Chapter 39

End Game

Iruka had taken to pacing the length of the room since they moved Kakashi's body onto the bed. There hadn't been any change to the Copy Ninja's status in over five hours, and it was causing everyone in the room to go a little stir-crazy. He looked around until his eyes settled on the group of jonin in the far corner of the room, quietly talking about who knew what. Okay – so maybe he was the only one going stir-crazy.

He moved over to the bed and sat on its edge...letting out a long sigh and closing his eyes. Maybe it would be easier to take if he couldn't see the pained expression that had been on Kakashi's face ever since the man had fallen unconscious. Iruka was so lost in trying to forget that look, that when he felt a set of cool fingers press into his upper thigh, he actually let out an undignified squeak. He would have jumped off the bed as well if that hand hadn't kept him in place.

Iruka's eyes shot open and he turned until he saw the hand belonged to none other than Kakashi Hatake. He flashed a smile at the jonin that he was sure looked rather idiotic, but at the moment, only one thought was running through his head – he wasn't going to have to explain to Team Seven that their Sensei had died after all.

Kakashi looked exhausted but he still managed to chuckle at him. "Miss me, Sensei?"

Iruka rolled his eyes. "I guess you could say that."

Kakashi smirked. "I told you I'd get you into my bed."

Iruka felt the blood in his cheeks rise even as he quite purposefully pried the fingers off his thigh. "I'm not in your bed, Kakashi-sensei...I'm on it."

The Copy Ninja leered suggestively at him. "We can fix that if you'd like."

Iruka shook his head at the pervert. "I can't believe you, Kakashi. You nearly died and all you can think about is making inappropriate advances. What's wrong with you?"

Kakashi pushed himself into a sitting position and shrugged. "Getting a reaction out of people makes me feel alive, I guess."

Iruka scratched the back of his neck. "But does it have to be at my expense?"

Kakashi chuckled again. "I suppose not...but you make it so easy."

Iruka sighed. The man had a point...he'd never been good at hiding his feelings. It was part of the reason he'd become an Academy Teacher instead of a field ninja. Thankfully, Iruka was saved from any further embarrassment when Ibiki joined them.

"About time you woke up, Kakashi. We were just about to pull straws to figure out who'd have to carry your sorry ass back to the village."

Iruka noticed a hardness settle into Kakashi's eyes when he noticed the shredded remains of Ibiki's shirt sleeve. The Copy Ninja's voice sounded tight when he spoke to the scarred man. "After what I did, Ibiki, I wouldn't have blamed you if you decided to leave me behind."

Ibiki pushed the remnants of cloth up his arm until the faint lines of scar tissue were visible to them all. "Give it a rest, Kakashi. You've done worse to me during training sessions. Besides – more scars can only add to my charm, right?"

Iruka couldn't help but chuckle at the exchange – which unfortunately brought both jonin's attention back to him. He shifted nervously under Ibiki's hard gaze.

"Iruka-sensei, why aren't you resting? I thought Shizune gave you specific orders to lie down until otherwise cleared to move?"

Again, Iruka felt an embarrassed flush cover his neck and cheeks. "Shizune said to take it easy. I didn't take that to mean I couldn't walk, Ibiki."

Before Ibiki could chastise him farther, Kakashi interrupted. "Ibiki, was it really him?"

No one needed to ask which him Kakashi was referring to. "Yeah, clone this time."

Kakashi let out a shuddering breath and turned his head toward where the fight had taken place. "Did you destroy the body?"

Ibiki averted his gaze and Iruka saw a look of disbelief settle onto Kakashi's face. "Ibiki – where's the body?"

Ibiki continued to avoid Kakashi's eyes. "It's being brought back to Konoha for study."

Iruka knew the news wouldn't be taken well – but when Kakashi started to get out of bed, he threw himself on top of the jonin to pin him down – desperate to keep the jonin from doing anything stupid. It wasn't until Ibiki's throaty chuckle pierced his awareness that Iruka took a moment to look up. Kakashi had a wide smile on his lips and actually had a faint blush across his cheeks. Iruka understood why the moment he tried to sit back up and found his body helplessly tangled amidst Kakashi's long limbs – their chests pressed closely together.

"And here I always thought Iruka was the shy type." Genma's voice from the opposite side of the bed pulled a chuckle from Kakashi while Iruka hung his head, leaning his forehead against Kakashi's bare shoulder.

"You know, Iruka – you really can't blame me for my advances if you keep sending me so many mixed signals."

Iruka lifted his head until he could glare into Kakashi's eye. "I really hate you, Hatake."

Kakashi shifted under him slightly. "Hmmm – I wonder how you'd show me you like me?"

Iruka leaned an elbow forcefully on Kakashi's groin and pushed himself back to sitting. "Wouldn't you like to know!"

At Kakashi's pained groan, Shizune finally arrived at their side. "Really Iruka – can you try not to damage him any more than he already is?"

Iruka rolled his eyes and moved off the bed – unable to believe even Shizune was taking the pervert's side. "Fine!"

"Don't be that way Sensei."

Kakashi managed to make that sentence sound indecent, and Iruka turned to admonish him, but the words died on his lips when he saw Shizune had made the jonin lay on his stomach. Kakashi's bare back was exposed now, and the damage was enough to make Iruka forget about everything the man had said to him.

"What did that monster do to you?" The words had left Iruka's lips before he'd realized it.

Kakashi tried looking back over his shoulder. "How bad is it?"

Shizune placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed him down onto the bed. "Hold still, Kakashi, and maybe I can answer the question."

Iruka watched Kakashi's eye cloud over a bit. Was it possible the Copy Ninja really didn't know that his back was nothing but patches of burnt skin? He stepped back to the side of the bed and knelt down to meet Kakashi's gaze.

"Don't worry Kakashi, I'm sure Shizune can fix you up in no time."

He looked up and saw the look of concentration on Shizune's face and hoped his words wouldn't be proven false.

-- --

Kakashi settled his arms under his chin while Shizune started working on his back. He couldn't remember much about what had been done to it, but he figured if it was enough to break the Level Four seals the others had placed, it was probably a good thing he couldn't remember it. There were two spots in particular that made him squirm when Shizune pressed on them, and the sounds that she pushed through her lips made it clear he was in for a long recovery period...again.

After about ten minutes Shizune stopped her exam and let him know he could sit up. He frowned when he met her dark eyes. "Is there a reason you didn't try healing anything, Shizune?"

She folded her hands in front of her – a sign Kakashi had come to recognize over the months as frustration from the woman. "I've never seen this kind of damage before. It's as though they mixed acid with chakra so the wounds are actually woven into the cellular level. I can't do anything until we get you back home."

Kakashi sighed in relief. At least she didn't rule out healing all together. "Okay – so then we head back. It wouldn't be the first time I've traveled while injured."

The medic smiled at his answer. "Right. So let's get everyone else ready to go."

Kakashi nodded and turned his attention to Genma. The senbon in his teeth seemed to be being chewed on a bit more intensely than normal. "What's wrong Genma?"

The jonin pushed his honey-brown hair behind one ear. "We really need to find the others. I'm not sure how badly injured they are, but I doubt they can be moved without some kind of treatment."

Kakashi sighed. How could he have forgotten that Asuma and Gai were still among the missing. He deliberately pushed down the fear that Kabuto had dispatched his colleagues and concentrated on facts instead. "Do you remember where you were being held, Genma?"

"No. I was unconscious when that bastard brought me in here." Genma actually sounded mad at himself for that fact. Kakashi chose to ignore that.

"Right...okay...I assume you didn't come across them on your way in, Ibiki?"

"The place is massive, Kakashi. It'll take three times the manpower to search it thoroughly." Ibiki sounded nearly as distressed as Genma had.

"Hmmm-I guess it's up to me then." Before anyone could stop him, Kakashi bit his thumb, ran through the familiar hand signs, knelt on the floor, and slammed his palm down.

Once the smoke cleared, his full pack of nin-hounds sat around him sniffing at the air. Kakashi had to place one hand against the bed to steady himself as a wave of dizziness threatened to steal his consciousness away. Pakkun's cold nose pushing against his bare hand gave him something to anchor too.

"What the hell did you get yourself into this time, pup?"

The other dogs whimpered around him – reinforcing the pug's question. Kakashi chuckled. "You know better than to ask, Pakkun. Besides – we don't have time for me to get into it right now."

The pug shook his head in frustration but settled down to stare expectantly at him. Kakashi smiled and patted the dog on his head, earning an impatient glare from the mutt. "Fine – I can take a hint, Pakkun. I need you all to spread out and find two of our own."

The pug nodded his head once. "Right boss. I see you managed to keep track of the sensei this time – so which ones have gone missing?"

Kakashi chuckled at the reference to Iruka. "Look for Asuma and Gai. Shout out at the first sign of them and we'll join you."

"Right." Pakkun turned to stare down the rest of the pack. "You heard the boss – now scatter!"

With that, the dogs took off to do their job, leaving Kakashi to take care of the last thing he needed to address. He pushed himself to standing and carefully crossed over to where Jiraiya and Shikaku were talking. Both men met his eyes when he joined them, but neither spoke. Kakashi sighed. He wasn't looking forward to this conversation.

"You know we need to destroy his body, right?"

Shikaku tipped his head to the side in a way that Kakashi knew meant he was agreeing with him, but Jiraiya crossed his arms in front of him and glared. "Tsunade will want to examine it first, Brat. You know that."

Kakashi shook his head. "You really want to risk any of his followers intercepting us between here and Konoha? The bastard has more lives than a cat, after all."

"Kakashi – you don't get a say in this one. I have orders from her that even I wouldn't dare go against. Let it go."

Kakashi glared at the man, and was about to argue the fact when he heard Bull's distinctive bark echo through the hall. "They've found something."

A moment later and Pakkun poked his head through the doorway. "We located them. You need to bring the healer."

Kakashi frowned. They must be in pretty bad shape if Pakkun was being so blunt. He turned to see Shizune had already gathered her medical kit together and was ready to follow the pug down the hall. He stepped behind her and paused when he felt Jiraiya's hand on his shoulder.

"Maybe you should sit this one out, Kid."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow and stared at the Sannin. "Let go now, Jiraiya."

He could see the struggle going on within the Toad Sage's eyes, but eventually the man released Kakashi's shoulder and stepped out of the way. He started out the door and headed toward where he knew Bull and the others were waiting and found his breathing becoming labored. Kakashi frowned. He didn't want to admit Jiraiya may have been right in his assessment, but he had to admit his stamina may not be where it needed to be quite yet.

He was about to admit defeat and slow to a stop when he felt two arms slide around his waist...offering silent support. Kakashi looked to either side and saw Iruka and Genma walking beside him. He smirked and fought back the urge to abuse the chunin, choosing to just continue on in silence. After almost seven minutes of walking they finally came to another room where the stench of filth and blood assaulted their noses before they'd even gotten to the door.

They stepped through and Kakashi felt a wave of relief. Both shinobi were still alive – although they each looked as though they were on the wrong side of a blade trap. Asuma's damage was mostly on his face and arm, but it looked like it was nothing Shizune couldn't handle. He had to wonder about Gai's injuries, however. The man seemed overly distraught – and it made Kakashi wonder if there was more than met the eye. This thought was reinforced when Gai opened his eyes and finally realized they were standing there.

Kakashi grinned and gave a two-fingered wave to the man. "Yo."

"Oh...Kakashi! You have managed to avoid Orochimaru's plans! And you have kept the Sensei safe as well! I should have known you would manage where I could not."

Gai's head hung and tears flowed from his eyes. The man's body shook in its chains from the intensity of the sobs. Kakashi had never seen his self-proclaimed Eternal Rival quite this distraught...not even when he learned that he couldn't force Neji and Ten-Ten to wear his trademark green spandex when they were officially assigned to his team.

"Whoa there, Gai. Take it easy. We'll have you down from there before you know it, and we can head back to Konoha...okay?"

Kakashi's words failed to reassure the fact, the man's sobs intensified tenfold. Kakashi was beyond confused. Had Orochimaru's torture managed to break the normally unflappable Gai? He frowned and turned his attention to Asuma.

Genma and Iruka had already released the man from the wall chains and Shizune was partway through the worst of the injuries. Asuma glanced up at Kakashi when he moved to his side. The bearded jonin scratched at a smaller wound over his left brow until Shizune slapped his hand away. Asuma frowned and spoke with a voice that made it obvious he hadn't had anything to drink in awhile.

"Don't suppose you have a cigarette on you, Kakashi?"

Kakashi chuckled and motioned to the lack of clothing on his body. "Must have left them in my other boxers, Asuma."

The elder jonin sighed longingly. "Figures."

"So what's up with Gai? He seems more...umm...emotional than usual."

Asuma shrugged. "I haven't been able to get him to make sense since we woke up in here. He kept muttering about his wasted youth and how he'd miss running around the village ten thousand times."

That comment seemed to catch Gai's attention. "You should leave me behind, my Eternal Rival. It would be too much to bear the looks of pity from everyone back home. I would never bring such shame on Konoha!"

Kakashi stared at Gai and wondered once more if the man had lost it. Then, when he saw Gai's gaze fall across his damaged legs just before another round of inconsolable sobs wracked his body, Kakashi thought he might know what was going on. He moved to stand in front of the jonin and reached up to uncover his left eye. Kakashi took a deep breath and opened his eye to allow the sharingan to activate. As he expected, Gai's chakra flow was altered. The man was obviously caught in a rather powerful genjutsu.

Closing his eye shut to conserve what little chakra he had left, Kakashi pooled a bit of that remaining energy into his hand and, placing that palm onto Gai's chest, he lifted his free hand into position and sent his chakra into the jonin while uttering a single word. "Release!"

He felt Gai shudder under his touch, and then heard the sharp intake of breath before the man broke out in tears once more. For the briefest moment, Kakashi feared it hadn't worked, but then he saw the blinding smile across Gai's face...and he knew that whatever hell the man had been trapped in was gone.

"Gai, do you think you're ready to have Shizune work on your injuries now?" Kakashi was careful to meet the jonin's eyes in order to make sure the man's sanity – such as it ever was – was still intact.

" have saved me from a life of misery. How can I ever make it up to you?"

Kakashi held his hands up quickly to try and wave off what he knew was coming. "No – Gai – really...that's not necessary."

But he wasn't quick enough. "I will climb to the very top of the Hokage mountain and shout out so every person in Konoha will know about your most charitable act!"

"Really, don't have to...."

"Nonsense Kakashi! I will personally make sure no one in the Five Great Countries is ignorant of your greatness!"

Kakashi looked around at the others and scratched at the back of his neck in embarrassment. " really don't need to do that. Honest..."

The dark-haired jonin finally stopped ranting and seemed to calm down completely for the first time since they found him. Kakashi waited a few more moments – eyes narrowed – to make sure Gai wasn't going to go off on another tirade. Satisfied that what little sanity the man had was back, he moved forward, and with Iruka's help, released Gai from his chains.

Shizune was at their side almost immediately and had her healing chakra running through Gai's legs at once. Kakashi watched a look of utter contentment run through his Rival when he was able to flex his feet and bend his knees. Gai smiled up at him and held one hand to his chest.

"Kakashi – I know you'd prefer that I not sing your praises to the world...but there must be something you'd let me do to show my undying appreciation for giving me my legs back."

Kakashi frowned. "Gai, you never lost your there's no need for you to pay me back. Now let's go home before anything else can happen, okay?"

With that said, the entire group packed up for the trip home. They were met outside the lair by two squads of ANBU, whose presence ensured the journey back to Konoha would pass in relative safety. Kakashi would wait until they returned to question just why the squads didn't arrive in time to help more.

-- --

Tsunade looked around the room at the gathering of shinobi and wondered once more why she ever agreed to take on the role of Hokage. She'd figured that once Kakashi and the others were returned to Konoha that things would return to normal. She should have known better.

Ignoring the scathing look from her recently returned aide, Tsunade deliberately reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a fresh bottle of sake' and a clean glass. Only after she had poured and drained two full glasses did she lean back in her chair to face the mixture of genin, chunin and jonin standing before her.

Kakashi was sitting in front of her with his team all around him. Although still too pale for her liking, and not quite able to perform any strenuous activities yet, he at least had put some weight back on. Iruka stood just to the side of him. The only sign of what had happened to him over the past months was the presence of two leather wrist bands covering the brands Orochimaru had placed on his skin. The leaf symbol of Konoha was proudly embossed on each one in bright red – a silent statement that the brands they covered would never wipe the chunin's loyalty away. Tsunade was there the day Kakashi had gifted the man with them, and she was glad to see Iruka had taken so easily to wearing them.

Asuma stood with his left arm still in a sling and an unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth, while Gai stood on his own – albeit with the aide of his crutches. Both of these men flanked Genma...who stood against the far wall with his hands in his pockets while his senbon danced in his lips – showing his nervousness to those who knew him well enough.

Jiraiya and Ibiki stood on either side of her desk, while Shizune was directly behind her chair – each offering their silent support to her. She knew why some of the others were here as well...they wanted to know what was done with Orochimaru's remains, and where Kabuto ended up. So, Tsunade figured that was as good a place to start as any. After all, no one standing before her didn't have a vested interest in the information. Sure – she could have sent the genin out of the room...but really, they all had proven throughout the events that had unfolded that they held the Will of Fire deep within their veins. Tsunade smiled at the thought...her predecessors would be glad of that.

"Alright gang...settle down and we'll get started." To her relief, all the noise in the room ended.

"What I'm about to say is classified Top-Secret. Is that clear?" She took a deep breath and made a point to meet each and every person's eyes before she spoke again.

"The tests on the body of Orochimaru were conclusive that it was, indeed, him. That body has been dissected and each piece eliminated under the watchful eyes of Konoha's best hunter-nin and me."

She waited for some type of argument, but only saw relief and acceptance from everyone in the room. She smiled when she noticed Sasuke's hand rest briefly on Kakashi's shoulder in what could only be a silent acknowledgment that their shared tie to the man was finally severed.

"Kabuto Yakushi has been placed in maximum security within the ANBU controlled prison. His chakra was been completely sealed – and his body has been placed in a drug-induced coma until we can better understand the extent of his transformation. Meanwhile, the Yamanaka clan has agreed to continually interrogate the boy's mind until we are certain all of Orochimaru's secrets have been revealed."

Again she looked around the room and was pleased to see nearly every single person seemed satisfied with her treatment of the former henchman of the Snake-Sannin. Her eyes settled on Gai. The man looked as though he were trying desperately not to interrupt her. She sighed.

"Did you have something you wanted to say, Gai?"

Tsunade noticed Kakashi flinch slightly at her words and she wondered just what was going on. Gai moved forward on his crutches. The man struck a pose in front of her that made her wonder if he had spent time in front of a mirror in order to come up with the perfect placement of the crutches so he could still seemingly sparkle in front of her. She groaned but waved him on all the same.

"My esteemed Eternal Rival has continued to deny me the right to show my appreciation for his restoration of my mind – and therefore my glorious legs to me. I am hard-pressed to accept such a thoroughly nonexistent solution to my need – no – my duty to show my gratitude. I implore you, oh most magnificent leader, to declare some way that I might pay back this marvel of coolness for what he has done for me!"

Tsunade stared, wide-eyed, while tears flowed down Gai's face. Of all the possible problems she thought the past few months might bring to her, this was as far from the top of her list as she could get. A glance over at the Copy Ninja showed him rolling his eyes and trying to sink into the cushion of the chair. The others seemed in varying stages of embarrassment or amusement over their fellow shinobi's actions.

Tsunade leaned forward and poured herself another glass of sake' – taking her time draining the glass – running the problem over and over in her mind. One final glance at Kakashi and a grin spread across her face.

"Gai, stop blubbering and pay attention!"

The spandex-clad jonin snapped to attention so quickly he nearly fell off of his crutches. A steadying hand from Iruka kept the man still. "Yes, Hokage!"

"I've come up with the perfect way for you to pay back Kakashi for the return of your sanity."

Kakashi frowned and pushed himself up from his chair. "Hokage – I have to protest. Gai doesn't owe me a damn thing for..."

She leveled a glare at Kakashi that silenced the man. "Shut up and sit down, Brat!"

She refocused her gaze on Gai. "As I was saying...the task I am about to bestow on you will be considered full payment for whatever the hell it is you seem to think Kakashi did for you."

Chuckles from the genin caused her to shift her gaze to them for a moment before continuing. "Gai – from this day forward you and your team will be responsible for carrying out each and every C-ranked mission that would have otherwise been assigned to Kakashi Hatake. Am I clear?"

Gai's face became a beacon of happiness at her ruling. "Oh yes, Hokage! It will be my honor!"

Kakashi's eye went wide, and Tsunade knew there was a wide smile underneath his mask, even though no one could see it. With that decided, Tsunade poured herself one more generous glass and held it up in a silent toast to everyone around her.


She watched them file out of her office, and once the last one had left, Tsunade drained the glass and set it on her desk. She smiled and offered up thanks to all the past Hokage for watching over her and her shinobi once again.