Glossary at the end of the chapter. Author's notes before the prologue.
LJ version table of contents
There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.
-- George Carlin
"And then Asuma-sensei did this very wicked thing with his tongue ..."
Kakashi almost choked on his ramen, and he looked up sharply, his single blue eye widening. So engrossed had he been in his analysis of Iruka's character, that the Chuunin had managed to catch him quite unaware. He did not like it.
"Asuma did what?"
"Somehow I thought that would catch your attention," Iruka murmured, pursing his lips in slight distaste. "Did you even listen to a word of what I said?"
"No, I didn't," the Jounin confirmed amiably. "What did you say?"
Iruka struggled visibly for a few seconds to compose himself, cursing inwardly his lack of control over his emotions. The man's sheer presence never failed to make his blood boil. Especially these days, when even petty little things had a severe tendency to grate on his nerves.
"Would you mind," he asked as politely as he could, "If I borrowed Naruto for the afternoon?"
Kakashi seemed to consider that for a moment, tilting his bushy head pensively.
"Actually, yes, I think I would."
Which was absolutely false, and both of them knew it. It was Sunday, and Naruto was technically off-duty. Iruka had only been asking Kakashi out of professional consideration.
It was the proverbial straw. Iruka saw red.
As the Jounin turned back to his meal, the Hunter grabbed him roughly by his flak jacket, and, with surprising strength, yanked him off his stool, before pushing him out in the fortunately deserted street.
"What's your problem?" Iruka yelled. Behind him, he could feel his former students' bewildered eyes on his back, but at this point, he was beyond caring.
Kakashi, slightly surprised, straightened his ruffled clothes and pride.
"I could ask you the same question," he retorted dryly, vaguely amused, as he admired shamelessly Iruka's darkly flushed face. Anger suited him well, Kakashi thought. "You're the one screaming your lungs off, not me."
The Chuunin looked faintly insulted at that, but went on doggedly.
"Don't play innocent with me," he seethed. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
Kakashi did. However, he certainly wasn't going to tell him that. He found this new version of Iruka curiously fascinating, and besides, he wasn't quite done with him.
"I do?" he said, looking rather bored with the whole conversation.
Iruka's fury increased with the Jounin's nonchalance. He wanted to get a reaction, any reaction out of the aloof, indifferent ninja. The tension that had been bottling up deep inside him since the runaway's execution suddenly focused solely on Kakashi -- a man who stirred painfully confusing, contradictory emotions in him, and who seemed, plainly, to bring out the worst in him. Anger, obviously; jealousy, for being close to Naruto on a daily basis; involuntary, childish delight at his antics and unusual way of life; and lastly, desire -- he could not deny it.
"Is it about that fucking exam? I said I was sorry, for Hokage's sake! Won't you ever let it go? Why do you do that to me?"
Kakashi was surprised at hearing him swear. It was the last question, however, that appalled him. What was Iruka ranting about?
The three Genins watched their elders in growing dismay, confusion written plainly on their young faces. Even Sasuke seemed slightly distressed. Never before before had they seen calm, laid-back Iruka-sensei so enraged.
What had started as innocent teasing -- maybe not so innocent, Kakashi admitted -- was quickly turning into something a lot uglier.
It wasn't about him or their dispute anymore, Kakashi realized, it went far beyond that. The Chuunin was alarmingly close to a nervous breakdown, the tight grasp he kept on his power dissolving as his anger neared its peak. The air crackled around him, and chakra flared between his fingers as he clenched and unclenched his fists spasmodically.
He was pale, and there were bags under his eyes, the Jounin noted suddenly. He looked taut and drawn and ready to burst and why hadn't he noticed it sooner?
Kakashi had to end it, and quickly. He grabbed the young man by his left arm arm and shook him without gentleness.
"Snap out of it, Iruka!" he ordered firmly.
Iruka flinched visibly, his dilated pupils coming back into focus. Then, with a hiss of pain, he wrenched himself from Kakashi's grasp. His right hand flew to his arm, and he stifled a curse. A rush of fresh blood seeped through the material of his shirt, smearing his fingers and spattering the ground.
"Iruka-sensei!" cried Naruto, horrified. He lunged forward to help his beloved teacher, but Sasuke's strong grip on his shoulder stopped him.
"Leave them," he cut in coldly. The blonde Genin stepped back reluctantly, nibbling his lower lip in worry.
Kakashi had not moved. A succession of images passed through his mind at an alarming rate. Kurohyou, injured during their mission, a kunai sticking out of his left arm; his surprising consideration of Naruto, earlier that morning; Iruka, gentle Iruka, radiating astounding power and fury; Iruka, clutching his wounded limb ...
And suddenly, everything clicked together.
Their eyes met. The breathless Chuunin's gaze locked with the Jounin one-eyed, shocked stare.
"Looks like the cat got your tongue," murmured Kakashi eventually, wincing inwardly at the awful pun. He had wanted to discover Iruka's secret, and he had gained his end, as he always did. There was no triumph to be seen in his single blue eye, however -- he merely felt drained, and surprisingly sad. He had succeeded, pushing the right buttons at the right moment -- but at what cost?
He knows, thought Iruka in silent despair. He knows.
There, at that fleeting moment, his mask slipped. A profound lassitude washed over the young man, and he wished he could curl up in a ball, and sleep, sleep the pain away.
I don't want to kill him.
The mere thought twisted something viciously in his gut.
There was only thing left for him to do at that instant.
Iruka turned around and fled.
Kakashi watched him go, hoping against all odds that he had merely been jumping hastily to conclusions.
Knowing he hadn't.
Midnight found Kurohyou standing stiff and straight by the memorial stone outside the village. He knew Kakashi would come -- his legendary curiosity would undoubtedly get the better of him.
After their altercation at the Ichiraku -- and his embarrassing, unreasoned bout of anger -- the young man had spent excruciating hours ruminating his possible courses of action -- and insufferable though the Jounin could be, slaying him definitely held no appeal to him. Quite the contrary.
He had been lenient with his secret of late, he knew -- sparing Kurenai's life, letting her and the Hokage continually joke about his identity...
Careless. The word echoed eerily in his head.
Prostrated on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, Iruka had realized that he had no choice but to confront Kakashi. There was no mission scheduled that night -- if the Jounin came anyway at their usual summoning spot, Iruka's doubts would be confirmed.
Then, Iruka would have to kill him.
And now, shivering in the chill night, the Hunter merely felt bleak, and very, so very tired.
Had Iruka been less distressed, his mind turned less inward on his incertitude and guilt, he would have noticed the warning signs his body was sending him. When he had extracted the kunai, almost a day ago, a dirty shard of metal had lodged itself, unnoticed, deep inside the wound. He had only disinfected it shallowly and quickly; his weakened state had done the rest. Back there, at the ramen restaurant, he had already been experiencing the first symptoms of the infection -- he had merely dismissed them as side effects of his humiliating lack of control.
Kakashi's sudden appearance caught him off guard. He was wearing his ANBU uniform, complete with the mask and steel breastplate. The metallic glint of the armor in the pallid moonlight irked Iruka's over-sensitized, bloodshot eyes. He blinked, trying to get some moisture back -- in vain.
His worst fear had just been confirmed. The Jounin knew.
Head spinning, black spots dancing before his eyes, the hunter readied himself. As he lunged toward his opponent, he let Kurohyou take over, burying his pain and fatigue along with his reason.
Steel crashed against steel, in a silent contest of will and skill. Iruka observed the scene distantly, detachedly, dealing blow after blow without thinking, basking in the almost restful normality of it all. Slash, feint, slash, dodge, step, slash -- a routine his muscles and the remotest part of his brain could have accomplished in his sleep.
Iruka struggled both against Kakashi and his body's constant betrayal. Abruptly, one of his knees gave out, and he faltered, the Jounin's katana only narrowly missing his head. With a sudden burst of desperate energy, he effectuated an almost elegant backflip, and promptly regained his balance.
Hands gripping the padded hilt of his sword, slightly winded, Kakashi began to doubt the wisdom of his decision to defy the Hunter. For the first time in countless years, he felt something akin to fear creeping up his spine.
Kurohyou was a killer, and Kakashi was his prey.
And yet, the Jounin could not help feeling that something was off. Iruka's technique was flawless, his speed astounding, but his reflexes seemed somehow dulled, dimmed, and his reactions vaguely ... out of phase.
Iruka was very far from such cares. He did not feel anything anymore, be it anger, sorrow, or mere weariness. Not even the cold. He fought mechanically, relying sorely on his over-trained instinct, his mind clouded by the fever that wracked his body.
Suddenly, Kakashi lunged at him. The hunter moved at the last second, stepping aside and ... vanishing. Sandaime himself had taught him that particular move, which he had named the "Phantom Step". Using the flash of Kakashi's blade as a cover, he had propelled himself at the edge of the Jounin's field of vision -- thus disappearing from view and concealing efficiently his next attack.
Kakashi ducked with surprising dexterity the blow that would have beheaded him, Tsume and Kiba swishing above his bushy, silver-haired head. He rolled quickly on the grass, dodging another slash by a few inches. He twisted, grabbed a shuriken, and threw it deftly at a nearby branch. Then, tapping into his considerable Ninjutsu skill, he used the Kawarimi No Jutsu at the very moment Iruka's blade should have embedded itself in his skull -- effectively destabilizing his opponent.
He let himself drop from the tree a few meters away from the hunter, chest heaving. He would never beat him without the Sharingan, he realized grimly. Iruka, too, seemed to understand that perfectly, and would never give him the opportunity to actually use this advantage. If he tried but to remove his mask -- offering a invaluable opening in the process -- the younger man would be on him in an instant.
Iruka's masked gaze never left him, his slender dark body poised for attack, obviously ready for the last, lethal assault. Kakashi was surprised to see his hands shaking slightly -- from the thrill of the hunt, or from exhaustion? He half-hoped, for his health at least, that it was the latter -- fighting a worn out Hunter would certainly give him an edge. Yet the more rational part of his brain, that wasn't clouded by his instinct of survival, screamed at the absurdity of it all. Kakashi rather enjoyed living, thank-you-very-much, but that didn't mean he wanted Iruka to die, either.
His hesitation lasted but a few seconds before he resolutely made up his mind. Maybe he could still save that stubborn Chuunin from himself. Tightening his grip on the heavy katana, he launched himself at the Hunter, raised the weapon high above his head, and, flipping it at the last moment, flung the dull edge of the blade right at Iruka's skull.
Or at least tried to. Tsume and Kiba shot up at an alarming speed, only narrowly blocking the Jounin's sword. Kakashi had put all his physical power in this move, hoping to stun him into dropping his weapons with his mightier attack. They remained locked in that stance for a few excruciatingly long seconds, each daring the other to give in. Iruka's arms trembled under the strain -- Kakashi really was stronger than he had anticipated --, biting his lips to stifle his cries of pain as the muscle of his biceps began tearing anew. He almost dropped Tsume, but held on by sheer willpower.
With the last of his strength, the young man unexpectedly lowered both his blades, and let himself stoop down below the Jounin, back hitting the grass. His right leg then shot up straight, his leather boot slamming between Kakashi's eyes at full force. The ANBU mask broke with an ominous crack under the impact, and he staggered backwards.
Iruka sprang back to his feet, swaying slightly, and forced the Jounin to step back. It was all Kakashi could do to protect himself against the more or less lethal blows the hunter rained on him. His back suddenly hit the bark of a tree, blocking his precipitate retreat. In a matter of seconds, Kiba's sharp edge pressed threateningly against the pale, tender skin of his throat.
The fight was over. Kakashi had lost. He dropped the katana listlessly.
They contemplated each other for a long time, both trying to catch their breath, the eerie silence of the night only disrupted by the wild beating of their hearts.
Without knowing exactly why, Kakashi wasn't afraid anymore. Slowly, ever so slowly, his hand sneaked up, caressing Iruka's burning skin, resting on his neck in silent question. The blade did not move. Forsaking his hesitations, Kakashi lifted up the feline-like mask.
The hunter's face was abnormally flushed, noted the more detached part of his mind, while the more sensual portion merely took in his lightly parted lips and labored breath with a flaring, disconcerting surge of desire. On impulse, Kakashi leaned in and pressed his lips softly against Iruka's.
The Chuunin's mind, already rather cloudy, went utterly blank. Instinct, once again, took over, and he kneed Kakashi viciously in the gut. The older man doubled over in surprised pain. As he straightened, another sword went to join Kiba against his neck. Iruka looked plainly murderous.
"So wild," murmured Kakashi, "So savage ..."
He had yet to remove his hand.
Mismatched eyes plunged into the dark depths of Iruka's feverish gaze, probing, questioning, wondering.
"Are you going to kill me?"
The question seemed to jolt the Hunter back to reality. He stepped back slowly, staring at Kakashi in dazed horror. He had been close, so close to lose himself into Kurohyou ... To yield to the ruthless killer hidden deep within himself.
The blades fell limply from his hands and clattered on the ground, like an ominous knell that echoed in Iruka's heart alone. He slid to his knees, an animal, terrified yowl rising in his chest, choking, burning, excruciating -- the mind as fevered as the body.
He hugged himself desperately, tears running down his cheeks, rocking back and forth like a small child, unable to stifle the anguished cries that escaped his lips.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no ...
He was only vaguely aware of Kakashi's strong arms lifting him up with surprising care, before he sunk into a heavy, fever-induced sleep, his dark head pillowed on a warm, broad shoulder.