Kakashi raised an eyebrow. He glanced between the nobles gathered before Queen Tsunade's throne and the queen herself. As head of the Konoha royal guard, he usually attended most audiences with the queen, but it was rare for him to actually be required to do anything. Rarer still for the queen to order him out on a mission that seemed so... trivial. "You're kidding me, right?"
Tsunade sighed and leaned heavily against the arm of her throne. She rolled her head to the side and glanced at Shizune, obviously as annoyed as Kakashi was at the request. The level glare she received in return was answer enough. Tsunade sighed again and nodded to Kakashi. "Yeah. I suppose you should do it."
The nobles gathered before them gawked. They obviously had never personally met with Tsunade before. It wasn't that Tsunade didn't care about her people, but rather that she cared about serious matters related to the well-being of the kingdom. Not this petty bullshit. Kakashi's grin was thankfully hidden behind his mask, where it wouldn't rile the gathered nobles further. He loved watching the pompous asses that fouled the court get flustered.
Once upon a time, the nobility actually meant something. It had been made up of the best warriors of the kingdom. The prowess of their ancestors had obviously not filtered down these specific family lines, otherwise they wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.
Kakashi bit back a groan. He actually had to waste time helping these assholes. Ugh.
"Your majesty..." Lady Akane spluttered, obviously impatient with the lack of response to their petition.
Tsunade turned to Kakashi. He resisted the urge to sigh himself and stepped down from his spot behind the throne. He raised his hands to placate the nobles. "Alright. Tell me about this notorious thief that's been bothering you." A clamor rose from the gathered nobles as they all tried to speak at once, the volume in the throne room rising dramatically as each noble tried to shout over the others. Kakashi raised his hands again. Silence fell. "One at a time."
"He stole a valuable gem from my house."
"He stole my precious emerald!"
"I just bought that thing and now it's gone!"
"It can never be replaced!"
"One of a kind!"
Kakashi zoned out and stared out the vaulted windows while the nobles droned on. Blah blah blah. My gem was stolen. Blah blah blah. So important. Blah blah blah. Thief must pay. Blah blah blah. He held his hands up once more. "Did any of you happen to see the thief?"
Blank stares answered his question.
"Of course." Kakashi waved his hand and started out of the throne room. "I'll be back."
Maybe if he interviewed some of the servants of the noble households, he'd learn something actually useful.
Kakashi was starting to suspect a pattern. He'd been through three holds already and the one-of-a-kind precious gems that the nobles were so up in arms about seemed exactly the same. Every house had the same story. A sketchy merchant passed through town selling wares and requested an audience at the local manor house to meet with the presiding noble. Once there, the merchant offered each of the nobles an emerald the size of a man's head. The nobles turned over their riches to buy the emeralds and then less than a week later, the emeralds were stolen back by the notorious thief.
At least he'd managed to get something of a description of the thief. Darker skin. Black hair. Charming smile. The latter mostly came from scullery maids who had been tricked into letting the thief into the house. The thief seemed to prefer a ruse where he begged food off the kitchen staff in exchange for work around the house. The maids seemed smitten with the thief, even if the thief hadn't actually made any real advances on the women. He'd been polite and charming, they'd said. He only stayed one night and in the morning both the thief and the gem were gone.
Surprisingly, nothing had been stolen besides the gems. The thief had left behind piles of jewelry and bags of coin. Nothing else in the houses had been touched. Some of the gems had been taken from their owners' very bedchambers – while the occupants were sleeping in them. That spoke of a level of skill beyond the ordinary pickpocket or cutpurse.
Kakashi had to wonder, what was so special about these specific gems that the thief felt a need to only steal them? He needed to find that merchant.
"I swear it wasn't a setup!" The grubby merchant wriggled in Kakashi's grasp. "I didn't know they were going to be stolen."
Kakashi tightened his grip. He'd barely had to threaten the man to get him to talk. He loved it when his job was easy.
"I swear!" The merchant sniveled. Kakashi rolled his eyes and tried not to gag. Had the man never heard of bathing? "I had no idea that brat would come after them again."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "That brat?"
The merchant snorted. "It must be that dirty man from the forest. He tried to take them once before but my guards caught him. We were merciful and let him live. That was obviously a mistake."
"Just south of Lord Neji's lands. There's a village nearby – Netani. Most people don't go beyond the village because they say there's monsters in the woods. All we saw was that brat."
Kakashi dropped the merchant and wiped his hands on his breeches. There was something off about the merchant's story but Kakashi had no idea what. There was only one way to find out. The merchant had sold eight gems but only six had been stolen so far. That gave him time to get to the woods before the thief and start setting his traps.
He was going to catch a thief.
A faint buzz of chakra woke Kakashi from where he was napping in a tree. Seconds later there was a pained scream from further off in the trees. Kakashi took his time moving through the trees. His senses told him that the trap was still occupied, though his prey was struggling. Apparently he'd accurately judged which route the thief would take to get back to his woods.
He stood at the edge of the clearing and watched for a moment from his vantage point hidden high in the trees. He had indeed caught his thief, though he matched more what the maids described than the merchant. He had darker skin common among the southern holds and black hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. He dressed poorly which seemed odd for a thief, especially one who had stolen such riches. There was a large backpack on the ground near him, obviously where he had stored the emeralds. The thief's foot was caught in Kakashi's trap and though the thief struggled, the trap held him tight.
Kakashi jumped down to land in a crouch on the soft grass. As soon as Kakashi appeared, the thief stilled, his attention fixed on Kakashi. Kakashi straightened and approached. "You've been causing quite a bit trouble in Konoha," Kakashi said.
The thief's face paled further. He tried to shift away and then winced as the movement jarred his foot. "I have done nothing wrong," the thief said. Kakashi took a moment to absorb the thief's words. He wasn't the illiterate savage that the merchant had painted him to be and he seemed convinced of what he was saying.
Kakashi walked over to the backpack, pulling it out of the thief's reach as he made a grab for it. A whimper of pain escaped the thief and for a brief, fleeting moment, Kakashi felt sorry for him. He pushed that thought away. His job was to catch the thief, not sympathize with him.
Kakashi reached into the backpack and pulled out one of the emeralds. They were impressive in size and much heavier than Kakashi expected. "I don't believe these belong to you."
The thief glared. "They don't belong to those noblemen that greedy merchant sold them to either."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "And you happen to know the owner of these gems?"
"They're not gems, you fool. They're eggs."
Kakashi blinked. He looked from the thief to the gem in his hand. "What?"
The thief slowly shifted into a sitting position, hissing in pain with each small movement. "They're eggs and that bastard merchant stole them. I tried to get them back but his damn guards got it the way. And now you." The thief gestured to his injured leg. "I'll never get them back in time, thanks to you."
Kakashi touched the hard surface of the gem. It certainly felt like stone to him. He sent a tiny spark of chakra into the gem and then jerked back, nearly dropping the gem – no, egg – as he felt a faint pulse of life inside. He hastily put the egg back in the backpack. Now that he looked closer, the thief had wrapped each of the eggs securely in cloth, likely to keep them warm while they were being transported.
"Shit." He turned to the thief. "Why didn't you come to the queen with this? We could have had them returned."
The thief rolled his eyes. "Like a commoner like myself could even meet with the Queen? Are you crazy? And if I did, what then? It's my word against a bunch of nobles. Greed has always won out over the poor man's need."
Kakashi opened his mouth. He wanted to say that Konoha was different, that Tsunade cared, but there were so many layers of bureaucracy between Tsunade and anyone who tried to approach her. Even if Tsunade would have offered help, there were far too many places where the thief – the young man – would have gotten stonewalled and his request dismissed.
He snapped his mouth shut and stood. The young man regarded him warily as Kakashi approached the trap still holding the man's foot. Kakashi kept his movements slow as he reached forward and disengaged the trap. As soon as the magic bindings fell loose, the young man started to jerk away.
"Wait." Kakashi grabbed the man's injured leg before he could hurt himself further in his haste to get away. With his free hand, he pulled bandages and salve from one of his many pouches. "Where do you have to go?"
The man stared at him while Kakashi pushed up the man's pant leg and gently rubbed the salve over the reddened skin. The man's ankle was definitely sprained, if not broken. Kakashi sent a light flow of chakra through the wound and the man gasped, his eyes widening in a mixture of fear and aww.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Kakashi said as he looked up into the young man's pretty brown eyes. Definitely a sprain. He wasn't practiced in the healing arts but he could at least send some chakra towards the wound to speed up the healing. Once he'd finished applying the numbing salve, Kakashi carefully wrapped the man's ankle.
"Too late," the man said.
Kakashi put his supplies away and stood. He slung the backpack onto his shoulders and then reached a hand down towards the young man. The man regarded Kakashi's hand warily. "I'm Kakashi, by the way."
The man hesitated a moment before taking Kakashi's hand. "Iruka." Kakashi pulled Iruka's arm over his shoulders and wrapped an arm around Iruka's waist. "And we need to go south."
"Lead the way."
They slowly hobbled deeper into the woods.
The cave Iruka led them too was impressive. He had to wonder how the merchant had found it at all so deep in the woods. There wasn't a clear path in sight, save for some narrow animal trails. Once they reached the entrance, Iruka pushed away from Kakashi and held his hand out for the bag. Kakashi handed it over and followed after Iruka as Iruka hobbled deeper into the cave.
The light from the opening faded. Iruka seemed to know where he was going even in the dark, but Kakashi worried about Iruka tripping over an unseen rock and injuring himself further. In their last few days of travelling together, Kakashi had found himself growing fond of the amateur thief. He held his hand up and let a ball of light form in his palm. Iruka glanced back in surprise.
"That's unnecessary," Iruka said.
Kakashi smiled. He'd left his mask down around Iruka, not feeling the need to hide anything from the young man. "I do like to see where I'm going."
Iruka blinked and huffed. "Sorry." He spread his hand along the stone wall of the cave and then closed his eyes. Blue lines of light stretched from Iruka's hand and spread like veins through the cave. Kakashi let his light fade as he stared at the blue lines in wonder.
"How did you?"
Iruka shrugged and continued moving deeper in the cave. They turned into a large hollow with a pile of twigs and forest debris littering the center of it. More tunnels led off from the hollow. Kakashi wondered how deep the caves went.
Iruka pushed away from the wall and started towards the nest. Kakashi moved to help him but Iruka waved him off. Once in the center, Iruka dropped to his knees and placed each of the eggs back in the nest. As the last egg was settled, Iruka lifted his head and let out a piercing series of whistles.
"What now?" Kakashi asked.
Iruka turned and offered Kakashi a small smile. "Wait."
Kakashi leaned against the wall and waited. At first, he heard nothing. Then there was a faint scrabbling sound that got louder with each passing second. Kakashi jerked backwards as a large white beast barreled out of one of the far tunnels. He reached for his sword, but Iruka's delighted laugh made him pause.
The beast jumped over the nest to land on Iruka, knocking Iruka flat against the floor. Iruka was laughing as he reached for the beast, rubbing at its fur like it was an overlarge puppy. Kakashi couldn't tell what the thing was. It had a somewhat canine body with nine furry tails wiggling from its behind. It nosed at Iruka, prodding him with its snout and making Iruka giggle. The sound lodged in Kakashi's chest and sent an unfamiliar warmth spreading through his body.
After a moment of play, the beast turned to regard Kakashi with a curious tilt to its head. Iruka pushed himself up, though he kept a hand on the beast's flank. "This is my friend Kakashi. He helped me bring your eggs back." The beast stepped forward and sniffed at Kakashi's front before head-butting Kakashi, almost knocking Kakashi over with its playful force.
"Hi," Kakashi said as he let his hands fall to the beast's soft coat. He scratched behind one of the beast's ears. It seemed to like that, snuffling once before returning to brush against Iruka and then curl up on its nest. Iruka seemed disinclined to move. He stayed by the beast, absently petting its fur while the beast slumbered.
Kakashi stared at the pair for a long moment before turning away. His job was technically done. He could leave at any moment, but that thought left him cold. Iruka was still injured. There were no supplies in the cave and it would be hard for him to find food with his injured leg. The village was a good half a day away on two good legs. It would be nearly impossible to reach it on one.
It didn't take him long to decide what he would do. He gathered wood for a fire and set it up in the cave next to the beast's nest. Then he went hunting. He had some rations still left on him, but fresh food would be better. He caught a brace of rabbits and cooked them up for dinner. Iruka smiled at Kakashi as Kakashi brought him food. The beast seemed disinterested in the rabbit Kakashi offered it.
On the second day, Kakashi went to the village and bought all that he could carry. He had no idea how long they would be staying in the cave. Iruka had refused to share Kakashi's bedroll so he bought cloth and padding to make a bed for Iruka, vegetables and preserved goods to last them at least a week, some better cooking implements and extra containers for water. The look of surprise on Iruka's face as he hobbled towards the fire for dinner was more than worth the coin Kakashi had spent. They shared a brief smile between them and Kakashi felt that strange warmth flooding his chest again.
On the fourth day, the eggs hatched. Kakashi didn't know what was happening at first. He heard a strange squeak from the nest and walked in just in time to see a small fox-like animal stumble out of the mess of twigs. It only had one tail but it's coat was white like the beasts as were the red markings across its face. Iruka cooed to the baby and picked it up, hugging it close to his body and petting its fur. The baby seemed to enjoy the attention.
One by one the rest of the eggs hatched, revealing more of the one-tailed children. Kakashi had given up any pretense of staying aloof long ago and knelt next to Iruka to play with the babies. The beast seemed overjoyed, bouncing around the cave to nudge and snuggle its children. While the beast was up, Iruka bent over the nest, slowly pulling fragments of emerald egg shell out from the nest.
On the tenth day, Iruka leg was healed enough to walk normally. The babies followed Iruka around the caverns, trailing after him everywhere he went.
Iruka stared at Kakashi as they finished their dinner. "I suppose you'll be leaving soon."
Kakashi suppressed a grimace. "I should report back to the queen."
Iruka stood, leaving his half eaten dinner on the floor. For a moment, Kakashi worried that he'd upset Iruka but then Iruka came back with his old backpack. Something heavy weighed the pack down. "Here. They may not be worth much now, but at least you can take something back for the noblemen."
Kakashi stared at the bag. What would the nobles do if they knew there was a creature that made emerald eggs? He shook his head and pushed the bag back towards Iruka. "No. They belong here with you."
Kakashi slept uneasy that night and he could hear Iruka tossing and turning as well. They both rose unrested in the morning.
Iruka frowned. "I suppose this is goodbye. Travel safe."
Kakashi felt conflicted. He'd always been proud to serve the queen but he didn't want to go. He'd never felt like this before. The castle had been his home since he was a child and yet the thought of going back pained him.
He made a decision in that instant and stepped toward Iruka. His fingers brushed against Iruka's cheek, making Iruka's eyes go wide. "Not goodbye," Kakashi said. "Merely a 'see you soon'." He brushed his lips across Iruka's. A new light sparked in Iruka's eyes, something like determination and promise. "I'll come back."
Iruka smiled. "I'll come find you if you don't."
Kakashi grinned and kissed Iruka again. It wasn't a last kiss, merely a parting one. "I might just let you steal me away if you do."
The pups raced in from the other room and swarmed around Kakashi and Iruka's legs. Iruka grinned. "You have no idea what these little babies can do."
Kakashi laughed and forced himself to step away. If he didn't leave now, he never would. He had to report back to Tsunade or they'd send out the army looking for him. He also wanted to find a certain merchant who now owed the nobles of Konoha a large sum of money. He bowed to Iruka as he reached the mouth of the cave. "It has been a grand chase. I look forward to our next meeting."
Iruka's smile stayed with him as Kakashi disappeared into the woods.