Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ The Perfect Trap ❯ Chapter 1
[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Warning: Timelines are not very exact (I'm still in the process of watching the anime). Situated some time after all the Chuunin exam, but before the next bad thing happens...
The perfect trap
Iruka examined the small dog that had come to a stop before him. It was one of those miniature mutts with heavy eyes and a slightly squashed face; it looked like it hadn't gone to bed for a week and had ended up in a bar fight instead. It didn't have a collar or any other symbol of ownership. Iruka thought he might have seen it before, but he couldn't remember where.
Certainly he'd never seen it in the schoolyard before today. The last class had just finished, and Iruka was taking a quick break before preparing the training grounds for the survival course tomorrow. He might have expected to be distracted by a student asking for advice, but not a dog. It had walked towards him so deliberately too.
The dog barked once and trotted away, looking pointedly back at Iruka, who scratched his head in bemusement.
“Are you lost, little guy?”
The dog stared at him. Then it did the same move again: walked towards Iruka, barked, turned away and looked over its shoulder. It was moving more slowly now, and each step was accompanied by a sharp glance at the schoolteacher, as if to make sure he was actually paying attention.
Iruka had never been very good with pets.
“Good boy,” he told it a bit helplessly, and went back to peeling his apple.
The dog growled. Iruka nearly impaled his thumb on the kunai; it had sounded like a growl, but it had also-
Iruka decided he must be working a bit too hard these days; that would explain why, for a brief moment, he could have sworn he'd heard the dog grumble `Oh for fuck's sake...'
There was a sharp tug at Iruka's foot.
The Chuunin looked down uncertainly at the animal which had latched itself onto his leg, teeth firmly planted in the cloth of his uniform, pulling with considerable strength for such a small critter.
...Maybe next day's class prep could wait a while...
“Do you want me to follow you? Is someone in trouble?”
The dog had pant leg up to its jowls; that must be why it looked like it had rolled its eyes briefly.
Iruka almost turned back when the dog scrambled under a hole in the fence surrounding the Forest of Death. But there was a sense of urgency about the animal now. Surely an enemy wouldn't bother with a schoolteacher, or use such an indirect method of luring him out of the village. He hoped. Iruka hesitated, but finally trusted his instincts and followed at a run. The dog was speeding up ahead. Then it disappeared between two bushes.
Iruka cautiously followed the animal into a clearing. A couple of tall, venerable trees were rooted in its centre, near one of the creeks that crisscrossed the Forest, but the scenery was going to have to wait a few minutes before Iruka noticed it properly, because something else was taking up all of his attention and more.
The Jounin was relaxed, reading that book he always had his nose in, legs crossed at the ankles, an arm crossed over his chest...a very familiar pose except for one...
While Iruka gaped, Kakashi let his eye trail along the page as if finishing a paragraph; then he carefully marked his spot, closed the book and glanced up.
"Hey,” he drawled lazily in lieu of greeting. “Iruka-sensei, I was wondering-"
"What the hell are you doing upside down in a tree?!"
"...Getting a new perspective on life?" Kakashi answered dryly. "Actually, I was hoping you could help me get down."
He had a rope caught around his legs in a complicated series of loops and knots. It had been thrown over a branch and was fastened around one of the tree's roots. Kakashi, the copy ninja, the man of a thousand jutsu's, youngest genius to ever graduate- never mind all that, the fact was, he was dangling about five feet off the ground from a rope. Upside down. In a tree.
"Now I know I've been working too hard," Iruka croaked.
Kakashi sighed and opened his book again. "I'll give you three minutes to regain whatever composure you have. You can take an extra two minutes to laugh yourself sick. Don't take longer, `kay? It's painful to read like this."
Iruka merely gaped, his fingers tightening on the kunai he'd instinctively drawn.
"Are we under attack?" he finally asked, not that he thought it was likely, but as one of Konoha's defenders he had to completely eliminate that possibility.
Even upside down, Kakashi was able to direct a remarkably blank stare at him. Then he returned to his reading with a dry 'No.'
"So what the hell is going on?" Iruka blurted out.
"Ah, let me explain." Kakashi finally put the book away in his satchel while carefully keeping the contents from tumbling to the ground when he opened it. "A dozen years ago, I inherited some odds and ends from Yondaime. The important stuff went to the Third, of course; this was just some junk nobody else wanted. I was...busy until this past year, so I've only recently started going through it. I found this rope in one of the boxes."
Iruka's gaze followed the lazy wave of Kakashi's hand. The rope was quite slim to be holding a grown man's weight, and completely black, as if it were eating the light spilling into the clearing. But as he stared, he thought he caught a faint glint off of it, a series of scratch marks running up the twisted strands. They flowed together into what might have been symbols. They twinkled like distant stars and were gone the instant he focused on them, returning the rope to unrelieved black.
"There were some of the old man's notes with it; didn't say much, except basic instructions and that it was a great trap. So of course I had to test it out. Turns out Yondaime was right; it is a great trap."
"You tested it?"
"You came out here alone to the Forest of Death-"
"I don't like people bugging me while I work-"
"-to try out a potentially lethal trap?"
"Yup," Kakashi answered, and crossed his arms over his chest as if he were bored with this conversation already.
Iruka could feel a vein twitching in his forehead, but he swallowed the first comment that came to mind; it wasn't his place to berate a Jounin for carelessness, as he'd been forcibly reminded a few months ago by the Hokage himself, but still - "Don't you think - with all due respect - that that was rather...unwise?"
"Had to unlock its secrets one way or another. It's not like I wanted to fall in it, of course, but yeah, there was always that possibility. Still, had to do it. Gotta keep on top. Our enemies are always looking for new ways to screw us, gotta do the same."
The words were lazy, but they sparked dark echoes in Iruka's mind. He'd heard things from Naruto...Kakashi drove his students hard; some of his exercises were risky and exhausting. But according to Naruto, that was nothing compared to the way Kakashi trained himself. Naruto wasn't supposed to talk about it outside his team; like all the top Shinobi, Kakashi was protectively paranoid of his techniques and chakra abilities, parsimonious about what he passed on even to his students. But since it'd take a broken jaw to stop Naruto from talking; Iruka had picked up a few details about Kakashi's personal practice sessions: gruelling training, insane challenges, putting himself in considerable danger for the sole sake of improving his techniques.
That was what being a Jounin required. Like all the elite, he must be constantly challenging himself, bleeding, practicing, hurting, improving. Always going further, always on the edge-
And currently hanging from a tree. Iruka's mind was having a hard time digesting that little fact.
"So anyway," Kakashi drawled, "I sorta slipped up. I bet Yondaime's laughing himself hoarse, wherever he is. This actually reminds me of the time that bastard locked me and my two team-mates up in a six-by-six foot cage out in the woods and walked off, saying he'd meet us in a few days assuming we could get out-"
Iruka stared blindly at the rope. He had to help Kakashi get down from there. Who knew how long the Jounin had been hanging like that, trying to get out of it himself. He must be desperate, to send the dog for assistance. He'd probably not let Iruka fetch any more help, so it was up to the Chuunin to do what he could. Iruka felt his heart sink. He'd gone to a lot of effort to avoid Kakashi these past few months, and now it looked like they were stuck with each other for as long as it took to figure out a high-calibre trap created by the Fourth Hokage himself.
He always felt nervous and off-kilter around the Jounin. It wasn't only because he'd seen the ruthless edge behind that easy-going droopy-eyed demeanour. Iruka felt threatened in a way that had nothing to do with a physical menace, and he didn't know why. Or why Kakashi had made it a habit of riling him and provoking him on the rare occasions they met around Naruto. He tried to avoid Kakashi as much as possible, and was now always rigidly polite when they had to interact. It was his duty as a Chuunin to a Jounin anyway. There would be no repeats of that incident before the Hokage, that was for sure.
It also helped to hide the fact that he was, unfortunately, somewhat attracted - on a purely physical level, of course - to the lanky man, and he'd rather be crow bait than have Kakashi figure that out.
Iruka winced internally as he realized he'd been staring glassy-eyed at the Jounin's face while the latter was talking.
"What?" he asked weakly.
Kakashi stared at him, but repeated himself without any of his usual acerbic barbs.
"I said, I had the dog fetch you, so that you could help-"
"Me?! You mean, me specifically? You had it fetch me?" Iruka had thought his existence was beneath notice.
"Yes?" Kakashi hazarded, as if wondering why it was such a big deal.
"Why me? Why didn't you get one of your Jounin colleagues?"
“Them? They'd never let me live this down.”
"Er, what about your Team?" Iruka glanced around, as if expecting to see Naruto and his friends appear at any moment. All he saw was the dog, sitting on leaf mulch and looking bored.
Kakashi rubbed his neck and proceeded to look as shifty as you could while hanging upside down. The rope swung him around a bit until Iruka could only see the headband.
"Ah, them. Well, I might have forgotten to tell the brats this morning that I was going to be busy this afternoon...they might still be waiting for me at the bridge. They might even have thought I was serious when I told them to be there for lunchtime and that I'd provide sandwiches. They might be a bit...miffed. I'm not quite sure how they'd react if they found me like this, unable to defend myself properly. No, I had the dog fetch you; you're pretty harmless."
A bird started to chirp in the tree overhead.
"There was probably a better way of saying that," Kakashi mused, rubbing his chin.
Iruka mumbled something about not being offended; but inside, a small tendril of temper had unexpectedly ignited. It was strange, because barely a minute ago he'd been surprised to learn he even existed in Kakashi's view of the world, and now he was suddenly annoyed the man didn't take him seriously. Being around this guy always seemed to do strange things to Iruka's logic.
He glowered at the rope while staying at a prudent distance from the trap. The line held Kakashi firmly, looping up over the tree's branch. Iruka's eyes followed it to where it was fastened to one of the tree's roots, about as thick as the wrist; the latter had been half-torn out of the ground under Kakashi's weight.
"Can't you cut it?" Iruka wondered out loud, still a bit too annoyed to be as polite as he usually was with the Jounin.
"If I could cut the rope, do you think either of us would be here?" Kakashi answered sardonically. "My blades won't even nick it. I doubt the rope has anything to do with it anyway. The essence of a good trap is misdirection.”
"Yes, that's what I teach my six-year-olds."
That damned bird chirped again, taking the sudden silence for a challenge to its singing abilities.
Kakashi must have decided that getting insulted wouldn't get him down any faster, since he continued as if Iruka hadn't said anything
"If I do manage to cut the rope, something worse will happen."
"You can't be sure of that," Iruka countered automatically.
"No, I can't be sure of it, but that's how I'd set it up. I'm a devious bastard, didn't you know?"
The single visible eye was creased into what might have been a pleasant, harmless expression if it'd been right side up, but as it were- Iruka swallowed and resisted the urge to edge back.
"I didn't mean cut the rope, I meant the root," he corrected quickly. "You should be able to weaken it with a couple of kunai throws; it'd crack under your weight. The wood can't have been tampered with. It should be safer than the rope."
"I can't cut that either. I even tried a Chidori on the tree. That's that scrape mark there."
"What's a Chidori?" Iruka asked before thinking.
That earned him a sharp glance, then Kakashi uncrossed his arms and brought them up to waist height, one hand grasping his wrist.
"Here, I'll show you. It's a lot harder without my feet on the ground..."
What is a lot harder- Iruka started to wonder, and then the air began to crackle and tingle with gathering power. In the tree above them, the bird abruptly cut off its arpeggios with an undignified squawk.
It's a- a jutsu- I've never heard of it before, that means it's a special- oh crap!
Iruka's voice was pitched a bit higher than usual as he started to wave his arms about.
"What?! Wait! Kakashi-sensei, you don't need to-"
The single eye was gleaming in concentration, muscles bunching beneath the uniform, finely tuned control feeding raw power into the right hand; this wasn't the easy-going joker some people seemed to take him for. But he spoke calmly, voice still audible above the strange sizzling noise in the air. "That's ok. I trust you not to use this knowledge against me."
I trust you-?! Before Iruka could answer, or even properly process those words, Kakashi twisted on himself- the Chuunin couldn't follow the movement, it was too fast. There was a sense of raw power unleashed, the solid thunk of a blow striking wood, and a backwash of air that blew up old leaves all around the clearing.
The tree didn't budge. Iruka had instinctively fallen into a defensive crouch when the power had hit its peak; he watched, wide-eyed, as a twig tumbled through the foliage, followed by a couple of leaves. The bird, having taken flight, landed back on one of the highest branches and gave it a suspicious look.
"N-no way," Iruka stuttered, staring at the second scratch mark on the bark at shoulder-height to Kakashi's present position. It looked like a large cat had tried to use the wood as a scratching post. But with that amount of power expended on it, the whole tree should have been able to relocate itself without a fuss to the nearest toothpick factory. "No way a tree can withstand that-that- did you do anything to it? I mean, when you were setting the trap?"
"No, not a single thing," Kakashi murmured. The force of the blow had set him swinging like a pendulum. Despite this, the Jounin had his arms crossed, his eye closed and looked merely thoughtful. And completely poised.
Iruka suddenly wished he could hate the bastard; he'd tried to on other occasions already and never succeeded, probably because it wasn't in his nature to hate anyone, and also because of the funny feeling in his chest when he thought too hard about the Jounin. But still, it just wasn't fair, Iruka thought with some exasperation. If he were the one hanging from a tree, he'd look absolutely ludicrous. It was unfair for Kakashi to be able to do this and still appear nonchalant. Nobody should have that much composure, at least in Iruka's opinion.
Still, the great Hatake Kakashi needed his help...
Iruka got to his feet, brushing his hands off briskly. To work. Sort out this trap and get the poor man out of there. Maybe show him that Iruka was a bit more than 'harmless'.
"Did you try to transform?" Iruka became once more the scholar and educator. Teaching a technique required that you dissect it and master it fully; he applied that sort of knowledge and reasoning to the present problem.
“Yes. It fizzled.”
“The power gathered, I started to change, then it just stopped.”
“Same. The only jutsu I've sort of managed so far is the Chidori, and you saw all the effect that had.”
“Could the rope be sealing your chakra?”
“No, it doesn't feel like I'm being blocked. The power gathers, it releases, then just...pft. That may even be intentional. It tempts the target into exhaustin his energy, launching more and more chakra into special moves that never go anywhere. He's tired out and ripe for the taking when you get back to your trap to pick him up.” Kakashi sounded approving.
Iruka approached carefully to examine the space around Kakashi. The Jounin's head was about chin level to the teacher; he was hanging three feet away from the tree's trunk. There didn't seem to be anything else suspicious about the arrangement. On the face of it, the trap looked very simple; just a rope. But that wasn't all by a long shot. Iruka thoughtfully picked up a small pebble and tossed it into the space beneath the Jounin. It fell perfectly normally and bounced off the wood of the tree.
"I think it's safe. The dog was sniffing around me earlier," Kakashi commented. "I don't think you can fall into it too."
Iruka slowly circled the hanging man, getting closer. "What do you know about this trap?"
"Just what I told you. Oh, and the instructions said you had to set the rope near some water. That's the only restriction to its function."
"Water?" Iruka blinked at the creek. It was over twelve feet away; he didn't see what that had to do with anything.
"That's what Yondaime's note said. I set it up and tried triggering it from a distance- you should have seen it!”
To Iruka's surprise, Kakashi became suddenly animated and enthusiastic, quite different from the usual laid-back Jounin.
“It was incredible! The loop of rope leapt at me from three feet away. So fast I couldn't even dodge it. It was beautiful! It trussed me up before I could even twitch, and I'm no slouch when it comes to moving. Whipped me up and slapped me against the tree for good measure. Then there was some kind of detonation- that might be inbuilt into the trap, to warn the trapper that his prey is caught. Shook me up, nearly knocked me out."
"That would explain the state of the clearing," Iruka commented. The leaf mulch had been blown about, some branches on the tree had snapped and fallen, and a couple of rocks had been overturned nearby.
"You should have seen it," Kakashi repeated dreamily. Iruka fought down a smile as he was reminded of an enthusiastic student discovering some shiny new weapon. "It only took me two seconds to lay it out and tie it to the tree root-"
"Butterfly Instant Knotting technique?"
"You know that jutsu?" Kakashi asked; he didn't sound condescending or surprised that Iruka knew an advanced technique like that, merely eager to compare notes.
"Yes." Iruka turned away to examine the root so that Kakashi couldn't see him blush. He felt absurdly pleased. "I teach it to my special students who show particular skill with traps."
"Good idea, that's a useful one. Yeah, it took me two seconds to tie and prime, and that was it, it was ready to trigger. And when it did, it was deadly. The perfect trap," Kakashi gloated.
"I can see that," Iruka commented dryly, tapping the tree with his knuckles. There was something here...an energy you would not expect from mere vegetation. Iruka felt the bark with his fingers, eyes closed, leaning in to get the most of that faint echo of power...what was it? And how had it gotten into the tree? The rope? Surely not, how could it transfer power to another object-
"I know you're the kind of nice person who loves to hug trees, but please remember that I'm still hanging here," Kakashi drawled.
Iruka stared at the clearing. The detonation had done some minor damage here and there, but it seemed focused on one particular spot, about twelve feet away from Kakashi. Which was strange; Iruka would have expected any sign of the explosive force to be directly under the Jounin. He went over to examine it more closely. The forest detritus and a few rocks had been shoved away, leaving a hollow in the dirt where a few beetles scurried around looking for someone to complain to.
"Shut up, Kakashi-sensei," Iruka ordered mildly, and was distantly surprised how easy it was to say that. And it didn't seem strange that all he got for his audacity was a stifled snicker.
Iruka turned back towards the tree again and stopped dead. Kakashi had put his hands behind his head and arched his back, outlining the cut of a lean, muscled chest that was appreciable even through a bulky flak jacket; Iruka's mouth went a bit dry. Then he recognized the movement for what it was: a stretching exercise to relieve sore and tightening muscles.
"Are you okay? Do you want me to, erm, help straighten you up for a bit? You must be getting a headache." And a backache, and a shoulder-ache - need a massage? Ack, where the hell had that come from?!
"No, that's okay," Kakashi answered, to Iruka's confused regret. The Jounin let his arms dangle loose for a second, then crossed them over his chest once more. "Any ideas?"
"The tree is the key, I think..." Iruka muttered, going back to scholar-mode with some relief. Even as he said those words though, he found himself glancing back at the slight depression in the ground. That was...strange. It was a very small patch of upturned soil, most people would discount it as being irrelevant, as it was a good distance from the tree...but Iruka didn't like having something he couldn't explain anywhere near Kakashi and the trap.
With a shake of his head, he went back to the tree and its captive.
"Erm, sorry, I just need to try something," he said apologetically, and carefully poked the Jounin in the shoulder, ready to leap back if he felt anything untoward.
Nothing happened, except for Kakashi swaying a little bit.
"Any conclusions yet, Professor?" Kakashi purred. Iruka snorted and rolled his eyes at the term that was normally reserved in Konoha for high-level teachers and researchers. Yeah, right. It was somehow easier to ignore Kakashi's jibes when the man was dangling from a tree branch. In fact, Iruka was thinking that maybe he'd let Kakashi's barbs rile him up a bit more than was warranted these past few months; Kakashi himself had probably not meant them that way. The man had a good measure of dry, unexplainable humour. It was never easy to know when to take him seriously or not; an ambiguity he was sure Kakashi cultivated deliberately. But actions spoke louder than words; Kakashi defended Team 7 tooth and nail, as often as he put them into a tight spot. And he trusted Iruka...Now it was time to repay that trust.
Iruka turned towards the tree again and examined every inch of it. The light was pretty good; a hole had apparently been blown through the leafy canopy above his head when the trap had triggered. The golden late-afternoon sunlight was reflecting through the sparser foliage.
Then Iruka spotted something on the tree, about four feet off the ground.
"There's a mark here,” he muttered.
"One of the Chidoris?"
"No, it's well below those."
"That might have been my head then. Did I mention that the tree and I got a bit more acquainted than I liked when the trap whipped me up into the air? The rope and I both got slammed into the trunk as it started to hoist, and-"
"If your head made this imprint, then you have a mighty strange head," Iruka informed him absently, examining the mark without touching it.
"You know, a lot of people have said that."
"It's a seal..."
Kakashi twisted around quite agilely. "Where? I examined that damn tree-"
"It's small, and the bark got crushed around it..." With a growing feeling of excitement, Iruka cleared the bark away, still careful where his fingers strayed; seals often had an inbuilt defence mechanism that only the pros could counter or suppress. He stood back a bit to let Kakashi see, reaching without thinking to touch the Jounin's shoulder and steady him so the rope's twist didn't drag him around again.
"Thanks," Kakashi murmured. They both examined the revealed symbols attentively.
"Son of a bitch," Kakashi finally announced without rancour. "Figures he'd use a seal. They were Yondaime's favourite trick, his signature technique. Probably locks the whole thing. Well nigh unbreakable unless you have the key, or figure out how to bust it or overload it."
"It's got three poles," Iruka said slowly, scrutinizing the finer details that Kakashi probably couldn't see too well from his current position.
"I've never seen anything like that before," he finally had to conclude. Damn, he wanted to help so badly, but if this was one of Yondaime's specials, what could he-
"Yondaime was the best...Shit, I'm getting black spots in my vision here..."
Iruka glanced back as he felt Kakashi jerk away from his hand. As he stared, the Jounin twisted on himself like a coiling snake, jackknifing until he could hook an arm beneath his knees and stabilized himself with his head more or less upright if he craned his neck a bit.
Flexible, Iruka thought, his mouth going dry again. He forcibly dragged his thoughts away from something completely inappropriate to ask why Kakashi didn't climb up the rope to the branch.
"Hm?" Kakashi twisted around a bit to glance down at the Chuunin. "Oh, I tried that before - in fact, I tried just maintaining this position for a minute to relieve the blood flow to my head- but- oops- there it goes-"
Iruka's jaw dropped as the rope shimmered. Then he realized the branch above their heads had started to vibrate. The wood creaked and complained, but passed its growing oscillations to the rope, causing it to twang as it jerked against the root below. With a sigh, Kakashi settled down into his former position and the tree stopped shaking. Distantly, Iruka noted some noises in the clearing around them, and a splash in the creek nearby.
The bird had by now relocated to another tree, and made its opinion of all this disturbance known by some bloody loud chirping once silence had fallen once again. The tree looked as solid before, and, in Iruka's imagination, ever so slightly smug.
"It gets bad enough to shake you away from the rope - and possibly smack you against the tree again - if you try to climb. I think it depends on how much of my body weight is on the very end of the rope. Any movement I do that changes my weight distribution-"
"That's...insane. I never knew such a trap existed."
"Nice, isn't it? I actually think that last bit - where you can't even right yourself for more than five seconds - is a sadistic addition by the great Fourth."
"I guess it would be useful to find your prey dazed from hanging upside down, rather than clinging upright to the rope and ready to drill you as soon as you get near," Iruka pointed out.
"You may be right. I'd be admiring that particular twist to his genius a bit more if I wasn't in my current position, if you see what I mean."
"I understand," Iruka said sympathetically, once more resisting the urge to offer a shoulder massage or a neck rub. "Let me look again- by the way, did you hear something fall into the brook just now?"
"No, I was too busy listening to my joints creak."
"I could have sworn I heard a splash..."
Iruka's gaze went from the creek - twelve feet away - to the indentation in the earth on the other side of the trapped Jounin - it was also twelve feet away from the tree -
He nearly ran to the small hole in the ground. There had been some more disturbances, and one of the beetles had been crushed.
Mind buzzing with sudden hope, Iruka rushed back to the tree and stared up at the hole in the foliage, letting the light pour through and showing a distant slice of sky. The Chuunin burst out laughing.
"I was wondering when you'd do that," Kakashi drawled. "You don't react very quickly, do you?"
"I wasn't laughing at you, Kakashi-sensei!" Iruka chuckled reprovingly (yes, this is possible to do when you're dealing at once with a great discovery and an exasperating wiseass Jounin). "I figured it out! It's a three-pole chakra web!"
To Kakashi's credit, it took him about one second to catch on, his head twisting to the creek, the equidistant dent in the earth on his other side, the sky visible above his feet through the hole in the tree's branches-
"Son of a bitch. A triangle of Water, Earth and Air. You're right. Well done, Professor."
"Don't call me that," Iruka sniffed, still smiling.
"All balanced on the seal. It's the linchpin of the web."
"Any power you use- like the Chidori, that's air-based, right?"
"When you used that, the power never reached the tree; it got siphoned off into the sky." He gestured towards the hole in the branches.
Kakashi's eye had narrowed as he stared at the seal. "Some of that elemental power feeds directly into the tree, protecting it against any kind of physical damage. The rope must set the seal, probably when it slapped against the tree at the moment of triggering. From there on in, the tree is protected; anything you do to it gets passed on to the water, the earth or the air."
"But there's no pole for fire," Iruka continued, tense with the rush of discovery.
"Which might make it the key," Kakashi concluded for him. "Step aside."
"Why?" Iruka asked, his mind still full of theory and memories of studying seals and traps- he took a few steps back, obeying instinctively.
Kakashi's fingers flew into seals, so fast that Iruka couldn't follow, particularly upside down.
"Er, what were you trying to-"
"Fireblowing technique. Aiming at the seal, since that's the linchpin of the whole thing. But this time, I didn't even get a fizzle. Complete zilch. Apparently the other three poles are locking my ability to produce fire. Good job, old man. Nice trap."
"Oh. Let me try."
"Careful!" Kakashi barked. "You don't know what reaction that thing will have!"
"You were trying it," Iruka pointed out a bit stung, his fingers pausing on the sheep seal.
"That was me. I'm not about to let you feed fire power into a chakra web."
"Why, because I'm a harmless Chuunin?" Iruka snapped, suddenly cross and maybe even a little hurt.
Kakashi stared at him, and then crossed his arms over his chest. "No," he said firmly, "it's because I'm the one who was dumb enough to fall into this trap, and you were the one nice enough to try to help me. That makes it pretty obvious which of the two of us should get possibly roasted by a misfire."
“But I have to do something,” Iruka countered hotly. As a teacher, he was used to having control of a situation at all times. Lack of control meant children in his charge could end up hurt or dead: he wasn't teaching them maths or dodge ball, after all. His kids played with dangerous toys and were always running with sharp objects.
“What do you expect me to do?!” he snapped when Kakashi shook his head mulishly. “Sit around here and fan you from time to time?”
“...Can you feed in an absolute minimum of chakra-“
“I wasn't about to hit it with a flamethrower! You're in there, remember?!”
“Vividly. Iruka, trust me on this. Do not use more than a matchstick's worth.”
There was that trust word again; it snapped Iruka out of his exasperated desire to do something. He'd accepted Kakashi's trust earlier without real question and felt flattered. But it was in fact one hell of a concession for the Jounin: Shinobi tended to treat paranoia as a useful addition to their arsenal, and they played everything close to the chest as a matter of course.
He...did trust Kakashi. If the Shinobi thought there might be a risk, well, Iruka would be a fool to take chances. He wouldn't lose much time by being careful anyway. He reined in his impatience and his desire to help, and fine-tuned his chakra flow to deliver what felt like a waft of hot air against the seal.
The result could best be described as WHAM!
Iruka was flat on his back, staring up at the sky. The tinnitus played percussions on his eardrums; through it he could hear his name called repeatedly. It sounded like it was coming from a long way off.
“Iruka?!” Kakashi barked, his voice harsh and demanding.
“M'okay,” Iruka lied, still a bit winded. His sat up slowly. To his relief, Kakashi looked fine. Iruka shook his head to clear the ringing, and then gave himself a quick check. His hands were reddened from heat, a fine ash all that was left of small hairs on his wrists, but at least he'd had the instinct and speed to protect his face, so he really shouldn't complain. He'd come very close to finding out what it was like to live without eyebrows. The uniform along his forearms was a bit singed, as was his vest, but he was otherwise unharmed. It could have been a lot worse.
He rubbed his neck and stared up at the Jounin. “How did you know it'd do that?”
“...If I set up a trap with a chakra web, I'd build it so the prey's friends who tried to help him ended up dead. Two birds with one noose.”
The words were coldly cheerful. Iruka, still dazed, wondered why that chilled him. It wasn't the fact that Kakashi would do that. Iruka felt no qualm in killing an enemy; he'd done it enough times himself. If you let it bother you, you had your nervous breakdown long before reaching the rank of Chuunin. No, what bothered him was the fact that Kakashi would state it so bluntly; that he'd shove it in your face and let you deal with what you felt about it- Iruka shook his head and cleared it forcibly.
“Well, that won't work,” he muttered, getting to his feet and brushing mud off his pants. “It's feeding my chakra right back at me, amplified by whatever it can get out of the elemental poles.”
A gloomy silence fell. That blasted bird eventually landed back on its branch and started harping on about the nice weather, or clouds, or whatever else it was on about- Neiji might figure it out and relate. Iruka just felt like grabbing a stone and seeing if his aim was still good after that buffeting.
“Dammit, if only we had the key to this!” he bit out, frustrated. “All traps have a key to release them, well, normally...”
“Do me a favour? I'm a bit thirsty. Could you-”
Iruka gasped. “I'm sorry, I should have thought of that earlier.”
He rushed over to the creek, and realized he had no way of carrying any water back. Damn. Well, a little bit was better than none. He washed his hand carefully in the stream and cupped his palms to carry as much as he could.
"Coming." he replied, keeping his eyes on his improvised cup as he stood.
"Do you still resent me for volunteering the kids for the Chuunin exam?"
The water dribbled out between his fingers. Most of it ended up on his vest and pants, but Iruka barely noticed as he stared at the few drops left in his palms.
"What?" he quavered.
"No, of course not! I mean- I mean no!"
"...Really?" The voice was openly sceptical.
Iruka went back to the task of getting some water. He found himself washing his hands again, the current dragging through his fingers, fleeting, instantly lost...why was Kakashi talking about this now?
The silence behind him was a demand for elaboration, for the truth. Iruka stared miserably at the water.
"I don't resent you for that. What happened during and after, with Sound...well, nobody could have seen that coming."
"I know that, and you're a smart man so you know that too. That wasn't what I asked you. They could have been injured or worse during the course of a normal Chuunin exam. Do you resent me-"
"No," Iruka answered quickly, standing with some water in his hands, keeping his eyes on them as he walked towards the hanging Jounin. "When I saw them, after the second trial...I realized you were right. They were ready for it. It made them grow. You were right all along."
Iruka gathered himself mentally, concentrating on the task at hand. He frowned as he approached Kakashi, wondering how they were going to do this. If Kakashi straightened up to drink, he'd be too high for Iruka to reach.
This was as close as he'd ever been to Kakashi. The mask had always seemed part of his features till now. Upside down, though, it was just a piece of cloth. Iruka noticed for the first time that there were fine lines around the visible eye, even though Kakashi was only a year older than he was.
Kakashi reached up towards the edge of the mask; Iruka quickly tore his gaze away, blushing. He didn't know why Kakashi hid his features, but it wasn't up to him to invade the man's privacy by-
His hands were taken gently and Iruka nearly splashed water on himself all over again when he felt the touch of lips against his palm. There was a sipping noise and a sigh, followed by a slight chuckle and a cough.
"Got some up my nose...not easy doin' this," Kakashi muttered, and Iruka could hear the grin in the voice - an expression the mask for once didn't cover. Iruka had the sudden raging desire to look, to see what that single eye looked like beneath a real smile- he couldn't though, and Kakashi was- was nuzzling his palms again- Iruka swallowed; he wished he could have washed his hands with soap first- if he blushed any harder, he was going to get dizzy-
From the maelstrom of embarrassment and confused emotions, the real words tumbled out.
"I r-resented you for being right."
The lips left his palms, though hands still clasped his, warm and steadying.
"Naruto - and Sasuke- they wanted it so badly. Even Sakura blossomed during that trial. I...I resented you for seeing that in them, when I hadn't; for being right when you'd only known them for a couple of months."
Kakashi tilted Iruka's hands, swallowed some more water without a comment. Iruka, his face scalding with shame and months of pain and self-condemnation, glared miserably at the tree trunk and the bloody seal.
"I got over it," he added truthfully, hoping Kakashi would believe him. He already felt stupid and selfish; he didn't want Kakashi to think he was petty and resentful as well. "Despite everything that happened afterwards- well, that had nothing to do with the exam, really...It's been wonderful to see Naruto grow these past few months. You're a great teacher; you give him so much."
"Nah, it was already there to start with. He just needed a good, hard kick in the ass, or three."
Iruka's head snapped back to gape at the man- he'd forgotten the mask and flinched as he remembered, but Kakashi had already drawn it up and was settling it over his nose.
"Er- well-" Iruka felt torn between the pleasure of hearing someone say something positive about Naruto, and some disapproval over that 'kick in the ass' remark.
"It's okay to still want them to be 'your kids'." Kakashi sounded indifferent, but this time Iruka listened to the words, too. "Men like us don't like change much; it rarely brings us anything good. You have the luxury of being able to spoil them for a little while longer; enjoy it."
"Thanks," Iruka whispered. He wasn't forgiving himself that easily, but the words did seem to shift a bit of the weight from his heart. Kakashi was right...
"Don't worry about them getting soft from all your attentions, Professor. I'll see to that. With considerable pleasure, being a cold-hearted bastard and all."
"No, you're not," Iruka protested.
"Oh yes I am," was the sarcastic reply.
"No," Iruka contradicted more slowly and thoughtfully this time. "I think you care for them too."
Kakashi crossed his arms and glared at him through the single, hooded eye. "Maybe a tiny little bit. But if ever this gets out, I will have to kill you. You do understand that, right?"
Iruka sighed and dried his hands on his pants, exasperated.
"After all, they need me to be their general," Kakashi added archly. "When they want a mom, they can go and find you."
A mom?! Iruka felt the vein in his forehead bulge. "Ack! Why do you always do that?!"
Kakashi actually swayed backwards from the sudden outburst, oscillating on the end of the rope; every student in Konoha knew that Iruka could switch from mild-mannered to ballistic in nought point seven seconds if aggravated enough, but it still caught many adults off guard.
"Every time we meet! I try to be polite and you constantly make fun of me! You can't even say one nice thing- you drive me crazy!"
"Now, now," Kakashi chuckled weakly, rubbing his neck, his eye a harmless upturned crescent of innocence even in reverse. "You always take everything I say so seriously-"
"The other day, you asked me in front of Naruto if I'd breastfed him as a baby! Forget the insult and the stupid implications! Do you know how embarrassing it was to answer his questions afterwards?!"
"You could have just told him-"
"And that morning when you said I was 'looking good'! Just when I thought you were trying to be friendly, you went and asked if I'd finally gotten laid!!” The insult had been all the more obnoxious because, of course, Iruka hadn't.
“Erm, you know, I was-“
“And I won't go into the bit where you let Naruto study a couple of pages of that-that garbage you read, and then you had the gall to tell him to ask me to explain-“
Kakashi was trying to interrupt the storm. "Sorry, sorry. Don't take it personally. I'm always like that, I'm just a fucked-up puppy, I can't interact very well with the people I really like, I-..."
Iruka's mouth stayed open around a rant, but nothing came out apart from a rather pathetic gurgle.
Kakashi blinked slowly, his hands frozen in a placating gesture. "...I...Did I just say that last bit out loud?"
"Yes," Iruka croaked.
"...At this point, I'd like to remind you that I've got a lot of blood gushing around my brain-"
"You l-like me?! You don't even know me!"
Kakashi was silent for a moment.
"No, I don't know you all that well," he finally admitted, his tone simple and straightforward. "But I think I want to. Naruto's a great kid, even though he drives me bat-shit crazy sometimes, and I believe you had a lot to do with the kind, generous and optimistic parts of his character."
Iruka wibbled a bit; he'd been thinking the same thing, about Naruto's new-found drive, inner strength and sense of independency and direction, and how Kakashi had instilled those in the boy.
"And you've got such a nice ass."
Chirp-chirp. Cheep. Chirp-chirp-chirp.
"...Did I say that out loud too?"
Iruka gaped, his emotions seesawing between raw embarrassment, sheer amazement, a certain sense of startled pleasure, and something like morbid curiosity, to see just where this might be going.
After a minute of silence (the bird filled it, but nobody was listening), Iruka suddenly said: “I know how to get you out of that trap.”
Kakashi looked surprised.
"Most seals are tamper-proof, but this one won't be able to handle fire; it doesn't have the ability to cope with that element. It used its other three elemental poles to bounce and amplify my chakra back at me before. But if I can apply a source of intense heat directly against the seal, burn it right off the wood, it can't resist that. An intense source of heat that's not chakra-based, that is."
"Oh. Something like a blowtorch, perhaps?" Kakashi asked dryly.
"Yes! Of course! I'll have to go get one. We have a couple in the school's maintenance room- if I hurry, I can be back here in twenty minutes- half an hour tops."
"I'm sorry to impose on you."
The words were neutral and polite. It was such a strange thing for Kakashi to say - and sound serious while saying it - that Iruka thought for a moment that the man was being sarcastic. But then his instincts kicked in; he recognized the rigid courtesy with which he'd treated Kakashi these past few months. Ah, it was true that Iruka hadn't actually said anything in response to Kakashi's admission. Which the Jounin was probably taking as Iruka's polite way of saying `let's forget you ever said that and never talk to each other alone again, ever'.
Which was far from being the case. All Iruka had in mind at the moment was getting the Jounin down from that bloody tree so this conversation could be continued with Kakashi the right way up.
"I'm not going to let you hang here," Iruka assured him gently. To his dismay, he realized he had a big loopy smile plastered all over his blushing face. Way to play it cool and hard to get, Umino.
Kakashi was a man whose life depended on reading the slightest emotion in his adversaries, and Iruka was probably radiating like a light house; an indefinable tension left the upside-down frame, which persuaded Iruka that Kakashi really had been serious earlier.
The next words were once more lazy and ironic.
"Oh come on, you're not tempted to let me dangle here just a few more hours?"
No, not really. Iruka felt like laughing, like shouting and scaring away that awful bird. The rush of having figured out the trap - and the whole 'he actually likes me' thing- was making him light-hearted with relief and pleasure.
"Tempted? Maybe I am, after all those months of putting up with your teasing,” he tossed at the Jounin with a grin. “Maybe you should make it worth my while to get you down."
"...I'm sure some reward for your efforts is reasonable. Anything you want," Kakashi declared generously, a taunting, challenging light in his eye.
Anything? Just like Kakashi, to shove that at Iruka and see how he'd react.
Iruka suddenly realized why Kakashi made him feel nervous. Iruka didn't like leaving his comfort zone. He loved being a teacher, he was satisfied with his position in life; it was fun, interesting, it allowed him to care for a whole bunch of kids, and never leave the little haven of habits and small joys he'd created. He didn't like risks, simply put. It wasn't that he was a coward; he would die without hesitation to defend what he had. But by that same token, he didn't like to risk it carelessly.
And Kakashi was risk incarnate. Always pushing himself and others, always forcing them to go further...He set up those insane, apparently pointless tests for his students, that could reveal so much. He was always pushing, trusting them to act to the best of their abilities and hold their positions in battle. Even the jibes and taunts; they often had a deeper meaning behind them. He was always digging out what you had deep inside, always provoking...
Finally face to face with his feelings, Iruka suddenly realized that that was also the reason he was attracted to the Jounin. Because Kakashi threatened to make Iruka feel...more.
More daring, certainly: a flash of past devilry flared in Iruka's mind, and he found himself answering the taunt with one of his own.
“Anything?” he murmured, and his voice was in a register he'd never used out loud before, something both dangerous and teasing ...he relished the startled look it earned him. “That could be...quite a lot. Are you sure about that?”
“What, you don't think I'd deliver?” was the immediate comeback. Then Kakashi cocked his head to one side and the eyelid drooped thoughtfully. “Mind you, my students do assure me I'm notoriously bad at remembering my commitments.”
“Maybe I should just take my reward now,” Iruka murmured, stepping forward, hands slowly cupping the upturned face.
The single eye widened a fraction, but Kakashi made no move to defend himself. Iruka's blood was doing strange things in his veins, both boiling and freezing; his heart was thumping with excitement and wonder at his own daring, and pleasure at it too, the rush of a strange feeling of freedom, of shedding old limitations. His fingertips caught gently at the edge of the mask. He shut his eyes tightly and pulled it away. Still no protest.
The first touch of lips was awkward with his eyes closed; it felt unusual doing this upside down. He tilted his head; something trembling inside, desire and fear. Kakashi's lips were firm, slightly open, cool and wet from drinking out of Iruka's palm...gently responding. The kiss deepened slowly, shivers of pleasure from touch, movement and growing exploration. A touch at Iruka's shoulders both steadied and burned him. His own hands were knotted in curls of hair and cloth, the muscles of a strong neck rippling sensually beneath his fingertips.
He remembered in time to keep his eyes closed as he leaned back and fumbled once more with the mask. He really didn't care what Kakashi hid under that piece of cloth; he certainly wouldn't violate the tentative trust they'd established between them by taking what wasn't freely given.
He opened his eyes to see Kakashi adjust the cloth over his nose. Iruka waited, breathless, for a reaction. At the back of his mind, the Shinobi was pointing out warily that, with his face only a few inches from Kakashi's, he was at the perfect distance for the Jounin to reach over and snap his neck.
"Is that all it's going to cost me?" Kakashi murmured.
Iruka could feel waves of heat radiate from his cheeks, as his mind caught up with his own daring. "Yes!" he gasped, appalled that Kakashi thought Iruka might take this chance to molest him-
Iruka swallowed, caught flat-footed by the sensual whisper and the gleam of pure amusement in Kakashi's eye. Just what was that supposed to mean?!
Before he could get himself into a complete mental muddle, a finger gently brushed his nose.
"Seriously: thanks for coming out here and helping me. And figuring out this trap. If you get me down, I'll be...properly grateful."
"I'll buy you dinner," Kakashi explained cheerfully, obviously enjoying the momentary flash of panic he'd caused. "Is that all right...Professor?"
Iruka realized with a mixture of contentment and resignation that he'd just acquired a pet name. It could have been a worse one, and if Kakashi ever used it in public, Iruka would make him pay. Maybe Kakashi had schoolroom fantasies- ack, where the hell had that come from?!
"And now comes the part where you get me down?" Kakashi reminded him lazily. Iruka could tell he was smirking beneath the mask.
"Yes! Of course." Iruka took a step back both mentally and physically. "I'll go get that blowtorch- oh, but I can't leave you alone here! This place is dangerous."
Kakashi took his book out of its satchel and opened it with a languid gesture.
“Don't worry about it. I was here for a while before you showed up. I'll be fine. I'm armed, and the mutt's here too, if need be.”
“Okay. I'll hurry back!”
Iruka rushed towards the edge of the clearing, but stopped when he realized the dog was trotting after him.
"No, stay!" he ordered.
The dog looked at him strangely.
"Staaay. Stay and defend your master. Good boy!"
The small eyes seemed to bulge, but then again, they always did look a bit like that with that type of dog. When Iruka took an experimental step backwards, the animal stayed put.
Kakashi seemed to be breathing funny, Iruka noted. He had to hurry.
"I'll be right back!"
Once Iruka's back was turned, Pakkun walked to the edge of the clearing to make sure the Chuunin was at least heading in the right direction. The dog was wearing his ninja gear again, haughtily re-invoked now that Iruka had left.
"He's running towards the village," the nin-dog grumbled. "Bouncing along...he looks like a big puppy." Pakkun glanced over his shoulder. "Whereas you look like a big idiot."
Kakashi didn't deign respond. He rubbed his neck thoughtfully, weighing alternatives and the growing pain of his position; the words on the page were too blurred to read.
He stuck the book beneath his arm and twisted his fingers into seals, a complicated succession that had no other power than interfacing with the trap and unlocking it. The web and the rope loosened, then snapped free.
As if Kakashi would ever set and test a trap without deciphering the key to it first...but Iruka didn't need to know that, right?
He twisted gracefully in the air as he fell and landed in a crouch.
Then he tottered and fell on his ass with considerably less finesse.
"Dizzy, are we?" Pakkun snickered.
"Now you look even dumber."
"Pins and needles from hell. Fuck me, but that whole 'upside down' thing was getting old." Kakashi drew down his mask and headband and rubbed his face briskly.
"Are you going to get back into the trap before he shows up again?"
"Yeah,” the Jounin sighed. “I don't know how I'd explain it otherwise. Plus I want to see if the blowtorch will break the seal. It should."
Kakashi had been studying the trap for several days now, figuring out its secrets. The chakra web had been easy to read with the Sharingan, but there were other catches in the subtle length of rope that Kakashi had discovered; he'd even added a few improvements of his own. From what he knew of the snare and the web, Iruka's solution should work. This gave Kakashi the made-to-order excuse to take Iruka out to dinner, but on a more serious note, the whole blowtorch deal was a potential flaw in the trap that Kakashi would have to address if he wanted to use it in combat.
Pakkun looked thoughtfully at Kakashi, then glanced at the loop in the rope above their heads with a sneer.
"Not such a good trap if a simple low-level schoolteacher can figure out how to unlock it that quickly," he commented scathingly.
"It's an excellent trap; Iruka was just better," Kakashi corrected in a light-hearted, lethal tone which the wise knew to back away from very quickly. "Your S-class criminal may be stronger, but Iruka has more finesse, he's a very logical-...are you playing me?"
"Like a fiddle. You got it bad, Hatake."
"Shut up, hound."
Kakashi stretched out on the ground, trying to relax while keeping his ears open for Iruka's return. The loop dangled like a hangman's noose above his head and Kakashi grinned at it. He'd almost fallen into the snare by accident when he'd deployed it the first time; it was what had given him the idea for today's scenario. Normal people would say it was a rather roundabout way of getting to know the Chuunin better, but normal people didn't become Shinobi, or if they did, they survived an average of three hours before dying in a number of messy ways.
Kakashi firmly believed in practical demonstrations and putting people on the spot. It was the best way to find out what they really thought and felt.
Pakkun had been horrified at the whole idea (particularly when he'd been told about his role in the scenario); the dog had felt offended on behalf of Kakashi's dignity. Which didn't make any sense: Kakashi kept his sense of dignity in his kunai holder. A real Shinobi didn't think twice about looking like a complete imbecile if that was what was required to succeed at a mission.
Kakashi smiled and ran a thumb gently across his lips, ignoring the gagging noises Pakkun made. Ah, yes, it had been a mission of sorts, for him. The way Iruka had been avoiding him was rubbing him raw in ways he wasn't really used to, and he'd decided, in a purely Kakashi way of thinking, that his mission was to do something about it. He'd gotten more out of it than he'd hoped, too. If all his missions ended that pleasantly, he'd be signing up for extra shifts in no time.
He'd realized a while ago that he intimidates Iruka a bit. The Chuunin was smart enough to see through some of the layers of masks Kakashi wore, and something he'd sensed there had, quite reasonably, alarmed him. But now, at the back of Iruka's mind there would always be the genius hanging upside down in his own trap. It had breached the young man's defences. It had gotten Kakashi into the fortress, and he intended to stay there as long as he could.
He knew this might eventually end in pain for one or the both of them. Affection was a risk onto itself when you walked the path of the Shinobi; Kakashi was probably being selfish. But he was also lonely, now that he was back to living something like a normal life, outside of the madhouse that was the ANBU. And he thought Iruka was lonely too.
Simply put, life was pain. There was no escaping it. You had to enjoy as much of it as you could despite this; a good friend had taught him that.
What Kakashi intended to get into his life was that slightly disrespectful, teasing, enthusiastic, kind-hearted Iruka he'd glimpsed today. It wouldn't be easy. Iruka had some pretty thick defences, and Kakashi had a feeling he'd bump into some more of them in the future, despite Iruka's returned interest. Iruka was going to have his job cut out for him too, come to think of it. But Kakashi had no intention of letting his prey escape back into safety and loneliness, not if he could help it.
That was where being skilled at building perfect traps came in very handy indeed...