The villagers in Nimura have a story that they like to tell to scare children. The story changes with each telling. The common elements are limited. There is a tower high in the mountains, past where the hunters dare to go. A demon or monster of some sort lives in the tower. The demon likes to kidnap children, usually naughty children or ones who don't eat their vegetables. Any misfortune that happens to befall the village is the fault of the demon.
Kakashi believes none of it. He's faced enough real demons to know when a story is just a story. Still, it's something to keep him entertained when he visits the tiny village on the border between the Land of Fire and the Land of Grass. He meets with agents from Kusagakure. They exchange notes and after a day or two of rest, Kakashi is gone. It's a pretty boring mission, but Kakashi likes it because he gets to see his favorite person.
Iruka looks up from where he's deliberating between tomatoes. "Hatake-san." Iruka bows slightly, like he always does.
"Can I carry that for you?" Kakashi holds his hand out for the basket holding Iruka's produce.
Iruka hesitates a moment before handing it over. "Thank you, Hatake-san. You're always so kind."
Kakashi grins behind his mask. He wonders what his Genin team would think if they heard that. He's really not a kind person, not unless Iruka is involved. "What brings you to town today?" Kakashi doesn't always get to see Iruka, so the trips where he does are made even more special when their schedules manage to concur. He's not sure where exactly Iruka lives, just that he doesn't live in the village. Kakashi likes to time his visits so that he hits market day, a time when Iruka is almost certain to be around.
"The weather was nice," Iruka says as he moves on to pick out handfuls of green beans. "I thought a stroll would be nice."
"It is a lovely day for a stroll. Would you mind if I walked with you a bit?"
"Not at all." Iruka's attention is on the produce laid out in front of them, but his smile is meant for Kakashi.
"How has life in the village been since my last visit?"
Iruka glances up, staring into the middling distance for a contemplative moment before turning back to the vegetables. "Quiet. The harvest has been good this season."
"What is it they say around here? The demon is pleased?"
Iruka smiles, but it's a small, tight smile, like he has a secret. He does that sometimes. It doesn't bother Kakashi. He has plenty of secrets of his own. "Yes," Iruka says after a moment, "that is what they say."
Kakashi picks up an apple and hands over a coin to the shopkeeper before biting into it. The flesh is soft and moist. It tastes delicious. There's something about being out in the countryside that makes the food taste fresher, as if it tastes better the closer he is to its source.
Iruka finishes his shopping. Kakashi carries his basket for him while they leisurely stroll through the village. They stop at the edge of the woods, where the trees stretch up into the mountainside and the path continues on to the homes of the hunters and their families. Iruka doesn't seem like a hunter. Maybe he's the son of one.
"Until next time, Hatake-san," Iruka says with a bow, before taking back his basket.
Kakashi stands and watches Iruka walk away, wishing he could do something different.
His contact is late. Kakashi has been in Nimura two days already and his contact from Kusagakure has yet to show up. Neither has Iruka, though that in itself isn't unusual. The two facts together conspire to make him grumpy.
"Ninja-san! Ninja-san!" A small child comes running into the inn. He's flushed and out of breath. Kakashi raises an eyebrow and waits for the child to continue. "They found a body in the woods!"
Kakashi's eyes widen and he stands. "Show me."
The body belongs to his Kusagakure contact. There's an arrow through his heart, pinning him to the trunk of a tree but what really catches Kakashi's attention is the overturned basket lying at the man's feet. There is no note, but there doesn't need to be. Kakashi can put two and two together enough to know that Iruka's been taken. Why and by whom, he doesn't know.
He lifts his hitae and releases the Sharingan. Information floods his senses but among all of it, he's able to catch a trail, a faint flowing of chi that's obvious enough that he's meant to follow it. It's obviously a trap, but it's a trap Kakashi will be delighted to trip.
Kakashi creeps through the trees, quietly jumping from branch to branch, as he approaches the camp.
"Listen to me," Iruka pleads. "You don't want to do this. Just let me go and he'll forgive you."
The mercenaries snort. From his vantage point high above, Kakashi can see the entirety of the camp. Iruka is bound to a tree on the far side. There are at least a dozen mercenaries between him and Iruka but Kakashi is fairly confident he can take them.
"We're not worried about Sharingan Kakashi."
Iruka blinks. "Who said anything about Hatake-san?"
"Quite the predicament, isn't it?" A voice says from beside Kakashi, startling him. He nearly falls from the tree, but rights himself and stares wide-eyed at the old man standing on the branch next to him.
"Are you going to save him?" The old man asks, nodding towards the encampment.
"Who are you?"
The old man smiles. "There will be time for introductions later. Right now, I'd like to see how worthy you are. Save Iruka."
Kakashi wants to object but one of the mercenaries starts towards Iruka, hand raised, and that's enough to send Kakashi dashing forward. A well-placed jutsu takes out the mercenary closest to Iruka, and then Kakashi spins, taking on each mercenary as they attack. He ducks under a swing and sweeps his leg out to knock one to the ground. His Sharingan is uncovered, providing him an edge in the fight.
It doesn't take long. The mercenaries underestimate him. It's their last mistake.
The old man walks into the clearing, clapping. Iruka's eyes go wide. "Father, no. He's only trying to help." Iruka struggles against his bonds, trying to free himself, until a look from the old man stops him.
"Calm yourself, child. I won't hurt your precious Hatake-san."
Kakashi raises an eyebrow and halts his hand midway through covering his Sharingan. There's something off about the old man. For a second it appears as if there's a second shadow surrounding him.
"Would you be so kind as to untie my child, Hatake-san?"
Kakashi pulls out a kunai and slices through the ropes. He offers Iruka a hand to help him to his feet. Iruka's hand lingers in his and he visibly hesitates, shifting between staying with Kakashi and going to the old man.
The old man takes the choice from them and comes closer. "We should go home." He holds out his hands. Iruka takes one without hesitation, pulling away from Kakashi's touch. The old man looks at Kakashi. His left hand hangs in the air. "Are you afraid, Hatake-san?"
Iruka opens his mouth to say something, but is silenced with a glance from the old man.
"I'm not afraid," Kakashi says and takes the man's hand.
The clearing disappears, shifting to grey stone walls. There's stone under his feet. He's in a sparse but comfortable chamber. There's a fire in the fireplace, a couch and some comfortable looking chairs, and a plethora of overflowing bookshelves.
"Where are we?"
The old man smiles. "My tower. We're in the mountains not far from Nimura."
"I can show you the path back," Iruka says. "It's not a long walk."
"No," the old man says, "I think he should stay. Won't you be our guest for a little while, Hatake-san?"
Kakashi contemplates the strange tower and the even stranger old man. He remembers what Iruka had said back at the campground. "You're Iruka's father?"
The old man shrugs. "Of a sorts. Not biologically, but he is my child."
Iruka looks nervous. His gaze flits between the two of them.
"Then I would be honored," Kakashi says.
"Thank you, Hatake-san," the old man says with a grin.
"Call me Kakashi."
"Ryuuichi." The old man turns to Iruka. "Why don't you show Kakashi to the guest room, Iruka?"
Iruka nods and takes Kakashi's hand. "This way." He leads Kakashi through a door to a spiraling staircase. They walk up the stairs, passing three landings before Iruka stops. The archway reveals a hallway with several doors. Iruka leads Kakashi to the very end of the hall and opens the door on the right. The room is similar to the sitting room they'd appeared in earlier - sparse but comfortable. There's a large bed in the center of the room and at that moment, all Kakashi can think about is sleep.
"I'm just across the hall if you need anything," Iruka says with a small smile. "I'll wake you for dinner."
Kakashi steps into the room. He's vaguely aware of the door shutting behind him. He falls face first onto the bed and is out in seconds.
Dinner turns out to be roasted venison with salad and potatoes. Iruka sets the food out on the table while Ryuuichi and Kakashi sit opposite each other. Kakashi's attempts to help are waved off, leaving him to stare awkwardly at Ryuuichi until Iruka joins them at the table. Ryuuichi is served first, then Kakashi, then Iruka serves himself. There's a formality to the dinner that sets Kakashi's nerves on edge.
"I have a proposition for you," Ryuuichi says after several long minutes of silence.
Kakashi raises an eyebrow but is otherwise silent.
"Do you want a family?"
Kakashi blinks. The question seems at odds with Ryuuichi's earlier statement. "It's not something I've given much thought to."
"You are fond of Iruka." It's a statement, not a question.
"Father!" A deep blush spreads over Iruka's face. It's quite fetching. Kakashi grins in spite of himself.
"Would you consider retiring here and raising a family with my child?" Ryuuichi asks.
Iruka shifts in his chair and looks down at his plate, still blushing.
Kakashi's eyes fix on Iruka. "That depends on what Iruka wants."
Iruka looks up slowly. Their eyes meet. He knows Iruka isn't lying when he says "I would like that very much."
Kakashi nods. "Then I would give it the highest consideration." A bright smile breaks out on Iruka's face. "But I can't guarantee I'll live to retirement."
"You will." There's no doubt at all in Ryuuichi's voice. "And when you do, you will bring with you a child abandoned by war, one to continue dear Iruka's duties as caretaker of the tower."
"Your caretaker," Kakashi says.
"Caretaker for a demon."
Ryuuichi laughs. "Demon is such a harsh word."
Kakashi raises an eyebrow. "What word would you use?"
Ryuuichi shrugs. "I have no word. I am older than these mountains, older than your years can count."
Iruka reaches across the table and lays his hand on Kakashi's. "He's not evil. He took me in when I had no home. He's taken care of me all of these years."
Kakashi turns his hand in Iruka's until they're holding hands. Ryuuichi smiles. Kakashi doesn't have to answer. He already knows he's going to return.
The war is finally over. Kakashi limps his way through the forest surrounding Nimura, a sleeping bundle tied to his back. The mountains rise up in front of him. It takes an hour following the path from the village to reach the base of the tower, high in the mountains, past the places where the hunters dare not go.
The door open and Iruka stands there smiling. Kakashi has come home.