The Twenty-Fifth Rule

by paxnirvana

Fandom: Naruto N01

Characters: Iruka, Kakashi

Rating: R

Date: 10/17/04

Notes: Manga continuity, if you please (for minor differences). Spoils the hell out of it up until Vol 4 (which is all Viz has put out yet… the jerks).

Chakra - combined energy of body and soul - term used here much like 'ki' is in Dragonball. It's how they power all the glow-y stuff they do.
Jounin - elite ninja
Chuunin - journeyman ninja
Genin - junior ninja
Konoha - the hidden city-state of ninja where our characters live.
Hokage - leader of Konoha village and highest level ninja.
ninja shinobi (interchangeable here)
mizu kekkai genkai - water bloodline limit (special genetic power to manipulate water)
Sharingan - mirror eye skill (roughly) Genetic ability. Lets Kakashi copy and retain nearly any ninja technique he witnesses. Physically manifests in his left eye.
hitai-ate - Cloth scarf (headband) with a curved metal plate attached that is engraved with the symbol of the village. Worn only by graduates of the village's Ninja Academy. For Konoha the image is a stylized leaf.
Anything else is probably a name. Remember, family/clan name first, personal name last. Adjust.

Disclaimer: Belongs to Masahi Kishimoto, Shueisha, and VIZ. I just homage.

Rule Twenty-Five: No matter what happens, true shinobi must never - ever - show their emotions. The mission is the only priority. Carry that in your heart and never shed a tear.

- - Shinobi Rules of Conduct as stated by Sakura in Vol. 4

Before the Chuunin Exam recommendations, he had felt nothing but professional respect for Hatake Kakashi and a budding, if vague, sense of communal purpose between them over Naruto's welfare. Kakashi would occasionally, when he filed Cell 7's mission reports, share small tidbits of Naruto's progress with him. This last time he had even felt a small flush of breathless pride when Kakashi mentioned how Naruto considered him, Iruka, as his hero and had chosen him as a goal to surpass -- even if there had been an odd light in the other man's single visible eye during that pronouncement had made him wonder if the other were mocking him some way.

He didn't like to think so. He was coming to look forward to his infrequent interactions with Hatake Kakashi. The man could be distressingly… unique, but he was undeniably talented. Iruka had hoped they could at least become friendly acquaintances, if not friends. For Naruto's sake.

Because how wonderful and powerful Kakashi-sensei was was all the boy could talk about lately, after all. That, and how annoying he found Sasuke…

But during the recommendation ceremony, when all three training masters promoted all their current students as candidates, Iruka's heart had grown suddenly heavy with dread and no little fear, and that respect had taken a blow.

Naruto... Sasuke... Sakura. All of them were still so young. He feared for them. But mostly for Naruto... who, despite his crude bluster, his reckless disregard for the rules was so fragile underneath it all. A small boy trying to act big, yet still just as lonely and desperate for recognition; wanting only to be acknowledged and accepted and… and… Iruka could still feel the ghost-memory of the wild, trembling joy in the boy's arms as he hugged him tight after Iruka had given him the hitai-ate right off his own head to wear. Recognizing him as adult in honor of the boy's courage and fortitude in the face of another teacher's betrayal.

It was Iruka's old hitai-ate Naruto still wore.

He had known it was out of place for a chuunin like him to speak up like that before the Hokage. Had seen the impatient disgust and contempt in the other two jounin's eyes -- a mere Academy-chuunin like him daring to question the judgement of field-experienced jounin; only Hatake Kakashi had shown him no scorn, but had answered him with patient respect. He had felt a brief lessening of the fluttering fear, the almost choking anxiety for Naruto for a moment then. Until the jounin's inappropriate humor surfaced, before being followed by his final, chilling words;

It's none of your business anyway... They're not your students anymore. They're soldiers under my command.

Iruka trembled as conflicting emotion boiled inside of him. He knew the duty and burden of being shinobi. He was chuunin. He knew the shinobi way. His life was the Hokage's to demand at will. But Naruto... the boy had suffered so much already. Chosen without his consent or knowledge at birth to be the living prison for a powerful evil beast. Shunned and scorned his whole life because of it when he should have been honored. No matter the boy's ambition and bravado, he was still little more than a child alone and desperate for attention and affection... just like Iruka had been.

Naruto's sacrifice had been greater than anyone's. To save the whole village, his entire future was destroyed. And yet for that he was reviled. Even though the child had not been to blame for the monster's appearance. To his shame, it had taken him far too long to understand that.

They had both been orphaned by the Nine Tails.

After being dismissed with the rest of the chuunin so that the Hokage and the jounin could discuss details of the upcoming exam qualifications, Iruka stood in the hall outside the inner chamber. While filing out, he had deliberately avoided the pitying gazes of his peers, shut out their speculative whispers. He had stopped here to wait and compose himself again. That was all. He bent his head and clenched his hands to fists at his sides. He was aware, on some level, that he was trembling in a most undisciplined way. But he couldn't stop it.

Eight missions, at least. For genin to have a respectable chance at passing, more than twice that was standard, preferably including at least a few C-class missions. In practice, no genin who had not completed at least three C-class missions had been nominated to the chuunin exam in years. Cell 7 had only been assigned one; a standard bodyguarding mission that had turned out to be A-class and had included defeating a powerful jounin renegade and his disciple. That Cell 7 had survived at all spoke volumes for either their talent... or their raw luck. He shuddered again, frowning.

"Hey. Your chakra is spilling over, Iruka-sensei," a faintly bored voice announced from beside him.

Startled, he jerked his head up and half-spun to face Hatake Kakashi. He hadn't heard or felt anyone approach in the hall. The senior ninja stood in his usual half-slumped, deceptively inattentive posture. But Iruka knew he was neither – the other was still jounin. Deception and misdirection were a shinobi's lifeblood. The other met his glare calmly, his gaze unreadable save for what he knew had to be only a façade of bland amusement. But as to what lay beneath he had no clue.

"Kakashi-sensei," he managed to grind out in reply. Scarcely polite, but it met form's requirements. He wrestled his chakra back under control, reining in the dismay and sense of helplessness rippling through him before it could loosen his tongue again. He'd already risked his position at the Academy by questioning the jounin before the Hokage. Perhaps he'd become too accustomed to the courtesy that the Hokage had granted him all too often recently of speaking his mind freely. He'd abused the privilege today. It would not do to insult the Hokage further by getting into a shouting match with one of the most senior jounin here in the halls of the Hokage's own house.

When his chakra had settled, the Hatake smiled at him from behind his mask. The expression faded after a moment as Iruka just continued to glare at him.

"I'm truly sorry to have disturbed you, Iruka-sensei," the other man said quietly after the silence had grown uncomfortably long. "But I recommended all my students for the exam because they are ready."

"Ready? They almost died!" he snapped, the frustration he was unable to keep back any longer making him indiscreet. Because he would never have known that if Naruto hadn't let it slip, while wondering how Sakura could idolize that stuck-up Sasuke so much, that Sasuke had nearly died during their last mission at a renegade ninja's hands. Though it was forbidden, Iruka had carefully drawn the boy out (it wasn't hard once Naruto had ramen in front of him) about what details he could of that terrible mission – sifting through the bluster and hyperbole until he was able to pick out the critical fragments of a sad tale of betrayal and bravery, heroes and tree-climbing. It made little sense overall, the way Naruto told it, but the little he did glean left him cold.

Something about being dead human tools. And how Naruto refused to end up one.

But they were tools. Shinobi were the tools of their villages; hands, eyes, bodies and souls. Warriors. Spies. Assassins. Thieves. All tools. And he had taught them that. He had been the one who pounded the One Hundred Rules of Shinobi Conduct into their heads until nearly all could recite it letter-perfect. Except Naruto, of course.

Naruto…To teach something properly, one had to believe in it. He'd always believed in the rules of conduct. But now, thinking about it, his throat had gone oddly tight and his eyes ached.

"Only almost." The airily thrown out words came with a casual shrug. Iruka's heart beat slowly and ponderously in his chest, aching from the cavalier tone. And it shouldn't. What had changed inside of him when he took Naruto into his heart? When he opened himself to the boy who was even more unfortunate than he?

Had he lost or had he gained?

"I don't understand you," Iruka said huskily, swallowing hard and trying to tamp down the turmoil inside. He would not let himself look away from the bland gaze that held his own. "You've never passed a student on before and now you've passed on three in one cell. Why now? Why them?"

"They're a good bunch," Kakashi said with a shrug, his expression unchanging. Iruka could read nothing significant from the other, not with his own chakra held so tightly to keep his anxiety from bleeding over again. Not that he'd likely be able to read the jounin effectively anyway. Unless Kakashi allowed him to. "Yes, they are," Iruka agreed sharply. "Which is why I don't want to see any of them disheartened by forcing them through the pressures of the Three Trials too soon!"

"It's not too soon. Besides, they don't have to agree. But they probably will." Another shrug, and this time the jounin stuck his hands into his pants pockets and somehow managed to slouch further, looking utterly unconcerned. Anger flared inside Iruka, and he took a half-step forward, frowning at the other man.

"How can you judge accurately if you haven't ever taken students this far before!" he spat.

The single eye fixed on him, the gaze sharpening abruptly. "Who said I haven't?"

Iruka spluttered, taken aback by the edge to the response. "I – I saw your Teacher's Book. You've never passed a candidate!"

"No, not me. That's true," Kakashi said, the amused expression on his face clearly visible even through the black cloth covering the lower half of it. "But I have taught genin before -- just not for a while now. How long have you been a teacher, eh? Five years? Then you probably never saw how the Hokage saves the real troublemakers for me."

"He's not a tr…" he began hotly in Naruto's defense, only to choke off the patently untrue protest before he could perjure himself further, flushing deeply. Naruto had been a terrible troublemaker for years. Pulling prank after prank on anyone and everyone. Seeking attention. But even if he understood why, that didn't change the fact that the boy was trouble. Iruka lowered his head and stared at the stone tile beneath his boots, shamed. The words burned in his throat. "He's not... bad. He has a good heart. Please don't hurt him needlessly."

Kakashi remained silent, letting him stew, no doubt. He winced, his own words echoing in his head. What must the jounin think of him? A chuunin and teacher pleading for mercy for a clanless genin -- lowest of the low and in need of the most toughening if he were to survive as shinobi in their harsh world. That he was soft. Weak.

But when the other finally did speak, Iruka's head jerked up in surprise. "Ah. Now I see where they got it," Kakashi said quietly, staring at him steadily from behind his mask. The odd light was back in the single eye. For some reason it made the blood flow hot to Iruka's face. Blushing. He was blushing. Shame grew.

But, "Got what?" he asked before he could stop himself, horrifying himself further. His control was utterly gone again. Because of his worry for Naruto, of course.

"Their compassion," the jounin said, eye crinkling up in a sudden smile as he pulled his hands out of his pockets to clap them on Iruka's shoulders heartily once before leaving them to rest there, squeezing lightly in tandem with his next words. "Well done, sensei." Iruka felt his heart jerk in his chest in shock, his breath stop up in his throat. He could only stare, speechless, at the other man as he went on, "Mind, it can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but… I think I like it."

Iruka's eyes went wide in disbelief and he could only gape. After a long second, he somehow managed to find enough breath to say - in a strangled voice - "Are you calling me a pain in the ass, Hatake-jounin?"

"Eh? Well, yes. But not in a bad way." The firm hands resting on his shoulders prevented him from taking a step back as the other man continued to beam at him. Iruka blinked. Yes, that was a broad smile beneath the clinging mask. It was faintly unnerving to see. Then a trickle of energy brushed his chakra and made him quiver; he reeled inside from the unexpected and disconcertingly intimate encounter with the other man's aura.

He shouldn't be able to feel a jounin's chakra unless the other were actually using some kind of jutsu. Was he? Why? Iruka swallowed hard and tried to stay alert, even knowing how badly he was outclassed. "Kakashi-sensei?"

"Yeah?" The smile eased back to a grin. The eye twinkled.

"Why… why are you holding on to my shoulders?"

Kakashi let out a puff of air that could have meant anything or nothing. "On that last mission, we ran into a boy with a mizu kekkai genkai. The boy had been abandoned... then picked up by Momochi Zabuza." Kakashi was still smiling at him from beneath his mask and purposely skewed hitai-ate, but it was a more melancholy expression now. Iruka's breath hissed in as he abruptly realized the jounin already knew he'd questioned Naruto in depth about his last mission. After a brief nod of mutual acknowledgement, Kakashi went on. "The boy's name was Haku. His only reason for existing was to serve the Demon – to follow his orders, serve him, kill for him. But the boy spent some time talking to Naruto… I'm not certain exactly what about. When he was ordered to kill Sasuke and Naruto, instead he paralyzed Sasuke, fought Naruto to a standstill and then allowed himself to be killed taking a blow in defense of Zabuza."

Iruka couldn't stop the tremble that ran through him. A kill already? He hadn't known… Eyes wide, he reached up and gripped Kakashi's forearms. Squeezed hard. "Th-they didn't... w-who... which of them killed...?"

"Don't worry. I did it." Kakashi said, and all mirth faded from his expression until it was as impassive as a ninja's should be. Iruka stared into his eye, riveted. "When it was all over, Naruto cried for the boy."

"He d-didn't tell me..." Iruka whispered, heart aching for Naruto.

"Doesn't surprise me," Kakashi said, shrugging. The motion shook Iruka as well, making him sharply aware that the other man was still touching him, and that there was more energy – definitely jutsu – surrounding them now. "Haku reminded me of someone," Kakashi went on. "Only he wasn't as lucky as that someone. The man who saved him wanted only to use him... it was only when it was too late that the man who used him discovered what his greed had cost them both."

Iruka bowed his head, his hands trembling in their grasp of the other's forearms.

"And this someone this poor boy reminded you of?" Iruka whispered, his conscience making him dread the answer. The silence dragged for a moment, building the tension.

"Naruto's lucky, you know. He considers you his own personal hero."

"Ah!" Iruka cried, squeezing his eyes shut as guilt and regret and true shame swamped him. He couldn't look at the jounin – a man with years of experience and hundreds of kills. Didn't want to see the mockery he knew had to be there; for a humble school teacher, a low-talent chuunin who would never be jounin, idolized by a desperate, lonely boy.

It was Hatake Kakashi who Naruto should consider his hero… and yet… He fell to his knees, oblivious to the hard tiles that bruised them. Kakashi deftly shifted his grip as he sagged, hands sliding up Iruka's arms as he went until they surrounded his wrists as tightly as iron bands.

"Iruka! What…?"

He drew a sobbing breath. Let it out sharply. His voice shuddered. "Why? I failed him for so long... refused to see his pain... scorned him like all the rest… and I don't…."

"Stop. This isn't the place for this," the other muttered sharply, interrupting him. Then one hand released a wrist. He caught the sense of a gesture hastily made before a tight swirl of energy carried them both away. The strength of the chakra spell made his head reel during the transition. In only seconds, his trained senses detected a markedly smaller space surrounding them; it was certain that they were no longer in the Hokage's main hall.

But when his eyes flew open expecting to see just a side room or a closet, he blinked around in shock, instead, at an unfamiliar apartment. Messy, with books, scrolls and kunai scattered on a low table in the center of the room. Framed pictures and potted plants and gleaming shuriken lay jumbled on a windowsill that overlooked one of the busier market streets. There was a single unmade bed. A trunk of clothes. A kitchen area with one cup, one bowl, one pair of sticks stacked neatly in the drainer. It had to be Kakashi's apartment.

Teleportation was a Wind jutsu. All shinobi could teleport short distances but teleportation over a distance like this was a far more difficult skill to master. Yet Kakashi had managed it with seeming ease despite being burdened with another body.

Master of One Thousand Techniques. Sharingan Kakashi. The Copy Ninja. An Elite Jounin of Konoha Village. Naruto's teacher. The one Naruto should respect.

Iruka slumped all the way to the floor, freed from the jounin's iron grasp. He tilted his head back and stared up at the other man, tears already welling in his eyes, only to have them meet a furious pair of eyes staring down at him.

Both eyes. Kakashi had shoved up his hitai-ate to expose the always-hidden left. Its lid was bisected by a livid scar, he saw, which ran down the cheek under the mask below, yet the eye itself gleamed at him unmarred. Deep red. The color of dull fire. Around the pupil, in the iris, rotated three glowing points. Even knowing what it was, what it could do, that eye with its points of light, he found himself staring at them, mesmerized.

"Don't look at them -- you'll pass out."

He shook himself, tried to force himself to look away, but his gaze was drawn right back to those whirling points. Until a hand came up and covered his eyes. He leaned into the other man's touch, relieved, feeling shielded from that tempting sight. After a moment, Kakashi began to speak, his tone matter-of-fact.

"After I killed Haku and crippled Zabuza, Gatou, his employer, arrived with a hundred men to kill him. We no longer had reason to fight."

Iruka started, coming out of his haze partially. Betrayal. All too often a shinobi's fate. He didn't want to hear any more. But he didn't move away; knelt there instead helplessly like a man waiting for death.

"Gatou taunted Zabuza a bit, threatened us as well, but then he took a kick at Haku's body… Naruto tried to rush a man with a hundred mercenaries standing behind him, screaming about desecration and why didn't one of us do something to stop it.."

Iruka listened to the low voice, the shinobi part of him horrified to hear of Naruto's rashness, but another, smaller part of him gladdened by the boy's defiance.

"I stopped him. Told him to let it go."

"He started to scream at us… words that seemed so childish… and yet…"

In the darkness behind his eyes, Iruka saw the bridge in the Land of the Waves… where concealing mist was finally shredding away into a cruel blue sky… a crowd of armed men like a smudge of disaster hovering near the edge of the bridge… a slim body lying stretched out on the unforgiving concrete, eyes closed… a short fat man in an expensive suit standing over the corpse, who then spat on it…

…There was a pained roar of outrage from beside him. His hand darted out with impossible speed and caught something. Jerked it to a sharp halt.

It was Naruto's back in front of him, his hand -- no, Kakashi's hand, he realized suddenly -- clenched tightly in the boy's dirtied collar to keep him from rushing forward. A bloodied figure in black, with once white, but now red and brown stained bandages wrapped around his lower face, stood two strides away, arms hanging uselessly at his sides. Iruka recognized Zabuza at once from the alert bulletins that had been circulated between the villages since he went renegade.

Naruto was bristling with outrage, one extended finger pointing directly at Zabuza.

"Hey, why don't you do something?! He worked for you! He was practically your slave!!"

"Like what?" the rogue ninja said flatly, his face turned away. "Haku is dead."

Naruto practically vibrated in place. "But you should care! That fat scumbag is desecrating him!!"

"…Gatou's been using me… and I used Haku. Weren't you listening? It's a shinobi's lot. All of us are either users or tools… or both," Zabuza said, his voice starting out low, then growing in strength until it was a harsh growl. "I didn't value Haku for himself… but for the taint his blood carried… and for what his talents could do for me. I apologize for nothing."

He could see Naruto reel as if struck, then slump, bending his spiky yellow head until his chin must have been buried against his chest.

"You… do you really mean that?" the boy said, his voice hollow with disillusionment and pain.

Zabuza stood silent. Face averted.

Kakashi spoke, and it was like the words came from his own mouth -- or straight from the Shinobi Code. "Stop it, Naruto! Leave him alone. Our quarrel is over. Besides which…" But Naruto burst into sudden motion, breaking free of Kakashi's hold with an eel-like twist. The boy dashed forward until he was within striking range of Zabuza but didn't attack, instead coming to a sharp halt and planting his feet, outrage radiating from his very stance. "SHUT UP!!!" he screamed at his master, his voice cracking wildly even as he pointed a shaking finger at the crippled ninja beyond, "HE'S STILL MY ENEMY!"

Silence reigned for a handful of heartbeats as no one moved. Then he heard an annoyed sound from the fat man in the suit, Gatou. Kakashi's gaze didn't even flicker toward the non-threat as the man spoke. "Who is that obnoxious brat? He's been making quite a nuisance of himself!"

Naruto ignored the fat man as well to jab a finger toward the corpse at the fat man's feet. A boy only a year or two older than Naruto or Sasuke, Iruka could see. From the size of the hole in his chest he was quite dead. "He… He really cared about you!!" Naruto screamed at Zabuza. "But you think that's just nothing, that he was nothing. You don't feel a thing!" Naruto drew a sharp sobbing breath, and he could hear the thick grief rise and crest in the boy's voice. "Are you really that heartless?" Knew then that there were tears streaming down the young genin's face even though his back was to Kakashi who knelt behind him, weary, but ready. "Is that how you get… when your powers are as strong as yours?" Kakashi flinched even as open sobs began to shake the compact form clad in orange before him. "HE GAVE HIS LIFE FOR YOU!" Naruto screamed suddenly, hands in fists quivering at his side. Then his voice trailed away in a deep sniffle, his head sagging forward again, as if the weight of his own words were crushing him. "He died… without any of his dreams ever coming true. To die as your tool… That's too much, too cruel…"

Silence, thick and deadly and raw, spread from the boy. The blood-stained figure standing beyond him didn't move.

"Kid." Naruto lifted his head as the criminal rogue lifted his as well, and turned his cheek slowly to reveal the sliver tears sliding silently down a bruised and blooded face, agony reflected in the man's twisting features. "Not… another word…"

Naruto froze, and simply stared at his enemy as the man cried silently for his mere 'tool'. After a moment Zazuba cleared his throat. Spoke low and slow. "Kid, what Haku did… was not just for me. While we fought, he broke his heart… over you… and your friends… that's the truth."

The rogue began to chew the bandages over his mouth, tearing and spitting them out so that his mouth was free. And Iruka could feel the man's chakra focus and build. Abruptly he realized where this would end… and how. "He was too kind… too gentle. You're right, you know. I'm glad my last battle… was against you… boy."

Naruto quivered, startled. "Huh?"

"Say what we will," Zabuza said his voice hardening, "do what we will, in the end, we shinobi are still just people after all… with feelings all-too-human. And I've lost… everything."

The hand over his face flexed sharply and the images and sounds blurred abruptly into darkness. Iruka swayed, crumpling forward with a cry even as a hard arm caught him and steadied him. Drained by what he had seen, he lay limply against Kakashi's shoulder and chest, body shaking as tears ran freely down his cheeks from tightly closed eyes.

"I can teach him the skills that will give him a fighting chance to reach his goals, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said, his voice suspiciously tight. "But only you can give him what he needs to reach it…"

"…acceptance," Iruka said, his hands rising to the arm that held him steady, gripping it. He was braced between the other's spread knees. Could feel the ebbing of that powerful chakra back into deceptive stillness.

"No… love," Kakashi said gruffly. Iruka's eyes flashed open in shock, yet he could not move away. He knelt there, unmoving, eyes wide, as Kakashi drew a deep breath, the motion of the other man's chest rocking him slightly.

"There's something else you should know. Something I have told no one else. Yet."

Iruka tensed sharply, made to shift and look up at the other man, alarmed, but a hand cupped the back of his neck and held his head firmly in place against the other's shoulder.

"When Sasuke fell, Naruto thought he was dead. He went… well, berserk, is the only way to put it. And the seal… cracked. With that chakra Naruto nearly destroyed the boy Haku by himself…"

"The Nine Tails?" Iruka breathed out, horrified.

"Yes." Kakashi sighed heavily. "I don't know what stopped it from breaking free completely… but it must have been Naruto himself. And I suspect it was only because of that something you gave him."

Iruka shut his eyes again. Quivered in horror and dread.

"He believes in you, Iruka-sensei. Idolizes you. And it has nothing to do with ninja ability."

Iruka jerked, shamed that Kakashi had so easily seen his feelings of inferiority even as he was overwhelmed by the idea that only his acceptance of the boy Naruto had kept the Nine Tails contained. So small a thing… to become so vital a strength.

"Do you love him?"

Coming from the jounin, the question startled him badly, throwing him even further off balance. It wasn't the shinobi way to dwell on feelings. To admit them or show them. They could be turned against you far too easily if that happened. Kakashi had to know that better even than he. But Zazuba's pained words from the memory Kakashi had shared with him still echoed inside him.

"…in the end, we shinobi are still just people after all…"

He remembered Naruto's outrage and pain -- for a boy who should have been only his enemy. His desperate tears. His raw grief. Iruka clutched tighter to Kakashi's arm. "Yes. I love him."

He felt the heat of breath against his hair before Kakashi laid his cheek on the top of his head. Iruka held his own breath in surprise, frozen, amazed.

"Please… don't stop," Kakashi whispered.

- - end - -