A Matter of Perspective
Iruka leaned against the windowsill of their third floor room and watched the sunlight play off of a row of wind chimes hung in a nearby tree. Their subtle music floated toward him through the open window and, for just one moment, he was reminded of his home back in Konoha. He shut down that thought as soon as it crossed his mind. Thoughts of what he used to have had no place in his life now. Especially since he knew, for a fact, that the Konoha of his childhood no longer existed. He'd been out in the hallway of the Hokage's Tower the day the decision to relocate the Village had been made, and once he had accepted the role of Advocate for Kakashi, he'd been deliberately kept in the dark about just where the new location would be. So, even if he somehow managed to survive the nightmare he was currently caught in, it would be a very long time before he'd find Konoha again...if he ever did.
He sighed, and turned away from the window. On the far side of the room sat Ibiki and Itachi, both deep in discussion as they reviewed a map. The unlikely duo was probably trying to figure out their best route from here, and as much as Iruka wanted to deny it, he was curious about what their next destination might be. He glanced over toward where Kakashi was lying on the only bed in the room, still sound asleep, and frowned. That man could be more stubborn than anyone Iruka had ever met, but even he couldn't fight off exhaustion forever. The fact that he was still asleep, nine hours later, was testament to that.
With his mask off, and his body relaxed in the grip of a deep sleep, it was astonishing to Iruka just how young the Copy-ninja actually looked. Heck, the man could pass for someone Itachi's age, or even younger. But he knew that the years weighed heavy on Kakashi when he was awake. And, considering everything the man had lived through as a shinobi of Konoha, he would have been surprised if it didn't have some effect on him.
"You should get some rest, Sensei. We'll be heading out tonight."
Iruka nearly fell off his seat at the sound of Ibiki's voice in his ear. He knew that the man was one of the best shinobi in Konoha, but someone his size shouldn't be able to move that quietly when he wasn't on a mission.
"So soon? But I thought that we were going to stay here until we all healed a bit more?"
Ibiki scowled at him. "We've already been here too long. Better to be injured and free, than to be healed but captive."
Iruka couldn't fault the man's logic, but as he moved his makeshift crutch under his arm and limped over to where an extra blanket was on the floor, he couldn't help wishing that they would stay here a bit longer. Itachi and Ibiki had managed to reset the bones in his leg over a week and a half ago, and had even started the healing process, but he knew that the two of them needed to reserve their chakra for battle if any of them were to survive this adventure, so Iruka had made them stop the process. By the time he'd crossed the room, Itachi was leaning over Kakashi with his hand on the resting man's forehead, and a frown on his lips.
"Is he okay?"
The Uchiha turned toward him, and for the briefest moment, he would have sworn that he'd seen a flicker of despair in the man's dark eyes. But it was gone before he could truly confirm it.
"He's running a high fever."
Iruka shifted his attention toward Kakashi. Sure enough, there was a fine sheen of sweat covering the man's brow, and a light blush coloring his normally pale skin. This was definitely not a good sign. He shuffled a bit closer to the bed's edge, pausing just long enough to set his crutch out of the way. He sat on the mattress and started checking the many wounds that still peppered the skin of the Copy-ninja. But none of them looked to be infected, and that fact actually worried Iruka more than if he'd found an open wound. It meant that there was possibly something deep within the man's body that was affecting him. Something that they had all missed during the countless hours that each of them had worked on Kakashi over the last two weeks.
Iruka turned to face Itachi once more. "We need to get him to a real medic-ninja. There's something we're missing, and I'm afraid that, if we can't figure it out soon, Kakashi may not make it out of this mess alive."
Ibiki's shadow fell across the silver-haired jonin's face. "Don't exaggerate, Iruka."
"Exaggerate? Are you insane?" Iruka pushed himself up to teeter on one foot in order to use his best teacher's glare on the towering man. "I've patched up every cut on his body enough times during this farce of an escape to know that, whatever it is that's causing Kakashi's fever, it sure as hell isn't something any of us can fix! It's time that you stop pretending that you're all invincible...before its too late!"
"Sensei, am I late again? I didn't mean to be." Kakashi's voice sounded extremely tired, and his unfocused gaze made it clear that his fever was still far too high.
All of Iruka's anger drained away as he watched Itachi help the jonin to sit up. Kakashi's hair stuck to his sweat-covered brow, and with each shaky breath it became even clearer that the man really did need some experienced medical help. Never in his life had Iruka wished so much that Tsunade would barge through the door to yell at Kakashi for being an insolent brat. But that wasn't going to happen, so they would need to figure out something else...and soon.
Itachi's eyes switched to the blood-red sharingan, and Iruka watched as the man turned that gaze toward the Copy-ninja. The faintest crease between the Uchiha's brow was all he needed to know that his fear was going to be confirmed.
"Ibiki, the Sensei is correct. We have no choice any longer. We must go toward Fang Country. They have a shinobi hospital that is nearly a match to Konoha's."
The Torture and Interrogation specialist looked like he was about to argue with Itachi, but at that moment Kakashi started coughing so hard that all three of them seemed to hold their breath until the episode ended. Once it did, the fresh blood staining the silver-haired man's lips seemed to put an end to any further arguments regarding their next steps.
Iruka sat back down next to Kakashi and used the edge of the bed-sheet the wipe away the offensive liquid. "I need you to tell me where it hurts the most."
"Mah, Iruka-sensei, can't you ever ask me about something else?"
He sighed at the jonin. "Can't you ever just heal without any surprises?"
Kakashi smirked at him. "You answered a question with a question, Sensei. That's against the rules."
"Seriously? You don't actually think that the rules to that stupid game are still in force, do you?"
A single nod from the maddening man was his only response. He shook his head at the idiot. "Well they aren't! You've already destroyed my life enough, thank you very much!"
A tense silence hung in the room for more than a dozen heartbeats before a whisper passed through Kakashi's lips. "I never meant to ruin your life, Iruka. I just seem to have a talent for screwing things up."
He blinked in disbelief at the man sitting next to him. "No matter how long I spend with you, Kakashi Hatake, I don't think that I will ever understand you."
Ibiki placed one hand on Iruka's shoulder, drawing his attention away from the the man beside him. "Welcome to the club, Sensei. None of us have figured that kid out yet."
A loud knock on the door caused the tension in the room to spike once more. Hands reached for weapons which had been pilfered along the way, and Ibiki positioned himself behind the door, just in case. Itachi slipped into the opposite corner, his hands moving into position for a jutsu. Iruka stood up, one hand on his crutch, while the other clenched around a long, thin-bladed knife. He moved into position in front of Kakashi, determined to protect the man from whatever was about to happen.
So, when the sound of Kakashi's chuckling was heard, all three of the shinobi turned toward him. For a moment, Iruka had thought that the high-fever may have addled the jonin's mind. But when he met the man's eyes, they no longer held the unfocused gaze from before.
"Do you truly think any of those chasing us would knock before attacking us?"
As though to stress that point, the voice of the old woman who ran the boarding house called out. "I've brought fresh linens for you."
Iruka smirked as he put his pilfered knife away, while Ibiki reached for the door knob. He should have remembered that the woman came to do this at the end of each week. The gray-haired woman seemed unaffected by the towering form of the torture and interrogation specialist. In fact, she pushed by him with practiced ease, and headed straight for where Kakashi was sitting on the bed. She spared a glance at Iruka, and then went to work switching the sheets out from underneath the jonin in far less time than it would have taken him, even with the help of Itachi and Ibiki.
When she was finished, instead of picking up the soiled linen and leaving, she sat on the bed next to Kakashi and took the man's hand between her own. "You really do need to get more rest, child. You look awful. After all, if you don't have your health, then what do you have?"
Iruka frowned at how familiar the woman was being, and he had to stop himself from reacting as she pushed the jonin back onto the pillow and covered him with one of the blankets. "There, there, child. You rest awhile more. I'll stop back later with some soup for you. Would you like that?"
She didn't wait for Kakashi to answer her, instead scooping up the used linens and walking toward the door. Once there, she paused to turn a hard glare at Iruka, Itachi, and Ibiki. "I don't care what you have been up to, but that child is sick, and he needs to be cared for. If you can't manage that, I have half a mind to take him from you, and tend to him myself!"
Iruka stared at her in disbelief. Did this wizened crone honestly just threaten to take Kakashi away from them? It was almost laughable...wasn't it? But a quick glance around the room made it clear that the others weren't so quick to ignore her words.
Ibiki's hand was nearing his weapon once more, and the look on the man's face was enough to send a shiver down Iruka's spine. Meanwhile, Itachi was lifting his hands up into what was unmistakeably the start of a jutsu of some sort. Iruka frowned and took one more look at the woman standing in the doorway. Sure, her words were enough to make even him a bit on edge, but what in the world did he miss that was making the two elite act this way?
That's when he saw it. Wrapped around the old woman's ankle, barely noticeable with the way her skirt puddled at her feet, he could just make out the green scales of what was most definitely not an anklet. As if the creature knew that it had been found out, it darted out from where it had been hiding and made a dash back toward where Kakashi was fighting to free himself of the blanket which, even now, was tightening around his body.
Iruka used his makeshift crutch to pin the snake to the floor before it could get closer than a foot away from the bed. His knife was out and slicing through the creature's neck in the blink of an eye, and when he was finished, his attention went back to Kakashi. Without a shred of chakra accessible to him, the jonin wasn't able to make much headway against the living blanket, and soon it became clear that the man's ability to breathe was in jeopardy.
Iruka moved closer to the bed and was just about to use his bloodied knife on the blankets when fingers tightened around his wrist, stopping him mid-motion. Foul breath covered his face as we was twisted away from where Kakashi was still struggling for air.
"Only my master may release him!"
Iruka stared, wide-eyed, at the crazed woman. Her hair was disheveled now, and she was bleeding from her neck. But the injury did nothing to stop her from trying to push her fingernails into his wrist, causing him to drop his knife. Before the weapon had reached the floor, the woman had snatched it and was thrusting it toward his gut. Iruka braced himself for what was sure to be a painful injury, but the tip of the blade had barely passed through his shirt before it stopped. He shifted his gaze back to the woman's neck to see the tip of Ibiki's kunai exiting through the front.
A moment later and the iron grip on his wrist released, and the woman crumpled to the floor in a pool of her own blood. Confident that Ibiki and Itachi would make sure that she had breathed her last, Iruka limped back over to the bed. He sighed in relief when he saw that the jutsu that had been cast on the blanket appeared to die along with the woman. He went to work pulling the material free from the Copy-ninja. Once the man was sitting up, Iruka started another exam to make sure no further damage was done to the jonin. He stopped when Kakashi started chuckling.
"Is something funny?"
The silver-haired jonin looked over at the dead woman and sighed. "I guess I won't be getting soup after all."
Orochimaru sat in the bowels of his lair waiting for news from his two brightest students. It had been weeks since he'd sent them out on their task, and it was somewhat disappointing to him that they had failed to retrieve the target by now. Of course, that target seemed to have an unusually large amount of luck on his side. So, he would allow them a few more days before recalling them to his side.
He thought back to the last time he'd seen Kakashi Hatake, and he couldn't help but smile. The many hours of study prior to the jonin's arrival had paid off, allowing him to concentrate only on those techniques that would cause the maximum amount of pain while still gaining him valuable data. In fact, the state that he had left Kakashi in should have made it impossible for him to survive being removed from his lair. But the fool's luck held once more, and now he needed to wait before he could do the next in a series of experiments that he had planned to test the limits of that man's potential.
Just as he was about to head back to his lab, a movement along the shadowy floor caught his attention. He settled back into his seat and waited as a dark gray snake wound its way to him. Once there, it proceeded to climb up his chair until it was positioned at his fingertips. The markings on the back of this particular beast showed Orochimaru that it was one of a pair of snakes that he had gifted an older woman in one of the many tiny villages that dotted the land between Sound and Lightning.
It was rare to hear from the woman, so he was more than a bit curious as to just what news she had sent him. He ran his fingertips along the back of the snake, from the tip of its nose, all the way to its tail, before allowing it to coil around his arm and wrist. He lifted the creature up until he could look into its cold eyes and he whispered into the room.
"Share with me your secrets, my pet."
The coils around his arm tightened marginally, allowing the sleek beast to readjust itself until Orochimaru's wrist was bared to it. Only then did it open its mouth wide enough to reveal its sharp fangs just before it sank them deep into his wrist. The moment his flesh parted to those fangs, the jutsu buried deep below his skin activated, and he closed his eyes as the message from his agent was transferred into his mind. Along with the words came scenes from the perspective of the snake on his arm.
A low chuckle started from deep within him as the unmistakeable sight of the Copy-ninja flashed behind his eyes. Somehow, the man was still alive and, according to his agent, unable to run in his current state. Orochimaru's curiosity over just how Kakashi had managed to slip away from his latest captors was resolved when the next series of images showed him that he was in the company of three other shinobi. What was truly surprising to him was just who those shinobi were.
Somehow, the unlikely trio of Iruka Umino, Ibiki Morino, and Itachi Uchiha were the ones watching over the jonin now. He couldn't help but wonder about just what must have passed since he'd had the boy in his own hands. Perhaps he'd pull that answer out of Kakashi during one of several sessions that he already had planned for the jonin.
Once the messenger was finished delivering the message, he released Orochimaru's wrist and slid off his arm to coil on his lap. He gently stroked along the snake's head as he ran the new information through his mind. It was unexpected that the group was so far from where he'd expected them, but at least now he could send instructions to Kabuto and Sasuke that would point them in the right direction. Meanwhile, there was much he would need to prepare for his guests. After all, it would be rude of him to invite Kakashi without thinking of including the others traveling with him. If they should somehow survive the jonin's extraction, then Orochimaru would make sure that he had the appropriate accommodations for each and every one of them.
He reached into a bag fastened to the side of his chair and pulled out a plump white mouse by its tail. He continued to stroke along the messenger-snake's skin as he offered the reward to his faithful servant. A grin slid into place along his lips as he imagined the look of surprise that was sure to appear on all of their faces, even Kabuto and Sasuke's, as he decided to help reacquire his target personally.
Ibiki pushed their group harder than he had since this fiasco began. He was determined to get as far away from the small village as they could before the old woman's body was discovered. And even more determined to make sure that no trail was left behind for Orochimaru's lackeys to follow. Because the one thing that all four of them could agree on was the fact that the old woman worked for that man. And, as a quick examination of the body proved, there was likely a second snake that was still unaccounted for.
At least that is what Itachi believed. Which, considering the man had spent the first four years in the Akatsuki working side by side with the Sannin, was good enough for Ibiki. The Uchiha had pointed out the abrasions on both of her ankles which he believed were caused by not one, but two of the creatures. Evidently it was common practice for Orochimaru to gift his favorite servants which such a pair of serpents. That way, if a message needed to be sent, the second snake would continue to observe until the other returned.
Ibiki had to admit that, as far as messengers went, it was a rather elegant method. It provided a low-profile delivery method that would likely avoid ninety-eight percent of most surveillance methods, and by leaving the other behind, it pretty much negated the risk of missing out on other important info while the first snake was away.
Unfortunately, that also meant that the absence of one of the snakes now was not good news for their little group. Orochimaru probably knew their exact location, and their current state of health, at the very least. Worse case scenario, he would also have enough information to send his lackeys straight for them. And that was something that none of them were ready for yet. He was about to send another surge of chakra through his system to increase their speed when he felt Iruka's grip tighten ever so slightly around his neck.
" I think we may need to rest for a bit."
Ibiki let out a low growl. "This isn't meant to be a pleasurable run, Sensei. Just hold on and keep quiet."
"You are unbelievable! I wasn't asking for myself...try paying attention to your running partner."
At his words, Ibiki ventured a glance to his left, where Itachi had been positioned throughout their journey, only to find that he wasn't there. He stopped where he was and turn around completely. Lagging, nearly three hundred feet behind them, were the former Akatsuki members. Neither one looked all that well, and as much as it pained him to admit it, Iruka had been correct in his assessment of this ragtag group. They were all ready for a rest...even him, considering he hadn't been aware enough to notice that his companions had fallen so far behind.
They were at least another four days away from the nearest village, but as Itachi limped to a stop beside him, it was clear that they really didn't have much of a choice. They all needed a professional medical-ninja to look them over. Ibiki frowned as he recognized that there would be only one choice for them at this point. They'd need to head for Sutoro-finaru, and hope that the past shared by three of the four of them wouldn't keep them from obtaining the help that they so desperately needed.
Of course, worrying about it now wasn't going to help, so he decided to concentrate on the present, and led the Uchiha over to the nearest tree. Once there, Ibiki lowered Iruka to the ground before turning to help a strangely quiet Kakashi off of Itachi's back. The silver-haired jonin met his eyes and it was clear that the kid had already figured out what was going through his mind.
"If we go there, you know that there's an eighty-six percent chance that she'll kill at least two of us before you get two words out of your mouth."
Ibiki shook his head at the genius' statement. "If we don't go, there's a one hundred percent chance that Iruka will lose his leg, and the rest of us will die anyhow."
Itachi joined them, pushing a strand of his hair behind his ear as he sat down next to the sensei. "Is there no other solution?"
He couldn't keep a throaty chuckle from escaping his lips. "You two are supposed to be the geniuses. Can either of you come up with a better idea?"
"Why do I feel like the little brother that no one wants around?" They all turned toward where Iruka was glaring at them. "Seriously, could you speak any more cryptically if you tried? And what do you mean that I might lose my leg?"
Ibiki sighed. "Calm down, Sensei. If we go to Sutoro-finaru you'll be just fine."
Kakashi leaned in to add his two-cents. "Yeah, Iruka-sensei. After all, she tends to like your type."
"My type? What the hell does that mean? And who is 'she?'"
Ibiki rolled his eyes. "Ignore the idiot. There's a good chance that she isn't even living there anymore."
He turned toward Itachi. "How would you know that?"
The younger man closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree. "Just accept that I know."
Ibiki knew better than to think that he'd get anything more from the Uchiha. Instead, he pulled out some fruit and bread that he'd taken from the old woman's kitchen and passed it around.
"Eat up. We're heading north-east in a half an hour."
With each day that passed, Genma was finding it harder and harder to believe that Danzou had any clue at all about just where Kakashi had gone. And by the way the others were acting, it was clear that they, too, were reaching the end of their patience. He decided that the farce had gone on long enough and signaled for a stop. They had barely touched the ground when Danzou stormed over to him.
"What's the meaning of this, Shiranui? You are wasting precious time!"
Genma looked down at the slightly shorter man and growled. "You will address me with my ANBU title, or you will not address me at all."
The two locked gazes for a handful of seconds before Danzou looked away. "Fine. Stop wasting time, Jackal."
"You will explain just how you are tracking down Kakashi Hatake."
The older man turned back toward him with waves of anger rolling off him. "And if I don't?"
Genma chuckled darkly. "Then we bring you back to Konoha and let them deal with you."
Again there was silence. It stretched on for nearly seven minutes before Danzou finally spoke again. "The longer we stay still, the less accurate my method grows."
Genma refused to take his bait. "Then show us now, before too much more time slips by."
"You, Genma Shiranui, are the reason that ANBU will never rise to what they could be."
Another growl slipped out as he gripped Danzou's collar and lifted him off the ground. "And you, old man, are why ANBU will always be there to protect the Hokage and Konoha. Now, spill it, or I'll finish what I started in that cave."
To stress his point, Genma lifted his kunai up until the point of it pressed against the man's neck until it just broke the skin. A low hiss from Danzou made it clear that he'd felt the cut.
"You've made your point, Jackal. I'll show you what I can."
Genma narrowed his eyes, trying to gauge whether this was just one more trick in the bastard's bag. But when it came down to it, he really had no other choice. He lowered the Elder to the ground, but made a point of keeping the kunai in hand.
Danzou glared back at him. "You're nearly as insufferable as that Hatake brat."
He bowed his head slightly at the man's words. "Thank you for the compliment. Now show me this miraculous tracking system that you have."
Another glare was shot his way before the Elder slowly raised his left arm. "You'll need to push my sleeve back to my elbow."
With a quick hand signal, Genma directed Hawk to do as the man directed, all the while looking for subterfuge. When the sleeve was half way between the wrist and the elbow Danzou hissed at the ANBU moving the material.
"Be careful, fool! Hold the sleeve farther away from my skin. Otherwise you might knock them off!"
When the material was nearly to the man's elbow, what was revealed caused a shiver to run down Genma's spine. Covering a good portion of Danzou's skin was a small colony of insects. From the welts visible on the skin that wasn't swarmed by bugs, it was clear to him that these creatures were what Danzou was using to track down Kakashi's whereabouts.
"I take it that the female of that species is somewhere on Kakashi's body?"
"You would be correct with that assumption. Perhaps you are brighter than I gave you credit for."
Genma ignored the comment and continued watching the small beetles as they started shifting to a new section of Danzou's forearm. "Although I'd love to know just how you convinced an Aburame to provide you with one of their tracking colonies, it appears that a direction change is in order."
Hawk lowered the sleeve back into place and waited for direction. For his part, Danzou seemed a bit annoyed that Genma had been able to figure out what the insects' movement meant. But still, at least now he felt a bit more secure in the fact the the bastard actually had a viable means of finding his friend.
Within moments the entire group was back on the hunt, leaving Genma to silently pray to Kami that the female beetle hadn't been knocked loose over the past few weeks. Of course, if they were led astray, he could always use it as justification to rid the world of Danzou once and for all. A sly smirk was hidden by his ANBU mask, and for once he didn't feel the least bit guilty about it. After all, he believed that Kakashi would have appreciated his attempt at making the best out of this situation.
Pein had not wanted to believe Zetsu's report when he had first heard it. In fact, he was so sure that he was mistaken that he had directed him to lead him and the remaining members of the Akatsuki to where he'd found the proof of Itachi's traitorous actions.
Now, as he stood over the lifeless body of Kisame he had to admit that it was true. Itachi Uchiha had done the unthinkable. He had severed his ties with the brotherhood as surely as he'd severed Kisame's head from his body. He frowned at what remained of the once strong man. By the level of decomposition and obvious animal scavenging it was clear to him that this betrayal must have occurred at the same time that Kakashi and the Konoha shinobi escaped. Which led him to the realization that the Uchiha's loyalties seemed to have shifted long before that time.
He knelt down and lifted the bloated hand of one of the first members that he had personally recruited. If he had needed any additional proof that this behemoth of a man was indeed gone, it came when the ring that marked his membership slid off of his finger without any resistance. He lowered his head, feeling the weight of the world settle on his shoulders. Placing Kisame's hand gently back onto the ground, he stood up and gazed toward the setting sun.
"Zetsu, dispose of our brother's body. Return his sword to our main headquarters."
"As you wish, Leader. I will find you once we have completed the tasks."
Pain gave no response, knowing that his orders would be carried out to the letter. Instead he closed his eyes and tried to imagine just where his plans had gone so terribly wrong. By now, he and the rest of the Akatsuki should have been to a point where they could easily gain control over the entirety of the Five Great Countries. After all, once he'd read the numerous accounts from various villages of both the White Fang, and his son's unique skills, it had become clear to him that nothing could stop them now that they had Kakashi within their fold. All that he had to do was to help Kakashi learn to tap into his unique chakra until he could wield it like his father once had. Then, with that weapon at their disposal, they would be unstoppable.
Of course, that had been when he'd assumed that the remaining members of the Akatsuki would be there as well. But now, with so many of the key assets gone, he'd have to rethink his plans completely.
Pain opened his eyes just as the last rays of sunlight slipped behind the horizon. It was somehow fitting that his recognition of the end of his original plans should be marked by the end of this day. Because, with the dawn of the new day, he and his brothers would begin a new chapter for the Akatsuki. One which would start with the blood of the traitorous Uchiha running dry to enable his place in the brotherhood to be handed over to someone more suited to his purpose. Then he would need to confront Kakashi to make certain that his loyalties haven't also been tainted by the traitor. Perhaps he would have him dispatch Itachi and the Konoha shinobi as a test of that loyalty.
Then, with luck, the search for replacements wouldn't take too long, and they could return to the plan that had fallen to the wayside. But one thing was crystal clear to Pain...whether willingly or not...he would regain Kakashi Hatake into the service of the Akatsuki...one way or another.