Iruka was self-aware enough to realize how whiny and petulant he'd sound if he actually voiced that thought aloud, but he couldn't help himself. “Why me?”
Tsunade gave him a look that spoke volumes, but answered his question anyway. “You are one of the best infiltrators in Konoha, Iruka-sensei. This mission may very well require that level of finesse.”
“But. . . I. . .” Iruka caught the look on his Hokage's face and swallowed down any additional protests. His hand tightened around the scroll in his hands until his knuckles stood out a stark white against his olive skin.
Tsunade must have picked up on the tension radiating from him because she graced him with a small smile. “War breeds chaos, sensei, and there are always people willing to take advantage of that fact. Stopping this smuggling ring and their black market compatriots is a top priority right now. Getting trade between countries back to normal is vital to restoring the economies of every nation and village, and we can't do that until those underground activities are stopped.” She sighed loudly. “I know you understand all of that, and I'm sorry that your involvement on this mission is, well -”
“Ridiculous?” Iruka asked, finding his voice and just the right word. “Godaime-sama,” he began but Tsunade raised a hand and cut him off.
“Iruka, I wouldn't ask this of you if it wasn't necessary. The kunoichi that are available are either too old or too young to make it convincing. You're of similar age, and skilled enough to maintain a transformation over an extended period of time.” She looked the young man over. “Hell, you might just be able to effect a transformation without any kind of jutsu! With your hair down and the right clothes. . .”
Iruka felt a blush climbing his cheeks, but didn't otherwise react. It was hardly the first time that someone had made such a comment, and he knew it wouldn't be the last. And while he could always cut off his long hair he couldn't do anything about the full lips and the large, heart-melting eyes. Damn them.
But really! A mission in which he had to act the part of the mistress? And not just anyone's mistress, but Hatake Kakashi's?
Bloody fucking hell.
“Good morning, Iruka-sensei.”
Iruka swallowed hard against an instinctive, snappish response. There had always been something about Kakashi that more-or-less set his teeth on edge, but now wasn't the time to show it. So he contented himself with a polite “Good morning, taichou.” before leaning against the gate to await the arrival of the rest of the team and surreptitiously study his mission commander.
He had been surprised when Kakashi had been named one of the divisional commanders in the new Shinobi Alliance. Not because he doubted the jounin's abilities, more because he doubted the man's people skills. Despite decades as a jounin in command of squads on missions (including one they had been on together when Iruka was just eighteen) Kakashi remained, essentially, a loner; content perched in a tree with a book or rambling the countryside around the village with his ninken. The only person Iruka had ever seen him regularly interact with was Maito Gai, and that usually involved loud exclamations on the part of the latter and bored responses from the former.
But Kakashi had more than proved exactly what sort of shinobi, leader, and man he was during the war. And as annoying as Iruka continued to find the older man's lackadaisical attitude he had to admit to being favorably impressed by what he had heard. And maybe – just maybe – this mission wouldn't turn out as bad as he originally thought. Being cast in the role of woman/mistress still irked him, true, but he had dealt with worse in his life.
The sound of sandals scuffing the cobbles caught his attention, and he snapped out of his somewhat gloomy thoughts. Having read the mission scroll he had expected the presence of Shiranui Genma, who was to be Kakashi's second-in-command. But the presence of his friends Izumo and Kotetsu was a total surprise, but one surpassed by Sakura's arrival. Almost unbidden his eyes jumped to Kakashi, questioning.
The jounin pushed away from the wall at his back and stepped forward, waiting while the others gathered around him. He calmly laid out what their mission objective was, emphasizing the importance of what they were doing in terms of the post-war recovery. When he got into more specific details about how they would accomplish their goals Iruka felt a crawling sensation on his spine as four pairs of eyes turned to him. When Kakashi finished the explanation Genma, Kotetsu and Izumo exchanged telling glances while Sakura kept her eyes down and face averted. It didn't hide her blush, though.
Genma was, predictably, the first to comment. “So, let me make sure I've got this straight,” he said, a hint of laughter in his voice. “You, Kakashi, are posing as a wealthy merchant. Kotetsu, Izumo and I are your bodyguards/muscle/hired thugs. And Iruka is. . .” His voice trailed away and a wide grin spread on his face.
Kakashi scowled. “What part of my explanation was unclear, Genma-kun?” he asked, deliberately using the childish form of address. Genma was not in the least discomfited, either by the scowl or the underlying attitude of his commander. If anything his grin expanded, and he even winked at Iruka, who took a step forward to cut the jokes and innuendo off before they could even get started.
“Yes, my role in this mission is as Kakashi's mistress, all right? I was assigned to this squad mainly because I am one of the best infiltration specialists in this village, as you damned well know.” That last was said with a penetrating glare for Genma, who finally looked slightly cowed. “And given the importance of our objective I think it might be best if we held off on the stupid and juvenile jokes until it's all over.” He inhaled when done speaking to get the anger under control, then turned to Kakashi. “Is there more to the briefing, Hatake-taichou?” he asked, making sure to keep his voice and manner as formal and proper as could be.
Kakashi looked slightly taken aback, either by Iruka's vehemence in lecturing Genma or by his sudden switch back to calm and composed, but he simply nodded. “There is more to the briefing, but we have two days travel to get to the onsen that we believe the smugglers are using as a headquarters and where they'll be entertaining a group of merchants who's cooperation they're seeking. So let's get moving.” He shot Genma another quelling glance. “We'll go over things in more detail when we stop for the night,” he concluded before setting off at a brisk run.
Iruka sighed. His two best friends, a gossip hound, a former student, and the most annoying jounin imaginable, all stuck in the inevitably close-quarters of an onsen, trying to take down a gang of smugglers and black marketeers. This mission just kept getting better all the time.
They made excellent time on the second day, so much so that Kakashi called a halt earlier than anyone expected. They were just over an hour's walk away from the onsen, and they needed time to change clothes and get into their roles. Iruka especially, since his transformation would be the most involved and intricate. Sakura pulled a handful of scrolls out of her pack and released the seals; all of the clothes and supplies needed for their masquerades puffed into being and they parted ways to get changed in a modicum of privacy.
All except Iruka and Sakura. He knew he would need the kunoichi's help with the kimono and makeup he was expected to wear. She changed her own clothes quickly and set to her task as Iruka's attendant, the role that she would serve during the entire mission. He was thankful that she didn't crack any jokes about the situation as she worked, smoothing the silk fabric and adjusting the lay to minimize the breadth of his shoulders. She used a special, chakra-infused cream of her own invention to conceal his scar, then passed the jar to him so he could cover the One Hundred Seals mark on her forehead.
“You know, Iruka-sensei, I'm so pleased to be on this mission,” she said, using a thumb to smudge the kohl at the corner of his eye. “We've never worked together before, and I'm honored to have the opportunity.”
Iruka smiled. “I'm honored as well, Sakura-chan,” he replied. “And pleased to get to know the person you've grown up to be.”
Sakura blushed and took a step back, eyeing her handiwork. With a satisfied nod she put the eye makeup away and started on his lips, resolutely ignoring his twitching at the ticklish sensation of the brush. He was just pulling the tie out and shaking his head to get his hair to fall when he felt another person come up behind him.
“Well, well, sensei, this is a surprise.”
Sakura frowned as she worked a gel into Iruka's hair that would accentuate the slight waviness. “Don't start, Genma-san,” she all but growled. “Remember, I can punch you hard enough that you and the ground will become one.”
“And whatever's left over I'll finish off,” Kakashi said in the silence that fell.
Iruka's shoulders tensed but he obstinately kept his eyes on Sakura's. He honestly did not want to look at Kakashi, not after what had happened the previous evening. . .
The argument was a good two hours old and showed no signs of stopping. Iruka pinched the bridge of his nose, resolutely doing his best to ignore the headache that was growing behind his eyes. He knew Genma well enough to understand that the tokujo was being contrary simply for the sake of being contrary, but why Izumo and Kotetsu kept at it was beyond him. He would have expected that the pair were both too scared of Kakashi to keep it up for very long. And other than one brief sound halfway between a grunt and a snort of amusement Sakura had kept out of the whole mess and appeared to be asleep.
But finally, it seemed, Kakashi had reached a breaking point. With a low growl he rose to his feet and stalked away from the camp, mumbling something about fetching more water and firewood. As soon as he thought their captain was out of earshot Iruka turned to Kotetsu and Izumo.
“What the hell is the matter with you two?” he hissed. “What does it really matter if he dyes his hair for this mission or not? We're dealing with merchants and smugglers, not shinobi that have memorized a Bingo Book and are likely to recognize Kakashi-san because of his hair!” Genma opened his mouth to say something but Iruka cut him off with a slashing motion of his hand. “I don't want to hear a word out of you,” he said. “You've been arguing simply to be an ass.” He was breathing hard by the time he was done speaking.
Izumo wisely kept his mouth closed, but Kotetsu was apparently feeling defensive. “Better safe than sorry, don't you think? If he dyes his hair it'll make it that much harder for anyone to recognize him.”
Iruka shook his head. “You really don't get it, do you?” he asked. “Anyone that might recognize him is going to be looking for Sharingan no Kakashi, you idiot, not a Kakashi with no Sharingan!”
“Maa, sensei, don't fault him. Undercover missions are always stressful, even at the best of times. Some people just can't handle the pressure.” The lazy drawl of that voice was unmistakable, even before Kakashi stepped into the circle of firelight.
The sight of him in the flickering light was almost Iruka's undoing. Eyes wide, mouth gaping, he found it difficult to even think of a response.
And all because Kakashi had removed his mask. It was just his dumb luck that the lazy bastard was as good-looking as he was annoying.
And now it was time to start the masquerade. The previous evening Iruka had been convinced that his only saving grace had been the darkness hiding the heat in his cheeks, although something in her glance let him know that Sakura had noticed something amiss. Even as he watched her eyes flickered between the two of them and her face flushed slightly. With a sigh Iruka stepped back away from her, gave his hair a decidedly feminine toss, and turned to face Kakashi.
Who looked beyond amazing in the formal, richly embroidered clothes that had been chosen for him. Everything was in a variety of earth tones, from the almost dun color of his hakama trousers to the glittering bronze haori that brought an unmistakable warmth to his pale complexion. All of it a stunning contrast – and complement to – the rich ivory and cream that Iruka wore. Someone had clearly given the garments substantial thought, making them a powerful, visual statement of the relationship they were expected to portray.
Iruka wholeheartedly blamed Shizune.
“Okay, I give,” Genma said, his voice cutting through Iruka's thoughts. “No need to dye that hair,” he concluded with a grin. Izumo and Kotetsu both numbly nodded their agreement.
Kakashi simply grunted, his mouth visible as it twisted in a wry smile. No Sharingan and no mask were more than enough of a disguise; the clothes were simply gilding the lily. Then his gaze turned more fully on Iruka, and his eyes widened. His mouth opened but he couldn't seem to get words to come out.
Genma, of course, had no such problem. He stepped closer and knocked his shoulder against Kakashi's. “She's something, isn't she?” he commented, casting an unmistakable leer Iruka's way.
Iruka shot the tokujo his best teacher's glare and got a thoroughly unrepentant grin in return.
Their first night at the onsen was uneventful, if one didn't count Kotetsu grumbling about getting stuck with surveillance duties. Exhaustion from the two days of almost constant travel and the on-going mental tension of being undercover allowed Iruka to sleep heavily, more so than he was accustomed to doing on a mission. Sakura's presence in the room also seemed to have a calming effect; the steady rhythm of another's breathing was almost hypnotic.
In keeping with his role as the pampered mistress of a wealthy merchant Iruka didn't stir from his room until nearly two o'clock in the afternoon. Sakura had spent most of the morning with him, fetching breakfast and then sitting on the bed as they ate together. Iruka had not lied when he had told the young woman that he appreciated the opportunity to get to know her better as an adult, and after a morning spent in her company he didn't regret it one bit.
Sakura had a rather dry sense of humor that appealed to her former teacher, coupled with the same capacity for laughing at herself that characterized her mentor, Tsunade. She gave him a comprehensive update on how both Naruto and Sasuke were healing after their fight, for which he was grateful. Then she returned the breakfast dishes to the kitchen and stayed there, using that time to talk to other servants and gain information.
She returned a little over two hours later and started laying out his clothes for the day. “I saw Kakashi-sensei in the corridor,” she said. “There's a reception of sorts for the visiting merchants and their. . . companions and he wants you with him.”
Iruka smiled at the way she said 'companions'. “Don't any of these visitors have wives?” he asked as he rose from the chaise he had been half-sitting, half-lounging on.
Sakura grinned. “The woman does.”
Iruka sputtered a laugh, Sakura quickly joining in. “I have a feeling this is going to be more enjoyable than I originally thought,” was his only comment.
Sakura was just putting the finishing touches on his hair when Kakashi knocked at the door. Just like the day before he looked absolutely magnificent, this time in brilliant sapphire blue accented with varying shades of grey and silver. And again Iruka's clothing was complementary; a soft, buttery yellow with embroidery in the same blue around the neck and hem and a silver kanzashi comb in his hair.
Kakashi smiled when Iruka stepped closer to him. “We make quite the pair, don't we, sensei?”
“That is the plan, isn't it?”
The reception was being held in one of the onsen's small banquet halls, and Genma and Izumo accompanied them. Kotetsu, being on overnight surveillance, was still asleep, and Sakura stayed behind to make sure he woke up and had a decent meal. When they got to the hall Kakashi stopped just outside the closed doors and held an arm out to Iruka, who took it with what he hoped was a demure smile.
Iruka took a deep breath, making sure to pitch his voice higher. “As I'll ever be.”
Just over an hour later he was seriously regretting any positive thoughts he had entertained about this thrice-cursed mission. After being presented by Kakashi to the other merchants he was relegated to conversation with the “companions”, each one more brainless and insipid than the last. If it wasn't for Genma's presence at his back, occasionally making pointed comments in the softest of whispers, he would never have survived.
When he was finally able to grab a moment for himself Genma approached with a cup of sake in his hand which Iruka downed in one gulp, not caring that the action wasn't very ladylike. The burn of the alcohol felt wonderful in his throat and he sighed heavily before handing the cup back to his “bodyguard”.
“I don't suppose you could get me another?”
“Probably not a good idea,” Genma replied, his eyes continuously moving about the room. A tiny smile quirked one corner of his mouth. “When this mission is over I promise you a night out so you can get roaring, falling-down drunk. Fair enough?”
“Deal,” Iruka replied with a small smile of his own. “I've been cooped up in my room nearly all day,” he went on, “and have no idea what we've learned, if anything.”
“You see that fat, exceptionally ugly man at our ten o'clock?” Genma asked. When Iruka nodded the tokujo continued. “We suspected that he was the brains behind this entire operation, but turns out he's about as dumb as a stump.”
Iruka bit his lip to keep from laughing. “So where does that leave us?”
“No where, for the moment. Unless our captain knows something he isn't sharing.”
Iruka felt his gaze almost involuntarily jump to Kakashi, and any hope that Genma didn't notice evaporated as soon as the tokujo chuckled low in his throat, “He's impressive, isn't he? I mean he always was, as a shinobi, but now. . .” The other man whistled. “That's one hell of a man.”
The blush rose fast and intense until Iruka could feel the tips of his ears burning. “You're spoken for, are you not?” he asked, arching an eyebrow in an effort to look disinterested.
Genma laughed and moved closer, ducking his head so his lips brushed against the chuunin's ear. “Spoken for, not dead, sensei,” he whispered, his soft voice rich with humor. “And as you are neither dead nor spoken for maybe you just need a push in the right direction.”
Iruka's blush switched from embarrassed to angry in the blink of an eye. “Don't you dare!” he hissed, pinning Genma in place with a glare. “This is a mission, not one of your idiotic matchmaking projects!”
“A mission in which you and Kakashi will be needing to spend time in Very. Close. Quarters.” He laughed slightly when Iruka's face paled. “No need to worry, sensei. If the looks he's been casting your way since this reception started are anything to go by you just might be luckier than you thought.”
The reception dragged on for another mind-numbing two hours, then was followed by a lavish dinner attended by only two other pairs besides Iruka and Kakashi. The food was excellent, but Iruka managed to avoid the plum wine that was served. He observed that Kakashi was a master at appearing to consume more alcohol than he actually did, and made a mental note to ask the older man how he did it. Given the propensities of some of his friend Iruka reasoned it would be a valuable skill to acquire.
The seating arrangement at the table had placed him directly across from Kakashi, so Iruka was able to entertain himself to a degree by watching Izumo, who stood against the wall behind their captain. His fellow chuunin's facial expressions ranged from impossibly bored to tightly pinched in an effort to suppress laughter. Iruka guessed that the latter was due to something that Genma, in position behind his back, was doing. Probably making rude and suggestive comments in field sign language, if the way Izumo kept glancing from Kakashi to Iruka was anything to judge by.
But then he suddenly saw Izumo stiffen, his entire posture and demeanor changing in a split second. His eyes focused sharply on a point somewhere to Iruka's right. Then he brushed one of his hands across the front of his haori before taking a moment to study his fingernails. It was an unmistakable piece of shinobi shorthand: being watched. Genma must have repeated the message for Kakashi, because the jounin gave an infinitesimal nod and shifted his gaze to the same point.
Iruka knew who was sitting to his right; the merchant that Genma had described as “dumb as a stump”. The one that they had decided couldn't be the brains of the entire smuggling operation. But. . . Iruka's eyes leaped to Kakashi, finding the jounin's gaze intent on his face. Kakashi raised one hand to his face, two fingers in a V, and tapped his chin twice with his index finger. Bodyguard.
The rest of the meal passed in an unpleasant haze. Iruka was uncomfortably aware that the bodyguard that was watching them was behind him, and he couldn't combat the prickling sensation on his neck. He could hear cloth rustling every time Genma shifted his stance slightly, and hear the tokujo's occasional frustrated mutterings.
So it was with an immense amount of relief that he watched as Kakashi stood, made their excuses and farewells, and accepted a certain amount of lewd ribbing before helping Iruka rise from his chair. With the chuunin's hand held firmly in his Kakashi made a graceful exit from the dining room, Izumo and Genma not far behind. As soon as the door closed behind him Iruka felt his breath coming easier, and he relaxed enough to lean against Kakashi as they made their way to the suite that their group was occupying.
Sakura and Kotetsu were seated at the low table in the main room, the remnants of a meal spread out. Sakura was laughing at some comment the other chuunin had made, but her face was flushed pink with something besides amusement. The empty sake cup at her elbow was a dead giveaway. The pair of them sobered quickly, though, when they saw the faces of their teammates.
Kakashi nodded to Genma and Izumo, who immediately began a chakra sweep of the entire suite, looking for any listening devices or hidden cameras. He took Kotetsu into the bathroom and the sound of water running was immediately heard. Presumably whatever orders the team captain was giving were drowned out by that. When Kotetsu emerged from the bath he acknowledged Iruka with a quick salute before slipping out the window, all shadows and stealth.
Sakura took hold of one of Iruka's arms and directed him to the largest of the three bedrooms where they had slept the previous night. “What happened to set all of you so on edge?” she asked as she worked to divest her former teacher of his elaborate garments.
Iruka gave her a brief summary of what had transpired at dinner, watching understanding and speculation chase across her face. “That thug,” she said in a voice just barely above a whisper. “No one knows his name, but in the kitchen they call him Osuushi. The last time he was here with his boss they said he raped one of the chambermaids.” She looked frightened as she said it, but resolute. “And you said he's the bodyguard of the man originally believed to be the one in charge?”
Iruka nodded. “That's what Genma told me, at any rate. But apparently that particular merchant is, and I quote 'dumb as a stump', so. . .”
“It makes a nice front though, doesn't it?” Kakashi's soft voice intruded, making both Iruka and Sakura start. “Wealthy, influential merchant visible on the surface, while his hired hand does all the plotting and scheming behind the scenes?” He nodded back toward the main room. “Izumo and Genma didn't find anything, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.” His words were so quiet that a listening device would have trouble picking them up, but Sakura and Iruka had no trouble hearing him. “That means that we start fully playing our parts, effective now. Sakura, you'll sleep in the room I used last night; Genma and Izumo will rotate watches to keep an eye on you.”
“And what about me?” Iruka asked after Sakura had gathered her things together and left the room. He had to bite down on the urge to laugh nervously when Kakashi moved closer, almost like he was stalking the younger man. He heard the call of a whippoorwill from outside the window and then Kakashi was right beside him, arms wrapping tight around him and lips gliding across his jaw to his ear.
“We have company outside,” he whispered. “I ordered Kotetsu to check around, but not interfere. That whippoorwill means there's only one of them.”
Iruka fought to hide the shudder that raced through his body as Kakashi's breath brushed across the sensitive skin behind his ear. “So who keeps an eye on me?” he asked again, fisting his hands in the fabric of the jounin's haori where it covered his chest.
“Oh, sensei, you get the best protection there is.” And then Kakashi's lips were on his.
He knew that the jounin was just acting a part, but Iruka was hard-pressed to tell that from the feel of that kiss. The lips on his were surprisingly soft, which he attributed to the mask that Kakashi habitually wore. And then those lips were moving; sliding across his and nibbling a little at the corner of his mouth.
Iruka didn't have to play-act the sigh or the melting into Kakashi's embrace. If anyone had told him just a week ago that he would react like this to a kiss from Konoha's most exasperating jounin he would have laughed the idea off. He had been attracted to Kakashi for years, that was true, but that attraction had always been blunted by the need for secrecy that was inherent in the older man's personality as well as the general asshole-ishness that Kakashi brought into their every interaction.
But now there was no secrecy, no mask, and no asshole-ishness, just warm lips on his and a silky tongue pressing delicately forward, asking for entrance. With a soft moan Iruka opened his mouth. And in that brief moment of surrender he forgot everything. There was no mission, no smugglers, no black market merchants making obscene profits at the expense of ordinary people. There was no Konoha, no Land of Fire. No shinobi alliance to support and uphold. There was only this moment and this man.
Until Kakashi broke the kiss, and the spell. “Are you up for putting on a show for our watcher, sensei?”
And just as if he had been doused with a bucket of ice water the sensual haze suddenly disappeared. But Iruka was still a shinobi, still a professional, and he wouldn't falter in his duty.
No matter how uncomfortable it might be.