Actions

Work Header

Leading the Blind

Work Text:

Hatake Kakashi woke to cold and darkness and a thousand nagging aches overlaid with the sharper, bright pain of more recent injuries. Everything hurt, even his ears. Without moving or changing the pattern of his breathing in the slightest, Kakashi catalogued everything he could sense.

His right side was cold and slightly damp, resting on an uneven, hard surface. Through his mask he could smell damp stone; a mineral scent so strong he could practically taste it in the back of his painfully dry throat. He could clearly hear dripping water; the repetitious drip-drop-plink echoing strangely, attenuated sounds that spoke of an incredibly large area and served only to aggravate his thirst. All he could see was the damned, neverending darkness behind his eyelids.

Kakashi concentrated on regulating his chakra and breath, to give his captors no sign that he had awakened. The bastards had come upon him two or perhaps three days ago, right after a fight with a stone nin who would just not die! He’d been standing over the charred corpse of the evil fucker, finally down for good, with a scorched hole the size of Kakashi’s fist through his gut. Kakashi had found himself swaying slightly from chakra drain and exhaustion and debated foggily if he had enough energy to spare to summon his pack, when the faintest noise had automatically brought him into a defensive crouch, kunai in hand and Sharingan eye scanning the surrounding terrain for enemies.

He’d only caught a glimpse of the one, a slight kunoichi with mad red eyes like a goshawk, and fists full of lethal senbon. She’d dropped out of the trees above him, screeching like a wild animal, all feral violence and no finesse.

He’d managed to dodge her first mad attack, only to be taken unawares by a second enemy that he had not seen, only heard. He could remember knocking back the crazed kunoichi and pivoting on his heel to block a spray of senbon from the underbrush to his right. There was a faint smell like orchids, and then nothing but darkness.

He heard movement off to his right, the sound again distorted with that strange attenuation that said it was echoing back to his ears from a good distance away. “Regolith is on his way back with the buyer,” a female voice said, something in the tone reminding him of the mad, feral creature that had plummeted out of a tree at him. “They’ll be here by dawn. He’s promised us four times the reward for taking the infamous Sharingan Kakashi alive and mostly unharmed.”

“Good,” answered a distinctly masculine voice, one that sounded like the owner of it made a practice of gargling rocks. “Worth the trouble of making the damned hood then. I thought he was going to rip my arm clean off before I got it over his head, even with him being bound hand and foot in chakra wire. Bastard’s strong, and almost as crazy as you are.”

Kakashi vaguely remembered that struggle, though it was fuzzy around the edges and tainted heavily with the wooziness that he associated with being heavily sedated. There had been at least four of them holding him down, and one cramming a heavy, leather and metal contraption down over his head. He’d bucked like a landed fish when the rough edges of the thing had gouged into the skin of his face and pressed his mask into the bridge of his nose hard enough to make the fabric tear a bit. Well, that accounted for why his ears hurt, the stupid thing they had forced on his head was probably smashing them down against his skull.

“I wish I could have played with him a little more first,” a third, seductively feminine voice purred. “If he reacted that strongly to my sand epidendrum dust, imagine how well he might have responded to some of my other pollens...”

“Lets not wander into your creepy fetishes, Exine,” responded the first speaker, a note of disdain entering her tone. “There are reasons you’re no longer welcome in civilized towns.”

“Like you have room to talk, fleabag. Even whores won’t have you in their beds. They don’t want to be any more vermin-infested than they already are,” the other female growled back venomously.

“Both of you shut up,” snarled the male. “We’re looking at enough from this job for both of you to indulge yourselves when its over, so you will behave until Regolith gets back.”

Kakashi could hear both women grumble, but retreat into silence. Still keeping an ear attuned for movement in their direction, he concentrated on figuring out the best way to escape his bonds.

They were careful, he acknowledged ruefully. Each finger had been wrapped in wire and then bound to the one next to it. The slightest movement to form a seal would slice his fingers to pieces. He could already feel dozens of tiny cuts leaking fresh blood over dried. They’d removed anything that could be used as a weapon, down to the wraps on his legs. He could feel cold stone on his bare ankles and the bite of more wire binding his feet.

He could hear the cheerful crackle of a fire, but could feel none of its warmth, the cold rock beneath him leaching all heat from his body. Breathing lightly, Kakashi let himself slip into a half-aware state, one where he would still be alert to danger, but where his conscious mind could mull over solutions without distraction.

The damp, cold floor and echoing sense of distance could only mean he was in a cave of some sort, a live one, by the continuing drip of water and the thick mineral tang to the air. The strangely regular tick-tick sound off somewhere to his right he identified as an arthropod of some kind, something with a lot of legs to produce that much sound. He wondered vaguely if it was poisonous and spared a wishful thought that if it was that it would bite one of his captors.

The faint brush of cool air over his skin and faint rustlings and squeaks warned that a deeper part of the cavern was roost to a colony of bats. His nose caught the faintest whiff of guano and he revised his opinion. The bat colony was closer than he thought. He wondered if the high, shrill whistle he used to call his pack would disturb the bats, and whether a cloud of them sweeping over the enemies would provide him an opportunity to escape. The sting of chakra wire around his extremities indicated that he’d only cut himself to pieces trying.

A stronger breeze carrying the scent of bats and dung wafted across his face. He almost startled when he felt something against one of his bare ankles. Warm fingertips traced field sign for ally on his skin. Kakashi frowned behind his mask. Whoever they were, they were damnably silent if he hadn’t heard them.

The press of cold metal against his skin and the almost imperceptible snick of wire cutters told him his unknown ally was slicing through the layers of chakra wire around his legs. The metal touched his wrists and the person behind him began the painstaking work of cutting his hands free.

When the last of the wire fell away from bleeding fingers, one of his hands was turned over and signs written against his palm, Stay down. No movement.

Kakashi felt his hand released and the lack of a presence at his back, with only the slightest breath of air to tell him that his rescuer had moved away from him.

Straining his ears, he could still hear the crackle of the flames and the sounds of the relaxing group of enemy shinobi, but nothing of the other.

The first sign that Kakashi had that his surprise ally had made a move was a startled curse from the direction of the campfire followed by a bout of sudden violent coughing. Aware that the time for secrecy had ended, Kakashi flung out feelers of his own chakra to sense what he could not see.

He recognized the chakra of the wild kunoichi immediately, and the two unfamiliar signatures had to be her companions. They were moving randomly, as if blinded by the smoke Kakashi was just beginning to smell. A fourth bright spark of chakra dropped down among them, sunlight-yellow and oddly familiar. One of the other signatures flared and then went dark, a life snuffed out. The copper reek of blood joined the smoke.

Kakashi rose unsteadily to his feet, feeling a thousand aches spring back to life. Gritting his teeth, he forced his limbs to obey and scrabbled with bloody fingers for some catch to remove the accursed hood. Sparks of chakra bit his fingertips and he jerked them away with a pained hiss. The damned thing was trapped!

“Hatake-san!” With no further warning, a hand closed on his wrist and tugged. “Run!”

Kakashi obeyed, blindly following the tugs on his wrist and the butter-yellow chakra. Barefoot, he stumbled on every roughness in the terrain that he could not see, skinning his toes on obstructions and gaining dozens of stinging cuts and bruises, but he gamely struggled on. He felt cool night air on his skin and the scent of myriad different trees told him that they were running through a forest.

It seemed like forever before a whispered, “Duck,” and a tug downwards on his wrist urged him into a crouching position. He felt something cool and damp brush against his skin and then the chill night air was replaced by dry, still air. The tugging on his wrist stayed low, keeping him in an awkward, half-crouching position. He felt something brush his head and reached up, barking his hand on rough stone. He bit back a curse and continued forward in a crouch until the fingers around his wrist loosened.

“You can straighten up now, Hatake-san. The ceiling is high enough here.” The voice was pitched low and naggingly familiar. “Keep your voice down, though. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get all of them and while this place is well hidden, voices carry in caves.”

Kakashi nodded.

“Sit,” his ally murmured, a hand on Kakashi’s shoulder guiding him down onto a smooth curve of stone. “I want a closer look at this hood they’ve put on you.”

Kakashi obligingly tilted his head. “Fucking thing is trap-sealed,” he growled bitterly.

“So I see. Damned cleverly too.” Careful fingers danced around the lower edges of the leather and metal hood. “Whoever did this was a master.”

“I think it was one of the three there in the cave, the male.” Kakashi offered.

A rueful laugh vibrated the fingertips just brushing his cheeks. “Well, he’ll not be undoing it then; or doing much of anything with his spine broken. He was the one I landed on when I dropped off the ceiling of the cave, and I felt his neck break.”

“Good,” Kakashi snarled. “I’d have done it myself if you hadn’t.” He drew in a deep breath, catching the scent off of the other man’s clothing. Char and smoke, copper blood and sweat, minerals and dampness from the roof of the cave he’d crept across and under it all, the uniquely scent-deadening soap available only from shinobi stores.

A sharp spark of electricity tingled against his ear and the man above him yelped, the sound finally giving Kakashi the clue he needed to suss out the identity of his ally.

“Iruka-sensei?” Kakashi caught the incredulous tone in his own voice and quickly covered it with, “Are you alright?”

“‘M fine,” Iruka grumbled, his voice sounding muffled, like he’d stuck a scorched finger in his mouth. “Bastard was diabolically clever in making this fucking thing. It’s got layers of traps that cascade into a series of seals of some kind, most likely lethal. It could take me days to unravel it; even then I’m not sure if I could undo the seals without setting it off.”

“Fuck.” Kakashi wanted to rip the damned thing off his head, but he knew he’d be killing himself to try. “There’s no way I can make it back to Konoha like this.”

He heard Iruka sigh. “No, and I couldn’t carry you the entire way, not and still be able to defend us. At least one of those bastards got away.”

“There were more,” Kakashi growled, fingers clenching on his knees. “At least one more, the leader they called Regolith. He was off meeting a buyer. I don’t think you have to guess what they were buying.”

“No, I don’t think I do.” Iruka’s voice was tight and thin. “Fuck. If this Regolith is who I think it is, we don’t dare stay here. He’ll find us. It looks like making for Konoha is our only choice.”

Kakashi tilted his head, wishing he could see Iruka’s expression. “I know Regolith is an assumed name, but I got a look at him when they were shoving this damned contraption on my head. He’s not in the bingo book.”

“No,” Iruka’s tone went flat and chill. “He’s not. He’s not from any known shinobi village. Not a missing nin, either, at least not one that we know of. Not sure what he is, but he’s lethal and not overly burdened with morals or conscience. I encountered him on an A-rank mission five years ago, when he killed half of my team. I don’t know where he came from, but his affinity is earth, and he’s deadly in his element.” Iruka’s voice dropped to a pale whisper. “My surviving teammate and I barely made it back to Konoha’s borders.”

Kakashi turned his head toward the sound of Iruka’s voice, sensing there was more to it than what the cold, emotionless words portrayed.

“Tsunade-sama sent a squad after him. None of them returned,” Iruka went on, his tone, if possible, becoming even more icy than before. “A second team was dispatched, and found his hideout razed. The bodies of the first team were buried in the rubble and it was assumed he was too. Obviously not.”

“Obviously,” Kakashi deadpanned.

He heard Iruka sigh. “Well, that doesn’t help us at the moment,” Iruka went on. “With luck, we have some time to patch ourselves up and figure out what to do.”

Cloth rustled and small objects clacked together. As near as Kakashi could judge, Iruka seemed to be rummaging around in a knapsack or satchel.

It irked Kakashi that he could only rely on his nose and ears to tell him what was going on around him. He found his hands creeping up to the damnable hood that blinded him as effectively as a hooded falcon. Chakra sparks bit at his fingertips and he jerked them away with a muttered curse.

“Please don’t do that,” Iruka chided quietly. “You’ll only succeed in hurting or killing yourself. And unfortunately that thing puts off chakra sparks in the visible spectrum when you mess with it, so it’s rather like sitting next to a mobile firework.”

Kakashi muttered imprecations under his breath, cursing the bastard who’d created the hood all the way down to the parasites in his intestines.

Iruka’s warm chuckle cut through his tirade right as he was getting down to the cellular level. “Creative. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had reading interests that ranged beyond Jiraiya’s thinly-disguised sexual fantasies.”

“I have varied taste... in books. And what do you mean, ‘thinly-disguised sexual fantasies’?” Kakashi snapped his head around toward where he figured Iruka had to be.

“Oh, please,” Iruka snorted, slightly to the right of where Kakashi had assumed him to be located. “One doesn’t have to be a genius to see the similarities between all of his protagonists and heroines. Hold still,” he warned. “I’m going to take your right ankle in my hand so I can start treating all the damage we did to your feet in that run. I think you’ll fit my spare pair of sandals, at least well enough to get home.”

Warm hands enclosed his ankle and lifted his foot. Kakashi felt oddly vulnerable with one foot suspended in the air and unable to see what was his companion was doing. There was a ticklish sensation of fingers brushing debris off his skin, seasoned with bright sparks of pain from the removal of thorns and chips of stone that had bitten into the flesh. Only strict self-control kept Kakashi from jerking his foot in Iruka’s grasp. The feel of the lukewarm water used to wash his abused foot made Kakashi grit his teeth, toes twitching in spite of his iron control.

With firm strokes, Iruka smoothed a cream (antibiotic, by the scent of it) over the abraded sole of his foot and wrapped bandages over the ointment before repeating the whole procedure on Kakashi’s other foot.

Kakashi could do little but submit to Iruka’s ministrations. At least Iruka had the foresight to warn Kakashi before doing anything — like touching him — that might trigger a lethal reaction from his finely-honed instincts.

With a warning, Iruka took one of Kakashi’s savaged hands between his own and made a tsking sound. “That wire cut you up good. This is going to hurt like hell.”

Kakashi gingerly flexed his fingers inside the cage of Iruka’s, feeling the sting of hundreds of tiny lacerations and the warm trickle of blood from barely formed scabs breaking open at the movement. “I don’t think there’s any major damage,” he said thoughtfully. “No broken bones and nothing important cut.”

Kakashi could feel the warm puff of Iruka’s breath against the skin of his palm when Iruka huffed.

“Doesn’t mean it’s not going to hurt like eight kinds of hell,” Iruka scolded. “A lot of these cuts are on joints or in places where they will break open every time you move. I can bandage them, but they’ll still sting like a thousand papercuts.” Iruka’s voice turned wry. “Trust me, it’s not a sensation one forgets anytime soon.”

Kakashi couldn’t help a small chuckle of amusement. “A thousand papercuts, sensei? How does one accomplish that?”

Iruka’s pause was almost imperceptibly too long. “I work in the mission room and with children, Hatake-san.” He chuckled, the tone of his gaiety just a little too forced. “You be amazed at the number of papercuts one gets in those lines of work.” He deftly washed Kakashi’s hands, warm water sluicing away both the layers of dried blood and the fresh. He smoothed ointment over Kakashi’s hands and loosely wrapped gauze around them. “Any other injuries I should be aware of?”

Kakashi shook his head. “Only a lot of bruises, both from the mission I was on before they nabbed me, and in the struggle with that lot when they shoved this damned thing down on my head.”

He could hear Iruka moving, but could only guess at what the other nin was doing.

“I’m going to give you some tablets to swallow,” Iruka spoke only after a long moment. “Standard issue; iron supplements, chakra boosters and a mild painkiller. I can tell by the way you were moving that some of those bruises are a hell of a lot more painful that you want to let on.”

Had he not been wearing the damned hood, Kakashi would have glared at Iruka. As it was, he let out an aggrieved huff. “I don’t take painkillers in the field.”

“We’re not in a field, we’re in a cave,” Iruka snarked back. “Shut up and take the damned painkiller. We won’t be able to move for at least the rest of the night; by then the searchers will have moved out of this sector. I laid down a false trail heading east and hopefully that should get them out of this sector and give us time before they manage to light on our real trail. So we just have to lay low until I’m sure they’ve left the area and then we move out. And that means,” Iruka’s voice took on a tone of command, disturbingly reminiscent of Tsunade’s biting orders. “—You take the fucking painkiller so you get some rest before we have to move.”

Kakashi curled up his lip and snarled.

“I work with small children every day, and they’re scarier than that without even trying, Hatake-san,” Iruka reprimanded sharply. “When we head out we will have to move quickly, so I can't have you moving like an old man, half-crippled with pain and lack of rest. So I suggest you take the painkiller before I shove it down your throat.”

Taken aback, for a moment Kakashi could not manage even a sound in rebuttal.

Firm fingers pressed several tiny tablets into the palm of one of his bandaged hands. “Two choices,” Iruka rumbled. “And neither of them all that hard. You take this willingly or I sit on you, hold your nose and force you to swallow them. At this point I’m leaning toward the second option, so better make your choice fast.”

Kakashi growled again and hooked one bandaged finger under the edge of his mask, tugging it down. He let out an involuntary hiss of pain, abruptly reminded that the mask had been caught under the hood when they had shoved it down on his head.

“Hold still,” Iruka said suddenly. “I’ll help you.”

Kakashi couldn’t help an instinctive jerk when Iruka’s hands came into contact with his cheeks, but he managed to hold still and not lash out like all of his finely-honed reflexes cried out to do. He couldn’t help wincing, though, at the feel of Iruka freeing the trapped mask and causing the wounds where it had been forced into his skin by the pressure of the hood to break open and bleed anew.

Abruptly, Iruka’s hands withdrew, leaving the mask still covering most of his face, but no longer cutting into his skin. “I’ll leave the rest of it to you then. Naruto informed me of how much you value the hiding of your face, so if you want, I’ll even turn my back.”

Kakashi, surprised, allowed himself a single bark of laughter. “And how would I know if your were doing that? I can’t see a damned thing.” He rolled the handful of pills in his palm. “And how would you even know I took all of these?”

There was a hint of grim amusement to Iruka’s tone. “As you so kindly pointed out, you can’t see a damned thing. How would you know which tablet is the painkiller and which the iron supplement? I assure you, you need all of them. You’re a shinobi, not a fool. You know that.” Iruka sighed, the sound long and weary to Kakashi’s ears. “One of the things I tell my classes; one of the foremost tenets, ‘You cannot complete your mission if you are dead.’ That also means doing everything in your power to fucking stay alive, even if it means listening to me and taking the goddam meds!” By the end of the sentence, Iruka’s voice had risen to slightly more than a conversational level.

Kakashi had to give him credit for not shouting, even though it was more than obvious he wanted to. He’d heard Iruka in full temper and knew Iruka could outshout the Hokage without even trying.

“So,” Iruka continued, his tone soft and calm. “I suggest you do as you are told.”

Kakashi heard the splash of water and the cold metal of a canteen was pressed into the bandaged fingers of the hand not holding the pills.

With a rueful grimace, Kakashi closed his hand around the pills and used two fingers to tug his mask down. He tossed the pills into his mouth and used his newly freed fingers to ascertain that the cap was off the canteen. Several quick swallows of the metallic-tasting water washed the tablets down. He offered the canteen to where he judged Iruka must be. “Do I have to open my mouth for you like a good boy to prove I’ve taken all my medicine?”

Iruka snorted. “I don’t think that’s necessary. You’re many things, but stupid isn’t one of them.”

Kakashi managed a credible laugh. “That was almost a compliment, Iruka-sensei.”

He almost missed the barely audible chuckle. “Consider it what you will, Kakashi-san.” Iruka’s tone was pleasant again, with the heat of his ire gone as if it had never been. “Before I turn back around, do you want my help with the gouges on your nose and cheeks or would you prefer not?”

Behind the hood, Kakashi raised an eyebrow in surprise. He’d rather expected Iruka hadn’t turned away, and that simple consideration had set his image of the brash mission room worker on its ear. “I... would appreciate that,” he said finally.

Warm fingers brushed against his bandaged ones, taking the canteen from him.

Kakashi held still while Iruka cleaned the damage done to his face by dint of the hood being forced down over his head and mask.

Suddenly the silence was broken by a soft chuckle from Iruka. “It looks like most of them won’t scar,” he spoke quietly, amusement evident in his voice. “But this one,” and the damp cloth passed gently over where the mask had been painfully forced down on the bridge of his nose, “—Might. Though yours might be a bit less noticeable than mine, considering you wear a mask.”

Iruka’s amusement was contagious and Kakashi chuckled. “Don’t let Naruto know or he’ll be convinced that’s the reason behind my wearing a mask.”

“Considering I’ve been subjected to some of his more outlandish theories on what you look like, I should think being compared to me would be less of an insult.” Iruka informed him tartly.

“Oi,” Kakashi grumbled. “Just what the hell is he imagining?”

“Giant buck teeth and fish lips are the least of his theories,” Iruka chuckled. “One thing that boy has is a vivid imagination.” Skilled fingers smoothed salve over the raw abrasions. “I’d leave the mask down if I were you, at least for the night, give these time to scab.”

Kakashi grunted an irritated acknowledgement. He knew Iruka had the right of it, but his nose twitched, deluged by an overload of scents. Without the filtering effect of his mask, every odor was too intense, too overwhelming. The damp earth of the cave, the waft of smoke from Iruka’s clothes, even the faint tang of ozone that said there would be rain before morning. He sneezed several times in rapid succession, eyes watering behind the damnable hood.

The sharp astringent scent of thyme directly under his nose stopped the next sneeze before it could start. He huffed, trying to get his breath back.

Iruka’s voice was soft. “Hold this under your nose for a few seconds, and breathe deeply.” He guided Kakashi’s fingers to the sprig of thyme he was holding. “It’ll help you adjust; to sort out all the scents.”

Kakashi obeyed, finding that after a couple of breaths, each successive one came easier. “How’d you know this would work?” he asked, shaking the herb in Iruka’s direction.

“Stop that,” Iruka scolded, mildly. “Keep breathing until you can focus on the scents individually. It will make them less overwhelming. And it’s a trick I picked up from one of the Inuzuka’s; she showed it to me because sometimes when the children are first bonded to their ninken, they have trouble adjusting to just how much they can smell. The thyme works best, but any herb with a strong enough scent can be used to help them find a focus. From the way your nostrils were flared before you started sneezing, I figured you were having trouble adjusting without your mask to filter scents and thought it would do the trick for you too.”

Kakashi sighed and drew a deep breath, using the sharp, green tang of the plant to keep his focus. It worked, allowing him to filter out and discard all but the strongest and most important odors. He could still smell far too much, but at least it was down to tolerable levels.

He caught the rank bite of smoke for Iruka’s clothes and knew the man had moved. Kakashi cocked his head to follow the quiet sound of Iruka’s footfalls. He heard the heavy thump of something fabric hitting the stone floor of the cave and guessed Iruka was unrolling a bedroll.

He felt the change in the air and realized Iruka was very close.

“I’m going to take your arm now, Kakashi-san,” Iruka murmured. “The bedroll is exactly four paces behind you.”

Iruka’s fingers closed on his arm and guided him back to his aching feet. Now that he’d been off them for a bit, they were complaining loudly about the abuse they’d taken. Kakashi found himself grateful for the other man’s firm support.

When his bandaged toes found the edge of the bedding, Iruka helped Kakashi ease himself down on it and lingered to aid him in getting himself settled.

Kakashi sneezed again at the acrid bite of smoke infusing Iruka’s clothes and hurriedly held the sprig of thyme under his nose again. “You stink of smoke,” Kakashi grumbled.

He heard Iruka take a sniff and then a second, deeper inhale. “I suppose I do,” he chortled ruefully. “Clinging to the ceiling right above their fire will do that to you. If you’re comfortable, I’ll see about cleaning up a bit.”

Kakashi waved a hand indolently in the air. “I’m good.”

“Get some sleep,” Iruka advised. “I’ll keep watch.”

“Hey, now,” Kakashi grumbled. “I’m not useless, here.”

“Keeping watch kind of requires sight, Kakashi-san,” Iruka put in mildly. “I’m sure your nose and ears are good, but...”

Kakashi grinned, his cheeks feeling strange without the mask to cover them. “I have nine noses, nine pairs of ears and eight pairs of eyes to help you keep watch.” He worried loose the bandage over one thumb and flexed it, feeling the myriad of tiny little cuts break open and bleed. He didn’t need to see his hands to form the seals, his hands knew what to do instinctively.

He couldn’t see the cloud of smoke the pack arrived in, but he could smell the strangely clean scent and hear the sound of displaced air.

“What now?” Pakkun was grumbling before the odor of the smoke had a chance to fade.

Without warning, something thumped Kakashi square atop the leather and metal hood. He couldn’t see them but he could feel the bright chakra sparks fizzling against his skin, and had to stifle an undignified yelp.

“Ooh, pretty!” Bisuke opined.

“What the hell was that for?” Kakashi snarled upwards, hoping he was glaring in the right direction.

“Idiot, if there was a chakra sensor among them, you just gave away our hiding spot!” Iruka seethed. “Not to mention, the damned hood over your tiny little brain might have been trapped to go off if you used chakra and splatter your head all over the fucking cave!” Iruka paused, panting. “Do you ever think?

Pakkun chuffed in amusement. “He’s got you there, boss.”

Kakashi could hear the click of Pakkun’s claws on the cave floor as the pug moved toward Iruka’s location. “Hello, sonny-boy. Remember me?”

Iruka took a deep breath before speaking, his tone much calmer. “Of course. Pakkun-san, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right. What’s going on here?” Pakkun queried. “And what’s that thing on his head?”

Kakashi heaved a sigh but before he could answer, Iruka spoke up. “A group of missing-nin, led by a very dangerous man, managed to stun and capture Kakashi with the intent of selling him to the highest bidder. I was finishing up a mission nearby when I sensed the battle. I tracked them and managed to sneak into the cave where they were hiding out. I killed at least one of them, possibly two, but that still leaves the leader and one or two others out there.”

Iruka paused. “The hood is to prevent Kakashi from using his Sharingan. I don’t think I have to tell you why they want the eye undamaged. We’re not able to remove the hood here without setting off the trap-seals layered on it, so we’re taking cover here for the night and making a run for Konoha as soon as I’m sure that any pursuit is out of range.”

Kakashi nodded his head, wishing he could see the look on Iruka’s face, or for that matter, the expressions on his ninken’s faces. “So I need the lot of you to scout around and keep watch. Uuhei, you, Shiba and Akino are fastest, so I want you three to range out and make sure any pursuit is following the false trail Iruka-sensei laid. The rest of you will be keeping watch.”

There was a moment of silence from the ninken, not a sound of movement out of the lot of them, and Kakashi wished again he could see what was going on. Then a cold, wet nose pressed against his bared cheek.

“Watch.” Buru grunted and licked his face before moving away.

Kakashi could hear claws clicking on the stone, and knew the rest of the pack was moving to obey. He breathed a silent sigh of relief. He didn’t need them to be mutinous in front of Iruka-sensei.

“Thank you for rescuing him,” Uuhei’s voice spoke from near at hand. “He’s occasionally got rocks for brains, but he’s the only boss we’ve got.”

Kakashi dropped his hooded head into his hands, not even caring about the layers of wire-cuts on his fingers breaking open. When he could no longer hear the click of claws or panting breaths, he tipped his head back toward the ceiling of the cave. “Go ahead, say it.”

Iruka’s tone was mildly amused. “Say what?”

Kakashi snorted. “My ninken; ever so loyally disobedient and snarky. Yet another reason to be unimpressed with me.”

Iruka laughed, a low, rolling chuckle like dark honey, sweet and vaguely sinful. “You speak as if you want me to be impressed. You forget, I got constant updates on you from Naruto when you were Team Seven’s sensei. Matter of fact, they— your ninken— kind of remind me of Team Seven.”

“Not sure that’s a glowing recommendation. Look how well that turned out.” Try as he might, Kakashi couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Unlike you, it’s more than clear I’m not cut out for teaching. I can’t even get my ninken to respect me.”

Kakashi could feel the change in air pressure on his skin, and the rustle of fabric and the smell of smoke from Iruka’s clothes told him that Iruka had knelt next to his bedroll.

“Y’know, when I called you an idiot a few minutes ago, I didn’t even have the half of it.” Iruka murmured, low and dripping with amusement and something else Kakashi couldn’t make out from his tone.

“Glad to know my idiocy is still a growing thing.” Kakashi deadpanned.

“I’d smack you again, but I can do without the mobile firework effect.” Iruka finished with another low chuckle.

Iruka’s hand touched his arm, slowly, telegraphing his motion. His fingers slid down Kakashi’s arm to his hand, lifting it and fixing the bandages. “You are an idiot,” Iruka repeated. “You hear the words, but not the intent.”

Kakashi tilted his head toward the sound of Iruka’s voice. “What precisely do you mean?”

“Your ninken are glad you are okay,” Iruka finished his rebandaging with a gentle pat and let go of Kakashi’s hand. “No matter the words used. that’s all that was meant. Now, you get some rest while I clean up so I stop smelling like an ash-pit.”

Kakashi slumped down on the bedding with a frown. He lay awake, staring into the darkness of the hood. He could feel the painkiller kicking in, dulling the aches from his injuries and blurring the edges between sleep and waking. He had almost surrendered to the siren call of slumber when he heard sniffing and the scrape of claws on stone near at hand. Kakashi carefully drew in air through his nose and identified the distinctive scent of Bisuke.

The youngest member of his pack huffed softly and settled himself against Kakashi’s side, within easy reach of his right hand. Kakashi rested bandaged fingers on his head and Bisuke yawned sleepily. “Glad you’re okay. boss,” Bisuke rumbled softly, pressing his head more firmly against his hand.

Kakashi breathed a soft laugh. “Yeah, me too. Aren’t you supposed to be on watch, though?”

Bisuke yawned again. “Iruka-sensei took my watch. Told me to come rest with you. Said he thought you’d appreciate me sleeping next to you more than him.”

Only then did it occur to Kakashi that he was most likely sleeping on the chuunin-sensei’s bedroll. All of Kakashi supplies had been taken by that group of rogue-nin’s who had captured him, and he was relatively certain there had been no time during their frantic escape for Iruka to have snatched anything. Turning his head, he inhaled, catching the recognizable lack-of-smell that came from the scent-deadening soaps used by on-duty shinobi. Beneath that was the barest hint of masculine musk and Kakashi found himself wondering what Iruka’s natural scent was.

Shaking his head at the unusual thought, Kakashi settled back and let the encroaching sleep wash back over his senses. Oddly enough, he was glad Iruka had sent Bisuke in to sleep with him. The warm weight of the dog was soothing; a reassurance that he was not alone and that someone had his back.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Kakashi came awake all at once, reaching for a kunai he didn’t have. It took a moment for his brain to catch up to his lack of vision. Bisuke was awake beside him, his body tense against Kakashi thigh.

“What is it?” kakashi asked in a whisper, feeling strangely naked without a weapon at hand.

“Shh,” the ninken replied.

Kakashi strained his ears for the sound that had woken both of them.

“Time to move out,” Iruka’s breathless voice startled both of them.

Bisuke jumped and growled.

Instinctively, Kakashi tensed defensively.

Kakashi could hear Iruka move swiftly to throw things back into a pack. “The false trail kept them occupied just about as long as I thought it would,” Iruka said, moving around him rapidly. “One of your scouts found them just doubling back, two of them, so we need to move out quickly. Still no signs of Regolith and the buyers, but that doesn’t mean much.”

Kakashi rolled out of the bedroll and stumbled to his feet, tiny sparks of pain skittering along his nerves and reminding him just how badly he’d been misused.

“Bisuke-san,please go outside and alert the others that we’ll be moving out in about ten minutes,” Iruka told the ninken. “We’ll need the lot of you to be our eyes. Can you let the scouts know?”

Kakashi held up a hand, concentrating briefly. He found the bright sparks of chakra that connected him to his ninken and followed them to the three he’d sent out scouting last night. He touched on each of them, alerting them. “They know. The three of them will do their best to keep an eye on our pursuers. They know not to risk being seen, but if they can find ways to delay them or throw them off the track, they will.”

“Good,” Iruka spoke from very near his elbow and Kakashi had to control and instinctive flinch. “We’ll need all the time they can buy us. Kakashi, there’s a rock outcropping precisely three paces behind you. Sit there so we can get my spare sandals on you.”

Kakashi took the required steps and found the outcrop by dint of bashing his heel against it. He sat down and tipped his head in Iruka’s general direction. “Do you have any spare weapons, Iruka-sensei? I’m feeling rather underdressed.”

“If you were anyone else, I’d feel particularly leery about giving a blinded man lethal weapons, but I trust you’ll at least aim them in the right general direction.” Iruka sounded mildly amused. “On your left, directly in front of you at eye level.”

Kakashi reached out and found the reassuring weight of a kunai’s hilt slipping into his palm.

“Still on your left,” Iruka warned. “I’m going to touch your leg now.”

Expecting the touch on his ankle, Kakashi was startled to feel Iruka strapping something around his thigh. “Senbon pouch,” Iruka explained. “Twelve rows of twenty, tipped with firespider venom.” His hand slid down Kakashi’s leg to grasp his ankle and lift it.

Kakashi could feel Iruka slipping the sandal over his bandaged foot and tightening the straps to hold it in place.

“Firespider venom?” Kakashi racked his brain, finally coming up with the image of a small yellow-brown spider, the same color as the sands of Suna where they originated. “That’s not lethal, is it?”

“You ever been bitten by a firespider, Kakashi-san?” Iruka’s voice held rueful amusement. “You’ll only wish it was lethal. It’s debilitating, an insanely painful burning and itching that will make someone claw their own skin to shreds trying to be rid of it. No training in the world will allow you to ignore it. Very distracting.”

Kakashi winced, pulling his mask back up over his nose and settling it carefully over the tender welts. “That sounds rather... vindictive.”

“It is,” Iruka left it at that, finishing with the other sandal and took Kakashi’s arm to tug him to his feet. “Let’s go.”

Iruka kept hold of his arm, tugging it downward after a few paces so that they assumed the half-crouching position they had used to enter the cave. After a moment, Kakashi felt the warmth of the sun on his bared wrists.

The five dogs crowded around their legs, whining softly. Kakashi knelt to reassure them.

A weight landed on his shoulder with an audible grunt, claws scrabbling for a hold. Pakkun grumbled in his ear. “No way you can tree-hop like this, brat. That’s going to slow our pace, especially in undergrowth as thick as it is around here. You’ll be tripping over things left and right.”

“Ever the optimist, Pakkun.” Kakashi knew the pug was right though, He was a liability like this.

“Maybe Buru can carry you,” Urushi put in. “At least until we get to better running territory.”

Kakashi shook his head. “Buru hasn’t carried me since I was a teenager. I’d hurt him now.”

Pakkun snorted. “You’re not that much heavier now, idiot. You’re still too scrawny under those clothes. Buru can carry you part of the way, at least.”

“Can you?” Iruka’s voice was soft, concerned.

Buru made no audible answer, but Kakashi protested anyway. “No, i don’t want him hurting himself.”

“No offense, Kakashi-san, but I don’t really think we have a choice. Terrain here is much too rough for someone blind. You’d only hurt yourself or worse. Buru thinks he can carry you. I’ll stick close to him and make sure nothing happens to either of you. There’s a meadow about a click and a half from here where we should be able to make up some time and you can give him a spell there. Otherwise, our only option would be to try and take that hood off and I’m not ready to risk our lives trying.”

Kakashi scowled. “I’m not willing to but Buru at risk.”

Pakkun nipped his earlobe. “And I’m not willing to not do everything in our power to keep you alive. So shut up and mount up.”

Kakashi snarled at the pug, a vicious rumble of displeasure.

Iruka’s hand closed on his arm. “I’ll do everything in my power to ensure he doesn’t hurt himself, Kakashi-san, but we really have no other choice. We need to move.”

Kakashi hated himself for it, but relented, and climbed up on Buru’s broad back, wrapping his bandaged hands around his thick leather collar for stability. Buru’s sides heaved in a sigh under his legs and then they were off, the massive bulldog springing into the trees with an enormous bound.

Kakashi just gritted his teeth and hung on. He could feel Iruka’s chakra close by and that of the rest of his pack spread out through the trees.

He never even had time to react to the sudden flare of killing intent. A wall of force slammed into him suddenly and sent him tumbling helplessly away from Buru. He crashed painfully into a branch and clung to it before he could fall further.

Malevolent chakra filled the air around him, making it thick and hard to breathe. It was like a weight on his chest and his lack of sight only seemed to make it worse. All he could hear was the rustling of tree branches and the panicked barking of the pack.

Something landed with a thump on the branch he clung to and steady hands pulled him onto a more stable fork between two branches. “Shit.” Iruka cursed feelingly near his ear. “Regolith. None of us saw him coming.”

Kakashi gripped his kunai and put his back against the solid trunk of the tree. “I can feel his chakra all around me, but I can’t pinpoint it.” He hated how utterly awash he felt without sight in a bad spot.

“I don’t like this. Regolith’s too damned smart for this kind of willful stupidity.” Iruka’s voice was low and filled with cold anger. His fingers tightened on Kakashi’s shoulder. “He’s put himself at a disadvantage attacking us here. Too many trees around for him to use one of his earth jutsu easily. What the hell is he up to?”

Kakashi growled under his breath. “I don’t know. I can’t fight like this, either. We have to risk getting this damned thing off of me. I’m nothing but a liability otherwise.”

Iruka’s breath hissed between his teeth and his fingers spasmed again. “Kakashi-san, I can’t risk it. Trying to take the fucking thing off could kill you.”

“Not taking it off is just a slower way to kill me. You’re good with seals, right?” Kakashi felt the pack falling back into defensive position around them and knew time was running out. The maleficent chakra was growing closer, laced with enough raw, venomous anger and killing intent to make his skin prickle uncomfortably.

“What does that have to do with anything, Kakashi-san?” Iruka’s voice was tight with tension.

“Find me a crux point in the layering of seals on this. I’ll need to you guide me to it.” Kakashi took a deep breath and called on the lightning chakra that tingled through his veins. He channeled it through the blade in his hand, feeling the metal warm and vibrate against his palm.

“I found one,” Iruka’s voice was dull and angry. “If you kill yourself, I will never forgive you.”

“If I kill myself, I don’t think you’ll have to. I won’t forgive myself.” Kakashi managed a cocky grin, despite knowing Iruka couldn’t really see it.

“Idiot.” Iruka’s hand closed on his, guiding his blade to a spot on the shell of leather and metal. “Here. This is the seal that links to all the others, it’s where the cascade effect starts. If you fuck it up, I doubt you’ll have time to regret it.”

Kakashi swallowed, his throat gone uncomfortably dry. “You might want to move back to a safe distance. Just in case.”

Iruka made a sound, something that might have been the beginning of a protest, or something else, but in the end just squeezed his shoulder harder before letting go and moving away from Kakashi’s side.

The empty spot where he had been felt cold and Kakashi closed his eyes behind the hood. Steeling himself, he knew there was one last thing he had to do before going through with it. “Pakkun,” he said softly, knowing the pug would be close enough to hear. “If this goes wrong, I need you — all of you — to stay in this realm long enough to make sure Iruka-sensei makes it back to Konoha.”

Soft fur brushed against his ankle. “The others will,” Pakkun growled softly. “But I go where you do.”

“Pakkun...”

“Shut up and do it, brat. Time isn’t on our side in this.” Pakkun growled, his side vibrating against Kakashi’s skin.

Kakashi smiled behind his mask and released the lightning along the blade, hoping it would work right and cascade through to burn out the trap-seals.

The world exploded in a flare of intense light and heat, and Kakashi only had time to think that he’d screwed up one last time, before the darkness he’d grown accustomed to swept him away in a flood of fire and pain.

Hot breath against his cheek and the insistent press of a cold wet nose against his skin dragged him back to the world of the living.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up,” Pakkun was chanting frantically. “C’mon, you stupid brat, if you don’t wake up, I’ll kill you myself.”

Kakashi could hear volleys of vicious barking and the sounds of fighting, interspersed with curses and screams of pain. He pushed the pug away and reached for the hood. He felt scorched metal hot against his fingertips and burnt leather cracking and giving way. “Report,” he ordered, clawing for a catch to free his head from the remains.

Pakkun grunted. “They attacked just as you tried to stick a kunai in your head. Three of ‘em, that earth-user that Iruka-sensei was so worried about, someone with about a hundred scorpions as summons and the one who tried to immolate all of us. He’s the one who created a huge fireball just when you were trying to get that thing off. Little more to the left of your right hand, boss, looks like there’s a latch of some kind.” The pug sneezed wetly. “We’re having to keep hopping to avoid all the damned stinger-bugs, so any time you feel like joining the battle, feel free.”

Kakashi found the half fused catch and clawed at it, thinking of the irony if his attempt to remove the stupid hood had only sealed it that more tightly. But the metal bent and snapped under his fingers, and he yanked the hood away.

The early morning sun stabbed into his eyes like blades, so long accustomed to the darkness of the hood. He blinked tears away, just in time to dodge one of the scorpions leaping at his face. He pinned it against the tree with a senbon and turned to face the battle.

His ninken were playing a losing game against a veritable horde of clicking, clacking arachnids, each armed with a deadly stinger, but there was a body on the ground, a missing nin with fang marks on his throat and his neck twisted at an improbable angle.

Iruka was bounding rapidly through the treetops, bloodied, but far from beaten. With every bound, he was hurling a veritable barrage of weaponry at another man who was following him on the ground.

The pursuing man wore no headband and his clothes were of civilian make. He clasped his hands together in a rapid series of handsigns and a spike of rock shot up from the ground, shearing neatly through a tree branch Iruka was aiming for. That cemented the thought that he had to be Regolith.

Iruka twisted in midair, catching a slender branch with one hand and using it and his momentum to slingshot himself back the way he had come. It was a deft move, but unfortunately, it cost Iruka in speed. He was unable to dodge a volley of sharpened stone projectiles completely. One caught him in the shoulder, ripping a bloody furrow through flack jacket, shirt and flesh. Iruka touched down on a branch, spun aside again and vaulted for another, striving for height.

A yelp from Pakkun drew his attention back to the plight of his ninken. The scorpions were overwhelming them and if he didn’t act soon they’d be stung to death. With a quick mental apology for forcibly dispelling them, Kakashi sent them away and razed the trees around him with a quick Katon. Scorpions blackened and popped messily.

There was a scream of rage to his right, and the man who had to be the scorpion summoner lunged at him, wild-eyed and furious.

Kakashi whirled and dropped off the branch, twisting to reach another limb. He vaulted off of that one to one directly behind the enraged man and threw a spray of senbon.

The man before him managed to avoid more than half of them, but several embedded themselves in the meaty portion of his thigh. He laughed nastily, scorpions crawling over his shoulders and arms. “Poison’s not going to do much to me, idiot! I have enough poison in my veins—” His voice trailed off, his mouth still working frantically. With an ear-piercing scream, he clawed at the front of his leg, dislodging the needles. He staggered backwards, still trying to rip the flesh off of the front of his leg, and stumbled right off the branch. Thrashing, he fell right onto a mass of his scorpions that had escaped Kakashi’s flame.

Kakashi didn’t bother to watch the enraged scorpions stinging their summoner, turning his attention to where Iruka still fought Regolith.

Iruka had slowed considerably, weariness and injury making his attacks unsteady. He faltered back a step, barely managing to block another rock projectile.

Kakashi leaped after them, hoping he would make it into range before Iruka made a fatal mistake.

“Going somewhere, handsome?” The far-too-familiar, seductive voice all but purred in his ear.

Kakashi whirled, startled that someone had managed to get so close without him sensing them.

The woman from the cave, the one who had been called Exine, danced backwards away from his instinctive reaction, laughing. “Oh, you didn’t think we’d give you up that easily, did you now?”

She had a bruise on the right side of her face and her bright green hair had been scorched short on the left side of her head, but she moved easily and with obvious training.

Cursing, Kakashi, sprang to a higher branch, sparing a quick glance around for the other nin his scouts had reported.

“Ah-ah-ah,” scolded Exine with malicious cheeriness. “A girl might think you don’t like her if you stop paying attention to her, handsome.” She leapt after him, a kunai in one hand.

Kakashi vaulted over her head, remembering her mentioning her ‘pollens,’ and the strange scent of orchids before he had passed out. He wasn’t sure of her range, but he’d have to do his best to stay out of it.

He blew a quick breath of fire at her and dug out another handful of senbon, wishing he had more weapons than just a pouch of needles. He’d lost the kunai Iruka had given him during the attempt to remove the helmet.

She effortlessly dodged the plume of flames, tsking. “Now, now, fight me as if you mean it.” She reached for a pouch at her waist.

Kakashi spun and dropped off the branch, flinging the senbon at her, hoping to distract her. He tossed few more just before he landed on a branch that bent dangerously under his weight.

She flung out a hand and senbon sprayed out from her fingers in a precise arc to deflect his harmlessly away.

Glad for the small stream running under the tree he was crouched in, Kakashi had enough time to call up a water jutsu and direct it at her.

Shrieking, Exine was thrown out of her tree to land with a splash in the water. She flung sodden green hair out of her eyes and glared at him, rising to her feet with sinuous grace. “Oh, so funny. You want to play?” she snarled, leaping up into the branches again. “Play with this!”

She flung something at him, and Kakashi dodged right round the trunk of a tree, holding his breath.

The packet hit the trunk with a wet splat and slowly slid down, leaving a trail of faintly yellowish muck.

She had a second to look incredulous before he was on her, a fist driving into her abdomen while he wrapped the fingers of his other hand around her throat.

Kakashi smiled grimly behind his mask. “Tiny mistake. Wet pollen doesn’t spread.”

Gasping in pain, she glanced down sideways at where one of his thrown senbon had snapped the strings on her pouch and allowed the contents to get soaked when he’d flung her into the stream.

Kakashi snapped her neck effortlessly. “Too bad it was your last.”

An explosion nearby made him drop her lifeless body and fling himself back toward where he’d last seen Iruka fighting Regolith.

There was a clearing ahead of him that he was sure hadn’t been there a moment ago, a space of raw, turned earth and shattered trees.

He ran straight into a kekkai, the barrier a faintly shimmering yellow in the sunlight. He rebounded back off of it and landed in a crouch on a jut of rock thrust out of a patch of broken ground, evidence of Regolith’s power.

Iruka stood on a stump, hands clenched into fists at his sides, trembling slightly with exhaustion. Blood was spilling from a gash over his eye and he was listing to one side, his leg leg bleeding around a shard of stone embedded in it.

Before him, Regolith was struggling in a chakra-wire trap, spitting obscenities.

Kakashi struck the barrier with a fist, testing its strength. It was sturdy enough to make his bandaged hand ache.

Iruka glanced up at him. His eyes were dark and weary and strangely calm. His lips quirked up in a sad, tired smile and he raised his fisted hands.

Kakashi saw what he held in his hands for the first time; stacks of inscribed explosive tags. Frantic, Kakashi attacked the barrier with renewed fury. Inside the small shield, that many explosive tags would be absolute suicide.

Iruka pursed his lips and whistled, a long ascending note that hurt Kakashi’s ears.

For a long moment, it seemed like nothing had happened. Iruka’s loose hair stirred in a rising breeze.

Regolith finally tore himself free of the trap and leered at Iruka, saturnine face alight with malicious intent. “Now you die, chuunin.”

And then the whirlwind descended, shrieking in fury, winds howling a demented cacophony in the space enclosed by the kekkai.

Iruka stood in the very center of the mad gale, unmoved. he offered Regolith a single, dreadfully calm smile — and then opened his hands, letting the explosive tags free in the howling wind.

The winds caught the tags up, spinning them around and around Iruka in tighter spirals.

Iruka laughed softly, the sound somehow still audible over the yowl of the storm. He spread his arms wide and the bits of paper fluttering in the wind glowed with his faint yellow chakra. With his hands he shoved outwards.

The winds obeyed his motion, engulfing the earth-nin in their shrieking rage. Those bits of paper slashed at him like a hundred tiny knives, opening tiny cuts on his hands and face. At first Regolith only looked startled and then angered.

The winds increased their spin, and the paper tags caught in their grip sped, becoming lethally sharp blades and flaying larger cuts.

Regolith flinched when one opened his cheek, missing his eye by a hair's-breadth. He frantically tried to summon slabs of earth to protect himself from the barrage.

Iruka smiled grimly and several of the explosive tags attached themselves to the rising slabs and then went off, reducing the earth fortification to rubble and leaving Regolith exposed to the rest of their brethren in the windstorm.

Bleeding and half-mad, Regolith flung a handful of kunai into the winds at Iruka. The wind deflected them neatly and they clattered to the ground. Regolith tried to shove his way bodily the the wall of wind and paper, only to be pushed back by the force of the gale.

“Iruka-sensei!” Kakashi called over the howling wind, desperate to get Iruka to stop. With his Sharingan bared, he could see Iruka’s chakra bleeding out into the storm. Iruka was dangerously close to burning himself out.

Iruka didn’t turn to look. All his attention was on the whirlwind and the man trapped within.

Despite the crazed look in his eyes and the blood dripping off of him, Regolith wasn’t about to go down without a fight. He hunkered down, putting his back against one of the low piles of rubble. Sheltering his hands in the curve of his body, he started forming hand-signs rapidly.

Kakashi recognized them with alarm. Enhancing his fist with chakra, Kakashi renewed his assault on the barrier, shouting a warning.

Iruka grinned a feral smile, all his attention still on Regolith and mouthed the words, “Too late.” He shoved the remainder of his chakra into the tags, causing them to plaster themselves over every exposed bit of Regolith and ignite. The whole area inside the kekkai flared white-hot in a brilliant explosion.

The ground heaved like a beast in pain, the shimmering kekkai popping in the way of a soap bubble. Kakshi stumbled forward, righted himself and rushed toward where he’d last seen Iruka, ignoring the thick smoke that made his throat catch and his eyes burn.

The earth had suffered a massive upheaval, nothing but tumbled rocks and splintered roots. The tree stump Iruka had been perched on was only so many splinters.

Kakashi found a hand; the wrist ending in shattered bone and bloody gore. The skin was too pale under the crimson wash of blood to have been Iruka’s, so Kakashi ignored it, searching for any evidence of the chuunin.

There! a scrap of dark blue uniform lead him to a tumbled pile of earth. Digging furiously, he uncovered a foot, thankfully still attached to the leg it belonged to. Kakashi pulled Iruka’s ominously still form from the dirt.

Iruka was too pale under the streaked mud and blood and Kakashi couldn’t see his chest rise of fall. Putting his ear to Iruka’s chest confirmed it; while his heart was still beating frantically, he wasn’t breathing!

Trying to keep calm, Kakashi fought to remember his long-ago first aid training. He tipped Iruka’s head back and, after making sure his airway was clear, Kakashi pinched Iruka’s nose shut, pulled his mask down and sealed his lips over Iruka’s mouth, forcing air into Iruka’s lungs.

“Breathe, dammit,” he chanted between breaths. “Breathe!”

For too long there was no response and Kakashi felt his own heart flutter in his chest.

Suddenly, Iruka heaved and coughed, drawing in a great, gasping breath.

Shakily, Kakashi turned Iruka on his side and rubbed his back while he heaved and choked. Finally, Iruka slumped, breathing normally, if a bit rapidly.

He blinked up at Kakashi and managed a raspy laugh. “Y’know. If you wanted to kiss me, you could’ve just asked.”

Kakashi chuckled in relief. “I’ll remember that.”

Iruka nodded. “You do that. Is the bastard dead?”

Kakashi nodded slowly. “He is, there are bits of him scattered everywhere.”

Iruka nodded solemnly. “Good. Don’t like killing, but he deserved it.” He blinked a little woozily, chakra exhaustion obviously catching up with him. “He killed my friends. Poor Mariko-chan had just found out she was pregnant before the mission. He tortured her before he killed her. I found her body.” Iruka shuddered, his eyes rolling back in his head. “Things he did to her...”

“Hey,” Kakashi slapped his cheek lightly. “Stay with me here. We need to get away from the battlefield. Think you can make it to you feet if I help?”

Iruka debated for a moment. “Probably. Might throw up on you, though.”

Kakashi helped Iruka sit up, steadying him. “Really, was my breath that bad?” he teased to keep Iruka talking.

Iruka snorted, struggling to rise. “No. It was a nice kiss. Coulda used more tongue, but...”

Kakashi laughed, supporting him, “I’ll have to do better next time.”

Iruka grinned up at him, a little loopily. “You better. I might even let you blindfold me, next time.”

Surprised, Kakashi blinked. “I think I’ve had enough of blindfolds, Iruka-sensei.”

“Call me Iruka,” Iruka parried. “Should drop the formality if were going to be doing this regularly.” He paused, “Kissing, I mean, not trying to stand after blowing up missing nins Besides, blindfolds can be all sorts of fun when used properly.”