This was written as a secret-santa-nin gift for BONEKNIT, over on LiveJournal, back in December of 2006. I only just realised that this wasn't on my ElJay OR on my FF account, so I thought I'd get around to fixing that!


Title: Step Forward
Recipient: boneknit
Pairing(s): Kakashi/Iruka
Warning(s): Yaoi. Cursing. Violence. Minor amounts of heartwarming angst. (It's possible, believe you me.)
Genre(s): Ummm…geez…holiday feel-good piece.
Rating: ooh…PG-13 for language?
Word Length: 4.976
Description: It's a step forward. It's a step in the right direction.


Step Forward
for boneknit

Happy Christmas/holiday of your choice! I hope you like this…I certainly had fun writing it!


Click.

"This is Med-312, reporting in from base."

"Med-312, this is SO-193. Report."

"We've cleared three injured from the destroyed West Gate. MS-1516 is bringing them back even as we speak. MS-4658 is expanding search radius. We'll be searching up to the Ryungaki River."

"Roger that. Med-312, you're cleared for an extended search. Do well so as to join your forebears with honour."

"I'll repay their sacrifice with the blood of my foes."

Click.

--

The grass rustled as six feet moved through it, swift and delicate. Black fabric clung to them, continuing up long legs and torsos, interrupted only by a bevy of black canvas bags hanging from their hips and shoulders. Black masks covered their faces, a veil fluttering down to cover the backs of their heads. Not a single inch of skin was visible.

Suddenly, the shrill cry of a bird shot through the long weeds. As the echoing call—one that sounded awfully like a woman's sobs—echoed and died, all three people were running towards the source of the sign.

"Holy…" a woman's voice gasped as the scene registered.

"My heavens," a man breathed, hands already diving in the pouch at his hip. "Can you recognize the mask?"

The second man shook his head. "No, blood has obscured the sign. I'm checking his tags."

The woman nodded, sliding a needle into the exposed skin of the man's forearm. "Chest is crushed," she said, a blue chakra-light hovering near her mouth to record her observations. "Commencing use of fast-heal jutsu 162, the rebuilder." A blue glow wrapped around her arms, then twined around the body in the grass.

"Reconstructing pelvis to minimize further damage," the first man said, hands on the body's hips as blue engulfed him, too. "Internal bleeding is definite and wide-spread. To prevent fatal damage…"

"Med-312 is commencing fast-heal jutsu 122, the absorber," the woman said, finishing the man's sentence. "Absorbing internal blood and debris."

"Destructive jutsu 198," the second man murmured, one glowing hand placed flat on the body's stomach. "Fast-heal jutsu 135, the stitcher."

"Absorbing detritus of 198," the woman said, glow increasing.

"Overall stabilizing jutsu is commencing now," the first man barked. A bright glow engulfed the body laying the grass, and then him, and then his colleagues.

"Field repair done to the best of Squad-4658's abilities," the woman reported. "Chance of survival is now thirty percent. We will bandage the wounds, then escort the victim back to a safe house. From there we will transport into the main village itself. End record."

The blue ball of light flickered once, twice, then blinked out. Underneath the high neck of her uniform, a small blue light flared and faded. The woman looked to either of her colleagues. "Who is it, Monkey?" she asked.

"Nin 011450," the man reported. "Any clue who that is?"

"No," she said, wrapping a bandage around the exposed patella before her. Twisting the fabric into place, she frowned. "I don't even recognize that call number from the ANBU codes."

"Maybe a sub-in?" the second man suggested, fitting a cervical collar around the man's neck. "I mean, we are in the middle of a war, Anole."

Under her mask, Anole's frown deepened. "Still. I know everyone serving in ANBU and Special Operations—I have to. That is not a call number I've ever heard."

"His birthday is 26 May, 124," Monkey said. "He's not a new promotion to this post—his tags are too new. ANBU says you have to be a jounin before age 21, SpecOps says before 23. This one's at least twenty-five. He's not a new jounin, ANBU, or Spec. He's been doing this for a while."

"What are you suggesting, then? You think he's a chuunin or something?" the other man tossed in, sliding a tube down into the decimated throat.

"Get real, Wolf," Anole snorted. "It's a war zone. They don't send us chuunin."

Monkey laughed. "Ha! Even hard up as they are for this, Suna's not going to risk a chuunin. And this is part of the land Suna was set to defend that we're going through, you know."

"How is the Kazekage?" Wolf asked Anole, ignoring the other man.

"I'm not on his med detail," she drawled. "But I did see a certain Konoha-nin creeping into his room last night, so I figure his brother is still on guard. Which means he can't be too horribly great."

Wolf snorted. "I still cannot get over the fact that Konoha's genius is shacking up with Suna's resident prickly-pear."

"They're not shacking up," Anole said with a grimace. "They're having sex. Loudly. On a nightly basis."

"Someone lives in the old ambassador dorms, eh?" Wolf chuckled, using chakra to help his teammates slide the stretcher under the man.

"Unfortunately, yes," the woman sighed. "Are you ready to run like hell? We're making for point 9-12."

"Ready," Wolf said grimly.

"Ready," Monkey responded.

--

Tsunade bustled into the operating theatre, pulling on a clean pair of gloves as a nurse tied up her gown. "What, exactly, is our patient's condition?" she demanded.

"Unnamed nin, found out in the Ryungaki River region," Sakura said, checking the folder in front of her. "Was cleaned up and packaged by MS-4658. Brought in by the same squad, immediately placed on the operating roster."

"Do we not have an ID?" the blonde asked irately, already checking the patient over.

Sakura shook her head. "They've got an ID number, but none of the squad recognised it. He was wearing an ANBU SpecOps mask when they found him, and we don't have a field record of the nin on duty in that area—it was under Special Operations control."

"Number?"

Sakura checked the clipboard, eyes scanning. "Nin 011450," she said finally.

"Umino Iruka," Tsunade breathed, eyes closing.

Looking at the man in front of her, Sakura, too, closed her eyes. "May your ancestors guide your path with honour," she whispered, forming a protective sign over her old teacher's body.

"Alright, then," Tsunade sighed. "Let's see what we need to do." Frowning slightly, she flipped through the chart Sakura had offered her. "Repaired vessels, chest, pelvic region…blood and fluids absorbed…bone fragments and bomb fragments destroyed…overall stabiliser used…okay. Sakura…I want you to begin rebuilding the chest cavity. Reconstruct the ribs, strengthen the heart and diaphragm, and…hmmm…"

"Repair the holes to the lungs?" Sakura asked, her glowing hand hovering over the bruised chest.

"Yeah," Tsunade said, nodding. "Hitoshi, I want you to double check the pelvic repair. Further stabilise any bones in that region, as well as soft tissues. Tag any bleeding sites, or any injured organs. I'll go through and do those. In the meantime, I will begin work on this knee…it needs to be done by hand, unfortunately."

Her assistants both nodded, bustling to work like a well-oiled machine. Tsunade watched them work for a moment, admiring the smooth flow of glowing hands and hawk-like eyes. She had taught them that. They were hers, her perfect models of the medical profession.

As Sakura created a layered jutsu that included a 3-D model of the chest cavity hovering at eye-height, the better to operate, Tsunade sighed and turned to the braced, bandaged knee in front of her. Carefully, she grasped the ends of the bandages and shot a line of chakra through them, instantly severing the thick layers of gauzy cotton straight down the middle. As they fell away and she removed the supporting brace, a putrid smell filled the room.

"Eugh," Sakura gagged, eyes widening. "I didn't think there was a stomach injury," she coughed.

"There wasn't," Tsunade said grimly, voice choked from the stench. "Ladies, study the effects of medical-destructive jutsu 199—the decayer. Whoever attacked this man had a medical background." Eyes narrowing, she carefully eyed the rotting skin. "Gona!" she called to one of the nurses. "Call Hyuuga Hinata in, immediately if not sooner."

"Yes, ma'am," the woman breathed, slipping gratefully from the room.

--

With Hinata's help, repairing Iruka's damaged (destroyed) knee had only taken an hour. As she explained the details to Kakashi, though, he stared over her shoulder, watching the clock hung on the wall. Quietly, it counted down the seconds.

Tick, tick, tick.

"Kakashi?" Tsunade asked. "Are you even listening?"

"No, not really," he answered truthfully, eyes fixed on the clock.

Tick, tick, tick.

She sighed and rolled her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. "You can go back and see him now. The anaesthesia should be wearing off. Whatever you do, do not mention his leg."

"How bad is it?" he asked. The only time one refrained from mentioning the details of an injury to a nin was when it was bad…very bad.

"Bad," Tsunade sighed. "Very bad. He's not going to be able to walk again."

Tick, tick, tick.

Kakashi suddenly realised that sixty seconds was a long, long time.

And the rest of your life was an even longer sentence.

--

When Iruka woke, the first thing he felt was a soft, swaying pressure against the back of his hand. Next came a throbbing, jolting pain that radiated up and down his leg, somehow managing to make every single inch of his body hurt. He hissed, eyes jolting open, as his brain began moving at a fast enough pace to process a single thought.

'Shit…ow!'

"Hey…hey, careful, breathe," Kakashi whispered warmly, squeezing his hand. "Come on, breathe, Iruka."

Carefully, Iruka focused on breathing in and out steadily. At the same time, Kakashi reached up and pressed a button above Iruka's head.

"Morphine," the older nin said, noticing Iruka's confused look. "Should work fairly quickly."

Iruka nodded, already feeling the warm wave of drug-induced exhaustion sweep through him. He struggled to focus on Kakashi as a blessed numbness set in, nearly making him weep for relief.

"Where am I?" he managed.

A complex web of shadows twisted and stretched over Kakashi's mask. "You're in Konoha," he whispered. "In the fourth ward." Gently, he leant over and pressed a soft kiss to Iruka's pale forehead. "You had me scared," he admitted quietly.

"Sorry," Iruka rasped. "Do…do you know what happened?"

Kakashi shook his head. "Tsunade wants to debrief you, but she said she's afraid any head trauma might have wiped your memory. She's going to have Ibiki do a recurring jutsu as soon as she thinks you're healed enough."

Iruka nodded, slowly processing the information. "They…they found me out near Ryungaki, didn't they?" he asked.

Kakashi nodded. "Remember anything?" he asked.

Iruka was silent for a moment, thinking as best he could with morphine flooding his system. "A…a feeling," he said finally. "I'm not quite sure what it is, though…it could be nothing…it probably is nothing."

"You're one of the most talented spies I know," Kakashi sighed. "Didn't you tell me that the only reason you succeed is because you trust yourself? What do you remember?"

Iruka sighed, closing his eyes. "There…there's someone behind me," he whispered, voice fast and low. "They're getting close. It's not a signature I recognise. It's not Abeki, but I…right now, I'm not sure why. And it's not Reni, and…I…I can't remember why I know that. But it's someone strange. I whip around…and…and…" he sighed, sounding frustrated. "That's when I lose it," he confessed, eyes opening slowly.

"Well, that's better than most people," Kakashi murmured. "Sleep now, okay? I've got your back."

"Than's…" Iruka slurred. After he relaxed his impossibly-tight control on keeping the drugs at bay, he slipped away on the waves of exhaustion with surprising rapidity.

Watching Iruka sleep, Kakashi bit his lip. So far, he hadn't asked about his injuries. So far, he hadn't inquired as to how long he wouldn't be working. So far, he hadn't seemed to realise that there was something Kakashi was keeping from him.

So far, Kakashi hadn't had to lie to him.

--

As Tsunade carefully readjusted the flow of the drugs in Iruka's system, she shook her head at Kakashi.

"No, there's no guaranteeing how much we'll find," she sighed. "Most unfortunately. Otherwise, I could tell you that no, there was no need to put him through this." Her fingers slid along the inside of Iruka's tan wrist, noting his pulse. Frowning, she shot a soft pulse of chakra along his vein, tracking its return.

"He ready?" Ibiki asked, looking at the unconscious nin on the bed.

Tsunade nodded. "He's fully out. I'm ready to record."

Ibiki's hands flickered through the hand seals quickly. At the same time, Tsunade flicked a finger against the bracelet of blue stones twining around her left wrist. The stone she flicked glowed, a steady, warm light streaming from it.

"Umino Iruka," Ibiki intoned. "Do you know where you are?"

"I'm in the village of Rasariri, near the Ryungaki River," Iruka said dully.

"Okay," Ibiki said firmly, seeing Tsunade nod. "Shinobi! Report to your superior and Hokage!"

Iruka took a deep breath, eyelids fluttering despite the heavy current of drugs running through his body.

"I…I'm leaving a house that we—my team—have recently secured. Suddenly, there's a scream. I turn around. I see Abeki fall down, screaming. There's a kunai, jutting through his throat like some obscene light switch or something, complete with a man's hand attached to it. But only his hand. The rest of his body lies on the floor. Reni's holding a bloody kunai. She looks scared."

"She drops the kunai with a loud clatter. 'Oh…oh lords!' she gasps. 'I wasn't fast enough!' I freeze, trying to remember the last time I've seen Reni's sign—Otter—on the call-lists. At least eight months ago, I figure. And she's been serving on the front lines for two months now. She's well overdue for breaking. I can't figure out why she's out here in the field, with me, instead of in the village, at a desk, around Tsunade or Ibiki."

"She's sick! She's breaking! She shouldn't be here! I swing to grab her as I hear something scream through the air, but I'm too late. She's too far gone to notice it. So I watch as a blade seems to grow out of that cleft between her breasts. It's a nice blade—a very nice sword, classic Mist styling. But that doesn't mean anything about the man behind me. We're on the borderlines—anyone can be from anywhere."

"I kill him quickly, before he can kill me, too. But not fast enough. He's got a second blade, and it comes racing at my knees as I slam a kunai through his skull. And not too far away, he's got a partner who…"

As Iruka began to make an odd choking noise, Kakashi jolted to his feet. Quickly cancelling the jutsu with a fast 'kai', Ibiki blocked him from his goal. He kept the jounin from reaching his struggling lover as Tsunade turned off her recording jutsu and removed the sedatives from the mix the IV was feeding into Iruka. That done, she snagged a nearby syringe and tugged the cap off with her teeth, jabbing it into the chuunin's forearm with a smooth, easy motion.

"There," she murmured, watching as Iruka's twitching and choking ceased. "I think that's as much as we're going to get, Ibiki. Thank you."

"Of course, Hokage-sama," the scarred man murmured, bowing quickly before disappearing.

The blonde turned to Kakashi. "He's fine, Hatake," she sighed, seeing the angry look in his visible eye. "Never fear. He'll have a bit of a headache when he wakes up, which should be soon." Sweeping a hand through her rapidly-frizzing hair, she sighed once more. "You have permission to speak of his injury and the details surrounding it, shinobi," she said finally.

"All of them?" he asked quietly.

Already turning to leave, Tsunade stopped, shoulders slumping slightly. "All of them," she whispered, not facing Kakashi. In a moment, she was gone.

--

"Iruka?" Kakashi asked, blue eye searching his suddenly-pale face. "Iruka? Are you okay?"

"N-never?" Iruka gasped. "Never again?"

"Not with your knee, no," Kakashi answered. "The…the jutsu, or whatever…it ate away at the bone and cartilage. Tsunade and Sakura repaired as much as they could, of course, but…well, it will never be the same. You won't be able to bear weight on it."

"Oh…oh my…" Iruka gasped. "I…I can't believe this," he whimpered, shaking.

"Shh, shh, shh," Kakashi cooed softly, sitting on the edge of the high hospital bed. Carefully, he lifted his trembling lover into his arms, cradling him against his chest. Rocking Iruka back and forth, he feathered light, calming kisses over his soft hair. "It'll be okay," he whispered. "It'll be okay."

"How?" Iruka wept, collapsing into his arms. "How is it going to be okay? My life is over! They should have just killed me…I wish they had!"

"Never say that," Kakashi hissed, his voice full of anger. His arms tightened around Iruka, trapping him against his chest like iron bands. "Never say anything like that! I love you, Iruka! Doesn't that mean something to you? Anything?"

Iruka's sobs were muffled, his face buried against Kakashi's neck. He shook his head violently, violent cries wrenching his entire body. They were harsh as they ripped themselves from his throat, foul mockeries of his gentle voice. Sighing, Kakashi rocked him back and forth slowly, stroking his back softly.

Truth be told, Kakashi fully understood Iruka's response to the incident. Shinobi were completely dependent upon the strength of their bodies. The unfortunate, miserable truth was that the day a ninja's body failed him, he was dead. The fact that Iruka was alive was a miracle, one that Kakashi was desperately grateful for. Still, he knew that it would make Iruka miserable. Ninja were raised to be ninja, nothing else. Many of them—including, it seemed, Iruka—thought that life ended with one's ninja skills.

Iruka had been a strong, powerful ninja. He had been the top-ranked spy in Konoha, and one of the most infamous men in the entire world. He had been, in the world of a nin, on top of the world. And in a single second, that had all changed. He had lost his job, his strength, and his power. His ranking would probably be removed within the day—now that he had received the details of his injury, he would be officially removed from the active duty rolls. Soon, the news that the infamous ANBU Dragon was gone would spread throughout the world, and his name would no longer strike the desperate fear into the hearts of nin. His world had crumpled in a single second.

"You're still important, Iruka," Kakashi whispered. "You're important to me. I don't care what rank you have. I don't care if you're ANBU or not. I don't care about any of that. I just care that you're here." Tenderly, he kissed Iruka's forehead.

"But what can I do?" Iruka wailed. "Damn it, Kakashi!" he raged, suddenly angry. "I'm a nin. My entire life has been built around fighting—teaching children to fight, fighting in the wars, teaching ANBU how to stay alive, spying—my entire fucking life is over!"

"There's plenty you can do!" Kakashi urged. "You can still teach, Iruka! I know for a fact that you can make any man quake in his sandals without even moving! You can still teach the ANBU survival courses—you've always taught the theoretical and technical classes, anyway. You can still be ANBU, even. You know more about spying than most anyone. You'd make an amazing handler."

"But…but…" Iruka pleaded, looking up at his lover. "I…I don't…I can't…"

"Shh," Kakashi urged, tenderly stroking Iruka's face. "You can, Iruka, you can." Leaning forward, he delicately kissed Iruka.

Iruka whimpered, pressing himself closer to Kakashi. As the older nin pulled him closer, he wrapped his arms around him. Breaking the kiss, he leaned his forehead against Kakashi's chest.

"Don't let go," he whimpered. "Just don't let go."

--

"He's doing well," Tsunade told Kakashi. "A lot better."

Kakashi said nothing, staring through the thick glass separating them from the rehab gym.

On the other side of the glass, a blonde woman in tight ANBU issue sweats was saying something to Iruka. Something that pissed him off. He glared angrily at the blonde, then shoved himself back to his feet.

Well, his feet and his crutches. The muscles in his arms—built from year after year of an ANBU training regimen, from chasing children, from saving lives and taking them, from holding Kakashi through the entire night—bulged and strained, unused to taking his weight. Angrily, he stepped forward with his good leg, then swung the crutches forward and stepped with his bad leg.

His arms bulged and strained, and his foot turned slightly inward.

But it was a step. Just a step, but probably the most beautiful thing Kakashi had ever seen.

It was a step forward.

It was a step in the right direction.

--

"You look exhausted," Kakashi murmured.

"I'm fine," Iruka growled angrily, swinging forward.

Kakashi said nothing, just watched quietly as Iruka strode on ahead of him. He was getting better at using the crutches, much better. According to Tsunade, the chakra pathways that had built up to brace and strengthen his leg were withering away. In turn, the chakra pathways in his arms were all multiplying rapidly, the pre-existing ones widening to handle a greater traffic.

Iruka was adapting to his new circumstances. As always, he was determined to make the best of the situation. He had let the nurses measure him for a knee brace, and then had used part of the dividend he was receiving from ANBU to pay for a custom-made pair of crutches that he could bind to his upper arms. They allowed him to stand upright and lecture, still using his arms for gesticulation, and didn't block the flow of chakra or blood.

And, most importantly, at least in Iruka's mind, he could hide no less than ten weapons between the two of them. Kakashi had shown him how to create the kind of chakra tags that would allow him to summon them straight into his hands in case of an emergency.

With a sigh, Iruka paused and turned to face him. "I…I'm sorry, Kakashi," he murmured finally, heaving another deep sigh. "I'm just…tired, I guess."

"You're angry," Kakashi answered, pausing next to him.

"At what?" Iruka asked, stepping forward again. "You? No, I'm just tired and I'm taking it out on you, which is wrong of me. I'm sorry."

"You are angry," Kakashi said quietly, following him. "And you have every right to be. Your world has changed. It's okay to be pissy occasionally, you know."

"And who should I be mad at?" Iruka asked, not turning to look at him as he continued on his way up the street. "At Tsunade, for not being able to fix me? At you, for always being there? At the rehab nurses, for making me work? At Abeki, for not watching his damn back, even though I always warned him to? At Reni, for not telling anyone she was overdue for a breakdown and getting herself killed, too? At the nin who threw the fucking kunai? At myself, for being too damn arrogant to think I was just as vulnerable as anyone else?"

Kakashi stepped forward and opened the door, looking at him patiently. "Iruka, it's not your fault. No one could have stopped that kunai or dodged it, and you know it. Whatever Abeki and Reni did, you had no control over. They were adults, ANBU. They should have known better. I know that you know that, just like I know that you aren't angry at any of those people."

"Who am I angry at, then?" Iruka snarled, striding into the kitchen. With a quick flick of his fingers, he activated the chakra tag to pull out a chair and plopped down in it. "Tell me, Kakashi. Am I angry at Ibiki, for sending me out there in the first place? Am I angry at Gaara, for not having enough trained nin to be able to cover that quadrant? Am I angry at Sasuke, for being so good at strategy and fighting for his people's lives with it? Am I angry at Orochimaru, for dying and leaving one of my students as the head of a war-torn country? Am I angry at Naruto, for starting this damn war in the first place? TELL ME, KAKASHI!!" he raged.

"You're angry at all of them," Kakashi answered, pulling a tin of imported tea leaves from a cabinet. "You're angry at Tsunade, me, Ibiki, Gaara, Sasuke, Orochimaru, Naruto, Abeki, Reni…you're angry at the world." Sighing, he turned the stove on to boil water. "And I don't blame you."

Iruka watched him, shocked into silence.

Kakashi leaned heavily against the counter top, arms crossed over his chest. "You're angry at the world," he repeated. "And I promise you, nobody blames you. Hell, Iruka, if I were in your position…" He shook his head. "Did I ever tell you what happened to my father?"

Iruka shook his head, watching him quietly.

"He killed himself," Kakashi said bluntly. "When I was little. Seppuku. Clean, simple, ritual suicide. Popped about forty pills beforehand, too, just in case he lost his nerve with the tanto." He smiled tightly, a fake expression that made Iruka shiver. "Medical examiner told me he didn't suffer any, as if that was supposed to make me feel any better. I was angry…so, so angry at him."

"Why?" Iruka asked. "Why…why did he kill himself?"

"Well, I always thought it was because of that mission he fucked up," Kakashi said slowly, turning back to the stove. He clicked it off and pulled the teapot from the stove. "That's what everyone always said, anyway."

"But…" Iruka murmured, noticing the words unsaid.

"But it wasn't," Kakashi said frankly, pouring hot water over the tea leaves. Grabbing both teacups, he sat down at the table and passed one to the other nin. "It wasn't because of the mission. Sensei ended up telling me when I was older. I really hated him, too, when I found out he'd known since…since Father had died." He laughed bitterly.

"Why, then?"

"Parkinson's," Kakashi sighed, sipping at his tea. "The old man fucking had Parkinson's Disease, and fucking knew it for two years before he killed himself!"

"How…how did your sensei know? It looks like he went out of his way to keep anyone from finding out," Iruka murmured, holding his tea in his hands.

"Found him doing E one morning, apparently. Self-medicating, or so it seems," Kakashi said with a bitter snort. "One of the effects of Ecstasy, it seems, is that it stills the tremors of Parkinson's. Unfortunately, the disease does reach a point where even that can't help anymore. He offed himself rather than stop fighting."

"Oh, my!" Iruka gasped. Tentatively, he reached forward and grasped Kakashi's hand. "Kakashi…I'm so sorry…"

Kakashi smiled weakly at him, mask hanging around his neck. "It's okay," he answered. "Really. I've had years to get over it."

"But…"

"Now you see why I say nobody would blame you?" Kakashi asked, still smiling sadly. "As long as you fight back, nobody will ever blame you."

--

"You're redeploying me?" Iruka demanded, jaw dropping.

"You're redeploying him?" Kakashi barked, his one blue eye wide.

Ibiki sighed. "Listen. I don't have a choice in this. He has to return to the front lines."

"Why?" Kakashi demanded. "He's still out on sick leave. Tsunade refuses to clear him for the active duty scrolls."

"She's the one who wants him out there!" Ibiki said, slamming a fist on the desk. "She's cleared him for undercover work."

"Wait…undercover work?" Iruka asked. "How in hell does she expect me to be sneaky and quiet on crutches?!"

"Not like that," Ibiki said, sighing heavily as he leaned back in his chair. "She wants you as a civilian spy, Iruka. I know you've been trained to do that."

"Yeah, I have, but I haven't taken a civilian spy job in…oh, heavens, four years," Iruka said. "I couldn't possibly…"

"Yes, you could!" Ibiki said excitedly. "When you did civilian stuff, you were the best spy in the Armed Allies! You still are! Hell, the crutches make your cover even more convincing! Besides, people trust you. Children trust you."

"Hold on a second…" Iruka said shrewdly, eyes narrowing. "There's a child involved, isn't there? Talk, Ibiki. Now."

The other nin sighed heavily, rubbing at his forehead with one hand. "Hyuuga Igaki," he said finally, staring over Kakashi's left shoulder. "She was abducted two nights ago, right out of her bed. About two hours ago, we got news that she was in Sanadin."

"And the Hyuuga are crying for blood, no doubt," Kakashi mused.

Iruka bit his lip. "I'll do it," he said finally. "On one condition."

"What?" Kakashi asked, jaw dropping beneath his mask.

"What?" Ibiki asked, eyes narrowing, anticipating the other man's demand.

"Before returning to active duty," Iruka said, eyes closed as he began the formulaic pattern for demands by ANBU, "Nin 011450 requests that Nin 009720, Hatake Kakashi, be listed as his handler."

"Consider it done, Shinobi," Ibiki answered. "Pending, of course, Nin 009720's agreement."

"What do you say, Kakashi?" Iruka asked, smiling slightly.

Kakashi smiled back. "I say it's time we got out there, then. She's been missing for fifty-two hours already."

Almost laughing, Iruka formed the seals for a transportation jutsu in time with Kakashi.

As the two nin disappeared from his office in a puff of smoke, Ibiki shook his head and straightened the papers on his desk.

"Do well, so as to join your forebears with honour," he murmured.

High up in the ANBU offices, Iruka smiled.

"I'll repay their sacrifice with the blood of my foes."