Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this innocuous interlude. Oodles of respect for Masashi Kishimoto, the creative force behind Naruto. Please do have patience with me and with the ninja who needs to adjust.


TWENTY: HERO'S WELCOME


It was two days before they let Iruka leave Torture & Interrogation. And it was slightly less terrible than he'd expected.

Between Ibiki's questions and Inoichi's gentle probing, Iruka felt like he'd been stripped down and turned inside out. Then Shikaku Nara had insisted on playing a couple of games of shogi, which was a whole different brand of psychological demolition.

But Choza Akimichi kept dropping by with meals and snacks, and it gradually become clear that they were welcoming him into their longstanding camaraderie. These men were Konoha's defenders, and Iruka was one of their own. Iruka was grateful to fall back on their greater experience.

In the end, Iruka decided it was the kindest possible welcome. "Thank you."

Ibiki waved off his words. "Don't mention it."

Which he took as a direct order.

Bowing slightly, Iruka escaped.

Within the first block, Kakashi fell in step beside him. He slouched along, matching Iruka, who hadn't realized he was meandering at a convalescent's pace. Summer had left its mark. Some habits would be harder to break than others.

He waved to Kotetsu and Izumo, who were headed for the training grounds with their young protégé, whose grin meant that Iruka had chosen wisely.

Other friends and neighbors called out or nodded.

Those he greeted called him sensei, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Because it should have been. But he found himself watching for wavy brown hair, long coats, and purple face markings. All for naught.

"Hungry?" asked Kakashi.

He could be. He should be. But not for the same things as before. "If you're going to suggest Ichiraku, I'm not in the mood for ramen."

"I know a place that does steamed buns."

Iruka sighed. "How did you know?"

"I'm a genius."

"You were spying on me," he accused. ANBU were nothing if not thorough.

Kakashi shrugged. "Just doing my job, sensei."

Which meant he probably knew something about Sukea. Might even have answers to his whereabouts. So Iruka dredged up a smile and hoped Kakashi was feeling generous. "Let's see if Konoha's steamed buns are up to standards."

The shop was in an out-of-the-way corner of the shopping district. Simple and spare on amenities. But the steamed buns were spot on. And when Iruka remarked on it to the shopkeeper, the man was more than pleased to admit that he'd grown up in a certain mountain village. He'd carried the family recipe from his hometown.

"How did you know?" Iruka dared to ask.

"I'm a genius."

"No, really." This couldn't be a coincidence.

Kakashi reached for another bun and slouched further into his seat. "It's been two days. Finding this place gave me something to do."

He'd been waiting? Iruka left it at that, and Kakashi seemed grateful.

"Two days, though. What did they think they would find?"

"They were making sure you weren't compromised." Kakashi studied him lazily. "You had Akatsuki in your head, you know."

He frowned. "They think I'm brainwashed?"

"They might think you're reckless.

"I'm harmless."

"No ninja is harmless." Kakashi pointed out, "You work at the mission desk. High level stuff. He could have skimmed details. Or embedded something insidious."

Iruka couldn't believe it. "It was a matter of moments."

"It felt like moments."

"No. I'm sure he can't sustain the Tsukuyomi for long. It was quick."

Kakashi's voice turned dark and dangerous. "He had you in his Tsukuyomi?"

Was this concern? Surely not. Beginning to suspect that he was undergoing another, more casual debriefing, Iruka kept his answers simple. "Like I told Ibiki. For a few moments. To leave his message."

"Do you have any idea how dangerous he is?"

Well aware. But they'd been connected by their loyalty to Konoha. Which wasn't much different from the initial tie he'd formed with Sukea, who'd pegged him as a Leaf ninja from the start. Loyalty was a kind of love, and Iruka chose to believe in it.

So Iruka only smiled and said, "All ninja are dangerous. Even you."

Kakashi's eye narrowed.

"Itachi didn't hurt me," he soothed. "I don't think he would. Not by choice."

"What if you find yourself in a position where he has no choice?"

Iruka knew that was a real danger. Had already talked it over with Shikaku. "Then I suppose I'd have to apologize. He doesn't need any more regrets."

Kakashi's gaze slid sideways. "What about you?"

"Hmm?"

"Regrets?"

"Not me," he replied, though he supposed there was a small one.

Despite his newly redefined security clearance, Iruka hadn't received any answers to the one question he'd raised. Indeed, Ibiki and Shikaku had met his inquiry about a former ANBU named Sukea with blank stares. Maybe they were simply more practiced in deceit. Maybe they didn't know. Either way, Iruka regretted bringing him up.

Until Inoichi, who'd probably glimpsed some of Iruka's memories, pulled him aside. "It wasn't really goodbye," he quietly reminded.

Iruka had blushed.

Inoichi grinned and gripped his shoulder. "He'll find his way back to you, I'm sure."

"You know him?"

Pausing a beat too long, the older man replied, "Can't help you. Sorry."

So it was a secret. But in a roundabout way, it was also confirmation. Sukea was a Konoha ninja. Someone Iruka had been right to trust. Someone he would see again.

There was no sense in looking back with regrets.

He had too much to look forward to.

"Sensei?"

Iruka dragged his attention to Kakashi.

"Ready?" The jonin had dropped money on the table and indicated the door.

Mumbling an apology, Iruka followed him out. He wasn't particularly surprised that Kakashi knew where Iruka's apartment was. But he hadn't expected the famed Copy Ninja to stand smiling on his doorstep, clearly waiting to be invited in.

So Iruka held the door.

And followed him along the short hall to his bathroom. And watched in utter bafflement as Kakashi jumbled some personal effects into a blue plastic basin.

"What …?"

"Bathhouse." Kakashi's squinty-eyed smile was both presumptuous and authoritative.

Iruka finally asked, "Us?"

"Come along, sensei. You'll be fine. No swimming with sharks this time around."

As he allowed Kakashi to herd him out again, he warily asked, "Did you put that in your report?"

"What report?"

"Surely you filed a report," Iruka reasoned.

"Maa, Sensei. Are your mission reports so meticulous, you include bathroom breaks?"

Iruka hesitated. Was Kakashi teasing him?

"Did you follow me into the bathhouse?"

Kakashi indicated a building farther along the road. "I'll follow you into this one."

And he held the door. Then locked it behind them. And drew the shade.

"They closed up for us," Kakashi announced. "Hokage's orders."

"Guess we're bad for business," Iruka mumbled, following him into the changing room.

He began to undress. "Seemed appropriate. This was one of Jiraiya's favorite places."

Iruka took in the silence and shook his head. "Not like this. Not unless the place was full of beautiful women."

Kakashi's back was to him as he pulled his shirt over his head, baring pale skin. "Jiraiya's dead."

Oh. No. Sinking slowly to a bench, Iruka whispered, "Naruto?"

"Fine. Physically." He glanced over his shoulder. "Sakura and Sai are with him. He's not unprotected."

They finished undressing in a sober silence.

When Iruka finally tiptoed to the edge of the bathing pool, Kakashi was already there, a towel draped across the lower half of his face. He beckoned. Feeling oddly nostalgic, Iruka slid into the water and settled back.

"You and Jiraiya have something in common now."

Iruka couldn't imagine what. Unless it was Naruto.

Except … he suddenly did know. "Itachi?"

Kakashi grunted. "He was Konoha's point of contact. Before you."

"How did he …?"

"Akatsuki."

The word hung in the heavy air between them for a long minute.

Kakashi finally added, "You need to understand how …"

"How dangerous this is? Yes. I understand." Iruka didn't feel much like soaking in the steaming water. "At least tell me it wasn't Kisame or Itachi."

"It wasn't."

He nodded, then shook his head. "That's why you were meeting in the mountains. To set this up. Only … you instead of me."

"Yes."

"Is that all?" He wanted to leave. He'd missed a different bathhouse. Wanted different company. Wanted to hide that fact from present company. Actually missed Kisame and Itachi. And that made him feel disloyal.

"There's no rush. Take your time." Kakashi's voice was tight. "Talk to me."

"About what?" Iruka let his confusion show.

"Maa," he drawled awkwardly. "Because I can't tell you the next part. Not directly. Against orders."

Iruka surveyed the otherwise empty room. "Does it have to do with my mission?"

Kakashi nodded.

"Are you … assigned to me?"

"Me? No." His gaze was wary, maybe even worried. "Sorry about this."

Why apologize? "I think I need some kind of hint."

Looking away, looking back, Kakashi beckoned him closer. "You know I'm Hound."

"Yes."

"When I'm Hound, I'm not Kakashi. I'm Hound."

Iruka had a passing understanding of the psychology involved with serving in ANBU. So he was nodding when his gaze dropped to the place where Kakashi's tattoo should be. It was missing, but that's not what caught Iruka's attention. Scars. All ninja had scars. But would they have the same scars?

"Ask," whispered Kakashi.

"Where's your ANBU tattoo?"

Adjusting the drape of his makeshift facecloth, Kakashi beckoned him closer. Right to his side. Calling a tiny amount of chakra into his fingertips, he teased up the corner of the false skin. Kakashi tore it free, baring the stylized flame. He rubbed awkwardly at the spot.

Iruka's breath was hitching and catching.

"Maa, Sensei." Kakashi cleared his throat. "You're making it hard for me to apologize properly."

He hid his face behind his hands and shook his head.

With a soft oath, Kakashi eased closer. "I'm sorry, Sensei."

Iruka felt stupid and embarrassed and awkward, but other things were more important. Wrapping his arms around Kakashi's neck, he held on. "You're safe. Oh, thank goodness. Nobody could tell me where you were or if you were okay. And the only damned person who knows how to get in touch with you is Kisame."

Kakashi tucked his chin over Iruka's shoulder, and again, he begged, "Ask."

Rules. They were a ninja tool. And rules like these protected those who needed to maintain an alter ego. Iruka started with the most basic of basics. "You aren't always Kakashi."

"True."

"You aren't always Hound."

"True."

"And there are times when you aren't either of them."

"I can't say. Sorry to disappoint." But when he eased back, he left his makeshift mask draped on Iruka's shoulder. Kakashi's lips quirked into a half-hearted smile, and it was Sukea's mouth. His expression. His Sukea.

Dismay. Gratitude. Mortification. Relief.

How had he missed this?

How could he have known?

Iruka touched skin that should have been purple and whispered, "You look naked."

"Maa, Sensei. I am naked."

"Without the tattoos," he clarified, pinching Kakashi's cheek, touching familiar stubble. Iruka shook his head wonderingly. "Who else knows?"

"One or two." Kakashi cautiously asked, "Will you hold this against me?"

Iruka thought there was a more important question. "Are we still friends?"

"Do you mean our little ruse?"

"No ruses. Can't this be real?"

"Maa, I suppose. If you gave the impression that you enjoy my company."

"More than anyone's," he glibly assured.

Kakashi chuckled his way to a sigh. "I'll try to protect you, Sensei."

"Thanks." Iruka settled at his side, eyes shut, and whispered, "Can you pass along a message to Sukea for me?"

"Anything you want." His voice lightened into a familiar lilt. "All you need."

But Iruka couldn't think of a thing to say.

A hand found his under the water, and Iruka suddenly remembered Sukea's wish. He asked, "This?"

"This." Kakashi fit their fingers together. "I could get used to this."


End Note: originally posted on January 26, 2021. 1,981 words. Thank you for reading! If you like my style, try my original works, which I publish as forthright. More details at ForthWrites dot com.

Not Done: If life cooperates, I'll begin posting a sequel in September 2021 for my next Fandom Anniversary. Look forward to more about Iruka's ongoing undercover mission in Cub Reporter. ::twinkle: