Iruka ran as if all the hounds of hell were at his heels.
Considering the situation, this wasn't far off the mark.
This wasn't supposed to happen. It was an easy mission, just a rank B assigned to him to keep him sharp during the Academy break. He had a couple of those every year, and every time they were more of less the same: escorting some rich merchant to another village to prevent them from being attacked on the way, or maybe delivering some information, nothing classified but sensitive enough to require a shinobi, to some of their allies.
This one had not been too different. Iruka had to escort a Magistrate to Suna, and once there, the Kazekage had given him some scrolls to bring back to Tsunade. Gaara had even referred to them as nothing too important. Just a request for some cooperation, or as Kakashi had said, an excuse to see Naruto.
Only, of course, it wasn't just that. Iruka was also a decoy. One of the three shinobi carrying information back to Konoha.
He had known it was a possibility to be attacked on the way back, and Iruka had been ready for it. What he had not been ready for were for the four enemies waiting to ambush him when he was almost home. Nor had he been prepared for one of them playing with poisons.
Iruka had disabled two of them. Permanently. The other two were still giving chase. And he had sustained quite the damage, and the poison he could feel coursing through his veins was slowing him down. Konoha was close, but not close enough. And it was difficult to feel any kind of consolation in the fact that he had been the unlucky one, which meant Kakashi and the real scroll were probably safe.
Kakashi. Now, there was a thought to spur him to go faster.
Kakashi was never going to let him hear the end of it if he bought it in this mission. He'd probably spend hours upon hours at the memorial stone telling Iruka how much of an idiot he had been, how he should have never been so weak as to die in a rank B mission, how this went against their agreement of not bringing emotions into their relationship. It was sure to make Iruka's afterlife a misery.
YOU ARE NOT ENTIRELY WRONG IN THAT.
Iruka blinked at the voice, startled out of his thoughts by it. He realized then he had stopped moving, and looked down from the branch where he was standing to see his body sprawled on the ground.
He looked around and saw something he had never imagined. Standing next to him was a tall and thin figure, shrouded in a black cloak and with a big scythe in its hand. The blade of the scythe looked wickedly sharp, and it was black, almost absorbing the light around them. This wasn't anything he had ever expected to encounter, but he recognized it immediately.
"Oh," he said. "I'm dead." It wasn't entirely surprising.
Then the voice spoke again, though Iruka didn't actually hear it. It was more like a feeling of the words reverberating inside his brain, the voice grave and oddly gentle.
THAT'S NOT ENTIRELY RIGHT EITHER.
Iruka looked at his body again and then back up at the figure. Beneath the cowl he could almost see a grinning skull with burning eyes, but it might be a trick of the light and, well, of being dead.
"I look pretty dead to me," he said, noticing for the first time the flatness of his tone. Death was nothing strange to a shinobi, and he had been trained since he had been a boy to face it. Iruka had not expected for Death to have an actual face, sort of, but it wasn't as if many people came back from an encounter with it with a tale to tell.
YOU ARE. BUT IT WON'T BE PERMANENT, AT LEAST NOT THIS TIME, Death said pulling an hourglass from his robe, one that still had half of the sand on the top, and Iruka heard the unmistakable sounds of people approaching fast, crashing through the tree branches ahead. It should have sparked some hope within Iruka, but he was feeling oddly detached; and besides, Death had already told him he was going to survive.
Iruka looked at Death curiously. "Why are you here, then?"
Death returned his look, or at least Iruka guessed he did. It made his skin crawl at the intensity of it.
I DON'T USUALLY VENTURE THIS FAR RIMWARDS; YOUR PEOPLE WOULD WORK ME INTO THE GROUND IF I DID. YOU ARE ALL TOO FOND OF WAR AROUND HERE. Iruka heard a hint of amusement in the voice, and saw the grin on the skull's face. Not that it could have another expression, but this time it was a bit more unnerving, so he believed Death might be smiling. YET THERE IS ONE PERSON HERE I WILL PERSONALLY TAKE, AND HE KEEPS MANAGING TO AVOID ME AT THE SAME TIME HE GIVES ME AN AWFUL LOT OF WORK, IF I HAD TO COME COLLECT EVERYONE, THAT IS. I WANTED TO KNOW THE PERSON WHO'S KEEPING HIM STUBBORNLY CLINGING TO LIFE OF LATE, WHEN HE WOULD HAVE WELCOMED ME NOT TOO LONG AGO. HERE HE COMES.
Iruka startled at those words, unable to believe what he was reading in them. Death couldn't mean--Kakashi crashed through the trees into the clearing at that moment, Sakura following close behind. Iruka saw Kakashi skid to a halt at the sight of his lifeless body, his entire body stiffening in shock. It had the opposite effect in Sakura, who ran faster until she knelt next to it.
"Is he--" Even from there Iruka could hear the hesitation in Kakashi's voice, as if he didn't want to say the words out loud.
Sakura didn't even spare him a glance. "Not now, Kakashi-sensei," she said in the kind of voice Iruka associated with Tsunade when she was in the middle of something really important, that no-nonsense steely undertone to it. She had learned well. "There might be something I can do."
Iruka couldn't keep his eyes from Kakashi's motionless form, his brain too numb to form coherent thoughts.
"But we're just friends," he said inanely, frowning at the distress he could feel emanating from Kakashi. Death stared at him and Iruka felt his face heating. Was it possible for the not-quite-dead to blush? "Friends with benefits."
It was something they had both agreed to at the beginning of the relationship, when they had fallen together into bed during a night out, too drunk and elated that they had survived the war to worry about anything like consequences. It had been a surprise how well they fitted together in bed, and though at that time they had been nothing more than colleagues with an amazing chemistry, now they could safely say they were friends.
Iruka wanted more, but he wasn't one to go back on his word.
For what he could see, it seemed Kakashi and he were more similar than he had believed.
YOU ARE THAT, Death said, bringing Iruka attention back to it. AND YOU ARE MORE. I MAKE IT A POINT NOT TO INTEREFERE WITH THE AFFAIRS OF THE LIVING, YET SOMETIMES YOU MAKE IT VERY HARD FOR ME NOT TO.
YOUR LIVES ARE BRIEF. I SHOULD KNOW; I KEEP TRACK OF ALL OF THEM.
Iruka looked at Death uncomprehendingly. It wasn't that he didn't know what Death was trying to tell him, it was more the fact that Death was telling him at all. He had thought his life was surreal enough before, what with the things kids came up with during class and Kakashi's increasing presence in it, but this was completely off the scale.
He was getting romantic advice from Death. One couldn't get any worse at relationships than that.
DO YOU WANT TO LEAVE THINGS UNSAID WHEN YOU CAN FIND ME AT ANY TURN? Death's voice turned serious, its words filling Iruka's mind completely until there was nothing but them in it. AND YOU WILL FIND ME, ONE DAY. AND NEXT TIME, IT WILL BE FOR WORK.
Iruka stared dumbfounded at Death, a sense of unease entering his thoughts even in his current numb state.
YES. YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME. NOW, SINCE I'M HERE, I'LL DO SOME WORK. I BELIEVE YOUR FRIEND IS ABOUT TO SEND THE ONES RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR CONDITION MY WAY.
Death disappeared at that, and Iruka looked down again to see the two men who had been pursuing him entering the clearing. Sakura didn't even look up, but their appearance broke the spell keeping Kakashi rooted to the spot. Iruka realized it couldn't have been more than a minute since he collapsed, and yet it could have been an entire lifetime ago.
Kakashi moved, and Iruka felt the numbness disappearing, a sharp and all-encompassing pain taking its place. He opened his mouth to scream, but the darkness swallowed him at the same time he was pulled back into his body.
Iruka opened his eyes slowly, his entire body aching. The white ceiling above him and the permeating smell of disinfectant were enough to tell him he was in the hospital. Alive.
That was a surprise. He had not believed he was going to make it as he was running towards Konoha, wounded, poisoned and with two enemies at his heels.
He wondered how he had managed, and an image of Kakashi entering the clearing with Sakura popped into his mind. The rest of the insanely surreal moment he had experienced in the clearing rushed to his mind, and he tried to sit up.
Iruka almost screamed at the stab of pain, falling back on to the mattress.
"Don't move, Iruka," he heard, and turned his head to find Kakashi sitting on a chair next to the bed.
Kakashi looked awful; there were dark circles under his uncovered eye and a cloud of exhaustion surrounded him. His clothes were wrinkled, and Iruka could see suspicious stains on his flak vest. Blood, probably.
Kakashi had been there the entire time Iruka had, apparently.
"How long--" Iruka croaked his throat dry.
Kakashi was at his side in an instant, a glass of water in his hand. He helped Iruka move his head a bit, pressing a straw against his lips. Iruka drank gratefully, the cool water soothing his throat.
"Two days," Kakashi said as he drank his voice oddly quiet. "It was touch and go for a while there, Sensei." Kakashi was having a hard time masking his feelings from Iruka, a testament of his tiredness and fear since he usually did it effortlessly.
Iruka closed his eyes, remembering that strange conversation with the cloaked figure, Kakashi's stillness at the sight of his lifeless body. It made a lot of sense now, faced with Kakashi's hesitant voice and the worry coming off him in waves.
And really, Death was right: their lives were too brief to keep pretending. If it didn't work, it didn't work. But at least they would have tried it. It might have started as a friendly, no strings attached, bit of fun, but it was well past the point where they could avoid feelings.
"I'm fine now," Iruka said just as quietly, getting one hand out of the covers and groping for Kakashi's.
Kakashi looked at him for an instant, and then put the glass of water on the bedside table and gripped Iruka's hand with his.
They both said at the same time, and Iruka smiled tiredly at Kakashi.
"We have to talk," Iruka said finally when it was clear Kakashi was letting him go first.
"Yes," Kakashi agreed. He looked like he had something he needed to get off his chest, and Iruka hoped he had not misread the situation completely.
"But not now, not here." He could see Kakashi's expression subtly closing off, and felt his hand loosening the grip on his. Iruka held on tight on to the hand, squeezing it. "I'm not going to confess my love to you in a hospital room, Kakashi. I will do it at home when I can make love to you and look at your face while I do it." He saw an expression of startled pleasure stealing across Kakashi's face, and knew he had been right. "Can you wait until I'm out of here to do the same?"
Kakashi chuckled softly. "I can, as long as we call the same house home from now on."
Iruka nodded and smiled at him, and Kakashi leaned forward to press a masked kiss to his lips. "Yes, it's about time we do things properly. Life it's too short, I've been told."
"By whom?" Kakashi asked, curious.
Iruka thought about the burning eyes and the perennial grin. "A friend."
"Do I know them?"
Iruka smiled sadly at that, his eyes closing again of their own accord. "Not yet," he mumbled sleepily. "But you will. In the future."
Far, far in the future if he had any say in it.