Kakashi stood to one side of the sealed opening to a cave and watched Iruka-sensei pore over the strange patterns etched into the weathered surface of the stone. The teacher muttered to himself, fingers hovering over the lettering.
"I can see the chakra-symbol that's being used as a key," Kakashi offered in a drawl, his right hand stuck into one pocket, while the long fingers of his left twitched as his hand hung at his side. "Do you want me to show you where it is?"
"One moment, Kakashi-taicho," Iruka replied almost absently; he tapped the stone beside one particularly large symbol and exhaled heavily through pursed lips. Kakashi exchanged a bemused look with Hiromasa, the medi-nin that completed their three-man team for this mission; he shifted his weight from one leg to the other, stifling an impatient sigh.
Kakashi had been taken-aback when the sensei had been recommended for this particular rescue mission. It was the summer holidays, and he suspected that one of the reasons for placing Iruka was to bring his field-duty records up to scratch while the Academy was on break. Kakashi had requested Nara Shikamaru, because the mission file had indicated the possibility of traps; however, Shikamaru was on a diplomatic mission in Suna and would not return in time for this assignment, according to communication scrolls.
Shikamaru had suggested using the chuunin-sensei in his place. Kakashi had been doubtful, at the very least, but the Hokage had seemed pleased with the idea.
The mission involved two warring tribes at the south-west border of the Fire Nation. The princess of the Ten Ravens tribe had been kidnapped by a group that had originated from Water Country, and which now called their tribe 'Archer'. The leader of Ten Ravens had sent urgent missives to their Daimyo, asking for help in the safe return of their precious heir.
The Fire Lord, in turn, had passed on the request to his hidden village of shinobi, and Kakashi had set out with his three-man team (and some misgivings), travelling quickly to the Village of Ten Ravens. Their current leader was a tall and coolly polite young man named Shou.
"The Archer tribe has done us a grave disservice," Shou, a cousin of the kidnapped princess, had explained. "We had thought that they would be our allies. Instead, they have taken Hitomi-hime, to join with their clan and give them leverage among the local tribes. If you are unable to retrieve her," he said, his expression darkening even more, "then we will wage war on Archer."
"We will do our best," Kakashi had said mildly and Shou had nodded, satisfied for time being.
They had set out for the Archer tribe that very day, coming upon the large cave with massive rocks blocking their entry. Other large boulders overhung this access, delicately balanced high above their heads. Kakashi had immediately set Iruka to the task, partly as a kind of test. To his growing disgruntlement, even after five minutes Iruka was still gazing at the puzzle set at eye-level in the closest rock, obviously the keystone in the whole structure. Moving it without properly figuring out the code could mean the whole thing coming down on top of them, and warn their quarry of their presence.
"That one is the key," Kakashi pointed out now as Iruka's finger continued to tap near that large symbol. "The chakra there is particularly concentrated." It was interesting that chakra had been used, Kakashi thought to himself. That meant that there were either shinobi in the Archer clan or a priest proficient enough in its use.
Iruka gave him a quick look out of the corner of his eye, a mixture of amusement, annoyance and a slight brush of scorn. Kakashi raised his eyebrow and that complex gaze flickered away.
"I know it's the key, Kakashi-san," Iruka said flatly. "It says 'key' and I can feel the chakra too. But it's just too obvious."
"Is it," Kakashi responded in the same bland manner.
"Yes. A key by itself doesn't open or close a door, does it? It needs a lock."
"That makes sense," Hiromasa said, expression serene. He was a tall, bulky man with a weather-beaten face; Kakashi had seen this man in battle and his fingers were quick and gentle, chakra steady and sure. Kakashi frowned in his direction and Hiromasa grinned in reply.
"Well, where's the lock, then?" Kakashi snapped impatiently and took a deep breath as Iruka looked at him with surprise. It was unusual for him to be acting this way, very unusual indeed, but he had been brusque with this team since the very beginning... particularly with Iruka-sensei. There was something about him that just rubbed Kakashi the wrong way. He looked too... soft, too easygoing. He wasn't a man that Kakashi would trust implicitly to have at his back.
Oh, Iruka-sensei was loud and brash and brave, that was a fact. He wasn't afraid of any jounin, which was either admirable or crazy, and he had a way of communicating that made people obey or trust that his words were true. If he were more powerful, Kakashi thought that he would probably make a great assistant to a Hokage.
He'd never given the chuunin more than a nod before this; now, he had seen Iruka-sensei every day for the past week, and he just felt jittery and annoyed all the time. Copy-nins were supposed to be the very pinnacle of Calm Cool Collectedness, according to Guy. Kakashi disliked feeling so on-edge all the time, and this internal awkwardness simply fuelled his discomfort and sharpened his interactions with the other man.
Iruka-sensei's lips tightened and his eyes went hard as he turned a little more to Kakashi, his stance slightly belligerent. "I don't know, Kakashi-san," he said in tones dripping with chilly formality. "You are the one with the Sharingan Eye. You tell me."
Kakashi pushed off the surface he was leaning against, walking towards Iruka, who stood his ground and stared right back at him with defiant brown eyes. Kakashi frowned; he liked spiritedness, but not on a mission.
He stopped right in front of the teacher, and narrowed his normal eye. Iruka flushed red but did not move or look away.
Kakashi turned from him dismissively and raised his hitai-ate, flickering his gaze over the surface of the massive keystone. The key-chakra glowed far brighter than the other symbols, which were joined together by a shining web of lines. A lock... a symbol for lock...
"I see two symbols for 'lock'." Kakashi's gaze snapped back and forth, gaining more detail in a bare millisecond. "One is directly above the key-symbol, connected by a chakra-line. That's the one that's glowing. One isn't shining at all. So, Sensei," he said mockingly, looking at Iruka with both eyes. "Which one is it?"
"The one that's not glowing," Iruka said, even though he looked away now from Kakashi's bi-coloured regard. "It's not open, so that's the one that needs the key."
"That makes sense too," Hiromasa offered and Kakashi rolled his eyes.
"I agree," Kakashi said drily, and offered Iruka a wry twist of his lips when Iruka finally looked back at him. "Of course, I knew that before you said so."
Iruka scowled at him. Kakashi merely lifted one shoulder in a lethargic shrug. He pressed his own finger to the second lock-symbol and sent a burst of chakra into it. It began to glow right away, and a line flared along the surface, leading from it to the key-symbol. The key brightened earnestly, and Kakashi covered his Sharingan as the entire vertical plane of the rock became a shining network of interconnected symbols, visible even at the normal spectral range, since both Iruka and Hiromasa had turned their faces away from the bright light.
The rocks began to roll themselves neatly to each side, moving under a locomotion jutsu that had been activated by the key. Kakashi watched them, stepping back as the space above the keystone was cleared.
The keystone itself rolled forward and to the left, leaving the tall entry open and clear. Kakashi stepped forward and then stopped, looking down on Iruka's hand gripping his bicep.
"Wait just a few moments, Kakashi-taicho." He motioned with his chin to the entry, dust floating innocuously though shafts of sunlight. "If I had gone through all that trouble to set a doorway like that..."
Kakashi tugged his arm away from Iruka's hold and did as he asked, waiting in fairly bad grace. He raised his eyebrow, however, when a barrage of arrows snapped out of a hidden slot in the smooth face of one wall and striking the opposite surface with almost one single heavy sound, quivering slightly.The black stone heads of the arrows gleamed in the shafts of golden afternoon light that streamed inside the cave.
"Hmm." Kakashi shrugged. "That was to be expected."
He heard Iruka make a strangled sound in the back of his throat, obviously irritated with him. Kakashi smiled to himself, suddenly feeling immeasurably better. As they dashed cautiously through the dark cave, he wondered idly what else set Iruka's temper off, apart from shinobi who handed in their messy reports very late, and Academy genin who wasted time in his classes.
The cave went on for a surprisingly long time, just a single tunnel with a slight downwards slope. The walls were glowing with light from some swarm of bioluminescent insect, a green radiance that was helpful in their journey. Gradually, however, this glow began to fade, and a pinprick of bright sunlight grew steadily in the distance.
Kakashi raised a fist a few meters from the other end of the cave, a large, well-formed opening. Iruka and Hiromasa immediately landed near where he was crouched, behind a small grouping of boulders piled up against one rocky wall and watched Kakashi's hands intently as he began to use the silent speech.
Four guards just on the inside of the exit, he told them quickly. Four more on the outside.
He pointed at them and then made the symbols for inside. Iruka and Hiromasa nodded their understanding. Just to clarify, he pointed to himself. I'll take the ones outside.
Hiromasa nodded again, but Iruka's gaze was withering, as if he thought Kakashi was treating him like a simpleton. Kakashi frowned at him. Of course, it might seem slightly insulting to Iruka, who gave instructions every day and knew how to take them, but Kakashi really couldn't give a shit right now, because misunderstandings meant mistakes, and mistakes could mean failed missions.
Kakashi shook his head slightly; he felt like he was thirteen again, stiff-necked and a stickler for all the rules and regulations. He didn't know what it was about the sensei that made him feel so imbalanced, but he recognised that it was something he needed to work on, before it got completely out of control.
He held up his fingers and began to fold them in one at a time. Five... four... three... two.... one. As soon as his fist clenched tightly, they all leapt from behind their hiding place. Kakashi landed with his two team-mates in front of the surprised interior guards, but launched himself out again to deal with the exterior guards.
He was pleased to note that, as he took out his own targets quickly, the other two were fairly silent as well. As soon as he trussed up his own guards with chakra wire, he dragged them inside the mouth of the cave and propped them up against the rock-face. He straightened, looking around for them and went into a defensive pose when he saw Hiromasa standing right beside one of the guards, who looked perfectly fine and not tied up at all.
"It's me, Kakashi-sensei," Iruka said from behind the silver-plated mask that the guards wore, his tone amused. He raised his hands slightly and Kakashi noted that they were clad in black gloves which stopped right under the wide sleeves of a dark-blue uniform, just at his upper biceps. A long black sleeveless coat went over the uniform, cinched tightly around the waist.
"Good," Kakashi said briskly and Iruka seemed surprised. "That's a very good idea. Find where the princess is as quickly as you can and return to report."
Iruka slipped out of the cave silently. Hiromasa and Kakashi crouched at the mouth of the cave, looking out into the surprisingly lovely view. The mouth of the cave opened out into a lush, hidden valley, trees rising out of shadowed undergrowth, while the surrounding rocky hills loomed over the valley in a protective ring. Without the long cave that wormed its way underneath one of those hills, it would have been quite difficult to get into this valley.
Barely ten minutes went by before Kakashi heard what sounded like the innocuous chirps of a common bird, but with that underlying message which signalled that a Konoha shinobi was approaching. Iruka slipped back in a few moments later, and knelt on the floor near them, talking quickly as he removed the mask.
"We need to hurry. I found the princess, but she's in some kind of binding ceremony, apparently with the son of the leader here." Iruka paused, fiddling with the mask in his hands. "I don't think the son wants to marry her, either," he pointed out. "They have him tied up as much as she is."
"Lead us there," Kakashi commanded. "I trust you found a shortcut?"
Iruka flashed him a quick grin and Kakashi blinked as he pulled the silver mask over his face. Without the irritation at Kakashi, Iruka's face had a pleasing quality. He was kind of plain, in Kakashi's humble opinion, but that smile was tinged with a kind of mischief that Kakashi could relate to.
Kakashi exhaled, feeling lighter. The strange displeasure had left him, and finally they felt like a complete team.
"Follow me, in the tree-line." Iruka rose and dashed out, Hiromasa and Kakashi following close behind. They hurtled down the slope from the cave and when the trees thinned out over a carefully constructed cobblestone path, Iruka slowed down to a quick walk as the other two kept to the foliage.
The cobblestone path met up with a larger street, which Iruka kept to for only a few moments before he turned onto another side-road, one which ran close to the encroaching forest. Now and again, other Archer guardsmen would walk on this street and Iruka would adopt their odd march: left arm folded close to the body to clench the fist at the chest, right arm swinging in time with the long strides. It was an effective mimicry and they followed him without any interruption until they arrived at a large, wooden temple, a large river running behind it.
Kakashi peered out from the thick foliage of the tree he and Hiromasa were hiding in, watching Iruka brazenly push past the throng of other guards and Archer civilians until he came to the very edge of a large round podium.
On it, two young people were bound and seated on ornately carved thrones, surrounded by four or five men dressed as priests. A girl, around twelve or thirteen, was struggling in her throne, curses that no princess should know flowing from her lips. Beside her, a boy of roughly the same age sat limply. His eyes were glowing, a swampy green shade that was some sign of mind-control. Kakashi frowned beneath his mask.
"No!" The kidnapped princess screamed at a priest that inched near her and the crowd muttered restlessly. The people didn't seem to be in agreement with this whole procedure at all, and Kakashi noted that for his own report; it might be helpful in future diplomatic wranglings. The crowd actually surged forward and another priest held up his hand commandingly, halting the protesting action.
"This I do for my people!" This priest cried and the crowd's mumblings began to melt away. The man who spoke was obviously the head of the priests and quite likely the leader of the Archer clan, judging from the reactions of the crowd. "With the latent powers of this princess joined to that of my son, our tribe will grow powerful!"
There were a few half-hearted cheers, but the priest's eyes were fervent with his belief, ignoring the less than enthusiastic response.
"They will become bound together in lifelong commitment," the priest said tenderly, lifting his hands and moving them in a slow, ceremonious manner. Light began to pulsate between his palms, weakly at first, then flaring to a brightness that was almost painful to look on. It was chakra, a lot of it, strong and very unrefined. The sound of it was an insistent buzz that seemed to push at the eardrums, and the people gathered below began to grimace and back away. Out of the corner of his eye, Kakashi could see Hiromasa raise his hands and place over his own ears. A few moments later, Hiromasa pressed his palms to Kakashi's ears and left a protective layer of chakra that held out most of that sound.
Kakashi nodded his thanks and began to make seals quickly; the light in the priest's hands split into two as he pulled his hands apart, holding one each over the heads of the trapped children. The princess had gone past curses and was now sobbing openly.
Kakashi had almost completed the long series of hand-seals needed for the Water Dragon Jutsu, and then Hiromasa lurched forward in surprise. Iruka, obviously and predictably moved by the tears of a child, had jumped onto the podium, kicking the priest right in the chest. As the priest stumbled backwards, Iruka brandished a kunai and hacked at the girl's bonds.
"Shit!" Kakashi hissed. "Suiton! Suiryūdan no Jutsu!"
The water rose with a massive roar, and hovered over the platform in the shape of a menacing dragon. Wails of fright rose from the crowd and people wisely began to vacate the area; even the assistant priests raced to the end of the platform and jumped off. Kakashi and Hiromasa propelled themselves onto the stage even as Iruka undid the bonds from around the boy and pulling him up to stand.
The priest was shrieking wordlessly as he released the balls of light from his hands and they streaked towards the children. Iruka grabbed them both, turned around to shield them protectively and screamed as the balls of light crashed into his back. The water-dragon, under Kakashi's direction, flung itself towards the priest and pushed him over the side of the stage and into the river, the imposing form of the dragon splashing back to its origin.
Iruka, the princess and the priest's son were lying curled up on the surface of the stage. As Kakashi raced towards Iruka, Hiromasa close on his heels, he saw the boy cough weakly and a small green worm fall from his mouth. Hiromasa stepped on the mind-numbing insect, crushing it beneath his sandal.
"Hiromasa, check them first," Kakashi commanded and knelt beside Iruka's limp body. "Idiot," he snapped desperately as he reached out to grasp Iruka's shoulder and pull him onto his back. "Why did you do--"
An immense jolt of energy flashed up Kakashi's arm as soon as he touched Iruka; it felt like a raikiri gone wrong. It seeped into the rest of his body with alarming speed, crinkling his nerve-endings and snapping his synapses. His chakra lurched and shuddered in his body and to his alarm, it began to change, twisting almost out of Kakashi's control.
There was a rushing of sensation and emotion, bright lights, panic and a voice that seemed to drill itself into the middle of his brain; Kakashi's mind refused to handle it all and simply shut down.