From the Other Side.

A/N: The original concept belongs entirely to Beasiesgal, (it was a blueprint to a doujinshi she never got around to drawing/writing), and she kindly gave me permission to write this. Hopefully, this lives up to her expectations!

Original prompt: 'Ghostly Connections':

"While visiting the memorial stone Iruka crosses paths with a young thirteen-year old chuunin who boldly bears the Uchiha symbol on his back. When under question the boy disappears without letting his name slip. A week later, Iruka begins seeing the boy all over town and when given chase, again disappears without a trace; instead these chases lead up to Iruka bumping into Kakashi Hatake. The boy's appearances become more and more frequent, as do his encounters with Kakashi.

"As Iruka becomes more familiar with Kakashi, he begins to learn more about the boy. Finally the chilling resolution strikes Iruka when viewing a photo of Kakashi's genin Team.

"The boy he's been seeing is a ghost."

Disclaimer: Naruto is not mine, but I borrow him from Kishi's sandbox every now and then to play with.

¥¥Y¥¥

In the beginning, as with most strange things, it was just a flicker in the corner of his eyes. The slightest shine of light from some reflected metal; a blur of black, ruffled hair; muted orange and black clothes that didn't look familiar, but at the same time, did. Abnormal enough for notice, not yet enough for concern; small things that when placed together soon correlated to a larger picture.

Admittedly, it took Iruka longer he would have liked to piece together enough evidence to begin worrying. As it were, his defences weren't as high alert as they would normally be, safe as he could be in his village, doing what he loved best by teaching children. The oddest thing was, there was nothing overly strange or threatening about the chakra that he occasionally sensed with these appearances in the technical sense, but it made the hairs on his neck stand on end, and his flesh pimple with goose bumps as a voice within him said, 'Something isn't right.'

The feelings started when he was on a relatively simple and peaceful scouting mission in the east side of the village, searching for the head of a narcotics ring springing up with a startling speed. He was just writing up a list of a few suspects that might have been the head of the organisation when he first felt it. Iruka hoped, more than anything else, that it would go away, but when days turned to weeks, he decided it was about time to act.

The only reason most ninja lived past their mid-twenties is because they listened to their instincts. So one day in the cold, harsh winter of Konoha, Iruka left his warm house with half-graded papers littering his desk and a still steaming cup of hot tea weighing them down; to follow the briefest flare of chakra he'd quickly learned to distinguish as something other. It was Iruka's duty as a ninja to scope the anomaly out and discern whether or not it classified as a threat to the sanctity of the village, or was merely an irritant to his person.

Normally, the chuunin would be at home, alone, admiring the first snowfalls of the winter season, fuyu, the season in which both of his parents were born, and the very season in which they met and married. Instead, he was sprinting on the rooftops, narrowly avoiding thin pools of half-frozen water and leaping over sheets of shiny ice. He cursed the slush of ice-water that was seeping into his open-toed sandals, effectively numbing his feet, even with the chakra he was pumping into them to quicken his pace.

Iruka had keen eyesight for the smallest movements, an ideal trait to have in a classroom of rowdy children, and he could just barely see the object of his attentions running towards the forests.

The person looked small, oddly almost childlike, but Iruka reasoned that it was distance impairing his perspective, for what child would bother him for so long? And more importantly, Iruka recognised all the chakra flares of the Academy pre-genin, most genin, too, and this was different than the rest in a way he couldn't explain. Perhaps a missing-nin of sorts infiltrated the village walls? The schoolteacher played around with various reasons, but none seemed to stick right in his mind.

Hitting the tree line, Iruka slowed his pace and immediately heard a chuckle coming from his right. It was faint, almost impossible to hear in the silence filled with Iruka's own heartbeat and breaths and thuds of muted footfalls on branches, but the chuunin knew for certain he heard something.

Veering east, Iruka moved on, his eyes failing him as his prey hid behind the shadows of trees and the bulk of canopy leaves. However, the person couldn't seem to help but laugh, spurring Iruka's movements on, guiding his path.

Could it be a trap? But no, Iruka reasoned. He was a high-ranked chuunin, with access to rather delicate village information, but nothing worth the effort of week-long observation coupled with the trouble of lure and capture. Iruka wasn't being self-depreciative. He was bearing out the logistics of the situation.

If anything, Nara Yoshino had more to fear from outlining villages than he did, being the head of the Mission Room. Usually taking local mid-rank missions, Iruka couldn't have possibly made many—or any—threatening enemies in the last few years. Perhaps recklessly, Iruka's interest piqued, and it wasn't just duty to his village that kept him moving forward.

Having to comb the forests several times a year to collect plant samples for his classes, to show examples of edible and non-edible flora, Iruka was well-acquainted with the layout of the woods. As erratic and disarrayed as the plant populous appeared, they were actually a coded map of distance and bearing to the village.

A lack of redwoods told Iruka that he was running past the village 'safe zone', an expanse of woods regularly patrolled, and the burgeoning oaks indicated he was moving steadily north of the village. The shrubbery far beneath where he was, high up on wide branches and the such, helped him keep track of his bearing in a more specific manner, accommodating since the stars were blocked by dark clouds and the leafy canopy.

Things were still light, Iruka felt no real danger, only the slight thrill that came from any chase, but when the tang of iron and blood filled his next breath, Iruka immediately headed towards the scent with two kunai unsheathed in both hands. Being overcautious and looking the fool was always a better alternative than being cocky and a dead man.

Another gasp of laughter, almost a whisper of noise made Iruka whip his head around to the left and jump to another branch soundlessly. There, he was stunned into momentary silence by the sight in front of him.

Hatake Kakashi was leaning heavily against a thick tree trunk a few meters away from Iruka, his torso drenched in what looked scarily like his own blood. The Copy-Nin was paler than usual, shivering in what seemed like ANBU gear as the snow fell around him. A clawed hand was holding his gut weakly, and Kakashi seemed ignorant of the few throwing stars imbedded in his back and shoulder in the face of a bigger threat on his life.

They had seen each other face-to-face a few times; the mission rooms mainly, but sometimes in meetings or on the street. A few genial pleasantries had been passed between them, but no conversation of consequence. Still, Iruka was linked to the man by their village and their joint fight of protecting it, and he hesitated no longer.

Like a caged animal, Kakashi startled and readied for attack the moment Iruka leapt onto his trunk, weapons already stored away in a moment of foresight; he didn't want to come off as a threat to someone who was injured and was surely not going to think twice of killing someone that seemed harmful. It was in Iruka's very base instincts to assist an injured colleague, but he wasn't going to be as stupid as rush in and startle the older man.

"Umino Iruka, chuunin of Leaf," Iruka declared slowly, softly, hands raised as if facing off a slow child with a unpinned grenade who was unsure with where he was and what he was to do. From his files, Kakashi certainly had enough justu and firepower to bring down an army. "I'm an ally. I'm here to help."

The jounin—well, in this situation he was dressed up as an ANBU without a porcelain mask—straightened and revealed a whirling Sharingan eye to inspect Iruka. The younger man didn't flinch away, and met the spiral of red and black dead on. Not only was he a teacher, well-versed in all of Leaf's major bloodlines, but when he was younger, he had a genin teammate that was in the Uchiha clan; Iruka knew what to expect from the Mirror Wheel Eyes.

"Not an illusion then," nodded Kakashi with a groan, closing his red eye, leaving his grey eye to wearily scan the area. The man was sliding down the tree trunk, yet staying upright from what seemed like sheer willpower. "Strange. I'd only sent for help a minute earlier." Weak as he was, Kakashi still twitched with suspicion. It was certainly admirable, in any other circumstance, of how aware the man remained in the face of desperation, injury and adversary.

Vaguely, he could recall handing a scroll to Kakashi, a mission ranked high-B. It was over two months ago, and he hadn't seen the man since, so he could objectively assume that this might be the very same mission. The goal, if Iruka could remember correctly, was to hunt down some missing-nin that was assumed to be slaughtering Konoha ninja returning to the village, taking advantage of their weariness and killing them ruthlessly.

Since the murders were erratic and random, no binding ties between victims, apart from the fact all of them had their internal organs removed; it was assumed they were being killed simply for being Leaf-nin. The hairs on Iruka's neck rose as he realized that they could soon be the next targets if they didn't leave soon. Kakashi was meant to be hunting them, but since he was so badly injured, then there would a slim chance of survival if they were pitted off in a fight.

"I wasn't sent to help. I was already here," Iruka finally replied, not advancing, waiting for the Copy-Nin to accept his presence and aid. Rising panic was squashed, and Iruka tried to think logically about the situation. The percentage rates of actually stumbling across the murderers were slim to none at the moment, since most of the attacks happened on the east side. The trees were telling him they were on the north side. It was okay.

Snow was gathering in his hair, and he shivered when some flakes melted on his nose, already frozen cold from the icy air that had whipped past his face as he'd ran.

After giving a brief stare of blatant disbelief, the jounin asked, "Doing what?"

"Running after the—" Iruka froze and spun around on the heel of his foot, cursing quietly to himself as his eyes searched the surroundings desperately. But the prickle of his neck was gone. He'd lost his target! Damn it! Even without the moon and the sun to tell the time, Iruka could feel it in his bones that he'd been sprinting all out for hours.

Sighing, rubbing his brow roughly with gloved hands, the chuunin muttered, "Never mind. I was chasing something—someone—and they've seemed to escape. No matter. It is more important I get you to the hospital." At least his efforts were not wasted if he was able to help a fellow ninja.

Looking back to Kakashi, Iruka was slightly surprised to see a series of small throwing stars out in the older man's hands, between his fingers, flashing in the half-light of the muted darkness.

Moving so quickly probably made him jump, Iruka frowned. However, before he could say anything else, perhaps some witty retort about how Kakashi would be lucky to be able to stand in his condition, let alone attempt battle, the Copy-Nin sunk to his knees.

Instinctively, Iruka moved and caught the man, noticing with increased worry about just how cold he was, silver hair frozen with frost, and how damp his front was with blood. From lax hands did the silver stars fall with a light thud on the branch. Iruka could barely feel a pulse in the other man's neck.

There was no time to wait for procedure and have Kakashi willingly accept his assistance now. It was one thing helping an injured person back to the village, but carting someone unconscious was another matter entirely. Wrapping his arms around the jounin more snugly, Iruka braced his body for the chakra loss he was about to experience. There was no other way.

Making the signs with fumbling, frozen fingers, Iruka teleported them both directly into the waiting room of the hospital. Chaos ensued when the medic-nin suddenly found two ninja on their hands—a jounin near death from exposure and blood loss from multiple chest wounds, and a chuunin pale and panting from exerting so much chakra on teleportation that well exceeded the recommended few miles.

All-in-all, the incident was a normal night in the comings and goings of the hospital's emergency ninja centre, and even for the jounin, by his standards; but certainly it was a novel experience for Iruka, passed out on the cold tiles of the floor.

¥¥Y¥¥

"Damn it," Shizune muttered. "You should have waited for back-up."

From her tone and by the set of her lips and the tightness around her eyes, Iruka could see that she was very upset. For good reason, he could suppose. Since she and Iruka were brought together by the unfortunate death of a mutual friend, they'd developed a close bond of their own. The circumstances of their friendship were unfortunately not an entirely uncommon occurrence in ninja circles.

Iruka and Shizune were holed up in a small bar, clean and slightly smoky, usually a haunt of civilians, but the pair graced the patrons of the shop with their money more often than 'official' ninja hang-outs, mainly due to the added element of privacy the place afforded. The alcohol was superb and the price wasn't too demanding – not to mention, it was always fun eavesdropping on the other customers when they felt like it:

"Oh my, the cats in my street are becoming so feral! It's making life impossibly difficult at the vet clinic!" came from a blundering old woman in the booth next to them.

"I swear, my boy is getting more and more paranoid every day—he swore he saw aliens in the sky the other day!" A mother was fussing with a group of her friends.

"D'ya hear? Ninja aren't working for the better good! It's all a huge conspiracy, I tell ya..." complained a drunken youth with too much time on his hands.

Normally, Shizune and Iruka would be laughing quietly over the trivial things the people around them would find the time to waste breath on, but today the kunoichi had set the tone to a more sombre level.

"Calm down, Shizune," replied Iruka blithely, buzzed slightly from the alcohol and the feeling of just being alive. "I'm here, aren't I? You're making this too big a fuss."

"Pfft," snorted the kunoichi as she downed another shot of sake. "I know that you know how far you were from the village, and I know you know how your chakra stores would have reacted to the long-distance teleportation."

The way they were sitting in the secluded booth was almost intimate from the view of a casual observer, but they were separated from Shizune's pet pig, Ton-Ton, sitting happily between them, occasionally snacking from the carrots Iruka was feeding him.

"Pray tell," Iruka asked as he leant back in his seat, "how exactly do you know what I know so well?" It wasn't quite night time, and it wasn't quite afternoon, and Iruka wanted to clear the air so they could relax. He'd just been discharged at half past two, and he didn't want to mull over what had been done already.

"I know, Iruka, because I am," and here Shizune paused dramatically before continuing, "ninja." She was playing on a current trend of Leaf civilians to use the explanation of 'being ninja' to prove irrational facts or occurrences done by other people. With examples like Gai and Lee running around, they couldn't be faulted with their views either.

Shizune was a bit proper when it came to regulations and responsibility, but Iruka had found after working around her for a long time that once she relaxed a bit, they were quite compatible together—as friends, if nothing more.

Anyway, Iruka laughed and drank some sake from the small bottle he purchased for himself. 'Drinking from a bottle is always more manly,' according to his father, and true or not, it was a small habit he'd picked up and enjoyed on occasion.

"In any case, it was lucky that I hit the hospital the first time 'round," remarked Iruka, almost offhandedly, "because I certainly couldn't have gone again after a jump that big."

"According to your charts, you most definitely would have died if you'd attempted a second try," Shizune stated bluntly.

Iruka blinked, and then frowned. "You've been checking my medical charts behind my back again?" He raised an eyebrow, but Shizune returned the wry gaze with a set stare of her own.

Finally, her face softened and the kunoichi sighed, "It's your life, but remember that it'll be a damned lot of paperwork if you die." Translation: I care.

For a moment, a brief split second, Iruka thought they could have done well together as a couple. They were both strong ninja trusted with secrets, with high levels of intelligence. Theoretically, it would be an ideal pairing for children with both parties having strong genetics.

However, they didn't feel that way towards each other. Shizune worked tirelessly under Tsunade and cared for her work and mentor more than she could ever commit to someone else. Iruka still felt young, and not quite ready to settle just yet. Not to mention, he hadn't found that person who mirrored him and could fulfill him in a way he needed.

"Enough with this ghastly talk of death," Iruka interjected suddenly. "I wasn't even on a mission! It was simply a miscalculation that got me kept in overnight. That's all." He waved over a barmaid. "Another bottle, please," he requested. "Add some fries as well, if it isn't too much of a bother."

As soon as the girl walked away, Shizune turned to the chuunin and made a face. "Really, Iruka? You know that deep-fried nonsense is utterly unhealthy."

"Live a little," jibed Iruka, taking another gulp of sake. "It's not like fries are any worse than tempura. They're just a little foreign, and I dunno, 'exotic', compared to what we're used to."

"Bah," Shizune said, trying to refrain from cursing, a bad habit she was attempting to cut back on. "If nothing more, this foreign food will kill you before another ninja can."

From there conversation degraded into a flowing, irrational, debased argument of the pros and cons of different varieties of food in battle. A surprising amount of information brought up was factual from odd incidents and stories that floated around the village like half-remembered myths and legends.

"—which is why you don't carry bags of flour around a fire-jutsu specialist," concluded Shizune sagely, as Iruka chuckled loudly. She was barely buzzed, since Shizune knew better than to get overly drunk in front of Tsunade, who always seemed to take it as an invitation or introduction to a competition.

Iruka wasn't meant to get back to work until Tuesday, so he'd drunk a little more than he was usually apt to. Some words slurred, but overall, he was still capable of flinging a kunai with perfect aim into a dartboard across the room—as Iruka spontaneously demonstrated to Shizune a moment later.

"Okay, big boy," laughed Shizune as startled yelps came from the surrounding patrons. "Time for you to go home and get some proper rest, and time for me to kick Tsunade out of the office and make sure she doesn't get plastered when she's home. How much work do you think has been piled up since I've taken a half-day off?"

Shizune made sure Iruka ate something more substantial than fries, making sure he finished a pork bun so there'd be something in his stomach to soak up the alcohol, and watched as he washed it down with some tea. She was particularly fussy, but since he'd worried her so much, he allowed the attentions before she left.

Walking home—on the ground, because ninja didn't always use the rooftops to move across—Iruka felt the smack of cold air sober him up a bit, and he smiled at the piles of white snow surrounding the footpaths. It wasn't every year that Fire Country got snow, so he revelled in the small wonder of nature, even if the crisp air burned his cheeks like cold fir, making him wish for his knitted scarf; the scratchy, knotted one his mother had made for his father.

Passing a closing stall, he heard a tinny old radio blare some news warning citizens of a new drug outbreak on the east side of the village. The sound of static from the little box echoed in the otherwise quiet streets.

Rubbing his gloved hands together in an effort, perhaps vain, to generate heat, Iruka saw it again. There was the slightest twinge of something in his gut, and he saw the shine of reflected moonlight coming from—what was that? Iruka swore they looked like goggles, except that particular ninja garb was reasonably unfashionable as of late, unless you were on a trip to Suna.

A voice barely reached him, carried by the winds to Iruka's ears. "Catch me if you can!" Looking to his left, a flash of metallic light made him instinctively flinch, his eyes just catching a shot of a head of black, spiky points. Sobered up nearly completely now, the chuunin felt the goose bumps form that weren't from the cold, and the hairs on his neck raise with something that wasn't fear.

He immediately started running.

Since the snow had been piling on the paths, Iruka had donned clumsy, heavy—but blissfully warm—wool-lined boots. A part of him hindered by the movement felt he should've regretted the option, that is until he found that these boots had more grip than his open-toed sandals and prevented him from slipping completely into several puddles. Whoever—whatever—he was chasing seemed to find that funny, as he'd stop every time Iruka stumbled to take a moment to laugh.

This only served to piss Iruka off and simultaneously fan the fires of his curiosity. His father always said that he was far too meddlesome a child, having snuck into his parents' room as a young toddler and then messed around with their weapons drawer, scarring his face for life. It was fortunate he got off with a light rant about weapons safety; the nanny that was looking after him while his parents were on a mission got fired.

When the person disappeared into the trees, Iruka stopped at the south-east boundary gate, slightly disappointed he was breathless already. Chakra depletion was something he experienced every now and then, but never to the magnitude that his last teleportation brought him. It'd been two days and he was still weary.

If there were any guards patrolling the section of fencing he was looking at, he might have continued searching, more confident with back-up. However, there was none, and even a small part of him whispered that he wouldn't have accepted help anyway; this was the chuunin's mystery and he wanted to solve it himself.

Noticing that he was no longer pursued, the person came back from the forest into view, just hidden in the shadows of the tall trees. Umino blinked slowly, momentarily numbed with surprised. It was a child, no doubt about it now. Short, stocky stature of a small boy; eyes hidden by bulky goggles; hair the spiky mess he'd seen earlier; nothing he saw registered as any of the genin or pre-genin, or even any of the chuunin he knew.

The alarm bells in his mind didn't ring though; maybe because of the glinting forehead protector. Distance seemed to blur everything else, the edges of the figure fuzzy and almost transparent, but Iruka could see the Leaf Village symbol with crystal perfect clarity. Maybe the last dregs of alcohol made him look blurred, Iruka muttered to himself.

Cocking his head the side, the boy seemed to ask, "Coming?"

Breathing in a lungful of cold air, the teacher still felt drained, so he reluctantly shook his head. Iruka could try and give chase, but he'd probably pass out near the edges of the 'safe zone'. It wasn't worth giving Shizune another bout of worry—not to mention, she could yell as loud as the Hokage when given reason to.

Instead of disappointment dimming the boy's features, a certain joy radiated and though Iruka was still unable to clearly identify the person's face, he could see his bright grin. Was he happy that I wouldn't follow? Iruka wondered as the child darted off through the trunks. Or was he happy that I seemed to play along?

At least it seemed there was no real threat from the child. That fact didn't do much to dampen his curiosity, however.

"Umino," his name was quietly said from behind him, causing him to jolt with a bit of surprise. If Iruka missed someone sneaking up on him, he was either concentrating too much on the boy or training too little. Perhaps a bit of both with the need for bed rest added in.

Turning around slowly for a ninja, Iruka was eye-to-eye with the Copy-Nin, who certainly looked no worse for wear, thanks to his bulky jounin clothes hiding most of the bandages. Lady Tsunade was certainly something amazing if she made the man fit for discharge in so short a time.

Nodding his head in an ingrained habit of formalities his grandmother instilled in him, Iruka politely murmured, "Hatake." When nothing was said in the time that passed that of a polite pause, he continued, "Are you recovering well from the grievances of your last mission?"

"I am doing well enough, all things considered. Lady Tsunade is nothing short of a miracle worker, when she puts her mind to things." A small smile flittered over Kakashi's face as he bowed shortly, an action of respect that rather shocked the chuunin. "I've come here to thank you for assisting me; even with my difficult nature and natural suspicions, you helped."

A tint of warmth made his way to his cheeks, and Iruka was glad that they were already pink enough from the cold – a bit of extra red would go unnoticed. Scratching the back of his neck, pulling the base of his ponytail as he scrambled for words, Iruka tried to brush it off.

"It was nothing, Hatake," he replied quietly. "You know as well as I do that any Leaf would stop to assist and aid a comrade." If he wasn't sobered up from the chase, Iruka sure as hell was sobered up now. This was startlingly awkward.

"Still, it would be ungrateful not to show a little hospitality to the man that may have saved my life," the jounin stated. "Care for some dinner, my treat?" Since the teacher was decommissioned for a few more days, he was clear on work, and he certainly had nothing better to do.

Stealing a glance at the forest, Iruka noted with surprise how the boy was still there, staring intently at the teacher with his arms crossed. The boy then, slowly, clearly, nodded his head.

Confused, the chuunin turned his head back to the looming figure of the Copy-Nin, and noticed how strange it was that his only exposed eye seemed perpetually sad, even when crescented into a shadow of a smile. It didn't make sense, but Iruka felt the boy wanted him to say yes to the offer of dinner.

"Sorry, but I must decline," Iruka finally said, adding on as an after-thought, "It's not that I don't appreciate the gesture, because I do. It's just that I've already had an early dinner with Shizune."

A pause; then, "That explains the alcohol scent you're carrying."

"What—oh, of course; your nose is as sensitive as a nin-dog's, is it not?"

Kakashi didn't respond, and Iruka waited through a heavy pause before quietly saying, "Hatake?"

"You helped me – possibly even saved my life," the jounin finally sighed. "Call me Kakashi." Before the teacher could even open his mouth to voice his surprise, there was a twirling gust of leaves and debris, clearing to show that the silver-haired nin was gone.

"Theatrical jounin," Iruka grumbled confusedly to himself as he spun on his heel to head home, distracted enough to not notice the set of frustrated eyes watching his back.

¥¥Y¥¥

It'd been a week since he'd last seen 'The Boy', as Iruka had now taken to calling the person in his head. For a while, he'd played with the idea of actually naming the child, but that felt... wrong, somehow. So he settled on the impersonal title of 'The Boy' and waited for another encounter.

However, Iruka was getting the feeling that it'd be a while until that happened. For some inexplicable reason, he almost thought that the shadow that had been nipping at his heels for so long was, well, sulking, as ridiculous as the idea was.

"Okay, class. Decode the following message from the board," Iruka paused and slapped the board with his right hand, pushing through a pulse of chakra that ignited the message he'd written the night before in a special type of 'invisible chalk' he had bought. It was really helpful because he could write and erase text on top of the hidden message in normal chalk. When he wanted the words to disappear, another pulse of his chakra at the right frequency would wipe it clean.

"As soon as you come up to my desk with the correct answer, you can go free," Iruka continued explaining. "If I catch you cheating off one another, then you'll have an entire textbook to decode and then convert into your own style of shorthand. Understood?"

At the nods of the children who looked slightly pale at the idea of decoding an entire book of scrawled encrypted words, the chuunin smiled, and motioned for them to start. He gave the children fifteen minutes before they realized that this code was almost the same to what he had set them for homework last night. The kids who did it would get to go home early, and those who didn't would toil on it well after school.

Twenty minutes passed, twelve children had come up to his desk with hopeful faces, and only eight got it right and were allowed to leave. Two children had been caught glancing at their neighbour's work, only to be barked a warning by their teacher.

So far, so good, Iruka thought while eying his charges' growing frustration with a small smile. Admittedly, he had expected a few more of the brighter students to have done their homework, but at least it appeared some of them did it, which was preferable to none at all. With the peace of the room only sporadically broken with the scribble of pens, Iruka got plenty of back-logged work cleared up—while having a clone watch the students for signs of cheating, of course.

An hour had passed, and only six students were left in the classroom. They seemed genuinely upset by the perceived impossibility of working out the encrypted message, so Iruka posted some short hints on the left side of the board the help them out. Later, he would drill these rules into their heads, since he knew the ability to read codes could sometimes push you over the line of life or death, but for now, he simply guided them.

Exhaling heavily, he got up and stretched, dispelling the clone now that he had finished his work, and could focus entirely on what remained of his class. Two students left; the tips didn't seem to help them. Looking at the clock, Iruka raised his eyebrows in silent surprise at the fact they were well over the usual school closing times.

"Right," Iruka said with a chirp, clapping his hands loudly, startling the kids who had been scrawling desperately. "Clearly, you don't have a knack for decoding." Their faces fell as they stopped writing. "However, I have something that might fix that." Immediately, the children both looked up, suspicious, but hopeful.

Stepping near their desks, he handed them both a book each. As he suspected, their expressions contorted into scowls, but at that he chuckled. Things were made a little easier because both of these kids had ninja parents.

"Have your parents ever written notes to each other that you couldn't read, even though the letters are ones you know?" Iruka asked. When both children nodded slowly, he continued, "Here's what they're writing in." The boy's eyes lit up and the girl grinned wickedly.

"Technically," at the hushed whisper, they sobered up and listened in rapt attention to their teacher, "I'm not meant to be giving you this. So study very hard and in secret, and return the books as soon as you can, okay?"

At their hurried promises, Iruka shooed them out of the class, telling them he expected yesterday's homework on his desk before the bell. Closing the door and walking over to the chalkboard, he grinned widely at himself before he tidied up his desk in preparation to return home. He drank what was left of his tea, and though what was left had been stone cold for a long time, he couldn't stop smiling at what he'd done for his students.

It was all true; the book he gave them contained slightly more advanced codes normally reserved for later in the year, or even those of chuunin status. Teachers weren't meant to hand them out at this point in the year—but it wasn't illegal or disallowed. Anyway, children had nimble brains, and since he gave them the incentive to learn it, learn it quickly they would. He couldn't say it with 100% guarantee, but it'd worked every other time he'd pulled the stunt.

"That was a smart trick, sensei."

Turning around, his eyes confirmed what his prickling skin warned him two seconds earlier. 'The Boy' was back, and in the flesh this time, surprisingly enough. Before, he'd remained in shadows and always seemed to be hidden in some form.

He was wearing a dark navy-blue and orange uniform, matching goggles with a silver frame, topped off with outdated ear-protectors. He looked older than Iruka had assumed, but not that much younger than your average chuunin-graduate. Again, the clearly displayed leaf symbol prevented from Iruka being overly worried.

Iruka resisted the sudden urge to rub at his eyes, not wanting to take his eyes off the figure for a second, but unable to explain why the child was blurry around the edges. A part of him instinctively grabbed at the explanation of a casted illusion, but it didn't fit. There wasn't that sense of dispelled chakra or displaced energy.

Of all the questions swimming around in his mind, the chuunin blurted out the first and foremost: "Who are you?"

"No one special," answered the spiky-haired boy as he jumped down from his perch with a light thud. When the almost-teen looked up, Iruka couldn't see his eyes because of the glare of the goggles, but the grin was wide and innocent and flashed a set of pearly whites that were crooked in that way that showed the child was still growing into everything.

"Can you tell me why I've been seeing you around so much?" Iruka smiled, not unkindly, at the other ninja, still to be entirely placated, but calm enough to not make his hand hover over his kunai holster.

"If I say coincidence," drawled the child with a smirk, "would you believe me?"

"No," scoffed the chuunin-sensei immediately.

Sighing, he queried, "I'm supposing you don't put that much faith in fate and destiny then, do you?"

"Nope," Iruka answered honestly; he believed the future only held what you made it to be. "So can you stop skirting the original question and answer me?"

Scratching the back of his head, the young not-quite-a-man chuckled and replied, "How about you catch me and I'll tell you?"

"Hey—" Iruka immediately began to protest; this was the first time he'd gotten the chance to talk to the child, to the odd youth he didn't recognise in the slightest, and he'd be damned to let the opportunity to question pass him by.

Then the boy turned around to leap out of the window and rendered Iruka speechless.

He was proudly displaying the Uchiha symbol, a red-and-white fan splashed across his back.

After a second of pure shock, the synapses in his brain started firing off at rapid speed. The gall of the child to bear the sign of the broken clan; if any of the survivors of the Uchiha were to have seen that... the act was like a dishonourable slap to the face, far worse than any usual act of insolence.

Iruka had to get the kid and tell him off. Any child of Leaf knew the lore, but with Sasuke gone, there were bound to be those to test the boundaries.

"Hey, kid!" Iruka's voice wasn't hitting any higher than the warning decibels, but it was steadily rising. "Come back here!"

Even though he was completely healed, and giving chase wouldn't have been any real problem physically, it was the principle of the matter—he'd let this boy run off not once, but twice. If that wasn't a blow on masculine pride, then there wasn't much else that would be.

The chuunin had teleported immediately in front of the child, his hands out to grab the upper arms of the boy and stop him when—they passed through what felt like air. Iruka blinked and saw his fingers blindly trying to trap wisps of smoke. From the ledge of the window, the boy was standing, hands on hips with a cheeky grin lighting up his face.

"Nice try, but I can do that too," the young boy laughed. "Anyway, the use of jutsu in tag is cheating. Shouldn't you set an outstanding example of morals for your students?"

"No," Iruka answered immediately, "ninja aren't samurai. We aren't bound by a code of honour."

Ninja were bound by laws, rules, regulations and treaty; but honour? If discarding your honour meant completing a mission, then by all means it was encouraged, distasteful as the idea was. Iruka only tolerated teaching that particular aspect of theory to his class because he knew that it could potentially save one of charges from dying of too much pride.

"Aww, sensei," the boy complained, almost whining in his tone. "You're such a wet blanket sometimes!" He was bouncing on the heels of his feet. "Can't you humour me?"

Iruka then pretended to mull it over, before he answered with a resounding, "No."

Exhaling heavily, the boy did something surprising. He sat down on the windowsill and jutted his bottom lip out. "You're no fun."

Shrugging, Iruka replied, "You should know anyone wearing the Uchiha clan symbol that isn't an Uchiha is going to get in serious trouble."

Looking up, the light flashed on the goggles, making the black tint turn a momentary shade of white, and the kid nodded. "I know that."

The brown-haired man was confused. "Then why are you—?"

"Never mind that," the child waved it away dismissively. "But since you're not going to indulge me with a game of tag, I'll give you some advice. It could change your life, ya know."

"What is it?" Sitting on the edge of his desk, he played with the idea of giving chase and attempting another capture of the boy, but he dismissed the thought easily. Not now, he figured. Anyway, he was actually a little curious to hear what the other was going to say.

"Iruka-sensei," started the child with a seriousness that surpassed his years, "what you're looking for is right in front of your eyes. Just look closer."

Before Iruka could say anything else, the kid had disappeared without even a chakra trail to follow, leaving only the heavy words to bear down the chuunin. And it confirmed something. He knows my name, but I don't know his.

¥¥Y¥¥

A/N: Dedicated to Beasiesgal for letting me play with her idea – even though this took me like three months longer than I promised to make. I actually had finished chapter one a while back, but I wanted to post on the 10/10/10. Want to guess why the date is so special? ;-P

Leave thoughts in a review? *Bites lip in anticipation*. :-/