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Title: Iruka’s Epiphany
Gifter: kiterie
Recipient: tsuyume
Rating: PG
Summary: For shinobi a shared mission can often define the ties between them, both by the principals they share and the ones they don’t.
Word Count: 2865
Gifter's Notes: I rewatched this episode (Iruka’s Ordeal) and just wow Iruka looks like crap in the flashback. Thanks to my betas M and K.

-

Iruka cracked his eyes open, wincing slightly at the light. White shifted slowly into shapes after a few pain-filled blinks, and he rubbed his eyes to clear them further.

Iwashi stood up from the chair beside the bed, scooped up several loose papers, and started straightening them. “Oh good, you’re awake. Hatake-san wanted me to get you to sign off on the report. I was just going over the last of the details. He has terrible penmanship, but I think this is the final version.”

Report, mission, Hatake... it took a few moments for Iruka to put the pieces together, but slowly they fell into place. He felt his cheeks flush; he wondered how much of what he remembered had actually occurred. Iruka did his best to push himself up into a sitting position - he was weak and his muscles were stiff but he managed. His head hurt and even through the haze of drugs he could feel the dull aches of various injuries. It made the hospital room a welcome sight, if a somewhat confusing one. “Kakashi-”

“Hatake-san carried you to the gates,” Iwashi said, cutting him off. “He’s fine, but you were in bad shape. They say you should be fine in a few days though.” The line of Iwashi’s lips stretched into a small, friendly smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You guys came in two days behind me.”

It wasn’t what he’d been about to ask, not exactly, but it answered his question. Kakashi, it was impossible to think of him as merely Hatake-san now, was fine. The last of the response, the timing, caught his attention too and Iruka frowned. Two days plus whatever time he’d been in here unconscious, and yet the mission report was only just being done. Iruka held his hand out, wincing slightly at the pain it caused to shoot across his shoulders. “You’re supposed to report in immediately.”

Iwashi hesitated before finally handing the papers and a pen over. “ I did, but they were all so busy that they didn’t even notice I hadn’t made an official report. Hatake-san went to speak to the hokage himself about the mission. He said not to worry.”

Iruka stiffened, his shoulders tightening and pulling on the abused muscles in his back until it was almost too painful to breathe. He wondered why people said not to worry when those words always caused far more concern than they ever alleviated. The very utterance of them said there was a reason to worry.

Turning his attention to the papers in his hand, Iruka read the tiny, scrawling, and nearly illegible handwriting. None of what Kakashi said in the report was a lie, but the details were off very slightly. The way Kakashi wrote it, it sounded almost as though none of it was his fault.

It was.

The mission had been a straight-forwards reconnaissance. It should have been simple. They should have been in, out, and done. The fact that it had been an A-rank was strictly due to the fact that anything involving Orochimaru was automatically elevated to that rank, and it should not have been anywhere near as difficult as it had become. That was entirely on his shoulders.

Iruka frowned, studying the report and considering if, perhaps, he was being overly harsh on himself about his failures. He didn’t think so.

Kakashi had been the team captain, and his orders had been well-reasoned.

Kakashi had summoned his dogs and cast a jutsu on them, Iruka, and himself which mapped their location to a scroll. Iwashi had been ordered to stand guard with the scroll, safely outside the patrolled area while they had gone inside. They’d split up to speed things up. Mapping the research facility should not have been a particularly difficult task, given that it wasn’t heavily manned.

He’d slipped up though.

A kid had seen him, and instead of taking him out the way he would have any adult, he’d hesitated. The hesitation had been enough to stay his hand entirely. Instead of doing what he should have, he’d tied him up and left him out of sight. The mission parameters hadn’t specifically stated that he had to kill an enemy upon discovery, but not doing so raised the risks significantly. The dead can’t escape and sound the alarm, after all. If he hadn’t known for sure that it was the kid, then he could have reasoned things away, but the boy had been right there when he got attacked.

If Kakashi hadn’t heard the alarm, if he hadn’t come back for him and saved him, then Iruka knew the mistake would have cost him his life. As it was, it only cost them the success of the mission.

“What’s wrong, Iruka?” Iwashi leaned over looking at the report.

“Huh?” Iruka blinked and looked up.

Pick up the top sheet, Iwashi studied it closer. “He did all the paperwork. Right too. I mean, it looked alright to me, and he even gave you credit for helping cover my retreat. You should be happy.”

Iruka knew he was right and that he should be happy. Everyone had made it home safe, Kakashi was doing what team leaders did and watching out for his team, and Iwashi had his back too. He wasn’t though. He wasn’t the kind of man to let other people take responsibility for his actions or cover for him, but it was more than that. “You said he’s talking to the hokage? When did he leave?”

Iwashi blinked at him and tugged on the hair just starting to growing in on his chin. “He left just before you woke up and he probably went to get cleaned up first. You bled all over him.”

Giving the papers one last look over, Iruka signed them and handed them over. They were mostly accurate, and he was going to clear things up, so signing the report would only mean that Iwashi wasn’t left waiting for him. “Thanks, Iwashi.”

He waited until Iwashi gathered everything up and headed out the door, and then, very carefully, he slid out of bed and dressed himself. It was a slow process, and it took him several very long minutes to get his shirt on, but he managed. The leg wraps and sandals were no less difficult, but he decided they were necessary. If he tried to walk out of the hospital they’d drag him back to bed, which meant that calling a nurse for assistance was out of the question.

Iruka formed the hand signs for a kage bushin, gave it the hospital gown, slipped the heart monitor on it’s finger, and had it climb into bed in his place. Leaning around the edge of the door, he peeked outside at the registration desk.

Inari-san sat there reading a book with her feet propped up on the desk, the door just past her.

Silently, Iruka slipped out and headed down the hall in the other direction, casually poking his head into various rooms. The fifth one he checked was occupied by a sleeping patient and Iruka ducked inside. Checking the chart, he made sure the guy wasn’t in a coma and was in fact just sleeping before reaching over and sliding the heart monitor slightly off the man’s finger. Then as quickly as he could he left the room and ducked into the empty room across the hall.

The quick pounding of feet followed by the banging of the door told him Inari had rushed to the “dying” man’s rescue and Iruka slipped out and scurried for the door. “Sorry, Inari-san. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone though.”

He didn’t give her a chance to catch him either, the moment he was out the door he raised his hands, formed the signs for the teleportation jutsu, and vanished. As exhausting as it would be to expend the chakra when he was still healing, it was easier on him than walking. It was also the only way he’d get there in a reasonable amount of time and still be able stand upright. He wanted to hold onto as much of his composure as he could manage to retain for what he needed to do. Telling Hiruzen-sama that he’d failed was never easy.

The jutsu landed him slightly out of breath, but safely on the roof and blessedly on the other side of it from the two men he’d come to talk to. They were facing away from him, but he caught their words.

Hiruzen had his hands clasped behind his back, it was a more casual stance intended to put others at ease while maintaining posture and authority. “Kakashi... How is that you were there and yet...?”

“Forgive me. I made a formation error. I should have kept him with me.” In contrast to Hiruzen, Kakashi stood at attention.

Iruka winced, the comment stinging his pride like a goad. For all that, though, he could only admire the steadiness Kakashi displayed. Kakashi was a good leader, and he could only hear the barest hint of nerves in Kakashi’s voice. It seemed to him that Kakashi didn’t like admitting a failure to Hiruzen anymore than he did. It was nice to know that he was still willing to do it for his teammates.

Careful to keep his breathing steady, Iruka took a step forward.

Both men turned at his approach, acknowledging him.

When he turned to face him Kakashi retained is stiff posture. Between the mask that covered the lower part of his face and the hitai-ate that draped over his left eye left only a small portion of his face open. The visible brow rose and he watched Iruka intently but remained quiet.

Hiruzen on the other hand, eyed him, his gaze wandering over Iruka carefully and the deep creases around his eyes deepened very slightly with concern. “Ah... Iruka, how are your wounds?”

“Yes... It was just a minor injury. Thank you for your concern.” He could never bring himself to admit how much he hurt, not in front of the two of them. They were legends, and it was bad enough having to come here under the circumstances he was.

“You worked hard. Take some time off to recuperate.” Hiruzen’s tone was friendly, but the expression in his eyes was the same one he always had when he was scolding somebody for being foolish.

It took every bit of Iruka’s willpower to not flush with shame at the reproving look, but he took a breath and held onto his resolve. “Sandaime... I was responsible for this incident. The team leader is not...” He stole a glance at Kakashi, wanting him to understand that he was grateful, but not to interrupt.

“I fully understand without you telling me.”

Iruka stiffened, tension tightening the muscles in his shoulders painfully. Of course Hiruzen knew, it was foolish of him to think otherwise. “Yes, sir!”

“Iruka... you've always been a kind person.” Hiruzen’s words were firm, not allowing any room for argument against the compliment. “I believe that kindness of yours proved detrimental during a crucial moment against the enemy shinobi.”

Sagging, Iruka closed his eyes and considered the words, letting them sink in. He wanted to refute them, but knew them for the unvarnished truth. He couldn’t detach when he needed to. It was his weakness, and they both knew it. It had the potential to be a fatal one. A proper shinobi wouldn't allow himself such a dangerous flaw.

“There may come a time when that trait puts your comrades' lives in danger,” Hiruzen continued, his voice gravely serious.

“Yes. I thought I was well aware of my own personality, but...” He’d thought he would get used to it, that it would get easier. It hadn’t.

“Well--” Hiruzen’s tone gentled, “--what's done is done. For your next mission...”

The tone reminded Iruka of when he was little and the first real conversation they’d had. He opened his eyes, his answer right in front of him. “Sandaime...”

Both Hiruzen and Kakashi seemed surprised by his interruption. Hiruzen went silent and Kakashi even raised an eyebrow.

“Actually...” Iruka balled his hands up into fist and swallowed the nervous feeling, “I'd like to speak to you about that.”

“What is it? Speak freely.” The words were a promise that Iruka would not only have his attention, but also that what he had to say wouldn’t be used against him.

“Sandaime-sama, I wonder if you recall...” Iruka hoped the man he respected most in the world remembered, but he would understand if he was only one more orphan. “After I lost my parents, you spoke to me in front of the stone monument of heroes. You told me about the will of fire.”

A faint smile touched Hiruzen’s lips. “Yes, I remember it well.”

The acknowledgement made what he had to say that much more important to him, and until he’d heard those words he hadn’t realized how much it meant to him that Hiruzen remembered that moment. “Because of your words, I was able to concentrate on my training and my duties. The lesson you taught me about the Will of Fire...” Happiness filled him at the realization that he now knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he wondered why he’d never thought to consider it before. “I'd like to pass it on to the next generation of ninja.”

“What? You want to become an instructor at the Academy?” Obvious amusement lit Hiruzen’s voice, a light chuckle escaping him.

“Yes, if I may, sir!” Any doubts that he’d held were gone, this was what he was meant to do and he knew it now.

Hiruzen smiled wider. “Well then, starting tomorrow, you shall be an assistant instructor at the Academy.”

“Really, Sandaime?” Iruka couldn’t help it he felt like a little kid; no, he felt like he did the day he received his hitai-ate. It was like the world had opened up and his dreams had come true before he'd even known what his dream was. But suddenly, being a teacher was all he wanted to be.

“If you’ll excuse me I believe I have some paperwork to take care of.” Still smiling, Hiruzen gave a slight nod and headed for the stairs to his office.

Iruka watched him leave, a new sense of direction filling him. The excitement at the prospect was damn near overwhelming, but Iruka stomped it down and turned to Kakashi. “Thank you. For saving me and for... I’m sorry I cost us the mission.”

“We still gathered a great deal of information.” Kakashi tilted his head to the side, his shoulders drooping slightly and his posture relaxing. “I should have kept you with me.”

“I should have killed the kid,” he countered. “I have trouble with that. It’s just that they’re kids. He was younger than I was when I graduated and-”

"You can't detach,” Kakashi interrupted, “but I don't want you to.”

Iruka’s chest tightened and he swallowed. He knew Kakashi didn’t mean it the way it sounded... personal. Kakashi was a village hero and there was no way that he even knew or cared anything about Iruka outside of his mission folder. It was a strangely depressing though. “I’d be a better shinobi if I could.”

"A better shinobi," Kakashi countered, and Iruka was sure he wasn't imagining the sharpness behind the words. "But not a better person. Too many of us completely forget that we're going up against real, breathing humans with history and families and everything else that makes them not just a target.” Kakashi shoved his hands in his pockets and shook his head. “Any of the rest of us would have killed a kid without a second thought. Sometimes, like this time, that's the right choice, but it won't always be, and if we don't stop to think about it, we never will. I don't want you to be in danger, but you shouldn't become something you're not. I'm glad you're going to be an instructor."

It made sense and Iruka felt better hearing somebody he respected say it in such a direct fashion. “Thank you. I really feel like it’s where I belong.”

“Iruka-sensei...” Kakashi leaned forward, deliberately in Iruka’s personal space, his cheeks rounding and the corner of his eye crinkling, making the fact that he was smiling under the mask very apparent. “So many teacher fantasies coming to mind. As a matter of fact, there's this one part in Icha Icha where..."

Warmth rushed to his cheeks and he rubbed the tip of his finger over the edge of the scar that ran across his nose and cheeks. “I should go, Hatake-san. I should get back before my disappearance is discovered and poor Inari-san gets into trouble.”

“Kakashi.” The correction was accompanied by a light chuckle.

The heat on his cheeks got worse and Iruka smiled at him before raising his hands for the teleportation jutsu. He was going to be utterly exhausted, but at least it would be a somewhat impressive exit. “Goodbye, Kakashi.” He pushed the chakra into the jutsu and disappeared.

Fin

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