A/N:…I'm not normally this angsty I swear…. Okay, maybe I am, but today is worse than usual. I just found out my Daddy is in the hospital, and I needed some distraction. Lets hope my story ends happily too, ne?

Disclaimer: I don't own any character you recognize, and can only partially credit Sakiko. Karuka Ikashi owns the other half of her.

Pronunciation note: Remember that it isn't I-otousan (ah-ee-oh-toe-san) but I-otousan (ee-oh-toe-san). Thanks!

The Hardest Lessons

By: Reggie

Chapter 1/1

Kakashi hated it when Iruka went on missions. Whenever his beloved was called away, it never meant anything good. Iruka wasn't just a chuunin; he was an exceptionally good one. He had an ease as a leader that most Ninja could never accomplish, and if they were sending him it was only because the client refused to pay for a Jounin when one should have been sent.

It was the knowledge of the kinds of missions Iruka was sent on that kept Kakashi awake night after night when his lover was gone. Iruka always trained; of course he did. But if there was a long gap between missions something would be off, no matter what, and Kakashi was sure that one of these days something was going to happen.

As he stared blankly at the page of Icha Icha in front of him, his open eye scanning the page but not really processing anything, Kakashi made a mental note to demand Tsunade either take Iruka off missions permanently- the preferred answer- or put him on them totally instead of this half-and-half crap.

Giving up reading as a lost cause, Kakashi closed his book with an audible sigh. The little girl sleeping next to him stirred a little but didn't wake, only subconsciously tightening her hold on the plush dolphin she was using as a pillow.

The Jounin smiled down at his young daughter, Sakiko. Having Iruka gone on missions had become slightly easier since the cheerful little girl had entered their lives six years ago. Kakashi had found her abandoned in a rice field when she was only a few months old. He'd brought her home, and she'd been a permanent fixture there ever since.

He reached down and pulled the sleeping child up so her head was resting on a real pillow instead of the dolphin Kakashi had bought her for her first birthday. The poor toy was already so worn- with one badly patched tear across its nose that Kakashi happened to like- that he wasn't sure it could survive another night of such abuse. He smiled as he smoothed down Sakiko's fluffy brown hair, which was so much like Iruka's it was almost painful, and then adjusted the dolphin pajamas her sleeping body was trying to wiggle out of.

Neither parent would ever admit to encouraging it, but Sakiko had a habit of sleeping with the stuffed animal and wearing the pajamas that represented the parent that was gone on a mission while he was away. Kakashi knew perfectly well that Iruka and Sakiko both wore their green scarecrow pajamas and his daughter slept with the one-eyed masked scarecrow plush that Iruka had made for her whenever he was away.

Just like he and Sakiko were now dressed in their blue dolphin pajamas.

Shaking his head a little at the sticky sentimentality of the situation, Kakashi glanced at the window. It was still raining, like it had been the last couple of days. 'Where ever you are, Iruka, I hope it's dry, and I hope it's safe.'

Now sure that his daughter was settled, Kakashi was about to turn off the bedside lamp he had been using when he heard a hard rapping on the front door. He frowned. No one wanting to talk at this hour of the night could have anything good to say- unless it were Guy with a challenge but since Sakiko had come in to the picture midnight challenges had all but disappeared.

The Copy-ninja pulled up the mask he had sewn- or, rather, had Iruka sew- to his pajamas and opened the door, all the while trying to calm his racing heart. Iruka was fine. He wasn't even due back for another few days. There was no reason to jump to any conclusions.

Until he saw that it was Sakura standing, dripping, on the other side of the door. He was sure that his heart had stopped right then.

"Kaka-sensei," Sakura managed to get out. Her voice sounded shaky and Kakashi didn't want to hear anything more. He didn't have to.

"Let me get Sakiko. You can explain on the way."

Sakura just nodded, not mentioning her former sensei's rudeness at not having invited her inside while she waited under the overhang of the front porch of the Hatake house.

Kakashi darted back into the bedroom and gently lifted Sakiko up from the bed. The little girl instantly clutched both him and her dolphin, opening her dark blue eyes slowly as she woke up.

"Ka-otousan? What's going on?"

"Sh, 'Kiko-chan. We're going out, that's all."

Sakiko was instantly awake as Kakashi slipped her into her jacket, still leaving both of their pajamas on. "Something happened to I-otousan."

It wasn't a question, and Kakashi didn't treat it like one. Instead he just slipped on his sandals and picked the now frightened looking girl up again. He pulled on his forehead protector to cover the Sharingan before stepping outside with Sakura.

Sakiko twisted in his arms, turning wide frightened eyes to look at the familiar girl. "Sakura-neesan? Where's I-otousan? What's happened to him?"

Sakura looked over at Kakashi to see what it was okay to say, but he didn't respond to her unspoken query as he walked out in the rain. She wasn't sure Sakiko would be able to hear her anymore with the rain pounding on the hood of her jacket, but knew she had to try.

"He was injured while on his mission, Sakiko-chan. Fairly badly."

Kakashi instinctively tightened his hold on his daughter, knowing that Sakura was toning it down so it wouldn't upset her too badly. And if fairly badly was the toned down version, he was now absolutely dreading what they would find when they reached their destination.

Sakiko shifted so she was blocking the worst of the rain from her treasured stuffed toy, Iru-chan. Sakura's attempts not to upset her didn't seem to have worked as her voice quivered with alarm as she spoke. "Badly, Sakura-neesan?"

Sakura looked at him again, but Kakashi honestly didn't know what to tell her. He certainly didn't want Sakiko upset, but he had to know what to expect before they got there. In the end, he nodded to her. Better to let them both know what to expect now…

"Yes, Sakiko-chan, I'm afraid it is very bad. Tsunade-sama wanted me to come get you, so you could see him and tell him you love him, and remind him why he needs to get better."

Kakashi stumbled a little, suddenly feeling sick. They wanted them to have a chance to say good-bye…'This isn't happening! This isn't happening!'

"Will I-otousan die? Like Aki-kun?"

Aki-kun had been the fish Naruto had won for Sakiko at the last festival. During Iruka's last mission, Kakashi had forgotten to help her feed him. When she'd tried to do it on her own, she'd accidentally dropped the whole can of food into the bowl, and the fish had suffocated.

Kakashi hadn't known what to do with his distraught daughter, and it wasn't until Iruka had come home and explained to her that Aki-kun had gone to fishie heaven- which was a very nice place with lots of pretty rainbow bubbles- that she had calmed down.

'What do I do when it's Iruka that leaves? I won't be able to…I won't know what to say to her…'

"We don't know, Sakiko-chan. We're going to try very hard to make sure he doesn't."

The six-year-old nodded, doing her best to stifle a sniffle before turning and burying her head in the crook of her father's neck, holding him tightly. Kakashi responded in kind, holding her as tightly as he could without hurting her.

"We'll remind him why he has to keep fighting, 'Kiko-chan. Don't worry."

Tsunade was already waiting for them when the arrived, and at the pitying look in her eyes Kakashi felt his stomach drop from where it was supposed to go down to his toes. That look was not a hopeful one.

"I have to warn you that he's in bad shape. If he can hold on through the night, long enough for the healing I've started to kick in, he'll be alright."

If…Kakashi hated that word. Hated it even more when his world depended on it.

"Hokage-sama, we want to see him. We have messages for him."

Tsunade looked a little surprised at the we- it obviously having never occurred to her that Kakashi would allow a child to see one of her father's like that- but nodded slowly. "He's in surgery at the moment. It will be another half-hour, but you can see him when it's done if…"

If he survives. But nobody wanted to say it.

Sakura looked at him sadly as the Copy-ninja bowed stiffly and moved to sit in one of the blue plastic chairs in the waiting room. She looked like she wanted to say something, but after a moment simply walked away.

Kakashi busied himself with getting Sakiko and himself out of their wet clothes, piling their coats on the floor by his feet, and then drying off Iru-chan for her. Once she had the dolphin back- clutched so hard to her chest that its button eyes bugged slightly- she climbed up into her father's damp lap and leaned against his chest. He pulled her close to him, holding her securely, and rested his chin against the top of her head.

They sat very still like that until a nurse walked through the room, carrying what looked like a bunch of dirty rags. As soon as the woman had left the room, Sakiko burst out into uncontrollable sobs.

Kakashi jumped a little, startled by the sudden noise and suddenly shaking body in his arms. He tried to turn her around, but she refused to move- stubbornly crying to the wall in front of her. Not knowing what else to do, Kakashi held her tight again. "'Kiko-chan, what's wrong?"

She sobbed and coughed a little, burying her face in Iru-chan's plush head between his eyes. He could barely hear her muffled answer. "I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it."

Kakashi blinked a bit before reaching up to pull down his mask. It was so late it was almost early, and there wasn't anyone else in the room. He kissed the six-year-old's head soothingly, gently rubbing her small arms with his hand. "What didn't you mean?"

"I don't want him to die! I love I-otousan!"

"I know you do, 'Kiko-chan. He does too." Kakashi smiled a little at the memory. Sakiko's adoration for her other father had never been a question, and once Iruka had stopped seeing her as competition for Kakashi's affection- and stopped being jealous of the fact that having someone depend so utterly on him had healed Kakashi in a way Iruka had been unable to- Iruka had loved her just as much. It had sure been amusing to watch him until then though.

Sakiko violently shook her head, her brown pigtails swishing. "Nu-uh! He doesn't know it!"

Kakashi frowned, shifting the little girl's weight slightly. "'Kiko-chan, what happened?"

With a couple of more wet sobs Sakiko lifted her face off of the now soaked again dolphin. "When he told me he had a mission, I got mad at him. I thought he wouldn't be home in time for my birthday. I said….I said…" another series of sobs and some wet coughing. "I said I hated him, and I hoped he never came back!"

To say that Kakashi was shocked would have been as much an understatement as saying Jiraiya was only slightly perverted. He down-right gaped at the top of the head of the girl in his arms, not caring who saw him doing it. "Hatake Sakiko, why would you say such an awful thing?"

"I didn't mean it! I was just mad! I didn't mean it! I was so mad; I didn't even say I was sorry before he left!"

Kakashi realized, dimly, that this was the first time his daughter would have experienced something like this. She had been too small to remember the last time Kakashi had come home from a mission close to death.

She hadn't realized, yet, what being a ninja meant.

She didn't know that every mission, no matter how small, could potentially be your last. She hadn't realized yet, though he was certain she would now, why it was that her fathers ALWAYS made up from a fight before leaving on missions. When whatever you said had the very real possibility of being the last thing you'd ever get a chance to say, it hurt too much for it be words of anger.

Kakashi had learned that lesson himself when he was close to Sakiko's age, and the last thing he'd said to his father while he was still alive had been that he was ashamed to be his son. He tried to apologize to him when he'd found him in the kitchen later, but it was far too late by then.

It was the hardest lesson Kakashi had ever learned. The pain and guilt of that experience had stuck him for years afterwards, which he'd tried to block by becoming the emotionless tool he was supposed to be. The thought of his precious Sakiko having to live with that same thing was almost too much.

It was with no small amount of surprise that Kakashi realized there were tears falling down his face- not from Obito's eye, but from his own.

He was going to lose everything. He was going to lose Iruka- his beloved, his world- and Sakiko as he knew her in one instant, and there was nothing he could do about it. All he could do was sit there and be useless. He couldn't even offer his sobbing daughter words of comfort because he didn't know what to say. She'd never believe him if he tried to tell her Iruka knew she loved him no matter what she said. She had to hear it from Iruka himself.

Besides that, Kakashi couldn't say for sure Iruka did know. The chuunin sensei certainly knew that Kakashi loved him unconditionally, but with Sakiko he had always been unsure. She'd been Kakashi's girl from day 1, and while the two of them had a different bon Iruka never seemed sure that he mattered to Sakiko as much as Kakashi did.

He was going to die thinking the girl he loved as a daughter really did hate him.

The thought made Kakashi angry, and he found he wanted to shake her, to make her understand what a terrible thing she'd done. But as he listened to her wretched sobs, he knew he didn't have to. Reality was doing more than enough punishing for him.

The Jounin suddenly felt very tired. This emotional roller coaster was tearing him to pieces.

Kakashi buried his face in Sakiko's hair, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. She still smelt like their bed, and the Iruka-ness of the smell made both his eyes burn.

"Kaka-sensei?"

He didn't look up at Sakura. "Yes?"

"You…You can go see him now. He's still sleeping but…"

Kakashi nodded, removing one hand from around his daughter's waist to pull his mask back up. Under different circumstances, he would have been amused by Sakura's slightly disappointed look at still not having managed to see his face, but he couldn't find it in himself to feel anything about it at all. He stood, still holding Sakiko as her sobs quieted, and followed the pink-haired young woman through the labyrinth of hallways.

Iruka's room looked about as he expected. Blank white walls with a white curtain to pull around the bed, and filled with the whir and buzz of life-monitoring machines.

Iruka looked smaller than Sakiko, surrounded by all those noisy machines. His skin looked translucent in the harsh hospital light, which accentuated every curve in his gaunt face and made his already far too pale skin look even paler.

The hospital sheet was pulled up to his chest, no doubt covering some of the worst injuries. Kakashi could see that his chest had been tightly wrapped- meaning broken ribs at least- and one of his upper arms was also wrapped. He could smell disinfectants, and knew that meant the wound had been infected before. A mask was covering Iruka's mouth, the top of it an almost perfect contour of the scar across his face that it rested just above, forcing air into his battered chest which Kakashi watched rise up and down even while vaguely noting the bandage tied securely around his lover's head.

"Oh, 'Ruka," he heard someone who sounded an awful lot like himself- but hoarser- say.

Sakiko squirmed, demanding without saying it to be let down, and Kakashi obliged. She quickly scampered to the bedside, wide blue eyes taking in everything. "I-otousan?"

"He's sleeping, Sakiko-chan." Sakura whispered kindly, walking over to kneel by the girl while Kakashi remained frozen where he was.

"Can't you wake him up?"

"No. It's very important that he sleeps so his body can rest."

"Oh." Sakiko frowned, looking anxious. "Well, do you think he can hear me while he's sleeping?"

"Of course he can," the hoarse someone said again, and Kakashi startled himself out of his revere by realizing it was himself. "That's why we're here. We're going to talk to him, and remind him that he has to come back to us."

Sakiko nodded and Sakura stood, leaving quickly as she obviously sensed this was a deeply personal moment. Kakashi smiled a little, glad that at least one of his students had finally learned some perception.

He sat in the chair next to Iruka's bed, and gently clasped the chuunin's hand in his own. He nodded to the six-year-old who was watching him. "Go ahead, Sakiko-chan."

She took a shuddering breath, holding Iru-chan for support, as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "I-otousan, I want to say I'm sorry. I don't hate you. I love you very much! You're my I-otousan, and I want you to come back. Ka-otousan wants you to come back too. We miss you very much. Ka-otousan can't tell me stories like you do, and he's so sad without you. Please don't go to heaven with Aki-kun." Sakiko's bottom lip trembled and a tear slid down her face. Kakashi expected she was done and reached out to pull her into a hug, only to be startled as she started speaking again. "But if you really really have to go to heaven with Aki-kun, then you go right ahead. Ka-otousan and I will be okay. We-we love you, so we want you to be happy. If you're not happy here, then it's okay to go where it's better. We'll find you later. We promise."

She stood clutching her plush toy, resolute, as if waiting for some sort of answer. When nothing happened for several long minutes, but she seemed sure he'd gotten the message anyway, Sakiko fled to her other parent's waiting arms, sobbing into the dolphins across his chest.

Kakashi could only stroke her head, amazed. She was willing to do what Kakashi could not and never had managed. She was willing to let go if it meant him being happy. Kakashi had never managed to let go of anyone. He still selfish clung to the memory, wishing every day as he went to the memorial stone that they wouldn't have left him, even if they were happier where ever they were.

It occurred to him as he scooped the little girl up and held her close, that children were the only ones who really understood selfless love. They depended on their parents for everything, and until they were old enough to do things on their own couldn't really be all that selfish. Sakiko understood in a way he did not what love was really about. It was about making the person you said you loved happy, even if it hurt you to do so.

It left a bitter taste in his mouth thinking about letting Iruka go- heaven or no heaven. But, as he watched Iruka's chest slowly rise and fall until Sakiko had cried herself to sleep in his arms, he found that he could accept it, if he had too.

He shifted the little girl in his arms so he could lay her down gently on the chair, Iru-chan serving as a pillow anyway- and knelt beside his lover's bed. He clutched Iruka's hand tight in both of his, almost willing his own strength and life to pass through the barriers that separated them.

He unclasped their fingers only long enough to swiftly pull down his mask, his eyes never leaving his lover's relaxed face.

"I want you," he finally managed to choke out, feeling as though the words were peanut butter coming up his throat, "to fight your damnedest to stay with us, Iruka. I can't take care of her by myself, you know that. I hopeless at it, most of the time. And when she's old enough to go to the Academy? When she's a teenager? I won't be able to live with that on my own, Iruka. I need you with me then, and I need you with me now. I love you more than anything, and if you leave me here a part of me will go with you." He squeezed the fingers in his hand a little tighter. "But…I still live, if you go. I'll stay here and I'll try my best to be the best father I can, and see if I can't somehow make up for all the things I've done wrong so I can follow you to heaven. Or hell, I guess, because you're as much a ninja as I am- but as long as you're there it will be heaven to me."

Like Sakiko, Kakashi remained motionless for a long time. He wasn't sure exactly what he was waiting for, but he wanted to somehow know that Iruka had heard him. That all of this would work out alright.

He didn't notice when he fell asleep, but he did notice when he woke up that there was something weakly squeezing his hand. He sensed no threat, and looked up groggily to see slightly dazed brown eyes blinking down at him.

"'Ruka?" Kakashi asked slowly, his voice sounding raw in his throat.

The eyes smiled, and the hand he was holding gently laid his unresisting palm flat on the bed. With slightly shaking fingers, Iruka managed to write one word on the sensitive skin of his palm.

'Staying'.

Kakashi smiled up at him, gently kissing the finger tips of that hand before standing to pull on his mask and go get Tsunade. If Iruka had made up his mind to stay, then Kakashi was going to make sure that Tsunade made sure he was comfortable and healing while doing it so he would never change his mind.

He smiled to himself as he stepped out in the hall, trying not to turn around when he heard an excited gasp behind him as Sakiko woke up. Hopefully she was smart enough not to try and attack and hug her I-otousan. Or, if she did try, that she'd at least make sure it was clear it was from both of them.