Iruka burst through the shadowy brush, and spotted a metallic twinkle out of the corner of his eye. Making some quick calculations, he twisted to one side and dodged the spear that swiped in the vicinity of his stomach. He darted forward and dealt a quick jab into the ribs of his attacker, before leaping into the air to deliver a quick snap-kick to the head. He winced as the teenager who attacked him went down like a bag of rice.

"Sorry," he whispered.

"Ugh," the youth grunted from somewhere near his ankle.

Iruka checked briefly to see that he wasn't too injured and then dashed off. He had to be quick; he had only been given a certain time-frame in which to complete this course, and he wasn't about to fail. Kakashi-san needed him to do this properly.

He made it to the clearing from which he had started only a few minutes before, and a volley of spears rained down in his direction. He twisted and ducked, and managed to snatch one of them out of the air before it struck him in the throat. He sensed someone coming at him from his left, and spun to face them, thrusting the spear forward.

When Iruka realised that this new combatant appeared to be a boy of about ten years of age, he tilted up his wrist ever so slightly, changing the trajectory of the weapon. The tip of the spear went up, the shaft barely sliding over the boy's shoulder.

The boy, his hair long and eyes wide, grinned up at him. For someone who had nearly been skewered by a trained shinobi, he was ridiculously cheerful.

The boy clapped his hands together, and Iruka tried not to stare at the larger, red one.

"That was great!" The boy looked backwards, at the rest of the wandering group that Iruka and Kakashi had been sent to investigate. "Wasn't that great?"

"Yeah," one of them agreed, stumbling out from behind Iruka; this was the one Iruka had just dealt with, out of about ten relatively strong fighters, for civilians. "It's awesome to get a sandal to the face, Akako-sama."

"Be quiet, Denji, you big baby." The boy, Akako, scowled playfully at him, and the other wanderers either rolled their eyes or tittered to themselves. Iruka glanced to where his team-captain was sitting next to the camp's fire, stirring chopsticks through a large bowl of noodles, and seeming utterly comfortable with that fact that his legs were tied up and all his chakra was suppressed. There was even a shining loop of energy around his wrists, preventing him from moving too far.

"I passed your test," Iruka said, handing over the spear to one of the wandering folk. Akako's eyes flashed red for a moment and Iruka reminded himself that this was no mere child he was dealing with. Akako was obviously a demon of great strength, powerful enough to bind Kakashi's chakra when the two shinobi and members of the wandering tribe had clashed. Akako seemed to consider himself a protector of these gypsies, roaming with them all over the Great Nations. He had a general playful air, except for when he said that the only way he would spare Kakashi's life was if Iruka went through a gauntlet of their best warriors.

"So you did." Akako looked up at him, the expression in his dark eyes now unreadable.

"I told you he would, and without the use of jutsu, too," Kakashi called out, and then warily accepted a small basket of fried tofu pouches. "Oh, for me? These look... nice."

Iruka felt his mouth twist. Kakashi-san was impossible.

Akako seemed to think otherwise. "Isn't he the coolest?" he whispered loudly. "I'll keep him with us."

"But he belongs to our Hidden Village," Iruka said, keeping his tone level. "And you said you'd spare his life if I passed your test."

"It was more a test for my fighters than for you." Akako waved his red, clawed hand nonchalantly in the air. "Obviously they need more training. And I said I would spare his life...not let him go."

Iruka took a deep breath. "Well. Alright, then." He chanced a glance at Kakashi, who was not looking at him but inspecting one of the tofu-pouches. "I'll claim my prize and go, in that case."

"Alright!" Akako clapped his hands together again. "I said you could have anything you can carry out of our camp."

"I have your word on that?" Iruka crossed his arms over his chest, looking down at Akako as if the boy was one of his own students who had forgotten his homework.

"You have my word as a leader of the Cloud Tree People."

"How about your word as a yōkai?" Iruka didn't look away as Akako's eyes flashed red again, and an unseen wind shifted the boy's hair.

"Do you want my word as a demon?" Akako gave him a smile that was more sneer than mirth. Iruka, who was used to Kakashi-san's odd moods, didn't back down. "Most humans don't want that."

"I do. Now, do I have it?"

"Yes, shinobi-san." Akako's answer was swift. His smile seemed more sincere now, and Iruka suddenly wondered how much of his childish persona was an attempt to lull potential attackers, and how much of it was genuine. Iruka knew children well, at least, and when he smiled back, Akako grinned outright.

"Well, go ahead," Akako said, and stepped aside. Iruka took a deep breath and marched over to Kakashi, who blinked up at him as if he had been dozing off.

"Yes?" Kakashi said.

"Come on, taicho," Iruka told him, and bent to lift him up. For such a slender man, Kakashi was heavy, but Iruka was strong enough to sling Kakashi over his shoulder and stalk off in the direction of Konoha.

"Hey!" Akako yelled. "Hey, not him!"

"You said anything I could carry," Iruka called back. "I can carry Kakashi-san, and so I can have him."

"Oh, sensei," Kakashi murmured, resting his hands on the small of Iruka's back. "'Have' me? How presumptuous of you."

"Please shut up, Kakashi-taicho," Iruka told him. He heard the fire roaring behind him, and when he turned around quickly, Iruka saw Akako standing in front the now massive pillar of flame, smaller ones flicking from his eyes.

"I want him, he's mine," Akako said, and multiple voices emanated from his mouth. Iruka took a step back, feeling Kakashi tense on his shoulder. "I need him for the Cloud Tree people, to help me care for them." He raised his red hand, a ball of flame forming over those dangerous claws, and then Denji grabbed his wrist.

"Please, Akako-sama," Denji said. His voice was utterly calm, even though his hand must have been getting burnt by the demon's flames. Akako appeared to realise this, for the ball of fire disappeared in a puff of smoke, and the fire behind him dropped back down so swiftly to its former size that Iruka had to blink quickly for a fewbeats, readjusting his vision.


"You gave your word as a yōkai, and as our leader," Denji said, pulling back his hand and cradling it against his chest with the other. Akako reached out, the corners of his lips turned down. He brushed his red hand over Denji's burnt skin, healing the flesh that had already began to form blisters and scars.

"A good leader keeps his word," Denji continued. He sounded very gentle. "We don't need Kakashi-san. We already have you."

Akako closed his eyes briefly and then nodded before opening them. When he faced Iruka, he was smiling again.

"Iruka-sensei! Please allow me remove the chakra-blocks, if you insist on carrying him."

"You can let me down," Kakashi said Akako's powerful force washed over them. Iruka was reminded of the sensation he got sometimes when he hugged Naruto, the impression of immense energy barely under control. "I can walk now, Iruka-sensei."

"I have to carry you out of the camp." Iruka shifted Kakashi on his shoulder. "You must know how specific yōkai can be at times."

Kakashi didn't answer, but just hummed to himself as Iruka bid the wanderers farewell, and hurried out of their encampment. He sincerely hoped that, with Denji's calm guidance, Akako would be an even better protector of his adopted people.

He walked with Kakashi over his shoulder until he reckoned he was well outside the limits of the temporary camp. As equanimous as the Cloud Tree tribe had turned out to be, he was taking no chances with mischievous and temperamental child-demons.

Iruka paused near a tree and let Kakashi down. He stepped away, hoping that his red cheeks could be explained away by exertion, and not by the sensation of Kakashi's body sliding against his. Kakashi leaned against the trunk of the tree and stuck his hands in his pockets; he could have been lounging against a wall in Konoha. His revealed eye considered Iruka closely.

"That was clever of you," he said.

"Well, I have my moments," Iruka answered, or he tried to, because Kakashi was suddenly crowding up against him, hands heavy on his hip. Iruka was about to snarkily point out that if he could move so fast, he should have been able to avoid the demon's chakra earlier. Then, he found that he couldn't speak, because Kakashi's lips were hard against his, and his tongue was licking into Iruka's mouth.

This kiss was over before Iruka could do anything about it, and he gaped at Kakashi's pale face in the darkness, trying to make out the details of it before the mask was replaced.

"Um," he said.

Kakashi stepped back. "Turns out I have a kink for being rescued and carried over a sensei's shoulder," he said, and shrugged in a who knew fashion. He turned on his heel and then leaped for the trees. Iruka followed quickly, a slow smile creeping over his face as he made plans to rescue Kakashi again in the near future.

"I can hear you plotting behind me," Kakashi called out as they raced home. "I feel I should be worried for my safety."

Iruka just kept grinning.