A lame apology for writer's block is hardly sufficient - but there it is. If you think the apology is lame, just wait until you read the chapter! lolz...

Chapter 24

"I'm not finding Hatake-san's chakra patterns anymore," Tiger reported, landing deftly next to Ibiki.

"He's there. Hold off a little longer…shit!" Moreno's senses reacted to the subtle crackling in the air, the result of a wave of residual energy from a teleport from within the house.

"Minus two in the residence," the ANBU confirmed, poised to take off again. "Barely detecting traces of a third."

"Move in. You transport the casualty to the hospital. Have Ferret seal the estate to preserve the evidence and then both of you meet to move the operation to Danzou's compound. I'll rejoin shortly." He waited until the men darted away to perform their duty before heading out for his own.

Flashing into the Hokage Tower, Ibiki found Tsunade waiting, pacing impatiently.

"Well? Did he take the bait?" she demanded.

"Yes and no, mostly no. It appears that Kakashi became too weak for a confrontation, and Danzou transported away with Iruka. My men are following…"

"Transported? You said he was too depleted for that!"

"Believe me, when we left him yesterday he was. He's recovered to about half-strength already; I don't know how he managed that at his age. Anyway, as I was saying. My men are following up now. Tiger should be at the infirmary with Kakashi any minute. His condition worsened once Danzou arrived, very quickly. But we didn't observe any violations on his part other than trespass."

"Understood. I'll check Kakashi myself and see if I can detect any foul play. Get out there immediately and keep a close watch. Once I've finished here I will be joining you at Danzou's."

"You, Lady Tsunade?"

"The situation's changed, but Iruka is still coming back with us. In his condition, there's no benefit to leaving him in the clutches of ROOT. It doesn't seem possible for him to learn any more while he's in the state you've described. We'll see what Danzou has to say when the most powerful healer in the village comes to make a house call. And once we take Iruka back, it'll give him another prime opportunity to slip up. I suspect that he will not want us to debrief his man now that he's been so deeply involved. His next move might be the mistake in judgment we've been waiting for. Especially when he hears that you are personally handling the information mining." She was already heading out the door, barking her next location to Shizune.

"So the game is still on," Ibiki mused as he set out, pleased at her dogged refusal to let Iruka's mission end in failure.

xxxxx

Just one night.

One night in the fetal position, gently absorbing the energy willingly donated by his subjects, was all that it took to bring Jeninki back to full strength. The souls of his ethereal village clamored to see which among them could give the most aid, to be the first to lend him support. He took their offerings with care, not allowing them to become strained by giving too much too quickly. As his energy grew to new heights, the bonds of loyalty and trust strengthened as well.

He'd wondered briefly during this recovery time if he was being too irresponsible now. Every time he ventured away from his village's earthbound center to gather more citizens, he gambled everything, even their very existence. Without the give and take connection of his chakra-charged leadership, and these souls would lose their earthly moorings and truly pass away. It was a huge responsibility. He had, after all, placed them in this precarious, if wondrous, state. He took that responsibility quite seriously to heart. Every decision had to be balanced with his villagers in mind.

Still, he couldn't just stay here and do nothing, hiding in the dark, as warm and fulfilling as this feeling of belonging might be. Stretching gracefully, he found his stance steady and strong once more.

Walking up and out from the subterranean lair infused Jeninki with an entirely different sort of joy, created by the heightened awareness of this new, marvelous body. The world outside the entrance to his stronghold was a feast for his senses. The leaves fluttered in the breeze, causing the shaded area to sparkle with softly changing patterns of filtered light. The sweet caress of wind on his new face was exhilarating. Even the long, luxurious hair was mesmerizing to his sensitive fingertips. These new hands had been well cared for by the previous owner, and possessed a dexterity that synched well with his control almost immediately. Finally, he had found a suitable body. This one should withstand many re-generations and might last several hundred years barring too many unfortunate incidents.

Admittedly, the lure of the physical world was strong in spite of its countless shortcomings. He did owe his people somewhat for taking this away from them, even though he had provided them with something far more valuable: relief from the constant stress and cruelty of their lives.

It wouldn't do to worry about them excessively now. Experience had proven that the citizenship didn't go poof and disappear after just a few days, weeks, or months. They would last several years without his immediate presence, he knew that now from experience; just so long as his life force existed in some form here in this mortal plane. As long as he managed to survive to return to them at some point, and he left them moored to a safe place, they would be fine.

He had noticed that there was a slight ruffle in the blissful tone of his people when he approached the limit of their range. They pulled at him to stay, disturbed that he kept them stationary while he roamed. But the spiritual pressure of this many souls would be too risky to carry with him everywhere. It would make him far too conspicuous and no doubt draw much unwanted attention.

Other than the discovery by the Leaf nin, this site selection had been perfect. He had commandeered his underground hideout in the secluded area because of its hostility to human presence. Small poisonous beetles peculiar to the area had been in the food chain so long that the animals were all similarly venomous now, immune themselves but deadly to outsiders. It had cleared the isolated lowland area of people over a hundred years before. This place would have been perpetually vacant but for Jeninki's unique talents and needs.

He reluctantly admitted that ruling the utopian world he had created for his people did not quite fulfill his own need for companionship. While his citizens were enjoying full immersion, he had to stay in the physical world in order to maintain them. His connection with them was strong, but he was still by necessity left outside the perfection of his own society's circle.

Company outside of the village was getting harder and harder to come by in the march of years. While arguing with Danzou was fun, the hawkish man wasn't someone Jeninki had ever truly been close to for any length of time. His closest friends and teammates were only wistful memories; left behind along with all of his other contemporaries many body changes back; the Hidata clan members had been decimated by war long ago, and he had outlived his last close friend.

Iruka returned to his thoughts, and he cringed at the failed restoration attempt. Of course, he would induct him into the village now. It would bring closure to the strong urge to possess the scarred nin, and it would feel good to shepherd him into a state of perfection. It was Iruka who had triumphed in finally finding the right body, and he owed him a great deal for that. But he couldn't help feeling disappointed; a villager lost much of their individuality when they merged into the fold. It was a natural occurrence, it was not something Jeninki had foreseen or planned. Without the superficial differences of their old bodies, breeding, and affiliations, many of the boundaries of individuality simply lost meaning and dissolved.

It wasn't clear at first, when the numbers were few. But the truth became painfully evident later, when it was too late to turn back. Once someone special was inducted, the one-on-one bond was lost into the melting pot. Jeninki was able to seek out and commune with the person's life force easily enough, but it was clearly pointless. The contact was shared by the amassed consciousness anyway. He was the only one left outside the fold.

It made him lonely even as the warmth of more than a hundred caressed him. He sent them his return embrace without reserve and didn't let on to his people that he was not wholly content; that wouldn't be fair. It was better this way, selectively sharing certain mental and emotional aspects to set them at ease. It was the only way to spare them from this feeling of need . These troubles were his own and his fold didn't deserve to be distressed when they were so helpless to do anything about it.

Loosening the spiritual connection allowed Jeninki to feel the cold, solid brace of early morning air leaking into the cavern. It drew him back into the physical world's dominance, lightly prying him away from the recharging aura. He'd have to work on doing that in less time in this new incarnation. With practice, connecting and disconnecting from the village could be done in a heartbeat. For now, it took concentration, and it was a little jolting on both sides when he finally broke away.

It took a few careful steps before the ground felt steady under his feet again. Coordination was fully restored by the time he'd traveled the short distance down the hall to the first wooden door.

The door swung open with an unpleasant creak, revealing the ransacked room, prompting strong memories of the incident here. This was where he had meant to teach Iruka the meaning of façade with his blade and ancient spell. The binding wall still held a slight outline of Iruka's form, stenciled in sprayed bloodstains from his captor's swift decapitation. The invaders had then trashed the place, searching for evidence and perhaps more victims - it was unknown what they may have taken in the disarray. Only the large stone furnishings and prisoner's deck remained in place undisturbed.

Jeninki surprised himself with a shiver, chilled into a flash of goose bumps at the mistakes he had made back then. Iruka had been fully committed when they left the prison, and he had botched it by letting the jutsu fade. The focus had been on getting here, he'd been too impatient to stop and use the eye technique even once along the way to keep the man fully under his influence.

He drew some comfort from the excuse for his own poor reasoning; the body he inhabited then was unsuitable for the long run, the brain increasingly disrupted from supporting the Uzingan. Had his judgment been sound, he would have known better than to thrust Iruka into the truth without preparation.

He caught himself reaching out to touch that silhouette on the wall and shook himself sternly back on task. His hand moved instead to an area near the center of the wall.

The section of stone wall rumbled and slid in response to the deft touch of his fingertips on the camouflaged keystones. It slowly revealed the small secondary chamber, stacked with the collection of personal effects gleaned from his villagers, sealed away from rodents and moisture to withstand long periods of unsupervised storage.

Rummaging through the apparel, he lifted out the set of clothes belonging to the stone mason who had stumbled onto the chamber lined with shinobi husks. The craftsman had come at great personal risk to observe the unusual stonework in the area; he came prepared to deal with the toxins in the wildlife in order to explore the architectural ruins. Shocked at the cavern of corpses and the sudden appearance of the large nin in his robes, he'd barely had the presence of mind to drop to his knees and beg for mercy.

Jeninki didn't hesitate; there was no elitist thinking to give him doubt. Though clearly not a shinobi, he claimed the man instantly, and he was accepted by the others despite his weaker, pale presence. Jeninki didn't purposely dilute the strength of his people by adding non-shinobi as a regular practice; but adding the odd man now and again had worked out just fine. Just as he had asserted, his village was a haven of equality in its purest form.

More than once since that day, these clothes had been valuable in his recruitment missions. Chakra masked and disguised as a civilian, it made it easy to lure unsuspecting converts into conversation. The unmasked Uzingan showed the way before they had a chance to make foolish argument or resist. Hundreds of years of experience had proven that ninja, by nature, tended to be egotistical people, and were reluctant to regard non-shinobi as a potential threat. In this guise of harmless peasant, he moved among them with ease.

Now, with this innocent, unfamiliar face and dressed in such a way, he felt fully confident in his ability to travel unchallenged into the very bosom of Konoha.

He latched the case again and began to dress, setting aside his pondering for now. So much had already gone to waste, for no reason. He was determined to seek out what little of Iruka was left to be salvaged before it was too late.

xxxx

Danzou wasted no time in slamming Even onto the steel table and securing him with the well-worn restraints. He yanked each belt tight and set the buckles with a righteous, satisfying snap; it was a good beginning. Even belonged right here under, inescapably held under his complete command and full control.

He started straightaway, throwing back the hood and stripping the cloth from his eye, making a swift exploratory venture into the damaged soul. He wasn't up to full strength yet by any means, but the clock was his enemy now. All of his skilled handiwork had been undone, and reversing the reversal was impossible. And yet…there still remained a chance.

He could swear that he detected the familiar force of Even's steadfast logic, unquestioning loyalty and courage in those first waves of consciousness. He had thought it impossible for his shinobi to have survived the onslaught, but now, gutted and laid bare, it began to dawn on him why it might be so. Even's elements stood as Umino's core persona after all; his emotional side was simply more powerful than the average shinobi's, and he had been managing and hiding this dual nature throughout his life while effectively hiding this source of inner conflict and pain.

No wonder it had been so textbook perfect when he sectioned off the two chakras. They had been at odds and at slight disassociation already.

It was fascinating to witness how the inner turmoil was playing out. Neither the Even facet nor Iruka's emotional being wanted to surrender to his old, weaker ways. They struggled against one another blindly, so unwilling to give up control that they failed to see they shared a common goal.

So this was still his man, not some wreck to scrape up and place on life-support until Jeninki could harvest him for his 'village'. It was heartening to discover that his precious protégé might yet be by his side again. It put things in a new light.

It set him to shifting gears yet again. Before seeking out the Hatake Estate to reclaim the remains for Jeninki's return, Danzou had adjusted his mindset and written off Even's loss already. The revitalization of his own body hadn't done any good as far as his eye technique was concerned. It was still only serviceable, the embedded orb never reaching the full power that a natural user would possess. The lack of power had once again contributed to a loss; the weakness, and the resulting inability to keep Even in his service, were now facts to be accepted, errors to learn from.

Regrets and mourning were for sentimental weaklings and fools with time and energy to waste. In the calm of mediation to regenerate his chakra, he had refreshed himself with positive thoughts, and spared a few moments acquainting himself with his new look. It was exhilarating to look in the mirror; he was ten years Even's junior now, and much more handsome than he had ever remembered being. He doubted anyone would know him. He merely needed to find a different way to cover his telltale eye, and he could walk among Konoha's people as a perfect stranger. Strong and ready to present his former ROOT soldier for burial, things were clean and clear. Right up until he felt the brush of Even's presence once more.

It was messy dealing with this again, no doubt about it. The fiercely suppressed frustration and worry welled up unbidden. There was no denying that he could have used the eye's full power now, and then some.

Danzou reached into both sides of the battle and vied for the attention of the sentient energy within, picking up the ebb and flow of the conflict. He needed to stop the fighting, in order to stop the drain of energy.

He fed guidance into the wild disruption and muted the extreme paranoia, suppressing the urge to battle and searching out the primary sources of the disorienting lack of continuity.

If he could identify the worst areas and let the rest work itself out, it would be damned easier than doing all the healing manually. He needed to stop the war and then let the torrent of inner power work to bind and heal instead of disrupt and destroy.

If his scheme played out properly, it would lull the emotional, less analytical element into dropping its defense in favor of trust and a peaceful resolution. Even's power would rise. When the timing was right, enough chakra should still be available to fuel the eye technique and allow it to guide Even in one swift surprise assault into unguarded essence. With luck, they would sufficiently disable the 'Iruka' element enough for Even to dispatch it once and for all.

Danzou chuckled, the sound delighting him shamelessly with the sweet music of his young voice.

xxx

Even felt his master's approach and another touch of emotion seeped back into his core. He felt gratitude and relief at having company on his side, and he was touched that Danzou cared enough to go to such a length to save him in spite of his now ROOT-unworthy chakra.

He pushed aside his suspicions and welcomed his master's efforts with full cooperation. When he was entreated to released his death grip on Iruka's body, he did so in spite of his deep desire to continue the fight for control. The mortifying events that followed were tolerable only because of his master's insistence that it be so.

The body quaked and choked and behaved with embarrassing transparency, revealing the pain, fear and sickness he had fiercely suppressed it from showing. But Danzou accepted it; no, he encouraged it, and soothed Even with the reasoning for it. It was necessary to have a release of these poisoned emotions; there was no benefit to hold on so tightly to something you wanted to be rid of.

The thoughtfulness was comforting and welcome; more touches of emotion were creeping into Even's reactions to the healing process. The kindness of his master brought a contraband feeling of warmth to his heart.

xxx

Iruka felt the tension lessen, and as he blew out the pent up emotions, it felt as though poison was being drained from every pore. The world was indistinct at best; Danzou's slightly ominous presence was everywhere. Kakashi's presence had vanished. His chakra had all but disappeared just before they transported to this room.

The more his emotions lost momentum, the less power he had to influence his own behavior. When Danzou sent support, it encouraged his surrender, reminding him of his commitment to ROOT training. It was like the last phase of training again, painfully longing to be relieved of this disruptive transitional period. After the strain of being isolated and slowly drained of life and health, the return to this vulnerable state was a hundredfold more disturbing.

Even made a bid for control, and Iruka tried to follow Danzou's urging to cooperate, but lost it at the last minute. His physical body reacted to the schism with a convulsive fit, stranded without clear control. Breathing and pulse were dangerously erratic.

It was his duty to give up, to let Even prevail, to cease to be if he could just get enough of a grip on his sanity to stop fighting to survive. He repeated it as a mantra, but it rang false again and again. It was his duty to let the greater shinobi carry on - wasn't it? But his gut still insisted that something was terribly wrong.

It was during this delicate phase that the visitor arrived.

"Imagine my surprise at seeing this little scene," Jeninki said, towering over Danzou's shoulder in his mason's garb.

"Make yourself at home and just come on in," Danzou huffed, angry at being startled.

"If you want your home secured against me, change the jutsu once I've learned it. You managed to save him, Danz? Incredible! Here, let me take over; these convulsions will exhaust him quickly."

Jeninki's aura permeated the room, so powerful that it was hard for Danzou to believe.

That powerful pressure was the sole reason he stepped away and relinquished control.

The tall nin stretched his arms out before pulling back the rough brown cloth that had been wrapping his head, a hood conveniently draped to shadow his eyes from passerby in the street.

"See to it that I'm not interrupted this time," he said mildly, reaching for the grimacing face that shook violently, the steel table moving under him with a cold, echoing rattle.

His large, warm hands turned the face to meet his eyes and held it securely. The motion arrested when his thumbs forced the eyelids open wide; a few spasms slipped past while their eyes found alignment, and then stopped for nearly a minute before starting again.

Danzou came to the other side of the table, alarmed that the seizures were still strong.

Jeninki's look was softly attentive, his demeanor untroubled. There was a jolt of chakra in the air, one Danzou fully recognized as his own lone Uzingan shivered in its socket in reaction.

"Iruka," Jeninki whispered, and the body on the table began to lose its tension, this time slowing instead of stopping abruptly. "I am here. I am amazed that I've found you in such good shape, and it seems that you haven't gone at all mad. You must be the most unusual soul I have ever known."

"What do you see, Hidata?" Danzou pressed, unfazed by the dark look of annoyance his interruption inspired.

"You really want to know? I see that it's not the time for your games. I'm looking straight in, and I can see exactly what you were doing. You were loading the dice against him again. He's fortunate that I'm here."

"I was healing him, that's all."

"Healing him to fit your purposes."

"Was there a reason why I shouldn't?"

"Don't tempt me to lose patience with you, Danzou. I still have my claim on him, and you were trying to undo my work in restoring him."

"You weren't here. It was a judgment call, he needed help immediately. I couldn't be waffling around trying to second guess how you wanted him rearranged. He was on the verge of utter destruction."

"We'll discuss it later. It's useless to argue over now, and I don't need the distraction."

Danzou began to speak again in reply, but held his tongue instead. He had sized up the situation, taking into consideration Jeninki's relative strength and superior abilities, and Even's still-complex and difficult needs for healing. He could challenge Jeninki, but the goal would likely be lost in the process. He didn't concede defeat, exactly, but eliminated direct confrontation from his options with a grimace and a nod.

"It's so strange," Jeninki said, voice distant and slow. "He has had no less than three disruptive invasions in such a short time, with his chakra set to mortal combat with itself…and he is still trying to find a way to mend and mediate himself back together. He should be brain dead twice over by now. What is it with him, Danz?"

"He's an odd duck. Damned if I know why he's so unique. But it's what makes him so valuable as a soldier. Every other nin is predictable to a degree. I can never foresee what will happen when I give Even an order. He will carry it out, yes…but in the process there will be a hundred surprises. Most of which have delighted this jaded soul to no end. That's why you must let me keep him. You must understand how it is, before your villagers you spent so many lifetimes alone. As have I. And when something this fascinating comes along, it makes it all seem easier to bear. I need him, Hidata. For my work, and for my well-being. You've restored my youth - for once, give me the chance to share it working with someone worthwhile." Danzou spoke the truth, pitching his case straight from his selfish heart. It was a calculated move; Jeninki was soft when it came to his villagers, and perhaps, with a little effort, he could be moved to feel sympathy for his old student as well.

"Did you go mad in his stead?" Jeninki growled, irritation dividing his attention, continuing to provide Iruka with gentle guidance and support while swelling with anger at Danzou. "I am here to take him. I came straight away, because I couldn't bear to wait. You don't seriously think I'm going to just shrug this off and walk away, do you?"

"Just wait a minute, where was it decided that you would take him? I did not relinquish him to you. That's not what happened out there."

"You wanted it to be up to him, is that the issue? All right. He still gets his say in this, if you insist. He can decide. But only after I have restored him properly. After I have had my words with him. And perhaps," he added in dark annoyance, "while he is gazing deeply into my eyes."

Before Danzou could protest, Jeninki shushed him abruptly.

"Enough of your carping. You're distracting me too much." His hands slid up into the dark brown hair, finding it damp with perspiration and feverish heat. Long fingers pressing carefully, he positioned his subject's head back a bit. "I want you to tell me your name."

The body on the table stiffened and quaked briefly, then settled down once more.

His mouth was dry, and his lips parted with a small groan. He was trying to obey, straining with effort. The embattled personalities tangled and crashed, grappling fiercely, neither able to get enough of the reins to give voice to their name, both shouting them out mentally while the vocal chords twitched in silence.

"Take your time. Make the connection between who and what you are. Let your being flow into your body and find its way home. Embrace the return to your natural state."

Natural, but not without pain and deep disturbance. The barriers and separation had been disabled, but the self-awareness of Even and Iruka increased sharply as they were both steeped in the powerful instinct for self-preservation. How these separate entities would fit into the one vessel was about to be decided once and for all.

Jeninki had a decision to make in light of the current intensity and extent of the ongoing conflict. He could, with his powerful influence, bring Iruka to the forefront and suppress his Even side until the two merged. The result would likely be an Iruka much like the man he had met in prison, an intriguing mix of conflicting emotions and beliefs that was charming and compelling. It was, after all, Iruka that he chose to take with him after their intimate contact in the tiny cell; and if he had his preference, it was Iruka that he wanted to revive.

Yet, that state of mind had been a hardship for the smaller shinobi, and he had been through so very much. His amplified ROOT traits had been very beneficial to him, and he did seem to be more comfortable with his protective shield of logic established in the forefront.

In keeping with his self-appointed role as the 'bigger man', Jeninki benevolently provided stability and support, but let the forces continue to sort themselves out. Now that he was in the thick of it, this really was the only way. To do anything else would be to risk producing something that wasn't genuine. He had to hand it to Danzou, it was pretty impressive, the way he had stripped Iruka down to prepare him for ROOT without debasing his true character. Jeninki did not think they would be so lucky twice; this transformation needed to be driven from within.

A forced restoration would have been much quicker. It might take months before the power struggle settled completely this way. But initially, something would have to give, and some manner of collective thought and control would have to pull together to make normal communication possible.

Still mouthing silently, the nin on the cold silver slab could not answer the question.

"It's all right. Just keep centering your thoughts about it. When you know the answer, you will tell me."

Jeninki's hands radiated a golden aura as they hovered again, passing over the prone body and infusing enough energy to continue the healing for a while. When the infusion was complete, he withdrew, leaning with the heels of his hand on the edge of the steel slab.

He looked up and got his first, really good view of Danzou's transformation. With it came the realization of just how far he had taken the restoration of youth. He'd almost overshot the field; the crafty old warrior looked to be in his early twenties if not his late teens.

Now, there was someone who had never allowed himself to be a victim of his attractiveness, Jeninki observed. The decided lack of inner beauty had probably been a factor there. He watched Danzou hover, looking, if he was not mistaken, like he actually cared for Iruka. Almost as if his old compadre was growing some sort of human warmth, a lack that had always kept a firm distance between them despite so many decades of being intimately entwined for survival.

"You should try not to worry so much, Danzou," Jeninki said lightly, smiling openly when the mismatched eyes flashed up to meet his. "You'll put wrinkles on that pretty new face."

Danzou blushed and looked back down to hide it, startled by the capricious tone. He had heard his senpai direct that tone at many others over the years, but never once at him…until now. He hardly knew how to react; and in the light of the serious nature of the situation, he chose to push it aside and tell himself he was imagining things.

Jeninki smiled to himself as he settled into the nearby chair, playing with the equipment belt he wore as part of his disguise and contemplating just how nicely events had turned in his favor this day.

"That made me hungry. Hey Danz, you don't happen to have any pie, do you?" he asked brightly, tipping back in the chair and putting his feet up, heels resting on the edge of the table next to Umino's sweat-drenched face.

xxxxxx

Personnel, equipment, and one suddenly frantic Hokage moved with incredible speed upon the arrival of Hatake Kakashi at the infirmary's intake room. No sooner had the monitoring equipment been attached to make a few weak pings, blips and waves, than the alarm sounded and the readings fell to zero.

"Did the machine fail? The connections?"

"He's flatline! Code blue!"

"Out of my way! Move, damn it!" Tsunade knocked an orderly from his feet as she sailed past to the bedside. The frantically working medical staff shifted to make room as she slammed the heel of one hand down on Kakashi's chest, making signs against her forehead with the other, summoning as much healing force into the single contact as a human body could withstand. She didn't want to misjudge and blow the man's circulatory system into dust.

Within the failing body, the tiny, insidious jutsu left by Danzou was erased without a trace from the fierce shot of her healing power. As it disappeared undetected in the time-critical war for survival, so did the proof of foul play in the copy-nin's all too convenient collapse.

His readings began to move again, slowly, as the silence restored from the halt of alarms highlighted the tiny blips and releases of held breath by the staring crowd of personnel.

"Get life-support ready, in case this isn't going to last," she said evenly to the man at her elbow, shaking out both hands to loosen up for the next step. "Establish ventilation now. Where is Sakura?"

"I'm here," the pink-haired woman said as she hustled in the doorway and pressed through to take her place opposite Tsunade.

"We're infusing on three. You see it?"

"He's at zero?" Sakura gasped, stunned at the information her open palms were taking in. "True zero?"

"Yes. One…two…now!"

They placed hands on him without pause; Sakura struggled to keep up, frantically improvising this bundle of chakra she was offloading into Kakashi's empty husk of a system. It had to flow directly, like a transfusion, but they did not have the luxury of time to stop and prepare. Kakashi had arrived essentially in chakra death, and this attempt at resuscitation was not a sure thing.

Tsunade's obscenely robust load of chakra had to be controlled, held back as she rationed it out. They needed to apply just the right amount swiftly, and then get out to address the complications it would cause. It was a risky and unnatural procedure; their chakra would not match Kakashi's, and while it might provide his system with enough force to survive, it could also create an defensive, backlash reaction to their foreign element. The delicate balance would have to be held if this were to work, to keep the alien chakra working despite the reaction of his system to reject it, until his natural chakra could recuperate enough to sustain his life. Then, depending on the circumstances, they would allow Kakashi's system to destroy it, or evacuate it if he was unable to.

Using two types of chakra equally applied was, in Tsunade's theory, the best method for mitigating the rejection response. All one type of foreign chakra would increase the risk of rejection and build-up of anti-chakra. Although, in Kakashi's state, the life-force capable of building the anti-chakra was gone. Tsunade had never had the opportunity to attempt this on someone who was at true zero. Usually, it would be too late at that point. It would be interesting to see if it made the rejection response weaker, and somehow might work better in the long run.

The scientist in her set that theory aside for later contemplation, figuring that if this worked well, perhaps taking a subject to zero before applying this method might be have promise in future procedures.

"Nearly there," Sakura said.

"Ending together. Again, on three…almost ready. A few more seconds. Start to taper off now. One…two…now!" She nearly clobbered the medical assistant treating the thigh wound when she pulled both hands away quickly.

Sakura immediately moved her hands up and thumbed open his eyelids, reaching back to snag the ventilation set-up from the approaching medic and take over the procedure.

Tsunade searched the chakra system again, detecting the under-inflation and sluggish flow. It was alive, but just barely, and it wouldn't surprise her if it stopped, as slowly as it was working.

"This isn't going to be sufficient."

"It's fading already…it's not holding any pressure."

"Wait…I have an idea." Tsunade reached down and dipped up a fingertip of blood from the sodden material by the thigh wound. She stepped away to the side of the room and made swift hand signs.

Pakkun appeared with a snap.

"We need to do a transfusion."

Pakkun, who had been observing anxiously, was already on board with her ingenious idea. Kakashi had infused a great deal of his chakra into Pak over the years. He was more than willing to give some back.

"What are we waiting for? Er, your highness."

Tsunade snorted a laugh. "Save the honorifics for the memorial service if we fail, hound. Which we will not!"

Pak grinned and Tsunade swept him up under her arm, startling him as he found himself tucked in tight with a warm, firm and fleshly breast resting against his cheek.

Oh, he would have a story to tell the old perv after this was over if he didn't die from the nosebleed. His eyes rolled into his head as he smiled a doggy smile and melted into the village leader's side.

She held him out again near Kakashi's pale chest and did her own barking.

"Sakura! Prepare! We have another donor!"

After a startled look up, Sakura hastily handed off her task and moved to assist Tsunade.

xxxxxx

The world came back by way of slow crystallization. The hateful feeling of chakra depletion shot through every leaden cell in his body. His highly trained senses came into their own first, a survival reflex as natural to him as holding his breath when plunged under water. In mission distress, it had saved his life countless times.

An instant assessment of his situation fed back into his semi-conscious mind, struggling to get past the haze of awakening in order to resume command and control. Konoha's infirmary. A sickening mess in his grossly drained chakra system; signs of extreme measures taken to keep him alive. The Sharingan weeping slowly, under a soft cloth; swaths of tape across his face where his mask should have been, securing the painful tube that invaded deep into his throat to deliver oxygen regardless of his ability to breathe on his own. He'd only experienced this degree of life-support one other time, and that brush with death had been far too close.

It spurred him into shaking out the cobwebs, squeezing his eyes shut hard to try and clear his sight. There was something applied to him to sedate him, something very mild in the way of a jutsu with the sweet flair of Tsunade's unique spells. So mild it caused even more concern. Injured jounin were dangerous when hospitalized, and firm restraints to avoid unpleasant incidents were always a priority. He knew this was not carelessness, but the opposite. His body must have been deemed to be too damaged for proper restraints, either so disabled that he was not a threat, or so close to death that the risk to his survival was too great.

That was one he'd never experienced. His deeply ingrained murderous talents were as feared by his comrades as they were by any enemy.

His fierce concentration paid off. In a flash of returning memory so provoking that the aide sitting by the bed leapt to his feet and ran screaming down the hall for help, he knew. His reaction was strangled by the airway, his roar of anger and despair paralyzed by the invasive tube.

Failed. He'd failed - again. He was not a man who lost; he made his living by making damn sure that didn't happen.

But he'd failed again, and failed at protecting one of the few people that actually meant something to him in his adult life. He had no voice, but he screamed furiously anyway, searing his throat with pain and reddening his face as his body's tension arched him up off the bed but for the back of his head and his grinding heels.

"Brat!" Tsunade roared, flouncing into the room with a loud confident tone to cover her fear. "Settle down!"

Kakashi was radiating distressed chakra, and he could not afford to be sparing a drop. She slapped a hand on his forehead and instantly channeled into his brain's motor center to shut down his ability to move.

His body dropped like the strings were cut, and she moved in further to haul down his runaway emotions, swaddling his distress tight.

"You'll die, you idiot. Get a hold of yourself! Be shinobi, damn it! Man up!"

When it became clear that he was not able to settle down, she knocked him out cold with a syringe full of amber liquid and left orders to continue administering it at regular intervals until she instructed otherwise.

It appeared that his chances of survival were quite good now, although the recovery would be lengthy and difficult. Tsunade deemed it safe enough to turn over to Sakura's medical team.

After all, she had a house call to make.

xxxx

The steel table rattled, bringing Jeninki back to his feet. Iruka/Even was looking at him as he hovered.

"That's…remarkable," Jeninki breathed.

"What? What is it?" Danzou rushed to the table and looked once, then twice, cocking his head at an angle. "This…this is…what the hell?"

"Look, look…" Jeninki's hand brushed the blushing cheek, traveling up to the eye scrunched tightly shut. "I think this is Iruka-kun."

"But…"

He reached to the other side of Iruka's face, to the open, steady, serious expression. That eye was open and staring back at him boldly. "And I think this…this is Even. Oh, my. My my my."

Jeninki's bemused laugh angered Danzou.

"It's not funny, damn it!"

"No, you're right. Not really." Jeninki loosed and removed the straps, Danzou nagging behind him, unhappy with letting him up.

"He can't stay like that. You're not stopping now, are you?"

"Quiet!" Jeninki snapped. "Back off." He pulled on the shinobi's shoulders to sit him up, then guided his legs so they dangled from the edge of the rolled steel. He let go experimentally, hands close in case of collapse or lack of balance. But the body seemed stable enough, although he soon slouched and looked weary.

"Iruka?" he asked, stroking the reddened cheek and bringing his face close. Now the other, paler side closed its eye and grimaced.

But the side he'd been addressing slowly raised an eyelid and met his gaze, unstable with turmoil. It examined the deep brown of the Uzingan with its magical pattern of pure gold.

"It is you. How did this happen?"

But other than a tightening of the corner of his mouth, Iruka didn't seem to be capable of replying.

"Let me try," Danzou insisted, pushing close and risking his senpai's anger. But Jeninki only nodded, reluctantly breaking eye contact.

"Even."

The paler side reacted immediately; the close eye flew open, widened and searched until it swept past Jeninki and locked on Danzou.

"Even, can you take my hand?"

The same-side arm lifted, wobbly and weak, and the attempt to reach out fell short - but clearly, he was trying to obey.

"Like Siamese twins," Jeninki said. "What to do."

"What do you mean, 'what to do'? He can't stay like this."

"Just hold on. I'm trying to think." Jeninki's mind was searching his vast experience, carding through the thousands of jutsus, spells, and rituals he'd come across in his lifetimes. Was there a spell to truly split a man into two men? This seemed like the perfect solution, if only he could some up with the procedure.

"Even, talk to me. Please." Danzou watched as Even clumsily raised his hand, apparently trying to make a hand-sign and failing.

The other eye moved independently to follow Jeninki's movements, and the other hand came up to touch Jeninki's.

That touch fired Jeninki's determination even more.

Danzou took the other hand.

"Impossible. It's like there's two of him now."

"This is so very interesting, Danz. It's not a left brain/right brain thing. It's like he's been split right down the middle. It's more of a personality division."

"Can you take Iruka into your village and leave Even to me?" Danzou asked, nearly gasping at his own perfect idea.

Jeninki glared, but paused to consider. Danzou would definitely be getting the better end of that deal.

But Iruka and Even? What would be best for him/them? Should he make more perilous attempts to 'normalize' the long-suffering shinobi? Or was this a phase in the recovery, something best left to resolve itself?

Why was he even mulling over something so far-fetched as turning him into two people, as if it were a possibility, anyway? It had to be a by-product of Danzou's greed, spilling over and polluting all common sense.

"What? We're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we?" Jeninki said, looking sideways at Danzou's fresh, young, impatient face. "So he's exhibiting some strange behaviors. That's understandable; his transition is not complete. But it's a myth that someone can be permanently split into two separate people. Well, not willingly, anyway; and not without a powerful jutsu - and in the end, they die. The only one I've heard of is a method of interrogation, used by Mist to split the mind to extract information. Neither half is capable of surviving on its own for long."

"But only one physical half has to survive! Your people leave that behind when they join your village anyway! He's been subjected to incredibly powerful chakra-rechanneling jutsu, several times over. Our collective powers have never been used like this before, that's why it has no precedent. We did this to him, Hidata! Maybe we've stumbled onto something new! Take Iruka for your village, and leave Even with me!"

xxx

Iruka struggled to see, to move…but every action was a fight, and he clearly felt Even's presence as the factor warring for supremacy.

His left side was numb, lost to him, blind and deaf. His use of his right side was limited and awkward - and speech seemed impossible. He got disjointed, poorly focused feedback from his eye; his hearing was functional, and at that it wasn't very reliable. Even was blocking him out at every turn, trying to establish and expand full control bit by bit.

Jeninki touched him and it was a huge relief when the Uzingan locked in. He needed some sort of stability and support from the outside world to counterbalance the total disruption within. Being released from the slow torture of rotting in solitary confinement, only to be faced with rejection by his own body, was nearly beyond his ability to tolerate. This wasn't how it was all supposed to happen. Volunteering for ROOT was supposed to perfect him; not rob him of his better half and crush him in to a dark, slow, torturous death fraught with uncontrolled emotions and pain.

When Jeninki's powers reached him, it touched off a return of recent memory that held him back for a moment. The foggy impression that Kakashi had been here, helping, although he had been seriously ill…and then his chakra had abruptly disappeared. The jounin had been frantic to help him, and then he was gone. It implied that something grave had happened, a circumstance that Iruka was in no condition to contemplate. It left him with the conviction that there were no lifelines left.

He reached for Jeninki's help in renewed desperation, fearful and shaken. The warm, strong, comforting chakra wrapped him tight. A line of communication opened, and the powerful Uzingan user spoke in mental images and abstract ideas, but no words had ever been clearer.

Jeninki wanted to rescue him, sincerely and without anger or reproach. He comforted and soothed the ragged edges, and Iruka felt him flowing freely around his twisted chakra, investigating, examining. He wasn't sure that accepting that support was wise; but there wasn't any point in resisting something that felt like the only safe harbor in the world.

It didn't last nearly long enough. He tried to cling tight and prevent Jeninki from leaving; all apologies and promises, the powerful shinobi slipped away, and Iruka was left to mourn the loss alone.

With Jeninki gone, the hostile pressure from his enemy-inhabited body returned with daunting force.

Even's control was only slightly better, he trained his eye rather quickly to track movement and discern shapes. When he felt the astronomical rise in Iruka's power, he detected the other's presence as the cause, and had closed his eye tight. It wasn't really necessary, though. He wasn't the aim of the invader's search.

At least, not then. When the power drained and Even detected that Iruka was alone on his side again, a hand gently pried open his eyelid and he was shot through with a golden light.

Jeninki. He boldly entered and began his second inspection with little preamble. Even tried to tighten up and keep the invasive nin at arm's length, but it did no good. The Uzingan technique revealed exactly where the ROOT persona stood.

Even made no bones about his position, and he had no intention of hiding it from Jeninki - not that he could have anyway. This was his turf now, and Iruka was an unwanted invader, his revival a nonsensical mistake.

He hated the inspection, and the sparks of anger grew. If murder was required to throw Jeninki out, he would have done so without a second thought. His master was surely not happy with all of this.

The world suddenly dropped ten stories, and when the jolt of it hit, the thick separation between himself and Iruka was nothing more than gossamer thread. Jeninki backed out then, and it was just the two of them, a breath apart.

He felt Iruka's shock and fear radiating hotly, so close it made ripples in his own composure. A knee-jerk reaction of hatred and resentment shot through every nerve, sending his lone hand out to rake the opposite side of his face in a vicious clawing strike. Sinking fingernails into the tender new skin at the apex of the attack, it was bitterly satisfying to get the instant feedback of distress that it caused. He didn't feel a thing, not that it would have mattered; but the pathetic other self reacted in pain and fright.

He couldn't declare it, but his thoughts blared his hatred and intent to kill; the responding wave of confusion and panic was thoroughly satisfying.

If not for the outside forces now restraining his movement, he would have jammed his thumb into the offending eye socket and taken out the interloper once and for all.

xxxxxxx

Jeninki broke the second contact and snagged Even's hand before it could strike again.

"Well?"

"Danzou…it can't work. They're incomplete without each other. And Even has regained a significant part of the emotional chakra already. They're both disrupted and in flux, and it can only get worse the more they polarize. The division between them was more like a scab or a clot. I cleared it away, but that's not going to solve the problem. I'm not sure what to do next."

"We should support the stronger of the two, then. The one who has a better chance of successfully returning. You know as well as I do that Even is a hundred times stronger than his old self."

"Here, let's get him on his back again. I'm going to restrain this arm. We can't have him hurting himself."

They looked up at each other and stopped. The perimeter icons began to transmit a warning message. Several intruders had entered the property, one of them unusually formidable.

"Get your face covered, Danzou. I need to hide." Jeninki hastily buckled the strap on Even's uncooperative left arm and took a moment to concentrate, veiling his chakra before draping his own head in rough-hewn cloth.

"You can't teleport out. They'll detect it."

"I know. I'm going to wait in the back entry and conceal myself. If need be, I'll slip out. In any event, no one should recognize me."

"They must have found Kakashi by now. You'd think they'd be distracted with that, at least a little."

"I'm not sure what you're talking about but you'll have to explain later. Pull that wrap further over your eye. I really did go too far with the restoration this time. You don't look a day over twenty."

"Ah." Danzou made hand signs, and his face and hands took on their old age-worn appearance. "Better?"

"Much."

The front door rattled as if buffeted by a fierce storm.

Danzou recognized the Hokage's unique force; he was bellowing to her as he stormed out into the hallway, calling out loudly in supreme irritation.

"Who's there?"

He made a sour face at her pronouncement and waited until her spiel, asserting right of entry, died down.

"Very well," he spat, and yanked the door open. Tsunade's reddened face met his glare without hesitation.

"So, you thought you'd take care of him, did you? Are you going to show me that he's all better now?" she barked.

"Of course not," he snarled back. "This isn't like lancing a boil, or whatever garden-variety procedures you're familiar with."

"You must let me see him. Immediately."

"Must I? I don't think…"

"That's right! You don't think. I'm the chief healer in this village, as well as its Hokage. He belongs in my care."

"You can see him. But don't be so sure that you're the best one for this job. You're not familiar with the procedures involved. How…"

She cut him off again, striding forward and forcing him to either fight her or stand down. "You have no knowledge of what procedures I am or am not familiar with. Show me to him, now."

He snarled inwardly and stepped back, noting unhappily that Ibiki and two of his Anbu elite had come as well.

At least the Hyuuga was not with them.

"The training room. Morino knows the way," he grumbled.

They filed down the hall and Ibiki held open the door. Tsunade took it all in; the impressions of the many things that had happened here filtered into her consciousness. It only served to add to her resolve.

Iruka's body had flipped off the side of the steel table and hung partially suspended by one brutally bent arm, trapped by the lone fastened restraint. He quaked with the battle raging within.

The gloves were off as far as Even was concerned. He was attacking Iruka with everything he had, threats, hatred, attempts to seize control of the major bodily functions. His lesser half was easy to disturb, relatively defenseless, unable to consistently reason through any of what was happening.

The right eye wept even though it was shut tight.

"You interrupted me. Now look!"

"Stay back. Ibiki, get him up." The torture specialist and his ANBU replaced the battered form back on the table.

The masked pair turned to stand with their leader, stationed protectively between the Hokage and Danzou when she pushed up her sleeves and placed them on Iruka's forehead.

She saw the chasm developing in the midst of Iruka's being, muttering as she delved further. She was glad for Ibiki's protection; this required her full concentration.

This went beyond her expectations. The damage inflicted through all the prior manipulations paled in comparison to the spiraling insanity of self-destruction.

Tsunade bypassed all the obvious elements of dischord and went straight for the center of the man's mortality. It would have to be intact; if this had been breached, he would be dead. Instead of trying to mediate the growing differences together, she went directly to the place where they were irreversible joined. And from there, she took one huge bolt of chakra, and pulled straight out from there, freezing and silencing the separated chakras as she went.

She reached the last strata in eerie silence and withdrew a bit to clear her head and observe.

She moved in again and flooded the restrained awareness with anaesthetizing warmth. The struggle to slip her control diminished. The chakra system was easing into a more natural shape without the battle of wills preventing it from recovering. No foolishly sentimental loose ends, no allowance for evolving a new, unique configuration to allow for free will or arbitrary adjustment. It all had fit in its place originally, and she saw no excuse not to heal it all right back where it had been. She was not in pursuit of some advanced soldier or of a new and improved Iruka. It was much simpler to restore him using the same old pattern that had served Iruka-sensei for most of his lifetime. She suspected that it would be the best thing for her patient as well, once the infighting was resolved. She would release the suspension and deal with the repairs when she had analyzed it further and was fully prepared to take whatever steps were necessary.

When she pulled away and took her first good look at Iruka's face, a small smile tugged at her lips. He was handsome once more, and she was sure that the bizarre, disjointed expression would be replaced before long with one of mere discomfort.

Danzou gasped. He wanted to wring her neck. It had been so easy for her to just lay hands on Even and destroy him without a moment's hesitation.

She looked at him levelly and crooked a hand at the ANBU.

"I didn't quite believe it when Ibiki said that you claimed to be releasing him. That he was no longer ROOT. Well, I'll be damned, Danzou - you were telling the truth. From the level of emotions roiling around in there, I'd say that he is farther from ROOT now than when he started. And since I have seen that is the case - I'll be taking back my shinobi now. We'll discuss the merits of your experiment later - or should I say, the lack of merits - after we've had a chance to do the evaluations and examine him. I assure you that it will be done professionally. I will do the physical examinations myself, and rely on Ibiki's unique talents to evaluate his mental state and suitability to return to regular service."

Danzou stared daggers. He had lost this, yes…but he suspected that she had not won, either. His eye was still a mystery, Jeninki was still written off for dead…the Uzingan eyes' final disposition a mystery she did not solve.

And he had a whole life to live over again. His firm young body hidden by jutsu, it seemed that he had managed to pull great victories from the jaws of this defeat.

"Then, by all means…if you think that you have the ability to finish healing him, be my guest," he said, voice cold and smooth with superiority. "I was merely attempting to restore him in order to return him to you anyway."

This would actually be Jeninki's victory after all, Danzou conceded, mollified somewhat by that thought. With Iruka immobilized in the infirmary, it would be a golden opportunity for the clever nin to slip in and induct him into that ethereal village. It was infinitely preferable to letting Tsunade prevail.

The last chance the Hokage had to pin something on him rested in the information still locked down by the remains of Even's loyal, steely will. Her reference to using the head of Intelligence to evaluate him was telling indeed. If they could snatch that opportunity away, Konoha's leader would be left with nothing, and have only her own foolishness to blame for it.

The strap swung loose and the buckle clattered against the table. The ANBU lifted the motionless, dark-haired shinobi from the table and the enclave swept down the hallway and out without further comment.

Danzou secured the door and dispelled the disguise of old age. Without looking back at the whisper of cloth stirring the air behind him, he sighed. "You know the way?"

"Someone time ago, I was given a diagram, and I have the layout of this village memorized. It's not something I'd ever forget."

Danzou turned at the odd tone in Jeninki's voice and puzzled at the melancholy look in the gold-flecked eyes.

tbc