Fandom: Naruto, about the Hidden Villages, and the ninjas who live and have adventures there.
ETA: Aviss wrote an alternate version of this story for Remix Redux, Falling Into Madness. It's terrific.
"If I were you, I would back away right now, bow pretty damn deeply and get the hell out of my office."
"You're not me, though—" Kakashi began, but Tsunade was up and looming over the desk. Looming over him. He hadn't thought the woman could loom, seeing as he was taller than she. Still, with the heels—
"Why are you still here?" she bellowed.
"Because you won't tell me where he is!"
There was a gasp behind him; probably Genma, who had been standing outside the door when he'd burst in a few minutes earlier, and was no doubt listening through the cracks. Dammit. If he didn't shut up, Genma would begin to suspect, and if Genma suspected, then Raidou—
"For the last time, Hatake-san," Tsunade shouted, "You have missions! You leave town for missions! So it would make sense, wouldn't it, that if Iruka-sensei had a mission, he would leave—"
"Not in the middle of term! He wouldn't leave those horrible little…I mean, his students, not in the middle of term. I don't buy it. You wouldn't send him on—"
"Don't presume to tell me what I'd do." Tsunade had stopped yelling; her voice was now low and very, very dangerous and the timbre of it sent a shiver up his spine. "May I remind you, Sharingan Kakashi, that information is given on a need-to-know basis. You do not need to know. Now like I said, get the hell out of my office."
He held his tongue, but glared at her with a steely eye. She met his glare with her own. They stood there for a long moment, freezing the very air between them.
"Kakashi," she said in a tone that immediately raised his hackles. "One might ask why you want to know. One might conclude you have some special reason to want to find Iruka-sensei. Might one be correct?"
"No, Tsunade-sama," Kakashi said mildly, forcing his posture to relax and his hands to unclench. "No special reason."
"Good." She bared her teeth. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."
Genma was gone from the hallway, sensible ninja that he was. Kakashi slammed the screen hard, just because he could.
Inside her office, Tsunade sank into her chair and frowned. "Oi!" Two shinobi materialized by her desk. "Anything?"
"Something strange the other day. He was seen at the monument. Alone."
"One of the students. Umino-san was talking as if he were having a conversation."
"Konohamaru couldn't hear him."
"Hmph. Child witnesses. Useless. And after?"
"He ran off as if he were being chased. It wasn't noticed which direction he went."
She snorted in disgust. "Some excellent children we're training. All right." She steepled her fingers. "Find him. Be careful; he's armed."
"And don't tell Kakashi."
One risked a questioning look. Tsunade growled; an instant later they were gone.
The Fifth Hokage sighed and passed a hand over her tired eyes. Umino Iruka had sat not two feet from her with his hand on a weapon the entire time. Remarkable. Either the man was insane or deeply dangerous. "This is the last thing I needed today," she muttered, looking at the pile of paperwork on the desk. "When I find you, Umino Iruka, I will fucking kill you."
Their bed was still unmade.
Standing in the doorway of the bedroom, still livid from his frustrating "chat" with Tsunade, it struck Kakashi that this was the first time in quite a while he'd returned home to an unmade bed. Iruka was much neater than he, at least as far as living habits were concerned. In the months since they had virtually moved in together, not a morning had passed without Iruka remaking their bed before sneaking out over the rooftops to his own small apartment, and from there to work. Only on rare mornings when he was feeling obstinate would Kakashi remain behind in sheets left tangled and dirty. Frankly, he didn't care if he slept in the wet spot, and could endure being sticky and ripe-smelling far beyond Iruka's tolerance for it. Sex was sex – it was meant to be messy. So he certainly saw no reason to get up before he had to just so his lover could make the bed…though often he yielded to Iruka's insistence anyway, because the man could argue better than he.
It was the source of some friction between them. Iruka thought he was a slob; he thought Iruka was unnecessarily fastidious. Funny, though: he was fastidious about his work habits – even his notorious lateness was calculated. Iruka, however, despite his bluster, was easily persuaded to relax the rules with his dreadful little charges. Iruka was—
A peculiar pain passed through Kakashi's chest, as if his heart were being squeezed in a vise. Is. Iruka is.
He turned his back on the bed and wandered into the tiny kitchen area. There were oranges on the counter in a large bowl, blood oranges, small and vivid in color, and their scent filled the room. Iruka liked oranges, and orange juice; Kakashi liked the way Iruka tasted of orange, of mingled sweetness and tartness. Just like Iruka himself.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto had called to him earlier. The kid was boisterous as usual. "Where's Iruka-sensei gone?"
"What do you mean?"
"It was weird. It was right in the middle of class – you know, the make-up class you made me go to because you were pissed at… anyway, right when he was bawling me out for something I didn't do – I swear! I was only–"
"What – exactly – happened?"
"I dunno – maybe he had to go to the can – you know, like he ate some bad sushi or something, and had a case of the–"
"Oh, yeah, yeah, okay. So he had me slammed up against the window and was yelling at me, and I thought his head was gonna explode or something, and then he turned kinda white, and he let go of my shirt and then he said, No, and then Excuse me, and he ran out real fast. An' then we were sitting there like forever, and he never came back. And I thought maybe it was a test, but nothin' happened. So where'd he go?"
He hadn't even wondered at the time why Naruto had asked him, of all the shinobi. He thought maybe Sakura knew about them even though they were discreet – she was pretty perceptive. But he hadn't thought Naruto particularly observant about such things—
—and was he so very observant himself? That morning, hadn't Iruka seemed a little…distracted? Preoccupied, perhaps?
No, Kakashi reflected, he'd been more than distracted, he'd been downright odd, pulling free of Kakashi's limbs and scrambling out of their bed as if it were on fire. And now that he thought of it, hadn't Iruka's eyes been peculiarly large, with the whites showing around the dark irises, like the eyes of a spooked animal?
But he'd had his own selfish agenda this morning, and nothing seemed different last night when he'd pinned Iruka to the bed and made love to him until he cried out—
Something niggled at the back of Kakashi's mind, something he couldn't put his finger on. Something different about how they'd tumbled into bed, or about the sex itself, perhaps. Whatever it was, the thought eluded him.
His hand began to cramp and he dropped his gaze. He hadn't known he was holding an orange, squeezing it into a clump of reddish fiber and rind. Juice ran down his arm to spill onto the floor like watery blood.
Kakashi tossed the orange away. He had plenty of work to do, including a mission he should be preparing for, a B-rank of no small importance. He had a team to assemble, provisions to secure, tactics to determine—
When he bit his thumb, he tasted oranges. His palm slammed down on the floor, blood mixing with juice, and the summoning began.
Running, running. Through bushes, through treetops.
"Hatake-san." Pakkun skidded to a halt on a tree branch. "He's very good. He didn't leave much."
"I know that," Kakashi growled. "Just find him."
The other dogs circled them, whining with eagerness, waiting to be given commands. Pakkun raised watery eyes to his master; Kakashi hadn't known it was possible for a pug to show disdain. "I'll do my best."
Pakkun rolled his bulging eyes and set his nose to a leaf. "This way, I think."
This time the dog did not reply. A bound and they set off again, the other dogs panting and sniffing, impatient for the chase.
He'd have called them nightmares, except sometimes they happened by day.
The first time it was no more than a flash in the corner of his eye, a tingle up his spine and something moving swiftly out of range. Peculiar, unsettling, but quickly forgotten.
Forgotten until it happened again…and the something resolved itself into a form immediately recognizable, standing on the roof of the academy.
Alarmed, Iruka stared back. There was a smile, an ugly, exultant smile on Mizuki's face. But what was he doing here? Wasn't he locked away? Iruka glanced around to see if anyone else was nearby, because painful experience had taught him how dangerous Mizuki could be. Two ninjas would have an easier time recapturing him. Asuma was across the road – Iruka hailed him and he came running. But when he looked back, Mizuki was gone. He hadn't had time to escape, and besides, the school roof had only one access point, directly in front of where Iruka stood.
Asuma climbed back down from checking the roof a second time and patted him on the back. "Forget it. That guy really screwed you over. No wonder you thought you saw him." Embarrassed, Iruka mumbled an apology and Asuma laughed and punched him in the arm in a comradely fashion before sauntering away.
He shook off his unease. Just his imagination, surely. Maybe he needed sleep. These days Kakashi didn’t let him get much rest.
Surely it had been just a quirk of the mind.
Yet two days later, there was Mizuki again, outside the window of his classroom. In a heartbeat Iruka was over the sill, leaping down into the yard with a shout. But when he landed and straightened up, kunai in his hand, the yard was empty. Above him young faces pressed to the window, pointing. One or two of the children laughed; a few looked terrified. Slowly Iruka sheathed the weapon. His face burned, but he covered his discomfiture with a forced smile. "See," he called to them, bluffing it out, "that's how quickly you must be ready to leap into action."
They applauded. He felt ashamed.
But after that he thought he saw Mizuki everywhere. Even in his dreams the white-haired ninja appeared to mock him. His sleep was restless, though Kakashi didn't notice, or didn't comment. Iruka didn't feel like troubling him, especially as their relationship had just settled into a comfortable pattern. No; this was an aberration, some sort of latent upset brought on by the stress of a new relationship, and the pressures of keeping it private.
He never mentioned to anyone, not even Kakashi, that Mizuki had been his lover in the days before the betrayal; such a fact was deeply embarrassing in light of Mizuki's criminal actions. Perhaps, Iruka thought, it was his conscience, or some kind of guilt. After all, he'd been the cause of his lover's arrest. Yes. Guilt. That's all it was. The Mizuki he saw wasn't real – just the creation of his own mind.
Seeing his father was harder to explain.
He was at the monument, paying respects to the fallen shinobi of Konoha when he felt a peculiar twinge between his shoulder blades and shivered with a sudden chill. Someone spoke; funny, after all this time he wouldn't have thought the voice would be recognizable, yet when he heard the baritone rumble behind him his first reaction was one of happiness.
A second later the hair all over his body stood up as if he were about to be struck by lightning, and the happy warmth froze into terror. Oto-san is dead. Afraid, he forced himself to turn around.
The sight was more ghastly than he could have imagined. His father's head hung off at a sickening angle, his neck severed nearly all the way through from the claws of the kyuubi. Gore soaked the torn clothing and ran down his limbs. "Iruka," the horrible apparition said, in a voice all the more awful for its normality. If this was a ghost it didn’t sound like one, even though the sight was blood-curdling. "Iruka. Iruka."
"What?" His voice edged toward a shriek; he thought he might go mad, if he weren't already. "What – what are you? What do you want?"
"I curse you," the thing said, smiling as blood bubbled from its mouth, and now Iruka did scream, and ran until he stumbled into a patch of nettles, falling, tangling there, panting out shuddering breaths until his wits returned.
When at last Iruka dragged himself home, Kakashi wondered at his many scratches. He explained them as the result of breaking up a schoolyard fight; he hated the fact he was lying, especially lying to Kakashi, but telling what he'd seen was unimaginable. Surely he'd be thought mad. Maybe he was mad, or slowly going crazy. Maybe he was possessed. Maybe he really was cursed.
Cursed. It was possible; people could be blighted by a curse – it wasn't common, but it wasn't unheard of. The word of a ghost was likely the truth, and besides, people didn't routinely get visitations from the departed unless they'd done something to deserve such a horrid fate. He didn't wonder what he'd done – if he were cursed, no doubt he deserved it.
But on the other hand, perhaps he was just ill. Maybe it was all in his imagination. He'd better seek some wise counsel on the matter.
"Umino-san," she said, "how nice to see you again. How are the lessons?"
"Very good, thank you. There are some promising students in the first class."
"Glad to hear it." She waited. He stood there, clearly ill at ease, his eyes darting around her office at the jumble of books and manuscripts, the messy desk, the decorations she'd hung up to make the place her own. He didn't make eye contact. "Would you like to sit down?"
"Thank you, Godaime-sama." He sat on the very edge of the chair, taut with tension.
He looked pale, she thought, a pallor under his tan that made a long scar across his nose stand out more than it might normally do. She didn't really know him that well, not like she knew the ninjas she sent out on missions. Umino Iruka was a decent man, it was said, a chuunin only, but apparently content with that ranking. She'd heard positive reports about his teaching skills. She probably should get to know him better.
"Umino-san. Was there something you wished to speak with me about?" She watched with interest as his face flushed. "Yes?"
"Hokage-sama," he said very quietly, with eyes again lowered, "everyone saw the miraculous cure you had for Gai-kun's student." He paused.
"That was a very difficult case. They were terrible injuries."
"It's said you're a great healer."
"Are you ill, Umino-san?" she asked gently. It was fairly rare to have a ninja profess a weakness to his leader; mostly they self-medicated or saw a local healer for wounds. "Have you injured yourself, perhaps?"
"No…no, that's not it."
"Feeling sick? Sleeping badly?"
He looked up sharply at that, and she saw purplish shadows under his eyes. "Yes, some nights. Mostly. I dream. Sort of. That is, I…" She could see him gather the fortitude to press on, though the blush stayed on his face. "It's just that I… Well, I'm worried about something I…"
"Something you've done?"
"No," Iruka murmured. "It's something I might do."
"I see," she said, regarding him very cafefully. "Why don't we have some tea, and you can tell me about it." He still looked dubious. Tsunade reached under the desk and pulled out a bottle. "Or maybe a drink?"
Night made the trail harder to follow, but not impossibly so, because they tracked mostly by scent. In the dark Kakashi urged the dogs to silence. He could feel they were close to the end, though his own nose, sensitive though it was, could detect nothing that told him Iruka was nearby.
But another sense, one that had no name, connected them, and it was that which urged him onward. He let the dogs lead the way, and allowed his darker thoughts free rein.
He'd already decided Tsunade had lied to him There was no mission; much as he cared for Iruka and thought him clever and resilient, there was no need to pull an academy chuunin out of class mid-term for a mission, when others were sitting around the Mission Desk idly waiting to be assigned. Tsunade's implication made no sense.
…she hadn't really said Iruka was on a mission, had she? No; it was what she hadn't said that was important. She'd left him to draw his own conclusions, which meant she knew something…though perhaps not everything, about Iruka's departure.
Damn. Another manipulative person in a high position. She was worse than the Fourth. Not for the first time Kakashi thought he might be happier just going missing one day. At least then his destiny would be his own choice.
Could it be, was it possible Iruka had gone Missing Nin?
No. Not Iruka. Not direct, sincere, deeply honorable Iruka—
—secretive, duplicitous, missing Iruka—
"I have him," Pakkun grunted.
Kakashi slid to a stop, and listened.
The darkness was absolute inside the cave. The lack of light made the space seem at once barely large enough to contain his body and as vast as infinity. Without so much as a glimmer or the sound of dripping water, it was impossible get a fixed point of reference, which left Iruka suspended in time as well as space. It seemed only right. He was nowhere, after all.
He lay in the dark, still curled into a fetal position. He no longer felt the cold, only a numbing despair that skewered him straight through to his heart. The pain pinned him to the earth, kept him from floating away into the infinite darkness. It would be better to float away, disperse into nothing. Perhaps he should simply end his life. That way people would be spared his deadly actions. I almost killed Naruto. And Kakashi—
A sob escaped him. So close; he'd been so close to pulling that knife across Kakashi's throat—
Yes. Surely the best thing to do would be to pull out a kunai and run it across his own throat until the red life gushed out of him. He could do it right now, right here, and if fate cooperated, none of them – students and shinobi alike, Tsunade, Naruto, Kakashi – especially Kakashi – would ever know what had happened to him. They'd decide he'd gone rogue, become one of the Missing Nin. They'd search, try to hunt him down, but the fuda he'd placed should divert them. In time they'd give up, all of them, even Kakashi. After all, he'd never done anything important. In time, Iruka was certain, he'd be forgotten, his name never inscribed on the monument beside his father's and mother's, his face erased from memory.
You can do it right now, a voice said inside his head.
He paused. Should I—
"Aren't you going to do it?"
The voice wasn't in his head.
Fright seized him. His eyes jolted open; in the featureless darkness a figure sat cross-legged from him, smiling at him mockingly. "Mizuki."
Mizuki smiled, but his eyes were cold. And there was something frighteningly wrong about how he looked...the dark…yes! There was no source of light in the cave, yet Mizuki…glowed slightly, as if lit from within. A wraith, a ghost—
"Oh, I'm alive," Mizuki said nonchalantly, as if reading his mind. "I'll be alive long after you're dead."
Iruka pulled himself to his knees. "How can you be here?"
"You're cursed. I'll be with you forever," the Mizuki-wraith hissed.
"And so will we, darling Iruka."
The bloody body of his father, and – no! God, please no! – that of his mother, her body torn open, entrails spilling out, peered at him out of the gloom, their gore-covered faces glowing like Mizuki's. Iruka let out a keening wail and pushed backwards, away from the horrible sight, until his back hit the slimy wall and he could retreat no further. He threw up a trembling arm to shield his eyes from the ghastly sight. No, no! Please—
"Now, now, Iruka," said another voice, one he knew so very well. "Come to me."
Yes, yes! "Kakashi, I—"
But when he dropped his arm and turned with relief toward the sound of sanity, the sound that would rescue him from fright, he gaped in horror, his blood curdling in his veins. Kakashi's mask was up, as it nearly always was, and his normal eye curved in a smile, but the other, the sharingan eye, glowed and spun with a demonic light as blood gushed from the socket. The Kakashi-thing raised bloody hands, holding them out as if welcoming him into his arms. "Iruka," Kakashi said in his familiar voice, the voice that had always promised comfort and affection, but which now made Iruka want to shriek in terror. "Come to me."
Mizuki began to laugh.
No! Stop! Make it stop!
"It will never stop," Mizuki laughed. "Not unless you stop it."
There was something in Iruka's hand, something sharp that bit into his palm.
"Iruka-sensei." And now it was Naruto's voice behind him, and he almost wept, because Naruto's voice was changing, deepening, becoming guttural, and the boy's breath was hot on his neck but it was the rancid breath of an animal, and Iruka knew without looking that the kyuubi was behind him, his fangs dripping with blood and saliva, but he was beyond caring if the fangs tore through his flesh. It would be welcome. It would be a blessing, an end to the curse. The sharp thing in his hand cut deeper. He raised it. Make it stop. "Have to make it stop."
"Iruka. Mother's voice, or father's, or Mizuki's, and under it the triumphant hiss of the Fox—
"Iruka—" Kakashi now, bloodied and dead, demonic—
The point of the weapon touched his neck, drawing blood.
Now, I'll do it now, I'll do it—
A vise closed on his wrist, and suddenly his hand was being torn away from his throat. There was light before him and he squinted, trying to cope with the sudden change to brightness. He struggled for control of the kunai, but the hand on his wrist was stronger and easily wrested it away. The weapon skittered across the rocky floor and hit the cave wall.
"Iruka, stop it – stop it!"
The voice, oh yes, he knew that steel-and-velvet tone, but he didn't want to be held by the bloody phantasm with Kakashi's form, so he fought back and tried not to listen.
"Iruka! It's me, it's me!"
"No!" Kakashi's weight pressed him into the earth, a familiar heaviness that usually presaged pleasure, but which now felt suffocating. He shut his eyes against the terrible sight of the thing holding him down. "Get away from me! Don't touch me, whatever you are! Get away!"
His wrists were suddenly free, the hands holding them moving upward to cup his face. "Iruka," Kakashi's voice said again, but now there was desperation, even fear in it. "Iruka. Open your eyes. Look at me!"
He didn't want to, but the voice, the voice, and the palms warm against his cheeks…
Kakashi was looking down at him, not the Kakashi phantasm of nightmares, but his Kakashi, mask pulled down, eyes as they always were, no blood anywhere to be seen, same as always, but for the expression of fear on his face. There was light behind him, the glow of a torch jammed upright between two rocks. Over Kakashi's shoulder he saw one of the dogs, the squat one Kakashi liked best, seated on a rocky ledge observing them silently. For a moment he let relief wash over him, and then he remembered—"No, you have to get away from me. Leave me!"
"Don't be ridiculous," Kakashi said, smiling at him as if he were an idiot. "I just found you. I had to disarm a great number of booby-traps and discard all those fuda to do it. I've gone to a lot of trouble to find you, Iruka. Why would I let you go again?"
All the strength seemed to have left him. Exhausted, he lay on the rocky floor, turning bleak eyes on the other man. "You have to go. I'm dangerous."
"You?" Kakashi sat back on his haunches, just looking at him.
"I—" Iruka stopped, his words choking off. Mizuki was there again, standing behind Kakashi, grinning at him. "There! It's him—" He could only point helplessly as Kakashi whirled, weapon at the ready—
—only to turn back in confusion. "Iruka, there's nothing there." He knelt. "What is it? What's happened?"
Pain stabbed Iruka's body, piercing him like Mizuki's shuriken, driving the breath from his lungs in a wrenching wheeze. He reached up to clutch desperately at Kakashi's forearms. "Leave. Please. I'm cursed."
Kakashi's gaze was sharp as the point of a spear. "Tell me. Tell me everything."
Iruka told him, in a halting voice, about the dreams.
Kakashi knew such dreams; many ninjas suffered flashbacks of missions, or had delayed reactions to the stress and demands of them. He'd had many such himself, and told Iruka so.
Iruka shook his head. "But I don't just dream about Mizuki, Kakashi – I see him everywhere, at school, around the village…in here. But it gets worse; I see…" Kakashi watched the color drain from his face. "…others, too."
"My father. Mother. It was…horrible. There was blood. I saw…" Iruka's eyes were dull and flat. "I saw you. Dead. And I knew I'd killed you."
"Iruka." Kakashi shifted to pull him close. "Don't be ridiculous. You couldn't do that."
"Couldn't I?" Iruka shoved him away. "I'm losing control. I don't know what's real! Today I was reprimanding Naruto and suddenly he was—" He swallowed. "He was the demon fox, Kakashi, the kyuubi. I could smell him, feel the drool running from his mouth over my skin. I had him in my hands, and I'd already started to choke him when I came to my senses and realized what I was doing."
"Naruto can protect himself," Kakashi said casually, but his thoughts were grim. Iruka's story was disturbing. He ran a hand through his hair. "Look. Perhaps you just need sleep—"
"Sleep?" Iruka said bitterly. "How can I, when I wake up with my knife at your throat?"
Kakashi stared dumbly.
Iruka balled his knees until they nearly touched his chin, and rocked slightly, as if soothing himself. Kakashi had seen such behavior before in terrified children, not to mention damaged shinobi. "Sometimes, when we're together, I see things." His rocking increased. "Sometimes you're not you, Kakashi, you're someone, something else, and I'm afraid."
Kakashi forced his racing pulse to slow. "Can you…tell me?"
"Last night," Iruka said, looking at him sideways. "You remember what we did?"
Kakashi remembered, all right; it had been an epic session of lovemaking, almost violent in its intensity. He'd fallen into a deep sleep right after. "Oh, yes."
"You had me on my back, Kakashi, and you were pushing into me, and it was great, it was more than great, it was incredible, but suddenly I looked up and you were a monster, a, a sort of demon incubus. I thought, he's going to keep at me until he kills me. He's going to consume me. That was it for the sex – I couldn't come, I couldn't stand being touched any more. I pushed you off, remember?"
"I'm sorry, Iruka. I didn't know I hurt you—"
"You didn't. Not really. I just got so freaked, I couldn't go on. And then you fell asleep, and you looked normal. And then, in the middle of the night, I heard your voice, and I looked at you, and I thought— I thought you were that thing again. Your eye, it was…" Iruka shivered perceptibly. "I had my knife out and was about to—" Iruka covered his face with shaking hands; Kakashi thought he heard a sob.
"Iruka," he said softly. "It's all right."
"No it's not. I woke up, then. My hand started to shake. I couldn't believe what I was about to do. I spent the rest of the night on the roof."
"I-I didn't notice," Kakashi said quietly, damning himself. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"How could I? Tell you your lover is insane, or worse?" Iruka winced and pulled into an even tighter ball. "I went to Tsunade—"
"You what?" Anger flared. "I knew it! I knew she was keeping something from me!" Iruka was staring at him; he took a deep breath to collect himself. "Why would you go to her and not me?"
"I went to her because she's a healer, Kakashi. I thought…well, I don't know what I thought she could do. Give me medicine or something. But she just offered me a drink. I suppose she thought that would loosen my tongue. But I only got as far as talking about my dreams, when I got the feeling she wasn't who she said she was. I began to think, she's not the real Hokage. She's an imposter, and she's trying to poison me! I could feel my pouch, the one with weapons in it, practically vibrating against my side. It was like my whole body itched, and I thought, 'if I just reach into my pouch and arm myself, I'll feel better.' In the end I mumbled some sort of excuse and bolted." He sighed. "I'm sure she thinks I'm terribly rude." Iruka took in a deep breath and winced again.
"Are you in pain?" Kakashi took Iruka by the shoulders, and felt intense trembling under his hands. "Iruka. Did you fall, or—"
"No. My…back," Iruka wheezed. "Been aching for days. Getting worse—"
"Let me see. You may have hurt yourself and not noticed it."
He helped Iruka out of his jacket, and then his shirt, and stared in shock at what lay beneath.
His fingers ghosted over Iruka's back, lingering on the jagged scar left by Mizuki's shuriken; it had happened long before Iruka and he became intimate, and Kakashi knew it well. There'd been many nights he'd traced the scar with his fingers, or his tongue, many times he'd thought if this had gone any deeper, I would've never known you, Iruka. But now, radiating out from the familiar mark were heavy black lines that formed an instantly recognizable pattern.
"What?" Iruka, braced against the cave wall, craned his neck to peer at him.
"A seal," he murmured. "The Red Spider."
"I've never heard of it."
"It disorients, provokes delusions and increases violent tendencies. It turns inner doubts into weapons. Everything you've mentioned."
"But… Wouldn't you have seen it?"
"It wasn't there last night. It's a delayed action seal." His fingers hovered over one particular grouping of marks. "It's Mizuki's seal."
"Mizuki—! But when—"
"He must've attached it to his shuriken when you fought him for Naruto. Very hard to do, particularly that quickly." He couldn't deny the flash of admiration he felt. Delayed action – that was incredibly sophisticated. "It's clever, I'll give him that. It's meant to make the subject operate at the will of the one who sealed him. Mizuki meant to control you."
"That's what he liked." Iruka turned towards him, but his eyes looked everywhere but in his direction. "Mizuki had to be the one in control, even when we were…" He let it drop, but the implication was clear.
Jealousy hit Kakashi like a kick to the guts. Iruka…and Mizuki? He shook it off; he had no right to demand Iruka account for his past. "Something must've triggered it. But after all this time… Have you been under stress lately—?"
"Have I been under stress? Are you kidding me?" The defeated man in his arms was suddenly a virago. "What kind of question is that? Of course I'm under stress! Dammit, Kakashi, just being with you is stress enough!"
"Me? What did I do?"
"You don't do anything. It's just…you. And me. You and me. We're so different, like night and day. And it's hard trying to keep this thing between us a secret."
"Then don't!" Kakashi bristled. "I agree what we do is nobody's business, but I don't understand why you insist on secrecy. Are you ashamed to have me as your lover?"
"No, Kakashi! Please, you know that's crap. But how it would look to the students if they knew?"
"You are ashamed of me!"
"No, no, no! But we're supposed to be teaching them to keep their emotions in check. Shinobi aren't supposed to care about anything but their missions—"
Kakashi gaped at him. "Is that really what you believe? Is that something Mizuki taught you?"
Iruka flushed. "That doesn't matter."
"Of course it does! That's wrong, Iruka! You're a person with feelings. You care about your students, and yet you're teaching them to be emotionless machines? We shinobi have to watch out for each other, care about each other—"
"I understand teamwork, Kakashi. But what if they find out I have one person I love more than anything, that I'd ignore any mission for—"
"Love?" Kakashi stopped dead in his tracks, his mouth falling open. "Iruka…you love me?"
Iruka looked at him directly; there was still a faint flush about his face. He opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly his expression changed again and his eyes shifted over Kakashi's shoulder. The familiar look of horror returned. "N-no, don't— Oto-san, I can't—"
Kakashi swiveled, but again there was no one there. "It's a delusion, Iruka," he said, keeping his voice level, because when he turned back Iruka had another kunai in his hand, and his eyes were wild. "Listen to me. It's the seal, that's all." He reached out a hand slowly. "You're safe. You can give me your weapon."
"Why should I?" His eyes narrowed. "Why do you want me disarmed? Are you working with that thing? Are you—"
"Iruka." Kakashi's calm voice belied the turmoil he felt. "Iruka. You don't believe that Listen to me." His hand touched Iruka's; Iruka responded by clenching the weapon tighter. "Give me that."
"No!" his voice verged on a keening whimper, but he didn't relinquish the kunai. "I have to—"
Kakashi turned his arm swiftly and suddenly the kunai was in his hand. He sheathed it in time to catch Iruka as he collapsed. Iruka panted heavily and clung to him. "Please. Kakashi. Do something. I'm losing myself. You have to make it stop."
"I'll do my best," he murmured, but his mind roiled with doubt. It may not be enough.
"If you can't help me, Kakashi," Iruka whispered, "then you have to kill me. Because if you don't," his hands knotted in Kakashi's jacket, "sometime, somewhere, I will kill someone."
In the dim light of the torch, Iruka's naked skin appeared as pale as parchment.
Kakashi worked as quickly as he dared; he understood the need for perfection and would not rush a single element of the process. He tried not to consider the possibility that his skills might not be up to the task. After all, he'd counteracted Sasuke's cursed seal, and yet in the end Sasuke had broken through. It was possible that here, too, the sealing might fail.
He set his jaw and willed the doubts away. This was for Iruka. He would not fail.
He stirred water into the dry pigments he carried with him at all times; he added to it a bit of earth from the cave and finally a drop of his own blood. There was no requirement for it in the mixture, but somehow it seemed fitting, as if doing so might link his strength to Iruka's.
He drew the outer circle wall-to-wall at the narrow mouth of the cave and used his weapons alongside Iruka's to stake the area. The kunai that had so nearly been an instrument of suicide held the northernmost point of the inner circle, and it was just inside that point he made Iruka lay his head.
Kakashi listened to Iruka's harsh breathing, then dipped his fingers in the ink, and began to write.
He began at the center of Mizuki's seal, but the trembling (was it Iruka, or was it his own hand that shook so?) forced him to pull away lest he make a mistake. "Iruka. Try to hold as still as possible, at least until I'm finished writing." Iruka grunted something that sounded like assent. Kakashi took a deep breath to steady himself. He wrote slowly, one character after the other, creating a cross from shoulder to hip on the canvas of Iruka's back.
It took enormous concentration; by the time he was finished, Kakashi was covered in sweat. He put aside the ink, wiped his hands carelessly on his trousers and stood. The hand seals that followed were done swiftly, faster than most eyes could follow. Kakashi chanted quietly throughout. And then, at last, he was done.
He knelt again by Iruka's side. "I'm going to seal it now, Iruka. Please bear with it. There may be some pain."
Iruka's eyes held his. "Do it."
Kakashi pressed his palm hard against the nexus of the markings. Iruka's skin was clammy, but Mizuki's seal seemed to burn Kakashi even through his glove. As he gathered his chakra, he made a vow: I will make you sorry you ever drew breath, Mizuki, for the pain you have brought him. Chakra sizzling within him, he channeled it down through his hand into the seal.
There was a flash of blue-white chakra as the transfer began. Iruka screamed, his head and shoulders coming off the floor. Kakashi held him down, watching in fascination as the inky characters he'd written rose and began their strange dancing crawl up Iruka's back to disappear into the seal. It was mesmerizing, and draining. Kakashi could feel the draw on his own chakra; the inky marks blurred into sparkles before his eyes. Any more of this and both of them could be depleted, possibly beyond recovery. It didn't matter.
But finally the last image completed its transit, and Kakashi pulled away to sprawl beside Iruka, who convulsed once more before going limp. When he rolled him over, Iruka's eyes were glazed, but he was conscious and breathing. Slowly color returned to his pallid cheeks. "Kakashi?"
"Is it gone?"
He ran his hand over the clear skin, hoping the shivers he felt were from his touch, and not the vestiges of terror. "It's gone," he said. "Nothing there but the scar Mizuki left." And that will fade in time, Kakashi thought, with something akin to triumph. Soon he'll be gone from you forever.
Iruka released a tremendous breath. He felt exhausted himself, but tremendously relieved. He gathered Iruka close into his arms, welcoming the warm breath on his neck. "Welcome back," Kakashi murmured.
They might have stayed that way longer, but there was a soft growl that drew Kakashi's attention.
"Hatake-san," grunted Pakkun. "We have company."
"I can't believe you sent them after me. What was next – an ANBU seek and destroy mission?"
"Hatake-san, you're on pretty thin ice. This sort of crap won't win you any points." Tsunade uttered a sound of disgust. "For one thing, they were sent after Umino-san, not you. You were supposed to be on a mission, remember? By the way, that mission had to be reassigned to Anko. She wasn't happy; it was her birthday."
"Felicitations of the day. I'll buy her a present."
Tsunade glared. Kakashi glared back. This time she blinked first. "Kakashi. We would have brought him back—"
"And then what? Put him in an asylum? Studied him under like a lab rat? Locked him up? What? I did what I did because only I could save him!"
"Excuse me, Oh Hubris Ninja Kakashi! You really take the cake, you know that? Do you honestly think I couldn't have done the counteracting seal better than you? And before you ask, yes, it's fine. It seems to have removed the last of Mizuki's cursed seal. I checked him out personally, and—"
"Where is he?"
"He's home, but Kakashi, just because you're in love with Umino—"
But Kakashi was already gone.
"Damn you," Tsunade muttered, imagining various forms of dark revenge and punishment to befit rudeness at a Copy-Nin level. Hmmm…maybe I'll start by telling everyone about their relationship… No...that wouldn't matter. Everyone in Konoha Village knew already. Ah. She smiled wickedly. I'll just tell everyone that Kakashi's the most henpecked, submissive uke the village has ever seen…
"The woman is a menace," Kakashi announced without preamble, slamming the door behind him.