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The shrine did not look haunted at first glance. The torii gate needed a fresh coat of paint but the rest of the grounds were well-maintained; the stone steps leading up from the gate were swept clear of leaves despite the turn of the season, and the two buildings at the top were as elegant as decorations on a cake. Both were small: the first the largest and simplest in design, a low wooden structure with a sloping roof and shaded windows, while the second, glimpsed behind, was garlanded with paper charms and guarded by two komainu, the stone lion-dogs that kept evil spirits from the door. Whether the haunting could be blamed on them was still a matter of debate. Their holy building, home of the resident god, had not yet been disturbed by malevolent forces. It was the first building, the hall of worship, that was troubled by the dead.
Iruka adjusted his ANBU mask and looked critically up at the hall doors. The shrine was halfway up one of the mountains outside Konoha and he’d heard it was popular among shinobi at festivals, but he’d never visited before. He could respect the spiritual beliefs of others, even held one or two superstitions of his own, but there were limits to what he could swallow.
“This is bullshit,” he said flatly.
Kakashi nudged him in the side, the metal plates of their armour clinking together.
“You can’t say bullshit in a holy place.”
“Bullshit,” Iruka insisted. “This isn’t an ANBU mission. This isn’t a real mission at all! We’re shinobi, not exorcists.”
“Oh come on, where’s your sense of adventure? Surely you’d rather be ghost-hunting than stuck on boring guard duty.”
Iruka grudgingly accepted that, but he refused to back down from his righteous indignation.
“This must be someone’s idea of a joke,” he said. “When I find out who authorised this, I’m going to TP their house.”
“And if it was Sandaime?”
“I know where he lives,” Iruka said evenly.
“As much as I enjoy your feisty moods,” Kakashi said, “we should probably go inside. Unless all this ranting is to cover up the fact that you’re scared?”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Iruka started ascending the steps towards the hall.
“Let me know if you change your mind and we can hold hands,” Kakashi offered, and Iruka flipped him off.
The door opened onto a large, unadorned hall. The wooden floor and walls were bare, and the light that came through the leaded windows was soft and dim. Squares of paper, some painted with charms, hung along the border of the ceiling, and set into the wall directly opposite the door was a small altar where people could kneel to pray. The room smelt of incense and floor polish, and Iruka felt uncomfortably askew at this combination of the mystic and mundane.
There was a sliding door discreetly off to one side of the room, and Kakashi crossed to it, knocking on the wooden frame and then stepping back when a voice called, “Just a minute, please.”
The shrine maiden was younger than Iruka had expected. For some reason he’d pictured her as an elderly woman, but she was somewhere around forty years of age, her dark hair cut short and her expression weary, although she tried to smile as she greeted them. She was dressed in the traditional outfit of red hakama trousers and a white kimono, and there was a dark smudge on her elbow that could have been ink.
“Thank you for coming, ANBU-san,” she said. Even her voice was tired, every word escaping like a sigh. “Won’t you come through?”
She led them down a short hallway and into an administrative office, a neat room lined with bookshelves and filing cabinets. The shrine maiden sat behind a desk by the window, gesturing for them to take the two seats opposite. With the three of them in the room, the space felt cramped.
“I’m Nishikawa Hanako, currently the head miko,” the woman introduced herself.
“The name on the mission request was Nakamura,” Kakashi said. “I thought we’d be meeting her.”
Hanako sighed. “She wrote that request several months ago. Back when Konoha called this a C class mission and sent a genin team.” She snorted softly. “The mission has been steadily reclassified up and up since then. None of us expected it to go all the way to ANBU, but here we are. Well, I say ‘we’, but the reason you’re talking to me instead of Nakamura-san is that she left several weeks ago. There were four shrine maidens here when this all started. Now there’s only me.”
“Everyone else left?” Iruka asked. He exchanged a glance with Kakashi. They’d been briefed that there’d been a couple of previous missions here that had failed, but clearly there was more to the story. Great. “Maybe you should tell us a little more about what’s been going on here. The mission request was very vague.”
Hanako leaned back in her chair and pulled a face. “Nakamura-san didn’t want to go into too much detail because it sounds so ridiculous. A group of shrine maidens unable to cleanse our own holy place of a ghost? It’s embarrassing.”
“And you thought shinobi could do a better job?” Iruka asked. Kakashi shot him a look. “I mean, not to be rude,” he added, “but we’re used to dealing with enemies who are more…alive.”
Hanako fixed him with a level stare. “We were desperate,” she said, and Iruka was pretty sure that was an insult. Fair. He probably deserved it.
“So this ghost of yours,” Kakashi said. “Nakamura-san said there had been possessions.”
“That’s right.” Hanako opened a drawer in her desk and rummaged around. “It’ll be easier if I tell you her story.”
“Whose story?” Iruka asked.
Hanako pulled a slip of paper out of the drawer and laid it on the desk. It was a photograph of a young couple, the woman holding out her left hand to show off her engagement ring. Both of them were smiling brightly.
“They were supposed to be married here last spring,” Hanako said. “I was here the day of their wedding. I helped her get ready for the ceremony.”
“What was her name?” Kakashi asked.
“Yui.” Hanako glanced around as though afraid the spirit would be summoned by her name, but if she was eavesdropping then she gave no sign of her presence. “I remember she wasn’t feeling well, but she’d been looking forward to the wedding for so long and she didn’t want to cause a fuss. It was almost time for the ceremony to begin and she wanted to sit down first, to gather her strength.” Hanako looked away from the photo, her expression troubled. “I wasn’t in the room when she collapsed but I heard her mother shouting, and by the time I rushed back through, it was already too late.”
“Do you know what she died of?” Iruka asked, more interested in the death than in the alleged ghost.
“Her family said she had a health condition but I never found out exactly what it was.”
“And now she haunts the shrine whenever you have a wedding,” Kakashi said.
“That’s one way to put it,” Hanako said. “She attacks the brides. Since her death, we’ve had seven weddings, and every single time the bride has been the focus of a spiritual attack. Sometimes it happens before the ceremony, sometimes during, but nothing we’ve tried has prevented it. No matter how many charms we hang, how much incense we burn or how much we pray, we can’t protect our guests.”
Iruka had been trying not to fidget while Hanako spoke. He was very glad he was wearing a mask because he couldn’t keep his scepticism from his face. From the way Kakashi glanced at him, he must have sensed it, or maybe he knew Iruka well enough to anticipate his moods, but he didn’t kick Iruka in the ankle fast enough to stop him speaking.
“That’s a very sad story,” Iruka said, “but I’m not sure what you expect us to do about it. I don’t even believe in ghosts, let alone know how to get rid of them.”
Hanako shrugged. “The last shinobi team who came tried to seal the spirit.”
“Seals, huh?” Kakashi said, looking at Iruka again.
“I don’t know any ghost-repelling seals,” Iruka said flatly.
“Look, I don’t care how you do it,” Hanako said. “If you try something, I’ll be grateful even if you fail. Honestly, at this point I’ll give up if you can’t help me. The shrine’s reputation has suffered too much already. No one comes here anymore and I can’t blame them. Who wants to get possessed by an angry ghost on their wedding day? If you can’t exorcise the spirit then I’ll have to close the shrine.”
This time Kakashi stepped on Iruka’s foot before she’d even finished speaking. Iruka glared at him but half-heartedly. He did feel bad for Hanako, and he didn’t blame her for trying every means at her disposal to try and save the shrine, but it didn’t change the fact that he didn’t believe in ghosts.
“We’ll try our best,” Kakashi said. “Is there a particular place the ghost tends to appear? If you have any advice, we could use it.”
Hanako gestured towards the doorway. “Out in the hall, usually, but since we’re not set up for a wedding ceremony right now you’ll have better luck in the bride’s dressing room. That’s where Yui-san died. I’ve had a few encounters in there myself. Nothing as dramatic as a possession, but sometimes when I’m back there I feel as though I’m not alone.”
Kakashi stood up. “Then let’s start there.”
Once Hanako had brought them to the haunted room, she left them alone to take a look around. It was bigger than the office, but not by much, and seemed to be more of a repurposed storeroom than a dressing room. There was a dressing table and a mirror, yes, but there were also cardboard boxes piled up behind the door, and there was a coat rack with several kimonos hanging from the rail. There was no window, and the room was lit by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Iruka waited to feel a spooky presence and didn’t. No surprise there.
“So what exactly are we supposed to do?” he asked, sitting on the stool and idly picking up a box of tissues from the dressing table. “Do you even believe in ghosts?”
“Of course,” Kakashi said. He’d shut the door behind them and was standing in front of it, gazing slowly around as though the ghost might be hiding somewhere.
“Sure. Why not? Plenty of people see ghosts. They can’t all be lying. And if Hanako-san is to be believed, seven different brides have been possessed here, all in front of witnesses. What do you think really happened if it wasn’t a ghost?”
“The power of suggestion,” Iruka said. “They hear a ghost story, they’re already worked up because it’s their wedding day, and something something psychology.”
Kakashi laughed. “You should have been a therapist,” he teased. “You have a remarkable insight into the human psyche.”
“Thanks, I thought so too.”
He watched in the mirror as Kakashi wandered across the room, lifting the lid off one of the boxes and peering at its contents.
“So, as the only believer in the room, what do you think we should do?” Iruka asked.
Kakashi hummed thoughtfully. “Well I’m not an expert, but ghosts are supposed to come back due to unfinished business, right?”
“I think it’s pretty clear what her unfinished business was.”
“Right, so I guess we just need to fix that.”
Iruka frowned. “What, you want to marry her or something?”
“I would never break your heart like that,” Kakashi said, and Iruka snorted.
“Seriously, though, even if ghosts do exist and this is a real haunting,” Iruka said, idly opening one of the drawers in the dressing table, “she only appears at weddings, so how are we supposed to lure her out?”
“If I got down on one knee – ”
He started pulling items out of the drawer one at a time. There were make-up wipes, a small sewing kit, a necklace with a broken clasp. Detritus of brides past.
“What if I threw in a dowry?”
Iruka considered this. “At least three dogs. Including Bull.”
“Damn, Iruka, you drive a hard bargain.”
Before Iruka could find out if Kakashi was willing to trade his summons for Iruka’s hand in marriage, the lightbulb sizzled out. Iruka froze with his hand on the next object he’d been about to remove from the drawer. A small amount of daylight trickled through the gaps between door and doorframe, enough for Iruka to pick out the shape of things but not enough to see by.
The room was suddenly very cold.
“Dodgy wiring,” Iruka said. “That’s all this is. Absolutely, definitely not a ghost.”
He turned back to the dressing table, about to push the stool back and stand up, but then hesitated. The mirror was catching the meagre light, and he could just make out the shape of a face in the glass. It should have been his own, but although it was shadowy and indistinct, something about it made the hair rise on the back of his neck. Something about the proportions was off, as though the face were a few inches closer to the glass than Iruka was.
“Iruka,” Kakashi said sharply. “Do you feel that?”
Iruka didn’t reply. He raised a hand, and there was a flicker of movement in the mirror. Surely it was his reflection. He reached slowly towards the glass, and thought he glimpsed pale fingers on the other side as something reached back.
Kakashi grabbed him around the chest and hauled him back, the stool clattering away as Iruka stumbled to his feet. Kakashi’s arms tightened to steady him before practically flinging him back against the far wall, placing Kakashi between Iruka and the mirror. Iruka groped towards the light, something falling from his fingers, and then he flung the door open and daylight slanted into the room. He blinked hard to adjust.
There was nothing in the mirror except a reflection of Kakashi, who had his hands close together as though about to cast a jutsu. He stared tensely into the mirror for a moment more and then dropped his stance.
“There was nothing there,” Iruka said, but the confidence of earlier had left his tone.
Kakashi turned to face him, and Iruka saw the blood red of the sharingan before he closed his left eye.
“Yes there was,” he said. “You didn’t feel that?”
“Feel what? An intense case of the creeps?”
“There was a chakra signature,” Kakashi said, gesturing back at the mirror. “Or something like chakra. It was faint and…there was something wrong with it. Like it had gone rotten.”
Iruka tried to wrap his mind around the idea of rotten chakra and failed utterly.
“What does that even mean?”
“I can’t describe it any better than that. You’ll have to take my word for it.”
“All right,” Iruka said. “All right, there was something wrong with the mirror. But you’re talking about a jutsu, right? If there was chakra then this isn’t a ghost at all, it’s some kind of genjutsu maybe?”
But Kakashi was shaking his head.
“I saw it,” he said flatly.
“Wait a second.” Iruka held up his hands. With daylight spilling in, the room looked ordinary again, although he couldn’t deny that his nerves were still ringing like a fading klaxon. “You’re telling me you saw a ghost. With your sharingan.”
“Bullshit,” Iruka said, jabbing a finger to point at Kakashi’s eye as though it had insulted his grandmother. “You don’t have ghost vision. That is not…that’s not a real thing!”
“The sharingan has many mysteries…”
“No,” Iruka said.
Kakashi had almost fully relaxed now, satisfied that the alleged ghost had evaporated or discorporated or whatever it was that ghosts did when they weren’t ripping off bad jump scares from the lowest class of horror movie. If this truly was a ghost – and Iruka wasn’t saying it was – then he was unimpressed at its choice of scare tactics.
“I didn’t see it the way you’re probably picturing,” Kakashi said. “It didn’t look like a person, it was like a haze of chakra, gathered around the mirror. And around you. I think you were attracting it.”
“Me?” Iruka almost took off his mask so Kakashi could suffer the full force of his disbelief. “Do I look like a bride to you? Don’t answer that.”
“You’re not its usual type,” Kakashi admitted. “I suppose we were talking about marriage – maybe that was enough to set it off? Or maybe you did something to summon it.”
“I don’t summon ghosts,” Iruka said primly.
“What were you doing when the light went out?”
“Nothing,” Iruka said. “I was just going through the drawers. But there was nothing interesting in there. Just a load of bridal knick-knacks.”
There was a pause.
“Gosh, well, there’s no way some ‘bridal knick-knacks’ could have anything to do with the resident ghost bride,” Kakashi said to the room at large. “What a ridiculous suggestion.”
“Shut up,” Iruka said. “I know when I’ve said something stupid without you pointing it out.”
Speaking of the drawer’s contents, Iruka could still feel a residual pain in his fingers from where he’d gripped the last object too tightly. Come to think of it, the lightbulb had blown just as he’d touched it. He glanced down and spotted something by his feet. It was a decorative hair comb, fashioned from dark wood and topped with two glittering jewelled flowers. He crouched down, almost picked it up, and then stopped with his fingers an inch from the comb. Aha, you bastard, he thought. Fool me once.
“I bet it was Yui’s,” Kakashi said. “Bet you one million yen.”
“Assuming this was the trigger for your alleged ghost attack.” Iruka watched the comb closely, in case it was about to secrete ectoplasm or blood, but if it was a cursed object it was too cunning to give itself away. “How would you feel about conducting a scientific experiment?” he asked Kakashi.
Kakashi glanced at the mirror. “Why don’t I be the experimental subject this time?”
“You’re the one with the ghost vision, you have to be the observer.”
“Fine,” Kakashi said. “But be careful. Don’t do anything stupid like try to touch her.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t provoke the ghost, I’ve got it.”
Iruka picked up the comb.
It wasn’t as dramatic this time since the lightbulb couldn’t blow twice, but Iruka felt as though cold fingers had slid down the back of his shirt. He repressed a shiver, staying in a crouch and keeping his gaze on the mirror. Kakashi was standing directly in front of the glass, tense and waiting, but Iruka couldn’t make out anything unearthly in the reflection. He glanced around the rest of the room instead, trying to pick out the chakra signature Kakashi had sensed. There was a thickening of the air, like the humidity after a lightning storm, and a hair-on-end certainty that they were being watched.
One of the boxes shuddered. Kakashi whirled around but before he could do anything, the box launched itself through the air. Iruka dropped the comb and dodged as the box landed with a loud thump right where he’d been crouching, half its contents scattering across the floor.
Iruka eyed it critically, looked at the comb, and then turned to Kakashi.
“For the record, I still don’t believe in ghosts.”
“She just attacked you!”
“It could have been the wind.” When Kakashi threw up his hands, Iruka added, “A really spooky wind.”
Kakashi took a deep breath that Iruka could hear through the mask.
“All right, we can work around your denial,” he said. “But you know what this means.”
“Actually no, I don’t. I’m new to this whole ghost-hunting thing.”
“It has chakra,” Kakashi said. “That means you can seal it. Time to get working on those ghost-repelling seals.”
They decided to set up their trap in the prayer hall. Hanako had given them permission once they’d outlined their plan and then had beaten a hasty retreat to the shrine’s other building so she wouldn’t have to help out if anything went wrong. Iruka couldn’t blame her. This was by far the stupidest thing he’d ever done, and he’d done a lot of a stupid things in his life.
Kakashi, meanwhile, seemed to be enjoying ghost-hunting amateur hour.
“Why didn’t the ghost go to the wedding?” he asked.
Iruka looked at him. “She did go to the wedding. That’s the whole problem.”
“It’s a joke, Iruka,” Kakashi said patiently. “Come on. I know you have a sense of humour buried deep down beneath all those layers of sarcasm and disappointment.”
Iruka sighed, already full of regret. “I don’t know, Kakashi. Why didn’t the ghost go to the wedding?
“Because she had nobody to go with.”
Iruka closed his eyes and counted to ten.
“Get it?” Kakashi asked, delighted with himself. “No body. Because she’s a ghost!”
“Yeah, that’s why she possessed the bride.”
“Oh yeah. Huh. Maybe that was an insensitive pun.”
“You think?” Iruka massaged his temples and tried to wrench them back to the subject at hand. “This isn’t going to work.”
“You’re so negative,” Kakashi sighed. “The plan sounds pretty solid to me. What’s the problem?”
Iruka gestured to the centre of the hall. A rather battered cardboard box sat on the polished floor, looking sorry for itself. Sitting inside was the comb, which Kakashi had picked up by sliding a piece of paper underneath it as though it were a particularly ugly spider he’d wanted to take outside. On the sides of the box were a few paper seals that Iruka had hastily inked while muttering unflattering things about the restless dead.
“It’s a mouse trap,” Iruka said flatly. “That’s what we’ve made. A glorified mouse trap with a metaphorical piece of cheese inside.”
“What’s wrong with that? Mouse traps work. They catch mice.”
“And you don’t find anything wrong with the idea of trapping a ghost – the tragic soul of a tormented young woman – in a cardboard box?”
They both looked again at the box.
“We could ask Hanako-san to bless it if that would make you feel better,” Kakashi said. “You said you needed a vessel and it was the best I could find.”
Iruka waved a hand. “It’s as good as anything. I’m only doing this to humour you. Once we’ve caught your ghost we can go release it into the graveyard and go home.”
Kakashi paused. “Release it into the graveyard?”
“It’s a humane mouse trap,” Iruka said. “You catch your ghost and then take it back to its natural habitat.”
“You’re getting a little carried away with this metaphor,” Kakashi had the audacity to say.
Iruka threw up his arms. “Well, enlighten me then, Ghost Vision Kakashi, what would you do with a haunted box?”
Kakashi tapped a thoughtful finger on the chin of his mask.
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” he admitted. “But I suspect we can make that someone else’s problem.”
“That’s the best idea you’ve had all day.”
It would be a fitting punishment for whoever had thought it would be funny to send them out ghost-hunting. Iruka entertained a brief fantasy of walking back into the Hokage Tower and dumping the ghost box on the first person to make some wisecrack about the mission. Setting a ghost on someone would be the best prank he’d ever pulled.
“So,” Kakashi said, pulling him back to the present, “how are we going to do this?” He walked around the box, doing a good impression of inspecting it, although Iruka knew he didn’t have a clue what any of the seals did from just looking at them.
“One of us touches the comb, then when the ghost shows up her chakra will theoretically activate the seals and create a barrier around the box,” Iruka said. “’Theoretically’ being the key word here. I can’t guarantee it’ll work but it’s the best I could come up with.”
“Only one way to find out,” Kakashi said. “Do you want me to watch your back again?”
“I think that’ll work best.”
Iruka approached the box, not sure quite how seriously to take this. Something had happened in the dressing room, he could grudgingly admit that much, but nothing really dangerous. The worst-case scenario seemed to be that the ghost would throw this box at him too, which was just as well because he didn’t know what Kakashi could do to defend him against a woman who was already dead.
He crouched beside the box and glanced up at Kakashi, noticing that both his eyes were open and trained intently on Iruka. He had to admit, there was always something comforting about having Kakashi as his mission partner. Even if Kakashi wasn’t any more experienced in ghost hunting, he had never once failed to come to Iruka’s aid when Iruka had needed him. Iruka had no doubt that Kakashi had some plan in mind for how he’d defend him from a spiritual attack, even if it was nothing more sophisticated than placing himself between Iruka and the ghost.
“Ready?” Kakashi asked, and Iruka nodded.
He reached into the box and touched his fingers to the comb. This time the temperature dropped so steeply that Iruka could see the white clouds of his breath curling out from beneath the mask. Kakashi scanned the room, always keeping Iruka in his peripherals
Something grabbed Iruka around the throat. He couldn’t see anything, but there was a sudden crushing pressure around his windpipe, hard enough to bruise and certainly hard enough to cut off his air supply completely.
“Let go!” he heard Kakashi say, and didn’t know if he was talking to Iruka or the ghost, but he obeyed instinctively, jerking his hand away from the comb.
The ghost didn’t give a fuck. The pressure only tightened.
Iruka scrabbled at his throat with both hands, but there was nothing solid he could pry away. His lips parted as he tried to suck in air, and he pushed off his ANBU mask, letting it clatter to the floor. It didn’t help. Black spots danced in front of his vision and a sickening dizziness made the room spin around him. Much more of this and he’d pass out. He’d been taught the rule of three in survival training: humans could survive for three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without oxygen. One hundred and eighty seconds. How many seconds had it been?
Then, abruptly, the ghost released him. Iruka fell back, drawing in great lungfuls of air, keeping one hand at his throat as if to ward off a second attack. The room was still freezing cold; this wasn’t over. He couldn’t understand why she’d let him go, but then suddenly thought Kakashi. What if she’d gone for him instead? He turned towards Kakashi, half scrambling to his feet despite the light-headedness, and then stopped. What the hell?
Kakashi was gone. In his place was a man who looked strangely familiar, yet Iruka was sure he didn’t know him. He had dark hair, a boyish face, and an expression of the utmost sadness. His gaze was fixed on something in the air before him, and although Iruka couldn’t see what he was looking at, he noticed that the floor in that spot was frosted with a thin layer of ice.
The man stretched out a hand towards the cold spot, and Iruka thought he saw a flicker in the air, although it could have been his eyes still recovering from the lack of oxygen. Then the man smiled, and Iruka realised suddenly why he recognised him.
It was Yui’s fiancé. The man from the photograph.
The man moved past the cold spot, towards the centre of the room, and Iruka slowly backed away, trying not to draw attention to himself. He curled his fingers around a barrier seal, just in case, although he didn’t know if regular barrier seals worked on ghosts. At least if he was forced to find out, it would be educational.
Yui’s fiancé stopped right beside the box and turned back. As far as Iruka could tell, the ghost had drifted after him, a trail of ice crystals in her wake, but had kept her distance, as if shy or suspicious. The man held out his hand again, trying to coax her forwards.
“Come here,” he said softly – in Kakashi’s voice.
Speaking was a mistake. There was a rush of frigid air, and for a moment Iruka felt a deep sorrow that wasn’t his own, and then there was only an empty room and a melting patch of ice.
“Damn,” Kakashi muttered. He dropped the henge and glanced ruefully down at the box. “That could have gone better.”
“It could have gone worse,” Iruka pointed out, rubbing his throat. It hurt to talk, and his voice came out scratchy, but overall he felt he’d got off lightly.
Kakashi moved his own ANBU mask to the side as he came over, his gaze flicking over Iruka’s throat.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s my own fault for not being more prepared. I didn’t think she could actually hurt me – not like that.”
Kakashi ran a hand lightly over Iruka’s neck, pressing gently on the windpipe to check for damage. It hurt, and Iruka tried not to wince.
“She doesn’t seem to like you very much,” Kakashi commented.
“Maybe she heard me say I didn’t believe in ghosts.”
“Do you believe now?”
“She made a compelling argument for her existence.”
Kakashi’s fingers brushed Iruka’s jaw.
“It’s all very well being able to see her,” he said, “but that doesn’t help me fight her. I don’t know if you can fight a ghost. I hated seeing you get hurt and not knowing how to help you.”
“You did help me,” Iruka said. Kakashi’s fingers were calloused but very gentle against his jaw, almost hesitant, as though he expected Iruka to pull away. “That was clever, using the henge.”
“I don’t know what I’d have done if it didn’t work.”
Iruka put a hand over his and squeezed. “Don’t worry about the might-have-beens,” he scolded. “We have enough to think about without adding hypotheticals to the mix. Like how the hell we’re supposed to catch a ghost that’s smart enough to avoid the traps.”
Kakashi took his hand back, and Iruka let himself miss the contact for a brief moment before turning back to the problem at hand.
“I don’t think she really wanted the comb,” Kakashi said, turning to look at the box. “I think she just hates you touching it. Do you think that’s what’s tethering her here? Maybe if we took it away from the shrine, she’d go with it.”
“Then she’d just end up haunting somewhere else,” Iruka said. “What if we destroyed it?”
“That risks really pissing her off. I don’t think I want to go that far unless we’re absolutely certain it’ll banish her.”
“I’m not certain of anything,” Iruka sighed. “Hanako-san didn’t warn us she was violent. I’m a little ticked off at her, honestly.”
“Maybe she didn’t know,” Kakashi said. He was frowning thoughtfully. “She said Yui possesses the brides. Why didn’t she possess you? She could have made you drop the comb.”
“Because I’m not a bride?”
“But why would you have to be? Surely if she can possess them then she can possess anyone.” His voice had taken on the distracted quality of someone talking to themselves, and Iruka didn’t interrupt his train of thought. “Why the brides? I’d assumed she was angry at them because they were getting the one thing she’d missed out on. But if she was jealous, why not try to hurt them like she hurt you?”
Iruka had assumed something similar. Of course a ghost bride would hate weddings: they were reminders of her own death. But now that Kakashi mentioned it, he realised they were missing a huge chunk of information. Yui possessed the brides and…what? What did she do with them when she had them under her power? What did she want?
“I think we need to speak to Hanako-san,” he said.
They found Hanako scrubbing the komainu statues guarding the entrance to the smaller shrine building. The image of the god that was worshipped here – the god of the mountain – was kept inside, and only shrine maidens were permitted entry, so they stood outside to talk. A sakura tree grew beside the building, and the ground was spotted with the last few cherries that the birds hadn’t eaten.
“Yui doesn’t hurt the brides,” Hanako said, “but she frightens them. They all describe it the same way. It starts with clumsiness. Their fingers will twitch unexpectedly and they’ll drop things, or they’ll stumble and smack a shin on the furniture. It steadily gets more pronounced, that feeling that they aren’t fully in charge of their bodies. That something else is fighting them for control.”
“When do they realise it’s a ghost?” Kakashi asked.
Hanako looked unhappily up at the sky. A cloud had swallowed the sun and the light was dim and grey.
“When they feel her pain,” she said. “They describe it as a terrible longing, and a fear that they’ll never be happy again.”
Hanako shook her head.
“A desperate sadness,” she said. “But more powerful than that is the wanting. She wants something with all her being.”
“To marry her fiancé,” Iruka said quietly.
“Yes. They say ghosts often act out scenes from their lives, like they’re caught in a loop. I think Yui is trapped in the day of her wedding. She wants to be the bride again and for things to go differently.” Hanako shook her head sadly. “But of course they never will.”
A sombre silence followed her words. Iruka tried to imagine how Yui must feel, having lost everything on what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. No wonder she hadn’t been able to move on.
“What happens next?” Kakashi asked. “Once the bride realises she’s possessed, what do you do?”
Hanako blinked at him. “Well we stop the ceremony and say prayers over her, of course. To cast out the spirit.”
“Did any of the possessed brides actually complete the wedding ceremony?”
“No. They were all too upset. Presumably they all went elsewhere and tried again. Certainly, none of them booked a second ceremony here.” She smiled without humour. “Can’t say I blame them.”
Kakashi made a small triumphant sound. “I think I know what she wants.”
“I’d say it’s fairly obvious what she wants,” Hanako said, but Kakashi waved an impatient hand.
“I mean, I think I know how to help her move on.”
Iruka and Hanako exchanged a blank look.
“Enlighten us,” Iruka said.
“She isn’t possessing the brides because she wants to sabotage their weddings,” Kakashi said. “She’s possessing them because she wants to experience a wedding for herself. If we hold a ceremony and see it through to the end, maybe she’ll finally have the closure she needs and won’t be bound here anymore.”
Hanako frowned. “And who exactly is going to get married? Everyone has heard about the ghost by now; all the bookings we had have been cancelled. Besides, even if we could find a couple at short notice, I couldn’t in good conscience allow them to put themselves in harm’s way.”
For some reason, Kakashi looked at Iruka.
“I wouldn’t put a real couple in danger either. But we don’t need a real couple. Just two people who are willing to go through the motions and can deal with a little bit of a possession.”
“Wait,” Iruka said sharply. “Are you suggesting that one of us play groom with Hanako-san?”
Hanako blanched, and Kakashi shook his head.
“We need Hanako-san to officiate the wedding.”
But that only left... Oh no. Oh no, he didn’t mean what Iruka thought he meant. Surely not.
Kakashi went down on one knee. He actually knelt before Iruka and took his hand. Iruka spluttered.
“Light of my life,” Kakashi said, and Iruka almost screamed, “will you fake marry me?”
It was just as well Iruka was wearing a mask because he didn’t know what his expression was doing but he knew he was blushing furiously.
“You’re the worst,” he choked out. “The most terrible – ridiculous – you –”
“Is that a yes?” Kakashi asked. He sounded as though he was enjoying himself enormously.
“Fine!” Iruka said. “Fine, yes, we can get fake married. Now stop making it weird!”
“But you love it when I make things weird.”
Iruka closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see what Hanako thought of this display. Would she give him an alibi if he murdered Kakashi here and now? Surely she’d understand. Kakashi was still on one knee, and Iruka was so flustered that he did the only thing that made sense. He kicked Kakashi in the shin.
“Get up,” Iruka said, drawing his leg back again. “Or I swear to God I’ll fake divorce you.”
“If you’re mad that I didn’t buy you a ring, I’ll get you a huge fake diamond when we’re back in the village,” Kakashi said, mercifully getting to his feet. Iruka’s heartrate moved down a notch, from the level of six espressos to a mere four.
“Could you stop doing the thing where you open your mouth and words come out?”
“But then how would we plan our big day?” Kakashi sighed. He turned to Hanako. “Are you happy to help us out with this? If we’re going to go plain clothes then you’ll be sworn to secrecy about our identities but you won’t get into any trouble.”
“No one would believe me if I told them about this anyway,” Hanako said. Her eyes were very wide and she sounded almost as flustered as Iruka felt.
“Good,” Kakashi said. “How long does it take to prepare for the ceremony? Could we do it this afternoon?”
“Um, yes. Yes, that’s fine. But, uh…there might be a problem.”
“Well, um, Yui-san’s spirit possesses the bride. But you’re both…” She trailed off as though their maleness was an embarrassing personal problem.
“That’s a good point,” Iruka said. “Yui might be an open-minded ghost but I’d rather not take chances. If we want to do this right then one of us is going to have to cross-dress.”
“Not – fuck!”
“Too slow,” Kakashi said smugly. “Besides, you’ll look better as a bride. You’ve got the hair for it. And you’re short.”
“Excuse you, we’re almost the same height.”
“Psh. I have a good three inches on you.”
“Only if you include your ridiculous hair.”
“Um,” Hanako said. “We have some formal kimonos, nothing specifically bridal but I can go see if there’s anything that might fit.”
“No dresses?” Kakashi asked. “Something white and frilly for preference.”
“Hanako-san, are there any good places nearby to dispose of a body?” Iruka asked.
“I’ll just…go take a look at what we have…” Hanako fled.
Kakashi watched her go and then turned back to Iruka.
“Seriously, you are OK with this, aren’t you?” he asked. “I know I’m asking a lot of you. If you’re not comfortable being bait for the ghost, or with the idea of being possessed, you just need to say so. I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to.”
“I know,” Iruka said. He did know. He’d worked with Kakashi plenty of times, and besides that, they were friends. Kakashi would never put him in danger unnecessarily. “I can handle a little possession. After everything she’s already put me through, it’ll be a nice change of pace.”
“If you change your mind…”
Iruka put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be fine, really. But if I change my mind I’ll let you know.”
“Good.” With that out of the way, Kakashi visibly perked up. “In that case, we have a wedding to plan! Better get started.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Iruka accused.
“I’ve always wanted a shotgun wedding,” Kakashi sighed. “I’m a romantic at heart.”
Kakashi winked at him. “Since I met you.”
He fled before Iruka could kick him again.
In the end, Iruka used a henge. It was nothing fancy, just a feminine version of himself with measurements that would fit him into the kimono Hanako had found for him – or, now, her. This meant she’d lost another two inches off her height and had needed to pad out the chest area a little more than she’d have liked, but at least the kimono was made of thick material and any figure she had was mostly hidden beneath it.
The kimono itself was pure white, simple and elegant, tied with a white obi. Hanako had applied some simple make-up and was currently fussing with Iruka’s hair, pulling it back into a low bun and pinning small fresh flowers into place. Iruka was allowing this but she wasn’t happy about it.
“Feel anything?” Hanako murmured.
Iruka took stock of her body. She felt weird, that was for sure, but she was fairly certain it was the unexpected tits rather than ghostly possession.
“Not yet,” she said.
Was Yui watching her even now? Nothing strange had happened since she’d entered the dressing room, not even when she’d sat down in front of the mirror. Hanako had brought the ghost trap through so she could set up the hall for the wedding, and Iruka kept glancing at its reflection in the mirror.
“What if she’s still sulking because of Kakashi’s henge?” Iruka said under her breath. “Or what if she recognises me? I took my mask off earlier.”
“You look different enough as a woman,” Hanako said, but she sounded like she was on edge too. “It would be cruelly ironic if this was the first wedding she didn’t crash.”
“This wedding won’t be legally binding or anything, will it?” Iruka asked. There were many things she was willing to do to for a mission. She spent weeks at a time away from home, suffered regular injuries that put her in the hospital, and gambled with her very life. Becoming Kakashi’s legal wife was a step too far.
“No,” Hanako assured her. “It’s just for show, don’t worry.”
Hanako had recovered from her initial embarrassment at Kakashi’s overenthusiasm for the wedding, or perhaps she’d simply repressed the memory the way Iruka wished she could. It was currently playing on a loop in her mind, presumably because she was traumatised. Kakashi had given her PTSD. It was the only possible reason for her elevated heartrate and the butterflies in her stomach.
“Just for the record, I absolutely, definitely don’t want to marry him,” she said. “Not for less than five dogs anyway.”
“Good to know,” Hanako said in a carefully neutral tone.
She stepped back, gave Iruka’s hair one final once-over and then nodded her satisfaction.
“You’ll do,” she said, and Iruka felt oddly insulted. If she was going to be a bride, she damn well ought to be a hot one. “I’ll go check on Kakashi-san and then we can get this started.” She paused. “You still don’t feel anything?”
Iruka shook her head.
“Well, sometimes the bride feels fine until the ceremony is underway,” Hanako said. “I’m sure she’ll turn up.”
She left Iruka sitting on her own, waiting idly to see if her head would start spinning or if she’d suddenly projectile vomit all down her kimono. It probably wasn’t that kind of possession, but since the ghost didn’t seem to like her much, who knew? Anything could happen.
She almost wished it would. The waiting was putting her on edge. What would they do if this didn’t work? It was their last chance – if Yui didn’t take the bait, Iruka was out of ideas. She swivelled round on the stool and looked contemplatively at the ghost trap. No wonder Yui hadn’t gone near it – it looked like a trap. Did their wedding look like a trap too? Iruka had done a few undercover missions in her time, but none as impromptu as this. Usually she’d have days if not weeks to plan her strategy, do her research and get into character.
But part of being a shinobi was the ability to improvise. As a seals master, she considered one of her core strengths the ability to take in a situation and build a trap using only what she had to hand. She was a tokujo – a specialist – who’d been recruited to ANBU to deal with the thornier missions: the type that required problem solving and sleight of hand rather than brute force.
She hadn’t been taking her job seriously today. She could admit that. Kakashi had done most of the thinking while she’d dismissed the ghost out of hand; even after she’d accepted the haunting was real, she had vastly underestimated the threat level. There was no one she could blame except herself. She’d been off her game.
That was going to change. It had to. She was the one who needed to lure out the ghost. She needed to be convincing enough that Yui would connect with her on a literal, spiritual level, and together they could finally give Yui the perfect wedding day. Iruka wanted that, not just from a mission perspective but from a personal one. She could only imagine how Yui must have felt these past few months since her death. She wanted this to be over. To help Yui finally find peace.
She stood up and crossed the room to the ghost trap. It wasn’t enough to wait and hope that Yui would come for her. Being passive wasn’t Iruka’s style. She had to show Yui that they were on the same side and had the same goals. Cautiously, she picked up the comb. Cold prickled her fingers like a warning.
“This is beautiful,” she said softly. “It’s such a shame it was left here. It deserves to be worn.”
The new lightbulb didn’t blow. The temperature didn’t sink any lower. Iruka thought she sensed a presence, but when she turned around there was no face in the mirror beside her own. She reached back and started to carefully slide the comb into her hair above the bun when her fingers twitched without her permission. She let her hand go slack, waiting, and then felt her own hand pull the comb up, adjust the angle, and slide it back in, all without her conscious permission.
“Thanks,” she said a little breathlessly. “I wouldn’t want to look untidy on our big day.”
She waited for something else, some other sign that she wasn’t alone in her body, but there was nothing. Only that tingling sensation of being watched. There was no threat in the unseen gaze – the gaze that now rested behind Iruka’s own eyes, gazing back at her from her reflection – although that might change if Yui realised she was being set up for another trap. Presumably she couldn’t read Iruka’s thoughts – they were sharing a body, not a mind – but Iruka tried to think bridal thoughts just in case. She sat back down and examined her make-up again, fidgeting with the items strewn across the dressing table as though nervous about the imminent ceremony. If she was honest with herself, the anxiety was real. Could there be higher stakes than a woman’s soul?
To her relief, Hanako reappeared in the doorway.
“It’s time,” she said. “Are you ready?” She gave Iruka a meaningful look.
“I’m ready,” Iruka said, standing up. “Let’s get started.”
Hanako looked her over cautiously, then nodded and led her through to the prayer hall. Usually, benches would have been set up for the guests, but there was no need for those today. They’d hoped the lack of guests wouldn’t be too suspicious, and Iruka waited tensely for a ghostly outburst, but Yui didn’t seem to care. Instead, Iruka felt her head turn without her permission towards the front of the hall where the altar had been set up for a wedding.
Kakashi stood waiting for her. He was facing away from them, dressed in a plain black kimono over grey hakama trousers, and with a black haori jacket over the whole ensemble. Iruka had seen him in a yukata before during the summer festival but never in such formal clothes. Then Kakashi turned around, and Iruka drew in a sharp breath.
He wasn’t wearing a mask. Despite the years they’d known each other, Iruka had never seen Kakashi’s uncovered face before. Oh God, he was handsome. She stopped dead in her shock, and Yui had to take over her legs to make her start walking again. As she approached, Kakashi had the audacity to smile at her – a soft smile that curved up at one side more than the other – and for some crazy reason she felt her cheeks bloom with colour. She dearly hoped her make-up was thick enough to hide it.
It got worse when she reached the altar and saw him up close. Her heart was beating double time, and it was definitely Yui’s fault. It had to be, because there was no way Iruka could be this flustered over getting fake married to Kakashi. Not even unmasked-and-shockingly-good-looking Kakashi. Nope. No way in hell.
If she survived this, Kakashi was so paying for her therapy bills.
Hanako moved behind the altar, and Kakashi’s gaze lingered on Iruka another moment before he turned to face the front. Iruka was relieved when Yui dragged her body round to do the same because she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to stop staring otherwise. Just as she felt a sliver of relief, Kakashi’s hand brushed against her own, their fingers briefly tangling, and chills went up and down her spine.
Just the ghost, she told herself. Wow, being possessed was a lot like falling head over heels for someone. What a crazy coincidence.
She barely heard the opening prayers. She was too busy sneaking glances at Kakashi and pretending she wasn’t. When it was time for them to drink the ritual sake, she almost missed the cue, and only realised what was happening when Kakashi picked up the first of the sake cups and raised it to his lips.
Thank God this was a traditional ceremony – Iruka could use a drink right now. The ritual involved sharing sake from three different sized cups, each bigger than the last. Iruka would happily have skipped right to the largest cup and downed the whole thing, but instead she had to wait while Kakashi sipped three times from the cup and then passed it to her. Their fingers touched and she tried in vain not to blush again. She wasn’t sure whether it was her or Yui who turned the cup so she could press her lips to the same place Kakashi had sipped from, but she was very aware of the indirect contact between them. Kakashi watched, and although she avoided his gaze, she could feel it focused entirely on her.
She drank first from the next cup, the alcohol stinging the back of her throat. Her hands weren’t entirely under her control. It wasn’t just that Yui was helping her out; she was slowly taking the dominant role in Iruka’s body. It was disturbing to feel herself move before she’d decided to, and Iruka’s instinct was to fight this overwhelming presence, but she forced herself to relax and let it happen. She could understand why the other brides had panicked, but she couldn’t afford to do the same. She wondered if Kakashi could tell. He’d kept his sharingan eye closed, but if he opened it, would he see the second presence engulfing her like a dark aura? Would he sense a second pair of eyes behind her own?
She handed over the cup, and this time when their fingers brushed, she felt something more than the physical tug of Yui’s will. She felt the want that Hanako had described, but although she’d known it might happen, she hadn’t been prepared for it. It was the sharp, desperate ache that Iruka had known when she was a teenager, after her parents and the life she’d known had vanished in a single night. The loss had been a constant scream inside her, and she’d dreamt that the force of her love and pain might be strong enough to row against the current of time and claw everything back.
It had never been enough. Not for her, and not for Yui. Yui would never again draw breath, never lay eyes on her fiancé. This simulacrum was the best she could hope for, and it wouldn’t be what she wanted, but perhaps it would be enough.
Iruka’s heart ached for her. She couldn’t give Yui back what she had lost, but she could give her this. She sank back inside herself, relaxing that last measure of control, and handed her body over fully to Yui.
She wasn’t sure, but she thought she felt a flicker of thanks.
Once they had drunk from all three cups, it was time for the exchange of vows. Iruka and Kakashi turned to face each other, and Kakashi hesitated as he met her eye. Iruka wasn’t sure if he was nervous or whether he’d seen by some change in her expression that the person facing him wasn’t wholly Iruka. Either way, he rallied and took her hands in his own. Yui glanced down and then back up at him, shyly.
They’d wondered if he should use the henge again, but Yui had seen through it last time and probably would again. Iruka thought they’d made the right choice. Yui knew that she could never marry the man she loved. Seeing him here would have been a cruelty rather than a kindness. They’d have been showing her a future she once might have had but now never would. No, it was better to show her another couple’s happiness and let her experience marriage through them. That was all she wanted; or at least, it was all she could have.
“Iruka,” Kakashi murmured, and Iruka found herself watching his mouth, realising with a sudden shock that it was the first time she’d seen Kakashi’s lips shape her name. “We’ve known each other for a long time now, and I’m still thankful every day that we became friends. I like to think I’m a good judge of character, and on that first mission we did together my first impression was that you were a smart-mouthed tokujo with a chip on your shoulder about ‘just’ being the seals master.” He grinned. “I was right about the first part. By the end of that mission you’d proved me wrong about everything else. You were strong and you were smart, and you were someone I could trust with my life – and I didn’t even mind the sarcastic quip after you saved my ass for the first time.”
Iruka stared at him with wide eyes. She hadn’t realised he was actually going to write something meaningful about the two of them! With the amount of romance novels Kakashi read, she’d assumed he’d rip off some wedding speech from one of the Icha Icha books. But this…this was real. She remembered that mission fondly too, although she’d never said as much out loud. Their friendship had always been one centred on banter; more recently it had become a game of flirtation and – if she was honest with herself – playing hard to get, but it had never gone further than that. The closest they’d got to a heart-to-heart had been those serious moments on missions where their lives had been literally in the other’s hands. They’d kept each other safe from harm, taken care of each other’s injuries, and always ensured they both made it home even if one had to carry the other the whole way. They had shown their affection through actions rather than words.
“Over the past few years, you’ve proven yourself again and again as someone I can trust to always have my back,” Kakashi said. “Out in the field or back home. You’ve always stepped up to defend me. No one’s allowed to say a bad word against me if you’re in earshot – probably because you have the sole privilege of insulting me, and honestly I kind of love it when you do because it means you’re looking at me. You’re noticing me.” He squeezed her hands. “I like to be the centre of your attention.”
Yui might be in control, but the blush was all Iruka.
“You bring me so much happiness,” Kakashi said. “And in return I want to take care of you. I want to keep you safe from all the evils in the world, which might sound difficult considering our profession, but I promise you I’ll do my best regardless. I’ll always be there for you. When you’re hurt, I’ll be at your bedside, when you come home from a mission, I’ll be there waiting, when your dreams haunt you, I’ll wake you up.” He stroked a thumb over the back of Iruka’s hand, and it might have been the gentlest he’d ever touched her. “I want to be for you what you’ve always been for me: a warm place in the coldest night. I want to be your home.”
He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her knuckles, never breaking eye contact. His lips were dry and warm, and Iruka didn’t breathe while they were pressed against her. It seemed to last a lifetime, and yet nowhere near long enough.
She wanted to respond, but she had given up the right to speak her own words. She managed to surge up and take control for long enough to speak one single word: “Kakashi.” And then Yui pushed her back down, hard, and she stayed down. This wasn’t real, she reminded herself. This was a mission, every part of it, even Kakashi’s speech. Yet it didn’t feel fake anymore. It felt real.
Yui spoke with Iruka’s mouth, reciting her own wedding vows, written months ago and kept safe in her heart until this moment. Iruka knew she should listen, knew she should honour Yui that way, but all she heard were Kakashi’s words repeating in her mind. All she saw was the way he was looking at her, and she wasn’t sure suddenly if the emotions bubbling up and overflowing inside her were hers or Yui’s. She didn’t know anymore where she ended and Yui began.
When Yui stopped speaking, Hanako stepped forward again, this time bearing the rings. They weren’t proper wedding rings, merely Hanako’s own jewellery, which would fit Iruka’s fingers but not Kakashi’s. It didn’t matter; they were symbolic, and the sight of them still made Iruka dizzy.
Kakashi took one of the rings, a gold band inlaid with an emerald, and held Iruka’s left hand gently as he slid it onto her finger. It fit perfectly, the metal cool against her skin. Yui then picked up the other ring, a plain gold band, and slid it as far as the knuckle on Kakashi’s finger. She didn’t seem to care that it wouldn’t go any further. The act of putting it onto his finger was enough.
“I pronounce you man and wife,” Hanako said quietly. “You may kiss the bride.”
Oh. Iruka hadn’t even thought about the kiss. They’d discussed the rest of the ceremony but it had never crossed her mind that they might…would they? She wasn’t sure, suddenly, if Kakashi would do it, though Yui was already tilting her face up towards him, shy and desperately hopeful all at once. She was thinking of her fiancé, Iruka knew, and she shut Iruka’s eyes the better to imagine another man in Kakashi’s place.
Kakashi’s hands cupped her cheeks. They were big, his fingers long and warm, and Iruka wondered if it would feel the same when she was a man. She didn’t have chance to give it more than a fleeting thought before she felt him draw close to her, his body radiating heat against her skin, and then, after a hesitation that must have lasted a second but felt like an age, he kissed her on the lips.
It was a chaste kiss, as soft as though he thought he might bruise her with more than the lightest of touches. Iruka rose up onto her toes, to something closer to their real height difference. She forgot about Yui, forgot where they were and what they were doing. There was only the kiss, and the two of them.
When Kakashi pulled away, she opened her eyes and blinked a few times to readjust to the world. Kakashi was still standing too close and gazing at her with both eyes open.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I…” Only when she spoke did Iruka realise she had total control of her body again. When had that happened? She lifted her hands and stared at them, twitching her fingers. Nothing tried to stop her. The presence that had filled her up just moments ago had gone.
“Is it over?” Hanako asked anxiously, leaning over the altar. “Has she…moved on?”
“I think so,” Iruka said, still peering down at herself as though she might spot a ghostly arm poking out through her skin. “I can’t feel her anymore.” She glanced up at Kakashi. “Can you see her at all?”
Kakashi shook his head. “You look ghost-free to me. You didn’t feel anything when she left? No dramatic goodbyes?”
Iruka looked away. “I was distracted,” she muttered.
“I saw something,” Hanako said, and they both turned to her. “When you kissed, there was a glow around Iruka-san. It was faint but I’m sure I didn’t imagine it.”
“Wow,” Kakashi said. “We’re not too shabby at this ghost hunting shtick after all.” He nudged Iruka with his elbow. “I bet no other guy has exorcised you with a kiss before.”
There was something in his voice beneath the teasing, and when Iruka glanced up at him, there was a look in his eye she’d never seen before. Or maybe she’d seen it a dozen times but never recognised it for what it was.
“Hanako-san,” she said, turning away before she had chance to think too hard about what it meant. “I really hope the shrine can recover now. We’ll be heading back, but if you have any more trouble with ghosts, send a message to Konoha and let us know. Or if there’s anything else we can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask.”
She gave a bow, which Hanako returned.
“I will,” she said. “Thank you both so much.”
Iruka avoided Kakashi’s eye as she turned and headed to the dressing room to change, but she felt him watching her go. She didn’t look back.
Kakashi was waiting for him outside when Iruka emerged in his own body and his ANBU gear. Iruka was both grateful for their masks and resentful of them. He wanted to hide his own face for at least the next two weeks but he dearly wanted to know how Kakashi was looking at him.
“Ready to go?” Kakashi asked. He didn’t sound anywhere near as awkward as Iruka felt, and Iruka wondered suddenly if he really had been acting after all. The thought hollowed him out.
They turned their backs on the shrine and made their way towards the stone stairway that would lead them down the mountain and back to the village. Iruka kept his gaze on the ground, taking one step at a time and trying to keep his thoughts blank. Kakashi didn’t speak either, although Iruka couldn’t help but notice that he glanced Iruka’s way every few steps.
The silence stretched until they were halfway down the stairs, and then Kakashi stopped walking. Iruka took another step before he turned around, confused. Kakashi tugged his mask round to the side, and Iruka almost fell down the stairs as he found himself looking at Kakashi’s uncovered face. The bastard hadn’t pulled his stupid cloth mask back up!
“So now that we’re fake married,” Kakashi said, “how about a real date?”
He smiled with an easy confidence that filled Iruka with a sudden relief. He wasn’t the only one who’d felt all those things when they’d kissed.
“Doesn’t a fake wedding count as a date?” he asked.
Kakashi grinned. “Best first date I’ve ever had. How about a second?”
He pulled Iruka’s mask off too, his hand lingering on Iruka’s cheek. Iruka found that he didn’t feel as exposed as he’d feared, or at least, he didn’t mind if Kakashi saw him laid bare.
“You could come over for dinner,” Kakashi said. “I’m a good cook. And while I’m cooking I’ll summon all eight of my dogs to keep you entertained.”
He took a half step closer, and Iruka had a sudden vivid flashback to the kiss. As first kisses went, it hadn’t been bad. He was open to a repeat experience, sans ghost this time.
“You’re the worst,” he said. “With your stupid face and your stupid dogs.”
“It’s a good thing I speak Iruka or I might have thought that was a no,” he said.
He leaned in, but Iruka turned away before their lips could meet.
“Dogs first,” he said, and Kakashi laughed.
“As it happens, my dogs are free tonight.”
“I could probably fit you into my schedule.”
“As you should,” Kakashi said. He waggled his eyebrows. “It is our wedding night.”
Iruka flipped him off and Kakashi grabbed his hand and held it. Iruka let him. What the hell? They were fake married, after all.