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There's a tall mausoleum off to his left. It has a statue on the roof: either an angel, or some predatory bird. He's pretty close to the Uchiha section, so it could be either.

“You'll know it when you see it!” is what Mizuki'd told him... in a very chipper, and certainly innocent, tone of voice. Right. And he's in the market for a pyramid, too.

He takes a right off the concrete path, and his feet sink into the tall corpse-fed grass.

There is a sudden, loud, clattering noise. His heart jumps directly up into his throat. He swallows around the lump and keeps going. Sharp-edged weeds scratch at his calves. Iruka focuses on what he can see, or hear, or otherwise pick out of the blank-faced night:

It's warm out for October. The air is mostly still, but every so often the wind comes rattling through, over the fence and past the trees. There's a hint of water in the air that makes Iruka think it might rain soon – hopefully not while he's still outside, though.

And it is warm, so he didn't bother putting his jacket on this morning. (Hadn't found it, actually.) His pants are a bit too short, his T-shirt's print is faded and there's a hole in one elbow, and his shoes are more like thick rubber sandals.

And this was all fine out on the sidewalk, near the houses, where the wind wasn't so strong. Here, it's all wide-open space. The sky is only broken up by the occasional outline of a tree.

The leaves seem to shake in time with his breathing.

Some tiny beady-eyed birds were scratching around in the dirt near a new grave. Digging for worms, maybe.

He goes faster; still, he keeps an eye on the path, looking out for rocks and tree-roots and slippery mud.

It feels warmer when he's with his friends. They like his jokes, and sometimes they'll lend him money or arcade tokens, or share their lunch. He's noticed that he gets more – more laughs, more jeers, more leftovers – when he does tricks: when he tries to juggle, or tells a dirty joke, or stands on his hands for ten minutes. It's not hard, and he doesn't mind doing it. Iruka has never minded looking silly, not compared to going without dinner again because a bigger kid took it. He knows that the caretakers at the orphanage do care a little bit (mostly about their paychecks, but that's still not nothing) but there are so many parentless kids, and not enough places to put them all, never mind enough adults to keep an eye on every little thing that goes wrong.

There's an owl in that tree; its eyes are the only thing visible against the gray-or-brown feathers of its face.

It's silent.

And there are always a few bad eggs, the sort of people who might find a kid bleeding on the floor and laugh – and those are the obvious ones. The subtle ones are harder to spot, and less simple to avoid. He's learned not to ask for help unless he really needs it.

There are other people who need it more than he does, anyway. Like Anko, whose old guardian raised her to worship him, and then left her to die (and possibly other things that Iruka is not going to ask about) or old Kakashi, who wears a medical mask everywhere, and refuses to eat around people.

Again, they’re the obvious ones. The loud ones.

There are probably stray cats around here, too, somewhere. He knows there's a small gray-striped cat that likes to sit on the graveyard fence and sun itself in the daytime. Now, it's probably hiding from the cold, or hunting.

Iruka doesn't know why he'd been so scared earlier. The graveyard at night is creepy, sure – it's always creepy – but it isn't really any worse than the orphanage would be, at this hour.

Or a foster home, not that he hasn't been kicked out of nearly all of the local ones. It isn't his fault that so-called competent adults can't even see through a basic bucket-on-the-door prank. That's literally the oldest trick in the book!

And if he regrets a few of those kickings-out a bit more than others, well... it's just more spilled milk he'll never get a chance to clean up, then.

Iruka's foot hits a hidden tree-root, or something; and he says a rude word, and windmills his arms around like an idiot. He catches himself before he falls – he almost always does – but now the graveyard is even more creepy-silent, with all the racket he's been making.

The little birds have flown off somewhere. Everything is still, everything but the wind that makes Iruka blink grit out of his eyes. He pushes down the urge to rub at them – with the dirt on his hands from climbing the fence, and then wrestling with a very annoying hedge on the way down here, that would only make them sting worse.

Everything is still, and quiet, and still. Except for the wind, and way it shakes the trees. Iruka isn't sure if that bit of flailing around like a dumbass actually helped him warm up a bit, or if he's just more used to the cold now.

He keeps walking.

The grass is thicker here. He thinks he might be near the edge of the graveyard now, where it's almost all trees and war memorials. This is a shaded, private place during daylight hours, where people go to mourn their dead alone. Iruka's parents aren't buried here – their bodies were never recovered – but their names are up on a stone wall somewhere. What an honor.

Iruka kicks some pebbles out of his way. Then he kicks a bigger rock, half-digging it out of the ground with the edge of his sandal. There are bugs under it – worms, and other small crawling things. He could squish them, if he wanted to.

Iruka leaves the rock where it lies.

Finally, finally, he stops at a plain stone wall. There are no names on it, just a big clockwise spiral that spans from about his eye-level to nearly twice that high up. It takes up a third of the wall, at least. The paint is so bright, he can even tell it'd look red in the daylight.

There were offerings left at its base. Two plain ceramic bowls: one is filled most of the way up with rice – the birds had been at it, probably – and the other smells a bit like burnt herbs, or a funeral home. It could have hand incense in it, and then it burned away? That made sense.

Well, Iruka definitely isn't stealing grave-offerings (there were probably bugs in that rice, anyway) so, maybe it's some other wall he's supposed to go find? Not the war-memorial – because if anyone tells him to steal from there, he'll laugh in their face, and also possibly punch them somewhere painful – but some old mausoleum or something.

He shivers in his thin shirt. Maybe he can just hide here for a little while, away from the wind and his complaining stomach. He hasn't had dinner today, or breakfast, but he'd managed lunch: half a rice ball, a pear, and a bag of cheese-flavored chips. Chips keep forever.

He had to throw out the cauliflower, which was kind of a shame. It wasn't too bad fried – maybe with scrambled eggs, or some meat if he could manage it. (Ha, right.)

What is he doing, again?

Iruka groans and sank down onto the stone. Maybe he can just... just sit here, and rest, just for a little while. And then he could go find a “thing” to prove he'd gotten this far into the graveyard and back; and then he could go to the party with Mizuki, and Kotetsu and Izumo, and whoever else was coming. And there'd be free food, and an audience for his jokes, and he wouldn't get home until way after his latest foster-parents had gone the fuck to sleep.

He'd like that.

He'd also like to inherit a mansion from a mysterious rich uncle he hadn't known about, but there's dreaming and then there's dreaming. Iruka isn't a little kid anymore. He knows better.

The stone is cold, but the mossy bit he's sitting up against isn't too bad. Just damp.

Iruka sits there, like that, drifting. His eyelids don't really want to stay open all the way, but tough luck. He can't sleep here. It's not freeze-to-death cold, not even close, but the last time he slept outside this close to winter he spent two weeks choking on snot every night, and he's not going through that again.

Damn it, Iruka needs to get a jacket that fits. Maybe the clothing drive bin will have something? If he doesn't get there too late. He doesn't even care if it's pink and glittery – actually, glittery and pink would be perfect, he'd give people so many headaches just looking at it.

He chuckles.

Someone else laughs, too.

There is someone else here, in the graveyard, in the middle of the night.

Iruka's heart jumps up his throat, past the roof of his mouth, and straight into his brain is what it feels like.

Hurrgck.” He curls his hand into his shirt, over his chest, telling himself to start breathing.

The stranger is definitely laughing at him. “Holy crap, kid. The hell're you doin' here in the midnight hours, anyways?”

Their voice is low for a woman, high for a man; kind of raspy, too, like he-or-she smokes. Long hair and a round face also say woman, and so do the dark tunic-dress and tights. ...it's not like he's sticking around after his sleep-numb legs wake up, so whatever.

“It's nowhere near midnight yet,” Iruka says. And then, because his mouth has always been much much quicker to act than his sense of self-preservation (which should kick in and start yelling at him to run any second now) he keeps talking. “Who are you?”

Her response is nothing but silence and a broad, bright grin. Her teeth almost glow in the moonlight, and her hair is the same bright color as the spiral painted on the stone.

Iruka tries moving around. The grass-blades are wet, and he's sure there are going to be stains on his pants. The dirt that's wormed in through the holes in his sandals is sticky on his skin.

She points over his shoulder at that spiral, and then down.

He looks, and the second bowl is all right, but the one with the rice is half-tipped over. There's dirt in it. “So, what are ya doin' at my family's memorial?”

Iruka scrambles to his feet. Pins and needles, not good, but he's got some feeling. He can run, any second now. “Oh shit, shit, I am actually sorry about this-”

And he is, because spray-painting on the walls at school is one thing, but disturbing someone's family's grave is like – it's like picking a fight with a wall, except worse. Kicking a wall is only going to hurt himself. Fucking up a grave is hurting someone who can't even try to fight back. All it does is make everyone feel like dirt.

Her smile gets a little bit smaller, maybe, and she shakes her head at him. “Nah, kid. It's fine. You just picked a really lousy sleeping spot, s'not your fault.”

“It's out of the wind,” he says. He dares her to laugh at him.

She grabs his shoulder (oh, her hand is warm, and she's got a scary-strong grip) and shoves him away from the wall, almost gently. Then she drops two sticks of incense in the emptier bowl, takes out a little book of matches, and lights one.

Iruka looks away, his face gone hot. This isn't meant for him to see.

The moon is high in the sky, tiny, like the edge of a dropped dime. It probably is around midnight, actually.

When he looks back, there are two thin trails of herb-smelling smoke drifting up from the bowl. The one with the rice is still right where he'd – or she'd? – left it lying. It's still spilling handfuls of not-really-white-anymore rice all over the grass-spotted dirt.

Iruka crouches down and sets it back on its base. He packs a little bit of dirt around the bottom, so it won't tip over so easily again, and then he starts to pick bits of rice out of the leaf-litter.

A too-warm hand on his arm stops him (shocks him).

“Ya don't need to.”

“Well, I want to,” he says. And it's true, or close enough to true for a complete stranger.

No, he doesn't want to be crawling around in the dirt, picking up food that's not even fit to eat. But it's not about the food! It's about falling asleep on someone else's parents' grave, like an ass, and he can't just leave it all a mess.

(And it doesn't have anything to do with how he'd ran away from his parents' grave the second the service ended, and never gone back. It doesn't matter. That wasn't them. It was just a whole lot of dirt and rocks and worm-food, left rotting.)

So there's no point in cleaning up a grave, of course – but it's less stupid than making a bed he'll only make a mess of in the evening, so... Iruka shrugs a little at himself, and it turns into a shiver.

It's not like his hands can get dirtier from a little rice, anyway. He's going to be finding dirt under his nails for days. This was a terrible idea.

There's nothing in a grave but dirt and ashes and bones, and there's no point in messing with it.

He's wobbly-legged when he gets to his feet, so much that he has to put a hand on the stone so he doesn't fall on his ass. Iruka's not sure how he got so tired, but he thinks the cold and the missing-dinner thing might have something to do with it.

The strange lady laughs again, and doesn't offer to help. (She didn't yell or beat him up for messing up her family's tombstone, either, so he figures it's fair. This doesn't make it any less annoying, but… forget it.)

Iruka is standing in a graveyard, by a stranger's grave. In the middle of the night. This might have been was really a very stupid idea, but it wasn't like he could have backed out! Not and spend the next however-long-it-took to pull off a really complicated prank (in public, where everyone would see; otherwise, there just wasn't any point) getting chicken-noises from the kids he knows, the ones who know he chickened out. Backing out on a dare is... it just isn't done!

And now he's here.

And now the lady is messing up his hair. Why-?!

He shoves her away, or tries to. She's stronger than he is, and some of that is because she's an adult and much taller, but there's more muscle than fat in her arm and he can't budge her. “Get off!”

“'kay!” She lets go, and he stumbles. It's da- darn cold out.

“So, what are you doin' out here, anyway?”

“My friends dared me,” he says, quick and sharp. If she laughs, he'll punch her. She's a grown-up, so she can take it. “They're waiting at the entrance, and I have to bring something back.”

Her eyebrows go up, gray-red on almost-white. “Kid, there's nobody here now but you and me. And there's definitely nobody out by the gate. I checked.”

He blinks. “...they ditched me, didn't they.”

She smiles crookedly, halfway apologetic. “Yeah... probably.”

Iruka said some words he wasn't supposed to use around grown-ups. Whatever – she wasn't a social worker, or a foster-parent, or even a schoolteacher.

She bops him on the head.

“Ow!”

“Don't swear, or do it right. F-bombs are boring shit.” She's grinning, though; bright enough to outshine the sliver of moon he can see from here.

Iruka smiles back. He doesn't exactly try to – it just happens. “You're weird.”

You're weird, Mr. 'I'm Taking A Nap In A Graveyard'.” She pitches her voice up extra-high when she says this, into a silly little-girly falsetto. “Don't'cha know this place is haunted?”

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, right. Ghosts aren't real. All of this crap-”

He waves a hand around at the heavy sky, the wet grass, the shivering trees; the spiral-painted stone, and the path he can't quite see from here. “-is just to make people feel better about not saying goodbye when-.”

He stops talking.

She smiles at him, closed-lipped.

He looks away.

Then there's a hand fluffing up his hair again.

He yelps and pulls away. “Crazy weirdo!”

She laughs, brightly and – yeah, probably more than a little bit crazy. What sane person would be in a graveyard late at night, at this time of year?

“So, do you want me to point ya on your way outta here? 'Cause it'd be pretty stupid if you died of pneumonia or somethin' on a dare.”

...is she daring him to go with her?

He looks at her, trying to stay the right amount of skeptical. On the one hand, weirdo stranger. On the other hand, it's not like he can get more lost at this point. And they're already in a dangerous place – alone, in the dark, no witnesses...

Kids have vanished with less than this. Adults disappear for less than this.

“Sure,” he says. “Thanks.”

She grins, there-and-gone, and skips off. Yes, actually skips, and her feet make squishy-splashy noises when she hits mud.

He's alone in a cemetery, at night, with a crazy lady who thinks skipping around in a cemetery at night is a good idea. This is actually his life.

Iruka shakes his head and follows her.

They keep going, her forging ahead and him trying not to step in any too-deep mud (he fails) until Iruka starts to spot familiar landmarks at the edges of his vision. An oddly-shaped tree, a wood-and-iron bench, a mausoleum with a bird or an angel on it. Normal things.

...they're normal things to find in a creepy graveyard, anyway.

Stepping out onto the path feels a little bit like waking up twice. Like when he thinks he's been going through his day like normal, and then there's an alarm clock blaring in his ear, and he has to go to school – and he's done this today already!

And then he skips a class or two (if he can manage to sneak past Mr. Funeno and his loyal minions) because screw that.

“Hey. Get going, shorty. You should get indoors, 'cause it's just gonna get colder.” The lady pokes his shoulder. “Or d'ya not have anywhere to stay? 'Cause there used to be a temple nearby, and 'Koto-chan might let you stay in the shed if you do some chores or something tomorrow. It's still cold as balls, but you'll be dry and outta the wind.”

“I've got somewhere to go, so stop fussing,” he snaps. “You don't even know me!”

“Nah.” She looks up at the sky, at the half-hidden moon and complete lack of stars. They're in the city, so what else would she see? A satellite? A falling star, maybe. “But I know 'lonely' when I see it.”

There's so much crud in Iruka's shoes. He shakes some out. And there definitely is dirt and grass-stains on his clothes – and on his arms and legs, but that's easier to wash.

“And lonely makes people dumb. Dumb, dumb, an' dense as old rocks. 'Cause sometimes you'll do anything to make it stop, and some of those things are really freakin' dumb.”

Iruka starts walking. The leaf-litter in the gutter squishes up into his sandals, and he just knows he's going to get in trouble for tracking mud in. And then he'll have to clean it up, and he'll get yelled at for not scrubbing between the floorboards – so what's even the point?

“Hey, kid!”

He looks back. “What?”

“Careful about wanderin' around here at night, okay? Not everyone in this boneyard's as nice as the Bloody Red-Hot Habanero.”

“What the heck kind of name is that?” he asks, because Iruka will never learn to keep his big mouth shut.

“A spoooooky name.” She waves her hands in the air, like a ghost. “Boo.”

He rolls his eyes, and waves goodbye back. “Thanks for waking me up before I got pneumonia or something, old lady.”

The air goes very very still. Her hair does not.

...suddenly, that dumb nickname makes sense. The tiny bit of Iruka that isn't either frozen in terror, or being a smart-ass, directs his attention to the way out.

He's pretty sure he's imagining the fangs and glowy-red eyes, but – yeah, he runs like hell.

Iruka snaps out of that barely-explainable case of brain-killing terror at the cemetery's edge. She hadn't even moved, so why did he run?

Iruka squeezes out through the tiny gap between the fence and the hedge. Everyone knows it's there, but adults can't fit through that small a space, so no one ever bothers fixing it. That Habanero lady had been pretty small, actually – maybe she'd snuck in the same way?

Mizuki and the others are nowhere to be found (of course) but there's a note in his best friend's scratchy handwriting pushpinned to the entrance sign, right next to the hours of business.

Dear Dolphin-brain,

I can't believe you fell for that XD

There's no “thing” I just wanted to see if you'd do it.

But if your still alive, call Izumo or Yuugao OK?

“I knew it,” he grumbles. He's barely speaking above a whisper, now (and wouldn't it be just his luck to get caught at the very last second?) but that doesn't stop his voice from ringing out, loud like a fire alarm.

PS If you die I get your stuff ;)

-Mizuki

“...I am going to shortsheet your bed and put pond-slime in it every day for the next year, you flamboyant jerkface!” he swears.

He thinks he might be hearing some very strange laughter from somewhere not-far-enough-away. ...it's probably all in his head. Ghosts aren't really real; he knows better than that. He's not a little kid.

Even so, he takes off for where the party's supposed to be tonight. It's right next to the old Hatake residence, which is probably an actual haunted house.

Iruka doesn't cut across the dried-out weed-choked yard like he normally does. Better safe.

He's being ridiculous, and he knows he's being ridiculous. Still, even when the water-heavy wind cuts straight through his thin T-shirt, he feels oddly warm.