Hatake Kakashi had been staring at the albino ratsnake for hours, marveling at its perfect camouflage, in a bright streak of sunlight on the silver grey bark of the tree. It had to have found the only place in the forest where such a conspicuous animal could hide. How? How did it know? His team was thrashing around nearby. Obviously the strategy of hiding in plain sight was an effective one. The kids had been searching for the animal, the beloved pet of a local noble's daughter, all day.
A glance at the sky told him it was mid afternoon, he'd let them keep looking for another hour, two at the most, he wanted to go home.
Suddenly Naruto's voice bellowed out of the undergrowth. "Shit Kakashi-sensei, there's no snakes anywhere here. Must be something in these woods eating them. So if that kid's aodaisho's around here it already got eaten, so let's go ok. I'm hungry."
Kakashi was about to answer, telling them to look underneath the underneath, when he stiffened imperceptibly. Two powerful shinobi were approaching, very fast. His three curious subordinates crawled out of the bushes, scratched and scuffed, just as the ANBU stopped in front of him. Nearby the snake pressed its white body closer to the tree, something in the ANBU's intent made Kakashi want to do the same.
"Hatake-san," a muffled voice said through a porcelain mask, "Hokage-sama asked if you would come with us?"
It wasn't a question.
"Of course," he said casually, then picked up the snake and tossed it to Naruto. "Later." He added with a cheerful wave.
Tusanade was waiting for him in her office. She looked up as he entered, and the ANBU took their places close on either side of him, too close.
There was a long pause while the woman watched him, as if waiting for a reaction.
"Hatake Kakashi," she said eventually. "Were you aware that Umino Iruka was brutally attacked in his apartment this morning?"
A single white eyebrow shot up as Kakashi, heart beating wildly, struggled to keep his outward calm. "How is he? Who…?"
Tsunade spoke slowly and deliberately, not missing a single twitch. "He's badly bruised and cut but none of his injuries are life threatening." She paused again, appraising the effect of her words. "However he hasn't been able to tell us who attacked him. It seems his memory was… altered. By a sharigan user."
Kakashi's felt his hands curl into fists. "Uchiha Itachi."
The youthful face hardened, giving a hint of the woman's true age. "That was our first thought, but we have very reliable information that he's a long way from Fire Country right now."
Not Itachi? "Then who? Sasuke would never do… and he couldn't. He hasn't fully activated the sharigan yet." Suddenly his heart skipped a beat as the copy nin realised exactly why he was there.
Tsunade fidgeted with the few objects on her desk, two pens, a hospital report and a teacup. Arranging them in different symetrical patterns, as if finding the perfect order would end the disorder closing in on her village.
She tried to keep her gaze on the man in front of her, and failed as her eyes darted away at the last moment. "You've kept your, er, relationship with Iruka-sensei very quiet, haven't you Hatake?"
Kakashi's one visible eye narrowed and darkened with fury. He took a deep breath in an attempt to keep the snarl out of his voice. "I can assure you Hakage-sama, that being loved by Umino Iruka is not something that I'm ashamed of."
Tsunade's perfect doll-like face tinged with pink and her voice lowered to a harsh whisper. "Well I'm sure I don't have to tell you that a domestic partner is always the prime suspect in this kind of situation."
She forced her eyes back to his face, sounding cold and official again. "In any case I must insist that you don't leave the village, and that you don't have any contact with the…er, the victim."
Kakashe clenched his teeth under his mask and took a step towards the door. Now there was danger as well as rage in his eye. "Hokage-sama, I've never asked for any favours but please don't force me to disobey you, and unless you are ready to kill me now, do not try to keep me away from him."
Tsunade hesitated, quickly arranged everything in a neat line across the centre of her desk then nodded to the ANBU. They silently stood down and let him pass.
Kakashi seethed as he raced across the rooftops towards the hospital, without giving a thought to his graceful chakra powered leaps. There was room for only one thing in his mind, Iruka was hurt, his Iruka. Of course he'd kept the relationship quiet. Fuck! It's not as if he had any choice. He was Sharigan Kakashi dammit, he was a dangerous man and he had enemies, lots of them. Enemies who wouldn't hesitate to use anything and anyone to get to him. He wasn't going to risk Iruka's life every time the teacher left the village just so that… so that what? How dare they think that? Since when did he care what anyone thought about him anyway?
At the hospital he burst through an open upper window, then raced to the ICU roughly shoving aside anyone too slow to get out of his way. He found Iruka in a room he'd occupied himself, less than six months before, in a drugged sleep so deep that he looked as if he'd never wake. Kakashi gently took his hand, taking care not to disturb the IV line running into his arm, then uncovered the sharigan eye and looked him over. There was a slight concussion and his face was badly bruised, but his jaw wasn't broken at least. Casting the eye lower he saw six broken ribs. One of them must have punctured a lung, he could see the bright chakra glow of the damaged area, thankfully it had already been strengthened and reinflated. His left arm was broken in two places and his hands were slashed to ribbons. So he'd tried to defend himself against a blade, unarmed.
Then Kakashi saw the blood clotted around his intestines, slowly fed by a leak in his spleen. Goddam incompetent idiots!
He sped into the corridor and grabbed the closest nurse, a blond girl barely out of her mid teens. Suppressing the urge to scream in her face, he spoke in a low deliberate voice that was somehow even more terrifying.
"Get a medic in here now, he's still bleeding!"
The girl's pale skin turned white. "But… but Hokage-sama treated him herself. She said that…"
Kakashi took a deep breath radiating menace, the girl almost fainted with fear. "Well the stupid bitch screwed up. He's still bleeding, inside, I can see it!" He pointed to the still uncovered sharigan.
The nurse squawked and ran for her life, glancing behind just once.
Kakashi went back to sit at Iruka's side. He checked over the rest of the teacher's limp body. There were more severe bruises, but nothing worse. As he adjusted his headband back to its usual place he noticed that its cloth lining was already soaked with tears. He'd never been able to control Obito's eye the way he could his own. The damn crybaby.
He was still sitting there when Tsunade came in with the medical team. They stared at each other across the room with mutual scorn. Kakashi held his breath as she strode over to the bed then stood and pulled the chair aside to allow her better access. She pulled back the sheet and put her hands on Iruka's abdomen, under the hospital gown.
"He's right, there's a lot of blood there. I can't pinpoint the damage well enough to use chakra, we'll have to operate."
Kakashi was in the hospital cafeteria pretending to drink tea when Ibiki found him. The few medics and other hospital workers who were still around were clustered over in the far corner. No one wanted to be closer than necessary to the angry and distraught copy-nin.
"So he's still in surgery." The big man said, sitting opposite him at the plastic table and taking a sip from his own teacup.
Kakashi looked into the stern scarred face without flinching. There weren't many in Konoha who could do that. "Did Tsnusade send you here to interrogate me?"
Ibiki snorted and looked around at the grey cinderblock walls. He let the silence hang in the air until it was almost a third presence at the table.
"You know last time I was here I was with Iruka and you were the one lying up there unconscious." He chuckled in a voice that lacked even the slightest hint of amusement. "Show's just how desperate he was if he would sit and talk to me."
Kakashi relaxed a little. "Yeah, I never did thank you for being there for him. There's only you and a handful of others that know about us. People we can trust and who can keep their mouths shut."
Ibiki's intent intensified and darkened. "Still don't remember how you got home that time?"
So it was an interrogation, but maybe not an official one. Kakashi knew that Ibiki was just as fond of the teacher as everyone else in the village. "No, nor getting hit on the head." He felt through his silver hair for the scar on his scalp. "The last thing that's clear is putting a blade through the second guy's gut. Then I woke up in here with a headache."
"But you still killed the three other ninjas and got back to Konoha before you collapsed."
It was Kakashi's turn to snort. "Yeah, the amazing Sharigan Kakashi. Kills even when unconscious."
There was a long still moment of silence.
Eventually he looked up and met the other's stony gaze with one that was just as steady, but softer, almost pleading. "Are you suggesting that I could have hurt Iruka, without knowing?
The interrogator let out a long sigh and blinked once, without unlocking his eyes from the other man's.
"Look it doesn't make sense to me either, but I saw him Kakashi, the way his eyes were twitching. It was definitely a sharigan attack. I'm old enough to remember when anyone who ran foul of an Uchiha ended up in this place for a few days. With eyes just like his."
A presence in the doorway made them turn to where the nurse Kakashi had spoken to earlier was standing. Her terrified eyes flicked from one dangerous man to the other.
"Sensei-san is awake now, I was sent to…to…" Then with a squeal of fear she turned and fled.
Ibiki leaned back in his chair and drained his teacup. Kakashi stood to leave. He hesitated, then looked down at the floor, his guts twisting and knotting in an agony of indecision.
"I… er. Ibiki, will you come with me?" His voice cracked. "I… I don't want… that is I'm not sure I should be alone with him."
They found the teacher propped up in his hospital bed in a stark little room near the surgical unit. His face was bandaged and smudged with bruises, but his dark eyes were as lively and alert as ever. He startled as Kakashi entered and sat at the foot of the bed facing him.
"Er… Shinobi-san? It's good of you to visit me, do I teach one of your children?" He blushed a little, in a way that made Kakashi's breath catch painfully. "I'm sorry but my memory is still a bit, well a bit… confused."
Iruka's eyes swept over to Ibiki as he followed a few seconds behind. It was obvious that he recognised him at once, because that recognition brought the small tremble of fear that the torture expert almost always provoked.
"Morino-san, is this part of the investigation?"
Ibiki sat down in the chair by the bed and laid his hand on the teacher's, in a hopelessly futile attempt at reassuring him.
He smiled, but on his scarred face it was an equally ineffective gesture of friendliness. "No. We just came to see how you are, but I would quite like to ask a few questions if you feel up to it."
Iruka was still painfully agitated, but his eyes had been drawn like magnets to the silver-haired man sitting on the end of his bed. Ibiki acknowledged him with a sweep of his hand. "Iruka-sensei, surely you know Hatake Kakashi, he saved your life you know. His sharigan eye saw the internal bleeding."
This time Iruka blushed bright red behind the bandages and he lowered his eyes shyly.
"Thank you Hatake-sama. I'm honoured by your concern. Of course I've heard of you, who hasn't? And I must have seen you in the mission room but my memory..."
Kakashi froze inside. He waved and smiled cheerfully under his mask. "Well I'm glad to see that you're feeling better."
The two jounins exchanged a glance. Ibiki broke it by pulling his eyes away abruptly, but Kakashi had already caught the hint of an unfamiliar emotion in them. Guilt? Regret?
The interrogator turned his attention back to the injured man in the bed. "Do you have any idea who would attack you?"
Iruka shook his head. His hair was tied in its usual ponytail above the bandages. The way it bounced at the movement made Kakashi's chest tighten. He looked away and fixed his eye on the heart monitor on the far side of the bed, watching the little green blob zigzag up and down, in time with the beeps counting those precious heartbeats.
"I've been lying here trying to work that out. Someone wanted to frighten me, or punish me, but I can't think of anyone who would want to do either."
Ibiki looked at him without a trace of emotion. "They called me in at once and it looked to me as if you were left for dead."
The teacher shook his head again. "I was attacked with some kind of knife but I wasn't stabbed. I could easily have been killed once I was unconscious if that's what they intended."
His questioner's eyes narrowed. "You saw the blade?"
"No, I don't remember anything at all, but my hands are all cut and a katana would have done more damage, probably cut off my fingers. It's unlucky that I had just got out of the shower so I was undressed and unarmed. Almost as if they knew exactly when to attack."
The ache in Kakashi's chest deepened at the image of Iruka lying naked and bloody on his bathroom floor. No one had mentioned that!"
"And you were alone?"
"Of course. It was early in the morning." The teacher reddened again and lowered his voice to a whisper. "And there's no one who would have stayed overnight."
Suddenly Kakashi was desperate to leave. "We should let you rest now." He said brightly past the tightness in his throat. "I'll came back to see you soon."
Iruka blushed deeper than ever and the way his bandages lifted indicated a broad smile underneath as he nodded forward in a small but earnest attempt at a bow. "Thank you Hatake-sama, I'd like that." His eyelashes lowered as he broke eye contact. "I'd like it a lot."
Once they were outside the room Ibiki grinned at Kakashi frighteningly.
"Shit Hataki, why doesn't anyone ever react to me that way. Maybe I should cover up my face in a mask? Couldn't hurt eh?"
Kakashi slumped forward, hands in his pockets. "He doesn't know me. He doesn't remember me, us, at all."
"No but he sure as hell wants to. That's if you still do."
The copy nin gave him a dark glare. "What the hell do you mean by that?"
Ibiki raised his hands and smiled apologetically. "Hey don't get me wrong. But isn't this the kind of thing that you were always afraid might happen. Now like you said he doesn't even know you. If you really want to protect him all you have to do is walk away."