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In Too Deep

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Kakashi paused beneath the branches of a zelkova tree and listened carefully to the forest around him. He thought he'd heard a sound that didn't fit with the birdsong above and the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. Nothing stirred.

Maybe it had been his imagination. He knew he was jumpy, but who could blame him? His mission had gone bad, more so for his partner who even now was fighting for her life in the provincial hospital where Kakashi had left her. He'd also been injured, and his right arm was cradled to his chest in a sling, his chakra depleted to the point where he couldn't even use it to run. No right-minded shinobi would be travelling alone in these circumstances, but what choice did he have? The jounin he'd left in the hospital was beyond the help of the civilian doctors there. She needed a shinobi medic, and the only way to get her one was to make his way back to Konoha and fetch one. If he could make it in time.

The noise came again, a rustling out of sync with the light gusts of wind. Kakashi trusted his senses this time. Someone, or something, was tracking him. He wasn't sure what he'd prefer: an enemy or a wild animal. He wasn't in good enough shape to take on either right now. Whatever was coming for him, there was no avoiding it. So what was he going to do?

Carefully, he reached across with his good left arm into his right pocket and extracted a piece of paper. The noise came again, closer now, but Kakashi ignored it. If he gave any sign that he'd heard, he was dead. No shinobi would wait to attack once they realised they'd lost the element of surprise. Act calm, find a way out - that was the only plan he had. He unfolded the map one-handed and held it up into the light.

It would help if he used his compass, but no time for that. He had a good idea of how far into the forest he'd walked and which way he was pointing, and he glanced around the area, searching for one of the little crosses that marked his salvation. Please let there be one nearby. He was sure he'd seen one earlier...yes! Not too far away there was a large clearing in the trees, marked on the map as a lake, and in the centre was a small island. The cross was on that tiny spit of land.

Kakashi made some mental calculations for distance and direction, and then folded the map away into his pocket. The cross marked a Konoha shelter, set up for shinobi in need. The shelters were in various states of repair, basic structures hidden away in strategic locations in the wilderness of the Land of Fire, stocked with supplies and enforced with defences, although their infrequent maintenance meant that it wasn't unheard of to stumble on a shelter that had run out of food or medical supplies. It was a problem the hokage had been promising to remedy for years, but as far as Kakashi knew, nothing had yet been done about it. There was always some other pressing problem that needed more money or resources or time. Kakashi would just have to hope that this was one of the good ones, because he was going to have to use chakra to reach it and God knew what state he'd be in by the time he got there.

If his shinobi follower - and he was increasingly convinced that his pursuer was human - caught him before then, he'd never make his escape. The only thing for it was to run hell for leather and hope that his chakra didn't give out before he made it. Kakashi took another moment to stand perfectly still and go over his mental map once again. Then he ran.

Immediately, his pursuers came after him, and now they weren't trying to hide themselves, Kakashi sensed not one but three chakra signatures hot on his tail. Fucking hell. He must have racked up some seriously bad karma to have to deal with this shit. His legs burnt as he channelled chakra into the muscles, forcing his body to speeds that it shouldn't be capable of with this little juice to power it. Just a little bit further, he told himself. Just another couple of miles. You can do this. You've worked with less and survived.

Ahead, the trees thinned out, and he smelt the water before he saw it. Then he was ankle deep before he managed to sort out his chakra, and his legs gave another protest as he sprinted across the surface of the lake, water spraying up around him. The lake was relatively small but there was a good distance between the shore and the island, and Kakashi gritted his teeth and tried not to think about what would happen if he didn't make it. Behind him, there was a beat of silence, and then the slap of three pairs of feet giving chase.

There was a small wooden shack on the island, and Kakashi focused on it, driving out every distraction. There'd be some kind of barrier inside. There had to be, and it had to work because if he made it to the island he wouldn't have enough chakra to leave again. Not without swimming.

The door to the shack opened, and somebody stepped out onto the grass. Kakashi's heart lightened with hope, even as his feet started sinking lower into the water with every step. The figure raised a hand to block out the sun, taking in the four approaching shinobi, and then he stepped forwards far too calmly and reached a hand into his pocket.

Kakashi slammed into something and fell hard, closing his eyes reflexively, expecting the cold rush of water. But it never came. He was lying on something curved and hard that bobbed on the surface of the lake. He scrambled into a crouch, and found himself trapped inside a barrier, shaped like a ball and rocking slightly from side to side as Kakashi shifted his weight. The three enemy shinobi had stopped, uncertain. They hadn't done this. Kakashi jerked his head around to stare at the man on the island. Whose side was he on? Had a missing nin been hiding out in the shelter?

The man was still watching the scene, considering. Then he seemed to shrug and he made a hand sign. Kakashi heard a shout, and turned just in time to see his three pursuers vanish under the water, as if something had yanked them down by the ankles. He waited, tense, but the ripples faded and they didn't reappear.

A large, unnatural wave formed against the barrier, pushing him steadily towards the shore. A water jutsu. Kakashi still wasn't sure if he'd been saved or captured until he floated close enough to the shore to recognise the man on the island. Umino Iruka, one of Konoha's stay-at-home chuunin. One of the last people Kakashi would have expected to find out here in the middle of nowhere, seemingly alone.

The wave washed him up onto land, and Iruka touched the seal poking out of his pocket again. The barrier vanished, and Kakashi found himself sitting on the dirt.

"Careful of the water," Iruka said as a greeting.

"Why, what did you -" Kakashi felt a small wave lap at his foot and tried to tug his leg up but couldn't. He glanced down, and found his shoe resting in no more than two inches of water. There was nothing unusual about it, not to the naked eye, but when he tried again to raise his leg, it felt as though his foot had been stitched to the ground. He couldn't move it no matter how hard he pulled.

"Sorry about that," Iruka said. He looked out over the lake. "By the way, did you want those three dead or alive?"

"Wha-? Dead! Definitely dead."

"I'll leave them down there then, but you'll have to sit still for a few minutes while they drown."

Iruka sat down beside him, crossing his legs calmly under him. "Are there any more following?"

"Not that I saw. Look, what exactly - what did you do?"

"It's a new trap I wanted to test out," Iruka said. "You have perfect timing, I was hoping for some test subjects."

"Test subjects for what?"

"It's called spiderweb chakra," Iruka said. "It's a seal my teacher came up with back in the day. When you activate the seal, it creates a layer of chakra that sticks to people, like its namesake. It'll stick to every chakra signature except the person who used the seal." He reached forward and flicked a hand through the water, demonstrating. "My teacher always used it on solid surfaces, though. Handy for sticking an enemy's feet to the floor. But I wondered what would happen if you used it in water."

Kakashi looked out at the lake. The water shimmered in the midday sun.

"It sucks you under," he said.

"All the way to the bottom," Iruka agreed. "Which is why I had to catch you in a barrier first. The hokage would probably scold me if I accidentally killed a superior." His face brightened. "Although I suppose I could have blamed it on those guys who were chasing you and no one would have been any the wiser."

That was a little too much enthusiasm for Kakashi’s taste. He decided to turn the conversation away from how to get away with his murder.

"I didn't know you were good at seals," he said.

Iruka snorted as though Kakashi had said something funny. "I'm not just good at seals, Kakashi-san. I'm one of the best."

Kakashi's eyebrows shot up, but Iruka met his gaze steadily. Confidently. And shit if that wasn't attractive.

"Clearly I haven't paid you enough attention," he said.

"Jounin rarely do."

Iruka looked out at the lake again and checked his watch.

"I think that's long enough," he said, and made a hand sign. Kakashi's leg was suddenly free, and he hastily drew it up before the water could turn into superglue again. Iruka snickered.

Now that the excitement of the chase was over, Kakashi's body reminded him that his chakra reserves were critically low. He wasn't sure he could even stand. His legs were on fire and his feet were numb. There was no way he would have made it to the island if Iruka hadn’t been here.

"Thanks for saving my life," he said, and then promptly fainted.

When Kakashi next drifted into consciousness, he found himself tucked into a narrow bed. The mattress was lumpy beneath him and there was a smell of mildew, but he wasn't dead so he couldn't complain. Kakashi lay still, feeling his body, noting that he didn't hurt as much but his muscles ached. His broken arm felt oddly painless, and Kakashi wondered if this was a bad sign. Carefully, he sat up.

His arm was still in its sling, but there was a seal stuck above his elbow that hadn't been there before. He didn't recognise the symbols inked on the paper but decided not to touch it. The room around him was small and devoid of furniture beyond two single beds that had been crammed inside with barely three feet between them. Kakashi swung his legs onto the floor and stood cautiously, in case they weren't strong enough to hold him. The ache increased, but he didn't immediately topple over, so he decided it was safe to walk.

The shelter was only a single storey, and in fact, when Kakashi opened the door, he discovered that the whole building was made up of two rooms. The bedroom at the back of the shack, and a larger room that the front door opened into. There was a very basic kitchen along one wall, consisting of three cupboards, a narrow counter, and a single gas burner. No sink. The rest of the room was lined with shelves, on which sat old cardboard boxes labelled 'Non perishables', 'Weapons', 'First aid' and 'Seals'. There was a heap of second-hand clothes, some bloodstained or ripped, others more or less wearable, a knife sharpener covered in dust, and a few tatty paperback novels and a deck of cards.

There were two wooden chairs, but Iruka was sitting on the bare floorboards beside a small unlit wood stove, and he glanced up from the scroll he was writing in as Kakashi lingered in the doorway.

“How are you feeling?” he asked,

“Better than the last time I was conscious.” Kakashi tapped the seal on his arm. “What’s this?”

“A painkiller.”

Kakashi inspected the seal again. He’d had drugs that were less effective.

“Why have I never heard of this before?”

“Because officially it doesn’t exist,” Iruka said. “That’s a prototype. I’m still testing them but they seem to work.”

“You invented this?”

“Uh huh.” Iruka looked him over critically and didn’t seem too horrified by what he saw. “I last topped it up with chakra a few hours ago, so let me know if it starts wearing off and I’ll give you some more.”

Kakashi frowned, reminded suddenly of the urgency of his mission.

"How long have I been sleeping for?"

"About twenty-four hours."

"Shit." Kakashi ran a hand through his hair. "I need to get back to Konoha. My teammate needs a medic, badly. I left her in a civvie hospital."

"Why didn't you say so before you passed out?" Iruka asked. "I'll go. You stay here and rest up. I was about done with this place anyway." He blew on the ink, waiting for it to dry.

"What are you even doing here?" Kakashi asked. "I thought you didn't go on missions. Don't you have about three jobs?"

"School's out for the summer," Iruka said, with a look of blissful relief. "So I volunteered for maintenance duty. Replenishing supplies in the shelters, improving the traps, etcetera."

"All alone?"

"I can take care of myself."

"Well I know that now," Kakashi said, and Iruka rewarded him with a proud little smile. "But it must be lonely."

"If you're volunteering to keep me company, you're welcome to," Iruka said, and was Kakashi imagining it or had his smile turned flirtatious? "After I get back from fetching your medic. You're not going anywhere soon anyway. You'll be here when I get back."

"You sound very certain."

"Don't make me turn the lake into a death trap again on my way out."

"That's the second time you've threatened to drown me since I got here."

"Is it?" Iruka didn't look abashed in the slightest. "I'm not often in this position over a jounin. The power may have gone to my head."

"It suits you."

Iruka laughed and rolled up his scroll, then got smoothly to his feet.

"There's food in the cupboards," he said. "And I'll show you how to set the wards before I go. You can look after yourself for a couple of days, right?"

“Probably. It might be touch and go, especially if the ghosts of those drowned shinobi rise up to haunt me.”

“Don’t worry,” Iruka said, and Kakashi was really starting to like that cocky smile. “I’ll bring all my ghost-sealing barriers with me when I come back. Try and last that long without me.”

When he finally left a short while later, Kakashi watched him go. The shelter was a poor place to recover alone for two days, but even if he felt like he could make it back over the water he wouldn’t. Despite everything that had gone wrong on this mission, he couldn’t say he minded where he’d ended up.

Maybe his karma hadn’t been so bad after all.