"Wait, Pakkun!" Raidou shouted as he caught up to the fleeing dog, "We're coming. You're not gonna help him all by yourself." Insubordinate mutt, he added under his breath.
Pakkun slowed up a bit and let his pursuer meet his pace. Shizune and Genma were not far behind, but the agitated pug was clearly unhappy about waiting for them. When they arrived they held a hasty conference as they ran, clustered in a tight knot on the narrow, rocky trail.
"The body was male. Undoubtedly shinobi, and I think--" Shizune paused.
"You think," Genma prompted. "Go ahead and speculate, it can only help us."
"I think he was one of ours. A Leaf. But he hadn't been in the village in a long time."
Raidou glanced sharply at Genma, then more casually at Shizune. "How can you tell that?"
"The fire didn't completely consume the corpse, so some of the chakra paths were still intact."
"So a missing nin," Genma said. "Not anyone you recognized?"
"No," Shizune answered simply. "It wasn't." It wasn't Orochimaru or Kabuto or Sasuke. It wasn't any of the high profile missing ninja from Konoha.
"It was someone good enough to hurt Kakashi before Kakashi killed him," Pakkun said.
"Could have been Iruka," said Raidou. "Maybe the guy ambushed them and Iruka hung back and made the kill."
"Not likely. He's a teacher," Pakkun snorted.
"He's a ninja," Genma said quietly, "And so are you. And you are seriously underestimating him."
They reached the clearing where the medical shelter stood before the sun was above the trees. A sun that was fighting with scudding clouds and sudden, drenching downpours. All four of them were cold and tired, but the closer they got, the more frantic the little dog had become, scenting Kakashi's blood stronger and stronger. It was all they could do to hold Pakkun back, Raidou hanging gamely on to the dog's collar, as they approached the building.
Genma waved his partners to a halt under the trees at the edge of the clearing.. With a kunai in hand, as silent as a wisp of smoke, he approached the cabin and peered in one of the grimy windows. After a moment's surveillance he straightened with a frown, pocketed the weapon, then strode boldly to the door, signaling the others to join him.
"Iruka-sensei?" he called. "It's Shiranui Genma. I'm here with medical help."
Before he could say more, Pakkun tore loose from Raidou's grasp and barreled through the door, skidding to a stop next to Kakashi's inert, blanket-covered body on the soiled mattress.
Iruka looked up from his his spot next to Kakashi with shock and fear and relief all mingling in his face.
Iruka stood, and Genma could see how pale and worn the other man was. Iruka was motioning to a short woman in a neutral medic's uniform, telling her these were allies, and Genma breathed a sigh of relief. So Kakashi and Iruka had had medical help, at least some sort, and even better, Iruka was standing on his own feet. They'd found both parties they were searching for, and at least one of them looked relatively unharmed.
Shizune elbowed past him and knelt next to Kakashi, firing off rapid questions at the other medic, while Pakkun paced helplessly at his master's head. Genma took one more look at the room, signaled to Raidou and took hold of one of Iruka's arms.
"Come on sensei," he said, steering Iruka towards the door. "I think you probably need a break. Shizune can work on Kakashi while you debrief Raidou and me about what happened."
Raidou took Iruka's other arm, casting a glance at the agitated dog. "Think it's alright to leave him in here?" he asked.
"Shizune will keep him in line," Genma answered. "He's smart enough not to get in the way."
"Go. I have it under control," Shizune said curtly, turning back to her task almost immediately.
Iruka twisted, trying to keep his eyes on Kakashi. "I should stay, too..."
"No," Genma insisted firmly, "you need to come with us and tell us what happened. Shizune will be fine. Kakashi will be fine." He prayed silently that he wasn't spewing a pack of lies at Iruka. Kakashi didn't look in the least fine; he looked already dead.
Hours later, Kakashi was a little shocked, though he didn't let it show on his face, to feel a very old, familiar chakra next to him, strong and warm. It was so... comforting. He turned to look, and indeed, standing beside him was a familiar ebony-eyed Uchiha ninja, ridiculous goggles perched on his head as usual. But something was not quite right about him.
"Geez, Obito, how come you're so short?"
"Duh! It's not like I got to keep growing after those Rock assholes offed me!"
"Oh, yeah, I guess not, huh." Kakashi winced at the ease with which Obito referred to his tragic demise. He covered his discomfort in another old, familiar way: by teasing. "You still look like you've got a permanent case of bed head." It was so second nature to tease, the words came from Kakashi's mouth as if it had been twenty minutes, not twenty years, since he had seen his teammate.
Obito just grinned. "You're one to talk! Take a look at yourself!" Obito was pointing, but not, Kakashi, was surprised, at his face. He pointed to a man asleep on a pallet on the floor across the room.
Walking over to him, Kakashi peered at - his own face. Unmasked, deathly pale, with an ugly bruise disfiguring his right cheek. And, as Obito had pointed out, major bed head. Sitting against the wall next to him, apparently asleep, was Iruka, who, despite his slumber, looked tense and drawn.
The man in the bed - himself, Kakashi supposed - was surrounded by medical paraphernalia: IV bags and tubes, bloodied bandages, translucent green oxygen hose, elegant little gold-capped scrolls with freshly painted sutras trailing from them onto the floor around the bed.
"So, I'm dead? You've come to escort me to the next world?"
"Not yet, idiot, don't be so melodramatic! Can't you see you're still breathing?"
"Aa. Good. Then why are you here?" It somehow seemed the most natural thing in the world to be hovering over his own body, bantering with his dead teammate.
"Well, Rin-chan and I drew straws, and I lost." The raven-haired teenager snorted with laughter.
Kakashi looked blankly at Obito.
"OK, no seriously, I'm here to kick your ass." Obito swiped a ghostly foot through the body on the floor, laughing hysterically at his own joke.
Kakashi reached for his back pocket. If Obito wasn't going to explain himself, he'd just read a little Icha Icha while he waited for his friend to settle down.
"That's not gonna help, you know. Despite what everyone probably thinks, your perverted book's not actually a part of your spirit, Kaka-chan."
The use of his baby name startled him. Since when did Obito ever call him chan?
"That got your attention, ne? Your mom told me to call you that." Obito grinned.
"Uh-huh. She's nice. Really loves you, you know? She was totally bummed she had to die when you were so little. It's really a shame you never got to know her."
Kakashi just stared. His situation finally hit him, and it was beyond surreal.
"Yeah," Obito continued, smiling. "Actually, a lot of people wanted to be the one to bring you this message, but we talked it over, and I was the best choice."
"You... talked it over..." Kakashi echoed faintly. He felt lightheaded. He was, despite a lifetime spent cultivating a blasé imperviousness, seriously freaked out.
"Tell me about him." Obito interrupted, and gestured to Iruka, his voice suddenly quiet, serious, mature.
The change in his companion's demeanor caught Kakashi's attention, and he replied just as soberly. "He's my lover. And my best friend. Iruka's... He's a really good person; one of the best people I've ever known. Like you and Rin and Sensei. You'd like him, Obito."
"Mmm." Obito smiled gently, nodding. "Do you know how he feels about you?"
"Uh, well... ahh... He likes me well enough, I guess. I mean, I think I confuse and annoy him a little sometimes, but he usually doesn't let that get in the way." Kakashi looked thoughtfully at Iruka, as if he were searching for something. "Aaa... I think he thinks I'm smart, but kind of a pain-in-the-ass... And I guess I'm good-looking enough for him, a decent lover..." Kakashi trailed off. He'd never really thought about it clearly enough to put it into words.
"Keep going," Obito prompted.
Kakashi hesitated, his voice dropping to just above a whisper. "Sometimes..." He looked away from Obito, stared hard at the floor, at Iruka's feet. "Sometimes, I can't really understand what he sees in me. Why he would want to be with a guy like me..."
"That's what I thought. There's something you need to know. I'll show you."
The room swirled and faded from view. Kakashi blinked, trying to clear his vision.
"Just drift, Kakashi-kun," He heard Obito's voice, but couldn't see him anymore. "Let yourself feel this."
Kakashi found himself looking at himself, sitting in Iruka's apartment on his tan leather couch. He was dazzlingly handsome. Tall, strong, muscular but lithe, relaxed on the couch with a kind of boneless elegance, radiating sexuality.
"Feel it," came Obito's voice in his ear.
He was lying in Iruka's bed, resting within protective, masculine arms. Drowsy but content. He felt so safe. Insanely, deliriously happy. He lifted warm, tan fingertips to trace lazy patterns on the sweat-sheened chest next to him, whose silvery hair and pattern of scars told Kakashi it must be his own. He heard Iruka's voice echoing in his head, 'I can't believe how much I love this man. I can't believe he really loves me. This is too good to be true...' Despite the words, the feeling was one of pure joy. "Kashi," he heard Iruka's drowsy voice, "If I died right now, I'd die a happy man."
The scene blurred and shifted. He was sitting behind the mission desk, holding an origami-folded slip of paper containing a mission assignment. It was a beautiful chrysanthemum-patterned washi envelope in elegant shades of red and white, flecked with silver. A special S-rank mission, he could tell by the elaborateness of its wrapping. He didn't want to let go of the envelope, didn't want to give it to the uniformed jounin in front of him. He wanted to grab the man's hand and hold on tight. He trailed his fingertips along the half-gloved hand that was reaching out to receive the assignment as he reluctantly passed the paper over and looked up.
Once again Kakashi saw himself transfigured. He was taller, handsomer, more powerful, more graceful. He felt a mixture of protectiveness and fear fighting with a strong sense of duty, heard Iruka's voice in his head again 'Just give him the envelope, baka. Tsunade-sama wouldn't give him a mission beyond him. There probably aren't any missions beyond him. It's Hatake Kakashi, for heaven's sake. If he can't complete a mission and return safely from it, no-one can.'
The Kakashi in front of him looked into the his eyes and smiled, drew his hand lazily away, taking the envelope with him. Stepping back from the table, he pulled the folded paper apart, withdrew the printed slip within.
Watching through Iruka's eyes, Kakashi recognized the envelope, the moment; remembered reading those orders: they were the ones for the mission he had been returning from.
"Mission Rank: S - AA
"Personnel: 009720 Hatake Kakashi, Jounin
"Destination: Kurosa Point, Lightning Country
"Mission Objective and Details:"
Where the mission's specifics should have been listed was the Hokage's untidy scrawl, "See me."
Kakashi watched himself read, then look up from the paper and sigh. He could see himself thinking, 'Aa, it's going to be one of those missions. And a solo, too.' He remembered hoping Tsunade would at least grant him the grace of a last night in Konoha before heading out.
A sexy baritone drawl came from the mouth of the Kakashi standing before him, holding the opened mission envelope, "Think you might be free tonight?" The tone was light, his lips curved up under his mask, but somehow the smile didn't quite reach his eye.
Icy fear clamped down on him, taking his breath away. In Iruka's tight voice inside his head he heard, 'If Kakashi is willing to proposition me in the mission room, he must think it's an assignment he might not return from...'
"You understand, right?" Obito's voice was gentle. " This is how Iruka sees you, feels about you."
He was in Iruka's apartment again, alone. He looked at the calendar. In Iruka's neat script, in the square around Tuesday was written, "Ka comes home!" Iruka's tan fingertip reached out, touched the Tuesday square, then slid to the right, stopping on Thursday. He heard Iruka say aloud, "Kakashi, where are you?" and felt a kind of emptiness, an aching despair. "Don't think that way, Umino," he heard Iruka admonish himself, "If you think bad things, bad things will happen."
Time flowed forward again. He watched through Iruka's eyes as the last of his students left the classroom. He was not thinking about Kakashi, not worrying about him, dammit. A clawed foot scratched at the door and a shiny black nose nudged it open. One of Kakashi's dogs! The tan and white, fox-like little dog rushed over to Iruka, wagging her curled tail, smiling a big doggy smile. She put her front paws on Iruka's knee, offering her neck to be scratched, the note attached to her collar to be removed. Iruka took the note and laughed aloud, flooded with relief. There, in Kakashi's strong hand were the best words Iruka had ever read, "I'll be on the Azumatora, meet me." And that silly, wonderful heno heno moheji scarecrow face.
Kakashi went along for the ride as Iruka rushed around making preparations to go. His lover's excited happiness, his longing to be with Kakashi was intoxicating. He was astounded at how completely he seemed to be at the center of Iruka's universe. Everything Iruka did was with Kakashi in mind. The jounin listened, mesmerized, to Iruka's inner chatterbox at the store on his way home from the Academy, "Let's see, Kashi likes these salted plums, right? And I'll get him some of those chocolate mushroom things. Better pick up something nutritious, too - he's probably been living on field rations." Iruka's tender motherliness was unexpected, endearing. "Now which sake was Kashi going on about the other day? Shirakawago something? Here it is. And I'll get him some milk-tea. Heh heh..." Kakashi gasped at the powerful, playful lustiness he felt jolt through Iruka.
When he got home, Iruka bathed for Kakashi, shaved for Kakashi, rubbed lotion into calluses for Kakashi, "Gotta have soft hands to rub my lover's back with, ne?" he told his grinning reflection in the bathroom mirror.
"This isn't just infatuation, either. You realize that, don't you? You've been together how long? Three, four years?" Obito was gentle but firm. It was important that Kakashi get this. He probably wasn't going to get a second chance.
Another sudden shift in perspective, and Kakashi was looking at himself on the road, subtle swirl of chakra dissipating as he materialized in front of Iruka. He felt the chuunin's emotions in a fast-paced rush: Shock at the sudden appearance, ecstatic delight at their reunion, concern about the jounin's worn-looking state, absolute horror at having hurt him with his embrace, fear that the injury was serious, relief when it didn't seem to be too bad, blushing delight and arousal at Kakashi's suggestive remarks, wry superiority mingled with concern, knowing his lover was trying to, but couldn't, hide the truth about his condition from him.
"Oh, he reads you like a book, you know." Obito remarked.
"Yeah," Kakashi replied in a hushed, wonder-filled voice, "I can see that..."
The next scene was a shock. He was watching himself through Iruka's eyes as he fought with Shida Akumaru. Damn, they were really going at it. He started to appraise his moves, his technique, when Obito cut him off. "Don't analyze this Kakashi, you need to feel what Iruka is feeling."
What Iruka was feeling was horrible. Terrible, terrible fear watching the deadly contest between two powerful jounin. Gut-wrenching anxiety as he realized that they were evenly matched. A creeping dread, thinking about Kakashi's fractured ribs, his torn-up wrists, his state of exhaustion. And overlying it all, the deepest, darkest self-hatred, kindled by Akumaru's acid words, "Oh, your pretty little boy-toy led me straight to you..."
Kakashi felt another disorienting swirl and he found himself standing next to Obito again, watching Iruka tend to his fallen form after the battle. They observed in silence as Iruka bit back nausea while he tried to keep Kakashi's innards from spilling out of the horrific gash across his belly, held him while he retched and shook, pulled the poisoned kunai from the injured man's ribs, dressed his wounds and tried to stop the bleeding. Iruka's movements were calm and competent as he tended Kakashi, then stripped the clothing and weapons from the body of Akumaru and set the corpse aflame. The only betrayal of his emotional response was the trail of silent tears sliding down his face. Watching him manage the disastrous scene, Kakashi was filled with admiration and compassion.
"He's really something else, you know that, Obito?"
"Yeah, I do."
The world jumped and they were back in the medical cabin. Kakashi's body lay on the bed, pale and still as death; Iruka knelt beside him, doing something to the bandage on his abdomen. Most of the medical apparatus was missing, though.
"What...?" Kakashi started.
"Before," answered Obito. "Just experience it."
With a vague sliding feeling, Kakashi found himself back inside Iruka's body again. He heard his own voice rasp out Iruka's name; felt Iruka turn to answer, lifting a lantern to illuminate his face; saw himself start to shudder in reaction to the bright light. It had been one thing to suffer the wracking convulsions, it was quite another to watch. He could feel Iruka panicking, convinced that he had caused the seizure, horrified by the sight of Kakashi's tortured, jerking body, and desperately afraid that the gasping, gurgling breath would stop altogether. When the seizure relented, Iruka immediately attended to the now profusely bleeding belly wound. Kakashi felt the surge of chakra through Iruka's arms as he compressed the wound, felt Iruka's terror that it would never stop bleeding. And when despite his fear, it finally did, he had only a moment of relief before the unconscious man began to cough and choke, sending another jolt of panic through the chuunin.
Iruka gagged at the sight of foamy blood bubbling between his lover's lips, then steeled himself and wiped the mess away, turning Kakashi gently on his side so he wouldn't re-inhale the fluid he cleared from his lungs. The chuunin was shaking with anxiety, desperately afraid that the most important person in the world to him was dying before his eyes, and he was powerless to stop it. When the injured man started to groan and writhe in pain, Iruka quickly stood and ransacked the shelter, searching for medicine in cabinets and shelves. Returning to his suffering companion with morphine in hand, he administered the pain-dulling drug, watched it take effect, then let the bottle and syringe drop to the floor. Feeling utterly devastated, he took one of Kakashi's limp hands in his own, and sobbed.
"He thinks he did this to you."
Kakashi found himself back in the present, standing once again next to his boyhood companion and fellow ninja, watching a pale and broken-hearted Iruka sleep fitfully next to his own ravaged body. He wanted desperately to put his arms around his lover, to comfort him, rock him like a baby, tell him there was no way that any of it was his fault. Kakashi was filled with aching sorrow. He knew exactly how Iruka felt, not just because Obito had shown him, but because it was the way he had felt about Obito's death for many, many years.
"Kakashi." Obito's voice was quiet, filled with compassion. "You didn't kill me. And Iruka didn't do this to you."
"Why...? Why are you showing me this?" Kakashi's voice was ragged with emotion.
"Because I couldn't tell you before, when I was dying. The way you feel about Iruka right now, that's how I feel about you."
Kakashi swallowed, unable to speak.
"And because you have an opportunity to do something that I did not," Obito continued. "I know you're tired. I know it hurts. I know it will be next to impossible. But you have to not die. You have to get back in your body, Kakashi, and make it keep on living. You are not finished with your work in this world."
Kakashi nodded numbly.
"Don't let Iruka spend the next twenty years of his life thinking he betrayed and killed his closest friend. You know what that's like, and I know you wouldn't wish that misery on him."
He felt Obito's presence starting to fade, and turned to reach out to him. "Obito I.."
"I know. Don't worry about it. Go on with your life, Kakashi...
Kakashi could feel himself being drawn agonizingly back into his battered body.
"Oh, and one last thing," Obito's voice sounded boyish and playful again, "How's that eye working out for you?" He gave a slow, dramatic wink, then cracked a huge smile. Kakashi couldn't help but laugh.
"Yeah, that's the way I like to see you, Kakashi-kun," Obito said. "Happy."
END Chapter 13
Extra special thanks to my beta readers and cheering section (in reverse alphabetical order): Winter of our Discontent, Telosphilos, Messy Peaches, Laura Aoshi, Kilerkki, Kaja, Hey Diddle Diddle, Carcinya, Bitter Eloquence, and Bite the Hand That Feeds.
This chapter has been in development since I started this story, and I know I've shared other scraps of it with other beta readers. If I missed your name on this acknowledgment, forgive me.
As you can probably tell, It's Nothing is finally nearing its conclusion.
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