With Konohamaru so busy trying to run circles around Ebisu and outpace his grandfather's legacy, Iruka was able to nearly forget about the dreams for months at a time. They seemed to slow, to recede into the background of his life, in a way they hadn't since his childhood.
The aftermath of Orochimaru’s attack took many of the other teachers out of the village on missions. Iruka stayed at the Academy and taught larger classes, told children from five to fifteen about the Shodaime’s goals in founding the village, his vision for Konoha and the alliances of the various clans. They even tried some of the mixed-age training exercises that Hashirama and his brothers had employed, with blunted weapons, though those didn’t always work as well with forty children as it had with four. There was always something to be done, and Iruka threw himself into it with a will.
After Pain’s attack, Iruka attended some of the planning sessions for the new city planning. He was impressed by Yamato’s organization and obvious skill, but distressed by how little the planning committee seemed to know about Konoha's history.
“No,” Iruka said once, when they were working on regularizing the street grid on enormous blueprints. “That street led from the base of the Hokage monument directly to the gate: its straight path symbolized the openness with which Konoha accepts allies. We need to keep that. I don't care if it's a diagonal. Some things are more important than a grid.”
Another time, when they were debating where to place the low-income housing blocks, he heard himself say: “Don’t hide them all on the edges of the village. The Uchiha district was originally low-income housing. If you incorporate people into the fabric of the community, they’ll be more invested in contributing to Konoha’s re-building.”
Once or twice after that Yamato even sought Iruka out to ask about a historical detail. They spent several nights bent over maps, Iruka looking for the place that matched his dream-memory of Konoha when it was newly built, the houses still freshly-grown wooden frames, the streets still mostly straight and un-obstructed. Yamato never asked how he knew, never forced Iruka to lie about the archives, and Iruka found he was deeply grateful for that.
Iruka even saw Yamato building the new houses, walking past one day on his way to the market. He stopped to watch and felt something like a painful nostalgia curl through his belly. Where others saw magic, Iruka saw the pale shadow of his dreams: Yamato’s wood jutsu was so much weaker than Hashirama’s. He itched to correct the timing of the sequence of seals Yamato used, but he could never quite remember the jutsu that Hashirama used. And even if he remembered, how could he explain that knowledge? Iruka bit his lower lip and went on his way.
All in all, it wasn’t until after the war, when the Shinobi Alliance’s shaky first year had passed, that Iruka found himself with anything like free time on his hands again. The casualties of the war had been horrific, but the number of mandated retirees from active duty meant more people willing to be teachers. As a result, Iruka was hard-pressed to explain why he didn’t want to take jobs in the field.
The first mission he was sent out on was a straightforward enough C-rank. Iruka was in charge of a trio of recent graduates, genin whose jounin-sensei hadn’t come back from the front. Iruka had them choose their preferred times to keep watch, and slept sitting up, kunai at hand, the way his jounin-sensei had done.
The dreams were waiting for him, dragging him down even as he dozed against a tree trunk. Iruka led the genin team through the rest of their escort mission, and back to Konoha on auto-pilot, grateful for the still-shaky peace holding long enough to get them home safe. Then he went home to sit staring into a mirror for a long, long time, memories that were not his own roiling in his head. The dreams had been so vivid that they interfered with his ability to write the mission report accurately.
It was as if Iruka's re-entry into field work had woken some part of him, some part of Hashirama inside of him that had been at peace before. Iruka found himself sleeping too late, waking sore and emotionally exhausted from impossibly high-level fights. In his mind’s eye, Madara and Hashirama fought, the controlled Kyuubi and the Mokuton jutsu clashing in the background, creating the broad hills and valleys, all of the topography around Konoha that Iruka had grown up with. He knew it was psychosomatic, but he felt chakra-depleted even on days when he used no jutsu himself at all.
Iruka's own training seemed slow and hopelessly amateur in comparison to his dreams. Practice and kata were frustrating in a way they hadn't been in years. But Iruka had long since learned that knowing the Shodaime’s jutsu, what seals they used, what intent they needed, how to focus the chakra, wasn’t at all the same thing as being able to use them. It made him itch to improve, to be more than he was, to chafe at the edges of his ability when they brought him up short, time and again.
But there was nothing to be done. Iruka trained, and he tried, and he failed. Iruka took the missions assigned to him, and missed teaching, and felt himself come apart a little bit more at the seams with every night of impassioned dreams.
Iruka checked himself into the hospital the day he nearly tried to gut Kurenai just for having shaggy black hair and unsettlingly red eyes.
* * *
“No,” Iruka said to the appallingly young medic nin. "This isn’t a new development. I’m not suffering from some kind of fragmentary side-effect of the Moon’s Eye Plan.” The medic made an agreeable noise, and wrote something else down on his clip-board. He didn't look like he believed anything Iruka was saying.
“Do you have anyone who specializes in —“ Iruka stopped himself before he could ask for a long-forgotten Uchiha memory jutsu. There was no reason to admit he knew it existed: it had been a clan secret. He racked his brain for other options, instead. The Yamanaka were still spread too thin after the casualties of the war: he thought none of them above chuunin-rank were in town. He wasn’t sure there was anyone in Konoha who could check to see if he was crazy.
“Look,” Iruka said. “I know it sounds crazy. Just —“ he waved a hand helplessly. “Just find Haruno Sakura, will you?”
Maybe she’d at least pretend to believe that her old Academy sensei hadn’t gone completely ‘round the bend. The medic looked at him strangely, perhaps because Iruka had just demanded he fetch the head of the hospital for no good reason. Iruka resisted the urge to throw his hands in the air, or throttle the boy. Instead Iruka watched him write something else down, hang the chart on the end of the bed, look at Iruka doubtfully, and pick it back up again. The medic left with the chart clutched tight in one hand, shutting Iruka into the small check-up room, where he sat swinging his feet over the edge of the medical bench like a child in a too-large chair. Iruka closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate, to keep track of Konoha now , Konoha as it was today. It had only been Kurenai, he told himself. Just Kurenai.
It wasn’t all that long -- at least, Iruka thought it wasn't all that long -- before Sakura showed up.
“Iruka-sensei?” She sounded uncertain, and doubt started to wind tendrils into the corners of Iruka's mind. If he couldn't convince Sakura, he wasn't sure where else he could turn.
“Sakura,” he said, relieved. “What did they tell you?”
She shook her head, gaze direct and firm. She had grown up so much during the war, Iruka thought. They all had.
“I want you to tell me,” she said. “The chart was — confused.”
Iruka tried to explain it as best he could, but it still sounded a little incoherent, even to him.
“The dreams have been going on since I was a child,” Iruka insisted. “It’s just gotten worse recently.”
“All right,” Sakura said, looking down at the chart with a frown. Her expression was unreadable: she always had had a better poker-face than Tsunade. Iruka missed the former Hokage more than ever in that moment. Tsunade would have been able to confirm his memories were real, even if she laughed at him in the process. She might even have been eager for stories of her grandfather, and failed to hide that eagerness as well as she ought. He blinked back tears: she hadn't shown up yet in the dreams, but if they kept going, she might. He wasn't sure how he would cope with seeing people he knew, the Sannin included, in his dreaming life.
“I think," Sakura paused, looking at Iruka straight-on. "Well, I’ll be right back.”
Iruka just nodded and watched her leave. He wondered if she’d come back with an orderly and a straightjacket.
Instead, she came back with Hatake Kakashi. Looking at him, rumpled and visibly annoyed in his ceremonial Hokage robes, Iruka wasn’t sure that was an improvement.
“Kakashi-sensei,” she said, completely eschewing the formalities due her Hokage. “Iruka-sensei has been having very odd dreams. Can you —“
Two things happened at once, then. Kakashi pushed up the hitae-ate and opened his -- Obito's -- Sharingan eye and Iruka found his hands forming the seals for a jutsu he knew he was incapable of casting. Kakashi’s eyes widened as he took in the series of seals. The Sharingan spun even more wildly.
“That’s a sage-level mokuton jutsu,” Kakashi said, and he even sounded shocked. “I’ve never seen one that advanced — except —“ He stared hard at Iruka, both eyes blazingly intent. “How do you know that?”
Iruka separated his hands carefully, feeling his chakra roil and stir inside him, discontent as it always was when he tried one of Hashirama's jutsu. He wasn't good enough to cast them: he should know better. Kakashi was still staring, so Iruka planted his hands beside him on the exam table. The Sharingan was spinning slowly and Iruka looked away, feeling something nervous and uncomfortable stir in the pit of his stomach.
“I’ve been dreaming about the Shodaime since I was a child," Iruka admitted, because surely that was why Sakura had brought Kakashi here. He owed the truth to his Hokage, no matter how terrible the man's paperwork habits might be. "I dreamed it."
Kakashi didn’t move, still staring intently. Iruka closed his eyes.
“Can you close that eye?” He asked, after a moment of awkward silence. “It’s making me really — I keep dreaming about Madara. It makes me want to jump you, and that really wouldn’t go well for me.”
“My, my,” Kakashi drawled, amusement clear in his tone. “Iruka-sensei. I had no idea you felt that way.”
Iruka realized what he’d just said, and could feel himself flush.
“You know that’s not what I meant,” he protested, and Sakura actually laughed.
“It’s all right, Iruka-sensei,” she said. She sounded less worried, now, which was a relief, if a confusing one. “You can open your eyes now.”
He did, peeking cautiously first, and saw Sakura was smiling. Kakashi had closed the Sharingan eye, though his hitae-ate was still pushed up out of the way.
“Is there any way he could have learned that jutsu from the Archives?” Sakura asked, and Kakashi shook his head.
“Between the two of them, Orochimaru and Danzo stripped that section bare. Most of it wasn't written down to begin with, so Tenzo had to figure a lot of it out from first principles, once Danzo lost interest in him and took away the few surviving scrolls.”
Sakura looked at Iruka with new concern, and perhaps even renewed belief.
“You said you’ve been having these dreams since you were a child? Did anyone else know about them?”
“My parents. I think maybe my jounin-sensei .” They were all long since dead. He’d considered telling Mizuki once or twice, but the right opportunity had never quite presented itself. After Mizuki’s attempted betrayal, that reticence had seemed somehow inspired. Iruka paused. “I think the Sandaime knew something was going on, but I never talked with him about it, really.”
Perhaps he should have: perhaps he should have told Tsunade, as well. It had never seemed important enough, or else Iruka had been too scared, or too busy, or too accustomed to keeping his secrets close. His parents had told him to keep the secret, after all, impressed it upon him for all of his childhood, even when he begged to be allowed to tell his friends.
“All right.” Sakura considered that. “Tell us something you only know from the dreams, then."
Iruka blinked at her. He tried to find something off the top of his head, but it was hard to remember what he’d learned in the Archives, and what he just knew .
“Um,” he said. “All right.” He cast around for something suitably small, unwilling to betray Hashirama's confidence any more than he had to. “When their fathers planned an ambush, Hashirama and Madara skipped each other stones with warnings written on the flat side.”
“Tsunade told me about that, once,” Sakura said. Kakashi nodded confirmation. “But that means she might have told other people. Can you try something else?” Sakura asked.
Iruka thought of something and bit back a grin. Well, he might as well. This kind of thing didn’t make it into history books, and it wasn't really Hashirama's secret.
“Madara couldn’t pee if he thought someone was watching him. Hashirama thought that was hilarious, even when they were both adults.”
Sakura giggled, and Iruka was pretty sure Kakashi was smiling, too, though the mask made it hard to be sure.
“I’m pretty sure that wasn’t common knowledge,” Iruka added.
Sakura raised a hand to her mouth and straightened her expression out again after a moment. Iruka didn’t catch her eye: he was almost certain that if he did, the two of them would burst out laughing. If he started laughing now, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop: hysteria had been bubbling under his skin since he saw Kurenai and stilled his own hand.
“All right,” Sakura said. “Kakashi-sensei, can you tell if he’s under some kind of jutsu, if his chakra is being controlled or shaped by an external force or compulsion?”
Iruka closed his eyes before Kakashi could open his. There was silence for a long moment, and Iruka heard footsteps approaching.
“No,” Kakashi said. “There’s nothing foreign in his chakra.” He paused. “But —“
Iruka opened his eyes and focused on Sakura, avoiding Kakashi’s eyes as much as he could. The Sharingan was red in his peripheral vision, and he did his best to calm his nerves, feeling his chakra roiling in unaccustomed protest.
“But?” Sakura prodded.
“But if I didn’t know better," Kakashi continued, "I’d think his chakra had been sealed somehow.”
Sakura looked speculatively at Iruka, and then tossed him a hospital gown. He glared at her: he wasn't sick, and he certainly wasn't an invalid. After a moment, Sakura sighed, and they compromised on Iruka stripping to short sleeves and no shoes. Sakura took his things away for safekeeping. Iruka thought it was probably just to keep him from leaving the hospital if he didn't like what they were doing to him.
There were a flurry of tests after that. Iruka had blood drawn, had his cheek swabbed for DNA, and was stared at for a long time by several alarmingly young branch-family Hyuuga, each focusing on a different chakra point.
Surprisingly, Kakashi stayed with him the whole time, even when Sakura had to go coordinate other hospital affairs or find an errant page. Surely he had something better to do. Perhaps, Iruka thought uncharitably, he did have something better to do, and Iruka was just a convenient excuse to skip out on official duties.
“This is why I didn’t tell anyone,” Iruka complained, poking at the second IV line a nurse had just inserted into his left hand. “I’m not a pin-cushion!”
“Why did you?” Kakashi asked. He sounded bored, but Iruka recalled Naruto saying that Kakashi always sounded bored. It had driven Naruto crazy, back when Kakashi had been his jounin-sensei, and not the slightly crazy Hokage whose ways were above official reproach.
“What?” Iruka looked over at him, surprised by the question.
“Tell Sakura now. What happened?”
Iruka shrugged uncomfortably. But he figured Kakashi deserved the truth. He was still here, and he seemed to think Iruka might not be insane. Even if he was only avoiding paperwork, that was more than Iruka had expected of anyone.
“I’ve been dreaming the final fights between Hashirama and Madara recently.” Iruka took a breath. Admitting that part hadn't been so bad. This part was worse: “And then I almost attacked Kurenai in the middle of the street today.”
Kakashi nodded, as if being unable to tell dream from reality were normal. “The dreams are seeping into waking life, then. Has that happened before?”
Iruka began to shake his head, then paused.
“When I was fifteen,” he said, realizing it was true. “But it wasn’t — it wasn’t as charged. Hashirama was younger, then.” He paused. “We aren’t always the same age,” he said, wondering if that made sense, or just made him seem crazier.
But Kakashi only nodded again. Iruka had failed the chuunin exam twice the year he was fifteen. The first time he had been trying to use an earth jutsu Hashirami used regularly, even though Iruka didn't have an earth chakra nature. The second time had been worse: Iruka had tried to gut his opponent when he had her pinned in the arena, not just force her to admit defeat. The proctor had been able to intervene in time, and Iruka had apologized, but her family had never quite forgiven him. Iruka's interactions with any of the Uchiha clan had been decidedly chilly after that.
“It was confusing then,” Iruka admitted. “But this time it’s much, much worse.”
“The kyuubi’s chakra may be affecting you, now that he’s unbound,” Kakashi suggested.
Iruka shrugged: the Kyuubi’s chakra featured in his dreams, it was true, but he didn’t think that was it. Or not all of it. It hadn't started until he had been back in the field, after all. It was as if being out of Konoha, on-edge and needing to protect his team, had somehow woken the dreams again, woken the part of him that had been content to be dormant until that happened.
Sakura came back in with a clipboard, and seemed a little bit surprised to see Kakashi still there.
“Iruka-sensei,” she said, ignoring the Hokage with what looked like long practice. “We won’t know about the DNA results for a while, because the second round of tests have to finish running, and that takes time. But there’s nothing foreign in your blood that we can see in the faster tests, and we had an Aburame check samples with her kikaichu. She said they didn’t smell anything other than you.” She looked at Kakashi, then, her gaze assessing. “How are your chakra levels?” she asked.
Kakashi just shrugged. His aura didn't feel tired or drained to Iruka, but that didn't mean much. Jounin could almost always conceal fatigue; a Hokage even more so.
“All right,” Sakura said. She looked dissatisfied, and frowned at her clipboard for a moment. “Well. We don’t have any Yamanaka on call right now.”
Iruka had expected this. With such a concentration of their clan working in Intelligence, the Yamanaka had lost an appalling number of people in the war. Then Ino and Choji had been sent to Suna with Shikamaru a few months ago and wouldn’t be back for nearly a year. She was the de-facto head of the clan, even at her young age, and one of the most accomplished of their shinobi. But even if she had been here, Iruka didn't like the idea of Ino poking around in his head: at least Inoichi had always seemed sort of detached, like he didn’t really care what you were thinking. Ino hadn’t developed quite that level of professional disinterest yet.
Still, having no Yamanaka readily on call meant no way to clear Iruka of being insane, and no way to try to get to the root of it all.
Iruka wondered whether he could work up some kind of tracking jutsu, so he could just avoid Kurenai and any other Yuhi clan members. But he had a feeling things were going to get worse before they got better, and that would be a complicated thing to maintain, much less to explain to anyone else, especially without proof, or confirmation of his sanity. Perhaps a jounin could get away with it, but he wasn't a jounin: chuunin had a harder time when they acted that crazy in public. Iruka sighed.
“But," Sakura continued. "It’s possible that Kakashi-sensei could slip into your mind, and maybe even see what’s going on with your chakra system in the process.”
Iruka straightened up. That hadn't even occurred to him.
“What do I need to do?” Iruka asked, and Sakura looked surprised.
“Um,” she looked from him to Kakashi. “Just like that?”
Kakashi shrugged at her. Iruka still couldn't read his body language: was he surprised, or did he simply not care?
“The alternative is locking myself into my apartment indefinitely for fear of accidentally trying to kill a shinobi of Konoha, or maybe even a civilian,” Iruka pointed out. “It’s not really a hard decision.”
Kakashi appeared to smile, though it was hard to be certain.
“All right,” Sakura said. She seemed a little taken aback by Iruka's swift agreement. She glanced at Kakashi again, and then shrugged. “Let’s get the two of you settled, then.”
Iruka noted that she also tried to take Kakashi's things away, though she didn't offer him a hospital robe. She backed down faster when he glared, and Kakashi got to keep his shoes.
“All right, Kakashi-san," she said, sounding like she was making a great concession by not taking her Hokage's shoes away. "If you insist. But do try not to make me regret it. I’ll send someone up in half an hour,” she said. “I know I don’t need to tell you to be careful.”
Having just told them exactly that, she let the door click closed behind her. Iruka moved to sit on the edge of the hospital bed to face Kakashi.
“I’ll try a simple variant on a Yamanaka genjutsu first,” Kakashi said. “I won’t need the Sharingan for that.”
Iruka nodded, grateful. Seeing the Sharingan earlier had been unsettling, as if the very sight of it had tried to pull Hashirama up from his dreams into the waking world.
Iruka waited, but Kakashi didn’t do anything, just pulled up a chair and sat facing Iruka. He looked intent on something, and Iruka looked around. There was no one else in the room.
“Kakashi-san,” Iruka tried. “Is everything all right?”
Kakashi shook his head, but he didn’t speak. His fingers were laced together, and Iruka hadn’t seen him cast a genjutsu. Then again, he reminded himself, and he could all but hear his own Academy lecture on the subject, the subject of a well-cast genjutsu didn’t generally remember the beginning of the jutsu that trapped them. Kakashi was very good at genjutsu, and Iruka had always been weak against them. It was likely he wouldn't notice when it started.
And Kakashi just kept staring at him, unspeaking, so Iruka settled back to wait it out. This was possibly the most boring genjutsu ever, but the details, like Iruka’s IV stand clicking when he moved his arm and the slightly frayed fabric of the blankets, were exquisite. He watched tree branches wave outside the window, casting shadows that moved just slightly wrongly, but in no way he could put a finger on.
After a few very boring minutes, Kakashi closed his eye, and then turned to the door.
Sakura pushed it open and stepped in.
“Any luck?” she asked. “The page said you were still working half an hour ago.”
“It’s been an hour?” Iruka asked, and they both looked at him. Sakura had said she would send someone to check in after a half hour, and if he had missed a check-in, that only made sense.
“Iruka-sensei, it’s been nearly two,” Sakura said. She turned to Kakashi. “How did you —“ Kakashi shrugged.
“It seemed like a waste to make him feel like he had to just sit still for two hours. Altering perception of time flow isn’t as difficult as Itachi always made it out to be, if you’re just compressing similar experiences.”
Iruka processed that: he suspected it was much harder than Kakashi was letting on, but Kakashi was a genius, after all. And that meant Kakashi had had plenty of time to poke around in his mind. Iruka half-wondered if he minded the meddling Kakashi had done with his perception of time, and was surprised to find that actually, he didn't.
“Did you find anything?” Iruka asked.
Kakashi sat back down in his chair, and Sakura came over to perch on the bed next to Iruka, curious and visibly hopeful. Kakashi just shook his head.
“There’s nothing unusual visible at a surface level. But when I went farther in, I hit something odd. It’s like there’s a second layer to his mind, or maybe his chakra, and it’s one I can’t get into with just the mind reading jutsu.” He paused, and then said, almost grudging: “Inoichi might have been able to, but I suspect he’d have needed to take Iruka to T&I to use the device. And even then …” he trailed off.
Sakura sighed, and looked at Kakashi. The Hokage robes were askew across his shoulders, and Iruka had the sudden, completely inappropriate urge to stand up and straighten them.
“What do you think?” Kakashi shrugged, and the robe skewed even more.
“If seeing the Sharingan makes him uncomfortable, using it might spur whatever it is into showing itself,” he offered.
“I could —“ Iruka said. “There’s an Uchiha memory jutsu I’ve dreamed about. Could you use a Yamanaka jutsu to get at that memory, then learn the jutsu from that?”
Kakashi looked at him consideringly.
“You’re taking this all very well,” he said. “Most people are more nervous about letting someone else into their mind.”
Iruka shifted in place. He resisted the urge to rub at the bridge of his nose, a little uncomfortable at being the focus of Kakashi’s undivided attention.
“What alternative do I have?” he asked. And then, because that sounded harsh and ungrateful even to himself, he added: “I’ve been sharing my mind with these dreams since I can remember, Kakashi-san. I’d rather have you looking around than Ino.”
Kakashi didn’t look convinced. Iruka sighed. He would have to say it -- all of it -- out loud, it appeared.
“You already know why I left the field to become a teacher, Kakashi-san." Iruka said. "That mission's near-failure is what I would be most nervous about someone finding. That and the dreams.” Iruka paused again, and realized he could put the rest of it in words after all. “I don’t have time for my own secrets, Kakashi-san. I have all of Hashirama’s. I trust you not to betray his confidence.”
Perhaps it was pathetic to have so few things to hide, perhaps it made him a poor shinobi. But Iruka had no family jutsu, had no clan secrets. He was just Iruka-sensei, just himself: the only secrets he had to keep were those of the founding of Konoha, and who better to see those than the Hokage of Konoha?
Kakashi nodded. He looked like he was about to say something else when Sakura intervened.
“Should it wait until tomorrow?”
She seemed mostly to be addressing Kakashi, so Iruka just leaned back on his hands and waited, trying to re-play the morning’s encounter with Kurenai in the streets of Konoha. He wanted so badly to find the moment when she turned in his mind from “ally, teacher, and mother” to “dangerous.” He had no more luck finding it than he had in the moments after it passed, or the time he'd spent sitting in the hospital’s waiting room.
“Today is fine,” Kakashi said. “We can try again tomorrow, if it doesn’t work.”
“Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said, irritation clear in her voice. “You can try again in two days if it doesn’t work. Maybe. You’re just back from a diplomatic mission. I’m not letting you tap yourself out.”
“Iruka-sensei,” she said, turning around. “You should be lying down. And make sure Kakashi-sensei is sitting down when you start this? I don’t want him falling over.”
Kakashi made a gesture of protest behind her, and Iruka couldn’t help but smile.
“I’ll do my best,” he promised. Kakashi glared at him, but there was no heat behind it, just a sort of friendly teasing that surprised Iruka a little bit.
“All right,” Sakura said. “I’ll leave you two to it. No one will come in unless you call, and they’ll knock a few hours from now to make sure you’re both still, you know. Here.”
* * *
Someone knocked on the hospital room door as Iruka was finger-combing his hair. It seemed to have gotten tangled from just sitting in the hospital in a way it didn't manage even on missions.
“It’s open,” Iruka called, wondering who it was. The nurses hadn't seemed to have a problem just walking in. Kakashi hadn't seemed like he was coming back. He'd left soon after performing the memory jutsu, just walked out without a word to Iruka.
“Iruka-sensei,” Sakura started, as Iruka turned around, hair loose around his shoulders. “Um.”
Iruka pulled an elastic off his wrist and tied his hair back up into a ponytail with the ease of long practice.
“Yes, Sakura?” Iruka prompted, when she didn’t say anything. “Is there something —?”
She shook her head, and then, after a moment, nodded.
“We got some of the first test results back,” she said. She looked like she wanted to say something more, but was biting her tongue. "And Kakashi-sensei is back."
"Why don’t we go sit somewhere with more chairs?” Iruka suggested, when she didn't say anything more.
Sakura looked faintly relieved at the suggestion and nodded.
“And while we’re at it,” Iruka added, because Sakura still looked a little unsettled. “What are the chances of getting something to eat? I’m quite hungry, and I’m guessing Kakashi will be, too.”
After all, Kakashi had been the one doing all the heavy lifting today. He might have more chakra than anyone had realized, given the drain of the Sharingan on a non-Uchiha body, but he wasn't limitless. And even if he wasn't feeling any strain, Iruka was hungry.
Sakura nodded, and leaned out into the corridor for long enough to flag down an orderly and confer with her briefly.
“We’ll go to my office,” she said.
Iruka shook his head at the idea of Sakura having her own office: sometimes he felt like Sakura should still be thirteen, not organizing the re-establishment of Konoha’s hospital for integrated civilian and shinobi use. She snagged another orderly as they headed to the stairs and had him promise to tell Kakashi where they’d gone.
"I know," she said, when the orderly went slightly blank-faced at the prospect of telling Sharingan Kakashi -- the Hokage -- what to do. "But it's important. Tell him we're in my office, and show him there if need be."
The orderly swallowed, and nodded.
When they arrived Iruka saw that Sakura’s office wasn’t huge, but it had a couple of comfortable chairs, a small couch, and an almost aggressively tidy desk.
“We’ve only gotten the first results back,” Sakura said. “They’re not conclusive, but they’re — they’re a little strange. Do you know if you’re related to Yamato-taichou?”
Iruka frowned. Yamato had never been at any of his family's gatherings, and his parents had never spoken of him as anything other than 'that poor thing,' and that only when Iruka had been quite young and had definitely supposed to have been asleep, rather than eavesdropping on adults.
“Not that I’m aware of. I suppose he'd know as well as I do, though. Why?”
She shook her head.
“There were some results that don’t make much sense,” she said. “We still have to wait for the more conclusive tests to come back: that won’t be for another day or so. Maybe a little longer.”
“For now,” Sakura said. “Nothing in your blood work or chakra signature is raising any red flags, so it looks like it’s not an external toxin.”
“So if it’s not physical,” Iruka said. “Does that —“ he bit his lip before he could finish the thought. Does that mean I’m just crazy?
“I think whatever Kakashi-sensei has to say might help,” Sakura said. “Do you mind if I bring up your test results, if they’re relevant? It’s irregular, and we really are trying to be better about patient privacy, but he might be able to help answer a few questions.” She glanced at Iruka. “I think he’s the best person to ask, really. I mean, the best single person.”
A few hours ago, it would have been very strange to think about Sharingan Kakashi being told, well, anything at all about Iruka, other than perhaps an update on mission staffing, or perhaps news from a message from Naruto. But it was hardly the strangest thing that had happened today, and Kakashi had just spent several hours rifling around in his mind. Iruka just shrugged his assent.
"If it will help," he agreed.
An aide came by with covered trays on a small rolling cart. The smell was unexpectedly tempting, though Sakura looked less pleased about it than Iruka felt.
“It’s not terrible,” Sakura apologized, opening up the lids to several plates. "But it is still hospital food.”
It wasn’t bad at all: compared to some of Iruka's more recent personal cooking disasters, it was really quite good. They ate in silence, and Kakashi arrived a few moments later as if summoned by the food.
He sat in the chair opposite Sakura and put down a thick folder on the seat next to him without comment.
“Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said, though she waited until after he and Iruka had finished devouring more food than Iruka had really anticipated. Iruka felt he hadn't done anything, just let Kakashi wear himself out, but he still felt surprisingly tired. “Did you find anything?”
Kakashi nodded, and Iruka waited impatiently. “His chakra is definitely being sealed.” Kakashi looked — Iruka wasn’t sure. Confused, maybe? “It’s a more complicated seal than I’ve seen on anyone except Naruto,” Kakashi continued. “It’s completely self-sustaining, and made entirely of his own chakra.”
“How —“ Iruka wasn’t an expert on seals by any means, but something like that was incredibly difficult: the caster would have to be able to manipulate the subject’s chakra as if it were their own, which was — well. There was theory . But Iruka had never heard of it actually being done .
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Kakashi said. After a moment, he added: “I don’t think Jiraiya would have known how to seal something this intricately.” He paused, then sighed, glancing at the ceiling. “I don't think even Kushina could have done it, honestly.”
Sakura let out her breath in a low whistle. “What is it sealing? Could you tell?”
“It seems to be binding back more chakra,” Kakashi answered.
“Wait,” Iruka said, because that made no sense. “You’re saying that my chakra is being suppressed? Wouldn’t I be able to tell?”
“Not this seal,” Kakashi said. “It doesn’t just cut off the chakra at the source — you’d run up against the block, and know something was wrong. It —“ Kakashi waved his hands in what was probably supposed to be a helpful gesture, and Iruka had a moment of fellow-feeling for Naruto's years-ago complaints about Kakashi's teaching. “It sort of — shunts the rest of your chakra around the blocked area, like a river splitting to run around an island. To the water, the island doesn’t feel any different from the banks. So when you draw on your chakra, I think the seal would feel — it would feel like there was nothing there.”
“All right,” Iruka said. “So I didn’t know it was there. How did it get there?”
Kakashi shook his head.
“It’s almost invisible,” he said. “But it looks like it binds at each and every one of your chakra points. If I didn’t have the Tsukuyomi — if your chakra hadn’t been so disturbed, roiling from seeing the Sharingan — I don’t think I would have seen it at all.”
“So Iruka-sensei has more chakra than he was aware of,” Sakura said, a succinct summary. “Why would someone bind that?”
Kakashi shook his head.
“That's not all of it," he said. "There’s something else there, sealed within Iruka’s heart chakra.”
“You said it was invisible,” Iruka pointed out. “That there wasn’t any foreign chakra.” Kakashi shrugged.
“There isn’t. It’s like a little self-contained ball of your chakra, except that it’s —“ he looked frustrated for a moment. “Denser, maybe. It goes deeper, and it's – harder to feel, but the edges are harder. More defined."
That didn't make much sense, but Iruka didn't want to push right now. Kakashi still looked exhausted, and Iruka wondered what the diplomatic mission he had just returned from had been. Iruka hadn't thought much about that, just about how difficult the Yamanaka and Uchiha jutsu might have been to cast. Sakura was starting to look concerned, but she just steepled her fingers on her desk and stared at Kakashi over them. She looked like a miniature Tsunade.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. She sounded exasperated, like she was the teacher and Kakashi was a pupil who was being deliberately obtuse.
"This might help," Kakashi said. He picked up the folder, and pulled out a handful of photographs of Iruka, and a couple of photographs and sketches of the first Hokage.
“Pretend you'd never seen these before," he said. "What do you see?”
He put out a snapshot of Iruka as a child and a sketch of Hashirama and Tobirama in their slightly-too-large armor. Then Kakashi put down a picture of Iruka taken a year or so ago, and a photograph of Hashirama taken just after the founding of Konoha. Iruka could vaguely remember both pictures being taken, which was slightly surreal. The flash from the photographer's camera had annoyed Hashirama at the time.
Sakura bent over, and pulled the second two closer.
“That’s amazing,” she said. Iruka scratched at the back of his head. “Someone has to have noticed the resemblance,” she continued, looking up at Iruka. “Haven’t they?” Iruka shifted in his seat.
“Sure,” he answered. “But my mother was from a branch of the Senju clan. I mean — kids brought it up." especially after I failed the chuunin exam twice in the same year, he thought. “But it never really meant anything.”
Kakashi shook his head.
“Someone should have looked into it,” Kakashi said, and his tone was very, very serious.
“Iruka-sensei,” Sakura said, looking up, holding up another photograph. “Will you take down your hair again?”
Kakashi glanced at the picture she was holding, and nodded. Iruka complied, feeling their gazes on him as if they were a physical weight.
Sakura bit her lower lip.
“If you’re not related to Yamato-taichou’s family,” she said, and then glanced at Kakashi again. “Then those test similarities —“
Kakashi nodded in what looked like agreement. “The sealed chakra — and the sealing chakra — felt familiar. It took me a moment to place it, but I'm pretty sure.”
“What?” Iruka demanded, when they just looked at each other across Sakura's desk. It sounded like they were on the same page – but Iruka wasn't even sure which book they were reading from.
“It seemed crazy,” Kakashi said, slowly. “But — you said there were similarities to Yamato’s — what, DNA tests?” Sakura nodded. “That’s not all him,” Kakashi pointed out. “Or not only him, I mean. Orochimaru implanted some of the Shodaime’s DNA into him when he was a child.”
They already knew that, Iruka thought. Everyone knew that, at this point. It had been part of why Yamato had been captured, had been used as some kind of bizarre experimental human battery during the war.
“You said my chakra felt familiar,” Iruka said, wanting to get the conversation back onto more solid ground. He didn't know anything about medical experimentation and DNA testing, but he taught chakra systems. Surely he'd understand more of that. “How?”
“During the war,” he said. “When Orochimaru brought back the first four Hokage to fight with us.”
Iruka felt the pit of his stomach drop into his feet. Kakashi just kept talking.
“The Shodaime’s chakra — your chakra feels a little bit like his. Like part of his. If part of your chakra is sealed —“
“No,” Iruka interrupted, head spinning. He put a hand up to tie his hair back, needing something to do, needing to feel the familiar pull at his temples. Some days that difference, that pressure, had been all that had reminded him who he was, who he wasn't. “That’s insane. That can't be – that's insane.”
“We don’t know anything for sure right now,” Sakura said. “We won’t for another day or two, not from the hospital’s tests.”
“But – just let me get this straight,” Iruka said, feeling like he was grasping at straws.
Maybe this was all just some really strange dream, and he’d wake up in the morning feeling like himself. Then he wouldn't want to try to kill Kurenai, and then none of this would have happened. Except that Iruka never dreamt about himself: either he didn’t dream at all, or he saw the world through Hashirama’s eyes. Iruka rubbed at his eyes. Kakashi looked, for a moment, almost sympathetic. I must be dying, Iruka thought, which was uncharitable and unfair. He straightened in his seat.
“You think," Iruka said. "That the reason my DNA tests look like Yamato’s is because we both have Hashirama’s DNA.” Sakura nodded. “And you think my chakra feels like his,” Iruka continued, catching Kakashi’s eye. “And you both think I look like him.” He gestured at the spread photographs. “So, what then? I’m not directly descended from him: I’d know that. Tsunade would have known that, even if he were hiding something, right? My mother wasn’t part of his immediate family. She was just a cousin.”
Sakura shook her head.
“The match we’re getting — we don’t know for sure yet, but it doesn’t look like family similarities. It looks identical. Like two samples taken from the same person.”
Iruka was glad he was sitting down.
“So you think I’m, what — a clone of the first Hokage? We don’t know how to do that.” Sakura looked aside. When Iruka turned to look at him instead, Kakashi wouldn't meet his eyes. “Wait," Iruka demanded. "Do we?” Even he could hear the disbelief in his voice.
“Sort of,” Kakashi said, still looking away. “Orochimaru never got it quite right, but Madara’s labs were better. We know Hashirama found some of them, toward the end. We have notes for what they found in most of them, but …” he cut himself off. The notes weren't anything good, then. And if only Kakashi knew about it, or only Kakashi and now Sakura, it was very heavily sealed information.
Iruka took a deep breath, trying to get his temper under control.
“So you think I’m a clone of the first Hokage created in a lab by an obsessive madman? That’s ridiculous. I had parents. I —“ He stopped flailing when Kakashi put a hand on his arm.
“We don’t know anything for certain right now, Iruka-sensei.”
Kakashi sounded calm, certain, comforting. He sounded not at all like his world was crumbling beneath his feet, because of course, it wasn't: this wasn't his life, or his problem. Iruka hated him in that moment, felt anger rise up hot and blinding.
“Did you find anything about the dreams?” Iruka snapped. “You know, the things you were supposed to be looking for?”
His tone was acid, and he regretted the words even as he spoke. Kakashi pulled his hand away.
“They’re colored with chakra that matches yours,” Kakashi said, his tone back to that flat, bored almost-monotone he affected. “And they’re definitely coming from below the barrier. I didn’t get much more than that: it’s remarkably impenetrable. It appears to be almost entirely separate from the rest of your mind.”
“Oh, good,” Iruka said. “So either I’m going gradually insane and have some kind of incredible split personality, or I’m a clone of the first Hokage.” He took a deep breath. “Or both.”
“Iruka-sensei,” Sakura tried. Her tone was conciliatory, but he heard worry underneath. “We’ll know more tomorrow.”
Iruka sighed, and rubbed at his forehead. He knew better than to worry his students. Even if Sakura were a jounin now in her own right, ANBU-class at least, he still didn't want to hear her sound so dismayed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “This is just — this is not quite what I expected when I woke up this morning.”
There wasn’t much to say after that.
Kakashi tried briefly to explain a little bit of what he’d encountered in Iruka's head. Despite what were clearly his best efforts at description, it all sounded very strange to Iruka, and finally Iruka left to go back home. It might have been coincidence that Kakashi walked most of the way with him, but Iruka doubted it. Still, Kakashi didn’t act as though he thought Iruka was crazy, or incompetent. It did make Iruka feel better, too, knowing that if he ran into Kurenai again Kakashi would be able to restrain him. They didn’t talk, and when Kakashi turned away with a wave Iruka was glad to be only a few blocks from his apartment.
Iruka spent the rest of that evening cleaning and tidying, because he always put it off, and it was something to do, to keep himself busy. Thankfully, he didn’t dream that night — or if he did, he didn’t remember it.
The next morning, Iruka thought about leaving the apartment, going out for the groceries he had meant to get when he'd run into Kurenai. Instead he deep-cleaned the entire kitchen, down to bleaching the grout between the tiles. When he was done, it looked better than it had since he moved in.
Sakura had said she’d send for him when they had news, but that it would probably be another couple of days. In the afternoon, Iruka cleaned out his closets, and was amazed at the quantities of junk that he’d managed to accumulate even since moving after the war. He took two brimming garbage bags of old class projects, failed models and broken class demonstration pieces, down to the building’s dumpsters, and then he decided that was enough cleaning.
He organized bookshelves for a while, but he got distracted by one of the history textbooks Academy instructors were supposed to use. For his part, Iruka had stopped using it as soon as he was promoted past Assistant Instructor, preferring to lecture and write up his own hand-outs, but apparently he’d never gotten rid of the teaching copy he'd been given all those years ago.
Iruka flipped to the section on the foundation of Konoha, and read through it. It was a lot shorter than he remembered, and despite what Iruka hoped had been the author’s best efforts, it painted blocky, two-dimensional pictures of the founding fathers of Konoha, Madara and Hashirama and Tobirama were all fierce shinobi and able warriors. Uzumaki Mito merited inclusion not because she had been a strong clan-leader whose knowledge of seals had been encyclopedic and whose heart had been big enough to accept all of Konoha as her family despite her family’s blood on some of the other clans’ hands, but because she had married Hashirama and borne him children to continue the Senju line.
Iruka flipped back to the beginning of the textbook.
The Warring Clans period was described only vaguely, and the Uchiha and the Senju were the only clans described, because their union had been the catalyst for the formation of ninja villages. Even then, the descriptions were wildly insufficient, flat and boring, and entirely without emotional depth or detail.
Iruka closed his eyes and let himself remember the different styles of armor, the way the Uchiha had all looked terrifying in battle, with their wild black hair and the ranks of blood-red eyes that made close-quarters combat a death sentence. He remembered Senju Itama and Senju Kawarama’s funerals, and their father standing dry-eyed at the graveside, insisting that his sons had died as men in battle, not as boys slaughtered by another clan desperate for vengeance for sons of their own. Iruka remembered skipping stones with another boy his age. He remembered being so very young, and still intentionally not sharing their family names, lest they discover they were enemies.
Iruka looked back at the pages of the textbook. The unending, fierce fighting between the Uchiha and the Senju clans under Madara and Hashirama was covered in two short paragraphs. Iruka closed his eyes and remembered all the mornings he’d woken in tears for the loss of Uchiha Izuna, who had been killed in battle all too young. He remembered the surprise of not dying, when Madara had stayed Hashirama’s own hand. That moment – which Iruka remembered as a turning point, a fulcrum that changed the course of shinobi history – merited all of a single sentence.
The rest of the book was more of the same, and flipping through it, Iruka marveled that no one had wondered where his knowledge of the period came from: there was so much less in the textbook than he remembered from the dreams. It was a miracle students learned anything about the Will of Fire from a book this shallow and insipid. Iruka read through to the end of the Sandaime's first reign and when he looked up again it was dark. Iruka cooked a cursory dinner, left the dishes in the (sparkling) sink, and went to bed.
It was as if the dreams were waiting for him. Iruka woke exhausted and tear-stained, having just dreamed the final battle between Madara and Hashirama. He stared at his ceiling for a long time before he felt ready to get up to face the day, knowing what he did now about their final moments, the twisting of friendship and waves of grief that Hashirama had felt, had been strong enough to live with, to carry with him.
Someone knocked on the door just as Iruka finished eating lunch. To Iruka’s surprise, it was Yamato. He still looked tired, these days, and a little too pale — but it was miles better than he had looked when they’d found him sealed into Madara’s statue, being used as a kind of human battery. Shizune had said it was a miracle he’d survived at all. He might never be as strong as he had been before; he might just need more time to recover. No one had done anything like it before, so there was no way to tell.
“Iruka-sensei,” Yamato said. “Sakura asked me to tell you they have the test results back. She wants to see both of us.” Iruka blinked, a little confused that Yamato would be sent as a messenger.
“Um,” he said, thrown for a loop. “All right, let me just —“ he waved a hand vaguely. And then, because Yamato just stood there in the doorway, seemingly content to just wait for Iruka as long as it took, Iruka added: “Please, come in.”
Yamato stepped in and Iruka ducked into the bedroom, grabbed a long-sleeved shirt and tugged it on over his t-shirt, and then, on impulse, grabbed the history textbook from the table. When he turned to pick up his vest, he could see Yamato looking at the kitchen, obviously a little surprised.
“I had nothing to do yesterday but think,” Iruka explained. “So—“ he gestured at the kitchen. “You know.” Yamato smiled.
“I suppose it’s more productive than walking around the circumference of Konoha's walls on your hands,” he said, and his tone was wry. “Not that I’m saying I know anyone who’s done that, mind you.”
Iruka surprised himself by laughing. He shrugged into his vest, slipped on his sandals, and opened the front door, textbook in hand.
“After you,” he said, and then, because that could only be a description of Guy. “Did he really? I’m surprised I didn’t hear about it.”
They traded good-natured gossip on the way to the hospital: apparently Iruka's assumption had been wrong, and Kakashi had done so as well. He’d been less practiced at avoiding Guy’s challenges when they were younger. It sounded like Konoha's jounin gossiped even more than chuunin, and more freely than the chuunin would ever dare.
When they got to the hospital’s entrance, Iruka paused. Yamato stopped a step ahead of him and looked back.
“Iruka-sensei?” he asked. Iruka stepped forward.
“It’s ridiculous,” he answered. “But it almost feels like if I just don’t go through those doors, I’ll be able to ignore all of this.”
He shook his head, as if to clear it, and took a deep breath. Then he walked through the hospital’s entrance, holding the way open for Yamato behind him.
“They said they'd be in Sakura’s office,” Yamato offered and Iruka nodded.
* * *
Sakura and Kakashi were already there. Sakura was holding two thick folders, and gestured for them to sit down. When they did, she laid out a series of paired photographs on the table. Each one had a series of narrow horizontal bars that formed vertical columns. The bars varied in width and darkness, and some columns were closely packed, others sparsely populated.
“These are from Iruka-sensei,” Sakura said, pointing at the right-hand photograph in each group. “These,” and she pointed at the left-hand photographs. “These are from Yamato-taichou.” The left ones were blurrier, with more bars.
“All right,” Iruka said. “So? They don’t look the same.” Sakura shook her head.
“That’s because Yamato-taichou has twice as much DNA as he should. It means there’s more to catch the dye. But if you look here —“ she pointed out a thick, dark bar in a pair of photographs, “and here —“ she pointed at a series of smaller bars, also identical.
She continued to describe the pictures and the process, and the more she explained, the more clear it was that something in these images was very, very close to identical.
Sakura pointed out a few more particularly visible, or particularly meaningful pairs, and they sat in silence and looked at the pictures for what seemed to Iruka like a long time.
“Okay,” Iruka said. He closed his eyes, trying to regain some sense of equilibrium. “I’m probably genetically identical to Senju Hashirama.” He opened his eyes, and looked from Sakura to Kakashi. “That doesn’t explain why I have the dreams.”
Kakashi cleared his throat, and all eyes went to him.
“Something else might,” he said. “There’s that odd, dense patch in Iruka’s heart-chakra.” He paused, and looked at Iruka. “Did Naruto ever tell you about meeting his parents?”
Iruka nodded, and both Yamato and Sakura perked up.
“A little bit,” Iruka said. “He said they’d been — oh.”
“Sealed within him,” Yamato finished for him. “Just enough of their chakra to step in if the kyuubi’s bindings ever broke.”
Sakura nodded. “I’m pretty sure the Shodaime could have done the same thing,” she said. But she sounded uncertain. Then she turned to Kakashi. “Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura asked, “do you think so?“
Kakashi shrugged. “It seems likely.”
“So,” Iruka said, “if Hashirama is … sealed into me somehow, how do I talk to him? I don’t have a tailed beast to trigger anything.” He paused. “I would know that, right?”
Sakura laughed, and Iruka saw Yamato smile a little bit as well.
“No,” she said. “That’s impossible.”
“No,” Yamato mused. “Both times it happened to Naruto, it was because of the Kyuubi almost escaping. I suppose that means his parents were somehow aware of what was happening to him.”
Now that was a creepy idea, and one Iruka really didn’t want to think about too hard.
“Are you suggesting that Hashirama — that the First Hokage — has been, what, watching me my entire life?”
Sakura shook her head.
“Naruto said that they were surprised by how old he was. They can’t have been watching the whole time, not if that surprised them. Maybe it’s a condition that has to be met?”
Kakashi hummed, and they all looked to him, but he didn’t say anything. They were silent for a few moments.
“I don’t think it’s tied to physical harm,” Iruka said. “I mean, if it were going to trigger if I almost died —“ he swallowed. Even if he hadn’t been out in the field much until recently, and rarely in much danger out there, there was still Mizuki. “Well,” he continued, when no one seemed to realize what he was talking about. “I would think a giant shuriken in the back probably counts.”
Yamato looked surprised. Kakashi just nodded.
“I’d almost forgotten about that,” Sakura said. She sounded thoughtful, and she leaned over to pick up one of the file folders on her desk. “I wonder if —“ she leafed through his folder, and then flipped back a couple of pages. “Here it is. She skimmed it briefly, blinked, turned the page over, and kept reading. “This is —“ she looked up. “Iruka-sensei, the first medic to inspect you thought your spinal column had been severed. Between the —“ she ran her finger down the page. “— the 7thand 8ththoracic verterbrae. He said it was a miracle you hadn’t bled out, because the vererbral artery was cut, too. But once they got you to the hospital, they were both intact. They assumed the medic in the field had over-reacted and seen the wound he expected based on the size of the shuriken.”
“So,” Yamato said, turning his head and considering him. "You think he heals like the Shodaime, too?”
“That can’t be true,” Iruka said. They stared at him; he stared back. Wasn’t it obvious? “If I heal like Hashirama, how’d I get this?” He pointed at his face.
Sakura cocked her head to one side.
“You don’t know, do you?” she asked. “I mean, do you remember it happening?” Iruka shook his head. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know. Maybe it only works on some things?” That seemed unlikely.
“We won’t find out unless we talk to the Shodaime,” Kakashi said. “We assume he put himself in there for a reason, right?”
It sounded like Hashirama being bound inside Iruka's chakra was their working theory. Iruka resisted the urge to shake his head to try to clear it. He'd thought being Naruto's teacher was weird, that the Moon's Eye Plan had been strange. This topped all of the things he'd heard about, but perhaps that was just because it was happening to him personally.
“Hopefully it wasn’t to come back out again, or to take over his body,” Yamato said.
They all turned and looked at him, Sakura's expression aghast.
“It’s what Orochimaru would have done,” Yamato pointed out. “If he’d had the chance, do you think he wouldn’t have sealed himself into a clone and taken over its mind?”
It was only one step away from what Orochimaru had planned to do to Sasuke, after all: a little more work, and a lot less chance of rebellion.
“No,” Iruka said, immediately certain. The dreams were suddenly comforting, a steady bulwark against this revolting possibility.
“No,” he continued. “Hashirama wouldn’t do that. And Mito wouldn’t have helped him do that. It would — it would go against everything he’d built in Konoha, to destroy a child for the sake of his own survival.” He was absolutely certain. His voice was clear and steady. “It’s not that.”
“Then it looks like we’ll have to ask him,” Kakashi said. “Unless you’re particularly attached to wasting time on more speculation?”
“But how?” Iruka asked.
Kakashi pushed up his hitae-ate: Iruka immediately shut his eyes.
“If you’re that twitchy about seeing the Sharingan,” Kakashi said. "It’s because the Shodaime is reacting to it, at least a little bit. We can use that as a lever.”
“All right,” Sakura said. “Iruka-sensei?”
Iruka opened his eyes, and looked at her, nodding encouragement when she didn't continue.
“Do you want to try?”
He didn’t, really. Now that the dream-battles were done, maybe he’d acclimate to the Sharingan again. And it wasn’t as if there was really much risk of him running into anyone but Kurenai, these days, with Sasuke still traveling and Kakashi wearing the hitae-ate.
But Kurenai had a daughter, Asuma's little daughter, who had the same red eyes. And while Iruka knew Kurenai could almost certainly take him out, her daughter was still too small to defend herself, even against a chuunin-sensei, even in a crowd. He felt sick at even the idea of running into her somewhere. No one in Konoha would imagine Iruka, of all people, hurting a child. It would make them -- all of them -- too slow to stop him.
“All right,” he said, and stood up. “Where are we doing this?” Sakura stood as well.
“I think we’ll have to take one of the corner rooms,” she said. “But we’re going to — we need to have at least one Hyuuga here, to see if they can keep track of what’s happening to your chakra.” She paused. “And Shizune, since she’s more familiar with your medical history than I am.” She bit her lip. “And if this is what we think it is, we’ll need at least one person from the council, just to be safe.”
That meant Utatane Koharu, or Mitokado Homura. They were old enough that they probably remembered what the First Hokage’s chakra had felt like when he was alive. Realistically, since they rarely went anywhere alone anymore, it meant both of them.
“That’s a lot of people,” Iruka said.
“We’ll take a room with an observation window,” Sakura offered. “That way it won’t be quite as crowded.” She thought for a minute. “I think we should do this tomorrow,” she said. “You’ll be that much better rested, and I think Hinata has just come in from a mission. She’s one of the best they have, and I’d like to have her there, if possible, because she knows you, Iruka-sensei.”
Iruka sighed. He'd hoped to get this out of the way, to get it over with now, instead of having to dread it, to have time to talk himself out of it.
“All right,” he said.
“I’ll set it all up,” Sakura said. “I’ll get Shizune to talk to the councilors: they like her. And I’m sure Hinata will be happy to help, Iruka-sensei.” She grabbed one of his hands and squeezed hard; her hands were warm. “It’ll work out. We’ll figure out what’s going on.”
He nodded. Sakura and Kakashi and Yamato made a few more plans, and Iruka tried to look like he was paying attention, but he was sure he fooled no one, because they didn't once ask for his opinion.
Iruka spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening fixing faucets and closet doors and hitting himself in the thumb with a hammer a few times, which didn’t exactly do wonders for his mood. When he woke in the morning, he felt drained, but couldn’t remember dreaming, which was a little alarming. What if the dreams were a set cycle, and he’d run to the end of them? The prospect of not dreaming Hashirama’s life was a strange one: the other world had been part of his mind for so very long.
Yamato showed up at his door at ten, and Iruka thought: they’re babysitting me so I don’t kill someone . It wasn’t exactly a cheerful idea, but it was a heartening one. At least Sakura had taken that part of it seriously. It was strange to be pleased that someone took his murderous impulses seriously, but Iruka had been a shinobi a long time. It was oddly comforting.
Shizune’s office, when they got to it, was larger than Sakura’s. That turned out to be a very good thing, because the number of people in there would have been downright impossible in any smaller room. Shizune and Sakura were there, which Iruka had expected, and Kakashi. The Sandaime’s two former advisors were there as well, and two lab techs, and Hinata and Hiashi. And, most puzzlingly, Naruto, with an absolutely enormous scroll in his arms.
“All right,” Iruka said, stepping in and letting Yamato close the door behind them. "I’m confused.”
“Iruka-sensei,” Sakura said, giving him a small smile. “How are you feeling today?”
Before Iruka could reply, Naruto grinned, and set the scroll down with a thump.
“We’re all here to figure out what’s going on!”
It looked for a moment like he might be about to give Iruka a hug, but he checked himself, no longer the headstrong little boy Iruka had found so heartwarmingly frustrating. Iruka found he was a little disappointed and a little bit proud at the same time.
“Why don’t we all sit down,” Shizune said. It wasn’t really a question. Iruka found himself sitting across from Kakashi, Naruto, and Sakura, and between Hinata and her father.
There was a moment of slightly awkward silence.
“All right,” Iruka said, when it appeared neither Shizune nor Sakura was planning on speaking. He resisted the urge to stand. “Does everyone know why you’re here?”
Utatane Koharu sniffed. “We were told we would be informed this morning,” she said.
Her tone implied that they were taking liberties with her valuable time, and Iruka was reminded all over again of how surprised he’d always been that the Sandaime had been teammates with this woman.
Naruto grinned, and said: “We’re going to help Iruka-sensei!”
Apparently that was reason enough for him to be here, which was heart-warming, all things considered.
“That’s true,” Iruka said. “The short version is: I may be —“ he paused. A clone sounded too impersonal, as if he was renouncing his humanity. “— genetically identical to the First Hokage. The hospital ran tests on Yamato and myself, and there are matches that can’t easily be explained in any other way.”
He remembered Sakura’s question the previous day, and tugged his hair out of its usual ponytail, pulling his hitae-ate out of the way. One of the medical techs took a sharp little breath, and put her hand over her mouth.
“Why was this done now?” Mitokado Homura asked. He sounded almost petulant, as if this had been withheld from him out of spite, or intentional desire to harm Konoha, or his own reputation.
“Because I came in three days ago and asked for a psych eval,” Iruka said bluntly.
“Iruka-sensei?“ Naruto looked confused, and sounded almost child-like again, clearly worried.
“It’s all right, Naruto,” he said, and he could hear how much warmer his voice was when he was speaking to Naruto. He turned to look at the others, grateful that he wasn’t standing before all of them, that Hinata was a steady presence on one side, and Naruto and Sakura facing him.
“I asked for the psych eval because I’ve been dreaming of the First Hokage’s battles with Madara: the final ones. The ones that created the Valley of the End. When I ran into Kurenai-sensei in town, three days ago, I nearly attacked her for having red eyes and black hair.”
The room appeared to be digesting this, except for Yamato and Sakura, who looked concerned, and Kakashi, who just looked bored. Iruka might have been offended, but Naruto had complained about it so often that he thought now that it might just be how Kakashi looked when his full attention wasn’t necessary outside of a life-or-death situation.
“Kakashi-sensei was kind enough to help try to figure out where the dreams were coming from,” Iruka continued. "With his help we were able to confirm that they are seeping from behind a very, very strong barrier.” Kakashi tipped his chin up fractionally, and Iruka paused.
“Inoichi taught me the basic mind-reading jutsu,” Kakashi said. “And he wouldn’t have been able to find a way through this barrier without several other people’s assistance. I doubt there is anyone in Konoha now who would be capable of taking it down without breaking Iruka’s mind.”
He nodded at Iruka, who had taken advantage of the pause to try to figure out how to phrase this next part. Thankfully, years of teaching had taught him how to answer questions on his feet, and how to structure information on the fly.
“Kakashi-sensei was able to use an old Uchiha memory jutsu to enter my mind. In the process he discovered that each of my chakra points has been sealed.” Hinata gasped. “By my own chakra,” Iruka continued, and saw Hiashi’s brow furrow as he absorbed that. “The seals are almost undetectable, contain no foreign chakra, and are very complex.” Kakashi nodded, and Iruka made a ‘go on’ gesture.
“Jiraiya wouldn’t have been able to perform these seals,” Kakashi said. “I’m not certain he even knew they existed. I’ve never seen anything so complex, not even in a jinchuuriki.”
“Excuse me,” Hyuuga Hiyashi said, after a brief pause. “But did I hear you correctly, Iruka-sensei? You said they are sealed with your own chakra?” Iruka turned to face him, and nodded. Hiyashi looked surprised. “Manipulating another person’s chakra like that is tremendously difficult,” he said.
“Tsunade-sama could do it,” Shizune said, and all eyes turned to her. “But only a little bit. And only when she was healing them, to make it go more smoothly.” She folded her arms, and looked at Iruka. “Given Iruka’s resemblances, if the Shodaime did create these seals, he may not have been manipulating foreign chakra at all. How many of you were on the battlefield when the Hokage returned?”
It was mostly a rhetorical question: it was Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, Hinata and her father. And Iruka, though he'd been far away. The other medics had been in too much demand to go anywhere, and the councilors had been safe at home.
Shizune turned to the councilors. “You remember the Shodaime’s chakra?” Utatane Koharu nodded, and Shizune continued. “I want all of you except Iruka-sensei to close your eyes, and think about the Shodaime’s chakra as if it were woven of two strands, one of water, and one of earth.”
“Now,” Shizune said, and she made a ‘go ahead’ gesture at Iruka.
Iruka obediently pulsed his chakra, and Shizune made an unimpressed face at him, and gestured more emphatically. Iruka frowned, reminded himself that despite the councilors’ old age, he was probably the most fragile person in the room. This time he sent out a pulse of chakra as hard as he dared. Hiyashi gasped, and he activated the Byakugan as his eyes flew open, staring at Iruka with more expression on his face than Iruka thought he had seen in years. Iruka sat still.
“Again,” Hiyashi instructed. You could tell he was a clan leader: his tone brooked no question, and he hardly seemed to consider that disobedience would ever occur to Iruka.
Iruka pulsed his chakra again, a little bit harder, and this time Mitokado Homura opened his eyes and stared at Iruka. Naruto had an intent look on his face, but Iruka knew chakra-sensing had never been one of Naruto’s strengths. So it was a surprise when his eyes flew open.
“That old laughing guy!” Naruto exclaimed, and almost every head in the room turned to stare at him. “That’s who you feel like, Iruka-sensei! He was awesome! ” Hinata put a hand to her mouth, but Iruka still heard her giggle, a little bit. “Hey, hey,” Naruto said. “Does this mean you’ll be able to do that wood thing that Yamato-taichou does?”
Iruka couldn’t help but smile. Leave it to Naruto to remember the First Hokage for his laugh, and associate the wood jutsu with Yamato, rather than Hashirama.
“That was the Shodaime, Naruto,” Iruka corrected. “Senju Hashirama.”
“He was a lot nicer than the other guy,” Naruto said. “With the pinched face, and hair like Kakashi-sensei’s?” He gestured wildly around his head, as if the Nidaime’s hair were some kind of dramatic plant life.
“That was the Second Hokage, Naruto,” Iruka said, “Senju Tobirama.”
“Yeah,” Naruto agreed, as if dead village leaders returning from beyond the grave was entirely normal. “He looked like he’d just bitten a lemon all the time.”
Beside him, Iruka heard Hinata gulp back what sounded like it wanted to be gales of laughter. Even Kakashi looked a little bit amused, behind his façade of boredom.
“Naruto,” Sakura chided. “They were great shinobi. Show some respect.”
“What?” Naruto said. “He did look like that!”
Sakura thwacked him on the back of the head, but not very hard. The councilors were staring at Iruka, too shocked to be visibly offended.
“In any case,” Sakura said, picking up where Shizune had left off. “Do you see what we mean?”
“If his chakra is sealed …” he looked at Iruka speculatively. “What is your chakra nature?”
“Water,” Iruka replied. “And before you ask, I’ve never been able to manage earth jutsu." It had been a source of frustration, because unlike air, or fire, it had always felt just barely out of reach, rather than completely alien.
“That might make sense,” Koharu added. “If half of your chakra were sealed, it could be split along elemental affinities.”
Well, so far no one had told him he was going crazy. That meant this was going a lot better than Iruka had expected.
“We’ve asked you all here today,” Shizune said, and sat back in her chair. "Because we think that the denser chakra in Iruka’s heart chakra might be similar to the ways in which Minato-sama and Kushina-san sealed part of themselves inside their son.”
Naruto, who had been making a bit of a face since Sakura cuffed him, straightened up.
“Wait, so you have that old guy inside you, like I had my mom and dad? That would be awesome! ” He paused. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, can you ask him whose idea it was to put his head on the rock like that?”
Iruka resisted the urge to put his head in his hands.
“Naruto,” Sakura said, “I think Iruka-sensei has other —”
“He wanted to put Madara’s face on the cliff,” Iruka said, speaking before he really thought. He could feel the room grow still, in shocked silence. That was right, Iruka thought — no one else could have known this. Well, maybe it was time. “Hashirama wanted Madara to be the first Hokage. Tobirama objected, and insisted that they hold a democratic vote. The village elected Hashirama.”
Hiyashi drew in a sharp breath, clearly shocked. Iruka continued.
“Even then, Hashirama wanted Madara to be the second Hokage, but Tobirama didn’t trust him. Madara thought that if Tobirama was the second Hokage, the Uchiha would be marginalized, or even be killed, but the Uchiha as a clan turned away from Madara, and his anger. So he left the village, and Tobirama became the second Hokage.” Iruka looked around the room, and caught Koharu and Homura’s eyes. His tone was sharp when he said: “Madara wasn’t wrong about the village’s treatment of the Uchiha. It took longer than he expected, but where are they now?”
Neither of them answered him, and they both looked away before he did. Iruka sighed, feeling suddenly old, weary beyond his years. Antagonizing the elderly wouldn’t do any good: what was done was done.
“In any case,” Iruka said, turning away to face Naruto. "Sakura is right: there are other questions I’ll have to ask him first.”
Sakura nodded, and began discussing Iruka’s chakra system with Hinata, Kakashi and Hiyashi. Apparently Hinata and her father were here to monitor the two of them, and possibly to watch Iruka’s chakra for seals, if they could. Iruka listened to their debate about seals, since he was sitting in the middle of it, but Shizune pulled the councilors aside to have a whispered conversation that he mostly ignored. Naruto sat with remarkable patience (for him, at least), and waited until they reached a lull in the conversation.
“Are you sure Iruka-sensei’s going to be okay?” Naruto asked. “It sounds like this is all really complicated, and what if the seals are there for a reason? Maybe he needs them!”
It was a valid point. To Iruka's surprise, Kakashi stepped in to address it before Iruka could.
“Naruto,” he said. “We aren’t going to do anything to the seals until we’ve seen whether Hashirama left part of his chakra inside Iruka-sensei. We’ll talk to him first, and then we’ll decide what to do when we know more.”
His tone was almost unbelievably gentle: Iruka was a little bit surprised.
In the end, Iruka, Kakashi, Sakura, Hinata, and Hiyashi filed into a room with a mirror on one wall. Behind it, Iruka knew, were Naruto, Yamato, Shizune, Homura and Koharu, and the two techs who would be monitoring his vitals and also Kakashi’s. Iruka was reasonably sure Yamato could keep Naruto from irritating the counselors too much. If all else failed, Yamato could bind Naruto with a wood jutsu and carry him out of the room, or just put him in another cage. Yamato might not be fully recovered, but he could still certainly manage that.
Iruka sat gingerly on the edge of the hospital bed, and Kakashi pulled a chair around to face him. Hinata and Hiyashi stood aside while Sakura attached electrodes to Kakashi and Iruka’s temples, chests, and pressure cuffs to their arms. Then Hinata stood behind Iruka, and Hiyashi behind Kakashi.
“I’ll be monitoring their physical health,” Sakura said. “Keep an eye on their chakra systems, if you can — Hiyashi-san, I want you to monitor Kakashi-sensei, and Hinata-chan, if you can watch Iruka-sensei’s chakra, especially his heart chakra, and tell me if anything changes.”
Iruka stared at Kakashi, feeling a little bit of trepidation. Letting Kakashi into his head alone had been one thing: letting him do it around other people was a lot worse. Kakashi cocked his head to one said, and then gave Iruka a little nod, almost reassuring.
“Since I already know what the chakra points and seals look and feel like,” Kakashi said, “I can probably bring Iruka along with me by using an adapted Yamanaka jutsu.” Iruka blinked, and felt a lot of tension go out of his shoulders at once. Going with Kakashi hadn't even occurred to him, but it felt right, somehow. Across from him, Kakashi looked like he might be smiling behind the mask.
“All right,” Iruka said. “Are you going to —“
“Wait,” Sakura said, “Hiyashi-san, can you see any hint of the seals on Iruka’s chakra points?” He shook his head. “Hinata?” Sakura asked, but she shook her head, too. “If you see anything, tell Hiyashi-san,” Sakura advised. “I want to have as good a diagram as possible, when this is all over.”
Kakashi looked over at her, and she plugged the last two ledes into the machine that would monitor their nervous systems and heart rates.
“Go ahead,” she said.
Kakashi slipped up the hitae-ate, and opened his eye. The Sharingan spun for a moment, three commas, and then flowed into the three-spoked wheel. Iruka focused on keeping his eyes open and meeting Kakashi’s gaze.
This is Hatake Kakashi , he reminded himself, not Madara . He’s helping me. And he could wipe the floor with me without standing up, so attacking him would be really, really stupid. It still took an awful lot of effort just to keep his hands still.
Then Iruka blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, the hospital room was gone. He and Kakashi were standing in a white, featureless space. Iruka looked around, obviously startled, and Kakashi made a wry face.
“This isn’t really a place,” Kakashi explained. “It’s a kind of an approximation.”
There was a thrumming sound all around them, and Iruka paused and just felt for it for a moment.
“That’s my chakra system,” he said. “That noise — it’s like a heartbeat.” Kakashi nodded.
“The heart chakra is this way,” he said, tipping his head in one direction. “I think if you approach it, that might trigger something.” He shrugged. “I don’t really know.”
Well, that wasn't exactly encouraging. But there was no sense just standing around here — it was probably costing Kakashi chakra that he could ill afford to keep the two of them submerged in Iruka’s subconscious like this. Iruka couldn't exactly drain the future Hokage just because he was getting cold feet. So Iruka nodded, and they headed in the direction Kakashi had indicated.
Walking here was strange: nothing seemed to be changing, and Iruka wouldn’t have known they were moving at all, if not for the steadily increasing tempo of the thrumming noise as they approached it. Finally something became visible, as if they were approaching it through fog: it appeared at last to be a circular wooden wall. When they reached it, Kakashi stopped about fifty paces away. Iruka walked around it, at a careful distance, but it had no doors or openings of any kind. He supposed they could always just use chakra to walk up the side of it, but that didn’t seem right.
Iruka caught Kakashi’s eye: he just shrugged. Well , Iruka thought, at least I’m not the only one who’s confused by this. He walked up a little closer to it, hearing the thrumming increase to an almost constant sound, an unending pounding surf, not the playful rise and fall of rollers on a beach. Iruka hadn't been to the seaside since his early childhood, but he had loved the water more than even his mother had expected.
When Iruka reached out with his right hand, the wall felt curiously malleable under his hand, as if he could make it move if he just knew the right seals. Nothing happened, so Iruka brought his other hand up, wondering what he was going to do when this didn’t work.
But when his left hand met the wood, the whole structure shivered beneath his palms, and then the wall slid away, smooth against his skin. In a bare moment there was a traditional, ornate doorway in front of him, opening into what looked like an old-fashioned house's outer courtyard, something from the warring states period, something from the founding of Konoha's early architecture. Iruka looked back over his shoulder and made a ‘come here’ gesture at Kakashi. Kakashi nodded, and they stepped through the doorway at the same time.
The doorway didn’t close behind them, which made Iruka a little bit less nervous. He took a few tentative steps along what seemed to be a graveled path, and stopped in surprise as a figure ahead of them turned around: it was Hashirama. Iruka remembered what the Hokage robes Hashirama was wearing had felt like, how the hem had occasionally caught on gravel, the heavy, slowing weight of the sleeves. Hashirama had pretty much detested them and avoided as many ceremonies as possible so as not to have to wear them. Tobirama had never let him hear the end of it.
So Umino Iruka’s first words on meeting the god of shinobi were: “Why are you wearing those robes? You hate them.”
Iruka shut his mouth with a snap, and felt himself flush. Behind him, Kakashi made a small, choked sound. Kakashi, Iruka noticed, was now wearing his jounin vest and blacks, not the Hokage robes that were his right, and which he had been wearing when they started this exercise in Konoha.
Hashirama turned the rest of the way around, looked at Iruka and laughed. His clothing flickered, and he was dressed one again in his usual blacks and bright red armor.
“You’re Iruka,” he said, and there was no question in his voice, just warm welcome and unwavering affection. “But why are you —“ A look of puzzlement flickered across his face. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight,” Iruka said, surprised. How did Hashirama know who he was? “How old were you expecting me to be?”
“Twenty-eight?” Hashirama asked. “They can’t be — why didn’t they tell you earlier?”
Iruka took a shuddering breath. So Hashirama had intended that Iruka know the truth, at some point. That answered one question.
“No one told me,” Iruka said. “We sort of … figured it out.”
“Why don’t we sit somewhere and discuss it,” Kakashi suggested softly, from just behind Iruka. “Shodaime-sama.” He bowed to Hashirama. Iruka had never seen Kakashi show that much deference to anyone: not even the Sandaime or Tsuande, not even the assembled body of revenant Hokage during the war. Admittedly, they had all been a little distracted at the time of that last one.
“Who are you?” Hashirama asked. “Wait — are you little Sakumo?” Kakashi stiffened: Iruka could feel the air around them grow suddenly chilyl as Kakashi's chakra pulled in around itself as if he'd been struck. But when he spoke his voice was measured, flat and expressionless.
“Hatake Sakumo was my father, Shodaime-sama,” Kakashi said. “My name is Hatake Kakashi.” He didn't add any of his titles, either the official ones or the combat-earned nicknames. He never did, and Iruka knew his doing that drove diplomats crazy. Here it seemed appropriate, somehow.
Hashirama drooped visibly as Kakashi's chakra changed, and Iruka had to stifle a laugh: so this was why Madara had always made fun of him for these fits of depression: Hashirama looked so absurd.
“Hashirama-sama,” Iruka said. “I’m sure he didn’t mean —“ he paused, because he honestly had no idea why Kakashi had reacted like that. Iruka wouldn't mind being mistaken for his father, but then again, the rumors that floated around about Sakumo were awfully dark. Iruka took a tentative step closer to Hashirama, who was still drooping absurdly, wilted like an unwatered plant. Iruka faintly heard Kakashi move behind him.
“My apologies, Shodaime-sama,” Kakashi said, stepping up beside Iruka. He sounded confused, and he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. Finally he shoved them awkwardly in his pockets.
“It’s all right,” Iruka whispered. “This happens sometimes.”
Hashirama looked up in surprise, which seemed to overcome the fit.
“How do you know — did Tobirama really set up those Archives he was always talking about?”
“Yes,” he said. "He did, but they’re a bit —" He broke off. It seemed impolitic to criticize the archives here. "I mean. I only know that from the dreams.”
Hashirama just looked confused, and Iruka gazed at him, feeling equally as lost. If Hashirama didn't know about the dreams, what was going on?
Kakashi cleared his throat, and Hashirama glanced between the two of them.
“Well,” the First Hokage said, blinking, clearly coming to a decision in that instant. “I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about. Please, sit down.”
He led them over to a small, previously unnoticed set of wooden benches. Iruka wasn’t entirely certain they’d even been there earlier, but there were more important things to talk about than malleable surroundings. Think of it like a genjutsu , Iruka told himself. And trust someone else to have control of it for once.
“Is there any kind of time limit on how long we can talk?” Iruka asked. “I mean, are you going to evaporate, or something?”
Both Minato and Kushina had done so, according to Naruto. But they had been expending chakra on resealing the Kyuubi, and Hashirama was presumably not doing anything that strenuous.
Hashirama shook his head, and took a seat cross-legged on one of the benches, hands on his knees. Iruka sat facing him, and Kakashi took a seat a little ways away, and pulled out a book. Iruka was surprised to see that it wasn’t one of the Icha Icha novels. Apparently the Shodaime intimidated Kakashi. For his own part, Iruka felt surprisingly comfortable with the man.
“No,” Hashirama said. “Mito said it should last as long as you need me. More than once, if that was necessary. Your chakra sustains me as well as my own, if you'll allow it to.”
Iruka let out a breath, feeling one worry slip away. Even if sustaining Hashirama ended up taking most of his chakra -- well. There were worse fates than being restricted to the village and taken off combat missions for chakra-drain, at least as far as Iruka was concerned.
“Now,” Hashirama said. “You mentioned dreams?” He sounded curious.
“I’ve been dreaming about you my whole life,” Iruka explained. Hashirama blinked; he looked taken aback. “I take it that — wasn’t supposed to happen?” Iruka asked.
“Nooo,” Hashirama replied, drawing the word out. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, a gesture so familiar to Iruka that he’d even picked it up himself. “That wasn’t something we planned on. What kind of dreams?”
Iruka shrugged. “Just your everyday life,” he said. “I only really realized it was you after you’d met Madara by the river. The details got easier to remember as I got older.”
Hashirama raised both eyebrows, and made a ‘go on’ gesture.
Iruka said. "It wasn’t — it was usually fine. I was definitely a better history teacher because of it,” he paused. “But sometimes they bleed over. At least, they did a few days ago.”
He explained about dreaming the fights with Madara, and then running into Kurenai.
“But how is she the only person in Konoha who looks like an Uchiha?” Hashirama asked. His tone was harsher when he asked: “Did Tobirama force them out?” His chakra roiled, simultaneously terrifying and achingly familiar.
Iruka sighed. Apparently this version of Hashirama hadn’t learned anything from his revenant self, which meant Iruka had a lot of explaining to do.
“No,” Iruka said. He took a deep breath. “They were all killed. About ten years ago.”
Hashirama stared at him in shock, silent.
“The only survivor is … traveling,” Iruka continued. “He was a child at the time.”
Sasuke had promised he would return to Konoha at some point, but Iruka doubted it would be any time soon: even if he’d sided with the shinobi allied forces during the last war, the memory of the village was still too raw a wound for Sasuke to be comfortable there. Naruto would drag him back eventually, Iruka was sure, by sheer determination as much as by force or kindness, but it didn't seem prudent to force Sasuke's hand just yet.
“I can explain that later,” Kakashi offered, not looking up. “It’s a long story.”
Hashirama shook his head, as if trying to shake off a bad dream.
“Maybe we’d better start earlier than that,” Iruka offered. “Can you tell me wh—“ he paused, looking for words that didn't make his childhood self sound like a misplaced delivery. He didn't find any. "Can you tell me where I come from?”
Hashirama still looked troubled, but he nodded.
“Madara had several — bases, I suppose,” he said. “After I defeated him, I found a couple of them. Most were empty, or nearly so, but one contained a surprising number of scrolls.” He shrugged. “Tobirama took those to start an archive,” he said. Then he paused. “The other one I found had —” he paused again. “It had a number of laboratories. There were white, person-shaped things. They weren’t people.”
“I’m familiar with them,” he said, because those had to be the experiments that became White Zetsu. “I’m sorry," Iruka added, when Hashirama did not continue immediately. "Please go on.”
“The innermost lab at that base was -- it was the worst,” Hashirama said. “There were several children in incubators, and two in cribs. I sent back to Konoha for medics, and we brought the five of you back to the village.” He sighed. “We couldn’t replicate the serum Madara had been feeding the youngest ones, not even with the samples we brought back.”
He looked dangerously depressed, and Iruka waited, unsure what to say.
“You survived,” Hashirama said, finally. “The others didn’t.”
Iruka swallowed. Four other children, all gone, and his survival -- well. How had he survived?
“Why me?” he asked. “I mean —”
“You were the oldest,” Hashirama said. “And Mito thought you were the only one who — that is to say, the others didn’t look as much like me. Some of them looked half Uchiha.” He looked at Iruka and grinned, an abrupt shift from his grim expression. “They didn't look as much like us, I should say.”
“How has no one told you this?” Hashirama asked. “Surely they —“
“Who else knew?” Iruka asked. “Did my parents know? I mean, the people I — I thought were my parents?” Hashirama nodded.
“Your mother was my younger cousin,” he said. "She and her husband hadn’t had any children. I think she fell in love with you before you were out of the medics’ arms.” Iruka blinked. “Your mother and father both knew,” Hashirama said. “And Tobirama, and Mito. And I believe Tobirama was considering telling some of his team, if the time came.”
Iruka shook his head. “They’re all dead,” he said. “Well, Koharu-san and Homura-san are still alive. But they were surprised, so Tobirama must not have told them.”
Maybe he hadn't had a chance -- maybe he'd decided to hold his secrets close, and his brother's secrets closer. There was no way to know. And he had died in battle.
“But —“ Hashirama shook his head. “You were to be told when you became a shinobi. How did they—“
Iruka sighed. It looked like it was time for a history lesson, so Hashirama would have a bit more background for why Iruka had never been told about his origins. It wasn't clear when Hashirama's knowledge of the outside world ended; Iruka would have to guess.
“You distributed the tailed beasts to the villages,” Iruka said. “In an attempt to equalize power.”
Hashirama nodded, but he looked a little bit confused. Iruka considered mincing words, but Hashirama hadn’t ever been in the habit of doing so himself: Iruka thought he would appreciate honesty.
“It didn’t work.” Hashirama frowned, and Iruka continued, falling into a lecturing stance, modulating his voice automatically to avoid a monotone. “After your death, Tobirama was the Nidaime Hokage. But Tobirama died in the First Shinobi World War, and left the title of Sandaime Hokage to Sarutobi Hiruzen in the field. In the Sandaime’s time, the Second Shinobi World War took place. Konoha emerged the least badly hurt, which only fostered resentment.”
Hashirama made a distressed sound, and Iruka shook his head. He was sorry to have to tell the god of shinobi that his plans hadn't worked, but he couldn't lie to the man.
“It’s been a cycle,” Iruka said. “And someone always seems to set it off again. The Third Shinobi World War began under the Sandaime about thirty years ago. It ended under the Fourth Hokage, Namikaze Minato, about twenty years ago. Kakashi can answer questions about that better than I can: he was in the field for most of it.”
Hashirama looked over at Kakashi, who looked up at them, what little they could see of his face almost expressionless, his usual blanked-out mask. Iruka wondered if he would resent being brought into the discussion without Iruka having asked first, but it was too late now.
“But, you can’t be more than—“ Hashirama’s voice was thick with emotion.
“I made chuunin at six,” Kakashi said, answering the unspoken question. “And jounin at thirteen.” He shrugged, as if that were utterly normal: for him, Iruka supposed, it had been.
Hashirama looked stricken.
“The whole idea of the villages was to keep children out of war,” he said, his voice pained.
“Kakashi was unusually young,” Iruka offered. “Only a handful of children graduated that early. Most stayed in school until they were at least nine or ten.”
That didn’t seem to help Hashirama's mood very much, which didn’t surprise Iruka. Ten year olds were still children, after all, whether or not they were wearing a hitae-ate or trained to kill.
Hashirama slumped, and Iruka felt like a terrible person for what he was about to say. He knew with a bone-deep certainty that it would hit Hashirama harder than any of the previous news had done, even the revelation of Kakashi’s age when he had been sent into the field.
“That’s not all,” Iruka said. Something in his tone must have changed, because Hashirama sat up straighter, and locked his eyes with Iruka’s.
“When I was eleven,” Iruka said, and took a deep breath. “A masked man who claimed to be Uchiha Madara attacked Konoha, gained control of the Kyuubi, and decimated the town.” He paused, acutely aware that Kakashi was listening. “The Yondaime bound the Kyuubi into his newborn son, Naruto, and defeated the masked man, but he died in the process. His wife, Uzumaki Kushina, had been the previous jinchuuriki, and she died soon after the Kyuubi was re-bound into her son.” Iruka closed his eyes. “A lot of people died that night,” he said. “Both of my parents did.” He hesitated. “So did your wife,” he said. “She was defending a group of unarmed children.”
“So,” Hashirama said. “Tobirama died in battle.” Iruka nodded. “Mito and your parents died when you were eleven.” He looked puzzled. “But you said children were in the field at ten —“
Iruka shook his head.
“Not me," he said. "I only got my hitae-ate when I was thirteen.” He paused. He should bring Hashirama all the way up to speed, but something was eating at him, and he couldn't ignore it anymore — “Why did you seal my chakra?” Iruka asked. He could hear the confusion in his own voice. “I mean — what was the point?”
Hashirama gaped at him.
“They didn’t —“ he stared at Iruka, who was stunned by the look on his face. “No one ever told you your chakra was bound ?”
“I found out a couple of days ago,” he said. “Kakashi-sensei was able to see it when he was looking into the dreams.”
He looked over at Kakashi, and nodded, inviting him back into the conversation.
“There weren’t any Yamanaka available,” Kakashi said, as if apologizing for his intervention.
“Wait — Konoha got the Yamanaka?” Hashirama sounded excited. “Does that mean you also got the Nara, and the Akimichi?”
Iruka grinned at Hashirama’s evident enthusiasm.
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re some of the most loyal clans in Konoha.”
They had also been some of the most badly hit by the last war, but Iruka wasn't going to bring that up. Hashirama was smiling wide at the news, and Iruka understood in that moment why so many people had followed this man: his emotions were clear and free-flowing, and he had a charisma that drew you in despite your best intentions. Even if Iruka had wanted to dislike Hashirama, he wasn’t sure he could have managed it at that moment.
“We should get all the way caught up,” Kakashi said. Then he looked at Iruka and Hashirama, who were both smiling, and shook his head in what seemed almost to be amazement. “You two look — it’s unreal.”
Iruka shrugged, but Hashirama just laughed, and ruffled Iruka’s hair, as if he were a child, or a puppy. Iruka should have resented it, but he found it felt natural, almost welcome. He knew Hashirama had done that with his natural brothers, after all. There was no malice in the gesture, no condescension.
“The Third War ended in severe reparations,” Kakashi said. “And there was peace, or at least a peace treaty with only minimal incursions by missing nin for more than fifteen years.”
Hashirama’s face, which had lifted at the description of peace, fell.
“There was a fourth war?” he asked. He didn't sound altogether surprised, but Kakashi still nodded.
“But,” Iruka interrupted. “It was different this time. This time all the shinobi nations allied to fight — well, to fight Madara, and —”
Hashirama stared at the two of them.
“I think you had better start from the beginning on this one,” he said. His voice was grim, and his chakra tightly controlled. “Madara survived?”
All in all, it took the better part of an hour to lay out Madara’s survival and plans, Obito’s supposed death and his gift of the Sharingan to Kakashi, the Kyuubi’s attack on Konoha, the rise of the Akatsuki, Orochimaru and Pain’s attacks on Konoha and the beginnings of the Fourth War. Iruka was surprised at the amount of detail Kakashi offered to Hashirama: he hadn’t known why Obito had stayed with Madara, and it obviously pained Kakashi to talk about their third teammate, Rin, at all.
“So this Orochimaru brought me back from the dead?” Hashirama said. His smile was a bit wry. “I always told Tobirama that jutsu was a mistake.”
Iruka nodded: he could remember one of those conversations. It seemed that none of them had gone particularly well.
Kakashi outlined the final battle with Madara and Obito and the Ten-Tails, and Iruka listened with interest: he’d heard some of it from Naruto, or over drinks with acquaintances, but those had been small, personal views of it. Kakashi’s description was spare and tactically incisive and made it clear that his grasp of the wider points of the battle had been all-encompassing, even when he’d been struggling to stand after having used the Sharingan for too long, or when battling Obito in a pocket dimension or paying attention to the tailed beasts. The man really was a genius, Iruka thought. Konoha was lucky to have him.
“And I didn’t say anything about Iruka, when I was raised?” Hashirama frowned. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“You asked if there were any other mokuton users,” Kakashi said. “But there was only Tenzo, who had been captured, and he isn’t Senju — Orochimaru implanted him with some of your cells when he was an infant, and he survived it.”
As so many others didn’t , Iruka thought. He wondered how old the other babies they had found in Madara’s labs had been, how they had been created. Why he had survived, when they hadn’t, why Tenzo -- Yamato -- had survived.
Laid out like this, Iruka thought, the history of Konoha seemed even more than ever like it was a series of the same mistakes made over and over again. Just look at all the teams that seemed to reflect their predecessors in the same roles, betrayer and betrayed: the Sannin, Kakashi’s team, Team Seven. Kakashi’s expression had gone flat and unreadable again.
Hashirama must have seen some of that in his face, because he took Iruka’s hand and squeezed it gently.
“We make mistakes,” he said. “All we can do is try to make new mistakes.” He looked at Iruka, curiosity clear on his features. “Even if everyone died,” Hashirama said. “You were supposed to have been given a scroll to explain things.”
Iruka sighed. “My house burned down in the kyuubi attack,” he pointed out. “There was almost nothing left in the rubble.”
Hashirama closed his eyes, looking very old for a moment.
“I didn’t even know anything was wrong,” Iruka said. "Not really. It was just how things had always been. I didn't mention the dreams to anyone until I almost tried to kill Kurenai. I’m --" he paused. "I'm lucky Kakashi could get us here.”
“I had to use an old Uchiha jutsu from Iruka’s memories of the dreams of you observing it,” Kakashi explained. “I reverse-engineered a Yamanaka jutsu to get us here, with some Cloud sensor-nin genjutsu layered on top and a bit of the Tsukiyomi’s time manipulation.” He paused. “Our bodies are being observed by two Hyuuga,” he said, as if he thought that all sounded like he was endangering Iruka. It was as if he were worried Hashirama would judge him for doing something so brilliant. “Just in case. And your granddaughter Tsunade’s pupil, Haruno Sakura, is in charge.”
Hashirama’s lips moved, echoing Kakashi’s litany of jutsu. It had seemed so straightforward when it was presented in small chunks but Iruka was beginning to realize just how lucky he was that Kakashi had survived the war, had learned so many jutsu over the years. That he was willing to help, at all.
“Well, Iruka,” Hashirama said, after a moment, smiling at him. “I’m pleased to see you have so talented a partner to help you through this.”
“Wha— what?” Iruka glanced over at Kakashi, who appeared to be just as surprised as he was. “Wait, no,” he blurted, realizing what Hashirama meant and feeling a hot flush rise in his cheeks. “We’re not — it’s not like that!”
“You’re not?” Hashirama looked between the two of them, beginning to blush in turn. “Most people don’t bring strangers into themselves like this.”
“That’s what I said,” he replied, shooting Iruka an unreadable glance.
“Well,” Iruka said defensively, “if there was another option, I’d love to know what it was!”
Kakashi shook his head.
"You could have been put on house arrest for a year until Ino got back," he said. "And hoped she could get the machine to work on you."
"And do what with myself for a year?" Iruka demanded. "I'm no use to Konoha locked up for a year, and I'm no use if I'm trying to kill shinobi. I'm not going to sit around waiting for one of my students to come dig around in my head."
Hashirama looked at him.
"You're a teacher?" He asked. He sounded intrigued, as if teachers were rare and special, rather than wash-outs.
"At the Academy," Iruka said.
And then there was another round of explanations, of the founding of the Academy and Iruka's work reforming it after Naruto's graduation so that it didn't rely so heavily on parental supervision to teach children basic chakra control. No one had noticed Naruto's chakra being unbalanced until Jiraiya took him under his wing, and now it looked like Iruka could have been saved a lot of grief if his teachers had known more about chakra binding, as well, or at least bothered to wonder why he was so incredibly inconsistent.
"He's also the second assistant to the Hokage," Kakashi said, when there was a pause. "Unofficially."
"What?" Iruka asked. "No, I'm not."
Kakashi made an unimpressed face at him.
"Of course not," he said. "That's why Tsunade allows you into her rooms with Shizune and Sakura, when she won't allow anyone else to see her."
Iruka frowned. Kakashi was the acting Hokage, for all intents and purposes. Tsunade was unwilling or unable to do any of the public-facing duties.
"I was there when she collapsed," he said. "That's all there is to it. It's too much for Shizune to handle on her own. Besides, Sakura has the hospital to run."
Hashirama looked back and forth between the two of them, and Kakashi actually winked at the Shodaime.
"He also regularly played chess with the Sandaime," Kakashi said, as if that had been anything other than a kind and somewhat desperate old man trying to keep an unruly child in line by any means necessary.
"Ah," Hashirama said. "And all this with half of your chakra bound." He smiled. "You really are very much like me, it would seem."
Iruka blinked. He'd never thought of himself as like the Shodaime: Iruka had been an undisciplined child who balked at external restrictions. He had grown up, finally, when there was no other option, and had become a strictly-self-controlled adult, because there had been no room in Konoha for a trickster genin, not in wartime. If Iruka had needed to work harder to get to the same place as his peers, it was just because he was clumsy, uncoordinated, and terrible at genjutsu.
"How did you bind his chakra," Kakashi asked, when it appeared Iruka was too lost in thought to pick up the conversation, or even respond to the implied compliment.
“Well,” Hashirama said, “Mito drew the seals, and I bound the earth half of your chakra nature. We didn’t know if you would manifest the mokuton, and the situation was too fragile: if you had, it would have tipped the balance of power toward the Senju and other clans would have left the village in fear of civil war, or not have joined us at all. The balance between Senju and Uchiha was the fulcrum on which it all rested, after all.”
Iruka nodded. The Mokuton had been one of the most effective weapons against the Uchiha, in its own way, and having another Mokuton user might have alienated the entire clan. Politically, it made perfect sense. It didn't mean Iruka had to like it, but at least it hadn't been willful cruelty.
“But you said I should have been told?” His tone was almost hungry, a little wistful. Even he could hear it.
“We planned to have Mito unseal your chakra once you were old enough to handle it.” He peered at Iruka, curious. “How have you managed all these years? Mito worried that it might — hm. Might unbalance you.”
Iruka shrugged, though he could feel his mind spinning. He wondered if this was what it had felt like when Jiraiya had re-balanced Naruto's seal. Had things been harder for him than for others, in truth? It was too large an idea to grasp fully, so he shied away.
“It’s just the way things were,” he said. “I usually figured out what my teachers meant eventually.” He paused, daring to hope, to ask for confirmation. “Are you saying this — that Mito thought this might have made things, what, more difficult?”
“We were going to start at the crown chakra,” he mused. “When you enrolled at the Academy. I suppose no one else could, or there was too much going on for Mito to remember." He looked displeased at the idea. "Then we were going to unbind one at a time, to let you acclimate.” He put a hand on Iruka’s head, and formed a few seals with one hand. Something cool crumbled down Iruka’s spine, inside his chakra system, and the thrumming, wave-breaking sound slowed a little bit, as if the water was hitting sand rather than stone.
“Now,” Hashirama said, “Kakashi-san, can you bring him back here without too much distress?”
“Then you should go, Iruka,” Hashirama said. “Learn how to re-harness your chakra. I’ll see you when you’ve mastered this part. I'll be here. Take your time.”
He smiled, open and trusting, like looking into a mirror of Iruka’s hopes. Then he made a ‘ kai ’ gesture, and Iruka woke up in the hospital.
“Kakashi-sensei,” Iruka asked, remembering how drained Kakashi had looked the last time.
“He’s waking up,” Sakura said. “Shh, Iruka-sensei. Just tell us what happened. Hinata said your chakra changed?”
Iruka looked over at Kakashi, who looked even paler in person than he had in Iruka’s — self? chakra? — in whatever place they’d been. Kakashi was wearing the robes he hated again, so they were really back in Konoha.
“Yes,” Kakashi agreed, looking at Iruka. "The Shodaime unbound his crown chakra."
Then he closed his eyes and apparently passed out. Only Hinata and Sakura's calm kept Iruka from breaking down entirely, then and there.
The councillors stormed in full of questions. Iruka had to resort to yelling and shoving a wave of his chakra at them to get everyone to just shut up so he could explain things. The resulting conversation was long and grueling, and at the end of it, Iruka almost envied Kakashi for being unconscious through it.
Kakashi was kept for observation at the hospital.
“I won't approve of you trying again for at least a few days,” Sakura said apologetically. Iruka was half-surprised to hear such a long estimate, but perhaps Kakashi had been running on lower reserves than he had known to begin with. “Still, Iruka-sensei," Sakura said. "You seem alright. Do you feel up to practicing? We should see what has changed, and the sooner the better.”
Iruka nodded, then paused. What if Kurenai were out there somewhere, or her daughter? He had no assurances that he wouldn't try to injure them, if he went out unaccompanied right now, and the hospital was not immediately adjacent to the training fields.
“I’ll go with you,” Yamato offered.
"Thank you," Iruka said. "I don't want to waste your time --"
"Don't be absurd," Yamato said. "I'm absolutely planning on picking your brain and learning all the mokuton jutsu you can remember. I'm planning on making you teach me everything."
He said all of this with a wide, open smile, as if it were perfectly normal to talk to a chuunin about learning sage-level attacks. Then again, Iruka thought, his week was already so strange: having Yamato take it calmly was, in a strange way, freeing. If Iruka had needed to be the calm one any longer, he might have lost it from the pressure of everything.
"I think you're vastly overestimating my ability," Iruka warned him.
"I think you're vastly underestimating your own," Yamato said, and they bickered amiably until they reached a training ground with a waterfall and a large stretch of earth.
When Yamato paused, Iruka looked around the flat grassy expanse surrounded by trees, and found himself almost reluctant to try anything. He could feel his chakra pathways tingling slightly within him, as they had been doing since he had woken up in the hospital. Perhaps since before that, Iruka thought -- it had been since Hashirama had unbound his head chakra. It didn't make sense that such a small gesture might unsettle his chakra so substantially, but then again, Iruka had never had his chakra bound or unbound before, and he knew that Jiraiya's fiddling with Naruto's seal had resulted in some rather dramatic side-effects.
"So?" Yamato asked, when Iruka stood staring at the trees for a long few moments. "Where do you want to start?"
Iruka blinked back to the present, shaking his head.
"Well," he said, thinking through his lessons, trying to guess how he might approach his own chakra system. "I suppose we go back to basics."
He walked over to a tree, focused his chakra in his feet and legs, and moved to walk up it, as he had done a million times since his childhood.
Well, not exactly nothing: instead of walking up the tree trunk, Iruka overbalanced, and only a swift re-balancing hop kept him from landing flat on his back on the dirt at the base of the tree.
Yamato's expression, when Iruka glanced at him, was impressively blank. He might not have been amused at all: not even a glint showed in his odd, dark eyes.
"Well," Iruka said, looking at the tree and trying not to feel the echoes of his teenage frustration. He knew what he was doing. He could figure this out. "Maybe that was too advanced."
Iruka focused again on his chakra system, on the thrumming tingles he could feel through his entire body, and tried to center it in his feet, taking his time, and running through the same steps he had taught students, before this trick was removed from the Academy curriculum for being too disruptive to classroom discipline.
This time, he stuck to the tree so tightly that he couldn't move his foot, and Yamato's expressionless mask broke into a small smile as Iruka swore and tugged at his calf to no effect. Now that he'd concentrated his chakra, his foot was tingling like pins and needles and he didn't seem to be able to un-concentrate it at all.
"Damn," Iruka swore, and stared at his foot, which rested flat against the trunk of the tree and was apparently content to stay there indefinitely.
This time Yamato didn't manage to hold back his laughter. Iruka stared at him, at his own offending foot, and burst into only slightly hysterical laughter of his own. Some moments in, his foot detached, and he sat down hard on the grass, looked up at the tree, and gulped his laughter back under control.
"Well," Iruka said. "Back to basics, I suppose."
Yamato nodded, wiping tears from his eyes, and Iruka got to his feet and started on the most basic exercises he knew, the ones he taught children from civilian families who didn't know what chakra felt like, or how to mould it at all.
It was exhausting, and almost painful, and Iruka thought it must have been dreadfully boring, but Yamato just watched him with patient eyes until Iruka declared himself done for the day, and then walked him home without comment.
The next day, Yamato showed up at Iruka's door, dragged him to the same practice field, and went through a series of meditation exercises with him that he had apparently learned as a child.
"Fewer restraints here," Yamato said off-hand. "But a lot more distractions. I could put us in a box if that would help."
Iruka stared at him, appalled at the portrait of Yamato's childhood that presented.
"No," he managed, finally. "Thank you. I'll have to do this in the real world eventually."
Yamato shrugged acquiescence and they went back to the meditation exercises without another word. It was, Iruka reflected at the end of the day, apparent that Yamato had the patience of a saint, and a good thing, too. Iruka had blown up several trees and nearly taken off his own hand, just by trying to focus chakra, and that had been with Yamato keeping an eye on him like Iruka was some kind of ticking time-bomb.
It had been intensely frustrating, and when Iruka opened his door and found Kakashi sitting at his table, he nearly screamed.
"There's ramen," Kakashi said. "Tenzo said it was a long day, and Naruto said you like Ichiraku, so--" he shrugged, as if it were entirely ordinary for the Hokage to bring food to a schoolteacher who couldn't even focus his own chakra.
"I hate you all," Iruka said with feeling, peeled off his vest and sandals, and stepped into the apartment. "But I'm starving, so you can stay."
Kakashi's eyes crinkled at the edges in a way that meant he was probably smiling under the mask.
Iruka plunked himself down at the table with unnecessary force, and Kakashi pushed a bowl toward him.
"That bad?" Kakashi asked.
"I blew up two trees," Iruka said around a mouthful of noodles.
Kakashi didn't appear to take that in the spirit in which Iruka had intended it. Perhaps blowing up trees was normal for jounin. Or maybe it was just normal for Kakashi. Iruka would hardly know.
"I was trying to focus my chakra in the palm of my hand," Iruka clarified. "I'm just lucky I didn't take off my hand at the wrist." He swallowed. "Nearly did that, too."
Kakashi's expression sobered.
"That bad," he said. "Would it have been easier younger?"
Iruka nodded, poking at his food and not meeting Kakashi's gaze.
"I suppose so," he said, thinking it through. "I'd have had less practice using only one nature. By now I've learned how to do without," he said. "It's like --" he paused. "I grew wrong. All the pathways that were meant for a dual nature have atrophied, and I've developed a whole other chakra system in their place, but they won't work now." He shook his head. "It hurts," he admitted. "Every shriveled pathway itches where that little bit of my earth nature is seeping through it. I think--" he paused. "I think if Hashirama had unbound all of it at once I'd have gone mad from the pain of it."
Kakashi made an indecipherable noise in the back of his throat.
"Time will help?" he asked.
Iruka shrugged and took another large bite of ramen, chewing slowly and thoroughly.
"In theory," he said. "I don't see what other choice I have." Something occurred to him then. "Aren't you supposed to be at the hospital?" he demanded. Surely if Sakura had forbidden Kakashi to escort Iruka through his own mind again for days, Kakashi should be under some kind of observation.
"Well," Kakashi said, waving a hand lazily in Iruka's peripheral vision. "Supposed to be is such a vague term, Iruka-sensei, isn't it?"
Iruka laughed despite himself.
"Sakura is going to chain you to a bed one of these days," he pointed out. "Or sic Naruto on you."
"She can try," he pointed out. "But Naruto is awfully easy to distract."
Iruka smiled at that, and ate more of his food. Kakashi took the empty bowl from him and replaced it with a full one without a word.
"She knows I'm here," Kakashi said after a moment. "Apparently she's perfectly content to let me babysit you. I expect she thinks it will work the other way around just as well." He didn't sound disturbed in the least by the idea of his former student thinking he needed looking after by someone like Iruka. "She said it would be good practice for you, in fact," Kakashi pointed out.
Iruka looked up at him, shocked.
"Did you think I was kidding?" Kakashi asked. "Shizune is training you up with Tsunade for a reason, you know. She and Tsunade have already told me if I scare you off, they'll have my guts for ribbons and make Tonton a hat from my liver."
That sounded alarmingly like Tsunade, these days, Iruka reflected.
"I don't think livers make very good hats," he said, because it was the only part of that he could make any sense of. Did Kakashi mean Iruka would be his Shizune? Surely not.
"It's Tsunade," Kakashi replied. "I'm sure she'd find a way."
She would, at that.
"But I'm serious," Kakashi said. "If you really object to being my assistant, I'd rather know now." He paused. "I'll still help you with Hashirama, obviously," he said, as if that were in any doubt.
Iruka stared at him.
"You're serious," he repeated. "But -- there are dozens of people in Konoha more qualified than I am."
He was a chuunin-sensei who had barely survived the last war; he was a prankster who couldn't manage more than the bare essentials of genjutsu required to teach pre-genin; he was an orphan who hadn't made chuunin until an embarrassingly late age, and even then only by the skin of his teeth.
"You're the living embodiment of the Will of Fire," Kakashi said, as if he could see Iruka's thoughts on his face. "You've been running the mission desk in absentia while working two other jobs competently and half the jounin in the village are scared of you. Hell, most of the newest generation of jounin came from your classroom, and you managed to get Naruto graduated without skinning him alive. You're patient and kind and don't take anyone's shit, and you can actually make people get their paperwork in on time."
Iruka pinched himself, knowing that attempting to break a genjutsu would do no good: Kakashi was just too strong, and even if Iruka had been able to break a competent genjutsu under normal circumstances, he liked this table too much to want to blow it up by shaping chakra.
"I mean it," Kakashi said. "And if this works out, you're a mokuton user we didn't know we had. You could probably be Hokage in your own right, in the eyes of the other villages, at least, based merely on the strength of the bloodline limit you carry."
Iruka bit his lip so hard it bled, the salty-sweet taste of it a shock.
"I'm not Hashirama," he pointed out. "I won't ever be."
Kakashi looked at him across the table, then pulled his mask down, baring his face.
"No," he agreed. "You're not. And you won't have to be. If you're the Hokage's assistant, you won't be sent into the field on ANBU-level missions, and you won't have to make the kinds of calls that will get you and your entire team killed. You'll keep me safe, keep the other villages less afraid of your power, and keep yourself from having a breakdown, all in one neat appointment. You'll have to do paperwork, but you're good at that."
Iruka stared helplessly at the pale sweep of Kakashi's chin, his thin lips, the uncanny sight of the man with a fully-revealed face.
"What?" He asked. There was just too much there, from a man Iruka had regarded as something very close to a stranger. For Kakashi to know him this well was mildly alarming. It was also, Iruka realized, deeply reassuring.
"You're not Hashirama," Kakashi repeated. "You won't ever be, and you shouldn't have to be. He grew up at war, and he made hard choices in a flash. You had a childhood, Iruka, and you've a good heart. Being him would destroy you." He quirked a kind of sad smile. "You know," he said, and his tone was considering. "It's a good thing they bound your chakra and no one told you. Can you imagine what the last war would have done to you?"
Iruka shook his head.
"I'd have been a battery," he pointed out. "Like Yamato."
"And it would have killed you for sure," Kakashi agreed. "Tenzo survived because he was implanted; his body fought back. But Madara would have been stronger for it. And if you hadn't been a battery, you'd have had to fight him one on one, or kill his forces in wide sweeps. Could you have done that?"
He didn't sound like he blamed Iruka for the weakness he was describing, for the inability to land a killing blow without grief and regret. That was almost the oddest part. Iruka knew himself to be weak-willed, too compassionate for a proper shinobi, and too short-tempered by far. They were flaws he lived with every day. To hear Kakashi lay them out as if they were facts, neutral and not negative, was surpassingly strange.
"Enough," he said. "That's -- that's enough, Kakashi-san, please."
Kakashi nodded, and ate some more of his own ramen.
"You don't have to decide now," he said. "But think about it. Having you as my assistant was already in the works. If you develop the mokuton, it will be even more politically expedient, and the only way to keep the Council in line."
He sounded frustrated by that, and Iruka nodded, and finished his own bowl of ramen, trying not to stare too hard at Kakashi's bared face across the table from him. When he had finished, he gathered the bowls and washed them.
"I was going to read," he offered. "I suppose Sakura will yell at me if you go anywhere, so help yourself to my bookshelves."
It was a feeble offer: Iruka had seen Kakashi reading Icha Icha often enough to know that he had distinct taste in books. To Iruka's surprise, Kakashi nodded, and padded over to Iruka's shelves, where he pulled a thick non-fiction book on civilian pedagogy that Iruka had found particularly useful. It was dogeared and battered, and Kakashi settled down on the floor with it as if choosing Iruka's favorite reference book were nothing out of the ordinary at all.
For his part, Iruka had a stack of planning documents to go through, piled on his desk under a simple one-touch chakra-seal. He stared at it for a moment, then realized that he wouldn't be able to open the seal.
"Damn," he said, dropped the piles of papers into a careful stack out of reach, and grabbed for a novel. He should probably be reading about remedial chakra-shaping, but after the day he'd had, Iruka didn't have the energy for anything nearly so close to home. Instead he lost himself in a civilian adventure story, one with no shinobi at all, and only looked up when Kakashi stretched and stood.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said, and departed without another word.
The next few days were like an endless hall of mirrors. Iruka went to train with Yamato, blew things up, nearly killed himself or both of them, and gradually, ever so gradually, began to feel his chakra pathways adapting to his new nature. The day he successfully walked up a tree without falling off, blowing anything up, or getting stuck to it for more than a brief moment, he wanted to weep with joy.
He told Kakashi about it over dinner that night, and Kakashi nodded without comment. The next morning, Yamato took Iruka to the hospital instead of the training field. Sakura set them up in beds in the same room, with two Hyuuga monitoring them and two nurses watching them like hawks.
Iruka sat back and when he opened his eyes, he was in the featureless plain again. Kakashi stood before him in his old jounin clothing, vest and blacks and all, and Iruka felt a spike of fondness for the man, that his self-image was so determinedly not of himself in the Hokage robes. Kakashi clearly saw himself as a tool for Konoha's good, and his subconscious clearly had no use for the trappings of power and privilege that so many people had craved. Iruka wondered for the first time, whether it was costing Kakashi something other than chakra to allow Iruka to see him like this, to enter into Iruka's mind where he was laid so close to bare. It was an unsettling thought, so Iruka looked around.
The thrumming, empty space felt less blank this time, somehow, the space less of a vacuum, though nothing looked different to the naked eye. Beside him, Kakashi looked around with something almost like curiosity, moving one hand to lift his hitae-ate to bare the Sharingan.
"No," Iruka said. "Not here. You'll drain yourself, and I want to get back home."
To his surprise, Kakashi obeyed, and they walked together toward the thrumming heartbeat sound. At the rounded wooden wall the gate opened at Iruka's touch all over again. This time it revealed Hashirama sitting on a bench in a courtyard that looked just a little bit familiar. He was feeding fish. The pond before him had definitely not been there last time.
"Iruka," Hashirama said, and his expression was pure happiness. "I'm so glad you're back." He stood and came over to them. "Ready?" he asked, and Iruka nodded.
Hashirama reached out a hand and touched Iruka's forehead with two fingers, making no seals, saying not words. Unbinding the brow chakra hurt more than the crown chakra had, and Iruka was surprised to find Kakashi's hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
"I'll try to come back sooner," Iruka said. "It's -- it won't take so long next time."
Kakashi made a small frustrated noise, and Hashirama looked between them.
"It's only been nine days," Kakashi filled in. He sounded like something had upset him, and Iruka could feel his spine stiffen.
For his part, Hashirama hid his surprise fairly well. But Iruka felt the first stirrings of a familiar dread: he was going to be a disappointment in this, as he had been in everything else. He turned to leave, not wanting to see the changes pass over Hashirama's mobile features.
"I'm so sorry," Hashirama said when Iruka was getting ready to depart. "I've made this so much more difficult for you than it needed to be. Please forgive me."
Iruka whirled on his heel, knowing his shock must be written on his own features.
"It's not your fault," Iruka said. "I should learn faster. I've --" he laughed, and it sounded bitter to his own ears. "I've always been too slow."
"Yes, of course," Kakashi said, tone blank, and Iruka turned to look at him, feeling oddly hurt by Kakashi's agreement. Kakashi continued, expression wry. "Because there's a handbook for learning to master an entirely new chakra nature that has been bound for upwards of twenty years, and you're not following it, is that it?"
Iruka glared at him.
"I know what to do," he said. "I teach students what to do with their chakra. I should be making better progress than this."
Hashirama glanced back and forth between them, obviously curious.
"Iruka," he said. "We expected to unbind your chakra points every few months. To have achieved so much in nine days --" he shook his head. "You really are remarkable."
Kakashi nodded his agreement.
"I can't keep wasting everyone's time like this," Iruka said, lamely. "I have work to do. They have work to do."
He was taking up so much of Yamato's time, and Yamato was ANBU-level at least, and none of the villages could afford to bench someone that strong, not after the casualties of the war. Even the peace didn't negate the presence of missing nin, the need for diplomatic protection. From his work with Tsunade and Shinzune, Iruka was all too aware of the demands on Konoha's resources, and knew he was a drain they could ill afford.
Hashirama cocked his head to one side.
"I suppose that's so," he said. "But the whole point of the villages was to support one another, Iruka. You know that better than most. You are not exempt from deserving the assistance of your fellow shinobi."
Iruka stared at him, lost for words.
"Thank you, Hashirama-sama," Kakashi said, and dragged Iruka away before he could manage to say anything criminally foolish to the First Hokage.
They woke in the hospital as soon as they stepped out of the wooden gate, and Iruka blinked open bleary eyes and shut them again immediately. The pain he had grown accustomed to was back, and it seemed to have centered around his vision: the light was too bright, the edges of things too hard and too blurry at once. He cautiously opened just one eye, squinting, and saw a rainbow haze across his vision.
"Fuck," he said, and closed his eyes again, leaning back against the pillows propped behind him.
Sakura was at his side in an instant.
"Iruka-sensei," she asked. "What is it?"
"He unbound my brow chakra," Iruka told her. "The third eye chakra. It's playing hell with my eyesight."
He could almost hear her sigh in relief.
"That's all?" she asked. "I mean, that's serious, but we expected that. It should subside."
"Good," she said. "We're keeping you both for observation. Don't go anywhere until I tell you it's allowed, and don't think I won't sic both Naruto and Yamato on you if I have to," she said.
This time Iruka could definitely hear the glare in her voice. He suspected it was directed more at Kakashi than himself, and felt himself smiling very slightly. She had grown up so much from the shy, stammering, book-smart girl he had graduated from the Academy.
* * *
By the next morning, Iruka's eyesight had returned to something approximating normality, if normality included a keen awareness of how much too bright everything was, and a very faint haze at the edges of his vision.
"I'm going to train," he announced, when Sakura told them they could leave the hospital.
Kakashi shook his head, exchanged a glance with Sakura, and followed Iruka out.
"Tenzo's busy," he explained. "So I'll come with you."
It hardly seemed a fair trade: an ANBU-level babysitter was bad enough. It was alarming to have him swapped for the Hokage-in-waiting, but Iruka didn't feel like arguing.
"You'll be bored," he warned, and Kakashi just shrugged.
"I have a book," he said. "It can't be worse than pre-genin."
Several hours later, covered head to toe in dirt and grass and bark, scraped up and chakra-burned and missing a good chunk of hair, not to mention sopping wet from a water dragon jutsu, Iruka was seriously considering trying to make Kakashi eat his words.
Kakashi, for his part, was only mildly singed, and not at all wet.
"Hm," he said, as Iruka leaned against one of the remaining whole trees. "That was more interesting than pre-genin."
"Fuck off," Iruka told him, mouth running ahead of his good sense. One didn't swear at the Hokage. "I mean --"
But Kakashi looked almost delighted. Iruka leaned his head back against the trunk and closed his eyes against the dappled sunshine filtering through the leaves.
"This is worse than being a student," Iruka said. "Being a student didn't hurt all the time." He paused. "And back then I only blew things up on purpose," he added. "Well," he amended. "Mostly on purpose."
Kakashi laughed, a low chuckle.
"Come on, sensei," he said, and pulled Iruka back to his feet. "You need to clean up. I'll see you home and get some dinner."
Yamato was unavailable for a week, and somehow Kakashi found half a day each day to watch Iruka blow up trees and mud and very nearly himself, and set training ground four on fire in a spectacularly accidental attempt to -- of all things -- feel the chakra circulation patterns in a single leaf. By the time Yamato returned from wherever he had been, Kakashi appeared to have decided that Iruka was his now, too, and just kept showing up at random. Once Iruka had unbound the throat, heart, and solar plexus chakras, which had left him unable to speak, unable to regulate his emotions properly, and almost unable to breathe, Kakashi appeared to have settled into a pattern with Yamato. When Hashirama unbound the sacral chakra, the second to last one, Kakashi was there when Iruka woke in the hospital.
Iurka learned that Yamato was going to be gone for a full two weeks this time, and Kakashi insisted on spending the full day training with Iruka. This unbinding, at least, appeared to be less dramatic than the others. They went to what had become the usual training field, and Iruka walked through the steps of what had almost become habit: trying to concentrate chakra, to mould and shape it, to use it to walk up a tree or a cliff-face. It was easier than the other unbindings had been, and somehow less painful, though Iruka was faintly aware of a buzzing in his chakra system that seemed to be demanding his whole attention. Kakashi stood back, reading a book, but Iruka could feel his attention like a physical weight nonetheless.
Iruka found himself unaccountably proud of himself when he got through that whole first day after the unbinding without setting anything on fire at all, or exploding anything accidentally. Well, not too very badly accidentally, and it had only been a very small boulder. Iruka was sure no one would mind.
The tingling he associated with new chakra density was increasing, and Iruka could feel it running through his system with growing intensity. For the first time, he wondered what the side-effects of the root chakra's unbinding might be. If they were linked to its nature, he realized, it might be very inconvenient and rather embarrassing. Iruka didn't usually have a particularly strong libido, and having it come roaring into life in front of an audience just because of an accident of his chakra system would be humiliating.
He must have made a face, or perhaps Kakashi was just that good at reading people, because Kakashi followed him home without a word, and set to cooking while Iruka bathed off the sweat and dirt from the day's work. This had become an unquestioned pattern between them over the last nearly two months, and Iruka was surprised by how much he liked it. He'd never had someone around he particularly wanted in his space, but Kakashi had become an exception. For all his exasperating habits, he had a way of not demanding more than Iruka was able to give.
Kakashi was in the kitchen, humming, when Iruka came out of the bathroom, rubbing his hair dry with a towel. The Hokage robes and formal armored vest had been discarded over the back of a chair and the hat balanced precariously on top of the pile, ready to fall off any moment. Kakashi's hair was mussed and untidy, and he looked almost alarmingly under-dressed in only blacks. Iruka realized he, too, thought of Kakashi mostly in jounin garb, in the outfit he had made his own so determinedly over the years.
"Oh, good," Kakashi said, turning away from the stove with a spoon in hand. "Taste this."
Iruka opened his mouth without a second thought. Whatever it was, it tasted delicious.
"It's good," Iruka said, licking his lips to chase the lingering flavor. "Very good."
Was it his imagination, or did Kakashi's gaze linger on his mouth? Iruka scolded himself. He was overtired, and his chakra system was playing hell with his imagination, that was all.
"It'll be ready soon," Kakashi promised, and turned back to the stove.
Iruka knew better than to try to get in the way: instead he set the table and sat down to wait, enjoying the strangely comfortable silence. It felt home-like, he realized, friendly and occupied in a way his apartment never had before. This moment held more of a sense of belonging than Iruka had experienced outside the classroom for long years. Sitting there, he was suddenly, desperately afraid he would become accustomed to it, and would miss it when it was gone.
Good things didn't last, Iruka knew. The key was to enjoy them while you could, and not get so reliant on them that their being taken away would break you. Iruka had thought he had learned that lesson as a child, with the Kyuubi's attack, but it had taken a giant shuriken in the back to really drive the point home to him. No matter what you thought you had, it could all be lost, be taken from you.
So Iruka sat very still, and watched Kakashi cook, and tried to ignore the part of his heart that felt like it was breaking at the idea of losing anything else.
* * *
A week after the unbinding of Iruka's sixth chakra, Kakashi brought Team Kakashi with him to the training field.
"You're getting lazy," Kakashi told him. "You need to learn how to fight, and you pull your punches against me."
"You're the Hokage!" Iruka pointed out. The idea of fighting his Hokage was anathema.
"Not yet," Kakashi said. "And besides, that should be all the more reason to fight me. There's hardly a safer opponent, is there?"
And that explained why he'd brought his old team, Iruka realized. Sakura and Naruto were sage-level at least, and at no risk whatsoever if Iruka lost control. Sai was a long-range ninjutsu user, similarly safe from Iruka's close-range fuckups.
"Iruka-sensei," Naruto hollered. "Kakashi-sensei says you're going to blow shit up and we shouldn't be surprised." He sounded faintly disappointed. "I told him you always blow shit up, so why would I be, but he didn't listen."
Sakura smacked him on the back of the head.
"I imagine it's usually on purpose," Sai commented. "Learning a new chakra nature is unpredictable at best. You had better be careful, Naruto."
Naruto gave him a rude gesture.
"I'm always careful!" he protested.
Iruka laughed out loud.
"Naruto," he said. "I've never once known you to be careful. You're astonishingly reckless."
Naruto made a face at him, and Sakura nodded.
"And rude," she said. "And you don't think before you speak."
Naruto was starting to frown, now, and Iruka could see the set of his shoulders going a little stiffer, into the old, defensive stubbornness he had known so well in Naruto's childhood.
"And completely unaware of protocol," Sai added. "It's a miracle you haven't insulted anyone important yet."
Iruka made a silencing gesture. To his surprise, all three of them -- Sai included -- shut their mouths. Kakashi watched with keen interest, not even trying to hide his attention by pretending to read.
"And you're stubborn, determined, good-hearted, and astonishingly able to see the best in people," Iruka said. "Not to mention far too charismatic for your own good. You haven't really needed to be careful, Naruto, but I don't want you to get hurt just because you think I'm going to be doing the same things I always do. I really can't predict what's going to happen, and you'd be better off thinking of me as an unknown missing-nin than as your old Academy teacher."
Naruto goggled at him.
"But you'd never go missing-nin!" he protested.
Iruka rubbed his forehead with two fingers.
"I didn't say that I am one," he explaiend. "Just that you should pretend I'm a stranger whose combat style you don't know. What did Kakashi-sensei teach you about fighting an unknown opponent?"
Naruto's expression cleared.
"Oh," he said, "All right. That makes sense."
And then, between one breath and the next, there were a hundred Narutos in the field, all flinging themselves at Iruka at once.
Iruka fell into a defensive crouch, flinging exploding tags into clusters of clones, trying to keep track of where Sakura and Sai were at the same time and knowing he would be overrun. Even during the war he had had comrades by his side: being swarmed, dozens of times outmatched, Iruka could only hope to buy time.
Oddly enough, though, his chakra behaved itself. When he tried for a water jutsu, it came cleanly and easily, more smoothly than it had done even before this had all happened. When he made a clone of himself and sent it in a different direction to draw some fire, it seemed to have more heft than his usual clones, and drew off more than half of the shadow clones.
Iruka managed to hold them off for nearly a minute before Sai's ink creatures popped his clone and Sakura trapped Iruka with a fist at his solar plexus, and the crowd of eighteen or so Narutos cheered before poofing back into a single young man with a bright grin on his face.
Kakashi hadn't moved so much as a muscle, but he looked like he might be smiling.
"Again," he said. "And Naruto, no more than four clones this time. You can't always overwhelm someone with numbers. Try for strategy this time."
The day continued apace, and Iruka found himself almost having fun sparring, playing keep-away with Sakura, guessing which Naruto was a clone and which the original, keeping an eye out for dark motions in the sky or on the ground, dodging ink-snakes and ink-birds that came from nowhere.
By the end of the day, the humming in Iruka's chakra system had quietened almost to nothing at all, and he was exhausted.
"Good," Sakura said, pulling off her gloves and tucking them into her belt-pouch. "Kakashi-sensei, did it work?"
Kakashi lifted the hitae-ate, and regarded Iruka for a long moment.
"I think so," he said.
"Did what work?" Naruto demanded, staring back and forth between them. Iruka felt a curl of affection for this impossibly direct young man.
"Exhausting him forced his chakra systems to integrate, I would imagine," Sai said, rolling up a scroll with intricate, precise gestures.
"Exactly," Sakura said. "Now, I think we can do the last unbinding tomorrow, if you're amenable?"
Kakashi nodded, and Iruka felt his heart leap into his throat. If they unbound the last of his chakra, that would mean the end of training, all too soon. He would have no excuse to see Kakashi beyond the demands of work. He would lose the calm evenings, the surprisingly good cooking, the quiet conversation.
But Iruka knew his duty: he nodded. Konoha needed its Hokage-in-waiting to be undistracted. Iruka's wants didn't hold a candle to the village's needs.
* * *
Iruka watched Naruto, Sai, and Sakura head off toward Ichiraku, bickering gently, and wondered just when, exactly, they had gotten so grown up. Kakashi didn't say anything when Iruka headed toward his apartment, only fell into step beside him, robes flickering in the light breeze. He had been wearing them more often, recently, Iruka thought, or at least with less protest.
Iruka re-heated leftovers, and handed Kakashi a bowl without a word, trying not to let his regret color his expression. If he only had one more evening with Kakashi, there was no point spoiling it. And it was a blessing, of sorts: Iruka had all too often imagined what he might have done, had he known the evening before the Kyuubi attack was going to be the last with his parents. He had built elaborate plans at first, but in the end, he had reduced his wants, stripping away eventful, unusual planning. He had long since decided that the thing he missed most was their presence. Now he had that, with Kakashi, for one more night. He wouldn't waste it.
Kakashi complimented Iruka's work that day, oddly enough, and drew him into a conversation on the technical merits of different forms of chakra shaping. It was so deftly done that Iruka found himself arguing, flushed and animated, and losing track of time. When Kakashi left, Iruka stayed seated, waving him goodbye as if it were just another evening.
The door clicked shut, and Iruka sat very still for a moment before burying his head in his hands. He didn't move again for a long time.
Naruto brought Iruka to the hospital the next morning.
"Everyone's there," he said, almost bouncing on his feet. "It's just ridiculous, Iruka-sensei, they've got the council and everyone."
So Iruka was warned when he walked into the large surgical theater and saw two beds, and full ranks of chairs. It was even more full than it had been the first time, with two Hyuuga standing beside each hospital bed, and chakra-restraints on one. The counsellors were frowning, and a Yamanaka was seated beside them, alarmingly young-looking, as well as a Nara and an Akimichi. Even Yamato was there, seated on the opposite side of the counsellors. He gave Iruka a small, slightly embarrassed-looking wave and a hint of a smile.
They really thought this might go wrong, Iruka thought. It was a sobering thought, in some ways, but not one that brought any alarm to Iruka himself. He had no doubt of anything going other than as planned, but he was glad they were being careful with Kakashi's safety.
"Here you go," Sakura said. "Iruka-sensei, I'm sorry we have to --"
"I understand," Iruka told her, cutting her off. He put his hands into the chakra-reinforced cuffs himself, and allowed them to be closed and locked without a word or gesture of protest.
Might Guy came in some moments later, talking about forward handsprings in a voice that sounded strained. He glanced over at Iruka and away, and Iruka saw Kakashi's face as he entered the room and saw the restraints. The chakra load in the air doubled, trebled, became oppressive and crackling, and Iruka had to struggle to breathe -- but less than he would have had to work before this all happened.
"It's fine," he told Kakashi, wiggling his fingers in a little abbreviated wave. "It's all perfectly fine. Don't be absurd, Kakashi."
Sakura went over to him, seemingly unfazed by the slight scent of ozone in the room, and pulled Kakashi to the other hospital bed.
"Now, Kakashi-sensei," she said. "The sooner you get this over with, the sooner we can let Iruka-sensei go."
That seemed to get through. Kakashi shook his head, and the pressure in the air subsided just a bit. Iruka huffed out a breath.
"You're being ridiculous," he told Kakashi. "They have to secure the safety of the Hokage. I'm perfectly aware of that, even if you seem not to be."
One of the counsellors gave him an appraising look at that, and Iruka decided not to wonder what it might mean.
Kakashi glared at him, but it was without heat.
"Let's get this over with," Iruka suggested. "Then you can get on with your day, and I can go back to blowing up trees under Yamato's supervision."
The actual process of being taken under was almost routine by now. Iruka looked into the Sharingan and blinked, and was in his inner landscape, Kakashi beside him in blacks and a jounin vest again, though this time the Hokage robes flickered in and out of existence for a moment.
They walked toward the arched doorway, which had remained in place this time, only closed with full height wooden gates instead of the unbroken wall there had been before. The gates swung open to admit them at a touch, and when they stepped through, Iruka saw a paved courtyard this time, and Hashirama in his battle armor, all red plate and black. Kakashi, when he stepped through the gates, flickered into the Hokage robes, hat and all.
"Ah," Hashirama said, grinning at them. "I wondered how long that would take." He nodded at Kakashi. "Settling into it, are you? The robes are horrible, I am sorry about that."
He hadn't designed them, Iruka knew. They had been a committee decision between all of the new villages, and something of a contest to make something as unsuitable for battle as possible. The result had been a true compromise: no one had been really happy with them.
Kakashi only blinked, and nodded his head.
"I'm ready for the last chakra to be unbound," Iruka said, when no one spoke for a moment. "But --" he paused. "I don't suppose --" he paused again. It was too much to ask, surely.
"He won't ask," Kakashi said. "Because he's sure it's too much to demand of you. But I'm perfectly happy to impose. Will you stay bound until he masters the Mokuton?"
Iruka gaped at him. He'd never spoken of that with Kakashi that he remembered.
"How did you know?" he demanded.
Hashirama laughed, light and joyful.
"Of course I will," he agreed. "As long as you need. I've never had the chance to instruct someone in it before. I suspect it will be slow going on my end." He glanced between Iruka and Kakashi, and a twinkle lit his eye. "I see you chose wisely, little one," he said to Iruka. "You are a good pair."
Iruka flushed. To his shock, Kakashi appeared to be doing so as well. The Hokage robes didn't hide nearly so much of his face, and his skin was so very pale that the faint pink in his cheeks might as well have been projected on the Hokage monument.
"I told you," he protested, and Kakashi shook his head.
"I know," Hashirama said, but the twinkle was still in his eye. "But still. I am pleased for you both."
He reached out a hand toward Iruka, who stepped forward. The touch on his belly was light, almost non-existent, but it cascaded through him like the tremors of an earthquake, implacable and large beyond imagining. He closed his eyes, feeling his chakra roil with the change, like the sea rolling out before a tsunami, like the wave smashing against cliffs that eroded not at all.
When he opened his eyes, Hashirama was regarding him with an abstracted expression.
"Come check," he said, beckoning Kakashi over. "Be sure I didn't miss anything: my wife was always supposed to undo the final seal, and her skill far out-stripped my own."
Kakashi opened the Sharingan, and the wheel spun, faster and faster, and Iruka felt no reaction in himself, no roiling fear or dread, no desire to attack. His hands fell still at his sides.
Kurenai is safe, he thought, and her daughter. It was a weight removed that he had hardly dared to hope for.
"There's only you," Kakashi said finally. "It flows freely now."
Then he staggered, and Iruka had to put an arm out to catch him.
"God dammit, Kakashi," Iruka snapped. "The council will murder me if you kill yourself in here, and they'll be right to do so."
Hashirama looked between them again, hair falling into his eyes.
"I'll be here," he said. "You have places to be, do you not?"
Iruka nodded, wondering when, exactly, taking his leave of the god of shinobi had become so commonplace, and half-dragged Kakashi out the archway. The gates were gone, leaving only an open arch. They stepped through, and Iruka woke restrained.
"I'm fine," he snapped. "Kakashi's an idiot, and he's half tried to kill himself from chakra depletion, but I'm fine."
The medics ignored him, but Sakura went over to Kakashi's bed, staring down with a keen eye. She shook her head, looked at Hinata's father, and shook her head again. Hinata, looking down at Iruka, looked half-amazed and half-pleased.
"Your chakra system is very different now," she said, and offered him a shy smile. "It's quite remarkable, Iruka-sensei."
Voices were clamoring for attention, and no one seemed to be taking charge, with Kakashi locked in conversation with Sakura. Finally Iruka got the medics to unlock his wrists and ankles, and stood. That provoked no reaction from the crowd, so he braced his hands on his hips, flared his chakra sharply, and bellowed.
"QUIET," he yelled, and his tone was the one that cut through student shenanigans, and got the mission room to fall silent in the midst of pay disputes or bubbling fights.
The room went suddenly, deafeningly still.
"Thank you," Iruka said, and pulled his chakra back in. There was a lot more of it than he was used to. "I'm fine, and --" he glanced at Sakura, who nodded minutely "--Kakashi will also be fine. We'll be happy to answer questions later, when I've had a chance to train and Kakashi isn't white as a sheet. For now, congratulations, it worked. Now go away."
To Iruka's shock, the room emptied of everyone except Sakura and Naruto.
"You feel like him again!" Naruto said. "The laughing man!" He gave Iruka a huge, bone-crushing hug. "This is going to be great," he exclaimed, and then let go and scampered out the door. "I'm going, I'm going," he called back at Sakura.
Kakashi was trying to sit up, and not at all managing it. Iruka shook his head.
"You won't stay in the hospital, will you?" he demanded. Sakura looked between them. "Sakura-chan," he said. "I'm taking him home with me. I'll sit on him if he tries to leave. How long is he on bed-rest for?"
"At least a day longer than he says," Sakura answered promptly. "At least two."
Iruka nodded, feeling his heart leap. It was wrong to be pleased to have Kakashi's company under such circumstances, but he couldn't help it.
"I can walk," Kakashi said, when Iruka hauled him up and started making transportation signs.
"Like hell you will," Iruka said, hauled him closer, and popped them into the hallway outside his apartment, just outside the range of the protective wards. "You can sit down, or I can leave you in the hallway to be found by Naruto and Guy."
Kakashi grinned at him.
"You're going to be very, very good at this," he said, and then he all but passed out in Iruka's arms.
When Kakashi woke, Iruka helped him sit up against pillows, then handed him a bowl of broth and a cup of tea. Iruka was trying very hard not to think about how good Kakashi looked in his bed. It hadn't been working while Kakashi was asleep; it wasn't working any better now that Kakashi was awake, sleepy, and slightly tousled against Iruka's pillows.
"You're not to do that again," Iruka said. "I'm not worth it."
Kakashi finished the broth, drank a sip of the tea, and then set the teacup down.
"Of course you are," he said. When Iruka's confusion must have been obvious, Kakashi shook his head very minutely. "You're my Shizune, for one thing," he said. "That hospital room cleared far too fast for you to deny that any longer. For another, what good are the villages if we don't look after our own?"
Iruka stared at him.
"But I'm not worth it," he said again. He had never been worth it: he was a failed field-shinobi, a near-Academy drop-out, an instructor who was given the worst classes. At best he was a paperwork-heaped desk-jockey.
"You are worth it," Kakashi said. "I've told you as much before. Even if you never master the Mokuton, you're the closest we have to a walking history of Konoha. And--" he stopped. "And you'd be worth it even if you didn't have the dreams. You see the best in people. And you're a shinobi of Konoha. You're worth it."
Iruka shook his head.
"Damn it," Kakashi said, and gestured Iruka closer. He seemed a little shaky, so Iruka leaned in.
Kakashi kissed him.
"Does that make sense?" Kakashi asked, and Iruka shook his head.
Kakashi kissed him again.
"I'm perfectly willing to continue the experiment," Kakashi said, when they separated for breath. "Until you do believe me."
Iruka looked down at him, serious and grave and also almost smiling a little bit in the corners of his eyes in a way Iruka might never have noticed if he hadn't spent so much time with the man.
"That might take a while," Iruka admitted, and allowed Kakashi to pull him in for another soft kiss, before dragging Iruka down to sit next to him.
"I've been told I'm stubborn," Kakashi told him, and wrapped an arm around Iruka's shoulders while Iruka laughed.