Chapter Sixteen
Now

"I heard something interesting about your sensei," Ino said, smiling wickedly.

Sakura frowned, balancing her books as she headed home. "What?"

"Your sensei and Iruka-sensei are dating."

Sakura nearly dropped her books, scrambling to keep them upright. "Tsunade-sama and--"

"No, idiot!" Ino snapped. "Kakashi-san and Iruka-sensei!"

Sakura lost her books. "What?" she yelped. "Where did you hear that! You'd better not be lying, Ino!" she shouted, waving a threatening fist in the other girl's face.

Ino only smirked. "I overheard Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-san talking. Iruka and Kakashi are dating."

That couldn't possibly be right. Neither of them seemed very girl-like. At least, not from what Sakura could remember. "I don't think Iruka's a pervert," she said tartly, "and Kakashi-sensei is a pervert, but not that type."

Ino only smirked.

Sakura glared at her. "Help me with my books, Ino-pig."

Ino sniffed. "Only because you're too weak to help yourself," she shot back, stooping to help Sakura gather her things.

Sakura thought about what Ino had said all the way home. Kakashi-sensei wasn't a pervert. Not like that. And Iruka-sensei certainly wasn't any kind of pervert. Ino had to be wrong.

But Sakura headed toward Kakashi's apartment, just in case. Iruka was out for the day--his class had gone outside the village on a field trip--but if Kakashi-sensei was home, certainly she could find out what was going on.

She knocked on the door and waited impatiently.

Eventually he answered, face masked, Icha Icha Paradise in one hand, eye half-lidded and his entire stance screaming, 'Bored.' "Yo," he said.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura chirped. Her brain stalled. She couldn?t just come out and ask him. "I thought we could talk! It's been so long since I've seen you!"

He stared at her. Then, finally, he stepped out of his apartment and gestured to a chair on the porch, taking the one opposite.

Sakura sat primly, glad when he tucked his book back into his pocket. He didn't offer tea, but that didn't surprise her. Kakashi-sensei wasn't the most polite of people.

He stared at her, bored. She fidgeted. "So," she said, falsely bright, "I hear you're doing missions."

He just watched her.

"That's nice. I mean, you're a good Jounin and all . . ."

He looked even more unimpressed. "Yes. Good."

Sakura could see his hand inching toward the pocket where his book was. She had to act fast. "I hear you're training with Iruka-sensei now," she blurted out.

The hand stopped inching, and he looked at her. "Oh?"

"Is it true?"

"We're not training."

She sighed. He said nothing else. This was not going as well as she'd hoped. On the other hand, he didn't seem anymore girl-like than he ever had. If it was a romance, shouldn't he be looking dreamy and sighing constantly?

**

"Stay together," Iruka barked, catching a rugrat by the back of his shirt before he could dart off into the forest. "Now, who can find an edible plant?"

Half a dozen children squealed. Iruka kept a close eye on Konohamaru and his troupe, knowing they would be the ones to try to vanish.

He was supposed to have a teaching apprentice to help him today, but the man had taken a child off to go the bathroom and still hadn't returned. The coward.

"How about this one, Sensei?" a pretty little girl yelled.

Iruka cringed. "That's poison ivy. Don't touch anything if you're not sure what it is. And don't scratch." There was a parent he was going to have to answer to.

"This is edible, right Sensei?" one of Konohamaru's gang--the girl--yelled.

"Sure is!" Konohamaru said, and bit down on the green that was sticking between her fingers. She squealed and laughed while the boy chewed vigorously.

Iruka rubbed his scar. "No, that's not edible. It'll make you sick."

Konohamaru froze. Then he spat the plant out, bellowing about how he was going to die and it was all Sensei's fault. He even tried to wipe off his tongue on a tree.

"Konohamaru," Iruka shouted, "cut that out! You're not going to die!"

"Sensei . . . " a child said quietly.

"Just a moment, Kieko," he answered without looking, already walking toward Konohamaru. Why did he always get the troublesome children? It was payback from the other teachers for his misspent youth, he was sure.

"Sensei . . . " the same little girl said again, louder this time.

"Not now, Kieko," Iruka barked, grabbing Konohamaru just as the boy tried to wipe his tongue with a leaf. Where was his TA? "That's poisonous, too," Iruka muttered, grabbing the plant and tossing it to the ground.

"Sensei!" Kieko shouted.

"What?" Iruka snapped, whipping around.

He froze.

A man stood above the tiny girl, arms folded over his chest, his face a mess of scars. Iruka didn't recognize him. He did recognize the line etched through the forehead protector.

Missing ninja.

Iruka ran forward, yanking Konohamaru with him, letting the boy go in the middle of the pack. Drawing two kunai, he hurled them at the intruder. While the man blocked, Iruka grabbed Kieko and hauled her away, spinning to put his body between the ninja and the girl.

Someone laughed. He looked up, following the sound of the voice, and saw another ninja in the tree.

And another stepping out from behind a massive trunk. And more. Two women and three men, all told, scattered through the forest, in a circle around his little class.

"Everyone come here," Iruka said, as calmly and firmly as he could.

The children obeyed without question, congregating around him tightly.

Iruka turned back to the first man, back straight, meeting his scar-twisted eyes. "What do you want?"

"Konoha's youth," the man laughed. "This is the next generation of ninja, right? Konoha would pay dearly to have them back, mostly alive." He smiled, showing rows of sharpened teeth. "That's all I want."

One of the children started crying.

Iruka glanced around the group, sizing them up. It was unlikely they were Jounin, but there were five of them and one of him, and they had no reason to keep the children alive. If he could get them alone--

"All of you, follow her," the ninja said, pointing to the woman in the tree. The woman jumped down and started to walk.

Each and every child looked up at Iruka, waiting for his orders. He almost told them to scatter. If they ran fast enough, and he was able to unleash enough weapons at the enemy, maybe he could distract them long enough to let the kids escape.

Maybe.

He had three shuriken and five kunai. There were five missing ninja, all at least veteran Chuunin, from the way they moved.

The children would be slaughtered.

He looked down at them, eyes focusing. He could feel the leader's gaze boring into his back, waiting for him to do something stupid. The children looked like they were about to fall apart, beginning to panic.

"All right, then," he said cheerfully, clapping his hands together. "Time for organization training! Everyone take the hand of the person next to you, and in a single-file line follow the ninja woman!"

The children sniffled and wiped at noses. It was Konohamaru who grabbed one of his friends and started marching resolutely toward their captors. Soon twenty-nine little children were marching in a line, Iruka following at the back, watching as missing ninja flitted through the trees on either side of them. He didn't look back at the leader. He tried not to think about his missing student and teaching apprentice.

"Well done," the man snorted, walking up close.

Iruka debated killing him then. He had a kunai near his hand, if he grabbed it and twisted, dropped to one knee to avoid the shuriken that would undoubtedly come from the man, and jabbed upward--

Another ninja fell to the ground on his other side.

"Tell the children to keep going," the leader said quietly. "We'll catch up."

Iruka took a deep breath. "All right, then, students! Keep following that woman! This is an exercise in--" what? "--obeying orders! I want you to follow her orders like she was your squad leader!"

They looked back at him fearfully, but he smiled and nodded and projected as much assurance as he could.

They wound out of sight among the trees. He stared after them, keenly aware of the ninja on either side. If he stretched his chakra, he could just make out another energy above.

"Strip."

"What?" Iruka yelped, turning to look at the head ninja.

The man smiled grimly. "We don't want you with your weapons, but we do want you controlling the kiddies. Strip."

Iruka hesitated. If he jabbed a kunai forward--the man behind would kill him. If he jabbed forward and kicked back, the one above--if he jabbed forward and kicked back, and flipped to one side--

The likelihood that it would work was slim to none.

"You do anything foolish, and your kids suffer," the ninja behind him said, breathing into his ear. "We just need them alive. Not whole."

Iruka swallowed and started to pull off his vest.

**

Shikamaru bolted up the stairs, nearly out of breath. He'd been there when the teaching apprentice and a student had come back, babbling something about missing ninja. The Hokage had sent him out instantly.

Kakashi was, luckily, at home. Sitting on the porch with Sakura, staring at each other silently.

Shikamaru slid to a stop, clutching the railing and staring at Kakashi. "Tsunade-sama urgently requests your assistance. Now."

Kakashi's eyes widened briefly, then he stood, bowed, and disappeared.

"What was that all about?" Sakura demanded.

Shikamaru collapsed in a chair, his job done for the moment. "The--the--guy came with news--" he panted. "Iruka's children have been taken hostage. Missing ninja."

Sakura paled. "Are they okay?"

Shikamura shrugged and stood, preparing to run again. They needed Inuzuka Tsume, one of the only other Jounin not out on a mission. "Have to go."

Sakura only nodded, and Shikamaru took off, flying over the railing and tearing down the street.

He had to hurry.

**

"I've sent my personal ANBU guard after Iruka's group," Tsunade said, staring out her window. "But we have other groups out today. They need to be brought back. There's no telling if this is localized or not."

"I'll go find Iruka's kids," Kakashi said, deceptively calm. "The ANBU can get the other groups."

"The ANBU are already gone," Tsunade barked. "Besides, I need your dog's nose to find the groups. Tsume-san will be looking for them, too. There are three--"

"I'll find Iruka," Kakashi said again, firmer this time.

"Damn it, Kakashi!" Tsunade shouted, banging her fist against her desk. Wood cracked. "I need you to help here! This is how you can help the most!"

He froze.

"You can help find Iruka when the others are safe," she said, quieter.

Stiffly, he bowed and left.

**
Then

People were screaming outside. The fox was still on the loose. They were being slaughtered.

Inside the war council, the Fourth addressed those Jounin who could be pulled from the fighting. He looked haggard and old. Kakashi hung in the back corner, waiting.

"I have a plan to stop him," the Fourth said, the words slow and tired. His eyes were red from smoke and chakra use, but no worse than the rest of them.

Kakashi's head throbbed. It wasn't decapitating. Yet.

"I think it'll work, but--Kakashi, Rin, I need you to clear out the young ones. Anyone under sixteen. Take them to the school, put them in the basement. Keep them there."

Kakashi straightened, frowning. "Why?" He didn't point out that he and Rin were both under sixteen. They were Chuunin and Jounin, after all. They didn't count.

"I'm going to seal the demon, but it's going to take power. The fox will fight, and I don't want them hurt."

"All right. Wait until we get back, and--"

The Fourth's eyes flickered. He stood, beckoning to them.

Kakashi sidled forward slowly, Rin walking a bit faster. He had a bad feeling about this. Really bad. Anything big enough to need to clear people out . . .

"Kakashi, Rin, this is going to take a lot of power. I want you safe. Take the children and go. It's important, and there aren't many other people I trust to keep them there. They won't want to leave."

"I don't want to leave," Kakashi snapped. "I can help."

"Help when you get back."

He hesitated. "I can come back?"

"Once you make sure the children are safe. Yes. Come back. I'd love your help." The Fourth smiled softly, eyes sad.

Kakashi looked at Rin. She wouldn't meet his gaze. He looked back at the Fourth. "Don't do anything stupid," he muttered.

The Fourth looked pained, and put a hand on Kakashi's head. For once, the young Jounin didn't duck out. "Thank you. You're both growing up amazingly well. I'm very proud of you. Now, Kakashi--start getting them out of here. I'm going to fill Rin in on the plan, and she'll explain so you'll know as soon as you're done."

Kakashi eyed him. His sensei looked weary. Beyond tired, like he'd found the answer, and it was worse than anyone had guessed. "I'll be back soon," Kakashi promised.

The Fourth bowed. Kakashi returned it, and left.

**
Now

Iruka knelt on the forest floor, head bent, a katana at his neck. Bark bit into the bare skin on his knees and palms, and he shivered, naked.

They were being very thorough with his clothing. He could have told them they'd found all the weapons, but doubted they'd believe him. He didn't carry too many things with the children around. Didn't want someone to get hurt.

The irony hadn't escaped him.

"All right," the leader said, kicking Iruka's underwear closer. "Dress. Hurry up."

The blade lifted off the delicate skin of the nape of his neck, and he shook his ponytail back down protectively. Iruka grabbed his briefs, pulling them on, glad to be covered up, then snatched up his pants and shoved his legs in.

"We'll send a ransom notice twenty-four hours from now. Don't expect to be saved," the leader said, glancing around.

He yanked his shirt on and reached for his vest. A foot stopped him.

"You don't need armor," the ninja said, exposing sharpened teeth with a smile. "I'm starting to think you don't trust us."

Iruka took a deep breath and straightened.

"He doesn't really need his shirt, either, does he?" a woman laughed. He glared at her over his shoulder.

"Oh, come on, it's a compliment," she said, grinning widely. "Such smooth skin . . ."

He gave her his best bored look, imitating Kakashi as much as possible.

Her smile vanished, eyebrows rising. "Move," she snapped, slapping him with the flat of her blade.

Iruka felt cloth rip on the sharpened edge, and started forward. He walked wordlessly through the forest, flanked by ninja.

He prayed his kids were safe.

**

Kakashi flew over the fallen tree, planting a hand and channeling chakra to give him an extra push.

Half a dozen dogs had raced off, searching for any scent of the other groups, and checking for any strange ninja scents. The mastif had caught a smell first, and Kakashi was racing after him. He had to bring back the children before he could go after Iruka. But if he got them back, there was nothing to stop him.

Iruka just had to hold on. Just wait.

**
Then

Kakashi grabbed a Genin, hauled the boy away, over the barriers, away from the fighting. An explosion seared his back, but he kept going, running. He had to get the children safe, and then he could go back to his sensei and help. Only then could he help his most important person.

Rin was nowhere to be seen. Kakashi tossed the child to a young Chuunin, then headed back over the barriers. He crouched, the Sharingan spinning wildly. There--a burst of barely controlled chakra, dangerously close to the fox. He leaped, channeling energy to his legs, shoving away from the ground. The fox's head swiveled toward the girl, who was gathering her chakra as quickly as she could, but not quickly enough.

Kakashi slammed into her. No time for subtly. He felt teeth snap just behind him, felt the air of the bite, but no pain. He rolled and sprung up, girl tucked into his body, and ran.

**
Now

Iruka stood in the cave, checking that the children were all right. Frightened, but not hurt.

"I guarded them while you were gone, Sensei," Konohamaru said solemnly, face pinched and arms folded over his little chest.

"Very brave of you, Konohamaru," Iruka said.

"Sensei! What happened to your clothes?"

They were muddy and disheveled, and half of his outfit was gone, buried in the forest.

"They didn't hurt you, did they?" Moegi said, concern sprawled across her voice and face.

"No, Moegi-chan. They just were looking for weapons. Remember, any time you take a hostage, you should always check them for weapons," Iruka said, trying to act like everything was normal.

The children nodded solemnly.

"Having fun teaching?" one of the women asked on a smirk.

Iruka shot a glare her way. "Who else can tell me what to do in a hostage situation?" he asked his kids, trying to distract them.

A boy in the back tentatively raised his hand.

"Yes, Akeno?"

"Do as your captors say?"

"Correct! Why?"

"Because Konoha doesn't leave their ninja behind, so you should stay alive until help comes," Konohamaru announced loudly.

"That's right," Iruka agreed, smiling brightly.

"So our Jounin are going to come and kick your butt!" Konohamaru added in a near-shout.

Iruka shoved him back and checked over his shoulder.

The woman was fingering a kunai and watching them thoughtfully.

"You also shouldn't antagonize your captors," Iruka snapped. He could only do so much. The cave was wide; if he could cram all the children into a corner, protected on three sides, he could keep the fourth safe. But the ninja were smart; they'd pushed the group against the back wall, so there were three open sides--two of which Iruka couldn't shield.

"Sorry, Sensei," Konohamaru murmured.

"Better keep the rugrats quiet, Sensei," the woman mocked. "'Cause if you can't, we will."

One of the children started to cry. "Shh," Konohamaru whispered. "Ninja have to be brave."

"I want to go home," a boy whimpered.

"Soon," Iruka promised. "Just be quiet and still, and our Jounin will come." He had to believe that.

"Shut him up," the woman growled.

Iruka glared. "If you'd stop threatening them, it would help." He glanced around the cave, at his three guards. The man was gone from the opening, he realized suddenly. That left only the woman between them and freedom, and a man to his right.

"I have to go pee," a boy whispered loudly.

"Not now, Akeno," Iruka muttered.

"Senseiiiii . . . really badly . . . "

He glanced down at the child, then up at the woman, eyebrows raised.

She snorted. "You stay there, Sensei. Kid, you can piss there." She gestured with her kunai to a spot just outside the cave and around the corner.

The boy looked pitifully at Iruka, who could only smile and hope everything would be all right, and then the child was moving out of the group.

"I have to pee, too!" Konohamaru announced.

Iruka grabbed the boy's arm. "Not now," he said sternly.

"I sure as hell don't want him pissing in here," the woman barked.

Iruka doubted very much Konohamaru had to go to the bathroom. His face was set in a determined appearance, and his little hands were fisted at his sides. Iruka knew that expression.

"Konohamaru," Iruka murmured, "don't do anything. Just go to the bathroom, and come back. Do you understand me?"

Konohamaru looked at him steadily, and put his little hand in Iruka's bigger one. "It's okay, Sensei," he said, and broke away.

He left a shuriken behind. Crap. Crap crap crap. Iruka's stomach tightened into knots, even as his fingers closed around the weapon. He watched the two boys walk around the corner, out of his sight but still in the woman's.

She watched them with half an eye, leaning back against the cave wall, foot propped up. Iruka watched her, waiting, praying.

She straightened. "Hey! Rugrat! No farther!"

Iruka tensed.

"You little shithead!" she yelled, jumping forward with a burst of speed.

Iruka twisted, hurling the shuriken at the other guard, and leaped after the woman.

Don't kill the boys, he prayed, a mantra running through his mind. Don't kill the boys.

A child screamed.

No. He rounded the corner to see Akeno on the ground, clutching a bloody thigh. Konohamaru was nowhere to be seen, but he'd left tracks. The woman was gone as well, after him, and two other ninja who had been absent were suddenly there.

They were closing in fast, kunai and shuriken flying toward him. Iruka twisted and ducked, felt the skin on his arm part from something too sharp to even hurt. He jumped sideways, into a bush, trying to follow the child.

"Konohamaru!" he bellowed, tucking and rolling with his jump, trying to put a tree between him and the missing ninja. "You're putting your team in danger! FREEZE!" He could only pray that it would be enough, that Konohamaru would listen and they wouldn't kill him or--please no--the others in the cave in retaliation.

Iruka scrambled to his feet and raced down Konohamaru's path, jumping over bushes and twisting around trees. His speed was good, he knew, so if he could just stay ahead of the missing ninja--

He saw them, the woman perched in a tree and aiming while Konohamaru kept running, tiny legs speeding him through the forest. Iruka felt the kunai behind him and twisted. They thunked into the ground and he kept going, only barely ahead of the ninja, no time--no time at all because she was throwing--

He barreled into the boy, dragging him down to the ground as he felt the shuriken meant for Konohamaru's head dig into his back. Iruka screamed as blades tore through flesh and muscle, gouging wetly into his body. Eyes closed, he let himself drop to his side, skidding through forest derbis, trying not to land on the shuriken and trying not to smash the boy.

He had no armor. His arms tightened around the child and he twisted them both, around and up, feeling the metal tear skin and muscle further with the movement. But he had to block anything more, keep Konohamaru safe. That was his job.

His eyes still closed, he half expected to feel more weapons rip into his body. Pain was spreading over his back, burning through his lungs with every breath. Konohamaru started to squirm and Iruka tightened his hold.

"Sensei! I could have escaped!"

"Don't move," Iruka murmured, trying to push the pain to the back of his mind. "Just don't move."

Something in his tone got through to the boy. He froze.

There were several thumps, and the sound of someone panting.

"Bastard's fast," the man muttered.

"Give up the kid." The woman.

Iruka shook his head and curled tighter over Konohamaru. "No. I'll take him back."

"Give him to me so I can cut his fucking legs off."

Iruka's arms tightened. He heard Konohamaru's breath hitch as he nearly crushed the boy, but didn't loosen his grip. "No."

"Son of a bitch," someone muttered. Then Iruka felt a hand near his spine and braced. Fingers grabbed the shuriken still sticking out of his flesh and yanked.

He couldn't stop the cry, but didn't let go of his student.

He felt the tip of a katana at his ear. "Let him go."

"No," Iruka said again, through a shout as the man ripped another shuriken out. "Kill me, and then you'll have no way to control them, and Konoha won't pay you for dead children."

He was shaking, in shock and pain. Konohamaru made a little noise, as if just realizing what sort of danger they were in.

"Shit," the woman muttered. "Shit. Get up. Take him back to the cave."

Iruka waited for the last shuriken to be yanked out, then he stood slowly, still holding Konohamaru, and started the long trek back.

The three ninja stayed around him, watching him warily. The fourth, he guessed, had stayed to guard the others, and he hoped viciously that the fifth one--the one he'd thrown the shuriken at--was dead.

He prayed the children were safe.

**************************


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