One last note, guys! If you're at all interested in paranormal het romance, please check out my webpage at www[dot]jbmcdonald[dot]com. I'd like to make my living writing full time. Means I need to sell some books. ;) (IT IS ONLY $3.50! Consider it a Christmas present to me. :D) Come March I'll have a yaoi novel out, too!

One more last note: You can find all my Naruto fic at jbmcdragon[dot]livejournal[dot]com, linked right on the first post. It stays updated pretty well.

Onto the story! The Epilogue is a PWP and WILL NOT be posted here. You'll have to check out my livejournal page for that. But it's not important to the story, anyway. ;)

Chapter Six

The ease of the night before was gone when Kakashi woke the next morning. He couldn't eat breakfast. It didn't matter if he ate or not, really. It wasn't like he'd need the sustenance. Conversation, so comforting the day before, was stilted. Asking Iruka to accompany him had been a mistake. He shouldn't have done so. He could be unhappy for a few hours before he died; this, on the other hand, would continue to affect Iruka afterward. It would have been kinder to leave the man alone.

He couldn't do it.

Even watching the chuunin wander the house in flannel pants and scars after a shower wasn't interesting. His mind was too preoccupied with everything and nothing. It wasn't like being in a battle, knowing you could die at any moment. It was...

It was awful.

When the knock on the door sounded, it wasn't too soon. Kakashi stood as if pulled, staring at the wooden planks without moving. It was Iruka, dressed now in plain ninja blacks, who walked from the little kitchen and opened the door.

The ANBU outside inclined his head and stepped away. The command was unstated.

Slowly, Kakashi stood. Desperation thrummed through his muscles, an instinctive will to live as old as humanity. Maybe the jutsu wouldn't work. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the hokage would change her mind, and decide two Kakashis were better than one.

Iruka pulled on his ninja vest, tightened his ponytail, and stepped up next to Kakashi wordlessly. Silent support, if nothing else.

Kakashi was glad Iruka was there. He took a deep breath, taking strength from the other man, and walked forward.

They didn't run to the Tower. They gathered an escort, but no one tried to hurry him.

Meandering was good for all sorts of things. Hiding exhaustion, for instance. Hiding hurts and fatigue. Hiding dread and despair and the trembling of his hands, tucked into his pockets as if he didn't have a care in the world.

The Tower appeared too soon.

They did not, thank all that was holy, make him wait. Instead the lot of them--six, now, including Kakashi and Iruka--walked quietly into Tsunade's office where Hatake and Anko already waited, with the hokage herself and another two ANBU. Kakashi's escort bowed and vanished, one by one, until only the ninja who'd knocked on the door was left.

Tsunade gestured to a chair.

"I'd rather stand," Kakashi said, highly aware that Hatake was slouching lazily a few feet away. He didn't look at his other-self. He couldn't quite cope with it.

"Whatever is best. If you're ready to reverse the jutsu?" Tsunade stood as well, leaving empty chairs in the room--all but one, holding Anko as she trimmed her nails with a kunai. Kakashi could feel Iruka's presence just behind him, a wall against his chakra. He wondered if he'd have enough consciousness left when this was over to recognize the energy as familiar, even as he knew he wouldn't. He'd be dispersed and swallowed back into the whole. The very thought made a void in his chest.

But there was nothing left, no reason to delay. Kakashi nodded at Tsunade once, focus turning inward. He remembered the pattern, behind the lid of his Sharingan eye. He could see it, twist it, add a punch here and a new symbol there. Run it backward through this pathway, ignore the crisp burning of pain at the unnatural movement, focus hotter and brighter, and--knowing in a moment he would be gone--hold the memories of his friends and family tight, keep the memories he'd made close, and release the jutsu.

The world popped and burst, shattering around him in a kaleidoscope of pain and color.

It was a long moment before he realized he was still self-aware. He waited for it to vanish, even as he clung to his thoughts.

He was still self-aware. He took a breath, and another, waiting for it to disappear.

He was still self-aware.

He opened his eyes, and saw Tsunade's gaze flicking from him, sideways, and back again, with a look of consternation on her face. He turned.

Anko had stopped paring her nails away and was sitting, staring in astonishment at a bare spot of floor with a scorch mark singed into the carpet.

"Kakashi," Iruka said quietly. A hand settled on his shoulder.

Kakashi swayed under the weight of it. The weight of flesh and muscle. Of bone and tendon and sinew and self awareness. He was here, and the other Kakashi was gone. He'd seen himself dissolving into smoke--

But he was here, and his heartbeat was thundering in his skull suddenly. He staggered as his vision spiraled down to almost nothing, while the noises around him made little sense as they beat haphazardly against his eardrums. His legs buckled.

Hands caught him under the arms, someone cursed, a body pressed against his back. As the world swam into view again, he realized he was folded over on the floor, his forehead to the carpet.

One voice penetrated first, the quietest one, near his ear, coming from the body bent over his while a hand rubbed up and down his spine. "Just breathe, Kakashi. That's it. Keep breathing. Nice and slow." Iruka. Kakashi focused on the soothing tone, pulling air deeply into his lungs.

"I'm alive."

Iruka laughed. "Yes."

"Not the clone."


"I suppose," Tsunade said acerbically, as if his living--and proving her theories wrong--was a personal affront, "that we should have figured you were the real one when you came up with a way to break the jutsu first."

Ibiki's voice chimed in next, bone dry. "If you're done swooning..."

Kakashi sat straight up, smashing his head into Iruka's face. Iruka reeled away while Kakashi clutched his skull and they both cursed.

"You can't be the real one!" Anko yelled from across the room. "He was the real one!"

Ibiki came to the rescue. "Apparently not." He knelt, and Kakashi felt the whisper of healing chakra slide into him, easing his headache. "Good job, shinobi," the man murmured for Kakashi's ears alone. Then he was standing, moving away, and Anko was still complaining.

And Kakashi remembered, suddenly. Memories that had belonged to a well-made clone. "Oh, Anko," he drawled. "The first afternoon?"

"What? He was willing!"

"Kotetsu!" Tsunade called. "Iruka's nose is broken. Get him to the hospital, would you?"

Kakashi looked up and around a little wildly, gaze finally landing on the chuunin. Both tan hands were cupped over his face, his eyes were watering, and blood crept down his wrists. "'M okay!" The words were muffled. He didn't look okay.

"Izumo, get Kakashi home."

"I'm okay." He grabbed a nearby chair and pushed to his feet, determined to follow Kotetsu and Iruka. The world spun. His grip tightened.

"Yeah, you look okay. You're about to fall over. Go home and get some sleep. Your chakra's all over the map.

"Wait." He tore his gaze away as Iruka and Kotetsu vanished around the corner, turning to look at Tsunade instead. "I need some brain bleach. I keep seeing Anko naked."

"You jackass!" Anko threw a chair at him. Izumo blocked it.

"I'll send a bottle of vodka along," Tsunade said blandly. "Now get into bed."

He wanted to argue. He didn't have the energy.


He woke to a quiet thumping. Kakashi looked around his tiny apartment blearily, trying to discern where the noise was coming from. It was dark, the blinds drawn closed though they glowed with outside light.

Something thumped again.

Kakashi rolled out of bed, hit the floor, and dragged himself to his feet. He kicked free of the covers, staggering to the door. "What?" he mumbled, yanking it up.

Iruka's eyebrows rose, and he took half a step back. The man's expression went wary and guarded. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right."

Dragging a hand through his hair in a vain attempt to bring some order to it, Kakashi stepped away from the door to let the chuunin in. "I am. I'm fine. Your nose--?"

With a wry smile, Iruka reached up to touch it. His other hand gripped the handle of a bag. "Healed. The medics are getting better and better. You haven't had any more cases of swooning?"

Kakashi straightened, watching the chuunin take off his sandals and come inside. "I didn't swoon."

"Yeah, you did. I caught you. I could get you a fainting couch, if you think it might happen again--"

"I did not faint!"

Iruka's eyes twinkled. Kakashi glared for a moment longer, then huffed a laugh.

"So," Iruka said. "You're alive."

Kakashi spread his arms and bowed.

"Feel good?"

Self consciousness had him raising one hand, ruffling it through his hair. He'd said things to Iruka, things he wouldn't have said if he'd known he was going to live. Looking back over them, though... well, a lot of them were embarrassing. But not one of them did he regret. "Yeah," he said quietly. "It does."

Iruka glanced around the studio apartment. "You worried Tsunade, you know. After you swooned."

The glance flicked at him made Kakashi suspect he was being baited. He lifted a single silver eyebrow and otherwise ignored the comment. "Oh?"

"You've been asleep for over twenty-four hours."

That gave him pause. He turned, glancing around his apartment as if something would tell him what day it was. Only the calendar, and that gave him a whole month to choose from. "I have not."

"You did. You fainted--good thing I was there to catch you--broke my nose, and then slept for twenty-four hours."

He couldn't stand it. "I did not faint!"

"The bad news is, you did. It's even in your medical chart." Iruka grinned, showing teeth. "The good news is, I brought you food, and had you not swooned I wouldn't have." He lifted the bag he still held, and for the first time Kakashi realized it smelled like food.

"You're a saint," he said, with all the honesty of a dying man.

Iruka chuckled. "I rescue damsels in distress, too. Only in my spare time."

"And catch fainting jounin." Kakashi took the bag, the ring of Iruka's laughter following him. There were containers stacked carefully one on top of another, enough for two people. He pulled down plates and piled rice and sweet and sour pork on top, chicken basted in some sort of lemon dressing, snow peas and broccoli swimming in sauce. His mouth watered. His stomach certainly agreed with Iruka: it had been twenty-four hours.

And with that thought, his bladder chimed in.

"Damn," he muttered, and handed a plate and chopsticks to the other man before heading for the bathroom. Surely, he thought a few moments later, he'd woken and answered Nature's Call at some point before. That, or he was much more impressed with his body's ability to put off that particular call.

The last shreds of sleep cleared from his eyes as he walked back out to the main room, seeing Iruka on the futon--folded back into a couch--with a plate balanced on his knees.

Kakashi was alive. Alive to smell food and to eat dinner with a friend--alive to have a friend. A friend licking sauce off a chopstick before snapping up a bite of pale meat.

Kakashi picked up his plate slowly, considering. Mentally tracking his train of thought. He was alive. That just wasn't getting old any time soon. His whole body felt halfway electric. "Did Tsunade come up with a theory on why I lived and he didn't?" There was no need to specify 'he.'

"Just that you were the real one. That anybody could have reported what happened, including a clone, and that the level of thought you'd given everything should have been a clue. You were trying to figure it all out and worrying, which any good ninja would do, while your clone was boinking Anko."

Kakashi winced, assaulted with images. "Please don't remind me."

Iruka laughed.

Kakashi smiled softly, looking at him again. Over the last days, he'd made a friend. A friend who'd implied the attraction was mutual. Without the stress of a looming execution... boinking seemed like a much better idea. In fact, as alive as he felt... Kakashi ate a snow pea and considered the chuunin, the way late afternoon light crept through the blinds and turned individual strands of black hair liquid gold, the way it gilded the man's strong profile. Broad hands and callused fingers, muscles rounded under ninja blacks. The line of a scar across his nose.

"If you keep staring, you'll grow hair on your palms," Iruka said without looking up.

Kakashi smiled slowly, ambling to the futon and sitting down as well. "Glad to know. I'm alive."

Iruka grinned at him, taking obvious pleasure in that very fact. "I know."

"I did say I might make a nuisance of myself."

A new light entered Iruka's eyes. He leaned back, watching Kakashi thoughtfully. "Hmmm. It's a risk I'm willing to take."

"I did say I might seduce you." Kakashi put his plate on the low table. He was hungry, but there were much better things to do with his time.

Iruka tapped the ends of his chopsticks against his mouth, pondering. "Yeah. You're awfully hard on the eyes." Kakashi took his plate. He didn't protest. "Maybe if you're really a genius, I might let you."

Kakashi smiled slowly. "I think I can prove my worth."

"Oh?" Iruka looked doubtful.

"I can sing the Weeple-Wobbler song, even though I've only heard it once."

That brought a surprised laugh, and he leaned forward quickly, trapping it and swallowing it down. The mouth under his was still curved with a smile, even as Iruka pressed back, a hand sliding up into Kakashi's hair.

There were a lot of things he would have missed about life. This was definitely one of them.


Did you enjoy this? AWESOME. Try this sneak peek from By Degrees, my yaoi novel due out in March:

Tim's fingers flattened out as he followed the line of hair to where it smoothed down the center of Con's stomach.

Con inhaled slowly, trying to bank his arousal. His muscles tightened, shuddering against Tim's hands.

"Are you ticklish?" Tim asked, surprised.

"Not... exactly."

"You shivered." It was almost an accusation. Con could practically hear the wheels spinning in Tim's head; you shivered, you must be ticklish.

"Yeah," Con said.

Tim traced idle patterns on Con's stomach, looking at him thoughtfully. Then his fingers caught on Con's belly button, distracting him again. His hand slid lower, stopping where the little trail of hair vanished under the waistband of Con's jeans. Fingers skimmed along the edge, thumb flicking at the button.

Oh, God, Con had to stop that line of touch right now. "Do I smell like my shirt?" It was the first thing that popped into his mind.

Tim started to lean over, lost his balance, rose up on his knees, and swung across so that he was on all fours, hands on either side of Con's head, knees on either side of his waist. Then he lowered himself, leaning down until they were tantalizingly close, his face inches from Con's neck and shoulder. Con felt heat trapped between them. Tim's shirt brushed against his stomach. His muscles tightened. Breath whispered against his neck with each of Tim's exhalations. As distractions went, Con thought it was effective -- on both of them.

"Yeah." The warmth between them went damp with the word. Then Tim sat up, rump coming down on Con's hips a hair above his erection. Con considered wiggling and, at the last moment, decided against it.

Tim's hands skimmed over Con's chest, shaping his torso, rubbing back up again in long, sweeping motions. "You have big muscles."

"They're for carrying people out of burning buildings." Con smiled.

Tim returned it absently, then caught his lower lip in his teeth. He swallowed, pupils dilated, breathing shallow. Con had guessed right, then: Tim got off on men, but didn't like giving up control. He nearly laughed. Hell, he didn't mind letting someone else set the pace.

Tim squirmed against him, thighs rubbing against Con's hips, butt against his crotch briefly. Con bit back a sigh of appreciation, and wondered how he could get Tim to speed things up a little. Tim leaned closer, skimming a finger along Con's jaw, up around the cup of his ear, into his hair.


"Does your mouth still feel funny?" Con stared at Tim's lips; not terribly far away.

Tim's tongue slipped out and back in. "Kinda." It wasn't the kiss Con was hoping for.

"Timmy," he murmured, trying to seem soft and harmless -- not easy when you were over six foot and built with muscle. "Can I touch you, too?"

And from Treasure Hunting, my paranormal het romance that's up for sale now over at www[dot]jbmcdonald[dot]com:

Light slid over his flesh as he moved, creating patterns and shadows where there were none. He edged closer until Meg could feel his body heat pressing up against her.

"I don't even know you," he said, sounding a little frustrated.

Meg snorted and closed the rest of the distance. "Don't you know guys aren't supposed to want to know someone? Guys are just supposed to have mindless sex all the time."

He laughed, dark and quiet. "Of course. I apologize. Whatever was I thinking?"

"And you're still talking," Meg pointed out, sliding her hand up the back of his neck, pulling him down toward her for a kiss. His lips were warm, soft without being feminine, his hair silky under her fingers. Then his arm shifted, hand splaying across the small of her back, spreading heat and making rivulets of pleasure cascade down her spine. He shifted her effortlessly, single arm tightening and pulling her closer until her hip pressed in against his. All thoughts of warm softness evaporated in that single tug, carefully restrained power suddenly obvious in the ease with which he moved her.

Meg squeaked at the initial pull, unused to someone strong enough to do as they pleased. Her hands tightened, one on his neck, the other on his good shoulder. A chuckle rumbled through his chest, and snugged close against him she could feel as well as hear it. Heat spread throughout her body like lightning, skin electrified. Santiago's mouth shifted, nose skimming against the sensitive skin under her earlobe. Meg's breath broke. She tipped her head, giving him better access. His hand brushed up and down over ribs and back, spreading easy, warm pleasure. She shifted, feeling along muscled arms, smoothing her fingers over elastic flesh stretched taut across planes of muscle.

"You know," she said, then stopped to kiss golden skin, nipping gently at his neck before tonguing the mark. He tasted like salt and musk and something she could only describe as masculine warmth. "I've never liked long hair on men before."

"You're suggesting I cut it?" Santiago asked, amusement in his voice.

"God, no," Meg said swiftly. She ran her hands across his collarbones, down the front of his chest, felt him shiver when she dragged her nails over a perfectly muscled torso. "It makes you look a little wild."

"You like wild," Santiago murmured, the words not quite a question. Meg looked up and saw teeth, white and gold in the firelight, as he grinned.

"I love wild," Meg admitted on a sigh. It had gotten her in more than a little trouble at times.

His voice dropped to a purr, the words felt as much as heard. "I'm good at wild."

Meg shivered. "I just bet." Wherever he touched her felt hot, liquid fire sizzling along her skin. And he seemed to touch her everywhere.

After all, what's the point of fanfic if not to pimp, right? Right. ;-D