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At the Crossroad

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Rainwater dripped from the tip of Kakashi's nose. He was soaked to the bone and despite the rain parka his clothes hung heavy from the storm. At least he no longer felt the cold. A crack of lightning illuminated the forest, stark bright with menacing shadows to blaze before Kakashi's single eye. Was that an enemy peering out through the thicket? No, his mind was playing tricks. Pakkun had reported the enemy had lost their trail hours ago.

The wind continued to thrash violently through the trees. Somewhere in the distance a wooden snap cut through the wind. It was followed by a groan as another tree fell victim to the storm.

'It’s getting far too dangerous out here.' Kakashi had tried to pay the weather as much mind as he did to his own exhaustion. The dull pain of his overtaxed muscles was the only motivation that kept him moving. That, and the heavy burden slumped unconscious over his back.

With a start Kakashi realized that it had been some time since he had last felt Iruka stir. Kakashi roughly jostled the sensei and was rewarded by a soft groan against his ear.

"Try to stay awake." Kakashi murmured, for both their benefit. "We're almost there."

'Where' was entirely up to Pakkun and the ninken scouting ahead. They needed to find shelter, and soon.

Kakashi should have known that this mission had been cursed from the start. He could pinpoint the exact moment, it was when the strap of his shoe had split apart the moment they had stepped out from the Godaime's office. He vowed to pay more attention to the warning signs if they survived the night.

The mission was supposed to have been one of simple diplomacy. Two days ago Iruka had been assigned to the Village of Rain to close an agreement for a negotiated trade route. It was a low risk B Class mission, and one that only required a two-man team. Yet how were they to know that the gates of Amegakure would be barred to them when a skirmish between Cloud and Mist was about to start right outside the door?

Amegakure was a tiny nation positioned in the middle of the nine far bigger, more powerful bloodthirsty neighbors. It was that unfortunate position on the map that led Rain to become the neutral battleground for those neighbors to confront their differences, and when that happened the Two Laws were initiated, which were sacred above all other laws in Amegakure that protected their neutrality: the first was for all inhabitants to retreat and stand guard within the walls of their city. The second forbade sanctuary to any outsider into the capital of Amegakure, and it did not matter who they were be it ally, friend, refugee or foe.

Rain did not care to know of the cause behind the conflict between Mist and Cloud. All that Kakashi needed to know was that Amegakure would not permit foreign Leaf-nin inside their city despite Iruka’s diplomatic appointment. And yet despite their laws, Kakashi could not find it within himself to blame the Rain Council’s paranoia, not with a long history of invasion from their quarreling neighbors. Not even Konoha was innocent from that abuse. Those Two Laws were upheld with almost sacred fervor, for it was Amegakure following those laws that enabled Rain to survive as an independent nation.

Rain was a country aptly named, moreso for its colorless skies that endlessly wept over a land soaked in blood.

What made it all the worst was neither Mist nor Cloud were on particularly good terms with Leaf. Kakashi had no illusions as to how they would be treated if captured alive. He would not survive the ordeal, as both the Sharingan and his head would grant a hefty prize courtesy of the Bingo Book. Iruka would not last long in his current state, especially if put under interrogation.

They were all alone and horribly outnumbered with enemies prowling the woods. Their only option had been to abandon the mission and run.

Kakashi considered that perhaps there was some merit to heeding bad omens. That afternoon he had caught sight of a small snake slithering over his shadow, its black scales gleaming in the overcast light. The snake had appeared right before their journey had elevated from bad to worse. That was when the Mist-nin attacked.

Dispatching the low-rank squadron had not been a problem. The bigger problem was the last Mist-nin that had used the last of her dying strength to successfully set off a signaling flare into the drizzling sky. The two Leaf shinobi had exchanged a brief horrified look before bolting into the forest. Their last resort was to reach the secret Konoha outpost deep inside the mountain range bordering Rain Country.

Their luck went from utter shit to literal hell when Kakashi realized Iruka had been poisoned.

Kakashi had just barely been able to save Iruka from falling to his death during their flight through the trees. After a quick inspection he found a shuriken wound behind Iruka's left calf, oozing with the stink of poison. It was not an uncommon tactic for Mist to poison their weapons. Iruka’s dark pupils had dilated, his hand clutching sporadically in Kakashi’s grasp, a foamy spittle trailed from one corner of his lips as his body began to convulse. Cold sweat mingled with the rain over the scarred face, a vacant expression made tight with pain.

That was when the full assault of the monsoon hit the forest. A roar ripped through the canopy, the full force of the gale flattening the treetops. Bolstered by the storm, the rain sheared like needles to bore through any exposed flesh.

Kakashi quickly went into action. Haruno Sakura had provided a special antidote of her own making, but had warned that it was not a gentle cure. It was created to nullify the most common deadly poisons used in shinobi warfare. It was in effect, a lesser poison created to defeat a more deadly one in hope that the victim’s life would be spared. After shoving the pill down Iruka's throat and holding his airways closed, Kakashi waited just long enough to make sure it was swallowed before he flung the sensei over his back and resumed their flight by ground. Iruka’s body continued to convulse as poison and antidote warred with each other, and within the hour he succumbed to both effects and had mercifully passed out.

Kakashi had not stopped moving ever since. The antidote had happened a long time ago. Perhaps two…no, three hours ago. Maybe five? It was hard to judge time under the gloom of the storm. He had spent long hours bearing Iruka’s weight through slippery terrain and straining his chakra senses for the enemy’s presence. He only took breaks to rest and make sure Iruka was still breathing. His strength had morphed into something beyond sheer desperation. Through it all, the heavy rain continued its efforts to pound them both into the ground.

The Konoha outpost was still very, very far away

Kakashi knew that he was reaching his limit. It had been his own stubborn willpower and the persistent urging from the ninken pack that had kept him going. He very rarely prayed, but now he prayed to whichever god that may be listening to guide them to a shred of good luck. Kakashi had no other choice than to leave their fate to chance.

A bolt of lightning illuminated the forest. Kakashi caught a glimpse of Pakkun's curled tail disappearing ahead into the dense underbrush. He took a moment to shake water from the hood of his rain parka before dredging through the overgrown road, heedless of twigs and brambles that left a glaring trail. Kakashi trusted the storm to wash away their tracks now that they were so deep in the forested mountains. It had been hours since the ninken had scented any sign of pursuit.

A panicked squeal brought Kakashi up short with a start. He staggered as Iruka's weight shifted over his shoulder but was able to catch himself before toppling over. He wasn't quite sure if he would be able to manage getting back to his feet if he collapsed.

"Geez Boss, you nearly stepped on me" Pakkun yipped over the roar of thrashing trees. The little pug’s voice soared shrilly over the storm "I said, we found shelter!"

~*~*~*~*~

For the first time Kakashi blessed their good fortune. The forgotten road had led to a decrepit woodcutter's cottage, and more importantly one that appeared long abandoned. The remains of wooden shutters hung loosely from glassless windows, and the cottage’s single entryway completely lacked a door. The roof was made of rotting thatch and appeared intact despite it sagging at one end. To Kakashi, it was a palace of salvation.

Inside the cottage was of a humble design. The hearth and bedding area were on a raised wooden platform that rose above the ground and centered around a thick pole that supported the roof. Near the door, the thatched roof had rotted to allow rain to turn the dirt floor to mud. Kakashi was pleased to see minimal flooding, as water drained underneath the foundation of the walls. The whole place reeked of damp and rot and of whatever wild animals that had explored the abandoned place. Kakashi’s only concern was that the platform around the hearth appeared relatively sound and dry. That was all he was concerned about at the moment.

Pakkun sniffed the ground around the door as he followed Kakashi inside. “Boss…I don't like the smell of this place."

"It'll have to do." Kakashi’s stiff muscles protested as he awkwardly slid Iruka onto the raised platform. He tried his best to be gentle by cradling the other man’s head as he positioned him into a comfortable position over the roughly hewn planks, but he could only so much. His heart clenched as Iruka’s eyes fluttered with a groan. The young chuunin-sensei appeared deathly pale through his dark complexion, even in this dim light.

Pakkun trotted up to Kakashi. "Orders, Boss?"

From his belt Kakashi removed the packet of alarm seals. The ninken sniffed the packet with distaste. "And here I only just got out of the rain" the little pug complained and sprayed water as he shook himself. "Where do you want us to focus?"

"Concentrate on the paths leading to this location," Kakashi ordered. "The road is overgrown but that doesn’t mean the enemy could hire someone that knows of this place." The damn cold and fatigue made Kakashi's fingers shake as he struggled to unzip Iruka's sodden flak vest. "Once the area is secure I want you and the pack to return to the spirit realm and get some rest. I might not need to summon you tomorrow if the weather’s clear. It’s less than a day’s walk from the outpost."

"Tch, you humans are a tenacious lot." Pakkun sniffed. "Take my advice, I would consider leaving this place as soon as the storm breaks. It just smells...wrong here.”

"Goodnight, Pakkun." Kakashi was in no mood to engage in banter with a subordinate. Iruka was soaked to the bone and needed to get dry.

Pakkun trotted out the door. “Take care boss.” He paused outside a moment to shoot a last nervous glance at the exhausted jounin. "And be careful." The little pug disappeared into the blackness outside.

With Pakkun gone Kakashi quickly went to work.

The hearth was flooded with rainwater due to the open chimney hole in the roof, but it was quick work for simple water jutsu to drain the spot dry, though even using that much chakra made his head spin. Once Kakashi had a blazing fire going he fished out two supply scrolls and summoned a kettle and a portable tripod to hang it from. The other supply scroll produced clean water, bedding, field rations and two spare uniforms.

Kakashi had difficulty shaking this dizziness. His reserves were severely depleted. After a brief pause to clear his head he peeled the wet uniform from his body then changed into a spare. It was drilled into every shinobi’s head that one always had to take care of themselves first before tending to another. Even so, it was a torturous process for Kakashi, his mismatched eyes stared fixedly on the prone figure lying unconscious before the blazing hearth with steam rising from damp clothes. Only the gentle rise of Iruka’s chest allowed Kakashi to follow protocol before permitting himself to care for the other man.

He had just completed rolling the last sock over Iruka's foot when the lid of the kettle began to rattle. The sound woke Iruka with a start and on instinct to fight. Kakashi had anticipated such a reaction. It was normal for an unconscious shinobi to blindly lash out in the aftermath of battles to the injury of themselves and others.

The jounin lurched from his seat to catch the other man in a tight embrace. Iruka cried out and tried to pull away. Kakashi made soft soothing sounds as the man struggled weakly in his arms. The chuunin-sensei let out short panicked gasps as his mind fought through his delirium, sweat shone over his dark face. He finally sagged upon recognition of the voice.

“Shh, it's okay. I'm here” Kakashi said before pulling away. The poor light of the fire could not hide the glassy look in Iruka’s normally vibrant eyes. The sensei’s features were drawn and pale, the skin warm to the touch. Yet the illness appeared to be a healthy fever in comparison to earlier with the chuunin’s body contorting with foam frothing his lips. Kakashi sighed with relief. Sakura’s antidote appeared to have worked.

Brown eyes blinked unfocused in the dim light. "Wh-where?"

Kakashi reported a brief outline of their predicament. "We lost the enemy's trail when the storm hit. We are taking refuge in an abandoned cottage in the mountains bordering Rain deep in the forest. My guess is that it’s half a day's walk to the Konoha outpost. The ninken have confirmed that no human has been through these parts in a very long time. For the time being, we are safe.”

Iruka was silent as he processed the flood of information. He glanced down at the new and noticeably dry sweater he was wearing, of standard-issued navy blue. After a long moment he blinked languidly at Kakashi with the ghost of his old humor flickering his lips. "You dressed me? That’s a first” he chuckled weakly. “Normally, it’s just the opposite."

Kakashi let out a breathless laugh “Yeah, I guess it is.” Suddenly, the world felt a little normal again, it was an innate ability that came naturally to Iruka and one Kakashi most appreciated at times like these.

Iruka reached out a hand to cup Kakashi's cheek and the jounin could not resist leaning into the caress. Wordlessly, their foreheads touched and only the sound of the pounding rain and the chittering kettle could be heard. "Thank you," Iruka said after a weighted pause, his voice quavered with emotion.

"Here now, let's deal with all of that when we are safe at home." Kakashi’s free hand caressed the back of Iruka’s neck through the disaster of the ponytail. The skin felt warm and clammy. “How do you feel?”

“Like I got the worst of the flu.” Iruka’s hand dropped from Kakashi’s face with a grimace. “It hurts all over and I feel like I’m drifting through fog. All I want to do is sleep!”

Kakashi gave the other man a crooked grin. "Don’t pass out quite yet. I'm not finished with you just yet." Satisfied with the fact that Iruka was to remain conscious for the moment, Kakashi helped the other man to sit up and tightly wrapped a blanket around him. The thick post that supported the cottage between floor and roof had a bamboo pole nailed to its base hanging over the hearth, and from the end of the pole Kakashi hung their sodden clothes to dry. From the dry rations he prepared a stew, though he knew from experience that adding hot water did not make it taste any better.

In a short time Kakashi returned with a steaming mug to find Iruka had drifted off. He roughly prodded at Iruka’s shoulder. "Hey, I can't have you going to sleep just yet. I need to treat the last of the poison from that wound and get you fed."

Dark brown eyes fluttered open."'M'm not hungry," Iruka mumbled.

"Of course you are, you just don't realize it yet" Kakashi said as he held the mug beneath the Iruka’s nose, and coaxed with a sing-song lilt in his voice "It’s full of protein and carbohydraaaates!"

Iruka made a halfhearted attempt at rolling his eyes before accepting the mug. Kakashi tended to the shuriken wound behind the Iruka’s left calf with much care due to the dim light, first by draining the infection then disinfecting the remaining poison. The cut was not as severe as he first feared and blessedly no longer reeked of contamination.

Iruka grunted between sips while Kakashi worked and was determined to not utter even a hint of complaint. He owed the other man that much. He had seen Kakashi exhausted before but not as he was now, with pale features made more exaggerated with dark hollowed eyes and nerves like porcelain that even the slightest bump could break. He knew the jounin well enough to recognize the signs, and that Kakashi had been mentally strained to his limit and Iruka also knew better than to ask questions about the ordeal. He could not fathom at what cost such a toll had wrought, of hours dragging an unconscious comrade in a storm while hunted by two factions that wanted them dead. He was alive thanks to the copy-nin’s tenacity, and for Kakashi it was all that mattered.

And Iruka could not forget the antidote. He knew for a fact Sakura had gone to great lengths to produce such a thing. As imperfect as it was, it was her experimental antidote that had spared him from a gruesome death. Sakura was still inexperienced for a medical-nin, yet held the potential of great genius if she continued experimenting with her radical treatments. Iruka could not think of a better way to thank his former student than by happily offering himself to be her next guinea pig…even if it meant that he would be incapacitated throughout the next week. Sakura’s infamous research endeavors were not gentle,and there was a reason why she was always in short supply of willing test subjects.

Iruka set aside his empty mug as Kakashi carefully wrapped a bandage around his leg. His half-lidded eyes took in the sorry state of the abandoned cottage, with mouldering log walls and sagging roof streaming water to flood around their raised platform. He watched the weather drain out under gaps in the walls and through the empty door. The darkness of the night and the thrashing storm beyond their tentative sanctuary was far from reassuring. "I wonder what happened to the family?"

Kakashi looked up, appearing perplexed as he tied the bandage off. "What makes you think a family was here?"

"Near the door there’s a ragdoll rotting in the mud." Iruka shivered, then relaxed as Kakashi scooted around to sit behind him. He leaned gratefully against the strong chest, musing “I can’t think what could drive parents with young children to travel so deep into the mountains.”

Kakashi wrapped his arms around Iruka, draping his lean frame like a warm cloak to envelop the other man. "Maybe they were escaping this country’s never ending wars." He buried his face into the crook of Iruka’s shoulder, inhaling his familiar scent beneath disheveled brunet hair, a solid reminder of everything that was good in his world. "Who wouldn't want to run away from that?"

Iruka bowed his head in agreement. With a deep breath he closed his eyes and banished all worrying thoughts and relaxed in his lover’s embrace. For just a little while, he wanted to be sheltered by the warmth offered to him and what little comfort he could give. For a long time, the Leaf-nin savored the good fortune they had been granted of the simple fact they were together and alive.

However, the peaceful mood was short-lived. Lightning flashed outside. The trees shuddered. Branches clattered together like dry bones rattling in the wind. It was the only warning before a violent gale ripped through the forest.

Hardly any barrier stood between them and the storm. The weathered walls rattled ominously from the force of the wind, shredded leaves and broken limbs thudded against the roof. Loosened debris plopped heavily into the mud and puddles around them. The hearth hissed and embers cracked from rain blown through the gaping windows. The steady stream dripping from the roof suddenly became a torrent to flood the space around their little platform. Kakashi’s arms tightened around Iruka involuntarily, and Iruka’s fingers dug into his arm. It was as if they were adrift in an ocean withstanding a monsoon, though in truth they were trapped on a raft that rose a mere foot above ground. The cook-fire flared, a pitiable ward against Mother Nature’s wrath.

The storm subsided almost immediately. The waterfall resumed its course as a steady stream, and the flood receded as it drained under the walls and the gaping hole of the doorless entryway. The wind howled mournfully, the sound akin to that of a wounded beast.

“I don’t like this place,” Iruka whispered in a voice Kakashi could barely hear over the drip of rainwater. “There’s something…off about it.”

“Funny, Pakkun said something similar.” Kakashi pulled off Iruka’s hair tie and leaned back to comb pale fingers through the unbound hair.

Iruka was silent for a long while as Kakashi worked to untangle his hair, a familiar soothing task for the both of them. With uncertainty, he asked “Do you think it could be haunted?”

Kakashi let out a snort. “I don’t care to believe such nonsense.”

“And why not?” Iruka turned to properly direct a scowl. “We are able to make pacts with beings from the spiritual plane. So why shouldn’t similar energies originate in our own world, be it human or otherwise?”

Kakashi was secretly pleased that Iruka had recovered enough to regain a spark of his old self. Yet now was not the time or place for such a debate. He replied with a drawl “Or, it could be the fact that it’s a dark and stormy night and we’re stuck inside an abandoned house with a creepy old doll.” He released a defeated sigh. “After seeing you almost die today my nerves can’t handle anything more beyond that.”

“Oh.” Iruka blinked as he considered, and gave in with a wan smile. “Well, I can’t argue with that logic.” He snaked an arm around Kakashi’s neck to tug the unmasked lips down for a kiss. ”I love you, you know that?”

“Always,” Kakashi murmured before returning the kiss with a grateful smile.

~*~*~*~*~

Kakashi sat close to the fire until he was sure Iruka was deep asleep. He stifled a yawn. It was taking all of his willpower to resist the urge to drop into his own pallet. There was still work to be done, and whatever arsenal they had left needed to be accounted for, sharpened and cleaned. Instincts honed as a child brought up during the Third Shinobi War demanded Kakashi to prepare for the worst. It was the only reason why he was still alive.

With quick efficiency he rummaged through both their drying flak vests for scrolls, shuriken and kunai. Sore muscles protested as he scooted away from the fire’s heat until his back was pressed against the thick post that held up the roof. His fingers trembled with fatigue as he produced a cleaning kit from a felted roll containing whetstone and oiled cloth. He felt his heart sink once he had finished counting the last piece of their remaining weaponry, including those from untapped supply scrolls. As Kakashi had feared, what he had left was pitiable to defend against another attack like the one from Mist earlier in the day. That battle felt like it had happened a lifetime ago.

Sitting cross-legged, he began the process of buffing out blood and grime from metal and restoring each and every blade to a gleaming shine until it reflected the dim firelight. It was a meticulous process, yet soothing in its familiarity as Kakashi had done it all his life. He found himself nodding in rhythm to the motions, his breath matching the scrape of metal against whetstone. More than once he paused to rub his uncovered eyes and slap his own face in an effort to concentrate.

Less than half of the weapons lay completed in a neat row on the felt square, before his fingers slowed and eyelid drooped until it fully closed. The warmth of the fire was too much to resist against the needs demanded of an exhausted body. A shuriken slipped from his hand, and it hit the rough wooden plank with a muffled sound. With his head drooped and body slumped upright against the wooden pillar, Kakashi surrendered to the embrace that was a dreamless sleep.

~*~*~*~

Iruka woke shivering beneath his blanket. For a long moment he stared up into the darkness of the ceiling and listened to the pounding of the rain. Right. He had been poisoned and Kakashi had brought them to this place. The worst of the storm seemed to have passed. Hard rain continued to batter the cottage, through it had softened to a rhythmic hum that was blessedly ceaseless in its tempo.

He wriggled away from the fire to seek the familiar press of the jounin’s body, and to his alarm he found cold empty space. He rolled onto his back and spotted Kakashi slumped against the support pillar a short distance away. Kakashi had succumbed to his exhaustion, as evident by the gentle rise and fall of the jounin’s shoulders. Iruka scowled at the whetstone and a half-sharpened shuriken that lay before Kakashi’s knees. ”Stubborn idiot” Iruka muttered, but the admonishment was said with loving fondness. He surely would have died if not for Kakashi’s tenacity and felt reassured by his presence.

Iruka was relieved that his fever had broken. He still felt shaky and weak, but it was nothing compared to the worst of the crippling fever pains when the antidote warred with the poison. He felt uncomfortably warm laying so close to the hearth, and knew that the fire needed to be fed despite his discomfort. The fire had cooled to glowing embers that pulsed with a ruby glow, dimly illuminating the small platform with stark shadows flickering on the walls.

It took an obscene amount of energy for Iruka to reach for the stack of firewood and throw a log into the hearth. Panting from the exertion, Iruka snuggled under his blanket as flames began to lick greedily at the dry wood. Even in his weakened state Iruka found sleep eluded him. He was too feeble to toss about and resigned to lay curled up as he was, willing his mind to drift to sleep. The dancing flames flickered beyond his eyelids as he lay basking in its warmth.

A strange feeling crept over Iruka, one that made his muscles tense as if someone was aiming to plant a knife in his back. His brow furrowed and shoulders twitched as he tried to rationalize his unease, but it was difficult to focus with thoughts muddled by the toxins still circulating in his system. As the long minutes stretched he found that he could not relax despite his fatigue. With an effort, Iruka flopped onto his back and turned away from the crackling fire, resolving to brush off the weird sensation as a reaction to the trauma of the day. The itch between his shoulder blades refused to recede.

Iruka opened his eyes to gaze up into the blackness of the ceiling.

He was being watched.

His first thought was of the enemy-nin. Beneath the blanket his hand groped for a weapon Kakashi had long since removed to clean. Holding his breath, Iruka remained perfectly still and reached out with his senses to confirm that no unwanted guest was in the room. The cottage was not large and of a simple design, a single large room with a raised dais built for both hearth and sleeping space. The dim light of the fire barely reached the walls, the only indication of windows and door silhouetted by black patches of night.

With utmost care, Iruka slowly sat upright and brushed aside his loose hair. The blanket dropped into a pool about his middle. He glanced behind at Kakashi, slumped against the pillar and felt a measure of chagrin. The former ANBU had a sixth sense for trouble when under duress, and the man was now sound asleep. Kakashi would have set alarm seals about the perimeter before falling asleep. Nonetheless, Iruka strained his ears to listen beyond the water pounding against the roof and floor. But he could hear nothing apart from the sound of his own shallow breathing.

Not entirely dissuaded, Iruka squinted his eyes and peered about the room. He could not see much beyond the little platform. The fire was beginning to play tricks on his mind. Above the flames at the window he could make out the vague shape of a pale face peering in from outside. He blinked and it was gone.

He blinked again, unsure if his eyes were working properly. His gut warned him that a face was an odd thing to randomly see. Iruka closed his eyes and again reached out with his chakra, tentatively. Outside he sensed small animals cowering within their shelters, fearful and resigned to their fate. He could feel the vibrations of the rain driving and ripping into the saturated earth. All around the wind added to the chaos, forcing trees to bend to its will. Vertigo gripped Iruka and he exhaled sharply. With determination he fisted the rough blanket and made himself dive deeper, feeling beyond the storm...an instinct rooted deep within his psyche urged him to search for...something...but what?

When he found it, Iruka recoiled in horror. It...it was tainted, unclean. His eyes snapped open with a breathless gasp. Revulsion gorged in the back of his throat. It was worse than that bloated shinobi corpse he had once discovered floating in a stagnant pond.

Feeling parched and overheated, Iruka fumbled for the water flask and drank deeply from it. He’d have to have a talk with Sakura about the hallucinogenic side effect of her antidote. It was this house, at this place, in this storm, and that damn doll in the mud. It was his own overactive imagination getting the best of him.

Over the years Iruka had developed a hobby investigating odd reports to help pass the late hours at Administrations. He had read reports, though with varying degrees of fascination and skepticism, of shinobi encountering ghosts and youkai trapped in the mortal realm. Iruka had absorbed each report with a grain of salt, as more often than not those reports had been witnessed under great duress and were usually flavored by local folklore and children’s campfire tales.

However...that had been one hell of a hallucination. Rain was the prime location for youkai to manifest. Of all the places in the known world it was this tiny country that had suffered the most. Iruka considered youkai--malevolent or otherwise, as old beliefs based on superstition. Shinobi made pacts with spirits and deities of other realms, however there was no official record of one made with a creature from the human realm. He considered the existence of ghosts more plausible, of human spirits unable to pass on and forever searching for rest.

He shivered at his thoughts, then yawned. Exhaustion was tugging at the last dregs of his energy. He rubbed at his tired eyes. If he had sensed such a wandering spirit then he had been lucky to have escaped its notice.

He opened his eyes to a scene from a nightmare.

Corpses were in the mud, rotting lumps with sagging flesh all pallid and grey. Gaunt faces stared slack-jawed as if silently screaming, shadows filled their empty eye sockets,. A small hand flung outstretched near the door, grasping a ragdoll.

Within a blink, it was all gone.

Iruka rolled over to vomit over the edge of the platform. His body shook with exertion, cold sweat beaded over the tip of his nose as he spat out the last of his dinner. He tried to convince himself, muttering “A hallucination. That's all it is!” His eyes darted around the empty room, searching the shadows and trying to listen over the sound of dripping water.

Perhaps it was the former residents investigating the shinobi trespassing in their home. Most spirits were relatively harmless souls unable to find rest and were something that should be pitied and prayed over. Iruka did just that, and pressed his palms together and thought of the ragdoll rotting in the mud. He exhaled with relief upon opening his eyes to find the room unchanged then glanced behind at the sleeping Kakashi. He was loath to wake the exhausted jounin. 'I'm not some green genin that jumps at everything that goes bump in the night,' he thought. Besides, the ordeal was done and over. The ghost had done them no harm other than give Iruka a fright.

Iruka went through the motions of gathering his blanket to lay back down on his pallet, then froze. That uneasy feeling was back, of something watching his every move. His eyes flickered to the window beyond the fire. He inhaled a sharp gasp. The pale face had reappeared, yet now he could see an outline of a thin body nearly made transparent by shadow and firelight.

He felt his stomach drop.

It was inside the house.

The figure blurred and slid just out of focus. Iruka could only see it out from the corner of his sight, and even then he doubted his eyes. The faint figure was skeletal thin and dressed in the bulky shape of a robe, he was unable to determine gender or expression. Fear coiled in his gut and he knew without a doubt that it was looking directly back at him.

Then it was gone, swallowed by the darkness.

That had been no wayward spirit.

Iruka could not relax his grip on the blanket. He tried to call out to Kakashi but found the words stuck in his throat. His teeth chattered, he felt cold all over though his body was not trembling from the cold. He could not see the...the Thing but felt it pressing against his mind with malevolent intent. It was a youkai demon, a corrupted spirit that fed on those weakened in body and spirit, and it was biding its time to strike.

It was as if all Iruka’s muscles had turned to lead. He could not make his body move. That was when he registered the putrid smell. It was the same sickly-sweet rot of a bloated corpse. He was a toad transfixed under the spell of a snake, and he sensed it was moving, the dark presence drifting closer with every beat of his racing heart, reaching out to scratch at his very soul. He was weak from the poison and with a body wrought with fatigue, easy prey for a scavenger.

Tears began to leak from the corners of his eyes. Iruka was truly and utterly terrified. He felt as helpless as he had been on that horrible night when the Kyuubi had ripped his parents out of his life, and in that dark memory he sensed the creature press closer, the scent of decay growing stronger. His inner thoughts scrabbled for a clue, some tidbit of folklore. He did remember one thing from his idle research, a tactic that sometimes worked. It was the only arsenal he had to retaliate.

Iruka closed his eyes and concentrated inward, his intent focused into a single point. His body may be frail but he was not weak in spirit. 'I am clean' he thought at the ghost. 'I am at peace with myself and with the lives I had to take. I want to live and I am strong. You have no reason to take me now so go away, go away, GO AWAY NOW!' the last command was a roar inside his head.

For a long moment he felt the full weight of the youkai’s malice pressed against his will, seeking any crack in his resolve. Iruka gritted his teeth and pushed back. He thought of the smiling faces of his students back home, of a steaming bowl of Ichiraku ramen in the company of Naruto, and of all the other young shinobi who made their sensei proud. And Kakashi, who had wooed him over the last few years and had made him feel complete. Kakashi, who he fiercely loved. He had made peace with his regrets. His heart was full of love. He desired to live.

The pressure began to retreat, and with it a sense of disinterest of troublesome prey. Then as suddenly as if it had never been, it disappeared.

Iruka dared not breathe until he was sure the presence had gone. With a groan he collapsed backwards into his pallet, heaving deep gulps of air as the shadows danced and spun over the ceiling that was the thatched roof. Cold sweat trickled down Iruka’s temples and into his loose hair. He felt dizzy and sick, yet immensely relieved. He had proven that he was not an easy meal for the youkai to take.

He felt himself fading as the last of his strength drained from his abused body. Iruka turned his head, and with horror found the demon looming over Kakashi's slumped form. It was nearly solid in shape, its profile partially obscured by long matted hair. An abnormally long tongue hovered just above Kakashi's head like a reptile would do when tasting the air. What Iruka could see of its face was showing human emotion; thin blackened lips pulled into a grotesque parody of delight. It was the rapture of a starving beast about to partake in a feast.

Iruka found his voice in time to scream.

~*~*~*~*~

Iruka could not comprehend what happened next other than he struggled and tore at the blanket in his desperation to reach Kakashi. He thrashed about wildly in his attempt to get free and continued to lash out at the grip holding his arms.

"Iruka. Iruka! What's wrong?"

Iruka sobbed with relief and clutched the jounin tight as Kakashi enveloped him in a strong embrace. He buried his face into that reassuring warmth as Kakashi made soothing sounds in an attempt to calm him down. Iruka could not stop his trembling. This was only a temporary respite. They had to flee, but how? He had to convince Kakashi of what had happened, but even he could see how the other man would easily dismiss his claim as a fever dream. He sucked in a shuddering breath and rasped “We have to leave.”

“That’s impossible, love.” Kakashi murmured as his scarred hands gently stroked Iruka’s hair.

Iruka’s mind whirled as he tried to articulate the horror he had just seen. He was finding it hard to think, and his body wouldn't stop shaking, his teeth chattering. He had to communicate his despair, the bleak helplessness of seeing his lover at the mercy of that creature. Iruka tried to pull away from Kakashi yet at the same time hold onto him tight. “It-it was here, d-did you not feel it?” He had to make Kakashi see sense!

“Iruka, you are very ill and I can no longer carry you.” Kakashi’s calm voice was maddening. “We have to stay.”

“N-no!” Iruka cried, hating the other man’s reasoning tone and superior strength. He had reached his limit. The horror of seeing Kakashi prone and helpless and now unwilling to listen had broken the last of Iruka’s resolve. He was completely undone. Panic seized him and he struggled feebly against that loving embrace. “We have to leave. We have to go now! It’s still here! Why won’t you believe me? It’s still---”

“I do believe you, and I’m sorry for doing this.”

Iruka had barely enough time to register what Kakashi had said when he felt the jounin’s chakra pinch at a nerve at the base of his skull. Kakashi's last words followed him into the darkness before his mind succumbed to unconsciousness.

"Iruka...” Kakashi whispered “I love you. Always."

~*~*~*~*~

Kakashi had had a nightmare, one that echoed with the screams from the battlefield that left him empty and worn and the sensation of his hands covered in blood. He had been drowning in an ocean that was his remorse, but it had been Iruka that had brought him back to the surface. He tried not to speculate on what he had glimpsed the moment Iruka’s scream had woke him.

It had been a nightmare brought to life. For the briefest of moments Kakashi had glimpsed a vague incorporeal form of a human skull with withered flesh and bulging jaundiced eyes. He had felt its murderous intent, a feeling that was all too real, and that it was hungry...but for what? Kakashi dared not speculate and could not suppress a shudder.

He cradled the limp man in his arms. the person that was most precious to him in the entire world. Iruka had been inconsolable. Kakashi recognized the signs and had no choice but to put Iruka out of commission before the sensei exerted himself to the point of harm. The sensei's dark complexion was alarmingly ashen grey, a sight that had jarred Kakashi to his core.

Kakashi pressed a kiss against Iruka’s clammy forehead before gently placing his unconscious partner onto the pallet. He lifted the hitate-ate for the Sharingan eye to scan the perimeter of the room. He was acutely aware of his depleted chakra stores, and the limits of his physical body that yearned for rest. Those needs tugged at him, notwithstanding his mental stores. His nerves were on the brink of shattering, even if whatever he was experiencing was a hallucination.

The ninken could affirm his suspicions but summoning them was out of the question. The pack were exhausted from the day’s ordeal and would be no match against a bodiless form with nothing solid to bite. Kakashi replaced the hitate-ate over his eye. The only movement the Sharingan caught was the stream of rainwater dripping steadily through the gaping hole in the roof into the mud near the door.

He was acutely reminded of the stories he had heard during his service in ANBU. Guard duty was mind-numbingly boring work, and odd stories told by word-of-mouth had been a means to pass the time. Though in retrospect Kakashi had not held those superstitions much merit, as he had the more pressing threat of living humans to contend with.

There had been one tale that had stuck out to him, of a creature that embodied the hatred of those innocents that suffered a violent death from war. Amegakure was a unique country saturated in the blood of all the shinobi nations and Kakashi couldn’t think of any better place for such a youkai to manifest. Kakashi could easily imagine this creature and others of its ilk stalking the battlefields for vulnerable shinobi, wounded and near death, despairing and all alone. This creature was a scavenger of souls.

What folklore Kakashi could recall to defend against such an entity was woefully lacking at best, but he was a man that prided himself as the copy-nin able to improvise with whatever information he had gleaned.

He dragged Iruka by the bedroll so that the chuunin was in easy reach of the central pillar. He then dug into their food scrolls for the salt packets reserved for preserving meat. It was a pitiful amount, two handfuls at most, yet he quickly got to work sprinkling a trail around the pillar until he had made an unbroken circle with just enough space for him to sit cross-legged inside.

Tossing aside the empty packet, Kakashi added more wood to the fire and set a stack within easy reach before he bent to carefully gather the unconscious man into his arms. With Iruka's face pressed against his cheek, Kakashi gingerly stepped inside the salt circle and settled himself within the barrier as best he could with an unconscious fully grown shinobi curled tightly in his arms.

And then he waited for the night to pass.

Kakashi added more wood to the fire, then continued to wait. A good portion of his career had been to stand guard. He knew how to observe and wait.

Hatake Kakashi, Special Jounin and ex-ANBU, the copy-nin feared throughout the land and bearer of one of the last Sharingan eyes. But all his experience, every blade he possessed, his entire arsenal of jitsu were all useless, not against an ethereal threat that he had only thought existed in whispers at campfire tales. The irony of the situation had not escaped him.

The wind howled mournfully outside, the rain water continued to drip outside. The minutes stretched into an hour.

Had he overreacted? He was still exhausted, and whatever he had seen could have been a manifestation. Iruka had planted a seed of this place being haunted, after all. Kakashi’s eye flickered around the room. The flames danced to the rhythmic drumming of the rain beating against the cottage roof, and of the water dripping into the puddles around the door. He was having to pinch himself to keep from nodding off. He had no idea how long he had slept before Iruka woke him, and he had no concept of the time or when the dawn would come.

Iruka’s body was a heavy burden that disrupted circulation to his limbs. His crossed legs had long lost the sensation of feeling but despite his discomfort he did not dare disturb the salt circle. Kakashi wasn’t ashamed to admit that he was being superstitious, and a fool at that if the night proved uneventful. It was something that they both can laugh about in the light of day. Either way, Kakashi was going to have one hell of a muscle cramp once the sun came up.

The last of the firewood was now gone. All the jounin could do now was watch with mounting dread as the charred lumps of wood disintegrate into white ash. His sensitive nose began to twitch at a faint scent, one that called to mind of being caught upwind of an opened cesspit.

With a sinking feeling he felt a change in the room, a presence that felt heavy and of ill intent. Without thinking he began to chant a prayer for the dead under his breath, and like a slap was assaulted by the sickly-sweet smell of a bloated corpse that was about to burst. Kakashi choked and coughed at the overwhelming stench. He found it difficult to breathe beneath his cloth mask. He yanked it off.

Kakashi adjusted his forehead protector for the Sharingan to be visible and see. His mismatched eyes watered from the demon’s odor as he peered into the darkness. His jaw set determidly and his lips pulled back into a defiant snarl, exposing sharp teeth. It was not in his nature to cower. "You can't have him."

He waited, and watched as the flames shrank to a sinister glow. The darkness crept closer as the fire dwindled, threatening to engulf them both.

~*~*~*~*~

Iruka opened his eyes and found himself in a place of vast darkness and complete silence.

He couldn’t feel his body. The alarm of that revelation was a distant one, and like a dream it was inconsequential and removed from immediate thought. He did not know what sort of place this was, though he knew that it was no mere dream. Every instinct warned that he was in a dangerous place and deep in enemy territory.

Where was he?

He found that not even his footsteps made a sound over the gravel beneath his feet--if it was really gravel and not a projection of the material world. All he could see was a faint gray outline of a path bordered by empty darkness, the borders of which he knew that he should not cross lest he wanted to be forever lost.

He began to run and hardly felt his feet touch the grey path. Iruka floundered blindly for something—anything to ground him to a sensation that he was in control of his body. He cried out in desperation and found his voice muffled as if covered beneath a heavy pillow, a distant echo in his ears that was swallowed by the gloom.

Where was he going?

There was no way for him to know.

To his horror Iruka saw faces emerging from the darkness. Gaunt faces with pinched expressions alight with desperate hope, all attracted like moths to the flame that was his lifeforce. They clustered at the border of his grey path, hesitant or unable to cross. They were the wayward ghosts of regret that yearned for a vessel to possess.

Iruka did not know how long he ran. His body did not feel fatigue but his soul was taking a heavy toll, weighed down by despair. Whenever he stumbled his gasps did not make a sound, but he was entirely aware of the voices that began to call out to him out in the dark...all desperate, demanding, and sometimes wheedling. Several of those voices were of young children, shrill distant sounds. Their cries broke Iruka’s heart, their distress further weighing him down as he passed each one. He did not feel the hot tears that he would normally shed. They were dead, he couldn’t help them. He had to move on.

He had no thought to what direction where he was going other than to be away from those awful sights and sounds.

A distant light appeared ahead, a tiny beacon shining golden bright in the oppressive gloom. Iruka focused all his energy to moving forward to reach that light, and as if in response to his determination more lost souls began to appear at either side of his grey path, a crowd coalescing into a mob with open grasping hands eager to reach him.

The barrier between his path and the wandering dead will not hold for long.

Iruka pressed on toward that point of golden light, desperate and heedless of the consequences as long as he could escape this hellish place.

~*~*~*~*~

Kakashi had to blink rapidly to clear both his eyes. The putrid stench of decay was overwhelming. Fighting back nausea, he glared into the shadows beyond the red glow of the firelight and snarled “You can’t have him” his claim was bolstered by a guttural growl “He is MINE!”

Despite the show of bravado, he was afraid. Kakashi could remember one other time when he felt so helpless, despairing and alone. It had been as a child when he had found his father’s body bled out and splayed lifeless over the tatami floor.

No...perhaps it had been when he had abandoned Obito, on the verge of death and crushed by rocks. And Rin...right at the moment he had been forced to punch his fist right through her gut.

With a grimace he closed his eyes. There were so many others... those pleading whose lives he had taken. Comrades he had failed, abandoned and never to return home from certain death. There were others...and more….so many more...

They were dead...and it was his fault.

Kakashi regretted them all.

The back of Kakashi’s head hit the wooden pillar as he moaned. He felt his grip loosen around the unconscious body in his arms. Iruka began to slip from his grasp, threatening to disrupt the carefully laid salt circle.

Kakashi jolted back to his senses in time to tighten his grasp around the unconscious man. His mismatched eyes fluttered open to stare at the black ceiling as he tried to concentrate on the present and now. He considered the credibility of a second-heard tale that a paltry barrier of mineral salt could ward off a malevolent spirit. But he was going to take what he could get. He buried his face into Iruka’s neck, drawing comfort from the sensei’s familiar scent.

The light of the firepit snuffed out.

Kakashi gasped with a violent start. The tiny space of the platform was now consumed by the night. Kakashi suddenly felt very cold, as if he were outside in the dead of winter. He found it difficult to control his breathing, what oxygen he could get came from short panicked breaths. It was all he could hear, that and the rapid beating of his own heart. His anxiety spiked; an unsettling sensation as he had never fully lost control of his mind aside from being caught by an enemy’s genjutsu. He was trapped with no means to fight back.

This was a youkai that smelled the blood on Kakashi’s hands. It was drawn to his deepest and most secret regrets. It sensed his remorse like a shark scenting blood in the water, circling ever closer as it probed for a crack in the jounin’s resolve. Kakashi knew that it was biding its time before it worked up the strength, the intent, for the killing strike.

Will the salt circle hold? Kakashi was beginning to seriously doubt his belief that it would.

Shivering from the cold, he managed deep even breaths and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. He held Iruka tight against his chest. The presence of the demon weighed upon him like a heavy shroud that sought to snuff out his inner light.

With mounting dread, Kakashi realized that he was losing the fight.

~*~*~*~*~

Iruka stopped short in his tracks, the gravel that skittered beneath his feet did not make a sound. The source of the golden light was a stone statue of a monk sitting in the lotus position. In one hand the monk held a candle to its chest, a tiny flame that burned like the sun. For a moment Iruka hesitated at the edge of the light. He heard the lost souls clamoring somewhere in the dark, seeking him. He stepped into that radiant light and found that he could no longer hear the cries of the ghosts. And he felt warm, almost uncomfortably so. Iruka had not noticed before that he had been cold.

With apprehension Iruka approached the statue and knelt to inspect it. He had to squint and shield his eyes against the unnatural brightness of the candlelight. The statue looked to be made of black granite, its surface dull and without polish. Carved into the monk’s genderless features was a serene expression that was heavily wrinkled to show the wisdom of age.

Iruka gasped as an impossibly englonated arm shot out to grasp his hand. He tried to pull away but found himself unable to free himself from its stony grasp.

Empty eye sockets snapped opened to stare at him, revealing twin depthless voids like between the stars of a moonless night...an entire universe that cradled a distant sun at its epicentre shining like burnished gold. That light burned with a pulse like a heartbeat, one that beckoned, pulling him in...and consuming his ability to resist…

Iruka made a soundless cry as he was pulled into the void.

~*~*~*~*~

The demon stood before Kakashi and he could now see it for what it was. It was a human ghost that centuries of unrest had transformed into an insidious youkai...a manifestation of a corpse that shifted through all stages of decay. A tattered yukata hung from its skeletal frame, stained black with old blood. The face was the same as what Kakashi had glimpsed before, of rotted teeth and loose flesh partially obscured by long black hair matted with filth. It bore down on his despair, a dark intent that pressed with ever mounting strength to break through the pitiful salt barrier.

A low whine rose unbidden from the back of Kakashi’s throat as grain by grain, the demon pushed through the pathetic salt ring. The creature’s rotting head leered above with bulging milky orbs set deep into the sockets of a withered skull, alight with the anticipation of the feast that it was about to partake. Those eyes burned feverishly with a terrifying awareness.

The steady stream of dripping puddles abruptly stopped and not even the wind outside made a sound. Impossibly, the incessant drumming rain of the storm had stopped. Kakashi could hear nothing aside from the panicked beat of his own heart.

At the moment when the youkai had broken through the barrier he knew then that they were lost.

Kakashi was unable to do anything but sit prone and petrified by his terror. He had never in his life felt so helpless without any means to fight back. He was too weak, his soul weighed down by those whose lives he had taken. The oppressive silence of the room was now filled with distant screams...screams that Kakashi distantly recognized. His hands were slick with the blood of those he had killed, and he could feel their blood dripping from his fingertips.

With a distant awareness he felt Iruka slip to drape over his lap. Tears of regret leaked from the corner of his mismatched eyes. Kakashi no longer cared. He didn’t deserve him. He had failed Iruka, and it was his fault that they were both going to die.

He watched with horrified fascination as an impossibly long tongue slithered out from between the demon’s rotting teeth, blackened and stinking, bloated. Kakashi sat transfixed as if under the spell, mesmerized as the essence that was himself siphoned into the creature before him all funneled by his guilt.

Kakashi whimpered as he felt himself slipping. He was teetering on the edge and about to fall into the abyss. He did not want this horrible creature to be the last thing he saw in this world. With the last of his strength he tilted his head to gaze down at the person he had failed.

A cool hand pressed against his cheek and Kakashi blinked with astonishment. With eyes closed, Iruka lifted his head. The screams echoing in the darkness had ceased, their silence deafening with the absence of rain.

The world held its breath.

Iruka opened his eyes. His pupils shone like a cat’s, imbued with a golden light. His voice was ancient and rasping and entirely not his own

“Release!”

The light pierced Kakashi’s entire being. He felt himself scream---a vague sound--and felt the youkai do the same as it fled the cavity that was his body, scrabbling with desperation to flee.

Then it was gone.

Kakashi slipped from the post and collapsed onto his side. Iruka slipped from his numbed grasp. His mind reeled as he tried to comprehend what had happened. He felt scoured, his spirit flayed and raw. He was vaguely aware that the firepit had flared back to life. For a very long time he could not move. Outside the rain had resumed its steady rhythmic drone. Beside him he heard Iruka groan, a blessedly familiar sound that anchored him to the physical realm.

He couldn’t keep his hands from shaking as he crawled over the other man. He was terrified of what he might find. By the guttering glow of the firelight Iruka’s dark brown eyes fluttered open without any hint of gold.

Kakashi felt his body sag against the other man and wasn’t ashamed as he wept ”Iruka, my heart.”

“Oh...Kakashi,” Iruka rasped in his own blessedly familiar voice. His arms moved to envelope the trembling man, one hand gently stroking the unkempt silvery hair. He exhaled a shaky breath. “I had a bad dream.”

“Me too,” Kakashi agreed as he stroked the other’s cheek and pressed a kiss to Iruka’s forehead. “When the dawn comes we will be out of here soon.” The two shinobi remained as they waited for the sun to rise, secure in each other’s warm embrace.

Outside the rain had subsided as the storm began to pass.

~*~*~*~*~

Only a few clouds dotted the silvery sky of dawn’s early light. The dark forest was awakening with the song of birds, a bright cheery sound of celebration of survival. Iruka sensed that it was going to be a hot day and suspected that before long the mud would dry up and the puddles dotting the road would evaporate, erasing all trace of the violent storm, and he was glad that. The Konoha outpost was a few hours away by foot and dry roads would make it easier to get home.

He sat resting outside on a fallen log, wrapped in a blanket as he watched Kakashi outside the open cottage door as the jounin prepared for their trip with practiced efficiency. Neither of them had wanted to linger inside.

Iruka felt much better despite neither of them having got any more sleep. Though he still felt drained and weak he was regaining his strength. As Kakashi packed their things he found his gaze drawn to the dark silhouette that was the empty door. He felt uncomfortable thinking about that place, of what had happened last night, even in the light of day.

Kakashi retrieved the blanket from the other man and folded ii before sealing it inside a supply scroll. His voice broke the contemplative silence between them. “I guess that monk was a youkai of a different sort.”

Iruka shrugged. He had considered the same as well. “I can’t imagine anyone willing to stay in that hollow place. I would go mad.”

“Perhaps a benign spirit that gives aid to lost souls is exactly what that place needs." Kakashi helped the chuunin to his feet and together they walked out into the overgrown road. Kakashi crouched to study a broken cobblestone peeking out from the damp grass and mud. "This was once a well-traveled road. Can you see the broken cobblestones poking through? The rain must have exposed them.”

Iruka gazed around at the abandoned road. His eyes widened when he recognized it for what it was. "This is a crossroad."

“Hm?” Something in Iruka's tone made Kakashi look up. "Why does that matter?"

"From what I’ve heard...this is the absolute worst place to build a house.” The sensei chewed his bottom lip. “Crossroads are places that attract more than just human travelers. That strange path leading through those lost souls might have been an astral projection of it.” Iruka realized then that he was very eager to leave. He turned to Kakashi "I can walk a little way, just give me a good stick."

"Not an option," Kakashi said with a note of finality. He turned around and crouched on the ground and waited for the other man to comply.

"Fine." Iruka conceded and climbed onto Kakashi's back. He wrapped his arms over the powerful shoulders as Kakashi hooked his elbows under his knees. "But we will take breaks when I say so."

"Deal." Kakashi grunted as he rose. He had a feeling that it would be some time before they would stop. They both wanted to gain as much distance as they could away from this accursed place.

Iruka sensed Kakashi’s unease and briefly nuzzled the silver hair above an ear, a gentle caress. “I love you, you know that?”

“Always,” Kakashi replied with just as much warmth.

Iruka gave a dry chuckle “You do know that this is going to be one hell of an interesting report to write.”

“And I’ll be sure to turn it in on time,” Kakashi replied. “Just this once.”

They gave one final look at the depleted cottage at the abandoned crossroad. It will be a long time before either of them could forget the horrors of that night. There were some stories that were better left unheard, unsaid in the dark. Iruka bowed his head to nuzzle Kakashi’s neck, eager to be gone and away. He felt Kakashi gently squeeze his leg, returning the gesture.

"Let's get out of here." Kakashi said, then turned to walk away.

~*~*~*~*~

Fin