Chapter Seventeen
Now

Kakashi landed on a branch, then nearly threw himself to the ground. "Emergency," he said casually, hands in his pockets. It wouldn't do to panic them. "The classes have to go back to the village. Now."

The teacher stared at him blankly for a moment, looked as if she was going to ask a question, then just nodded once. "All right, everyone! We're going back to the classroom to think about what we've learned. Find your partner and let's go! We're going to follow this nice Jounin! Isn't it neat that he's come to answer questions?"

The children started to grumble. Kakashi resisted the urge to snap at them to hurry up. Two more groups after this. Tsume would find one, but the third group would have to be found before he could go help Iruka.

He didn't belong here, damn it. He was needed elsewhere.

**
Then

"Is that all of them?" Kakashi asked, dropping the most recent teenager he'd found into the basement of the school.

Rin closed the door on them, and nodded. "I think so. Dai?"

The Hyuuga girl nodded, lips pressed together. She looked about as pleased at having to stay there as Kakashi would have been.

Except Kakashi wasn't going to stay. He didn't belong here. He belonged with his sensei, watching the Fourth's back. "What was the plan?" he asked, turning to face Rin.

She hesitated. "Sensei's called the Death God. He's going to do some sort of seal with the fox--"

"Death God?" Kakashi said, eyes widening. "But--that requires a sacrifice--"

Rin looked pained. "I know. Kakashi--it's already started. There's nothing you can do."

"Started--he said he'd wait!" Kakashi shouted, his insides twisting in panic.

"He didn't want you there--he didn't want us hurt. Kakashi, listen--"

"No, you listen," he snarled, eyes flashing. "I'm not going to sit here while he kills himself! I won't!"

**
Now

Iruka knelt, trying to ignore the blood running down his spine and the distinct light-headedness he was starting to feel. The other boy who'd gone to the bathroom was still whimpering, his thighs slashed. The man Iruka had thrown the shuriken at was barely scratched.

"You'll be okay," Iruka said with a false smile, after looking over the boy's legs. "Just be brave, all right?"

The child nodded tearfully.

"I'm sorry, Sensei," Konohamaru whispered, nearly crying.

Iruka looked over and realized the boy was staring at his shirt. He glanced down. Blood had soaked through the back and was starting to spread around the sides. He smiled again. "It's all right. It's just a scratch. But you learned something very valuable. Can you tell me what?" The world was starting to spin.

"To listen to your captain's orders," Konohamaru said, after a moment's thought. "And not to put your teammates in danger?"

"Right," Iruka said. His voice was getting thready.

"Shit," the woman muttered. "He's gonna faint."

Iruka twisted slightly, glancing back over his shoulder, trying not to let the children see his back. "And who's fault is that?" he asked, almost cheerfully. Lord, but he was losing blood.

"Kiyoshi!" the woman bellowed. "You know some medical stuff. Would you please keep him conscious?"

One of the men at the doorway turned, looking at Iruka thoughtfully. Then he slowly walked closer, almost sauntering.

"Still waiting for your Jounin to save you?" the man asked, a smirk on his features.

Iruka started to move away when the man's hands hovered over him. He didn't trust that he'd actually be healed. But the world spun and slipped out from under him when he started to shift, and he ended up grabbing for the ground to keep from falling.

"We covered our tracks well," the man continued.

Iruka felt his chakra tingle with the manipulation, felt the oily slick of the other man's chakra mingle with his. The pull of skin as it started to mend, the almost nauseating feel of his body being forced to mend quickly.

"That's better," the man said, stepping away. "He'll live. Don't want to exhaust myself."

The woman just snorted. "Wimp."

**

It took too long to get the school group back into the safety of the village walls, but at least there were two young Chuunin there to take over, get them back to the school itself. Kakashi whipped around, out into the forest in another direction, making seals and sending dogs off once more. He'd find that damned other group and then--

Iruka had better not die, he thought in panicked frustration. If the man died, Kakashi was going to hunt him down and kill him. Again.

**
Then

"The Fourth wants us here, where it's safe!" Rin shouted, grabbing his arm.

"I'm a Jounin--my job is to be out there--and I'm not going to let him die!" Kakashi shouted back, wrenching away.

Rin was almost crying. "I know. I'm sorry. Sensei said to keep you here."

"Try," Kakashi snapped.

He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, had enough time to realize it was the Hyuuga girl, and then the world went black.

**
Now

"What the flying fuck?" the woman snarled.

Iruka looked up, heart hammering, head still spinning. One of the missing ninja dropped, screaming. Something black and masked teleported in, appearing behind the ninja in the corner. That man dropped, blood splashing across the cave as a gruesome smile opened in his neck.

It was over in minutes, and three ANBU stood in front of them, faces masked and bodies still.

"Boy--" Iruka said, pointing. "Cut thighs . . . " he could barely focus.

"The rest?"

"Missing--apprentice, and a child--"

"They're at the Tower. Any others?"

Iruka started to shake his head, but the world swam. He stilled carefully. "We're all right."

Two of the ANBU started ushering the children out, children who, now that the crisis was past, were starting to cry. Iruka remained sitting on the floor, afraid to move, suspecting he was still too weak.

"He's not the only one hurt, is he Sensei?" the last ANBU asked quietly, kneeling in front of Iruka.

Iruka tried to focus on him, blinking slowly. "No," he said after a moment. "My back--one of their ninja healed most of it, I think, but blood loss . . ."

"All right," the man said, reaching out and grabbing Iruka, swinging him up piggyback as if it were no effort at all. "Just hang on."

Iruka could only nod, and then they were off, leaping through trees, past the clustered group of children. There was only one ANBU with them now; Iruka assumed the third had taken the injured child to the hospital.

Relief tugged through him, making him weaker. They were all right. Everyone was all right.

"You did good, Sensei," the ANBU murmured. "Just relax. We'll have you back to Konoha soon."

Iruka nodded and passed out.

**

The final school group had been found and brought back. Kakashi didn't wait for orders from Tsunade; he raced for the village gates, skidded to a halt in front of the guard, and snapped, "Iruka's group. Where?"

"Iruka and one of the boys arrived back a few minutes ago. The rest of the group is on--"

Kakashi leapt off the wall and tore through the city, leaping up to the rooftops to avoid the crowds. If they were back before everyone else, it meant they were hurt. If they were hurt, they were in the hospital.

He wasn't going to see another friend die. He would not.

**
Then

He knew the effects of having a chakra point hit. He knew how it felt. He'd trained with the Hyuuga girl more than once.

Kakashi staggered up, unsure how much time had passed.

The Fourth. Death God. Fox. No.

He ran forward, not trusting his own chakra control enough to take to the rooftops. Everything was eerily quiet. No sounds of the fox. He ran past Rin and the Hyuuga, and neither of them tried to stop him.

That was the worst part of all. That was when he knew it was over.

"No," he said, and kept running. Out, over the barriers, into the battle field--a battle field that had once been part of Konoha.

People watched him as he ran past. No one tried to stop him.

He could see where the sealing jutsu had taken place. Could see the burn marks from forcing the fox back, the destruction that that amount of chakra could cause. People were nursing wounds, bloody and seared, in shock.

He could see the blast field, where the fox had likely been defeated, and a crowd of people looking at something. Someone was sobbing.

"No--" Kakashi said softly, chanting, speeding up the closer he got. "No no no no--"

Someone caught him before he bowled through the crowd. Through the people, he saw a flash of yellow hair and charred, flesh. "Let go!" he shouted, trying to twist away.

"Kakashi."

"Let go, you son of a bitch!" Kakashi yelled, then turned and tried to bite the arm that was holding him.

The man shifted easily, trapping Kakashi's arms and holding him in a vise-like grip. "Kakashi. There's nothing you can do. He's gone."

"No. No, he can't, he promised not to do anything stupid--"

"He saved the village."

"He can't die!" Kakashi screamed. He realized he was crying, the world blurring in front of him, but didn't care. "He can't--he can't--"

"I know. I know. I'm sorry." The man holding him--the Third, Kakashi realized suddenly--wrapped him up. "Stay away. Don't look. He didn't want you to see."

Kakashi let himself be bundled, screaming into the Third's tunic. "I could have helped--" he sobbed, body rigid.

"I know. He knew. But you would have died, and he wanted you safe. He wanted you to live."

They were moving away from the crowd, from the charred body. "I could have died," Kakashi cried.

They both knew the unspoken words were, 'Instead of him.'

"He wanted you to live," the Third said again. "He loved you enough that he wanted you to live."

**
Now

The missing ninja had done a good job of healing him, the medics said. They gave him a blood transfusion and Tsunade herself finished the job--something Iruka had been, thankfully, too woozy to feel self-conscious about. He was ordered to rest for a few days, but he would be fine.

Iruka asked after his kids, and was told they were safe. All heading back to their respective homes. Shaken, but unharmed. The one injured boy had already been healed; it hadn't been bad. Shizune had seen to him.

Iruka sat on the hospital bed, tired beyond belief after a very long day, and contemplated going home. It seemed terribly far.

The door slammed open while he was still sitting there, and he jumped, looking up.

Kakashi was already striding in, single blue eye sweeping over him assessingly. "You're all right?"

Iruka nodded, offering a hesitant smile. "I'm fine," he started to say, and then Kakashi was on him, hands on his face, down his neck, over his arms as if checking for himself.

"I'm all right. Really," Iruka said.

"They said you were stabbed."

"Three shuriken, but--" Iruka stopped talking because Kakashi had yanked him to his feet, unbuttoning his shirt. "Kakashi!" he snapped, unable to really put the force behind it he wanted.

"Where?" the Jounin demanded.

Iruka hesitated, but was too tired to argue. "My back." His shirt was yanked off, and Kakashi spun him, inspecting the damage himself. "Ow," Iruka said quietly as fingers probed the tissue.

"That hurts?"

"Of course it hurts. It's only barely healed," Iruka snapped, grabbing his shirt and turning back around. "Are you quite done?"

Kakashi was inspecting him, gaze boring into his eyes as if he could read something there. "Why did you get hit?"

Iruka sighed. "I was protecting one of the children." He hadn't told anyone that that child had run off, putting them all in danger, and he wasn't going to start with Kakashi. Let them all think that the missing ninja were just vile enough to try to hurt a boy for no reason.

Kakashi's eye narrowed. Iruka looked back steadily. "You're not going to tell the rest," Kakashi said, the words not quite a question.

Iruka shook his head.

Kakashi took a deep breath. "All right. Come on."

Iruka frowned. "Come on? Where? I'm supposed to go home and sleep--"

"You can sleep at my place." Kakashi grabbed his wrist and pulled, yanking him inexorably toward the door.

"But--"

"I'll make you dinner. Then you'll eat, and you'll be at my place, and you'll be safe."

"I'm safe now," Iruka protested, trying to go fast enough to keep up with Kakashi. The world was still spinning slightly, though, and he was certain that at any moment he was going to fall over.

"I'll keep you safer," Kakashi said, then seemed to realize Iruka's instability. He stopped and looked back. "Are you all right?"

"Blood loss, Kakashi," Iruka ground out. "I'm still a little woozy."

Kakashi stared at him for a moment, then grabbed him, swinging him up onto a strong back and heading out the door.

"I don't need to be carried," Iruka yelled, "I just need to walk slower!"

"Better this way," Kakashi said, and jumped for a rooftop.

**

Iruka leaned against the wall of the shower, letting water pour down on him. The pain was fading from his back as the muscles attached a bit more strongly. He was just tired.

"Are you all right?"

Iruka jumped, and glanced toward the door--not that he could see it, since there was a shower curtain in the way. Which was probably a good thing, since Kakashi sounded like he was in the room. "Go away," Iruka snarled.

The door closed.

Slowly, Iruka stood up and washed the rest of his blood from the ends of his hair, then turned off the water and peeked around the curtain, just to make sure Kakashi really wasn't there.

He wasn't, but he had left black pants and briefs on the toilet. Iruka dried off before putting them on, checking his wounds in the mirror.

They had already faded to scars, though they still looked remarkably fresh. It was a relief that the Hokage herself had come down to treat them, otherwise they would still be actual wounds. Not even their best medics could manage this.

Iruka opened the bathroom door and stepped out in a cloud of steam. "Do you have a sweatshirt?" he asked, feeling the ends of his hair drip water down his back. He pulled the pants up with one hand, but they just fell back around his hips. Kakashi was skinnier than he was, so these would have been huge on the Jounin; he suspected they were borrowed from a neighbor. A neighbor who was big, because these weren't staying up easily.

Kakashi looked up from the kitchen and froze for just a moment.

Iruka scowled and ran a hand through his wet hair self-consciously, feeling it spill around his shoulders. "What?" He couldn't look that bad.

"Nothing," Kakashi said, and walked to the closet. He opened it, fishing out a black shirt and handing it to Iruka. "How's your back?"

"Fine," Iruka muttered, but when Kakashi moved to check, he didn't stop the man. He waited, shirt in his hands, while careful fingers probed the new flesh. Finally, Kakashi moved away. "I told you," Iruka muttered, sliding the shirt on over his arms.

"At least Tsunade's good for something," Kakashi muttered back.

Iruka's eyes widened. "Tsunade-sama is the Hokage," he said, aghast. "You shouldn't talk about her like--"

"She had me finding children, Iruka!" Kakashi snapped. "Finding the idiot groups who were still in the forest when I should have been looking for you! You shouldn't go into the forest anymore."

Iruka stared. "You're kidding me," he said quietly, on a disbelieving laugh. "Because the forest is so dangerous, and we have missing ninja appear and kidnap us all the time."

Kakashi was stirring soup and didn't answer.

"Don't be ridiculous," Iruka muttered. "You were needed to find the kids. The ANBU found us."

"And maybe if I'd been there you wouldn?t have been stabbed and nearly killed," Kakashi said bitterly.

"Kakashi--" Iruka stopped and frowned at the tense line of the man's back. The Jounin stopped stirring, hands braced on either side of the stove.

"I can't protect you if I?m not there."

Iruka walked slowly forward, shirt hanging open--it was uncomfortably snug. "You don't need to protect me--"

Kakashi whipped around. "We shouldn't be friends anymore."

"What?" Iruka yelped.

"We shouldn?t be friends. I don't want you dead, and--"

"Kakashi, listen to yourself!" Iruka yelled. "I'm not going to die because we're friends! You're being paranoid!"

Kakashi closed his eye tightly, still holding onto the sink behind him.

Iruka sighed and stepped closer, crowding the other man. He put his hand on Kakashi's face, hoping to get his attention.

Kakashi opened his uncovered eye and looked at him.

"I'm fine. Really."

Hands that were white from tension peeled off of the counter and rose, settling on either side of Iruka's jaw. It was then he realized Kakashi was shaking.

"I'm all right. I'm safe," Iruka repeated.

Kakashi closed his eye and leaned his forehead against Iruka's, breathing shaky. "I know. But I wasn't there."

"You can't always be there. You have to trust other people. The village is good. We protect each other."

Hands tightened in his hair, pulling slightly. Iruka didn't say anything. "You're all right?" Kakashi asked.

"I'm fine," Iruka said again.

Kakashi nodded wordlessly. "All right."

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

A/N: The hair-down Iruka? SO inspired by Devo's artwork. Check out Devolution (it's in the garage). So. Unbelieavebly. Hot. *drools*

J


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