Iruka kept his horse trotting at a moderate speed. It wasn't exactly a leisurely ride, but it was well below what he and his horse could manage. This way he didn't tire the horse out, or himself, and it had the added benefit of not attracting much attention.
Attracting the wrong kind of attention was the last thing Iruka wanted right now…but it seemed almost inevitable. Given everything else that happened on this trip Iruka was expecting a group of thugs to jump out of the bushes at any moment.
Every time he encountered someone else on the road he tensed, invisibly of course, it wouldn't do to make anyone suspicious of him, but all they ever did was give him a friendly greeting. Some even struck up a short conversation with him, and then they moved on. At this pace he was going to reach Kamakura with time to spare.
As Iruka rode his thoughts drifted. It would be just his luck if Jiraiya didn't visit the festival this year. And really, wasn't it dangerous, even for one of the great sanin, if people could predict your likely whereabouts this easily?
But then again, it was Jiraiya-sama and it was the Kamakura flower-festival. The flower festival where young women danced around in long flowing skirts with only flower necklaces on top.
Iruka imagined that the bulky flower chains hid more than a regular dress would, but he supposed Jiraiya-sama would enjoy the possibility of glimpsing something forbidden. Stories of the old man's exploits were numerous and legendary in Konoha.
The second day he rode until the sun started setting and then made camp. As Iruka fed his small fire with twigs and branches he tried to keep his focus on his surroundings, but again and again he found his mind starting to drift. And when it did… it inevitably drifted to Kakashi.
If only their time together hadn't been so rudely interrupted by Ibiki... He knew Kakashi was certainly planning on trying again, but Iruka still felt restless, impatient and keyed up.
He tried to analyse his feelings. The fear he'd had in the beginning that the jounin was merely playing with him, or just looking for a quick after mission fuck, was pretty much gone. Kakashi's interest seemed to be genuine. So that couldn't be causing the tight nervous feeling he'd had in his gut since he'd left his companions.
Fear for his own safety certainly accounted for a small measure of his nerves, but not all of it. He was too used to being in danger, even if this mission brought different obstacles than what he'd encountered before.
Was he afraid Kakashi would change his mind while they were apart? No, not really. But…you never knew how life would play out, and that right there was the root of Iruka's fear, he realized. It wasn't fear of Kakashi not wanting to come back to him; it was a fear of Kakashi not being able to. And if the jounin was going to be his, then Iruka was going to have to get used to feeling that way, because a jounin's life, especially for one as skilled as Kakashi, consisted of one dangerous mission after another.
Wanting some sort of distraction from his rather gloomy thoughts Iruka reached inside his jacket for the well worn book he was still carrying. By now he was more than half way through Icha Icha paradise, and he was planning to finish it before they reached the gates of Konoha.
He'd been reading for half an hour maybe when he heard the sounds of someone approaching slowly. Twigs snapped, leaves rustled and Iruka grabbed a kunai, hiding it in the palm of his hand and up the sleeve of his jacket, so it wouldn't immediately be visible to a potential enemy. Tensely he waited for whoever was out there to make their next move.
"Hello?" An uncertain voice called out moments later. "May I approach?"
Well, that was unusual. "You may," Iruka answered, not letting his guard down one bit.
A harried looking man walked into the small clearing that Iruka had decided to set up camp in. he was leading his horse behind him.
"Good evening," the man said, bowing deeply, "may I share your fire?"
Iruka was tempted to send the man on his way, but what would be the use? If this guy was planning on attacking him at some point, wouldn't it be better to keep him in sight? And if Iruka wanted to appear as a regular civilian it might arouse suspicion if he turned someone away who politely asked to share his campsite. "Good evening," he replied, "of course you may."
The man heaved a relieved sigh and bowed again. "Thank you." He tied his horse to the same thick branch Iruka had used for his own horse and lifted two heavy looking bags from the horse's back. He set them down gently, threw a blanket over the horse's back and then dropped down opposite Iruka on the other side of the small fire.
"I have to say I'm very glad to have run into you, sir, I never enjoy spending the night alone when I'm travelling. There are so many strange sounds and- oh forgive me for not introducing myself sooner, I am Saito."
Iruka decided Umino was a common enough name not to bother with a fake one. "My name is Umino. It's a pleasure to meet you, Saito-san."
It wasn't, really, but it never hurt to be polite.
"It's a pleasure to meet you too, Umino-san. I'm travelling to Kamakura, for the flower festival." Saito babbled. He looked at Iruka expectantly.
"Me too." There was little use in lying about it.
In the soft glow of the fire Iruka could see that Saito was younger than he'd first thought. The young man couldn't be over 21 years old.
"Are you a merchant too?" Saito asked. "Not that I- Umm, I'm not carrying anything of great value." He added, suddenly looking nervous.
That nervousness, more than anything, helped Iruka relax. He eased his grip on the kunai slightly. "I'm just meeting up with some friends at the festival, who I haven't seen in some time."
Saito smiled at him and nodded. "That's nice." He pulled one of the heavy bags closer and rummaged through it, retrieving a small bowl. "Would you like some rice?" he said, offering it to Iruka.
Iruka smiled and bowed his head. "Thank you, I'm full already." He actually hadn't eaten much but there was no way he would take food from this stranger. Over the last week he'd been poisoned and sedated plenty of times already.
Saito actually looked relieved, though he tried to hide it, and set about eating his meal.
The silence between them was comfortable, but Iruka didn't let down his guard.
After he finished eating Saito turned back to his bag and shoved the now empty bowl back inside it. He kept looking for something though and when Iruka glimpsed the shine of something metal, he readied himself for an attack.
When Saito withdrew his hand he was holding a short knife that looked wickedly sharp. In his other hand he held a heavy wooden block.
The young man dropped back on his ass and started whittling.
Before Iruka's eyes the rough shape of a flower started to take form in the wood as Saito skilfully cut away chip after chip. When he noticed Iruka starring at him the younger man reached into his bag again and threw something at Iruka.
He caught it in reflex and looked at the small wooden object. It was another carved flower, but this one was smooth and had intricate details. "It's beautiful," he said honestly.
Saito smiled at him. "I'm hoping to sell them at the flower festival. You can keep that one, as a thank you for sharing your camp."
"Thank you very much."
Iruka slid the carved flower into his own bag and after Saito continued whittling he let go of his kunai and slipped it into the grass behind him without the other man seeing. He picked up Icha Icha again and continued reading in the dim light provided by the fire.
When Saito yawned and put his tools away, Iruka closed his book too. "I can take the first watch," he offered.
The young man objected politely of course, but before long he was curled up his blanket, snoring softly.
Iruka had no intention of waking him up for the second watch. He didn't plan on having more than a few catnaps until he reached Kamakura and he would take those in the full light of day when he was less likely to be attacked.
All through the night Iruka kept watch while Saito slept, but any sounds he heard appeared to come from animals and dawn arrived without incidence.
When it was light enough to set out he debated with himself for a moment. He would most likely make better time if he travelled alone, but even at a more sedate pace they could probably reach Kamakura by early evening. And even though he might be making a huge mistake, after all a ninja shouldn't trust anyone, he felt a little protective over Saito.
The young man seemed…innocent, too trusting.
He shook Saito's arm to wake him up. "I'm leaving. Would you like to ride together?"
Saito blinked sleepily and it took him a moment to process Iruka's words, then he sat up and nodded eagerly. "Yes please"
They quickly readied their horses and set off. Iruka still had that uneasy feeling in his gut that something would go wrong; that Saito would turn out to be an enemy, sent to lure him into a trap, or a bunch of thugs would attempt to rob the both of them. But as the sun climbed higher into the sky and they got steadily closer to their destination…nothing happened.
The closer to Kamakura they came, the busier the road became, full of merchants making their way to the town in time for the flower festival. By late afternoon, they were no longer travelling with just the two of them, they were pretty much part of one big line of travellers.
They crossed the city gates as the evening fell and Iruka couldn't help but grin at Saito. They'd made it. Without even a hint of trouble. His thoughts turned to Kakashi, Ibiki and Asuma, and he sent up a silent prayer that they would be just as fortunate.
Now all he had to do was find Jiraiya and Naruto.
He looked at the huge number of people milling about. How the hell was he going to find them in this crowd?