Glossary at the end of the chapter. Author's notes: see prologue.
LJ version table of contents
Chapter 6: Gathering of the Storm
Ours not to reason why
Ours but to do and die.
-- Alfred Lord Tennyson
Iruka lifted his hand, stifling a curse. The tattoo was glowing bright red and pulsing steadily.
"Blast," cursed the hunter. What, now?
Kakashi blinked. "That thing has the worst timing," he pointed out, humor battling over annoyance in his mismatched eyes.
Iruka did not answer -- he was too busy frowning. The summon had had the effect of a nasty cold shower on him, and now he wanted out, quick -- since he so obviously couldn't be trusted with himself.
He waited for the pain to recede with strained patience. Then, stiffening in disgust at his own rash actions, he turned away from Kakashi and donned his Hunter uniform as fast as he could manage. He buckled the leather straps of his scabbarded blades at their customary places, with an ease that told of years of practice. He looked around for his mask in growing dismay.
"Here," said a voice behind him, softly. He felt Kakashi's hands brush away stray locks from his eyes. In a careful, precise motion, the Jounin placed the porcelain mask over Iruka's face. He stood very close to the Hunter as he tied the leather straps into a secure knot -- close enough to feel the subtle change in Iruka's stance and mindset. The younger man had closed off completely, bringing all his former barriers back up and strengthening them.
Almost ... almost as if he had forgotten himself for a while, and had now decided not to make the same mistake twice.
The Jounin took a step back as Kurohyou turned to face him, and met the dark masked gaze levelly. Weaponless, shivering in spite of the morning warmth, Kakashi felt naked and defenseless -- and rightly so. Yet he couldn't bring himself to be afraid. Kakashi had fought by Kurohyou's side countless times, had even sparred against him. He had seen the fury in his eyes, and the blood on his hand, and he had never run away.
But then, he guessed wryly, Iruka was probably scared enough for the both of them.
"Be on your guard, Kakashi-sensei," said Kurohyou curtly. "The ANBU might be summoned as well."
With that, and before the Jounin could even think up an appropriately witty retort, he vanished in a discreet shift of wind.
"Whatever," sighed Kakashi.
He ran a hand over his face, not even bothering to suppress a vaguely exhausted yawn. Now, to find some coffee ...
***Not bothering with any more concealment jutsus than were strictly necessary, Iruka made his way noiselessly toward Konoha No Dairi, leaping through the air with seemingly effortless grace. He tried to clear his mind of any unwelcomed distractions -- namely the shrewd spark in a haunting set of mismatched eyes.
The sheer nerve of that man, he thought furiously -- but his own voice, thick with desire, echoed without mercy in his mind.
Iruka blushed under his mask in silent, searing embarrassment.
Kiss me ...
So maybe Kakashi wasn't the only one responsible for this ... irrational, foolish behavior.
But you liked it, whispered the more straightforward of his brain. Admit it.
Honestly, what had he been thinking? A fine Hunter, indeed, that let himself be driven by primal instinct, his judgment clouded by lust and his defenses down!
What if Kakashi disclosed his secret? What if he used it against him?
He wouldn't! Impossible.
... Would he?
Iruka wanted to trust Kakashi -- no, he needed it. There had been truth in the Jounin's eyes, even as they were darkened with desire. The young man had a feeling that Kakashi was probably one of the most honest ninjas he had ever met -- in his own personal, slightly twisted way.
The Hunter prided himself on being straightforward and frank -- with himself if not with the others. But this one question, the real question that filled him with dread, Iruka almost dared not face. The very idea sent a violent shiver up his spine.
What if Kakashi was not playing?
Iruka did not know if he actually wanted the older man to take him seriously. Lust was a powerful energy, but it was very different from love. Love often brought lust, Iruka had been told -- but he knew firsthand that the reverse wasn't always true.
The Hunter's eyes narrowed. He wondered, idly, what exactly Kakashi wanted from him. His body?
Iruka did not consider himself to be either handsome or ugly -- more like an in-between of sorts. But he had seen Kakashi's eyes roaming over his body, discreetly assessing his face, and maybe more than that. He knew the Jounin desired him -- that much he could tell.
What was Iruka willing to give, to risk, to share of himself?
More than any blade in the world, Iruka feared the answer -- for he knew, deep inside, what he wanted, what he craved. Iruka allowed himself a wan, wry smile as he walked down the palace's hallways to Tsunade-sama's office. The undefeated, feared Hunter brought down by his own doubts and insecurities -- the irony of the situation did not escape Iruka's keen sense of humor.
His mood darkened considerably, however, as he suddenly detected the presence of his colleagues nearby -- all four of them. For the five Hunters to be summoned at this hour ...
The young man frowned slightly as he pushed open the wooden door.
"Ah, Kurohyou-san," said a brown-clad ninja, nodding in respect. Towering over seven foot tall, leaning on his heavy wattou, Kuma spoke in a low, throaty voice - as gruff and rough as his namesake was rumored to be. Like Byakko and Yamainu, the Brown Bear had completely forsaken his former identity, cutting off all ties with his previous life -- name and family included.
Leading a double-life was a tricky business for any ninja, and a life style few Hunters could afford to choose, for it was both dangerous and needlessly exhausting. Iruka and Washi were of those who chose to retain their identities -- but for the most part, Hunters were Hunters, and nothing more.
"You are late," declared Washi, curt and dry as was customary for him. He stood near the window, his stance stiff and overly formal but not aggressive. He kept glancing longingly at the sky. The sun played on the golden brown fabric of his Hunter uniform.
Iruka averted his eyes. It would be a radiant day, but it did not look like he'd have any time to enjoy it.
"I was delayed," Kurohyou shot back, his tone coldly dismissive.
Tsunade quirked a curious eyebrow.
"I wonder why," she murmured.
Iruka refused to raise to the bait - silently thanking all his years as an Academy teacher to have earned him a very thick layer of patience.
"I'm afraid you'll have to keep wondering," he replied blandly. "Now, tell me. What matter could be urgent enough to bring us all in the same room -- and Hokage-sama out of her bed -- at such ungodly hour?"
"Spies," cut in Byakko matter-of-factly. She had been standing by Tsunade-sama's desk when Iruka had made his entrance, but had slowly edged closer to Washi the moment she had spotted him. Iruka noticed it, but shrugged it off as a feminine whim.
He cocked his head to the side questioningly.
"Explain," he said.
"Spies from the Mist," elaborated the the young woman, "Or so we believe."
"The so-called missing-nin you killed two days ago was actually one of them," interrupted Yamainu brusquely, almost bristling. The stark sunlight of late spring gave the crimson of his uniform an almost bloody hue. It suited him well, Iruka thought, what with his particular taste for action and fight. Pursing his lips in slight distaste, he made a mental note to assign him more dangerous missions -- Iruka knew from experience that it would abate his bloodlust in no time.
"Scouting the area, probably," muttered Iruka, annoyed in spite of himself. "What else?"
"Squad 3 reports sighting a score of them, about ten miles North-northeast of the village," continued Byakko calmly. "And half a dozen to the East."
"What are your orders, Kurohyou-san?" asked Washi.
Iruka crossed his arms on his chest and squeezed his eyes shut, already mentally drafting their next course of action.
"Washi," he began, "Take Squad 2 with you, and follow the Eastern track."
"Right away," the other answered. Then, with a polite half-bow, he disappeared.
"Yamainu, Kuma," Iruka continued, "Be on your guard. Godaime-sama's security remains your top priority, whatever happens. Clear?"
"Yes, Okashira," they replied in perfect unison.
"Byakko," Iruka said at last, turning to face the young woman, "I need you to scout the Southern and Western area. Take Squad 7 with you."
"As you command, Okashira."
"And you?" questioned Tsunade, "What do you plan on doing?"
"Follow the Northern track," he replied simply, a note a weariness creeping into his voice. "I'll need Squads 4 and 9," he added a heartbeat later.
Iruka found his eyes shifting almost of their own volition from the Hokage onto Byakko.
His relationship with the young woman after their breakup had always been strained at best, while never openly hostile. When she had taken on her Hunter name, Iria had seemingly gone through a comprehensive personality makeover. Gone was the calm, mild-mannered young girl he had, if not loved, at least held dear. Iria had completely merged with Byakko, to the detriment of both -- at least in Iruka's slightly biased opinion.
Iruka did not find that very healthy. In all honesty, he probably wouldn't have made it this far had he given up any semblance of a normal life. Most Hunters died within four years -- Iruka and Byakko held the absolute record with nine years of service. In almost a decade, Iruka had seen the vast majority his comrades fall in battle, one after the other. Of the team he had joined as a teenager, under Karasu-sensei, remained but Byakko and himself.
It was a running joke of sorts in the village -- those who joined the Hunters had probably either a death wish or a very mean spouse.
The Hunters themselves did not deny, but did not laugh, either. It hit a little too close from home for comfort, Iruka guessed wryly.
But, no matter how hard it was sometimes, Umino Iruka played the part of Kurohyou the Hunter -- not the other way around.
Iruka did not -- could not -- agree with his colleagues' life choices. They had shed their former existences like a snake an old, dry skin - forgetting themselves, but also what they were meant to protect. Their training, their power, their weapons -- their sole purpose was to kill, and that was the way Hunters were meant to be. But it was also all in the name and for the sake of something more important, more precious -- their village, and the people who dwelled in it.
The five Hunters were bound by a pledge -- an oath as ancient as Konoha itself, the magic of which resided in their tattoos. To break it was the most repulsive act to any Hunters' eyes. Only one Hunter had ever dared to -- and once Iruka got his paws on him, he would make him pay for the dishonor he had brought upon both their order and the village.
That, and other, more personal considerations.
"Kurohyou-san," cut in the unmistakable musical timbre of the White Fox, polite and clipped as usual.
Iruka realized he had been staring.
"What?" he answered, more sharply than he had intended.
She did not answer. As her eyes settled on Kurohyou's mask, something shifted between them, a subtle change that did not escape Iruka. There was anger, a cold scornful wrath that laced her very composure and flared suddenly as they engaged in a staring contest.
What he read -- or rather, what he could not read -- in Byakko's stance as she stood straight and formal before him twisted something painfully in his gut. Iruka barely managed to suppress a shiver. He looked at her intently, probing - something was off, but he couldn't pinpoint what.
Iruka was shaken, though outwardly he let nothing show. He held her gaze levelly until she gave in and looked away. The moment passed, the tension between them seemed to wane -- but Iruka could not help the faint, distinct feeling of queasiness that settled in the pit of his stomach.
"Get going, Hunter," snapped Iruka irritably.
"Very well," Byakko replied at once, "Okashira."
Her voice was back to her usual calm tones, but Iruka could have sworn he saw her eyes flashing in annoyance under the mask.
She vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving Kurohyou to stare thoughtfully after her.
"What was this all about?" questioned Tsunade, frowning. She, too, had felt the rising animosity between the two Hunters. It disturbed her greatly -- Konoha could not afford to be weakened by internal quarrels.
"I wish I knew," murmured the young man.
***Iruka was not amused.
After two hours spent scouting a very, very wide area North of Konoha, they should have found something. But they hadn't, and Iruka was beginning to feel quite aggravated -- especially as the grim sense of foreboding nested in his gut stubbornly refused to leave him.
A graceful shadow in the thick foliage, the Hunter let himself slide down the branch he had been crouching on. He landed on the dusty ground almost noiselessly. Nearby, the two ANBU squads were awaiting his orders, clearly as frustrated as he himself was. Iruka's gaze rested a second too long on one of them, a tall ninja with a startling shock of silver hair.
The young man had to make a decision. Unconsciously, he clenched his fists. That was what he missed the most about being a Genin, or even a Chuunin -- the lack of someone to rely on, someone who would step up and take charge if things went awry.
This was Kurohyou's part to play now. Nobody would catch him if he fell - this was a both exhilarating and terrifying thought. Part of him, if he was honest with himself, relished in it -- a born leader, Iruka possessed both natural authority and desire to command, his unconscious charisma only adding to his aura. Yet the young man refused to delude himself: any order he gave could have dire consequences, lead one of his ninjas to his or her death, or endanger the village -- a knowledge, a burden the hunter often lost sleep over.
A distracted leader endangers the lives of his troops ...
Shaking off his somber musings, he decided to follow his instinct.
"Squad 4," Iruka said, in a commanding tone, "You are to report back to Konoha at once."
"What?" came the immediate, indignant reply. Kurenai-san.
Kakashi simply stared hard at him. Or at least, Iruka thought he did -- it was hard to tell through both masks.
"You are to report back to Konoha," Iruka repeated, shaking off impromptu Kakashi-related musings. "Code Blue, Level Alert I."
Two of the younger ANBU gasped and took a step forward.
Don't want to miss the fun, do they? Iruka thought, rather sardonically.
"But, Kurohyou-sama ..." protested the smaller, black-haired one -- Fukaba Yori, the newest addition to Squad 4, a rookie under Kurenai's tutelage if he remembered correctly.
"Let's go, Squad," Kurenai cut in with a nod in Kurohyou's general direction, her voice gentle but firm all the same. Her squad gathered around her -- Kakashi, Yori, and two others Iruka did not recognize. They faded from view in a puff of smoke.
The hunter heaved a weary sigh. Kurenai-san had not protested, of course, but he had heard her silent question all the same. He sincerely hoped he was just being overly pessimistic as usual.
Iruka shifted self-consciously under the remaining squad's gaze. Dead ends made him uncomfortable -- as the young man resolved issues by tackling them. Twenty ninjas, however skilled, could not have simply vanished into thin air. Unless ...
The hunter squashed down such a disquieting possibility, more bothered than he cared to admit by his train of thought. There had to be a way to track them down, well concealed or not. Hit by a sudden stroke of brilliance, the Hunter permitted himself a small smile under his mask.
With his left hand, Iruka reached for his right armguard, and took out one of his kunai. The razor-edged weapon glinted in the sunlight as he drew it across the tips of two of his fingers. Blood pearled on the pale, callused skin.
With the ease of habit, Iruka traced the familiar kanji patterns of the blood contract, first over his Hunter tattoo, then over his palm. He clasped his hands together, formed a few handseals -- Tiger, Snake, Dragon, Tiger -- and closed his eyes.
"Ninpo Kuchiyose," he breathed, feeling power surge through him, "Futon, Shunsoku No Jutsu!"
The sudden gust of wind raised a small whirlwind of dust. The air seemed to shimmer in front of Iruka, before it materialized into the harmonious lines of a feline silhouette. The animal stretched lazily and sat up with slow, graceful motions. Flat, wiry muscles rippled under the creamy fur. The dark forehead protector she wore loosely around her neck was branded with Iruka's personal mark, the same design as his Hunter tattoo.
The cougar eyed Iruka without enthusiasm.
"What did you wake me up for?" she asked, wary and faintly rueful. "I need my beauty sleep, you know ..."
"Hime," scolded Iruka, frowning.
"Ah," she said, her features twisting into the feline equivalent of a pout, "You're no fun, as usual."
The smirking face of the Hokage flashed in Iruka's mind, and he bit back a snort.
"That I have been told," he admitted, a note of amusement creeping into his voice. "But I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with your antics right now."
The cougar seemed to consider that, grooming herself behind the ears with a her pristinely bandaged paw.
"What ... do you want ... of me ... then?" Hime asked between licks, darting him a wary glance.
"Sniff around and tell me what you smell."
She huffed haughtily, flicking her tail in catty distaste.
"Azide from human ztench, you mean?" she said, in a tone obviously meant to be aloof. Of course, the effect was rather ruined by the hairs-induced lisp. She leapt into a nearby tree with indolent grace and disappeared into the verdure. Iruka was positive he heard her mutter something affronted about "pitiless Hunters" and "mongrel's job".
Hime was probably the laziest, most fastidious and ladylike nin-cat to have ever dwelled in the Fire Country -- and of course, fate being known for its downright twisted sense of humor, Iruka had ended up stuck with her. But in spite of her flaws, she was a seasoned tracker, a fairly good fighter and an even better friend, so he guessed that evened things out a little.
She sauntered back to them after a few minutes, springing from branch to branch with an impressive economy of motion and landing elegantly before him -- Iruka in all honesty suspected her to be plainly showing off before Squad 9.
Cats will be cats, there's no helping it, he thought, resigned.
"So? What have you found?" the hunter asked, growing impatient. What a waste of time!
Hime had a chagrined, faintly perturbed air about her -- almost as if she was loath to answer.
"There's a track, thirty or forty feet ahead," she replied slowly. "But ..."
"But?" probed Iruka. The oppressing feeling in his gut intensified.
"It's at least a week old," she commented evenly, stubbornly refusing to meet his eye.
The young man could have sworn she wasn't telling him everything.
"Very well," Kurohyou sighed, knowing he wouldn't get anything else out of her. "Lead the way, Hime-neesan."
The cougar set off along the dusty path, speeding up once she sensed them following her -- completely unlike her usual leisurely pace. From time to time, she stopped to make sure she had not lost them -- and that, too, was so out of character it sent Iruka's mental alarms completely haywire.
Hime turned sharply to the right and left the trail after a while. She led them through a dark, moldy thicket -- Iruka managed to slither through the wild underbrush best he could, but had to turn back and slash the way open for Squad 9 who lagged grimly behind. The Hunter was growing more agitated by the second -- this forest made him feel trapped and caged, and he hated that.
He stiffened suddenly as he caught, under the pungent musty smell, the unmistakable odor of decay.
The vegetation opened suddenly on a clearing of sorts. The trees were scarcer and younger, but recent gashes crisscrossed the bark. As Iruka looked up mechanically, he caught a glimpse of the clear blue sky overhead, striking a stark contrast with the dead leaves scattered on the dry, yellow grass.
For the forest to be so devastated in late spring ...
The Hunter swallowed audibly.
He stopped frozen in his tracks. That was when he noticed the flies.
A cloud of dark blue, stout-bodied flies swarming over ...
And the stench ...
Iruka's stomach heaved painfully -- it was all the young man could do not to retch. He took a shaky step back, his back hitting the trunk of an elm tree. His hand reached out automatically, found the lacerated bark and gripped it.
He bowed his head.
Looking absolutely revolted, Hime sat down on her haunches next to him.
"I feared it was so," she murmured, whiskers quivering in silent outrage.
A few feet ahead, in a pool of crusty crimson blood, lay the rotting, battered remains of what used to be Byakko the White Fox.
Wattou: long battle katana, usually greater than 30 inches in length.
Okashira: Leader. ("Leader of a shady underworld group of questionable morals", dixit my darling Chibi Risu-chan)
Ninpo Kuchiyose: Summoning technique.
Shunsoku No Jutsu: Fleetpaw Skill. (Literally, Shunsoku: Fast runner)