A/N I'm back. I have nothing interesting to say today except this chapter came from nowhere. At the end of the last one I sat down to start this one and realised I had... nothing for this point in the story. Nothing. I knew where I had to get to, but there was no skeleton or scenes I'd already written that I could use as a starting point. But I like it, so maybe pulling things out of my proverbial ass isn't so bad.

And I promise I won't stop writing the story before it's done. It has an end point and I promise to get to it.

Have another chapter. I'm off to watch Brother's Conflict. Natsume ^_^

Love Risu.


O


It was a long time before Iruka got the chance to give Kakashi and Sasuke a piece of his mind about going missing and making people worry, because the next time he saw either of them, they were in a coma. A coma caused by the same person – Sasuke's elder brother, Uchiha Itachi. The worry he had felt then paled in significance, and he never did get around to saying anything to Sasuke, in the end. Although Kakashi was another matter.

Another matter entirely.


O


Everyone in Konoha was busy. Many people were working on rebuilding the town. Civilians in particular were pulling together to make sure the town returned to normality as quickly as possible. Shinobi and shinobi in training, were helping with that as well; Iruka and his students were repairing damage the Academy had taken for instance, but there were still all the other things that shinobi had to do that couldn't be neglected. There was training to be done, missions to be completed – particularly vital to not reveal that Konoha was down below half strength – organisation and administration to be done; and a fifth Hokage to name.

There were also, apparently, more obscenely strong shinobi to repel from the village.

While Iruka had been organising his class in the repairs they were undertaking, Kakashi, Kurenai, Asuma and Guy had been fighting Itachi, and another dangerous missing-nin, Hoshigaki Kisame, formerly of the Hidden Mist. That four of Konoha's elite jounin had been needed to drive the pair of them away... only drive them away, not take them down, and that Kakashi had wound up unconscious from a nasty jutsu of Itachi's... only served to show that the village didn't have time to relax for a moment while regrouping after the Sound and Sand assault.

It happened suddenly, and was over almost as suddenly. Iruka hadn't even caught wind of the conflict until after Guy delivered Sasuke to the hospital some hours later, victim of the same jutsu that felled Kakashi.

When he did find out what had happened, he'd dropped what he was doing, and had immediately run to the hospital. Sasuke was back in the same room he had disappeared from a month ago, pale and wan and most definitely unconscious. The hospital staff had been reluctant to tell Iruka what his condition was at first, because Iruka wasn't family. Iruka had ground his teeth together and pointed out quite forcefully Sasuke only had one living member of his family left, and that's who had done this to him, and also to Sasuke's jounin sensei, and that Iruka was almost certainly the closest adult the boy had who was alive and conscious. They acquiesced and told him what they knew.

Not that they knew all that much. Before the Uchiha massacre, the Tsukuyomi jutsu that had taken the two of them out had only been used on the enemy, so the medical staff didn't have experience treating the victims. Since there were no Uchihas left to ask they were somewhat at a loss as to how long a victim of Tsukuyomi stayed unconscious, or what they could do, if anything, to hasten recovery. They were doing their best to try to work it out, but they needed time.

Despite the sick feeling in his stomach at seeing the boy like this, Iruka could understand the difficulties they were facing, and there was nothing he could do for the moment. He left them to their ruminations and examinations of Sasuke and went to see the other victim of the jutsu, who he was just as concerned about, if not more.

He found Kakashi's room occupied not just by the unconscious man and attendant medical staff, but also several jounin. He couldn't see much of Kakashi, with the medical staff hovering over him, and his face still mostly covered with a mask. What was evident was pale, as Kakashi was normally pale anyway, but there was an unhealthy pastiness to the skin that was similar to Sasuke. The sick feeling in Iruka's stomach magnified. There was something incredibly disturbing and wrong at seeing the indomitable Kakashi helpless and being fussed over by a perplexed team of medical staff.

The jounin were all watching the medical team silently. Iruka thought that perhaps the medics would be more comfortable without the pressure of stressed jounin watching them like hawks, but they were giving off an air of immovability. He was fairly certain the medical staff would have already tried, and failed, to evict them from the room. Iruka himself felt out of place, like he was intruding on a family in crisis, so as much as he would have liked to hover himself, he left to fret in private.

Days passed. Iruka kept checking in on the comatose pair. There was always at least one of the jounin in attendance on Kakashi. He didn't stay for long when he visited - he continually felt like he was intruding. The jounin were the closest thing Kakashi had to family and as much as their expressions were controlled, he could feel how worried they were. He did manage to accumulate information over time, however, from whoever he found hovering in the room or from medical staff he extracted information from.

He discovered that it had taken a while for the jounin to even bring Kakashi to the hospital in the first place. After his initial examination they had taken him back to his own apartment, against medical advice, which was where Sasuke had learned that Itachi was in the village. Eventually however, it had become apparent that the effects of the Tsukuyomi weren't going to wear off any time soon, and it had become necessary to transfer him to the care of the hospital.

That didn't mean they intended to leave him alone at any point. However, in Konoha's undermanned state, the jounin were all needed to complete missions. Finally Iruka found Kakashi's room empty but for the one comatose occupant. Without the feeling of intruding where he didn't belong, he took the seat next to the bed and watched Kakashi breathing. He wasn't quite sure how the jounin was breathing so easily, since his mask was still firmly in place over his face. He was quite sure the jounin contingent would have threatened the hospital staff quite strongly if they had made any moves towards taking it off, and since Kakashi did indeed seem to be breathing comfortably, they wouldn't fought over the point.

Iruka had been thinking about the jounin group, and their behaviour. He'd never seen them so vigilant in their attendance of one of their own before. They had even tried to keep Kakashi away from the hospital. It was strange to see him on the receiving end of such protective actions. It made Iruka think about how young Kakashi really was, barely a couple of years older than himself, despite the vast difference in their experience.

"You have no idea, do you?" Iruka said eventually to the unconscious man. "You think you're an island, but you're not alone." He smiled wryly. "I don't know why you don't already know that. The jounin should have beaten some sense into you by now. But since they haven't, I'm going to, when you wake up. Although there won't be so much beating as me yelling at you. There's going to be a lot of yelling. You should be prepared for that."

He fell silent again and continued to sit quietly beside Kakashi's bedside, a hopeless, helpless feeling sitting uncomfortably under his skin. After a time Kurenai arrived at the room, and Iruka stood to leave.

"Iruka, you don't have to go," Kurenai said.

Iruka shook his head, "I don't want to intrude."

"You're not intruding," she replied looking at him with her intense red eyes. "You're one of us now."

"One of who?"

"His long suffering family," she replied, looking at the unconscious man.

"Sorry?"

"Oh, he doesn't like to acknowledge that he was one. His blood family are all gone, but I think you know as well as anybody that families aren't always linked through blood. He thinks it's much easier to do what he does, take the risks he does, if there isn't anyone who worries about him. So we pretend that we don't, for his sake. But we do. He puts himself in harm's way to make sure no one else has to. But sometimes even he needs rescue. Just don't point it out to him. He doesn't like it."

"That's stupid," Iruka said. "Everyone needs important people in their lives. Even him."

There was a pause from Kurenai, and then she said very softly, "They died."

"Who died?"

"Everyone who was important to him. One by one they died, and he blames himself for not being able to prevent it. The last was the Fourth. He was only thirteen."

Iruka paused for a moment and thought about what she was saying. Then he nodded slightly and looked at the unconscious man. "He wants to protect everyone, and he tries to not feel anything. He doesn't want anyone else to go through what he's been through so he hides loneliness with kindness, sorrow with smiles, damage with wisdom. He's brave and he's self sacrificing, but he's stupid because he's missing the point. Everyone's burden is lighter when it's shared, and carrying someone else's burden weighs nothing." He looked back at Kurenai. "You shouldn't pretend for his sake. He's admitted that he needs to be reminded what he's fighting for. It will only make him stronger."

Kurenai looked at Iruka a moment and then spoke softly. "I want to tell you that we've known him since he was just a child, and you have no idea who you're talking about, but I'm starting to think you understand him better than any of us." She looked at him penetratingly and Iruka resisted the urge to squirm. "After the Third died he retreated back behind the wall he built around his heart. Maybe you can break it down again."

Iruka blinked a couple of times. "I'm sorry, I really don't think I understand him better than any of you. I just think maybe he needs to have some sense beaten into him when he forgets what's important. I doubt I'm the best person to do that, although I do intend to yell at him when he wakes up."

"I suspect you're exactly the best person to do that," Kurenai replied, taking the seat next to Kakashi's bed.

Iruka left her to watch over the unconscious man.


O


Kakashi remained unconscious for some time. Kurenai must have said something to the others, because they made sure to make Iruka feel like he belonged when he stuck his head in the room. They all continued to keep Kakashi company, and sometimes there were more people in the room than in the jounin ready room. The hospital staff gave up trying to chase them out, and the hospital wasn't far from the ready room anyway so as long as they could be found it didn't really matter. As for Iruka, when there was no one there he used the time to mark his class' homework, since the Academy had reopened, but was able to satisfy his need to watch over the unconscious jounin.

Konoha was starting to depend upon his usefulness to a new level since the war, and he often had to cut classes short or cancel things he had intended to do. He felt a little neglectful towards his class, but he knew the situation was only temporary. He had known since Guy brought the unconscious Sasuke back to the village that Naruto was with the sannin, Jiraiya, who was also apparently the same perverted hermit who had been training him. What he hadn't known was what they were doing, but he knew almost immediately once they were successful.

They had been looking for the third of the sannin, Tsunade, and she had accepted the nomination to become the Fifth Hokage. Iruka was immediately pulled into helping to organise her inauguration once word of the Daimyo's approval had been received.

Tsunade was an extraordinary medical ninja, and no sooner had she met with the elders, Koumura and Kohara, than Naruto had dragged her off to the hospital. To the great relief of a great number of people, not the least of which was Iruka, she quickly brought Sasuke and Kakashi out of their comas. The jounin had all made themselves scarce before Kakashi regained consciousness, all except Guy who was more worried about Lee. As soon as Kakashi was awake, Guy dragged Tsunade to go assess his favourite student, who was still badly injured from his fight with Gaara.


O


Kurenai had been right about Kakashi. Iruka hadn't spent much time with him – awake at least – in what felt like months, so he hadn't been able to see how much he had retreated into his armour. As he understood things, if Guy hadn't shown up, there was a good chance Kakashi, Asuma and Kurenai would have been killed, defenseless against the genjutsu of Itachi. Kakashi seemed to blame himself. After waking he was declared mission-capable after only a very brief period of observation in hospital, and he became scarce as he was kept busy by the new Hokage. What Iruka did see of him showed no sign of the laid back Kakashi that had existed previously. He was like a machine, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the S-rank missions Tsunade was assigning him.

Iruka didn't know how to get through to him. He was barely pausing between missions, and Iruka was only catching glimpses of him. He didn't think the jounin were even seeing him very much as the missions Tsunade had him running were back to back solo missions, and he wasn't taking time to pause between. Iruka was worried. Tsunade was obviously confident in his physical ability to do what he was doing, but he wasn't coming back from Copy-nin mode. Iruka fretted that the longer he kept up his machine-like mission running, the greater chance there was of him staying that way long term.

And then Sasuke abandoned the village.

Kakashi wasn't in Konoha the night Sasuke left. He'd left that day for yet another mission, but when he heard the boy was gone he turned and ran straight back out again to go find him, returning only with Naruto. Genma and Raidou were severely injured in the wake of Sasuke leaving, having been returning to Konoha after a mission with Shizune and Iwashi, when they came across the Sound-nin escaping with the young Uchiha. Shikamaru, now a chuunin, Neji, Chouji, Kiba, Naruto, and Lee had been trying to to catch Sasuke and prevent him from leaving, but they too sustained injuries. The departure of Sasuke caused physical damage to a lot of people, and mental damage to a lot more. Naruto and Kakashi particularly took it hard. On top of everything else Kakashi was agonising over, this was going to only drive him further into himself.

Genma and Raidou were almost ready for release by the time he eventually paused in his non-stop missions and came to see how they were. Iruka happened to have dropped in to see them himself and had found both Asuma and Kurenai there, when the jounin let himself into the room, an unreadable expression on what was visible of his face.

The worry in Iruka's gut boiled up instantly and he exploded. He knew he was overreacting, that Sasuke's abandonment of the village, and Kakashi finding Naruto defeated and unconscious, and Naruto's own worry about Sasuke were all stacking on top of the worry he was feeling for Naruto and Sasuke and Kakashi himself, but he didn't care. He charged towards the jounin, who threw his hands up defensively in front of him, surprise appearing on his face, as he took a step backwards, looking uncertain.

"What the hell?" Iruka fumed.

"Um..."

"You've got to take better care of yourself! Don't you know people worry about you?"

"About me? No, they don't." Kakashi scoffed.

"First of all they do, and second of all you are wrong. It might be the first time since you were thirteen but you are just going to have to get used to it. "

"People don't need to worry about me. I can take care of myself."

"Clearly you can't because you've retreated from all the people you try to tell yourself you don't care about. You're forgetting what you're fighting for, Kakashi. You're fighting for everyone in this room. You're fighting for the kids. You're fighting for the people of this village. And you need to remember that all of those people care what happens to you - whether you like it or not."

He glared at Kakashi and continued, "When you were unconscious there was almost always someone by your bed. The jounin ready room? Gathering dust! Whenever anyone wasn't on a mission, they were in your room! No one even bothered looking for them in the ready room, they were never there!"

Kakashi looked at the other jounin who found somewhere else to be looking.

"And did you not think people were worried about you when you were off training Sasuke? Ever think it might have been nice to tell someone where you went?"

"I know people were worried about Sasuke. I didn't know he hadn't told anyone he..."

"YOU! Not Sasuke," Iruka cut in angrily. "People were worried about Sasuke of course, but they were also worried... about... YOU! You might think you're invulnerable but who knew the Third would die fighting Orochimaru? That Hayate would die when he wasn't even on a mission? That Itachi might be better at the Sharingan than you are?"

Kakashi looked like he was going to protest, and then thought the better of it.

"You can't do everything yourself, no matter how much you think you can. I know you think it's your job to look after everyone in this village, but you know what? It's our job to look after you too. People care about you, and you need to stop denying that they do and denying that you care about them as well. You think that letting people in will take your edge, but it makes you stronger. You can stare down death all you want to, but it's far better to do so with something to live for."

Iruka indicated all of the room's occupants and included them in his tirade. "All of you jounin would do well to remember that you don't need to be so stoic all the time. This is your family and it's okay to need each other. You take the whole 'shouldn't show emotions' thing beyond the level you need to most of the time. The biggest difference between you lot and me isn't our power levels, it's that I don't believe in your crap!"

He turned back to Kakashi with a glower and gripped the front of his shirt with both hands, pulling him forward until their foreheads were practically touching. He intended to lecture him some more, but he was assailed by an almost irresistible urge, the intensity of which caused him to recoil back in surprise. He released Kakashi's flak jacket like it was making his hands burn, and blushed furiously. Kakashi continued to watch him, silently. Iruka looked around at the other jounin. They were also watching him, looking somewhat abashed.

"So what have you to say for yourself?" Iruka said crossly to Kakashi, hoping everyone would attribute the flush to his temper.

Kakashi looked at him for a moment and then said quite calmly, "I was wrong."

"What?" Genma yelped.

"I was wrong," Kakashi repeated. "Iruka's right, I have been forgetting what's important."

"That's right," Iruka said, poking him in the chest with a finger. "So start letting people back in. Now, if you don't mind, I have a class of pre-genin to teach. Hopefully they are less troublesome than certain jounin."

"Damn, Iruka," Genma said with admiration colouring his voice, "you're something else."

"I know," Iruka said, stepping out of the room and closing the door behind him. Once out of the sight of a roomful of elite jounin, he leaned heavily against the wall.

He had had to get away quickly. He had wanted. To kiss. Kakashi.

It had been overwhelming. He wondered if he would have stopped himself, if the other jounin hadn't been there. His legs were shaking. He thought about it for a long moment.

He really, really wanted to kiss Kakashi.

Oh, damn. How had he not realised this before?

Sure, he knew he had a bit of a crush on him, he wasn't stupid, but he hadn't realised just how much he liked him. The only other time he'd really felt attracted to someone else, it had been his ANBU, and that had been the rapid obsessive crush of a teenager. This, this had been developing, slowly over time, so he hadn't even realised just how much he liked him. Kakashi wasn't someone Iruka shouldn't have feelings for, not these kinds of feelings anyway. He could think of a lot of reasons why not. Kakashi was Naruto's sensei. He was at the top of Konoha's strata. He was famous and feared. He was... sexy as hell. Iruka covered his eyes with his hand and groaned softly.

He let himself think about it now. The warm feeling in his belly that he had become accustomed to whenever Kakashi was around unfurled and radiated out and made his skin tingle. As he thought about him he realised he didn't just want to kiss him. He wanted to push him up against a wall and run his hands over the warm flesh of his chest. He wanted to pull his mask down and stick his tongue down his throat. He wanted to take him in his mouth and watch that face as he came. He wanted to do very, very bad things to him.

Oh god.

He took a deep breath and looked behind himself, worried one of the jounin might come through the door. He hurried down the corridor, lost in his self realisation.

He had to stop thinking about Kakashi. He had a class to teach, and he wasn't prepared to have any kind of conversation with them about why he wasn't able to stand up at the front of the room.

This was not good.


O


to be continued...