A/N: Goodness, I hate leaving you guys like that. This chapter is shorter and far less jumpy- but the truly important one for 'The Heart Grows' so pay attention, okay?

The idea for the seal is originally from "Side Effects". Excellent story, and I don't even like Mpreg. I have sort of twisted and embellished the idea, but it wasn't mine originally either.

Have I ever told you guys I'm thoroughly uncreative? I don't come up with my own ideas- I make story smoothies!

Strength
Chapter 2/2

The first thing Iruka realized was that he was intensely cold. He couldn't feel his body, and his head was swimming from the frigidness he felt. Which was odd, because the last thing he could remember was horribly intense heat that was suffocating him.

Iruka opened his eyes- or maybe he just became aware that they were open- and found himself looking down at himself lying in a hospital bed.

Oh, shit!

This wasn't good. This couldn't possibly be good. Iruka scrutinized his body below him, watching as the machines buzzed and his chest rose and fell from the oxygen they gave him. Okay, so he wasn't dead. He just…wasn't there.

That was still bad.

"Let me see him! Guy, you son of a bitch, let me go!"

Kakashi.

Iruka tried to turn his head towards the voice. He couldn't, but he found he didn't have to. He could see the door without moving. Creepy.

"You can't see him until you calm down, Hatake, so stop right there!"

And that was Tsunade. He must have been in worse trouble than he thought.

A moment or two of silence, during which Kakashi probably forced himself to calm down.

"Tell me he's okay." Kakashi sounded like he was pleading with her. Like he could not handle it if she said anything else.

If he could have, Iruka would have sucked in a breath of sheer shock. Could he really make THE copy-ninja sound like that? Kakashi said he loved him, and he'd seen how upset Kakashi could get when he was in danger before. But this…this was too much. He was sure he could have felt sick if he could have felt anything but the dizzying cold.

"Kakashi, I can't do that. You know he's not okay. He was badly burned, bones broken, smoke inhalation, head trauma, and chakra system messed up from his instant reaction to try and protect himself before he hit the ground. He had a piece of wood go completely through his shoulder! He is not okay."

That should have hurt, Iruka realized. He should at least feel some of that. He took back what he'd said about Kakashi being crazy when the Jounin had told him that pain was good because it let you know you were still alive the last time his lover had returned messed up from a mission.

He had been right, and Kami-sama why could he feel nothing but the cold?

"He's alive. Tell me that much."

"Technically."

"Technically?"

"His body is alive because we're keeping it that way. The trauma he went through…he doesn't have the strength to stay alive on his own. Maybe he will come back on his own. Maybe he won't. I just can't tell you right now. I've done everything I can. The rest is up to him."

Limbo then? Nice.

"Hokage-sama…Tsunade…let me see him. Please."

Silence for a long time, and then the door slowly opened. He caught a brief glimpse of Tsunade holding the door open and Guy standing just behind before Kakashi strode in to the room. The moment Tsunade shut the door, Kakashi yanked down his mask so fast he scratched himself. He didn't seem to care.

"'Ru? Ru, it's me."

Kakashi was covered in soot and ash, the skin that had been covered by his mask looking oddly pale under the grime. His hands were shaking as he crossed over to the bed, gently laying a hand on Iruka's forehead.

Iruka found himself focusing on the fact that Tsunade had healed the burns in visible areas so they wouldn't scar. That was kind of her. He already had that one scar to attract enough attention.

He couldn't bring himself to focus on Kakashi, though it was impossible for him to look away. He didn't even have eyelids to close.

He just couldn't bring himself to pay much attention to the tears that were slowly leaving streaks through the black on Kakashi's face. Refused to notice on a conscious level how his normally strong and stoic lover was trembling so badly.

Refused to allow himself to see just how much power he had over the Jounin. How deeply Kakashi loved him.

It had really be kind of Tsunade to make sure that his students wouldn't see the scars.

"'Ruka-ru, it's me. It's Kakashi."

Iruka wanted to laugh at him and ask him who else would be sitting by his bedside like that? He didn't have anyone else to care about him like this, so of course it was Kakashi.

He wanted to sit up and hug his beloved, to wipe away his tears while he pretended not to notice them.

All he could do was sit there, frozen all over, unable to feel anything and unable to look away.

"'Ru, please open your eyes for me. Just a little bit. I need to know you're going to be okay."

'I want to, Kakashi. I want to so badly, but I've forgotten how…'

"Please, don't do this to me again. Don't make me sit here and watch you die all over again. Please…"

Kakashi's voice broke, and Iruka wished he could feel it as the Jounin laid his head carefully next to Iruka's on the pillow- gently wiping stray strands of burnt hair away from his closed eyes.

Kami-sama, this wasn't fair! Kakashi had suffered enough in his life. He didn't deserve to suffer like this. Iruka didn't deserve to be loved like this- although he supposed nobody really did.

"Why couldn't you have just left her?" Kakashi asked, and then laughed harshly. "I'm being silly. I couldn't have left her either. I would expect no less of you. You love everyone too much, my Ruka.

Tsunade says you don't have strength enough to come back on your own, 'Ru. I don't know whether or not I believe that. I can't imagine you not being strong enough…"

Iruka wished he could have smiled. Had anyone told him in the beginning of all of this- when Tsunade had assigned Kakashi as his instructor- that the Copy-ninja would ever be saying something like that about him, Iruka would have laughed in their face. He wasn't so sure he wouldn't still. It was almost surreal. Kakashi always such a hard time telling him these things…

"I want to help you. Help you have strength when your own isn't enough. Always. I wish you were here to tell me whether this is okay or not but…I'm not going to lose you no matter what you say."

'Well, that's good, because I don't want to leave.' Iruka thought, noticing vaguely that the cold was intensifying and the sound starting to muffle. Oh God…this was dying. He remembered this. Being so, so cold and Kakashi starting to sound further and further away. 'Kakashi…Kakashi help me! Just like last time…please!'

Kakashi pulled out a kunai, removed his glove, and then deftly slit his palm wide open. Blood spattered the white hospital sheets and tile as Iruka stared at him.

Using his other hand, Kakashi dipped one of his fingers in his slightly cupped hand like it was ink. He began drawing symbols on the exposed stomach of Iruka's body.

"If ever you need me, you can find me. I would willingly walk through the deepest circle of hell to get to you.

If ever you find you aren't strong enough, you can lean on me. I will have all the strength I need, as long as you need me."

'I am yours, Kakashi. Wholly and completely. Always.'

The little symbols were spreading out in two slowly widening spirals with the same center. They were so interwoven that it was nearly impossible to tell which circle was which. It wasn't like any seal Iruka had ever seen, but he supposed Kakashi had to know what he was doing when Yondaime had been his sensei.

"My life is your life, to use as you will. My strength, my love, is all a part of you. We are the same, one heart, one soul. One complete circle that does not end."

To Iruka, Kakashi was starting to sound like he was speaking from under water. He couldn't even be afraid of the cold anymore. The cold was all there was.

Kakashi stopped drawing on Iruka. Instead he spread the blood down his fingers until his whole hand was coated like he'd just dipped it in brilliantly red paint. He placed it in the center of the circle, and closed his eye to try and block out the machines around him steadily getting louder.

He focused his chakra in the center of his palm, forcing it in to the middle of the seal so that it spread outward through the two spirals.

Iruka gasped as his world of cold and rapidly approaching darkness was shattered by warmth. It started just below his chest and spiraled out. He could feel the frayed ends of his chakra being tied together, to something new, with warm gold threads. The ends melted together, the blue threads of his own chakra blending with the golden warmth.

Kakashi. This was the feeling he felt when he would wake up in Kakashi's arms. Warm, safe, and over whelmed by the aura of power Kakashi always radiated- even when he wasn't aware of it. This was Kakashi, this was Iruka, and this was the two of them together and just one person.

The warmth around him grew, forcing the cold away from him, drowning him, but it never became unbearably hot like the fire had. He was safe. Safe, safe, safe…

Iruka closed his eyes- or maybe they'd been closed all along- and realized he could feel. And it hurt more than he would have liked, but it was there and he was there and that's what mattered.

He was tired, and he hurt, but he did not feel weak. Underneath his own exhaustion was something new. An undercurrent of gold, waiting to be used when he needed it, bleeding in and around his chakra- filling in the holes and getting so mixed up he almost couldn't tell the two apart.

'What did he do?' Iruka asked himself, astounded. Knowing the only way he'd get any answers would be to go to the source, Iruka concentrated some of that strength on getting his eyes open.

It took a couple of tried, but he managed it. He could see Kakashi now over the top of an oxygen mask. The other ninja still had his palm flat on Iruka's stomach, forcing chakra in to the seal as if trying to force it to work because he didn't think it had yet. Iruka wanted to call out for him, but couldn't with the mask on. Instead he twitched his hand.

Kakashi gasped softly, releasing the force of his chakra immediately. The golden current receded slightly, but did not disappear. Iruka wondered vaguely now what a Hyuuga would see if they looked at him now.

Kakashi opened his eye, sweat dripping down his face as he shook slightly, and smiled at the puzzled and slightly dazed coffee eyes that stared back at him.

"I knew you wouldn't leave me," Kakashi said weakly.

Iruka didn't seem satisfied with that answer, and frowned at him just slightly. He looked like he wanted to talk, but couldn't and Kakashi didn't dare remove the oxygen mask just yet.

"My sensei taught me that seal. He said it creates a two-way connection between people. It allows you to access my chakra if you need to, and me to access yours. It's a risky seal, as it will destroy half your chakra system if the other dies but…"

Iruka was glaring at him, looking ready to protest, just like Kakashi knew he would, but Kakashi didn't care. They could argue the intelligence of his decision later, when Tsunade would chew his ass for performing a forbidden technique.

Right now, he didn't care. Iruka was here, Iruka was safe. Iruka would survive when no one else in Kakashi loved had.

Laughing slightly, Kakashi put his head down on the pillow next to Iruka's. He was sure his boyfriend would have pulled away if the machines hadn't held him still, but it didn't matter. Nothing else mattered but that Iruka would stay with him forever.

"I love you, Iruka. More than anything. I don't want to see a world without you ever again. I will do everything in my power to keep you with me, so don't think you can escape that easily."

Iruka sighed next to him, closing his eyes, and Kakashi could have sworn he heard the softest of whispers saying, "I love you too, even though you're an idiot. Don't forget it, now or ever."