"I come bearing food!" Iruka called as he hip-checked the front door open. His arms were too full of shopping and the papers he'd picked up from the academy to make the usual method possible. He sniffed the air hopefully. "Did the coffee-maker work this time?" The temperamental old thing was getting worse. It smelled like it was having an uncooperative day since the air was sadly free of the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee.
It was also suspiciously free of warm, wet air from the bathroom, the smell of shampoo, or any noise beyond the sound of Iruka's sandals hitting the tiled floor of the genkan. Iruka frowned as he moved from carefully stacking the papers on his desk through tossing the bag of anpan at the kitchen table and headed for the bedroom, his blood pressure slowly rising as the silence persisted. If Kakashi was still asleep, Iruka was going to... Well, probably just end up shouting at him again since trying for any kind of physical retribution was an exercise in futility.
When Iruka pushed open the bedroom door, the room inside was dark and the Kakashi-sized lump on the bed confirmed Iruka's worst fears. He took a deep breath and grabbed hold of his temper with both hands. He should be used to this. He'd been trying to encourage Kakashi out of his lazy habits since they moved in together and so far every strategy he'd tried had failed spectacularly.
Which didn't mean that Iruka was about to give up.
Taking a firm grip on the edge of the blanket, Iruka braced himself and yanked, as hard and as fast as he could. But he wasn't fast enough - never quite fast enough. Sometimes he wondered if Kakashi was really awake and just playing possum to wind Iruka up. But then, other mornings, Iruka would lie in bed watching Kakashi sleep, and he couldn't help but notice how the depth of that sleep lessened when Iruka moved to rise. Evidently Kakashi trusted Iruka to watch his back, which never failed to touch Iruka, and stood in direct contrast to Kakashi's sometimes dismissive attitude towards Iruka's abilities.
Still, as vital as Kakashi's ability to sleep lightly was on the battlefield, it was incredibly annoying when Iruka was trying to teach the lazy ass a lesson. He glared down at the Kakashi-sized lump now wrapped tightly in the blanket and snoring softly on the floor at his feet. That was taking things too far. He poked it with his foot. "You didn't put the coffee on," he accused.
Kakashi emerged, hair a powder puff explosion and eyes still shadowed as though he hadn't been asleep for the past fourteen hours. "M'I gonna get scolded?" he yawned.
"What's the point?" Iruka replied, stalking out of the bedroom.
"It's not like it'll make you get up on time in the future," he called back in his most reasonable voice, trying a different tack. There was a scramble of movement from the bedroom in response and as Iruka reached the kitchen and leaned across the counter to switch on the coffee maker, Kakashi appeared at the kitchen door, blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a worried look on his face.
"You okay?" he asked. "Nothing wrong at the academy, is there?"
"Academy's fine," Iruka replied, giving the clock a significant look.
Kakashi followed his eye-line, squinted for a second, then scrubbed a hand through his hair and mumbled, "Shit."
"We're supposed to be there in ten minutes. It'll take at least that long for you to shower and dress -No!" Iruka held up his hand when Kakashi opened his mouth to speak. "You're showering. It's bad enough that you're making me late. You're not going to add to it by letting people think I let you go out smelling like Bull after one of his episodes."
Kakashi snorted and adjusted the blanket. "You don't let me do anything."
"That's not the point." Iruka closed his eyes and wished for a gram of extra patience. This was far from the first time he'd tried to explain this to Kakashi. "You're a jounin. Everyone expects jounin to be a bit eccentric. It's tolerated because you're the guys everyone turns to when things get bad. I'm a chuunin. I'm not supposed to have quirks. On top of that, I'm a teacher. People expect me to set an example. And like it or not, you are now part of the example I set.
"Kakashi, if I can't even ensure an adult, like you, behaves, how can parents trust me to do that for their kids?" Iruka didn't think it was a difficult point, but it was one that seemed to escape Kakashi.
"They're ninja. Either they'll work it out themselves or they'll end up dead."
Which was presumably the way Kakashi had been taught. Iruka had little concrete information about the way Kakashi had been brought up, but the small amount he had managed to glean made Iruka want to track down most of the adults responsible and subject them to parenting classes. That included their Hokage, the one they had an appointment with in – he checked the clock – seven minutes.
Sighing, Iruka resigned himself to being late, turned his back on Kakashi and got out two mugs. If he was going to have to suffer through one of Tsunade's lectures on responsible behaviour, he was at least going to do it suitably caffeinated.
"Eh." Tsunade waved a dismissive hand, "Take it as a holiday, the pair of you. It's not like we couldn't all use one."
Iruka found it hard to disagree. The war had taken its toll on everyone, especially couples whose expertise had demanded they serve in different areas. He and Kakashi had seen hardly anything of each other in the past six months, and since returning to Konoha all their time had been eaten up by the various demands and duties that came from being Leaf shinobi. Time for just the two of them had been in very short supply, limited to late hours beneath the blankets and then only when Kakashi wasn't out on mop-up missions.
He unrolled the scroll, quickly scanning the mission parameters. The item they were delivering was a gourd of similar proportions to the one Gaara carried. Originally owned by a prominent Kumogakure clan, it had fallen into Leaf hands during the first war and was now being exchanged for a legendary Senju sword. The plan was to rendezvous with representatives from Cloud at an inn to the west of Yugakure close to the border with the Land of Frost, hand over the goods and then head home.
Iruka's heart skipped a quick beat. No particular time frame was stipulated beyond a week-long window for the meet up. In other words they could take their time, perhaps stop over in Yu no Kuni. He'd always wanted to visit and surely at least one of the pretty little onsen must have survived the war? Iruka thought yearningly of long soaks in steaming water and longer nights wrapped in Kakashi's arms. It would be perfect. A chance to relax and unwind from all the stresses that came with war. He shot a quick glance at Kakashi, who shrugged again, reached into his pouch for his book and opened it. He was leaving the decision in Iruka's hands.
"In that case, Hokage-sama," Iruka said with a short bow, "We will happily accept this mission."
Kakashi ducked flying shuriken and shot a glare at his partner. Iruka was jammed in next to him behind the inn's final standing wall, the gourd wedged up next to him. Face pale in the moonlight, Iruka had a kunai gripped tight in his fist and his focus was fixed unwaveringly on the enemy. Dark spatters decorated both his cheeks and the bandit whose blood it was lay sprawled nearby. Unfortunately the bandit's comrades were still very much alive, very much kicking and much better armed than any common bandit had a right to be. One of the many downsides of a world immured in almost continual warfare, Kakashi reflected as he popped up to fling an water jutsu at them and nearly got skewered for his trouble, was that there were always those willing to take a bad situation and make it worse.
The first few days had been everything Kakashi had hoped for. The onsen, tucked away in the mountains, had hardly been touched by conflict at all. Small and private, it offered the perfect refuge for a shinobi couple needing some downtime. There'd been good food and some excellent alcohol. Iruka had finally unwound enough to stop snapping at Kakashi every time he took a nap and Kakashi was just starting to feel the last of the exhaustion that he hadn't been able to shift after the war ebb away.
But that was before the bandits had arrived. Now the fresh mountain air hung rank with smoke, the inn, with its ornate carvings and painted shoji, was just about levelled and the bodies of the kitchen staff polluted the spring waters. Added to that, Iruka was pissed. Not at the bandits, though at Kakashi's guess they were running a close second. No, as irrational as it might sound considering their circumstances, Iruka was pissed at Kakashi.
"I can't believe you let me sleep when those poor people were getting slaughtered!"
Kakashi winced at the hissed accusation. In his defence, he hadn't actually known the bandits were doing an abattoir number on the locals. He'd been at the far end of the complex, halfway up a tree with a good book and rather pleasant jug of sake. When the noise started up, he'd assumed it was another raucous party. There'd been more than one of those in the past week.
The night had been still and warm and it hadn't been until the smell of blood had finally made it past the alcohol that he'd realised anything was wrong. At that point, he'd acted purely on instinct. He'd leapt into action and flickered in the direction of the yelling, arriving just in time to witness the last of the staff being strung up over the pool by their heels, their throat slit and blood pouring into the water. The bandits, about thirty of them by then, were cheering like it was some kind of celebration.
Kakashi blamed the sake. Either that or the steamed eel they'd served at dinner. It had certainly made him feel a bit queasy. Still that wasn't a good reason to slaughter the help, which he'd proceeded to point out to the head bandit accompanied by a katon and several tagged kunai. Unfortunately most of the bandits, in a remarkable demonstration of speed, dodged both attacks, which had flown on to impact several oil barrels stacked outside the kitchen. The kunai hit first, spraying oil everywhere which then exploded with an almighty whumph which had demolished the kitchen wing, spread the resultant fire to all those wonderfully flammable traditional huts, and inconveniently vaporized the water dragon Kakashi had just created to put it all out.
That was when Iruka had arrived. And, though the battle had turned a corner at that point, for Kakashi personally, things had kind of gone downhill. He'd rather face thirty bandits than Iruka in a snit any day.
"Those poor people," Iruka was saying again. "I can't believe this happened while we were here. Having shinobi guests should have made them safer, not allowed them to get slaughtered while we were in our beds."
Kakashi was very tempted to say something rude, like maybe if Iruka didn't suffer from incapacitating post coital sleepiness then he might have heard something since their room was far closer to the pool than the tree Kakashi had been in, but he decided discretion was the better part of valour and fixed a chagrined expression on his face instead.
"Hadan!" someone bellowed from the other side of the wall. Kakashi frowned momentarily, before slamming up an earth barrier just in time to divert the wave of chakra that swept towards them. What the hell? That was a samurai technique. These guys were samurai now? It might explain their ability to dodge his attacks.
"What was that?" Iruka asked, his expression pensive.
"It's a samurai thing, a bit like a juts-"
"Not that. I know what that was, I read the reports," Iruka interrupted testily. He had his head cocked to one side and appeared to be listening intently. "I meant that."
Now that Iruka had pointed it out, Kakashi realised that some of the voices he could hear were coming from behind them rather than in front. Had the bandits managed to circle round? Kakashi thought he'd managed to get them all pinned down beside the pool.
"I think it's villagers from down the mountain." Iruka's expression hardened to one of determination. "They must have seen the flames and thought the onsen was on fire. Well," he paused, giving his smouldering surroundings a disgusted look before continuing, "they're not wrong, but if they walk into the middle of this, someone's going to get hurt. Can you hold the bandits off while I go and intercept them?"
"So long as you're quick," Kakashi shot back, hearing the unvoiced 'be careful' and 'I love you' in Iruka's words. "If that innkeeper's with them, tell him to hang on to a couple of curries for later." Take care of yourself and I'll see you on the other side.
Iruka flashed him a grin and was gone, ducking and running through the ruins and quickly vanishing into the smoky darkness. Kakashi turned his attention back on the bandits – renegade samurai, whatever they were – and fired a precise volley of fireballs over the top of the wall, following it up with two water clones to create confusion amongst the rapidly thinning ranks. With a bit of effort he could demolish the rest of the gang and mop up the stragglers before Iruka got back, and then maybe they could have that curry.
A sudden flare of chakra behind him made him duck and spin, kunai out, its edge keen and sharp and lethal. It sank deep into the neck of the bandit trying to get the drop on him. As the kunai jarred against bone, the man gurgled, blood bubbling and spilling down his chin as his knees collapsed. The second man, taking advantage of his companion's sudden and bloody demise, darted forwards, closer to Kakashi than a civilian with any sense would dare to come and there was something about his stance, the way his hand enclosed the tsuka of the sword at his waist, that made all of Kakashi's senses sit up and take notice. He seen that before as well. That was the stance of an iaidou master. Damn it! What was one of those doing with a bunch of bandits?
There were two ways of combating iaidou; Kakashi used both of them. A rapid body replacement jutsu took him ten feet away, having swapped places with the gourd. That gave him the breathing room to fire up a chidori and to flicker back behind the swordsman to try and drive his lightning-imbued fist into the samurai's chest as the man spun to face him. The samurai was too fast, and Kakashi felt the blade even as he dodged it, a bite into his side that stole his breath. Damn it, he wished he hadn't lent his flak jacket to Iruka.
He rolled, diving under the sword as it flashed again, coming up closer, right in the samurai's face and this time his fist sank home. The sword tumbled from lifeless fingers and Kakashi had a moment to offer a quick prayer of thanks for a lucky escape – he'd seen what Mifune could do against unwary shinobi – before he heard Iruka in the distance yelling his name.
He turned to wave reassurance that the injury wasn't that bad and caught sight of movement as he did so. He spun back to see the gourd shaking, rocking from side to side as though something within was attempting to violently break out. The next moment the seal on top of the gourd exploded skywards and something boiled from the neck. Thick and dark and oily, it churned through the smoky air straight at Kakashi. He leapt back, but far too slowly. A finger of the stuff shot towards his face, catching him between nose and mouth and flooding both with a substance that smelt like sake and medicinal herbs. Kakashi coughed, then gagged as his heart seemed to explode in his chest. Poison? He didn't know. He couldn't think, couldn't breathe, couldn't... anything. He fell forwards as his sight began to darken and his knees failed. Over the rubble he saw Iruka sprinting towards him, face a rictus of horror and denial.
Please forgive me, Iruka, he whispered silently. I'm sorry.
"I'm going to try cold water. It always works on you when you've got a hangover and I can definitely smell sake on his breath."
Kakashi curled his lip. No way was he letting some snivelling civvie pour water over Iruka. If he wasn't waking up then there had to be something seriously wrong. With a grimace of discomfort, Kakashi forced his eye open, careful to keep the sharingan closed. As disoriented as he was feeling, there had to be a level of chakra exhaustion involved. Again. Damn it, he'd only just recovered from the last time. The muscles around his closed eye twitched, straining to open. It must be worse than he realised: they hadn't done that in years.
"Ah, Umino-san, thank goodness, you were starting to worry us," the man's voice came, whining and sycophantic.
Umino? Kakashi stared at the ceiling, allowing the information to percolate through his sluggish brain. If they were calling him Umino then they must have their names mixed up, which meant Iruka probably wasn't here. Which meant... the bandits had him! Kakashi snarled, lurching upright and shoving aside the helpful hands reaching for him. Iruka couldn't be missing. He'd been there, running towards him when Kakashi had gone down.
Down with the taste of herbs and alcohol in his mouth, down with the creeping oily smoke -
The flavour and sensation hit him all over again, flooding his mouth with saliva and making his guts churn. He fell to one side, retching, only to find a bowl thrust under his nose. Too busy to be grateful, he clutched at it with one hand, the other going to his side where he just knew the slice from the sword was going to let itself be known with all this activity. Oddly it didn't, though his right ankle felt broken and his head was in agony, all centred on what felt like a large knot above his right temple. Had he hit it as he went down? He must have, but if these people had the skills to heal his ribs, why hadn't they healed his head? It didn't make sense.
He puked again, body shuddering with the force of it and closed his eyes as they watered from the burn, tears wetting his cheeks. Then he opened them again and stared into the swirling contents of the bowl, not seeing a thing for all that his eyes were wide open.
His eyes were wide. Both of them. And the sharingan was not activating.
For the briefest of moments, he thought a miracle had happened and that the blow to his head had somehow achieved what not even Tsunade had managed; control over the chakra pathways connecting the sharingan to his brain. And then he saw his hands. Hands that were as familiar to him as they were strange. White knuckled where they gripped the bowl, the skin was swarthy and the callouses along the index finger and thumb described years of using a pen rather than kunai. Iruka's hands. Shit, Kakashi thought as he threw up yet again, I'm in Iruka's body.
"Wha-" he began and choked on a cough. What the hell? He sounded like he had laryngitis. He tried again. "Who-?" Nope still too deep. Had they strangled him? No, that couldn't be it. His throat didn't hurt. In fact, apart from a bone deep weariness, the likes of which he'd never felt before, and a slight headache, the only thing really hurting was his ribs. They felt like someone had laid a burning brand across them, which probably meant he'd been sliced. Much like Kakashi had by that bandit. Kakashi! Crap!
Memories of the last things he'd seen came flooding back. The seal on the gourd failing and whatever that stuff was pouring out of it and into Kakashi's face. Kakashi falling, his face empty and body slack before he even hit the ground. Iruka hadn't been able to believe the speed of it. The absoluteness. Kakashi had been felled with virtually no effort. He remembered his shock and sprinting across the rubble towards his downed lover, seeing the cloud of smoke or gas or whatever it was swirl away from Kakashi and towards him and then... Nothing. His mind was a complete blank.
"Could be 'im," the man was saying, his voice grating like rocks sliding together. "There's a scar, right across 'is eye, like." A grubby finger traced a path down Iruka's face across his left eye. Iruka jerked his head away from the strangely intimate touch, yanking at his bonds. The man ignored him. He was talking to another, who Iruka could now see sitting at table a few feet away, he had a book open in front of him and was reading it by the light of a small oil lantern. Specifically, he was reading a bingo book. A fairly elderly one from Mist, going by the colour of the binding.
"Is it red?" book-guy asked. He sounded sharper, and without his partner's distinct accent, which Iruka couldn't quite place. He was more concerned with the direction of their conversation anyway, which suggested they thought he was Kakashi, to the extent that they were seeing him with Kakashi's features, like the scar across the sharingan. Were they under the influence of a genjutsu? And if so, was he as well? He should try and break it, if he could.
"Scar ain't, no." Droopy-moustache's expression fell. "That mean we got the wrong guy?"
"Not the scar, you idiot, the eye!"
Iruka could have told him that. A look of comprehension spread across Droopy's face. "'ave a look, shall I?" he rumbled, and reached out just as Iruka sent a large pulse of chakra through his body in an attempt to disrupt the genjutsu.
A sharp cry erupted from Iruka's mouth as his left eye flew open, suddenly throwing the world into double exposure; a thumb and forefinger crawled towards his face, the man manoeuvring them frozen-framed in the distance. And beyond him the world went insane, full of swirls of colour punctuated by great swathes of texture and light and movement. It was fascinating, captivating, mesmerising. Greedily his eye focused on it, mopping up every drop of detail from the cavern wall, noting the flaws in the chains that bound him and recording the oddly developed chakra pathways of the man at the table. Just like Mifune, he thought and that summoned up more images, these from inside his brain, to compare and contrast and analyse. Encounters, conversations, each leading to another and more and again. The speed of it, the fluidity, the ease with which sight could become thought could become action, amazed Iruka. He released another pulse of chakra, this time edged and directed, and the rusty manacles at his wrists dropped to the ground.
Droopy attacked. Iruka casually side-stepped and dropped him with a single blow to the neck, then went for the man at the table. Their eyes met. The man's expression crumpled and he tumbled from his chair, sending the table toppling in the opposite direction and the lamp rolling, spilling burning oil everywhere.
Iruka stood over him as he cowered on the floor, his hands over his head, whimpering. It was the eye, Iruka realised. The sharingan had drawn the bandit into a genjutsu and had convinced him that he was already dying, was already half dead, that blades were hacking him apart and the next one, the very next, would be the one to finish it. As Iruka watched, the man choked out a pained breath and collapsed. Iruka stared down at him, sharingan mapping the final beat of his heart, the sluggish pulse of his blood, the inevitable cessation of all. The stillness. The silence.
And then the full force of the chakra drain hit him. Agony lanced through Iruka's head and he dropped to his knees, gasping, one hand pressed over his eye to block out any more stimulation. It helped, but not entirely. He could feel it still sucking up what little chakra he had left. Given the evidence, he had to conclude that either Itachi had survived the war and had trapped him in the most sophisticated genjutsu ever, or that he was, indeed, somehow inside Kakashi's body. If he was, and it was as good a working theory as any other, then he took back every snide comment he had ever made about over-sleeping and unscheduled naps. If the sharingan had this effect normally then it was a miracle that Kakashi ever managed to get out of bed at all, let alone carry out missions.
With a sad whimper, Iruka tipped over onto his back and stared blankly into the darkness. His left eye remained closed automatically, the muscles presumably well-trained; more evidence for this not being an illusion. Still the hitae-ate would help, wouldn't it?
Wincing at the pain in his side, Iruka rolled to his knees and crawled over to where he remembered Droopy being. The hitae-ate was tangled in the man's limp fingers. Iruka tugged it free, and then tied it the way Kakashi normally wore it, firmly down over the sharingan. The relief was immediate. The drain on his chakra slowed still further and Iruka took a moment to just breathe.
After a few minutes, sanity returned. This, he realised, could not be normal. Kakashi managed to stay on his feet for hours, even after using the sharingan on and off several times. Iruka knew this because, despite never having witnessed him using it in combat, Naruto's enthusiastic recounting of his adventures meant that Iruka could probably describe each and every fight in minute detail. He also knew that Kakashi's chakra reserves were similar to his own, in other words fairly average. Given those two facts, whatever the sharingan had done when Iruka had opened it, couldn't possibly be the way it normally behaved when Kakashi did. So what was different?
He was, he realised. His thoughts and experience were trapped inside a body and a chakra system that had certain habits trained into it. Like the way his left eye remained closed with negligible strain on the rest of his facial muscles. Trying to do that with his own eye made his entire face scrunch up, Iruka knew, he'd tried it once in front of his mirror in bathroom, back when he and Kakashi first started dating. So the sharingan was working right, it was just that Iruka wasn't controlling it properly.
With a sigh, he climbed to his feet. Currently there wasn't a thing to be heard beyond the sounds of his own quiet panting which meant that, if those two bandits did have friends, they'd been far enough away not to have been alerted. So he had time to search the bodies, if he was quick. Then he needed to get out of here because sooner or later someone was bound to turn up and Iruka didn't think he could pull off the same trick twice.
Kakashi glared at the middle-aged couple prostrated between him and the door of their cottage. They looked, by turns, resolute and absolutely terrified. "Our deepest apologies, Umino-san," Taro whimpered, face buried between his hands, "but we cannot allow you to leave. Masami-oshō left strict instructions that you were not to even rise from your bed until she returned at sundown this evening." Apparently this oshō was someone to be reckoned with if the couple were prepared to get between a ninja and his mission on her say-so. Kakashi hadn't even known there was a temple around here, let alone one with nuns, but under the circumstances he couldn't wait to meet the woman, if for no other reason than he'd like to be able to leave without bringing half the village down round his ears. Iruka would never forgive him if he hurt civilians trying to run to his rescue.
He huffed out a disgusted breath and stalked, carefully since his splinted ankle felt like someone was grinding glass into the joint and his head was still a throbbing ball of agony, back up the steps to the bedroll. The couple exchanged glances and Hina, the wife, scurried off out the door, perhaps to see if she could hurry Masami-oshō up a bit? Kakashi could only hope. In the meantime, all he could do was sit and worry about Iruka.
Earlier, once Kakashi had finished throwing up and had been able to focus without seeing double, Taro had told him what they'd seen when they'd arrived at the onsen. They'd found Iruka unconscious beneath a fallen beam and had watched in growing horror as the bandits had grabbed Umino-san's friend – Kakashi had thought about explaining it was actually him and decided it was more trouble than it could possibly be worth – and dragged him off saying something about a Bingo Book. Which lead Kakashi to believe that Iruka was probably still alive, and would likely remain that way so long as he didn't do anything stupid like try and escape. Once the bandits realised who they had, they'd try and collect bounty on him, and the sad fact was, Kakashi was worth about double alive than he was dead. Apparently an active circulation was useful for something.
The other little detail the couple passed on, though they hadn't a clue why Kakashi was asking, was about the gourd. That, they'd left where it was, still in the burnt-out onsen, when they dragged Kakashi (or Iruka) out of the ruins and back down the mountain. So, if Iruka kept his head and kept his head down, and this oshō actually turned up some time today, Kakashi's first plan of action was to head back up the mountain, find the gourd, make sure it's lid was very firmly attached and then go find some bandit samurai who were well past due a severe kicking. It wasn't much of a plan tactically, but Kakashi felt that strategically, it would get him what he wanted; to wit, Iruka back where he was supposed to be, which was safe and in Kakashi's arms. Once they were together, they could work out how to get back into the right bodies. And wasn't that a phrase he never thought he'd hear himself use.
Kakashi glanced over at Taro, who had taken up post in front of the door picking over a large bowl of beans. He was silent, with his head down and eyes deliberately focused on his task, though Kakashi was in no doubt that given sufficient provocation, that whining voice would start up again. At this point Kakashi was willing to do almost anything to prevent that from happening. He'd already rearmed himself with his back-up weapons from his flak-jacket, and wasn't he glad now that he'd lent it to Iruka, but he supposed, there was something else he could do beyond sitting and feeling sorry for himself.
After getting comfortable on the bedroll, he rested his throbbing head against the support pillar and relaxed. If he was going to stand any chance of rescuing Iruka from the bandits, he needed to learn how Iruka's body worked, from the inside. And not like that. He knew how that worked, and it wasn't going to help under these circumstances. Though some of the details could be insightful. For instance, Kakashi knew that Iruka was perfectly capable of using chakra to enhance his strength and muscle flexibility. A smirk curled his lips as those memories surfaced and he lifted a hand to tug at the piece of cloth he'd tied across his face. It might be Iruka's face rather than his own, but Kakashi had quickly found it impossible to settle unless it was covered.
Enhanced strength and flexibility then. He knew they were available and in what approximate amounts. The question was, could Kakashi, with all his experience, tweak Iruka's chakra system to squeeze a little more out of the tank, as it were. Kakashi had long suspected that if Iruka just trained harder and spent less time in Ichiraku Ramen or running around after the numerous ankle-biters who seemed only to exist to cut into Kakashi's nookie time, he'd be... well, probably not jounin material, but a better chuunin certainly. Strangely, the few times he'd brought this up with Iruka it had ended badly, with Iruka accusing him of being a patronising bastard which Kakashi both resented and felt was desperately unfair. It was every shinobi's duty to be as good as they could be and Kakashi was only trying to help. So this was an opportunity not to be missed. If he could prove to Iruka that he was right, then Iruka would have no reason to make such ill-founded accusations in the future.
Feeling somewhat smug in anticipation, Kakashi started flexing Iruka's chakra system to gauge the condition of his tenketsu. As Kakashi had suspected, compared to those in his own body, Iruka's were woefully out of condition, allowing chakra to flow in ridiculously undisciplined bursts. Now Kakashi would be the first to admit that he was obsessive about chakra control. It went hand in hand with having a sharingan you couldn't switch off. He remembered Tsunade trying to explain it to him when he'd just got the thing. It's like a tap, she'd said, with a leaky washer. It's going to drip all the time so you'd better make sure you use the minimal amount of water to clean your teeth. Kakashi felt his own analogy, that of a chakra system with an uncontrolled sharingan hitched up to it, was far more accurate and useful. When he told her that, she'd patted him on the head and called him cute. There was a reason why Kakashi's relationship with his Hokage was a little strained. And it wasn't just her habit of getting drunk during the day.
The next step was elemental affinity. Not vital, but useful if Kakashi wanted to get the most out of this body. Oddly it was something that Iruka had never brought up in their time together and Kakashi had never thought to ask. And now, lacking the proper paper, he was just going to have to take a stab at what it might be. Water was his best first guess. Sure it was corny, given Iruka's name, but these things sometimes went hand in hand; Sasuke's little pal, Suigetsu, being a classic example. Carefully and slowly he started the hand signs for a simple jutsu using the water in the cup beside him. Iruka's chakra responded sluggishly, seemingly reluctant to mould into the shapes Kakashi needed. After a moment he gave up, his head pounding. Iruka was not a water type.
But he was a teacher type, and as such had to able to perform low level medical jutsu, like the type needed to support a broken ankle or to stop Kakashi's head from exploding. Kakashi humphed to himself for not remembering that fact before and thus stranding himself in this house when he could already be halfway up the mountain looking for the gourd. After checking that Taro was still picking beans (he was), Kakashi refocussed his centre and began carefully channelling chakra towards the head injury with the aim of stimulating the blood vessels and nerves around it, basically an enhanced form of what his body was doing anyway. The chakra flowed easily, quickly gaining impetus and shape as it went, but when it got to where he wanted it, it didn't stop. It shot past the injury and into his ears and brain, down pathways and in a form that this body was obviously very accustomed to using.
"...four, so Shiro said."
Kakashi frowned. The voice was that of a young male and came from close by. Strange. He listened again.
"Where are they are now?" Older and female, though not Hina.
"He took them to the headman. They wanted to go up to the onsen but my brother says there's nothing left up there but burnt timbers, and it's too dangerous to go mucking about even for the likes of them."
The voices came closer as though the speakers were walking towards him. Kakashi shot a quick glance around at the traditional arrangement of shoji screens and mats which comprised the ground floor of the cottage. There was definitely only one exterior door. If they'd entered the house he would have seen them, therefore they had to be outside, and if they were outside, then that flood of chakra to his brain must have enhanced his hearing
Well, damn it. He'd never known Iruka had such a nifty trick up his sleeve. That was why he always knew all the best gossip! Sneaky. Kakashi approved. He'd have to check the technique out when he was back in his own body. Having the sharingan and a sense of smell as good as any Inuzuka, he'd never researched enhancing his hearing as well.
"Bright boy," the female speaker was continuing, "Did he say anything else about them?"
Now he could hear the crunch of stone beneath sandals. Kakashi rolled to his feet, using the support beam to keep the weight off his ankle. It sounded like they were heading this way and he needed to be prepared.
"… ninja, I think. One of them was woman with bright red hair! Do you think they're looking for the guy at Taro-san's house?" Crap! Kakashi hoped not. If it was the delegation from Kumogakure, they'd be after the gourd and, politics or not, Kakashi wasn't about to turn that over until he'd worked out how to get back in own body. Not that they'd care. Damn it, Tsunade would kill him if he ended up fighting Kumo while on a diplomatic mission.
The child's voice was getting higher, more excited. "Do you think they'll fight? I've never seen a real ninja fight before!"
"And you don't want to now, young man, believe me. But you might be right about who they're looking for." Footsteps crunched over stone again growing louder and closer. Kakashi listened on, torn between desperately needing information and the urge to get to the onsen, and the gourd, as quickly as possible. Then the sound of walking stopped and when the woman spoke again it sounded like she was standing right next to him. "Do this old lady a favour, Naoki-kun? Run to the headman's house and ask him to keep his guests with him until I have a chance to meet them, there's a good boy."
"Yes, oshō-san." Light steps fled into the distance as Kakashi breathed out a tiny huff of relief. He had a reprieve, however short lived. And the oshō was on her way to see him. Things were definitely looking up.
Then the door opened and a woman walked in. A woman with a shaved head whom Taro greeted with the deepest of bows. A woman with a symbol on her forehead that was oh so familiar. Kakashi fingers flew to his jacket pocket. Masami was a nun all right: a Jashinist nun.
Reaching yet another dead end, he backtracked, running his fingers along the rough stone wall and counting steps, reversing his route in his head as he went. Thirteen then a left turn, then another twenty seven which should bring him to... He cautiously felt around in front of him. The ground dropped away about a three feet further ahead than it should have, suggesting he was not pacing himself as well as he thought. That was bad. He couldn't afford to get lost down here, not without light. The oil lamp had proven unsalvageable and there was no sign of anything resembling electricity.
Damn it, if Kakashi were with him, they'd have those neat light sticks that he always seemed to be able to get his hands on, despite the fact that they were only supposed to be issued to ANBU. Iruka blamed Yamato. Actually he blamed Kakashi, but it was probably Yamato who supplied them. His lover's kohai had yet to discover the word 'no' when it came to Kakashi asking for things, something that Kakashi exploited shamelessly. Iruka hadn't even known he had them until they'd caught Shikamaru and Temari necking behind the main street izakaya one night and Kakashi had whipped one out from some hidden pocket in his gear...
Iruka stopped moving between one step and the next, his foot dangling over the sharp drop, and resisted the temptation to beat his head against the wall. It had to be the combination of exhaustion and disorientation. That was the only excuse he could think of as to why he'd forgotten that being in Kakashi's body meant he had on all of Kakashi's clothes as well. Idiot!
Carefully he picked his way down the remainder of the steep steps, and then hunkered down, ignoring the sting across his ribs in favour of keeping his back to the wall and his left leg jammed against the bottom step. The metal plate on his right glove was next. It meant working by touch but, like all ninja, such a skill was second nature to Iruka.
The plate came free easily enough and he tugged the two halves apart, slipping one between his lips, wary of the razor edges he'd revealed. Now for the pants. He began feeling along the outer seam and sure enough, about halfway down his thigh, beneath where the weapons pouch would be if he were still wearing it, there was a slight bulge in the seam. Iruka ran the blade along it and eased his finger into the small space. The tiny light stick popped out and he fumbled momentarily, almost dropping both it and the blade, then it was safely in his palm. Closing his fingers around it, Iruka leaned his head back and took a moment. He mustn't be hasty here. Yes, it would be wonderful to have light, he was seeing colours it was so dark, but the light would make him a sitting duck for anyone who happened to be around. He needed to be able to see them before they saw him.
See them, or hear them.
He was manipulating chakra before he'd thought about what he was doing or whether Kakashi's body would even work the same way. It gathered easily and, when he pushed, it moved with tremendous speed. But not wildly; there was a preciseness to the flow that was almost prim, such a stark contrast to Kakashi's laid back temperament that it brought a smile to Iruka's face. Of course once it reached his head, the chakra wanted to go to the sharingan, those were the paths of habit, after all, but when Iruka pushed the other way, it changed direction obediently and flooded his ears and the hearing centres of his brain. It was an old trick, one he'd been taught years ago during his first year as a teaching assistant. It might not be possible to have eyes in the back of your head, unless you were an Hyuuga, but being able to hear what a classroom full of kids were up to was just as effective. More so if one took desks and bodies into account.
As the chakra settled and his ears adjusted, Iruka reassembled the little blade, then he clapped his hands sharply, listening with care to the sound coming back at him. He'd suspected from the air flows that he'd entered a largish space and the echoes confirmed it. That was good. It meant no one could sneak up on him. He continued to listen, but when there were no sounds other than the sort of dripping and pinging normally associated with underground, Iruka closed his eyes and cracked the light stick. He saw it flare even behind his eyelids and he carefully lowered it to the floor before deliberately looking away and opening his eyes. He still couldn't see far, but its simple presence was hugely reassuring. Now he could set about discovering what else Kakashi's clothing concealed. He was missing the flak jacket, unfortunately, since he knew for certain that there were at least three weapons hidden in that, not to mention a stack of exploding tags, but the rest should be almost as productive.
By the time he'd finished, Iruka had the beginnings of a possible escape attempt at his feet. Apart from the usual wire, files and lock-picks, the real find had been the military ration pills, one of which he immediately dry-swallowed, and the multi-purpose tool secreted in a compartment in the bottom of Kakashi's left sandal. That had several blades, scissors, screwdrivers and a tiny flash light. Iruka flicked it on and pointed it into the darkness. Its beam distance was about fifty feet, more than enough to stop him pitching head first down unexpected steps. That was a relief. He hadn't fancied trying to find his way around with only the light stick. Those things really didn't work well under circumstances like that. Now what he really needed was a weapon. The two bandits he'd killed had proven unarmed, so he'd settle for anything right now, even a rusty kunai.
While he waited for the pill to kick in, he began systematically checking his immediate location for exits, steps, anything that might offer a clue as to where he might be or how to get out. Nothing was obvious close by so he raised the beam, thinking that perhaps there'd be something further away. When a strange shadow caught his eye, Iruka swung the beam back, and choked on a yelp of surprise. A monster leered down at him out of the darkness, its hideous face topped by rolling white eyes and framed by ropes of wild black hair. It had to be over twenty feet tall and was reaching for him with several bony hands that seemed intent on dragging him towards its tiny mouth from which a long white tongue lolled – No, that wasn't a tongue, it was a human arm. Iruka shuddered. What sort of people had a statue of a corpse-eating ghost in their basement? A moment later he got his answer. Inscribed into the blackened skin of the statue's grotesquely bulging belly, above an apron-skirt made of yet more skeletal arms, was a white circle containing an upside-down triangle; the symbol of the Jashin.
Iruka's heart thudded in his chest and his hands shook a little as he dipped the light lower again. At the foot of the statue stood an altar, and around it were unidentifiable lumps that Iruka feared were probably the remains of sacrificial victims. The only comfort was the complete lack of blood scent in the air. The only things Iruka could smell were damp and mould and the chill stagnation of air kept too long from the sun. If this was a Jashin temple, it had been abandoned for a very long time.
Reassured by that thought, Iruka gathered up his tools and made his way towards the altar. Much as it felt wrong disturbing the dead, there were things he needed if he was going to stand a chance of getting out of here alive and these poor souls were his best bet to find them. The first two bodies he checked had been naked and weren't much more than skin stretched over bone. The next few were the same.
He was starting to think his investigations pointless when his flash light picked out what had to be the victims' belongings piled in the corner. Further investigation proved him right and unearthed the remains of flak jackets of various designs, several hitae-ate from Kumo and Yugokure, and even a couple from Konoha, and various other bits of gear. Most of it was beyond use, the leather and fabric having deteriorated too far, though he found several weapons pouches made from plastic that seemed to have been part of a medi-nin's kit. One of them even contained an ink-stick and brush which he quickly added to his growing pile of resources. The weapons were in slightly better shape, though the shuriken and kunai were too far gone, time and the damp having reduced them to not much more than rusty sludge. The larger blades were better and he finally found a tanto still in its saya that might still hold an edge. Kakashi's miniature whetstone and some scraps of old leather proved him right and once it was usable again, he shoved it through the belt he'd cobbled together from strips of plastic and wire.
By the time he'd finished, Iruka felt like a different man to the one who'd woken up in near panic back in the cell. He wasn't comfortable in Kakashi's body, nor would he ever be; the exhaustion was numbing, his chakra system unbelievably slow to recover, and Iruka didn't think he'd ever get used to such a huge blind spot. But he was thinking like himself again. And as himself, he was quite confident he'd get out of this in one piece, and then he could go and rescue Kakashi from whatever trouble he'd managed to get himself into and give him his body back. That would be nice, Iruka thought, as he sucked on yet another nicked finger.
That was another thing which testified to him not being Kakashi, even if he was in his body: his currently very sore fingertips.
The floor between Iruka's feet was littered with scrubbed out seals, each minutely different from the last and his mouth was getting dry from the number of times he'd spat on the inkstick. He sighed heavily and painstakingly sketched out another seal. When he was finished, he sat back and studied it beneath the eerie green glow of the light. This one was correct, it had to be. If it wasn't he was giving up and trying something else.
The cut on his finger had closed while he was writing. He nicked it again, closed his eyes to better gather and mould chakra, then pressed his bleeding hand across the seal.
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu."
His voice, quietly though he spoke, seemed to fill the space, and it was followed immediately by a pop of displaced air and voice which said, "Hey, boss," then, "Hang on, you're not boss."
"Hey, Pakkun." Iruka gave the little ninken a tired smile and finger wave. "You wouldn't believe what's happened."
Kakashi's kunai thudded into the wall next to the nun's neck rather than into it. A split second later he had it pressed flat from her collar bone to her ear as he adjusted his grip on the front of her robe, lifting her clear off her feet. She was tiny, so light his arms hardly registered her weight at all. "Where?" he demanded, "Tell me and I'll make it quick." Which is more than he owed any of this scum.
"My own life is unimportant." Her voice was calm, unperturbed by her close brush with death, and she hung in his grasp like a kitten held by its scruff. "Just promise me you won't harm the others."
Kakashi glanced at the floor, to where Taro was squirming in abject submission at his feet. He was begging for his life, Kakashi realised, in animalistic grunts and whines, like he was terrified that speaking would make things worse. He hadn't realised Iruka's body could generate that level of killing intent. "Him?" Kakashi asked dismissively. "Why would I kill him? Or any of the others?"
"They've harboured your enemy. Doesn't that make them your enemy as well?
"That's not how Konoha works." At least not officially, and Kakashi was pretty sure Tsunade would hang him from the hokage tower by his nuts if he slaughtered an entire civilian village to get Iruka back. She'd even be right to do it.
"Your blade says otherwise," the Jashinist shot back. She was younger than he'd expected for a nun, the lines around her eyes not yet deepened to true wrinkles, and all of them spoke of smiles and laughter.
He tightened his hold. "My blade says I want to know where my friend is and that I'm prepared to let a murdering witch take an extra couple of breaths to find out."
Something sad settled over her face. "They took someone close to you," she stated. "I'm sorry for that."
She still wasn't fighting. Doubt crept into Kakashi's mind. He tried forcing it back with memories of Asuma and the horror that was Hidan, but it was insistent and telling him that he was reading this all wrong. "I'll give you one minute," he said. "Explain."
She obeyed, speaking rapidly and clearly despite her position. "I was born Jashin, part of them. We preyed on the people in the mountains, slaughtering the innocent in honour of our god." She gestured to the mark. "I was three when they marked me, five when the temple was destroyed after they took one too many of Yugakure's ninja. I was given to the villagers who were demanding vengeance for what had happened to them. Lord Buddha, in his wisdom, saw fit to save me, sending Roshi-sensei to the village the same day that sentence was to be carried out. He bargained for my life and took me with him when he left."
That made a horrible kind of sense. Kakashi poked his kunai at her forehead. "Why not cover that up? And why come back here at all? I would've thought putting as much distance between you and them would have been wisest."
She shrugged, "For better or worse, these mountains are my home. And the people here have welcomed me. This is not a rich community, shinobi-san. I teach their children and give them hope of a brighter future."
"And the mark?" If it was on his face, he'd have burned it off. He couldn't imagine living with such a thing.
"It's a mark of my survival. I would no more cover it than your friend would hide the one on his face." Masami ran a finger across the bridge of her nose.
Kakashi's fingers echoed the movement, feeling the rough skin of the scar Iruka had had since childhood just above the improvised mask. "My face, you mean," he pointed out.
She smiled knowingly. "You're not him. You may look through the same eyes but he sees with kindness and compassion. Your sight is clouded by blood and steel."
Ouch. But she wasn't wrong, on any front. Except how could she know? Kakashi's grip tightened again. "Lying about knowing him isn't going to convince me."
"Lying?" She looked genuinely puzzled and then her expression cleared. "Of course, you were inside the inn." After a moment she continued, "I was teaching the children by the old oak when the pair of you came into town. While you were talking to the innkeeper, your friend came over and introduced himself. He seemed curious about the children, which is unusual for a man, but he had only good things in his eyes."
It was true that Iruka had wandered off while Kakashi was chatting with the innkeeper. Could he have met up with Masami? When Kakashi thought back, there had been a bunch of kids under the big tree and Iruka had looked back at them when they'd been leaving. He might even have waved. It would be typical of Iruka to find the nearest school and gravitate towards it.
It was also possible Masami was lying, but Kakashi was starting to think not. The likes of Taro and Hina, and the innkeeper who served the really good curry, might be as dumb as rocks, but they didn't seem the type to harbour Jashin cultists. For one thing, they were still alive. And she seemed to know the local area which meant she probably could tell him where Iruka was being held.
He huffed, lowered her to the floor and spun his kunai into his palm with a smack. "You can call me Sotsuku." Running dog. A play on his old ANBU codename and appropriate under the circumstances. Anyway, he wasn't about to give her his real name and being called "shinobi-san" annoyed him.
Masami bowed more respectfully than he probably deserved considering he'd nearly cut her throat and said, "I'm called Masami. My apologies for bringing back bad memories, Sotsuku-san. It wasn't my intention."
"Don't mention it." Now the adrenaline was wearing off, Kakashi was suddenly aware of how much his head and ankle were hurting. He took a step and nearly went down, cursing roundly. He couldn't afford this. If there were remnants of a Jashin cult in these mountains, Iruka was likely in more danger than he'd thought. Not to mention the Kumo nin whom he'd almost forgotten in his worry over the Jashinists.
A small but strong body wormed its way under his arm, sharing his weight and guiding him back towards the bedroll. It was Masami and when he glanced down at her, she shot him a brief closed-mouthed smile. "The beam that fell on your friend's head cracked his skull. He was very lucky not to have died. Someone with a less developed chakra system would have."
Kakashi accepted her help, using one arm to take his weight as she lowered him down onto the bedroll. "You're familiar with how shinobi use chakra?" he asked.
She snorted at him in a most un-nun-like way as she began loosening the wrappings on his ankle. "Of course. Rōshi-sensei was a medi-nin before he changed his path. He taught me what he could, including some of the ways chakra can be used by those with the right abilities." A tingle around the joint made Kakashi inhale sharply but she wasn't damaging it, she was pouring her own raw chakra into the joint, healing it. As a technique it was nowhere near as powerful as the mystical palm technique but more than he could have achieved with Iruka's, or his own, skills.
"Thank you," he said, once she'd finished, genuinely grateful for her attentions. Much of the pain had faded, leaving a diffuse ache in its wake which was much more manageable.
She nodded acknowledgement and knee-walked towards his head. "It's still weak but well-strapped it will support your weight for a few hours. More than enough for you to help your friend." With a hand on his chin, she tipped his head from side to side, staring into his eyes and nodded again, this time with a grunt of approval. "And your head is healing well. I couldn't close the crack in his skull any earlier because his brain was still swollen. That's reduced enough now for me to knit the bone." She raised an eyebrow. "If you'll permit me?"
Kakashi dropped his gaze at the slightly chiding note in her voice, his cheeks flushing. Damn Iruka's stupid emotional reactions. "I'd be grateful if you could, oshō-san," he said.
A broad grin split her face and she poked him in the shoulder. "I'm teasing you, silly boy." The blush spread and Kakashi took a moment to remember to stop teasing Iruka if this was what it felt like from the inside. He wanted to crawl off under a rock until the burning sensation in his cheeks died down.
By the time she'd finished healing his skull, Kakashi was back in control of himself. He was also feeling a hell of a lot better. The low-level nausea and ache in his head had just about gone and he was hungry for the first time since he'd woken up. As Masami left him to re-strap his ankle, Hina appeared with a steaming bowl of rice topped with a raw egg. He took it gratefully, mixed it well, and began shovelling it down.
As he ate, he watched Masami chatting with Taro in quiet voices and a thought occurred to him. It took only a moment to channel chakra to his head and, just as it had earlier, it settled around his ears and the conversation sprang into audibility.
"… trust him? I really thought he was going to kill you for sure, oshō-san."
"I don't know he meant to scare anyone. And think, Taro-san, he's hurt and in a strange place, how would you feel? Ah, Hina-san, you gave him some food? Thank you for that. I'm sure he will leave as soon as..."
As he listened, a thought occurred to Kakashi. Perhaps if he used more chakra, he could spy on the nin at the headman's house.
He casually upped the amount of chakra, forgetting how sloppy Iruka's system was, and ended up fighting back a near tidal wave. He'd just managed to get that under control when a deafening crack exploded in his head. Kakashi leapt in surprise, dropping his chopsticks and almost spilling his food. Masami, Taro and Hina all turned to stare at him. He gestured pathetically to the tiny ember whose precipitous exit from the fire had half-deafened him. "Surprised me," he explained and felt his cheeks colouring again. That was it. No more teasing Iruka, ever.
After that, he kept the chakra in his ears at a more sensible level.
Once he'd eaten and his ankle was wrapped to Masami's satisfaction, she and Kakashi slipped out of the house and made their way through the back streets to the outskirts of the village. Once there, she pointed up the mountain looming above them and asked, "Do you see the outcropping rising above the trees that looks like an oni?"
"Yeah." It was hard to miss. It was kind of hunched over but the club and horns were obvious.
"The entrance to the old temple lies between its legs." Kakashi stared at her with a growing sense of unease. "That's where your friend will be," she clarified. "The bandits took over the temple, or at least the upper levels of it. I can't imagine they'd want to go too far down. It was my home and even I found the sacrificial altar creepy."
The unease was now full-blown concern. Kakashi did not consider himself either superstitious or religious, but the idea of entering a Jashin temple, abandoned or not, gave him the screaming meemies. "Are you sure," he queried, giving the mountain a worried look. Perhaps Masami would agree to come with him just in case an exorcism or two was in order.
She was looking up at him, eyes wide and ingenuous. "As sure as I can be. From the description Taro gave me, the men he saw are the bandits who came here from the Land of Iron about three years ago. And they are definitely at the temple. A few of them use the onsen at Yamagoya and the girls there are quite clever in getting them to talk. The villagers have been trying to raise enough money to pay for shinobi to clear them out, but then the war came and you were all too busy."
It was the Land of Iron ID that did it for Kakashi. It had to be the renegade samurai. He sighed, glared again at the mountain and shook his head. "Right, well if I find it I'll do my best to get rid of them for you. It's the least I can do, considering." And having a bunch of villagers on the Kumo border who felt indebted to Konoha couldn't be a bad thing.
She smiled at him and bowed. "Thank you, Sotsuku-san. And I shall do my best to keep the other shinobi in the village until tomorrow morning at the earliest."
The journey back to the onsen went more easily than Kakashi had feared. Using chakra to reinforce his damaged ankle, and to lend extra strength to his legs, he was able to keep up quite a decent pace. Not as fast as he was used to travelling, of course, but then Iruka wasn't him. He wondered briefly, as he travelled, how Iruka was managing with his body. Quite well, he imagined. It was a finally tuned machine, after all.
It had seemed like such a good idea when he'd started. He had Sharingan no Kakashi's body to play with, so it seemed logical to fight his way out. Kakashi wasn't the type to sneak when he could make a better point by attacking head on, and Iruka definitely wanted to make a point to these bandits. Picking on workers in the service sector was a travesty. They did all the important things in life, like run onsen and cook wonderful food for poor hard-working teachers.
With that in mind, he'd inveigled Pakkun's help, hoping that with his advice he might be able to do something with the sharingan that didn't result in critical chakra drain. The ninken proved not much more than a vaguely sympathetic peanut gallery, though he did volunteer as a scout which Iruka appreciated immensely. Having Pakkun take that task off his hands freed him up to concentrate on getting to grips with this ridiculous chakra system which Kakashi somehow managed to use to produce the kind of ninjutsu that had him feared across the five nations. So far Iruka had managed to produce a katon which might have lit a candle had it been right in front of his mouth, and a spark of lightening that gave his fingers a nasty shock and left tingles all down his right arm.
And an earthquake. He glared morosely at the dipping and bubbling ground that stretched from his feet halfway to the altar. No, he couldn't forget the earthquake.
"Worst comes to the worst, you could dig your way out," Pakkun commented from behind him. Iruka glanced casually over his shoulder, having heard the little ninken coming. "Hey, Pakkun. Any luck?"
"Depends what you call luck." The pug pottered over to sit beside him and twisted his back leg up to gave his chin a good scratch. An ear flapping shake followed, after which he said, "I know where the exit is, but there's about twenty bandits between you and it, and they're not the push over kind either. I'd think twice about suggesting the boss take 'em on and, no insult, but you're not the boss, even if you are in his body."
A fact of which Iruka was only too aware. He sighed and folded his arms. "Yeah, I know. I can't even get a simple ninjutsu to work."
"Any progress with the sharigan?"
Iruka shook his head. "I haven't dared try. If it goes wild like it did last time, it'll drain my chakra system so far that I won't be able to walk, let alone fight. And even with a boost from the pills it recharges so slowly. It's like all his tenketsu are so geared up to not letting anything out, they don't let anything in either." He laughed dryly. "Apparently Kakashi's chakra system is as parsimonious as his purse."
There was nothing from Pakkun for a moment and then he said, "He's like that with steak as well." They stood a while in silent contemplation of their shared object of affection in all his flaws and glory, before Pakkun added wistfully, "He gives good ear rubs though."
Iruka smirked. "Gives good bl-"
"Argh!" Pakkun yelped, covering his ears with his paws, much to Iruka's amusement. The one time Pakkun had inadvertently walked in on them, in flagrante as it were, he'd complained loudly for a week and demanded steak for every meal, citing long term emotional damage at seeing his boss in that position. Kakashi hadn't helped the situation by pointing out that it was a very good position and since it was named after Pakkun's species, he shouldn't complain so much. Iruka had left them to it at that point and gone to purchase a small bolt for the bedroom door. An ounce of prevention was worth more than a pound of cure, after all.
"I'll tell you one thing, though," Pakkun said once he'd recovered his equilibrium. "The banging and crashing down here is creating havoc up there. Half of them think Jashin himself is on the move."
Now that was interesting. "Seriously?" Iruka asked.
Pakkun nodded. "Yep. Superstitious bunch. Not that I can blame them. I dunno how you can work down here with that thing leering over you."
He meant the statue. Iruka glanced up at it. Sure, it'd given him a start when he'd first seen it, and he still thought it was in horrible taste, but it wasn't scary. It was just a stone carving. But others might not feel that way. Even Kakashi wasn't good at ghosts, as Iruka had discovered last year during Obon when they'd ended up sitting around a bonfire one evening with Yamato and Gai telling ghost stories. The other two had been as jovial and sceptical as Iruka had expected from experienced jounin, but Kakashi's reaction had endeared him to Iruka forever. He'd sat there with eyes that had seemed to grow wider and wider as Iruka's tale progressed and there had definitely been a couple of glances into the dark undergrowth during especially spooky parts. The others had thought it hysterical and Yamato especially had twitted Kakashi unmercifully afterwards.
Iruka got even for the teasing later that night, when he'd sat on the balcony of Yamato's new apartment pretending to be the ghost of the previous occupant. The following day Yamato had turned up at the mission office, red-eyed and entirely convinced his clothes closet was haunted. And these bandits believed in ghosts too, huh? Now that was something Iruka could work with.
"How do you feel about pranks," he asked Pakkun, rocking slightly between his heels and toes as he thought through possible scenarios. His nose wrinkled as a specific jutsu occurred to him. He hated using it, but it would suit wonderfully.
Pakkun glanced up at him, then went back to staring at the statue. "So long as there's no tails or fireworks involved, I'm your dog."
"Excellent," Iruka said. "Then let's get started. Did you happen to notice if they'd found the bodies of those two bandits I killed yet?"
He approached it carefully, not at all certain that it wouldn't spring to life again and swap his consciousness with something even more disturbing than Iruka. Like an innocent passing chicken, he thought as one of the birds clucked and scratched its way through the rubbish near to what had been the kitchen. The gourd remained motionless. The chicken came closer. The gourd still didn't move. Finally the chicken hopped over the stone ledge and started pecking at the gourd itself. When that failed to elicit any reaction whatsoever, Kakashi huffed out a breath and stalked forwards, giving the gourd the evil eye as he came. The chicken took one look at him, squawked loudly and flew off in a puff of affronted feathers.
The gourd was oddly warm under his touch - though that could equally have been from the fire or even from sitting in the sun all day as some magic or enchantment. Kakashi poked warily at the sealed lid. It shifted not one iota. Even when he grabbed it and twisted hard, it wouldn't budge, and honestly how it had sprung out of its own accord was something Kakashi couldn't fathom and probably didn't want to.
"Right," he said, "I suppose we'd better get moving."
He was clear of the ruins and just heading up a path that looked as though it might eventually wind its way up as far as the temple when several figures dropped to the ground in front of him. It was the Kumo nin, who had apparently avoided Masami. There were four of them, two of whom were weighed down like pack-horses and so were probably genin. Kakashi turned his attention to the other two; a kunoichi with dark red hair and striking amber eyes, and a man with white hair like his own, a deceptively pensive expression and, was that a lollipop in his mouth?
"Konoha." The kunoichi took a step forwards, her hands spread to show they were empty. Kakashi knew not to trust that in the slightest. For one thing, that sword across her back looked very well used. "We're here to make the exchange," she continued.
Fight or talk? That was the question. Well, Kakashi supposed, he probably ought to try and talk first. Tsunade would appreciate the effort before she hung him out to dry for getting them back into a war with Kumo. "That might be a bit of a problem," he said.
The kunoichi's eyes narrowed. "That's the gourd, we've got the sword, I see no problem."
"Absolutely," Kakashi agreed, "but the thing is, I kind of need it for a while."
Suspicion was starting to outweigh diffidence in the kunoichi's body language. "What for?" she demanded and Kakashi just knew the next stage was going to be a fist fight.
Her friend, the young man with the lollipop, had yet to take his hands out of his pockets. And something about the two of them was beginning to ring bells in Kakashi's memory. He was sure he'd seen the man before. During the war perhaps? He definitely hadn't been one of the Kumo nin assigned to Kakashi's unit but they had run into others along the way.
He straightened up, preparing for the inevitable explosion and said, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Well, how about you tell me and I'll see if I believe you." She was clenching her fists and her chest was beginning to heave. Short-tempered. Maybe he could use that.
"It made me and partner swap bodies." If by some miracle everyone survived this and she reported that back to the Raikage, at least Tsunade would be arguing from a position of truth. Outright war might be avoided.
"You're right," she said with a sneer, "I don't believe you. Hand it over!"
"I dunno, Karui," the young man said tentatively. "What if he's telling the truth and we kill him and he turns out to be some real important guy from Konoha and..."
"Shut up, Omoi!" Karui shouted and she was within a hair's breadth of stamping her foot, Kakashi could see it. "I've had enough of your stupid, stupid rambling! We need that gourd. You know it's the only thing that'll get her back and I'm going to get it even I have to fight Sharingan no Kakashi himself!"
"Actually," Kakashi began, but got over-spoken by Omoi who said, "You don't have to worry about that. I know General Hatake and he doesn't look anything like him."
"Actually," Kakashi tried again and this time got interrupted by Karui. "How would you know! You said it was all misty and half the time he was someone else anyway!"
Which should tell you there's a good chance my story is true, Kakashi thought to himself. He didn't bother saying anything. It would only call attention to himself, since the two genin were watching their elders, who in turn were glaring daggers at each other. Kakashi finally placed the pair: Karui and Omoi, Bee's students. This was definitely Kakashi's cue to leave.
He flickered up the mountainside, only dimly aware of the sudden eruption of shouting behind him. Most of his concentration was going into trying to control Iruka's chakra system, which seemed bound and determined to drain his reserves in a single sprint. He wrestled it back under control somewhat, only to sense movement close on his trail. Damn it! Iruka really wasn't as fast as him.
Shuriken flew through the air and he dodged, cursing as he felt one hit his flak jacket. Iruka wasn't as agile either, and it didn't matter who was inside his body, it wasn't going to speed up or dodge any faster. And it wasn't about fitness, Kakashi could see that now. Iruka's body was working as well as his own did on that level. In fact in some ways it was better: less brittle, more resilient. But slower. Definitely slower.
Another shower of shuriken flew and instinctively, Kakashi threw an earth barrier up behind him. Iruka's chakra system embraced the jutsu with enthusiasm, finally cluing Kakashi in to Iruka's elemental affinity. Earth. Right. He should have guessed. That was going to make things easier, since he was no slouch at earth jutsu himself. On the other hand Kumo nin tended to favour lightning, so no advantage there. But numbers might help.
Mud shadow clones. Two of them. Kakashi felt the hit to his chakra levels immediately. That wasn't going to be any more repeatable in this body than it was in his own. The clones split off, each creating a ruckus as it moved away from the path. Kakashi took silently to the trees, his enhanced hearing focussed on sounds of pursuit. There were none. All four were chasing the clones. Sloppy. Kakashi took the opportunity to put some distance between them.
The first clone died a couple of minutes later. Kakashi got a sudden flash of a bone white sword swinging from the shadows and a small amount of chakra returned to him. The second one lasted longer. It lead the Kumo nin a merry chase along the mountain side and back down into the valley before one of the genin fired something that looked like lightning whip. Now Kumo knew that both had been clones and the chase was back on.
He was halfway up the mountain when they caught up again. They were still on the ground, clearly not as at home in the branches as Kakashi was, and that was good. He could use that to his advantage. Pausing after the next leap, Kakashi flicked his fingers through familiar seals: snake, ram, boar; and then he pulled off a trick Yamato had helped him develop. He slammed his hand onto trunk of the tree and fired the doton-no-jutsu through it. The tree cracked apart and the ground beneath the older Kumo nin disintegrated. They didn't have a chance to stop or avoid it, they just went straight in, head first. And that was some really nasty quicksand. The two genin were luckier. They barrelled to a stop right at the edge of the marshy bit and immediately began the sticky job of extracting their senpai.
Kakashi smirked and flickered further ahead along the path. That had worked really well: now he just needed to keep ahead of them. He pushed more chakra into his legs, carefully assessing the amount he could spare. Since he was likely to meet some real resistance when he made it to the temple, he couldn't afford to arrive there drained. It wasn't too bad. In fact, considering he'd been using chakra all day, between his ears and reinforcing his ankle, and then with the clones and the jutsu, Iruka's system was still buzzing with energy.
Experimentally, Kakashi flickered again, this time pushing himself several miles along the route. In his own body, that would have made a perceptible dent in his stamina. And so it did with Iruka's, in fact it dipped a lot further, except where Kakashi's reserves would have remained at that new lower level, as soon as Kakashi slowed down, Iruka's system began to recover, rapidly. It was astounding. And also completely unfair! If Kakashi had a chakra system like this, he'd have been able to take Madara down single-handed! Chakra exhaustion? Pfft! Someone else's problem. Kamui? How many would you like? Raikiri? He could power all of Konoha with more to spare.
Except this body would die if it had something like the sharingan connected to it. It would haemorrhage chakra through absurdly leaky tenketsu which, Kakashi now realised, were at the core of this ability. If Kakashi's system was a dripping tap attached to a water barrel, then Iruka's was a open one attached to a reservoir. The penalty of it recharging with the speed it did, was those same unrestricted tenketsu which permitted the continual conversion of physical and spiritual energy into chakra, also spent it at the same pace. And eventually even a reservoir ran out of water. Iruka would, quite simply, burn out.
But the insight allowed Kakashi to finally get a grip on how to start using Iruka's body. And about time too, he thought, adjusting the balance of the gourd on his back as he leapt from branch to branch. Sooner or later he was going to have to fight, and he'd really rather not do that in a body he couldn't control at all.
Iruka gave the small dog running beside him a dry look and scrubbed his sleeve over the oozing cut on his cheek. "I didn't see you doing anything different," he pointed out and shot a quick glance up the mountainside. He hadn't liked using the shikon no jutsu, it smacked of desecration, but it had certainly worked. The bandits were in turmoil, shouting and yelling, half convinced they just seen the reincarnation of Jashin himself. They hadn't of course, just the reanimated body of the samurai which Iruka had painted with mud and made up to resemble the statue. Combined with the judicious use of a few cobbled together smoke bombs and Iruka's old ability to throw his voice, they'd been primed to panic when Iruka sent the body shambling towards them.
In the chaos that followed, he and Pakkun had made their escape, which would have been clean but for those three sentries who'd been guarding the outer perimeter. Iruka had managed to take out two of them, but the other had slipped past him and it was only a matter of time before he made his report, and then the whole gang would be piling down the mountainside after them.
"Which way," he asked. They'd long since left the path, stepping lightly over the soft mulch between trees which were too small and spindly to be of much use for travel as yet. Soon though, Iruka knew he would opt for the branches over the soil. There weren't many Konoha nin who wouldn't.
"Follow me," Pakkun said, head in the air and sniffing the wind, his short tail rotoring away when they finally reached trees of a decent size and he took to the branches. Iruka went up with him, immediately feeling more at home, though it smelt pinier than he was used to and the branches still had a disconcerting tendency to bend as he landed. He hissed as the action pulled on the slice across his ribs.
Several minutes of hard travel later Pakkun skidded to a halt, quivering from nose to tail, then he gave a funny little yip which sounded like, "This way," and shot off at an angle to the way he had been going.
Iruka wasn't at all impressed. Going across the mountainside rather than down was going to leave them vulnerable to attack from the side, when the bandits took up the chase. "Hey, Pakkun," he called, "Are you sure?" No answer, just the ninken's retreating back. Iruka cursed quietly and sped up, thinking to overtake him and steer them downhill again. He took a massive leap to the side, slipped on a patch of moss and thudded hard into something solid. A something that grabbed him by the biceps to keep him upright and said, "Of course he's sure, he's my ninken."
It was exceedingly strange looking into your own face, Iruka reflected. It wasn't like a mirror. This version of himself was more like a three dimensional moving picture. It also smirked like Kakashi, which was extremely disconcerting. Still it was wonderful to see him – himself - whatever. Iruka gathered Kakashi into a hug and buried his nose in his neck, inhaling his own scent, which was ridiculously comforting. He hadn't realised how wrong he'd smelt to himself until right at this moment. Kakashi's arms came up and wrapped around him and Iruka hung on, basking in the warmth. Was he always this hot compared to Kakashi? It'd certainly explain why he so often got used as a hot water bottle at night.
Shivering, he burrowed deeper, smiling privately as laughter rumbled in Kakashi's – his own – chest. "I'm guessing you're glad to see me," Kakashi said.
"You have no idea," Iruka replied, lifting his head to blink 'down' at himself. That single inch made a surprising difference. "Hey what happened to your head?" He parted his own hair gently. There as a nasty looking bruise on his temple and bits of dried blood in his hair.
"A beam fell on you," Kakashi explained. "It's fine now. What happened to my mask?"
Mask? Damn! Iruka hadn't even thought about the mask. Sure he'd retrieved the hitae-ate but that was just to cover the sharingan. Covering the rest of Kakashi's face hadn't even occurred to him. "I, um... Sorry," he said, cogently.
"It doesn't matter. You're blushing," Kakashi laughed. "That looks incredibly strange on me. Hey," he tugged Iruka forwards, bumping them together. "Kiss me."
"What?" Kiss himself? That was... Iruka thought about it. Okay that was kind of intriguing in a 'I cannot believe you made me think of it' way, a feeling he'd grown horribly familiar with over the past months of being with Kakashi. "We shouldn't," he said and then did it anyway.
His own mouth felt strange to him; the angles were wrong, the lips too wet; but the tongue slid the same way Kakashi's did as he kissed, rubbing against Iruka's and curling to tickle the back of his teeth. Iruka moaned and pushed forwards, fingers tightening in Kakashi's flak jacket as he sought out the familiar amongst the strange. Somewhere in the background he registered an odd sound, like someone popping the cork in a bottle, and something that felt like the softest silk brushed against his cheek, and then he was kissing Kakashi. Really kissing Kakashi.
An quiet sound built in the back of his throat as the world suddenly made sense again, as taste and smell and touch once more described the man he loved and not the stranger that he'd been. Apparently he did know Kakashi better than he knew himself. The thought made Iruka chuckle into the kiss and Kakashi broke it off, staring at him in amusement. He cocked his head to peer at the gourd, now on Iruka's back and said, "I was wondering how we were going to get it to perform again. I guess it just needed a bit of encouragement."
"I still don't understand how it did it in the first place," Iruka said, unwrapping a cloth from around his neck and passing it to Kakashi, who immediately covered his face. That was it for kissing, Iruka supposed, though they could always take up where they left off when they got home. And somewhere much more comfortable than a tree. That thought was enough to make him smile.
"Good thoughts?" Kakashi asked quizzically. He still had his arms round Iruka and didn't look to be letting go any time soon. Iruka wasn't complaining. In fact he didn’t think he'd ever complain again.
"Very. Which reminds me, I owe you an apology. That sharingan is a menace. I don't know how you manage to use it and stay conscious."
Kakashi's uncovered eye went unfocused for a second and then his eyebrow shot up. "Since I've got a record of a stone wall down to the molecular level and a second by second analysis of a man breathing his last, I'd say you used too much chakra."
"You think?" Iruka said with a laugh. "I'd never have guessed. The after-effects just about knocked me on my ass."
"It does take practice," Kakashi concurred, "Like your trick with the hearing. Now I know what you're doing when get all distracted in the mission room."
Iruka felt his cheeks heat and pushed into Kakashi's hand when he pressed his palm to one of them. "It's nothing. Just a teaching trick, chuunin level. Nothing special."
"Special or not, it's useful," Kakashi said. "You've got a lot of potential out in the field. You might not be as fast or as agile as me, but your chakra system." He whistled lightly. "It's a powerhouse. You convert energy on the fly like no one I've come across before."
It was Iruka's turn to look surprised. "I realised your system didn't work that way, but I don't think I'm that unusual."
"You are. The closest I've seen to it is the Akimichi kekki genkai. You're not related are you?"
"I don't think so. It just kind of developed over time out of necessity." He huffed at Kakashi's disbelieving expression. Honestly, the man had no idea at all. Iruka held down two demanding full-time jobs, in addition to being big brother to Naruto. And somewhere in between he had to find time for his own training and a few moments of relaxation if he was lucky. "How else do you think I manage to keep up with all of you without dropping dead of exhaustion?"
"Point," Kakashi replied, pulling Iruka closer again. "But I'm giving you fair warning. Now I know you can keep going for hours, I'm going to exploit that ability at every opportunity."
"Oh good," Iruka breathed, as their faces got closer and Kakashi tugged his mask down again.
Then Pakkun's, completely unrepentant voice, came from knee level, "Much as I hate to break up the necking session, there's two parties heading in this direction and we're about to become the meat in the pointy sandwich."
Kakashi's brow raised and he shot an inquiring look at Iruka, who shrugged. "Bandits. My getaway wasn't quite as clean as it might have been. Yours?"
The mask was back up. "The guys from Kumo who we were supposed to be meeting. I didn't think it was a good idea to give them the gourd until we'd finished with it."
"Good call," Iruka agreed and gave it some thought. He was having an idea. It was sneaky and perfect. "So there's a team of Kumo nin heading up the mountain after the gourd, and a gang of bandits heading down the mountain chasing you?"
Kakashi nodded and Iruka could see his smirk though the cloth; two minds but with one single thought.
Karui and Omoi, who Iruka had reminded him were the nin who'd beaten Naruto so badly when he'd refused to turn over Sasuke's whereabouts, immediately drew their swords and moved in to attack. That was until Omoi grabbed his partner's arm and stopped them both in their tracks. "General Hatake?" he blurted.
Kakashi let the genin down and patted her on the head as she ran off to hide behind the other one, who was staring at Kakashi wide-eyed. "Yeah," he said, "sorry about the confusion before. Like I said, I was in someone else's body."
The ability to form coherent sentences seemed to have abandoned them both so Kakashi filled in the gaps. "That was me before with the gourd. It has the ability to swap people's minds around into different bodies, which I'm guessing will be useful in getting your team mate back?" Another detail Iruka had filled in. For a guy who hadn’t been at the front, he knew more about what had happened during the war than Kakashi did. It was that gossip jutsu of his, had to be. Either that or all those tedious reports he insisted on reading.
"Anyway, long story short, there's some bandits heading down the mountain who've been giving the villagers around here a bad time. You take care of them for me, and I won't tell the Raikage that you were so busy fighting each other that you nearly set off a new war with Konoha."
They were still staring at him open-mouthed so Kakashi went in for the kill. "And they have the gourd." Or would have by the time the Kumo nin got to them. Omoi's expression firmed and Kakashi suddenly remembered him from the war. He had been there during the attack on the Seven Swordsman. And a damned fine fighter he was too. With these two leading the charge, those bandits really wouldn't stand a chance even if there were twenty of them. "Any questions?"
"No, sir!" Omoi replied and punched Karui in the arm. She shot a glare at him and then turned back to Kakashi. "I guess not," she said and then added after a moment, "You know, you're not as tall as I thought you'd be."
Behind him the rest of the gang slowed to a halt. After a moment of nothing exciting happening, they tiptoed forwards, gathering around him cautiously. "What is it?" Saito, the bravest, asked. "Treasure?"
Takahiro shrugged. There was a label tied round the gourd's neck. He put it down, flipped the note over and read it aloud to the others. "Important! Please look after this gourd, thanks in advance, Konoha." Below, in much smaller letters that Takahiro had to peer at to make out, it said, "PS. Look behind you."
Which was when the other shinobi ghosted silently from between the trees.