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Of Monsters And Men

Chapter Text

When Kakashi ambles into the Hokage’s office, Sandaime is already waiting for him with a mission scroll. He briefly scans the contents, while the old man’s idly puffing away on his pipe.

“An evaluation mission, huh?” Kakashi comments.

“Hmmm. You’ve met Iruka-kun before?” Sandaime asks in return.

Kakashi takes a moment to browse through his memories, but nothing much comes to mind. “I’ve heard bits here and there. Brown ponytail, prominent scar across his nose. Hmm, apart from that he’s rather unremarkable, isn’t he?”

Sandaime chuckles. “Well, you wouldn’t have known him as a kid. Quite the hell-raiser and prankster.”

“Oh?” Kakashi lifts his eyebrows. He’s not particularly impressed. Lack of discipline in Shinobi usually means they’re a risk for the mission and their comrades.

“Why do you want me to evaluate him for Jounin status during this mission?” He asks.

Sandaime wordlessly hands him a file. As Kakashi scans the pages, he leans back in his seat and smiles fondly. “Despite his reputation, he’s a promising boy”, he starts to answer Kakashi’s question. “You’ve known his mother?” Kakashi nods. He had served several times under Umino Kohari and remembered her as a calm, capable team leader. He wonders how much her son inherited from her, because his file is telling a completely different story. On top of his many pranks as a kid, he had only made Chuunin at sixteen. Now at nineteen, Kakashi wonders if promotion to Jounin isn’t still much too early.

“He’s very talented, inventive even, with traps and seals”, Sandaime interrupts his thoughts. “Moreover, he’s got a sharp mind which should aid you on this mission.”

Kakashi sighs and hopes the old man won’t catch it. Thinking about the actual mission parameters, he can already feel a headache forming. The premise seems innocuous enough, since they are only supposed to investigate the disappearance of some children in a small village in the Land of Frost. Frost had been willing to pay for an A-rank even. It was the perfect mission for a two-man-cell evaluation mission.

At least on paper. “So you want me to take Umino into Frost, observe his performance during the mission, and report back to you with my opinion about his qualification for Jounin status? Is that why Umino isn’t present during this briefing?”

Sandaime nods in acknowledgement. “Well, you have a gift for leading and teaching”, he adds. “Even if you’re still resistant to the idea of taking up a Genin team”, the old man narrows his eyes at him, his smile nearly hidden in his wrinkles.

“Teaching people who at least know to grip a kunai at the right end is so much easier than teaching little snot-nosed brats”, Kakashi mutters dryly, putting as much derision into his voice as he can muster.

This is familiar banter for both of them, Sandaime well aware of Kakashi’s aversion to taking up responsibility for children. Kakashi knows the old man is just trying to get him to interact with people more, but he’s still resentful to having been pulled out of ANBU. He had been fine in ANBU, interacting with people just splendidly.

--

The next morning, when the cold mist is still clinging to the fields and Kakashi can only barely make out the trees past the gate, they meet up for their mission. Umino is punctual, but he looks a bit worse for wear.

“Had a rough night?” Kakashi casually greets him, but Umino only blushes in response and averts his eyes to the ground. Interesting, Kakashi thinks. He hadn’t intended for it to sound like an innuendo, but Umino does have large shadows beneath his eyes. He’s got a pretty face, his cheeks still a bit puffy from youth. But the deferential attitude annoys Kakashi and he jerks his gaze away. Not that Umino will have noticed, his attention still on his feet, which he nervously shuffles through the dirt. Bad habit for a shinobi, Kakashi thinks coldly. If Umino really intends to become a Jounin in the near future, he’s off to a bad start with this kind of first impression. Careless movements like those are what get inexperienced shinobi killed in the field quickly.

Kakashi strides past Umino and waves to the guards. Past the gate, he jumps into the trees, trusting – or rather challenging – Umino to keep up with him.

--

They stop for the night in a forest made up almost entirely of birch trees, criss-crossed by a multitude of small rivers and creeks. During the last few hours, they have taken to the ground because the birch trees are too frail to hold their weight. But the ground is wet and they have to expend chakra to keep from slipping or stepping into one of the many mud holes on their way.

When night finally falls, they are both unexpectedly exhausted. Sleeping on the ground doesn’t seem appealing, but they make out a small hillock covered with moss they can sleep on for the night. They are still within the borders of Fire and can settle for comfortability over security concerns.

Umino is busy retrieving their sleeping bags from the sealing scrolls and arranging them close to a huddle of trees which could act as some sort of shelter, when Kakashi decides it’s a good opportunity as any to discuss the subsequent course of action with him. Since they had been briefed separately, he wants to make sure their individual information about the mission matches up.

“Hey, Umino”, he calls to the other shinobi, who looks up a bit startled at the suddenness of Kakashi addressing him. Kakashi had kept to himself during the last days, partly because he doesn’t like getting too close to people on a mission. He wants to keep his distance, especially if he’s supposed to evaluate the other’s performance.

Strangely enough, Kakashi still feels a bit guilty for keeping their interactions to a bare minimum. He’s no stranger to slightly oppressive silence, even if it doesn’t bother him as much as other, more socially inclined people. But Umino had been nothing but friendly to him, growing steadily quieter the more Kakashi refused to engage in conversations with him. Now there’s an awkward mood hanging between them and Kakashi feels strangely compelled to lift i, despite his nature.

“We’ve made good progress today.” Kakashi is careful to add an approving note to his voice. “Despite the terrain slowing us down, we should pass the north-eastern border of Fire country into the Land of Hot Springs tomorrow evening. Can you keep up with this speed or is it going to be a problem? If it’s too much strain on your chakra, better tell me now before it’s too late. I don’t want to risk you being low on chakra if we run into a fight unexpectedly.”

Umino looks up with wide eyes and takes a moment to reply, “N… no, it’s fine. I can keep up.”
He hesitates for a moment before he adds, “Do you expect a fight? From what Sandaime told me, I thought it would be more of a covert mission.”

Kakashi takes his attention off the small fire he’s started and gives Umino an assessing glance.

“It depends. We’re headed into Frost country and it shares a border with the Land of Lightning. There’s a chance we’ll run into Kumo shinobi or worse. Frost has a small contingent of shinobi as well, but since they are the ones who requested the mission, they’ll probably be expecting us.”

Umino is listening intently, frowning slightly. Kakashi appreciates that he’s taking this mission seriously and turns his attention back to the fire.

“Then there’s the nature of the mission itself,” Kakashi adds. “It may sound easy, because we’re only expected to track and find some missing children, but if there is something – or someone – behind the disappearances, we might run into trouble.”

“I did wonder why searching for missing children would be considered an A-rank,” Umino quietly responds. Kakashi just hums non-committedly in response, but files away Umino’s perceptiveness in his mind.

--

The next day they manage to pass into the Land of Hot Springs without any problems. It’s a pleasant country, covered by large forests and famous for its hot springs said to carry various healing effects in their water.

Kakashi notices a wistful look on Umino’s face as they pass what appears to be one of the many natural hot springs, steam curling beyond the tree tops, but doesn’t comment on it. They’re not on vacation; the sooner they reach Frost and get on with their mission, the better.

--

They do reach the Land of Frost just barely a day later. It’s a long, narrow strip of land to the east of the Land of Fire, separating it from the coast. At its narrowest part in the north it connects Fire with Frost, which is an even smaller country, barely a tongue of land between the continent where Fire is located and the vastly bigger Land of Lightning. It’s a rough stretch of land; bordered by the wild sea to the north and south and covered by a huge, deep mountain range.

Hot Springs and Frost are both small countries, nestled between the two big shinobi nations of Fire and Lightning. Traditionally, they’ve always played some kind of buffer role, alternately serving as the site of bloody battles and offering a neutral ground for peace negotiations. Therefore, the Land of Frost and the Land of Hot Springs are intent on keeping good relations with both Fire and Lightening, offering small missions to both country’s shinobi villages.

Despite their close proximity, Frost and the Land of Hot Springs couldn’t be more different in their landscapes. While Hot Springs is covered by forests with broad-leaves and conifers mixed, Frost gives way to the harsh mountain ranges and scrubby vegetation of Lightning. When they pass the border, it suddenly feels much colder, the wind picking up in speed and carrying the scent of the ocean.

A large mountain range is looming in front of them. In order to reach their destination, a small village hidden in one of Frost’s many deep valleys, they’ll have to navigate the cold, frost-covered mountains which give the Land its name. Travel is difficult and mostly restricted to the interconnected valleys, covered in dark forest made up almost entirely by fir trees.

As the sun is sinking below the horizon, they reach the very entrance to one of those valleys and Kakashi signals for a stop. The temperature has dropped immensely since they’ve entered the shadows cast by the large mountain range and Kakashi can’t help but notice how Umino clenches his fist around his backpack strap and shivers. He’s barely able to stop from shuddering himself, not only because of the physical cold, but because something in the atmosphere surrounding the mountains chills him to his very core.

“We should stop here for the night. Frost is difficult enough to travel by day and impossible by night. We’ll have nearly no way to hide or dodge should we get attacked in one of those valleys. Once we’re in, there’s only going forwards or back,” Kakashi warns and Iruka nods briskly in reply.

“We’ll sleep on the ground again, but let’s keep close to the fire. Back to back, so whoever keeps watch can quickly wake the other one in case of an attack. I’ll keep first watch and wake you later, alright?”

After eating a small meal over the fire and settling down for the night, Kakashi stays awake to keep watch. Although many of his comrades prefer getting a good night’s sleep over this particular duty, Kakashi actually likes to keep watch. It’s as good time as any to plan ahead for a mission and think back on the day’s events. So far, their mission has been blissfully uneventful but Kakashi knows that it’s not going to last. Tomorrow, they’ll probably reach the village where the children have been reported missing and need to start investigating.

Kakashi feels Umino shift in his sleeping bag and knows he’s probably still awake. He sighs quietly. Although his own experiences of being kept awake on a mission by nerves are a far away memory, he feels responsible for making sure that his teammates get all the sleep they can manage. He turns around slowly, but Umino has turned his back to him and only the fluffy end of his ponytail is visible over the edge of his sleeping bag.

“Umino, what’s up? If you can’t sleep yet, we can switch guard duty,” Kakashi addresses him quietly. Umino rustles abruptly in his bag, as if startled. He turns around, carefully peeking over the edge of his sleeping bag.

“I’m sorry, Hatake-taichou,” he whispers back. “It’s just….” At this, he sighs and turns fully to face Kakashi. “It’s ridiculous, really, but this forest… there’s something unsettling about it. I’ve never felt something like that in the forests around Konoha.”

Kakashi hums thoughtfully. He doesn’t brush off Umino’s concern, because he can feel it, too. If anything, it says a lot about the accuracy of Umino’s instincts if he easily gets disquieted in this kind of environment.

“Frost has a dark history. It was used as a hideaway by criminals and missing nin for a very long time and although the Daimyo now has a firmer grip on the land, it’s still very rough, wild terrain, hard to cover in its entirety. There might still be a lot of undiscovered places and bandits roaming the valleys,” he explains. “Is this your first time coming here?”

Umino shakes his head, his eyes still downcast. “No. We’ve briefly passed here on our way to the Chuunin exams in Kumo. It’s actually… very similar to the area we held the exams in.” He shakes his head again, like he’s trying to clear cobwebs from it, and falls silent. Kakashi has no interest in prying deeper.

They keep silent like this for a while, each of them lost in their own thoughts. After a while, Umino raises his head and looks at Kakashi directly. Kakashi is slightly startled by their eye contact, which might as well be the first time Umino managed to meet his eyes. Kakashi briefly wonders why, but is distracted by the small, honest smile Umino shoots at him.

“Thank you, Taichou. …Um, for listening to me. And well … for not laughing,” his smiles turns half rueful, half cheeky. Kakashi can’t really make it out in the low light from the fire, but he’s rather touched. There’s something nostalgic for Kakashi about Umino’s open and honest smile and he can’t really pinpoint what it reminds him of.

“I think I can fall asleep easier now. Please wake me when it’s my turn to keep watch”, Umino adds, startling Kakashi from his thoughts. He simply nods in return and watches Umino turn around again.

With a silent huff he draws the fabric of the sleeping bag tighter around his shoulders and resolutely turns his thoughts back to his mission planning.

--

Kakashi wakes the next day to a sheet of frost clinging to his sleeping bag, hair and skin. It’s really too cold to sleep in the open like that, but if everything goes as planned, that should be their last night spent in the woods. If they reach the village by night, they will hopefully be able to claim one of the houses for as long as they’ll need to accomplish the mission.

Umino is already awake and bustling around their camp site. When Kakashi sits up, Umino casts him a quick smile and Kakashi nods in reply. He feels like something shifted between them last night, if only minutely, but it’s still noticeable. He takes his place next to the camp fire, rubbing his hands to warm them. Umino passes him a ration bar and he busies himself with trying to get it out of its wrapper with hands stiff from cold, before he speaks.

“We’ll probably reach Tansaku village tomorrow, so we should prepare in advance. Frost might have pledged us assistance, but since we don’t know much about the real circumstances behind the children’s disappearance I’d rather go in undercover first and only expose our mission objective in case we get discovered.”

Umino raises his eyebrows slightly, curious. “Not that I disagree, but how do you plan to go about that? I haven’t brought any disguise or equipment for an undercover mission.”

Kakashi shoots him a grin. “Maa, don’t worry. Leave that to me.” Umino makes kind of a funny face at him in response.

--

“And how is that supposed to help me blend in?!” Umino asks not half an hour later, blowing at the loose strands of hair, styled into heavy bangs, which are falling into his face and obscuring his view. He’s got dirt smeared across his face and wears a large, scruffy looking woollen shawl around his shoulders. It’s slightly itchy and smells of dog.

“It will help us with our cover story,” Kakashi explains calmly. He chances a quick glance up from where he’s focused on combing his hair back with soot-infused hair gel, turning his silver strands into messy, black curls. “Since you look like a woman with your hair down”, he adds, not without malice, and receives a well-earned shout of indignation from Umino in response.

“Well, at least you look sufficiently different.” Umino grins, bouncing back to amusement in seconds, which Kakashi is now slowly becoming accustomed to. “I wouldn’t have recognized you with that hairstyle even in Konoha”, he adds and Kakashi nods in acknowledgment.

 

“Well, it does help me to keep the admirers at bay, even in Konoha.” He grins, waiting for Umino to make the connections. Understanding dawns on Umino’s face and he makes a strange sound, which might be a supressed snort.

Kakashi can’t keep the hint of teasing out of his voice when he adds, “I actually thought you would be more familiar with disguises yourself, given your sordid reputation as a prankster.” He lifts his eyebrows for emphasis and Umino’s eyes bug out at the statement, clearly surprised that Kakashi is this well-acquainted with his history.

“I… uh… how do you even know about that?” Umino demands. He’s flustered now, a hectic red rising to his cheeks at an alarming rate. Umino is clearly embarrassed by his own past antics. Indeed, what Kakashi knows about Umino’s pranks from his file stands in sharp contrast to how Umino presented himself on this mission so far – competent, mature. Could someone change this much in only a few years?

Kakashi smiles ruefully at how easily Umino responds to his jibes. This obvious discrepancy between Umino’s sharp mind and naïve bearing is baffling to Kakashi, and frankly, worrying. It’s a liability, he knows, but Kakashi can’t help that it’s affecting him.

He’s really taking a liking to Umino. It’s not surprising, given his tendency to drift towards people who are the complete opposite of himself, able to express their thoughts and feelings freely, believing in the inherent good of others and letting that inform their actions: Minato. Rin. Obito. Even Gai.

A strange feeling is churning his insides as memories drift up to the surface of his mind. He recognizes the inherent, fragile innocence and it never fails to awake the strange need in him to protect it, to cherish it, even if he knows it’s ultimately futile, doomed to be lost to the ways of their world.

--

As they travel further into the woods – now at a normal walking pace to avoid being immediately discovered as shinobi – Umino is studiously avoiding to look at Kakashi. Not that he’d been one to establish direct eye contact before, but now Kakashi can’t help but notice that Umino is consciously looking away from him. Kakashi’s got an inkling to why that is, but he waits for the right moment to bring it up.

As it is, that moment comes right before they enter the village. It hadn’t been easy to find; nestled in a sharp hook between two mountains, underneath sharp cliffs. There are only limited ways into and out of the village: a good defensive position, Kakashi notes. It’s not even a village in the sense that Konoha is called a village; it’s a small huddle of houses, nestled close together, all in all probably not more than a dozen. It will be difficult to infiltrate here as those villagers are bound to watch anyone new closely. They know exactly that no weary traveller would come across this village accidently; you’d have to look for it to find it, and its mere existence wasn’t known to many, at least not past the borders of Frost.

“What is it that’s so special about this village?” Kakashi thoughtfully murmurs, more to himself than to his companion. Umino casts him a curious glance, just to quickly avert his eyes again. There’s even a light blush dusting his cheeks, while his eyes are intently trained on the ground. Kakashi is kind of tired of it by now. Up until this morning, he had felt they were making progress, only to have their developing familiarity abruptly cut short by this trivial thing, really.

“Is there something interesting on the ground over there?” Umino even manages to wince at that, something that makes Kakashi roll his eye at him. “If not, I’d appreciate it if you’d looked at me if we’re talking. This is kind of awkward and the villagers are bound to take notice”, he adds.

Umino’s head snaps up so fast, there’s an audible sound. He’s staring at Kakashi with wide eyes, stumbling out, “So… sorry. I didn’t realize you noticed.” Kakashi is giving him a look in response, because really? Umino’s eyes stray away again in embarrassment, but he quickly catches himself.

“Sorry, I’ll try to… not do that again.” He looks visibly strained, just to keep his eyes on Kakashi’s face.

“Look as much and as long as you want, but get it over with before we enter the village,” Kakashi remarks in a bored tone. At that, Umino finally meets his eyes again, and now there’s a glimmer of resoluteness in them, which Kakashi appreciates. Umino responds well to reminders of duty, he notes and files away for later.

Umino’s eyes sweep over his mask-less face, taking in the details, interestingly enough with a perfectly neutral face now that he’s gotten over his initial embarrassment. After he’s finished cataloguing Kakashi’s face, he meets his eyes as if in a challenge, nods curtly and turns back in the direction of the village.

“Fine now?” Kakashi inquires after him, not without a hint of amusement in his voice. It earns him an eye roll from Umino, but no further reply.

Chapter Text

The trick about infiltrating a closely guarded place like this village is simple, really. Kakashi is intent to let the villagers assume as much as they want, make up their own stories about them. Anyone ending up at such a far-flung village is bound to have a secret agenda, it would be more suspicious for them to provide a detailed cover story. We are looking for a new beginning as farmers in a peaceful place with nice weather isn’t going to cut it here, where nobody really wants to be in the first place.

The most difficult thing would be making sure that their sudden appearance won’t be connected to the disappearance of the children – but it will, Kakashi is sure, because in a small village like this a close timing of such big events won’t be dismissed as coincidence. So they’re going to make sure of it – that their appearance and the missing children are connected, but not in a way that would expose them as shinobi. Underneath the underneath, and so on. Kakashi hopes Umino is a good enough actor, at least when it counts.

--

They agree to use first names with each other in the village, because it would be strange for them to travel together otherwise. Umino is Iruka, which is perfectly fine because no one should recognize his name anyway. Kakashi insists on shortening it to Ruka, a girl’s name, much to Umino’s chagrin. It would be too difficult to pass him for a woman long-time without a henge, but they can try to take it as far as possible using simpler means. This way, Umino might have access to information exclusively shared between women and if discovered, they could still pass it up as a misunderstanding.

Kakashi decides to go with Kurou and has Umino – Iruka – practise it a few times before they enter the village. He seems hesitant to call Kakashi without the added honorific –san but that might work in their favour.

Immediately, as they enter the village, a few people milling around raise their heads and stop their activities. Silence stretches out and Kakashi subtly steps to the side to block Iruka partly from their view. First impressions will go a long way in forming the villagers’ opinion about them, and if they strolled into the village all confidently and sure, the villagers would suspect something.

An older man, his face weathered and creased by the seasons, abandons his post, but not his scythe and slowly approaches them. “Who are you?” He asks brusquely.

Kakashi introduces himself, “My name’s Kurou.” He gestures to Iruka, “That’s Ruka. We’re here because of the children.”

A murmur runs through the crowd. More villagers have come out of their houses and gathered near the village gates. If they wanted attention, they’ve certainly got it now.

“What do you know about our children?” The old man is clearly angry now, stepping closer. A few of the male villagers follow, tools clutched tightly in their fists. Kakashi knows that a lot of villagers are trained in simple martial arts and able to wield their everyday tools with deadly precision. Iruka is keeping calmly to his right shoulder, not interfering, for which Kakashi is grateful. This situation is tense enough as it is.

He trains his attention on the older man again, who seems to be the speaker of the village or at least in some sort of higher position. “We don’t know anything. That’s why we’re here. Ruka’s child has been taken, too, so we hope to find a clue in this village.”

Of course it’s a cover story, but one that should settle them firmly on the villagers’ side. But only, if the villagers themselves aren’t in on the disappearances. Kakashi has seen too much to trust people not to sell out their children or loved ones.

In any case, they are bound to find out soon.

--

Despite their initial suspicion, in the end the villagers are willing to accommodate them for now. They get settled in one of a few houses that the original inhabitants seemingly abandoned a while ago. Umin- Iruka casts a disquieted gaze around the drab, dusty room which serves as the center of the house, but doesn’t speak up. Kakashi is grateful for it, because the old, gaunt woman who led them up here frowns at them darkly. Ever since they’ve started on the small, steep path towards the house perched at the edge of the village, a small distance from the other houses, she hasn’t spoken a word.

They are clearly not welcome, but accepted for now, which is well enough for Kakashi. When the old woman leaves and turns downwards towards the village again, Kakashi and Iruka share a glance. Kakashi nods curtly, signalling to the other shinobi to wait for a moment before they share their thoughts.

Should we use hand signals, instead? Iruka starts asking with his hands flexing in the standard Konoha signs. Reflexively, Kakashi’s hand shoots out and climbs down on his fingers. Iruka looks at him, stunned, but Kakashi just draws himself closer to the other man.

“Don’t use those, too obvious”, he murmurs in a low voice. “Let’s just talk instead, but standing close to each other so they can’t overhear or read our lips.”

He becomes acutely aware of his hand still clamped around Iruka’s and he lets loose abruptly. He averts his gaze, but doesn’t move away. His body is rigid; he can’t help it, his instincts screaming at him not to move into such a vulnerable position, close to another, his back open, in a possibly hostile environment. He needs an iron will to clamp down on his feelings and remain where he is.

If Iruka notices, he doesn’t mention it, his gaze still trained on Kakashi’s face. Kakashi isn’t sure if he’s impressed that Iruka is so easily comfortable around people – or appalled that he doesn’t seem to have any of the usual survival instincts of highly trained shinobi.

“You think they will watch us?” Iruka asks in an equally lowered voice. To Kakashi, it still feels too intimate, uncomfortably so.

“They might be in on it and wary about any intruders who might want to dig too deep”, Kakashi replies. “It’s still too early to rule out any possible scenario.” He fixes Iruka with a hard glare. “Don’t trust anyone in this village. But also don’t question them too openly.” He lets his gaze roam around the room, cataloguing the inventory. “I’m curious about this many abandoned houses as well, but it will probably take a while for them to open up to us.”

There’s not much in the house; it’s one of those one-room, two-storey huts with a steep pitched roof, the edges almost touching the ground. The one room on the ground serves as combined cooking and living area, the toilet and bath probably outside in a shed or small annex connected to the main building. The bedroom seems to be the upstairs. They are ill-prepared for furnishing a whole house, so Kakashi hopes there are still some household items of the original owners left.

Iruka is already rummaging through some of the chests and drawers. “Look, there’s cutlery here and some firewood left over, so we don’t have to go out into the woods in the dark. Oh, a pot!” He brandishes the tool triumphantly. “I can make ramen now! Luckily I brought some instant packages!”

Kakashi pins a disbelieving look at the other man – if all Iruka packed for the mission is instant ramen slop, he’s probably not to be trusted with the cooking. A quick grab later, the pot is safely in Kakashi’s hands and he turns towards the hearth in the middle of the room to start a fire. He ignores the surprised “Hey!” behind him and gets to work.

While Kakashi is busy adding shiitake mushrooms and dried meat to a simmering dashi broth made with seaweed and tuna extract, Iruka continues his exploration of the house. A ladder creaks dangerously as Iruka crawls up on it through a hole in the ceiling leading upstairs. Kakashi approves of the setting; if they draw the ladder up behind them when they go to sleep, they will at least slow down any possible attackers long enough to escape through the window if necessary.

He listens absentmindly to Iruka milling around upstairs, while stirring the soup. Maybe they could add the ramen noodles after all, he muses; this way they would have at least some carbohydrates in their meal.

He hears an elated shout from upstairs and thundering steps following, then Iruka is peeking his head through the opening. “Look what I found”, he crows and waves a white cloth around wildly. A cloud of dust is suddenly descending the stairs.

“Uh”, Iruka coughs and climbs down the stairs as quickly as possible, the white cloth bundled tightly in his arms. Kakashi quickly covers the pot with a lid, before the cloud of dust gets any chance to settle in their stew.

When Iruka opens the door to air out the linen, he suddenly lets out a surprised shout. Kakashi nearly leaps up using chakra, but catches himself just in time. He grinds his teeth, because that had been a close call; at no point should they be caught using chakra or shinobi-trained movements. Damn Iruka and his impulsiveness! Although Kakashi grudgingly has to admit that Iruka fits right in with the civilians, as no one would ever suspect him to be a shinobi with this kind of careless movements.

Apparently the reason for Iruka’s surprise is a net filled with mud-covered, oddly shaped vegetables, deposited on their front step. He scoops it up along with the cloth, shuts the door and plops down next to the hearth.

“This is some linen for the bed upstairs. The bedframe is empty, there are no mats to cushion it. I couldn’t find any futons either.” Kakashi just nods in acknowledgement. They might find something to fill the linen tomorrow, but for today they’ve still got their sleeping bags. He’s more curious about the vegetables. “Did you spot someone near the house?”

Iruka shakes his head, “No, nobody was around. The village is quiet, eerily so. There are still some lights on here and there, but no one seems to mill around at this time of the day.” Kakashi hums in acknowledgement. Night has fallen; the time wild animals start to roam the surrounding woods. Kakashi is not surprised the villagers would rather stay at home than brave the dark.

“Strange, that someone still dared to come here and bring us food. Particularly, since the villagers didn’t seem to care about us much in the first place”, he comments.

Iruka looks thoughtful. “You think the vegetables might have gone bad? Or… maybe they are poisoned?”

Kakashi gingerly grabs an oddly shaped, brown-crusted vegetable from the bag whose leaves remotely resemble those of a daikon, a long, usually white kind of radish. He brushes the dirt from the strange fruit, then grabs a knife and cuts it in half. The interior looks pristinely white, just like a radish, but he takes a cautious sniff just in case. It smells just like a daikon.

When he lifts his head again, his eyes meet Iruka’s, who has him fixed with an odd, concentrated stare. “It’s safe”, Kakashi remarks disinterestedly, “I think.”

He rises from his crouch next to the hearth and moves to a small basin filled with water. There’s a pump right in front of the house and they had drawn as much water as they would need before the night fell. He starts scrubbing the vegetable over the sink to clear it from dirt. It would make a good addition to their stew and Kakashi isn’t about to let fresh vegetables go to waste.

“We still don’t know who brought them”, Iruka quietly adds from near the fire.

Kakashi hums again, then answers as he returns to the fire, peeled daikon in hand, “Maybe there are some villagers who are sympathetic to us. Or someone really wants to poison us. Either way, we will find out tomorrow.” He directs his most infuriating smile at Iruka, and it doesn’t fail its purpose; Iruka bristles immediately. “I would still have preferred ramen over oddly-shaped, maybe-poisonous vegetable stew!” He sulks.

Kakashi can’t help it; he starts laughing. “Don’t insult a perfectly fine daikon! It’s quite normal for it to look like that when grown in the wild or in a rural environment. It’s just that they pick the shapelier ones for sale in bigger villages; that’s why you’re probably not used to how they look here.”

Iruka fixes a disbelieving glare at him. “And how do you know that? Last I checked, you’re from the same village.”

“But I’m still from a family of farmers”, Kakashi answers and heartily bites into a raw piece of daikon.

--

After an uneventful night – apart from the strange noises from the woods that kept them both wide awake for a while – they decide to spend the day investigating the village first. They come up with some excuses – Kakashi is to join the men working on fields to firstly, gain some trust with the villagers and secondly, to maybe earn some fresh produce for their meals. Iruka will explore the village with the excuse of looking for proper bedding and other house-hold items.

Kakashi is sweating in the fields despite the chilly temperatures, laboriously pulling roots from the stony ground, when everyone is called in for lunch break. A few women from the village brought soup and bread which the men devour mostly in silence. Kakashi quietly thanks the woman who hands him a steaming bowl, but is not surprised when he only receives a curt nod in response.

The silence doesn’t bother him, neither does the gloomy mood that hangs over the village, even with the sun out and light pouring down the valley. For a precious few hours around noon, the village and its surrounding grounds are bathed in a golden glow and appear almost appealing, if not for the run-down buildings and persistent air of gloom.

Kakashi doesn’t try to break the silence either, as he knows that any overt curiosity will result in even more suspicion. He’s convinced the villagers will start to talk to them on their own terms, most likely with questions of their own before willing to say anything about the children.

So it doesn’t surprise him when a gruff man in his early forties with brown shaggy hair and beard addresses him suddenly. What does surprise him is the actual content of the question.

“So, in what kind of relationship are you with that woman, Ruka, as you called her?”

It’s brusque, but kind of makes sense. Kakashi is keenly aware that he had referred to Ruka’s child instead of our child when introducing them both to the villagers. In anticipation of further questions invoked by this, they had planned their cover story accordingly.

“We’re cousins. I’m just tagging along since it would have been risky for Ruka to travel alone.”

He’s keeping it short, not wanting to give too much away and creating even more speculation. The villager seems to accept that explanation easily and goes back to his task, but Kakashi knows this new piece of information will be quickly shared around the village.

--

In isn’t until the evening falls that he meets up with Iruka again. He’s busy dragging a big net with vegetables up the steep to their house when the door opens and Iruka approaches him quickly to help with the heavy load. Together, they manage to lift the bag the remaining steps and into the house. Kakashi slightly curses the self-imposed ban on using chakra. He’s in peak shape, but his form is still better suited to flexibility and speed instead of carrying bulky items.

They settle down for the evening, easily falling into their established routine with Kakashi preparing dinner and Iruka focussing on stowing away their newly acquired food.

When Kakashi looks up from the simmering pot, Iruka throws him a wry smile. “Vegetable stew again, I guess?” Kakashi only hums in response. Apparently, no one taught Iruka appreciation for proper food, but he would try as long as he had the opportunity to make Iruka see the fine points to proper cuisine.

“Did you get any cooking oil or vinegar? Then I could try to diversify our dishes a bit.” Iruka looks at him blankly, as if the thought didn’t even occur him. Kakashi nearly puts his head into his hands. “How did you even survive on your own for so long?” He grumbles.

At this, Iruka casts his eyes downwards and there’s a tense silence suddenly stretching between them. “How do you know about that?” He asks quietly, and Kakashi nearly bites his tongue at his own idiocy at letting such an intimate bit of knowledge slip.

“I’ve worked with your mother”, he quickly grasps for the next convenient explanation, “So I remembered that she died during the Kyuubi attack when I first heard your name.”

“Bullshit”, Iruka interrupts harshly. Kakashi looks up at him, a bit shocked, only to be met with a hard glare in response. “My mom was an elite jounin, and I...,” at that he chokes a bit, “…was only eleven when she… when they both died. No way could you have worked with her, you’re barely two or three years older than me!”

This time, Kakashi has to look away, slightly uncomfortable. “I did. I made Jounin at thirteen. During that night… I was forbidden from joining the fight, but I still remember it”, he adds bitterly.
When he looks up, Iruka’s expression has shifted from grief to shock to pity, until he drops his gaze down to the floor again. Kakashi wonders, if this habit helps Iruka to hide his emotions. Suddenly he feels hypocritical, judging Iruka when he himself still needs a mask to hide his feelings.

--

They pass dinner in silence. Only after they’ve finished cleaning the dishes and settle around the hearth, Kakashi feels bold enough to pick up the conversation again.

“So how was your day, Ruka?” He asks in a loud voice, signalling to Iruka that they should exchange their information in-character, if possible. The chances someone might spy on them deep in the night are low, but Kakashi is hesitant to disregard them completely.

Iruka is calm again, but there’s still a sombre note to his tone when he says, “I’ve gone into the village, looking for the old woman, because I thought she could tell me where to find some bedding. But I’ve ended up at the communal place in the center instead, watching the children play.” He laughs ruefully at that and scratches his head.

“They seemed so happy and unconcerned, which somehow gave me hope. Maybe there is a good outcome and we can find the children quickly.”

Kakashi frowns at that, because the adults he met during the day left him with the exact opposite impression. Obviously, the disappearance of the children is weighing heavily on their minds.

“Anyway”, Iruka adds. “I’ve met some of the villagers, including the woman who brought us the food last night apparently.” At that, Kakashi perks up.

“She’s called Mikune and one of her two children is missing. She felt some pity towards us, so she wanted to help. She asked me a lot of things, like where we’re from and so on. She seemed very desperate for answers herself, so I think she hoped for information from me than I could give her. She asked very precisely about the circumstances of the disappearance of ‘my child’.” At this, Iruka frowns slightly and continues in a slightly lower voice. “I could only tell her what we agreed on beforehand, but I don’t know how much that matches up with the concrete disappearances in this village.”

Kakashi hums at that thoughtfully. They had only been able to work with the information they had received in the mission statement, and that had not been much. All they did know was that the children had disappeared by night, apparently leaving the houses secretly or not returning to them when evening fell.

“Tomorrow we should actively start to question the villagers”, he suggests. “Somehow, I get the feeling we shouldn’t expect too much information from them, so I want that out of the way as quickly as possible and start on the real hunt.” He’s growing restless, he knows, and wonders why.

--

The next morning, when Kakashi joins the men at the fields, he doesn’t bother with waiting anymore. It makes no sense to to be idle, when with every passing day there’s a lower chance that they’ll be able to find the children alive. He’s displeased with the lack of action from the villagers, despite their obvious deep unsettlement at the disappearances.

“So, how many children vanished in this village altogether?“ He asks the man working next to him, a guy in his early thirties, old enough to have some children of his own.

The man looks up startled, and stammers, “Uh, this is sudden… that is to say, I don’t know?” He reaches up to wipe the sweat across his brow and abandons his work for a moment to think. “Well, there’s the two children from the Kuromachi family on the other side of the village, one from Hashimoto and one from Karasugawa. I believe, at least two or three children from the Kusano clan vanished as well. And oh, of course Toru, Shima Mikune’s older son.”

He falls silent for a moment, his mouth twisting in a bitter grimace. “That’s almost half of the children in this village. The village might die out in a few years.”

“Oh, but you haven’t lost a child yourself then?” At Kakashi’s question, the man looks back to him, surprised at being pulled out of his thoughts. “Ah, no. I’ve got two, but both of them are still infants. The children that vanished were older, old enough to leave the houses and play on their own outside.”

He adds, “If this continues, I fear for my own, too. My wife and I already talked about moving to another village. But I’m not sure it will be safer somewhere else.” He casts a meaningful glance at Kakashi. “It’s just what this world is coming to, apparently. Definitely not a safe place to have children.”

Kakashi curbs his instinctive retort. This world has never been a safe place for children to grow up in the first place, but there’s no point in telling that to the villager. There is something more urgent gnawing on his mind anyway.

“Have you looked for them? You all seem strangely resigned to the children having disappeared.”

Their prolonged conversation has drawn the attention of some of the other villagers working on the field and a few of them have abandoned their tools as well and gathered around them. The atmosphere is not exactly threatening but tense, all the attention focused on Kakashi. He casts a long glance around at the gathered men, ranging from young, sturdy teenagers to old, weathered men.

They look healthy, strong and Kakashi can’t possibly imagine why they are calmly working the fields instead of roaming the forests, searching for any trace of their children.

At Kakashi’s question, they exchange quiet glances, until an older man steps forward.

“We did”, he meets Kakashi’s gaze head-on, challenging. “And we found no traces of them. Moreover,” and at that there’s a murmur rippling through the crowd. “Some of the men who went out to search for the children never came back. We’ve found their mangled remains a few days later in the forest. Since then, nobody’s dared to go out there anymore, especially not after night-fall.”

He fixes Kakashi with a hard glare. “There is something – or someone – dangerous lurking out there and we’re no shinobi, so how could we possibly confront whatever’s taken our children?”

--

“They are monsters in the woods! It’s why Mommy has forbidden me to go out there!”

Kakashi hears the child’s voice even before he reaches the small house. Iruka’s sitting on the front steps, a small boy with unruly blond hair next to him. He talks animatedly with his hands, Iruka paying close attention to him, inserting the occasional thoughtful comment to show he’s listening.

When Kakashi had asked after Iruka on his lunch break, the woman serving soup had given him directions to the Shima house. He slows down, not wanting to interrupt the child’s tale. Even if most of it will be probably exaggerated, maybe the children picked up on something the adults missed. After all, some of them had apparently disappeared from their houses on their own.

“Toru-niichan went out and didn’t come back, although he promised me he would show me, too.” The child’s lower lip trembles, as if he’s about to cry and Iruka lays a gentle arm around his shoulder. Kakashi scoffs at that. The child seems less to be crying because of the loss of his brother, but more because he thinks he has been left out of some kind of cool adventure. Probably he hasn’t even realized yet that his brother is unlikely to come back at all. What the villagers have told him about the disappearances confirmed Kakashi’s darkest fears; that the children weren’t snatched, probably taken in captivity and still alive, but that they have been killed by something that’s still roaming the woods.

As if subconsciously taking up on his dark thoughts, Iruka raises his head suddenly and notices him. “Kuro-san!” The child next to him pauses in rubbing his wet eyes and stares at him. Kakashi knows his presence is sometimes eerily quiet, unexpected even for people in Konoha who are used to shinobi. It’s ingrained into him, and hard to shake off. Still, it never fails to put civilians at unease, even if he doesn’t intend to.

Iruka is biting his lips, hugging the child closer to him. His eyes seem to beg something of him, but Kakashi doesn’t know how to break the uneasy silence that descended upon the scene. He doesn’t know how to comfort, especially not children. His gaze flicks between Iruka and the child awkwardly, until Iruka takes pity on him.

“Sho, this is Kuro-san, my cousin. He always looks a bit grumpy, but he’s actually very nice. Why don’t you say hello?” At this, Iruka sneaks a smile at Kakashi and ruffles the boy’s hair. The boy, Sho, glances up and suddenly springs up to his feet, as if Iruka’s words have given him a sudden boost of confidence. He haughtily stalks towards Kakashi, wiping the snot from his nose. “I’m Shima Sho. Nice to meet you.” At that, he sketches a bow that has Kakashi’s brows climbing up to his hairline. Iruka barely hides a snicker behind his hand.

“I’m Masamune Kuro. You may call me Kuro-san, brat.” At that, he reaches out to give the kid a noogie. Sho struggles to get away from him and hides behind Iruka, throwing him a dark glare in return. Kakashi decides to just ignore him for now. “Ruka, did you get the oil and vinegar? I might get fresh venison for dinner today.”

At the mention of meat, Iruka perks up. “No, but I’ll ask around. Anything else that we need?”

“Hmm, some wild mountain vegetables would be great as a side dish”, Kakashi replies. “Maybe we should go for a short stroll in the woods before evening? I think I can get off early today.”

Suddenly Sho springs to attention again, “No! You can’t! It’s forbidden to go into the woods alone!” Kakashi levels him with a glance. “We’re not alone, dummy. We’re going together. Furthermore, we’re adults and we will be back before the night falls.”

But Sho is close to crying again, vehemently shaking his head. “No, no, no! Dad went too, to look for Toru and he didn’t come back!” At that, he clings to Iruka, focussing his teary gaze on the startled Chuunin. “Please don’t go. Promise me you won’t go!”

Iruka is visibly shaken, throwing a helpless glance at Kakashi. Kakashi isn’t sure how to handle the upset child either. At one point, they will have to venture out in the woods, to at least confirm the situation. But they can’t very well tell the child that they are shinobi to calm it down.

“Sho.” Iruka’s voice is firm. “I promise you we won’t go far and we won’t stay long in the forest. I understand that you’re worried and I thank you for that, but you have to be strong. Not for us, but for your mother, because she only has you now.”

The boy calms down at that, still sniffling, but visibly composing himself. Iruka gives him a soft pat on the back. “Now go, find your mother, and ask her if you can help her with something. No use sitting around here doing nothing.” Sho nods and hugs Iruka fiercely, before he runs off.

Iruka sighs, “Now I’m going to have to do some explaining when Mikune-san sees her son like this.” He shakes his head, “She’s already pretty shaken by the loss of her husband and other son. It’s really too horrible what happened to this village.” Kakashi only gives a thoughtful hum in response. It’s not the time and place to discuss what they found out today and what their next steps should be.

“You’re still up for that brief stroll into the forest?”

Iruka gives him a small nod in reply.

--

The forest is already quite dark when they step into it, cold mist creeping between the looming fir trees. The terrain is rough and uneven, with only small trails twisting around large, moss-covered boulders and tree trunks. Kakashi knows that at least during noon sunbeams should hit the ground, but it feels like this place had been abandoned by warmth and light for a long time already.

“I don’t think we’ll find any mountain vegetables growing here”, Iruka remarks dryly from where he’s following Kakashi’s lead. Kakashi nearly smiles at that, despite the gloomy mood hanging over the forest.

“I didn’t expect to”, he replies lightly. He stops for a moment to inhale the frosty air. It smells clean, the scent of fir trees overpowering the traces of earth and moss and stone.

He rummages through the pockets in his wide plaid and produces a scroll, just as Iruka catches up.
“What’s that?” Iruka asks curiously, but Kakashi only hums in reply. He bites his thumb and smears the blood across the scroll.

“Kuchinose no Jutsu!”

Eight hounds pop up in a cloud of smoke. Pakkun, the smallest, eyes him up and down from his perch on top of Bull’s head before he asks, “Yo boss, what’s up?” It’s then that he notices Iruka next to him. “Who’s that lady?”

Iruka sputters at that and Pakkun takes a brief sniff. “Ah, sorry, my bad. But there’s definitely some woman’s smell clinging to you.”

Kakashi rolls his eyes, “Focus. We’re here on a mission. Some children have been missing in this forest and also, some villagers have been killed, mangled even.” Iruka casts him a sharp glance at that, apparently not yet in the know about the other villagers having been killed.

“I want you to scan the area and report all unusual traces back to me. Blood, human scents, ferocious wild animals, and so on. Don’t trail them and take care to not get away too far. We don’t know yet what we’re dealing with. At any sign of danger, pop away immediately. Don’t lead them back to us, if you can help it. Now go!”

The eight hounds disperse in all directions and soon vanish between the trees and stones.

“You think it’s safe to have cast a jutsu here?” Iruka frowns at him.

“Nobody from the village ventures into the woods anymore. I’ve heard from the villagers today; apparently some of the men looking for the children were killed when they went out alone or stayed out after dark.” Kakashi explains, but Iruka doesn’t seem satisfied.

“But how do they know those villagers have been killed? They never found any traces of the children, so we can’t know they’re dead yet.”

Kakashi sighs, “They’ve found their remains, apparently in a pretty bad condition.”

Iruka looks shocked at that, but Kakashi continues regardless. “We don’t know yet if the disappearances of the children and the death of the villagers are connected. It could be two different perpetrators or groups of perpetrators even. All we know so far, is that there’s something out here.”

“Monsters”, Iruka whispers and casts a frightened gaze around.

“Or men”, Kakashi adds dryly.

--

They don’t stay long in the forest, neither of them intent on meeting whatever’s out there. Kakashi waits just long enough for the hounds to report back to him, before he lets go of the summons. So far, they haven’t found anything unusual about the forest, except that it’s unusually cold and gloomy.

They can feel some kind of dark traces of chakra hanging around, but they can’t pinpoint it to a certain source. Because their range is limited by the quickly approaching darkness, Kakashi decides to give up for today and return to their house. Iruka doesn’t disagree but has kept unusually quiet the whole time.

They make their way back to the village in silence.

--

The quiet doesn’t lift, even as they’re busy preparing for dinner. Kakashi silently marvels at the way they pass tools and ingredients to each other, working seamlessly, even without a word exchanged. He wonders how they managed to grow so in tune with each other, in such a short time even. Iruka is easy to be around, not overtly talkative but nevertheless a quick-witted, entertaining partner. Kakashi is grateful to have him on this mission with him, but also confused by the conflict of feelings waging a war within him.

Kakashi decides to give Iruka space for now, not wanting him to press into revealing whatever seems to be bothering him since they left the forest. He’s only lightly surprised when Iruka finally starts speaking after they’ve settled down for dinner. He doesn’t give his feelings away and continues to chew on his food, despite giving him his full attention.

“You’re not convinced we’re going to find the children alive, are you?” Iruka’s voice is so quiet when he says that, Kakashi has to stop chewing for a moment to catch it. He thinks for a moment, then lets his gaze trail over the glowing coals in the hearth.

“No, probably not. Even if they had survived in the beginning, they can’t possibly have endured the woods for so long, on their own. We’ve seen it today, there is barely anything growing in them except fir trees and moss.”

Iruka lets out a long, pained sigh at that. “I wanted to hope so much that we could save them.” Tears gather in his eyes as he says it. Kakashi looks at him, not without sympathy. While he never really expected any other outcome from the start, he can still acknowledge the pain the disappearances cause.

Still, it would be dangerous for them to get too attached to this cause. They still don’t know what or who’s behind it and the truth could be even uglier than what they’re already facing. He tries to say as much, when he levels Iruka with a strict glance.

“I understand that it’s hard not to get affected by this kind of mission. But try not to get attached too much, to anyone. This is our life”, ‘as shinobi’ he leaves unsaid. “People die. Children die. If you’d mourned for every stranger that gets killed on a mission, you’d never stop mourning.” Iruka casts him a strange look at that, and suddenly Kakashi feels guilty.

He sighs, “I don’t mean you should stop caring… just take care. It’s hard enough to keep alive the few people close to us.”

“And how many of those close to you have been killed already?” The strangely level question startles Kakashi and he looks up at Iruka, whose eyes brim with so much sadness, and sympathy, and emotions Kakashi can’t even name, so he has to look away hastily, to keep his composure.

“Everyone”, he admits.

--

They silently fall into the routine of cleaning up after dinner again afterwards and prepare for bed. They share the wide bed upstairs, now that Iruka has gotten new bedding for it. It still smells a bit dusty, but it’s much more comfortable than their bedrolls.

But neither of them seems to be able to fall asleep, too many unspoken thoughts on their minds. Kakashi is not even trying to pretend to sleep, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. He’s listening to Iruka’s steady, but strained breathing and wonders what he could say to ease the burden. The mission is clearly affecting Iruka far more than himself.

He slowly turns on his side, facing Iruka directly. Iruka looks up at him, startled, “Uh, what is it? Did I wake you?”

Kakashi slowly shakes his head. “No, I was awake anyway. Too much going on in my mind.” He makes a flappy gesture with his hand, but doesn’t want to go into details.

Iruka shuffles closer to him, “I’ve thought about what you said. And I understand what you mean. But still, I want to protect them. The villagers and their children, I mean. I want to help them.”

“I know”, Kakashi sighs. “I want to as well. But it’s not going to be easy. I want to find out what’s behind all this, first and foremost. Depending on the outcome, we might have to call in reinforcements anyway, maybe even from Frost.”

“You don’t think Frost is involved?” Kakashi shakes his head at that. “Something about all this feels familiar, but I can’t pinpoint it yet”, he replies. He’s aware he’s lying to Iruka in a way, but the suspicion that has slowly taken hold of his mind since this afternoon is nothing he wants to admit before he’s not certain. After all, Iruka hasn’t been around for the kind of missions and shadowy things he’s seen in ANBU.

“I don’t believe the story of monsters roaming the woods and eating children”, he continues. “But it might be a cover-up for something even more sinister. If Frost is requesting assistance from us instead of Cloud and is willing to pay an A rank for some missing villager children, there’s definitely more to it.”

A light touch on his arm jolts him from his thoughts. He looks up at Iruka, who’s suddenly even closer, biting his lip.

“Whatever it is, you can count on me, Taichou.” Iruka lowers his gaze. “I know that I’m easily affected by my emotions. Sandaime-sama tells me all the time I have to get a better grip on them”, he adds with a rueful smile that’s causing a strange feeling in Kakashi’s gut.
“But”, Iruka says and looks up at that, his eyes so full of sincerity and determination, that Kakashi can’t help but get lost in them, “I promise to do my best, and to not become a liability to you.”

Kakashi has to swallow against the lump in his throat. “You’re not a liability, don’t ever think that. I know I’ve been kind of harsh to you before, but I know I can trust you.”

He doesn’t register Iruka’s response, since there are suddenly warm, surprisingly strong arms wrapped around him and soft hair in his face. Kakashi isn’t sure how to react to that. He doesn’t even remember the last time being hugged, maybe it had been Gai, or Kushina even. There aren’t many people around anymore he’s close enough to to suffer affections from.

He settles for an awkward pat on Iruka’s back, but instead of that discouraging the hug, Iruka’s arms only tighten. Kakashi can’t even say that he minds it much; Iruka smells clean and fresh and a little bit like the fir trees from the forest. He slides his hands across Iruka shoulders, down his arms, hoping to calm him.

Instead, Iruka suddenly turns his head and Kakashi jolts as hot lips press to his neck. The hug turns into an intimate embrace in seconds and Kakashi goes rigid from shock. Iruka’s hand are burying under his shirt, sliding across his skin, but it’s only when his knee starts to dig between Kakashi’s knees that Kakashi is snapped from his stupor and into action.

He grips Iruka’s shoulders and has him pinned on his back in the blink of an eye.

“What the heck?” He snarls into Iruka’s face, who’s looking up at him with wide eyes, utterly mortified.

“I.. I…”, Iruka stutters, obviously stunned and at a lack of words, while embarrassment colours his face a deep scarlet. “I’m sorry”, he manages to gasp out. “Really… really sorry. I thought…you… but I…” He brings his hands up to hide his face and Kakashi loosens his grip. A small hiccup and muffled sounds escape from behind his hands and Kakashi immediately feels guilty. He huffs and turns around, sitting on the edge of the bed and facing away from Iruka, to cool his mind. He knows he’s probably overreacted After all, Iruka is still an ally, a comrade, not the enemy. Even if his advances had been sudden and not necessarily welcome, Kakashi could have communicated that better. He just doesn’t know how.

When Kakashi has calmed down enough to get back into bed, Iruka has his back turned to him already, utterly silent. Kakashi hesitates for a moment, wanting to say something, but not knowing what. He gives up.

Sleep doesn’t come for a long time, for either of them.

Chapter Text

The next morning arrives in awkward silence. They go about their normal routine, but barely exchange a word. Instead, they split up quickly to go for their respective duties in the village.

Kakashi is itching for action, something to keep his idling mind focused on the task at hand, instead of replaying over and over again the events of last night. It’s not as if replaying and analysing every little detail is going to help him to understand the situation better. He pretty much knows what happened already. Iruka… – Umino, he forces his mind to call him – has probably developed some kind of crush on him, not a rare thing between subordinate and commander, especially given the close quarters they’ve lived in for the last days. And the awkward confessions he managed to pull from Kakashi, he reminds himself bitterly.

The problem is: It’s not that Kakashi doesn’t want to return those feelings. It’s just that he can’t. The time’s not right, neither is the place. They have a mission at hand that needs all their focus and attention. One simple miscalculation and it could cost them both their life. There’s simply no time for distractions like this. Kakashi hopes Iruka will understand. Kakashi wishes he had never brought it up in the first place, but is also feverishly thankful that he did. He can see it clearly; getting to know Iruka better in Konoha, growing closer, maybe even living together. He’s never allowed himself to even think of something like this before. Since Minato-sensei’s death he has only ever looked back, calmly waiting for the next mission, the next opponent, silently counting the days until a mission would ultimately take his life. He had been resigned to that fate for what feels like forever.

Kakashi feels panic raising to the surface and clamps down on it with an iron will. He will not let his feelings, his memories get the better of him and interfere with this mission. Iruka’s life is too damn important for that.

--

A sharp cry and suddenly the field erupts in a loud commotion. People gather around what looks to be a woman, gesturing wildly with her arms. Kakashi abandons his tools and tries to get a closer look, but he doesn’t recognize the woman. She’s weeping openly, her hair in disarray and tears soaking the cloth pressed to her mouth. Obviously, she’s too agitated to speak and Kakashi only catches fragments form the onlookers.

“Isn’t that Shima Mikune?” One younger man whispers. “What’s she doing out here?”

Suddenly the commotion turns towards a newcomer and Kakashi recognizes Iruka. He’s searching the crowd as if looking for something, and when their gazes lock he nods subtly. Kakashi makes his way through the crowd and takes Iruka a bit away from where the villagers are still gathered around Shima Mikune, trying to get her to speak.

“What happened?” Kakashi tries to keep his voice low. Iruka throws a glance around to make sure the others are standing far away enough not to overhear them. His lips press tightly together and Kakashi can see the deep shadows underneath his eyes. It’s not only the lack of sleep from last night, but something else deeply disturbing him.

“Sho has vanished”, Iruka confesses with an infinitely sad voice. “Just shortly before noon. Someone saw him slipping away, into the woods. They followed a bit, but lost his trace.”

Cold dread slithers down Kakashi’s back. It’s one thing to investigate the whereabouts of some missing children, but one completely different thing to have one vanish right before their eyes. Sho hadn’t been reckless, instead he had been very much afraid of the woods. What could have possible possessed him to disregard all caution and go on his own?

There’s no time to loose and Kakashi quickly arrives at a decision. He draws himself up and strides immediately towards the small crowd gathered around Mikune-san. As the startled woman looks up at him, he quickly says, “Mikune-san, we’ll find your son but we’ll need your help. I need something of Sho’s for my hounds to track him.”

Mikune casts a wary glance between Kakashi and Iruka, but nods. The sudden prospect of someone willing to brave the woods and actively search for her son visibly helps her to calm down. She hurries towards her house and gestures to Kakashi to follow her, Iruka close behind. The villagers trail along, curious about that sudden turn of events.

When Mikune returns from the house with a worn shirt of Sho’s, Kakashi immediately calls his hounds, the villagers drawing back as the smoke clears. Iruka casts him a wild-eyed look, clearly disturbed that Kakashi abandoned their cover this carelessly.

But there’s no time for explanations right now, so Kakashi busies himself by taking out the storage scroll with his gear while the hounds are sniffing the shirt to memorize Sho’s scent. He gestures for Iruka to get into his gear as well. Iruka only hesitantly complies, the murmurs from the crowd increasing while they’re shedding the long plaid and shawl and change into their vests and forehead protectors.

“Who are you?” The angry question stems from the same old man who gruffly interrogated them when they first arrived at the village and who has suddenly arrived at the scene.

Kakashi, now fully dressed, faces the man and calmly replies, “We’re shinobi from Konoha on an official mission from Frost to investigate the disappearance of your children. We’ll gladly accept any kind of assistance or help you can offer.” At that he sketches a small bow, because after all they are here in service of the villagers first and foremost.

At that, the frown on the old man’s face only increases. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen your kind around here, Shinobi”, he spats. “You’re not welcome, so leave! You never bring anything good, only death and destruction.” He turns and limps away, but not before muttering, clearly audible to the crowd, “Who knows, maybe you were even behind it right from the start.”

Kakashi feels Iruka bristling behind him, but gestures to him sharply to stop him from interfering. There’s no point; they would only waste precious minutes in finding Sho, and it’s not as if the old man is completely wrong.

Kakashi turns his attention back to Sho’s mother, still waiting on the steps of her house. The hounds have finished taking up the scent and are busy looking for the trail at the edge of the forest.

“Could you direct me to the point where Sho was last seen? If we take up his trail at that point it would be much more accurate”, Kakashi addresses Mikune-san. She only nods in reply and hurries towards the woods, close from here where her house is situated right at the edge of the village.

When they arrive at the first trees, Kakashi turns back to the villagers. “Is someone here willing to come with us?” Nobody steps out, all of them keeping a safe distance, their faces closed off and nearly hostile. The old man’s speech has done its effect; there’s not much help to expect from the villagers anymore. Only Mikune casts an honest, pleading look at them. She bows deeply, as Kakashi and Iruka face her both. “Please bring back my son, if you can. Take care. I’ll pray for your safe return.”

“Thanks”, Iruka replies in heartfelt gratitude while Kakashi nods. They exchange a glance before they both leap into the trees, following the hounds.

--

They are hot on the trails of the hounds, following Uuhei, who’s directly on Sho’s trail and also the fastest runner. Bull and Pakkun have joined them earlier, to briefly report that now the forest is suddenly full of the trails of children, increasingly so the further they venture into the woods. Kakashi can’t make sense of that and he has no time to discuss it with Iruka, both of them sprinting at high speed to keep up with Uuhei. They’ve been running for at least two hours and Kakashi can’t imagine how a small child could have crossed the same distance in barely more time.

Suddenly, Uuhei comes to a full stop, nose twitching close to the ground. They both halt and wait for her to come to a conclusion. Kakashi takes a deep whiff of the forest air himself, but his nose is not as developed as that of a hound, even if better than most shinobi’s. All he picks up is the all-encompassing smell of fir trees and wet moss and… Suddenly, Iruka turns his head around sharply.

“I can hear crying… it sounds like a child!” He says. He closes his eyes, apparently trying to pinpoint the direction of the sound. Kakashi can hear it too, faintly, but the direction is hard to tell.

“Uuhei, any trail coinciding with a direction the crying could come from?” Kakashi asks impatiently.

“Just a moment, boss, there are so many trails interloping here, it’s ridiculous”, Uuhei replies, still fervently sniffing the ground. Suddenly, a surprised shout comes from behind a bolder higher on the mountain from their current position.

Kakashi notices only then that Iruka has left his side, apparently investigating on his own, and quickly follows. What he finds, stuns him into a stupor.

Behind the boulder, Shima Sho sits and cries, very much alive.

--

Sho is still crying as Iruka gathers him into his arms, trying to calm him down with soft strokes across his head and back. Kakashi can’t put a name to the strange feeling welling up in his chest; he should be feeling happy that they’ve found the child alive, but something like dread settles in his chest instead.

He roughly turns away from the scene and with a sharp whistles calls his hounds to him. What they report, only confirms his uneasiness. There are several different traces of human children found in the surrounding area, crisscrossing the mountain, but all venturing towards a central point. Since they are this far out here already, with the children possibly nearby and alive, they can’t just turn back to the village yet. On the other hand, night is approaching quickly and they’ll have to get Sho back to safety first.

Iruka is softly speaking to the child in his arms. “Sho, you’re safe now. Can you speak? Please tell us, why did you go into the woods in the first place?” But Sho’s still crying, hiccupping as he tries to speak.

“Toru… was there… I think. He waved at… me so… I thought he had come to…” At this, the child breaks down into heavy sobs again. Iruka tries his best to calm him down, but fails.

Kakashi sighs. “We have no choice. We can’t let the trail go cold, but I don’t want to keep Sho out here any longer than necessary. Do you think you could take him back to the village on your own?”

“What?!” Iruka bursts out, stunning both Kakashi and Sho into silence. “Why would you think I’d leave you behind? We still don’t know what’s out here! Even if the children are still alive, something’s been killing the villagers! Are you planning to face that alone? I’m more than capable to help you!”

Kakashi is stunned. It’s only when he manages to shake himself from his stupor that something in him snaps. Cold fury races through his veins. “Don’t question my orders, shinobi!” He barks at the stunned Chuunin. “I can take care of my own, but what about Sho? You should think of his safety first, so don’t be ridiculous! Now, can you make the track back alone or not?”

Iruka blanches and instinctively hugs Sho tighter to him. The boy looks up with big eyes, glancing between them both. Iruka obviously needs a moment to compose himself, teeth gnawing on his lips, a hectic red spreading across his cheeks. After a moment, he lowers his eyes and nods.

“I’m sorry, Taichou. I won’t question your orders again. I will return to the village with Sho.”

Kakashi’s heart breaks at the sight. He can tell that Iruka’s outburst stemmed from good intentions, but that doesn’t help the situation. He hates seeing Iruka this beaten, this downtrodden, but if that’s what needed to keep him in line, to keep him safe, Kakashi is willing to do it again. He hopes he’ll get a chance to make up for it later. As it is, he only nods curtly and turns, not watching when Iruka leaps into the trees with Sho.

--

Kakashi races his hounds to the place the trails seem to converge, mind strictly focussed on the dangers ahead. There’s no point for regret now, only the mission.

They climb higher and higher towards the top of the mountain, the trees growing sparser and the ground turning rocky. It’s difficult terrain, but not for a shinobi, the chakra gathered in his feet allowing Kakashi to race across the rock as if it was smooth earth. He still can’t imagine how children could survive in this environment for so long, without any help. It’s only when he sees his hounds gathered around a large opening in the rock face that the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place and the ominous feeling in his gut increases in certainty.

The dogs growl, the residue of dark chakra clinging to the cave entrance making their hackles rise. Although they’ve finished their task, he decides to keep them around. It’s putting additional strain on his chakra, but whatever’s waiting for him in the cave, he’s not willing to face it alone.

Darkness descends upon the mountain top, one of the last parts of the forest still lit by the quickly sinking sun. They’d better hurry, so Kakashi retrieves a torch and rope from a scroll. He signals to his hounds for a defensive formation and together they enter the cave. Kakashi lifts his headband to expose the Sharingan and scans the walls for traps. The entrance is wide, as is the corridor behind it. It’s obviously man-made, either by tools or by jutsu, but whoever carved it wasn’t intent on hiding it, no need for secrecy this deep into the god-forsaken mountains of Frost. The ideal hideout, Kakashi thinks grimly, and he has an inkling for whom.

Moss is gathering on the walls, small animals scurrying away from the light of his torch. The air smells stale and he can’t pick up any obvious traces of human smells. He doesn’t hear any sounds in response to his entering, either.

After a few turns he arrives at some steps, leading further down into the mountain. Carefully, he advances down, noting the small rooms branching off the corridor. There is not much left in them but empty shelves and bed frames, a few of them upturned and broken and adorned with shackles.

When he arrives at the end of the stairs, he’s surprised to find the biggest room yet illuminated. He instinctively readies a kunai with his free hand until he realizes the light’s coming from a natural source, through holes in the upper parts of the walls. Apparently the room is drilled into a rock facing the setting sun and the last few rays of light are dipping the room into an eerie red.

The walls are lined with stretchers, shackles readily mounted on the walls. They confirm Kakashi’s worst fears. Broken glass litters the ground, strangely-coloured substances staining the floor.

He casts his torch around the room, taking in the details. It’s an abandoned hide-out, possibly of Orochimaru’s, but how long it’s been vacant he can’t tell. There has been some recent activity here, some of the substances not yet completely dried. He gingerly steps over the filth, using chakra to keep from touching the ground directly. After all, there could be acid in there, or worse.

His gaze falls on strange sculpture made from cloth pitched on a rope between two of the stretchers. He recognizes it as a make-shift tent maybe, but when he comes closer to inspect it, his attention is drawn to some crude drawings on the wall right next to it. There are stick figures waving what looks like small swords and big energy blasts between them. They look like drawings a child would have made, really. Something clicks in his memory then.

Children. Children drawing pictures of fights. Children drawing pictures of shinobi fighting.

His mind races, trying to put together the thousand details that register in his mind but don’t seem to make any sense. It’s only when Pakkun barks at him that he’s drawn from his thoughts.

“Boss, we’ve found another exit. There’s something you should see.”

--

The smell is overwhelming and Kakashi instinctively reaches for his mask to cover his nose. He knows this smell like the back of his hand – he hates nothing more – and it’s still disgusting, every time.

But the sight is worse.

They’ve existed through a narrow tunnel leading from one of the smaller rooms to some kind of backyard, an open area between three large boulders. It’s where they find the corpse.

It’s hard to tell what killed it, and it’s even harder to tell what it was. The rotting has quite advanced already, but the figure is still clearly discernibly not human, at least not entirely. There are big claws protruding from its hands and feet, the arms and legs themselves grossly enlarged, partly covered by fur, partly by scales.

Kakashi has seen strange shinobi over the years with even stranger appearances and bloodline limits, but this… this looks like one of Orochimaru’s failed experiments.

It’s small, the size of a child, and it’s only then that realization truly hits Kakashi.

--

A few minutes later find him racing through the trees, the hounds hot on his heels. He curses himself repeatedly, for all his famed genius too blind to make some simple connections.

The children. Still alive, after weeks in the woods. Travelling large distances, evading full-fledged shinobi. The abandoned hide-out. The make-shift playground, the pictures on the walls. Children playing as shinobi. The broken phials. The dead body of a mutated, transformed child.

Monsters killing men in the woods at night.

Bile rises bitterly in his throat and nearly chokes him. He curses himself again, for his stupidity, his arrogance, his negligence, and prays that it won’t kill Iruka, and that he will make it in time, this time.

--

The barks of his hounds alert him to Iruka’s position immediately. It had been easy to trail them as they had only had to follow the trails of the children converging in hot pursuit of Iruka and Sho.

As he stumbles onto the clearing, acidic smoke fills his nose, obscuring his view. He has to blink against the sharp sting in his eyes. He casts a quick wind jutsu and the smoke dissipates, revealing the sight of a gruesome battlefield. Two of the monsters, children, whatever they are now, lie torn apart by what appears to have been a heavy blast, probably caused by an explosive jutsu or tag.

As Kakashi spots Iruka at the other end of the clearing, surrounded by the five remaining creatures, his heart drops into his stomach. Only a feeble barrier is protecting Iruka from the onslaught of the attack, the monsters springing and clawing against it. Several of his hounds have buried their teeth in them, trying to drag them away from their target, but without success. One of the creatures reaches back and slaps Urushi, sending the howling dog back several yards.

Kakashi whistles for his hounds to back off for now, not wanting them to get hurt in a futile fight. Apparently the scales he’d noticed on the body before protect the creatures against teeth and possibly sharp weapons as well. They haven’t noticed him yet, too focussed on their prey, but it’s only a matter of minutes, seconds even. Kakashi feverishly tries to think of a solution.

Iruka is safe, but also caught behind the barrier, making communicating with him impossible. Those explosive tags of him would come in handy right now, but Kakashi doesn’t have any tags on him. He rules out weapons, even senbon, knowing that anything of Orochimaru’s creation is probably highly resistant to poisons. This only leaves jutsu, and while Kakashi has more than enough of those in his arsenal, he’s hesitant to throw them against the monsters clinging to Iruka’s barrier, not wanting to accidently harm Iruka and the boy still huddled in his arms.

What he needs is a distraction. While the hounds back away, some of the creatures have turned their attention around, taking notice of Kakashi as well. Two of them stop their assault on the barrier and slowly start to crawl towards him, but Kakashi isn’t fooled. The children managed to cross huge distances in a very short time, so they’re probably as fast as a trained shinobi in their enhanced state, if not faster.

He subtly moves a few steps to the side, trying to get a better angle of attack. He’s completely focussed now, his Sharingan whirling, trying to anticipate any quick movements. But curiously the creatures aren’t moving with chakra, the enhancement apparently purely physical. The Sharingan is nearly useless then, Kakashi realizes.

A short warning bark from Pakkun and they’re onto Kakashi. He barely manages to block the sharp fangs protruding from their foaming mouths with kunai, but he’s quickly overwhelmed. They’re too close, too fast, and there’s no chance of making hand seals for jutsu. Except… Kakashi feels his white chakra gathering in his fist before he can’t even form the intent. The familiar shrieking of a thousand birds is filling the clearing when he drives his Chidori through the nearest of the two children, mere seconds later felling the second.

He tries not to think too much about the memories this invokes.

He hears Iruka cry out a hoarse warning before a silent blast shakes the clearing. Kakashi instinctively closes his eyes and shields his eyes, dropping into a protective stance. But there’s no debris to be felt, the explosion contained in a small area. Was that… a tag detonated within a barrier? Kakashi has never seen anything quite like that before but apparently it has taken care of two of the remaining monsters. The single one left uneasily circles the middle of the clearing, eyeing the hounds, Kakashi and Iruka. No recognition, nothing human remains on its face, twisted in an ugly grimace by the teeth protruding from a mouth not made for fangs. Fur and scales cover what remains, the eyes slitted and filled with venom. To Kakashi, it seems like the child within is forever lost. Killing it would be a mercy.

Iruka stands from the place he was squatting, the barrier long dispersed. Kakashi wishes he would put it up again, knowing that for all his proficiency with tags he doesn’t stand a chance in close combat with those things. Iruka’s movement attracts the attention of the creature and it crouches, ready to attack again. Kakashi wants to call out to Iruka, but even a split moment of distraction could cost him his life. Suddenly, he gets another epiphany, his hands blurring through a complicated array of seals.

“Katon: Karyuu Endan!” Sharp bullets of flames form a dragon blazing across the clearing, encircling the stunned monster from three sides and swallowing it whole. When the smoke clears, only a charred corpse remains and Kakashi finally allows himself to exhale. He nods to his hounds and disperses them. There’s no need for the extra strain on his chakra anymore.

He turns to Iruka who has gathered Sho into a tight hug. The child is sobbing and clinging to the Chuunin. Kakashi isn’t sure if he’ll ever overcome the traumatic experiences of this night, losing his brother and friends.

As it is, all that remains are corpses of what once had been the village’s future.

--

It’s when Kakashi has barely finished dragging the bodies onto a heap and lightening them with another fire jutsu, that he hears a gruesome sound and Iruka’s terrified shout. He turns just in time to witness a sight he immediately wishes to forget.

Sho has latched himself onto Iruka’s throat, digging small fangs deep into his shoulders. Kakashi knows there’s no time to loose, but is uncertain how to best separate Sho from Iruka. He doesn’t want to hurt Iruka who’s held down by suddenly monstrously strong arms.

Kakashi tries to haul the boy away from Iruka, but to no success. He’s not grown much fur or scales yet, so Kakashi fumbles for a kunai, prepared to chip away at the boy bit by bit if necessary to get him away from Iruka. It’s then that his eyes meet Iruka’s. There’s a minutely shake of his head, a quiet warning. Back off, Iruka mouthes, his face contorted by pain. Kakashi hesitates, not wanting to loose precious seconds if Iruka’s plan fails but decides to trust Iruka instead.

He’s just a few steps away when suddenly a strong blast is throwing him off his feet. A few moments later he hacks, as he tries to get the putrid smell of charred human flesh and smoke from his lungs. He opens his eyes to blink against the tears on his face and tries to find Iruka in the thick smoke by sight.

His mind is still hazy from the shock of the blast, so it takes a moment for realization to catch up with him. There’s no way that Iruka could have survived a blast from these close quarters. He feels ill, dreading the moment the smoke will lift and expose the scene to his eyes. He’s sure he has failed again; a simple mistake during a crucial moment. He had let down his guard too easily, too quickly. He should have trusted his instincts, telling him something had been afoul with Sho’s unnaturally quick progress in getting away from the village.

A nasty little voice in his mind reminds him that it had already been far too late, his mind irreversibly distracted from the mission when he had allowed Iruka to worm his way into his heart. Bitterness tightens his throat and he nearly chokes on the pain and anger and desperation that fills his mind.

A faint groan startles him from his dark thoughts and his head snaps up, fervently searching for the source. The smoke still wafts over the ground, making recognizing anything beyond huge lumps difficult. Kakashi slowly makes his way towards the direction of the sound, nearly stumbling across charred remains, still smoking. For a moment, his heart climbs up into his throat until he recognizes the blond mop of hair. He hates himself for it, but can’t help the small sigh of relief that escapes him.

The dull thud of his heartbeat roars in his ears as he slowly approaches the next heap. It’s only when it moans and moves slightly, a small glint reflecting from a metal headband, that Kakashi drops to his knees and allows himself to cry in relief.

--

When the smoke finally dissipates, Kakashi has helped Iruka into a more upright position, carefully inspecting the wound on his neck. Apart from that, Iruka has apparently suffered only minor injuries from when the monsters first attacked and probably a concussion from his close proximity to the blast.

Kakashi tries his best to uphold a conversation with him, to keep him from slipping into unconsciousness. The wound on his shoulder is bleeding profusely, but from what Kakashi can tell the bite mostly went into the meat of his shoulder instead of severing any important arteries in his neck.

Kakashi is dressing his wound with a field kit, when he can’t hold back anymore and asks, “How did you survive that blast? You’ve must detonated that tag right between your bodies.”

“Hmmm?” Iruka tries to fix him with an unsteady gaze, but if he notices the tear streaks on Kakashi’s face he doesn’t say anything. “Oh, I’ve put up a barrier at the same time I detonated the tag. Tricky timing”, he chuckles.

Kakashi can tell how out he is of it if he can still smile and chuckle despite the blast effectively killing Sho. Recognition will hit later, but all the harder, he knows.

--

When Iruka is taken care of, at least enough that he will be able to move on his own, Kakashi returns to the disgusting, but necessary task of getting rid of the bodies.

They can’t leave a trace behind. Instead, Kakashi plans to send a message to the Hokage to let him know of the hide-out and send a squat to search and destroy it. Until then, nobody must know about what they’ve encountered.

This also means they can’t return to the village. Kakashi isn’t sure the villagers would forgive them if they’d return without the children. Shima Mikune will probably never find out what happened to her family this way, but given the circumstances, that might be for the best, Kakashi thinks.

Chapter Text

The night is long in Frost and it only starts to dawn when Kakashi and Iruka arrive at the end of the mountain range giving way to the foothills leading into the Land of Hot Springs. They have been slowed down – Iruka by his concussion and injuries, Kakashi by low chakra levels.

Still, they had managed to find a short-cut, skirting the village in the valley and taking a straight track across the mountain peaks instead. During especially strenuous parts of the climb, Kakashi had wrapped an arm around Iruka, holding him steady and taking part of his weight off his feet.

If they manage to reach Hot Springs during the day, they can stop at an inn and get their wounds treated. Even if Hot Springs doesn’t keep an active Shinobi force anymore, they are skilled chakra healers, aided by the medical properties of the springs.

--

They arrive in one of the bigger resorts during the evening. When they enter a smaller inn, the staff, used to injured Shinobi stopping by, quickly comes to their aid and sends for a healer. After their wounds have been treated, they settle for a bath at a personal spring. It’s expensive to rent a room with their own small spring to use at leisure, but Kakashi is fully intent on writing up the expenses in his mission report. Fair recuperation for a mission destined to become a disaster, nearly from the get-go. Limited to two men and with a potentially dangerous pretext, Kakashi can’t possible fanthom what had possessed the old man to turn this mission into an evaluation mission on top of that.

Not that Iruka hasn’t passed with flying colours, Kakashi admits to himself. Despite his overt expressiveness, despite his sloppy habits and lack of control over his emotions, he had stayed cool-headed, clever and decisive in the heat of the battle. His judgement had been flawless, even better than Kakashi’s own. Kakashi’s aware he’s messed up on this mission, big time. All he can do is to apologize now.

After receiving treatment, Iruka had seemed to regain much of his focus. But he had been eerily quiet, going into the bath alone, without a word, and Kakashi had decided to give him space.

But they will need to talk, later, because Iruka deserved a proper explanation, not only for Kakashi’s decisions in the field, but also for what had transpired between them.

--

When Iruka returns from the bath, draped in a Yukata, he looks soft, relaxed, but incredibly sad. A waft of hot steam is trailing him like a ghost. Kakashi quickly excuses himself for a quick shower, even if he would like nothing better than a long, hot bath, steaming away the soot and smoke and smell of human remains still clinging to his skin.

When he emerges in a Yukata of his own, he briefly entertains the notion of donning his mask, but quickly discards it. It wouldn’t be fair to Iruka, he thinks, to hide his face now.

Iruka looks up at him, not startled, but expectant. They both know that this talk had been coming for a long time now.

Kakashi kneels down where Iruka is sitting at the low table, and bows deeply. “I sincerely apologize for my lack of judgement and the danger I put you in because of that. I have failed you as a commander on this mission, letting my feelings cloud my judgement and making the wrong decisions.” He remains in this position, his head bowed, and waits. For conviction, for absolution, he doesn’t know.

A touch to his shoulder and a choked sound make him look up. Iruka’s fingers dig into his shoulders then, his face twisted in a grimace of sorrow and he visibly struggles for words.

“No, don’t.” He takes a deep, shuddering breath. “It’s me who should be sorry. For pushing myself on you”, he chokes again, the remorse in his tone palpable. “For being so helpless, and dependant, and relying on you for the uglier parts”, he continues.

Iruka’s clearly agitated now, his hands involuntarily digging into Kakashi’s shoulder, almost painful. Kakashi raises a hand and grasps Iruka fingers firmly in his.

“You didn’t. And you aren’t”, he says calmly, with all the conviction he can muster. If he needs to become the rock to ground Iruka in this storm of conflicting feelings he’s experiencing, it’s the least he can do. “From the beginning you’ve been more than efficient, and professional. You’ve inserted yourself much better and quicker into the community than me and gathered important data. No one,” and at that, he trains his eye on Iruka’s, locking their gazes, “No one could have possibly foreseen what had really been behind the disappearances.”

“You think we would have had a chance to turn them back?” Iruka asks quietly, the despairing tone of his voice breaking Kakashi’s heart.

“No, I don’t”, he replies, knowing that Iruka is by far strong enough to bear the truth. “They’ve been accidently turned by some potions, left behind in a hide-away used for human experimentation. I’ve seen… the results of those kinds of experimentation before and believe me, to kill them means showing them mercy.”

“You’ve killed children before”, Iruka states, not accusingly, but as if he’d just gathered the final piece of a puzzle.

“I did”, Kakashi acknowledges. “I wish I hadn’t and I would give anything to get rid of the memories, but I always did it because it was necessary at that time. There had never been another option.”

Iruka slides his gaze down thoughtfully, mulling over it. Kakashi knows it won’t change anything, just another bitter truth about their life as shinobi. When Iruka looks up again, his eyes are clear, composed, accepting.

“I don’t think I’m cut out for it, after all”, he states calmly, startling Kakashi. “I don’t want to have to do something like that ever again”, he adds decisively. “I think I want to try to focus on protecting children, instead. Show them how they can survive in this world.” He looks up thoughtfully, adding, “Maybe I’ll ask Sandaime if I can become a teacher at the academy instead.”

Kakashi resists the urge to protest, to affirm to Iruka that his skills and his sharp mind are needed in the field. He reconsiders everything he knows about Iruka, everything that has bothering himself about their world, and comes to a conclusion.

“I think you’d make a terrific teacher”, he smiles. “I’m looking forward to seeing you shape the future of our village.”

--

Before going to bed, Kakashi offers to help Iruka apply the dressings to his wounds. Although they have been healed, the skin is still tender, easy to rupture under pressure. If he moves during the night, the wounds might reopen.

It’s still awkward to touch Iruka, especially directly on his skin. Kakashi tries to limit their direct physical contact, to keep it professional, but the tension in the room is still mounting. The more he tries not to let his touch linger, as if not to convey an interest he’s definitely feeling but ill-equipped to handle, the more each accidental brush of his fingers against Iruka’s skin becomes charged with meaning.

Suddenly Iruka is turning, leaning his full weight against him. All Kakashi can do is to catch him with his hands. But his concentration is shot and he only registers how close Iruka’s gotten, when soft, warm lips brush against his. Instead of jerking away, something in him suddenly decides to just give in.

 

He doesn’t actively respond to the kiss, not yet, unsure of how to proceed. Instead, he’s savouring the feel of Iruka’s lips softly pressing against him, a warm palm settling on his shoulder and the warmth of the living, breathing body pressed against him seeping through his clothes, into his pores, past his skin, and into his very core. He doesn’t remember the last time he felt like this, truly at peace, enveloped in warmth.

 

He gets lost in the flowing tide that is Iruka’s chest expanding and constricting against his own, Iruka’s steady breath flowing across his cheeks in ebbs and flows. His eyes close on their own accord and he lets himself fall even further into Iruka’s embrace. They’re leaning into each other now, keeping the other upright. Iruka’s lips are still pressed against his, moving only minutely, pressing closer or relaxing in the rhythm of their breathing. Kakashi wonders if Iruka will ever break apart again. He hopes not, because he can’t remember a time he ever felt as content as this.

 

Iruka suddenly draws a deep breath, announcing their separation. It feels like coming up for air after a long, deep dive to the bottom of the ocean, like waking from a dream, so Kakashi just keeps his eyes closed for now, wanting to savour this feeling forever. In the dark, cold moments that are sure to come, the memory of this touch will burn like a fire, never to be extinguished

 

A soft chuckle against his cheek brings him back to reality. “Don’t tell me you fell asleep. That would be my most embarrassing kiss ever”, the voice, slightly husky from embarrassment, whispers close to his ear. Kakashi slowly opens his eyes, but is strangely not startled this time. Instead, he finds himself staring into Iruka’s rueful, but soft eyes. It feels so familiar now, being this close to Iruka, and he wonders why he ever kept his distance in the first place.

 

Iruka draws away now, embarrassment clearly growing, as he averts his eyes and scratches his heated cheek, “Ahh, sorry. I… I didn’t know what came over me. Maybe I should…” Kakashi frowns. He can’t figure out what drove Iruka away so suddenly and instinctively reaches out. As his fingers gently close around Iruka’s wrist, it earns him a startled glance, but Kakashi keeps eye contact firmly.

Silence descends upon them. Kakashi fumbles for words to convey to Iruka… what? He doesn’t know, but he knows instinctively that he needs to keep on trying, to hold Iruka close, to keep him from leaving. While he’s wetting his lips, lost deep in his search for words to express what he doesn’t even know, his body catches up on his nervousness, his thumb idly stroking across the inside of Iruka’s wrist.

 

Somehow, Iruka finally relaxes at that and a small smile finally blooms on his face. The simple gesture makes Kakashi forget that words ever existed at all. But as he becomes acutely aware of Iruka’s heartbeat underneath the skin he’s touching, the lingering warmth of the body still close to his, the faint tickle of Iruka’s breath across the sensitive skin on his neck, he suddenly arrives at an epiphany. Even if there are no words, at least not yet, maybe a touch is enough.

 

--

 

Just like this, a dam breaks and Kakashi’s inhibition is torn to shreds by the sudden, overwhelming need to touch, to feel, to explore Iruka to the deepest parts of his body and soul. If he could, he’d want to crawl underneath Iruka’s skin, to never come out again. Instead, he presses closer, trying to get their skin to touch as much as possible. It is only then that he suddenly becomes aware of the clothes they’re still wearing.

 

Iruka laughs at his confused look and springs into action, tearing at the rough material of Yukata. In a graceless fumble they manage to divest each other of their clothes, sneaking in soft, quick caresses and kisses.

Only after Kakashi manages to get rid of his boxer shorts, do they slow down. Iruka stretches out on a nearby futon and drags Kakashi on top of him. Kakashi, hyperaware of the bandages covering Iruka’s abdomen and neck, follows slowly and braces his weight on his left arm, before lowering his upper body towards Iruka. He angles his body slightly, so that most on his weight is taken by the ground, not Iruka, but still close enough that they touch from head to toe, as Iruka reaches for him.

 

They kiss slowly, gently, without urgency, while Kakashi runs his hand along Iruka’s side. Iruka starts to explore in kind, his fingers ghosting across the myriads of scars crossing Kakashi’s back. It’s not enough, not nearly. Kakashi leans into Iruka and whispers against the soft skin of his skin, “More.”

As if to show him, he starts to deftly stroke across the broad muscles of Iruka’s upper body, seeping up the heat of the body underneath his and igniting it even more in his wake.

 

He’s taken by surprise when Iruka responds as if he’s finally allowed to unleash his own need in full; winding both arms around Kakashi’s upper body, gripping him in a tight hug, one hand burying in his hair and tugging lightly, the other grasping at his shoulder. His lips descend on Kakashi’s own fiercely, maddingly. Kakashi involuntarily tightens in response to the surprising strength of Iruka’s body. It takes him a moment to overcome his instinctive response to defend himself, but when he does, he completely melts into Iruka’s embrace. As his muscles finally relax and his whole body goes slack against Iruka, his mouth opens and all his senses are immediately filled with Iruka.

His head feels heady, the impressions Iruka leaves on his senses clamouring all over each other for attention in his mind, until Iruka kisses him deeply and all conscious thoughts vanish.

 

--

 

Kakashi isn’t aware of how long they stay in this strange kind of equilibrium. He’s only aware of Iruka’s hands touching him, stroking across his back, his neck, through his hair. He feels sleepy and at the same time keenly aware of every touch, every breath, every sigh from Iruka and every tick of muscle, every shudder underneath his own hands.

 

He could stay like this, if not for the mounting tension between them. His hand strays over Iruka’s hipbone, deftly stroking along his inner thigh. Iruka’s legs have fallen slightly open, his body opening up and tilting even more towards Kakashi and he can’t help it, he wants more. As he sidles even closer, his leg slipping between Iruka’s spread knees, Iruka meets his gaze. What he sees there, leaves him breathless, the challenge in those eyes burning him from the inside out while freezing him on the spot. A kind of panic slowly starts to fill him, suddenly he’s not sure anymore what to do, how to proceed. He moves back a bit, trying to get some distance between them, to be able to think, to catch his breath.

 

Iruka notices the sudden change in his mood instantly and softens his gaze. His hands return to their gentle strokes across Kakashi’s back and Kakashi feels himself falling in sync with the soothing rhythm of Iruka’s caresses. His eyes again close on their own accord and he lets his head come to rest in the curve of Iruka’s shoulder. He inhales deeply and relaxes within the by now familiar warmth.

 

Iruka’s hands dance idly across his shoulders, back and neck. Kakashi shivers at the intimate touch, but Iruka’s hands are immediately back to soothing strokes. After a while, his touches become broader, more intent, sweeping along his arms and back, dipping lower and cupping his buttocks.

He doesn’t linger on any one region, though, and the constant flow of his movements keeps Kakashi relaxed, even as Iruka’s hands become even more intent on exploring his body, cataloguing every part of skin they can reach.

 

Kakashi feels a slow burn building within himself, and buries even closer. He starts to kiss the skin within his own reach, first on Iruka’s neck, then towards his collarbone and finally, mouthing the supple muscle of his pecs. The scent of Iruka’s skin is filling his nose, intoxicating. He flicks out his tongue to see if the taste matches the scent and quickly follows with a broader sweep of the chest.

 

As he’s lapping at Iruka’s chest, interspersed with soft bites and kisses, he catches a faint moan coming from Iruka. Surprised, he looks up and finds Iruka’s heated gaze firmly locked on him. He can’t help the smug grin threatening to escape, which earns him an immediate scowl in response. Iruka narrows his eyes on him and despite his injuries, half a second later finds Kakashi on his back with a smug Iruka seated on him.

 

Kakashi only lifts his eyebrows at him, when Iruka dives down to kiss him soundly. Before he’s even got a chance to open his mouth to say something, he’s got a tongue in his mouth, stroking his own and coaxing it into action. It’s messy, and sloppy, hurriedly even, their teeth clanking together, but Kakashi doesn’t care. Not when Iruka presses down, his whole body covering Kakashi’s, his ass raised between Kakashi’s spread knees and his cock grinding against his own.

 

Kakashi feels his toes curl and his eyes roll back. When Iruka finally lets go of his mouth, they’re both panting for breath. Iruka moves back a little and starts moving almost immediately, rocking back and forth, almost crushing Kakashi’s cock with his hip’s powerful movements. It’s agonizing and a little bit painful and so much better than what Kakashi’s ever experienced with his own hands.

 

He keeps his eyes shut closely, too embarrassed to let Iruka see the expression on his face. He has a feeling that Iruka is probably smiling at him, but he doesn’t want to see, less he’d break the illusion.

Iruka is running his hands across his chest know, playing idly with Kakashi’s nipples, teasing him. A new wave of heat shoots through Kakashi and to his utmost mortification he feels it bloom into what he knows is a heated blush on his face.

 

Cool, wet lips slide across his cheek and tear him from his thoughts. He opens his eyes in surprise but they are covered by thick strands of long brown hair. He feels the lips slide over to his mouth until Iruka kisses him in earnest, his hands coming to rest around his face. Kakashi gets a little bit lost again in the kiss, until he suddenly becomes aware of his own hands, twitching restlessly at his sides, eager to touch in return.

 

He blindly reaches for the nearest skin, finding Iruka’s thighs and wrappings his hands around them, or at least, as far as they reach, as powerful muscles shift underneath the skin with every movement of Iruka’s hips atop of him. Kakashi feels himself falling into the rhythm of their movements; his fingertips gripping at Iruka’s thighs, pulling him forwards, his thumbs stroking and pressing in return when Iruka grinds back onto his lap. He feels his whole body respond to the rhythm; his knees drawing up further, spreading wider, his feet planting itself firmly to the mattress. His biceps jump in tune with his hands clenching around Iruka’s thighs, his hips coming up to push even closer, harder.

 

His hands stroke upwards, his thumbs digging into the soft skin on Iruka’s hips, catching them in a gentle, but firm grip. Iruka moans into his mouth in response and Kakashi pushes back; with his mouth, his tongue, his own hands and hips. Iruka claws and sucks at his face like a drowning man and Kakashi feels himself giving in. His hips move on their own accord, creating a burning heat between them, but his hands go gently, caressing, exploring, mapping. He’s stroking across Iruka’s abs, the planes of his chest, searching, yearning for that subtle thrumming underneath the skin that tells him that Iruka is alive and well and real.

 

He finds his peace when his hands finally come to rest over Iruka’s heart.