The Silent Blade: Hunter [LJ version]
Glossary at the end of the chapter. Author's notes: see prologue.
LJ version table of contents
Chapter 7: Slow Burn
Where life is more terrible than death, it is then the truest valor to dare to live.
-- Thomas Browne
Iruka averted his eyes, heart gripped by an all too familiar pain. Next to him, Hime shifted uncomfortably and butted her head into the Hunter's limp palm, soft fur rubbing against hardened leather -- trying, however awkwardly, to offer him a measure of comfort.
Behind them, Squad 9 had stilled, frozen in mute horror. Iruka did not have to turn around to feel their eyes riveted on Byakko's mutilated, decaying corpse. One ANBU could take it no longer, and made a precipitated dash to a nearby bush, falling to his knees and wrenching the mask from his face. The disgusting sound and stench of retching filled the air, and incidentally Iruka's nostrils.
The Hunter forcefully pushed himself away from the tree, willing himself to stop shaking. Clammy, salty beads of sweat rolled down his face under the mask. His eyes stung. He blinked.
Swaying a little on his feet, Iruka wobbled his way to Iria -- the corpse, he corrected hastily, throat burning and very tight. Under the soles of his boots, the dry blades of grass crunched and crumbled. He kneeled down, his motions shaky and graceless.
Feeling outrageously numb, he noticed Byakko's porcelain mask lying a few feet away. Under the thick crust of blood, a trained eye could still distinguish the blue and gold paint, a little faded with time and abuse.
Iruka reached across the body, stretching the taut, faintly protesting muscles of his left arm. Blue-winged flies buzzed past his ear. He gritted his teeth, grabbed the offending item, and retreated quickly. The fox mask felt unnaturally heavy in his palm, eerily cold against his fingertips. The small cut on his forefinger reopened. The Hunter watched in morbid fascination his blood mixing with what he suspected was mostly Byakko's, and partly her murderer's.
His gaze shifted onto Iria. His hand reached out, almost of its own volition, a fleeting caress against the rotting cheek. He shivered in involuntary disgust at the revolting contact, and snatched his hand back hastily. Iruka sucked in a painful breath, and his vision blurred as angry, hot tears welled up in his dark eyes. He bit them back savagely. The action drew blood from his bottom lip, and he almost welcomed the coppery tang invading his mouth.
"I am sorry for your loss, little brother," said a voice behind him, almost a whisper. Hime-neesan, he thought, startled back to reality. He turned to her, dazed with pain.
Hime gazed up at him, her feline face an almost perfect mask of neutrality. But Iruka knew her well enough to see past the facade, and behind the closed expression he could read genuine grief. Even after five centuries of existence, and thousands of kills, the planar had never lost the touching, disarming -- and so very humane -- sensibility that Iruka treasured in her. They were well matched, Hunter and cougar, more than both cared to admit.
"I wish we could give her proper burial," continued the cougar, as delicately as she could manage, "But Konoha needs us right now."
There was a hint of steel under the softness of her voice, a subtle edge that did not escape Iruka.
Losing Iria this way was a crushing blow, especially after their quarrel earlier this morning ...
No, came Iruka's sudden, grim thought. He eyed the reeking corpse and frowned. She was already dead this morning ...
It was not the first time he had to bury a friend. For even though they had drifted apart, Iria had always kept a special place in Iruka's heart, and it was only now, ravaged with grief, that Iruka did realize the extent of his loss. He had lost her long before she died -- he would not make such a mistake twice.
The young man swallowed audibly. He wished, suddenly, absurdly, that Kakashi was there. He would bury his face in warm skin, where neck and shoulder met, andforget everything, forget this world of pain and death When Kakashi's arms closed around him, Iruka felt he had the right, just for a little while, to be human and everything that went with the title. He had the right to be weak. He had the right to be so scared it actually hurt. Kakashi understood the sorrow, the grief, the overwhelming anger. He had fought, and been hurt; he had killed, and had lost; he had loved, and hated -- he had not told him, of course, but not all scars were visible, Iruka knew better than anyone.
Kakashi said he'd be strong for me ...
The Hunter squashed down the thought irritably, enraged by his own neediness. Kakashi was not there, and even if he had been, Iruka mused bleakly, it would not have changed a thing -- merely made matters even more complicated. Iruka's heart tightened with worry at the danger the Jounin could be facing. Kurohyou, however, did not regret his decision to send Team 4 back to Konoha -- if his suspicion was confirmed, they would be sorely needed.
Behind him, he heard Squad 9 shift uncomfortably, wrenching him from his thoughts. They were expecting him to take charge and issue orders. They were waiting for their leader to act and reassure them. The realization jolted him back to reality.
"Little brother," probed Hime -- he could hear the growing insistence in her voice.
Wordlessly, Iruka bent forward to place the mask back on Byakko's pain distorted features. He would have liked to close her eyes, but the worms had already taken care of what should have been her eyelids. The blue, glassy pupils stared unseeingly into the endless depths of skies and death.
What did you see, Iria?
He then attempted to straighten the corpse, without much success -- rigor mortis was already well settled in. A gloved fist entered his field of vision, and he very nearly started backward and attacked, before he recognized the familiar aura. Iruka counted four kunais in its grasp. He looked up into the masked face of one of the more seasoned ANBU -- Shosawa Isamu, Iruka surmised, the patch of dirty blond hair unmistakable.
"Here," Isamu offered.
The Hunter stared back at him for a little while, puzzled.
"So you can burn her," the man specified, patiently. "Kurohyou-sama."
Iruka nodded in sudden realization and overwhelming gratitude.
"Thanks," he managed to croak out, his voice tight and hoarse with repressed grief. He felt absurdly proud not to hear his voice cracking. His fingers clenched around the two kunais in a painful, irrationally hard grip.
Isamu had kept the two others; he embedded them into the dry, mud caked ground, one at Byakko's feet, the other on her left flank. Iruka mimicked his actions without a word -- one above her head, the other on her right side. He watched as the ANBU took a step back, brought two of his fingers to his forehead, and bowed in respect.
The Hunter got up from his squatting position, his movements regaining some of their usual grace as he struggled to compose himself and smooth down the tumultuous flow of emotions he could not afford to drown in.
Iruka stared hard at the decaying corpse at his feet. His gloved hands flowed through the complex motions of the spell, shaping and molding chakra to his will. One after the other, the kunais began to glow with an eerie, almost painfully white glint. Once the protective barrier was firmly set in place, Iruka took a small step back and began forming handseals in quick succession.
"Shoushin No Jutsu," he invoked, his voice almost flawlessly even.
Byakko's corpse burst into flames. The chakra wall shimmered, and for a fleeting moment the Hunter feared it wouldn't be able to contain the blaze. Then the fire receded a little, and Iruka heaved an involuntary, almost imperceptible sigh of relief.
Iruka went down to one knee, the desiccated grass crumbling under his weight, and pulled out Kiba in one fluid motion. He fumbled to remove his left glove. He drew the razor-sharp blade across his palm, flinching at the sudden, vicious onslaught of pain. He clenched his fist tightly, blood splattering on the ground. The stench of charred human flesh nearly made him gag.
"On my blood, sister," he breathed, his voice a fierce, husky whisper. "On my blood."
The Hunter felt fury surging through him, fast, savage, scalding. He was not allowed to grieve -- but he could be angry.
He got up, whirling around when a sudden movement, at the edge of his field of vision, caught his attention.
Isamu dangled a patch of rough linen, tattered but clean, in front of him. His handkerchief, Iruka noted, feeling numb. He accepted it with yet another grateful nod -- words seemed to have left him. He removed the blood off Kiba with it, before sheathing the blade. He then tied the cloth around his palm with a stifled hiss of pain, and put on his discarded leather glove.
"Squad," he said, "Get moving."
The Hunter turned away and began to run, never once looking back, Hime trailing after him.
In the clearing, the smoke rose up above the ravaged trees in dark, heavy curls, as the impromptu funeral pyre reduced to ashes yet another part of Iruka's heart.
As Kurohyou and Squad 9 made their way back to Konoha at top speed, leaping from tree to tree like silent shadows, Iruka's mind wandered back to his earlier musings. He kept turning over in his head Hime's cryptic parting words. When he had attempted to dismiss her, after they had left the clearing, she had requested that he should let her stay in the material plane for a while -- which was completely unlike her, considering her developed taste for procrastination and catnaps.
"Konoha has many foes," she had said, "And so do you. Beware the slithering danger from your past, little brother, and heed my words: nobody can catch the wind, for nobody can predict the unpredictable. I shall say no more."
When Iruka had opened his mouth in query, she had leapt onto a nearby branch, her claws scraping the rough bark, before she had added as an afterthought, her voice softening just a little: "Good luck, my friend."
Then she had disappeared into the thick, green foliage, leaving him alone with his questions and his growing doubts.
He knew she had wanted to tell him more -- but she had already greatly encroached on her prerogatives by sharing her insight with a plane-bound mortal.
Planars were not tied to a specific place or era, for their innate nature was that of the essence of life itself. The very concepts of life and death were known to them, but did not affect or govern their own existence; nor did time and space, for that matter. Should a planar die in the material world, they would simply go back to their original plane of existence to heal their wounds and regenerate their spiritual energy, while awaiting the next summon of their chosen masters.
As such, their grasp of both past and future was almost polar to that of humans. Where the human mind conceived time as linear and irreversible, planars like Hime saw a fourth dimension, one that twisted and wound around the different planes they were free to roam in.
Her words, however curt, were a precious gift and he accepted it as such, with heartfelt gratitude. But they had done nothing to alleviate his doubts, or the worry gnawing at his heart.
Something was eluding him, and he hated that.
Byakko had been a particularly skilled Hunter -- one did not survive nine years in their field of work by simply being competent. Iruka had no doubt she had been taken by surprise -- she would never have willingly engaged in a fight with such a unfavorable parameters otherwise. She must not have been able to escape, or choose a more favorable setting. The image of Iria trapped like a helpless, wounded fox at the end of the hunt brought a bitter taste to his mouth. Byakko had never been anyone's prey, only second in abilities, power and sheer stubbornness to Kurohyou himself. Whoever had brought her down was an opponent to be reckoned with.
What disturbed him the most, however, was the ease with which the killer had managed to deceive them all -- including Iruka, who used to know Iria better than anyone.
Imitating her habits, memorizing her speech pattern, and replicating her aura to perfection -- the impostor must have worked closely with her to gain such personal knowledge. An ANBU or a Hunter, then, or at least someone from Konoha, which meant ...
Betrayal, whispered his mind.
The very thought disturbed him more than he cared to admit, but Iruka had to bow to the evidence -- the fraud had achieved an almost flawless copy of Byakko the White Fox.
The Hunter froze inwardly, even though his motions remained assured and graceful, and showed nothing of it.
A copy ...
The Hunter squeezed his eyes shut and heaved a deep sigh. When he opened them again, there was grim resolve glinting in his gaze. He sped up his pace, hoping with all his heart, that he would not be too late this time.
As soon as Konoha entered his sight, Iruka knew that he had been right. Even from a distance, he could sense chakra activity -- far too much, even for a bustling ninja village. The Hunter wished he could run even faster, but parting from the ANBU would do no good. Biting his lip in anxiety, he veered to the east, Squad 9 following a little behind.
They crossed the wall as quickly as stealth permitted. Iruka's agitation grew with each step he took. All of his mental alarms went haywire, his carefully honed instincts screaming at him that something was indeed very wrong.
Suddenly, a kunai whizzed past his head mid-jump. He dodged effortlessly and drew out a shuriken, all the while trying to locate his opponent. He spotted him half a second later on a nearby roof. The weapon embedded itself neatly in his brow before the man had time to react, blood pearling on the tan skin. He disappeared in a puff of chakra smoke.
Iruka blinked, feeling distinctly queasy. He gestured to the ANBU to follow him and they bounded forward across roofs. They headed for the center of the village in this fashion. From time to time, clones -- alone or in group -- would attack them. They were easily disposed of and hardly hindered their progression. Once they even caught real ninja among them -- Iruka toed the severed head around in disgust to try and identify him, in vain.
They all wore ninja headbands, on their foreheads or hanging around their neck.
All branded with the Sound's sigil.
That does not make sense, the Hunter thought furiously, why would he ally himself with the likes of Orochimaru?
At the edge of his consciousness, he noticed a familiar aura about half a mile ahead. His heart leapt in his chest.
Too impatient to merely jump his way to her, he hastily formed a few handseals.
"Report to the Hokage at once," Iruka ordered the ANBU before he vanished, "Be on your guard!"
When he appeared in front of Kurenai, the young woman jumped backward in surprise and let out a short gasp. Iruka held out a hand in appeasement and promptly took in his friend's disheveled, agitated countenance. Behind her stood Gai and Genma, who seemed to be holding something down; and several ANBU as well -- Squad 4, minus Kakashi, and Squad 1.
Not something -- someone, Iruka corrected immediately. Someone weeping ...
"Byakko is dead," he informed them, as emotionlessly as he could manage, "We've been infiltrated."
"Thanks for telling us," Genma said, irony lacing his voice, "... would never have noticed otherwise."
Kurenai stood straighter. "Don't forget yourself, Genma-san!" she admonished him.
Faintly annoyed, Iruka disregarded the Jounin's blatant lack of respect. "Your point being?"
Genma shrugged and gestured vaguely at the pink-haired, shaking bundle Gai was vainly trying to comfort -- Iruka doubted manly tears and desperate oaths of revenge would be of any help soothing the poor thing.
The Hunter felt his insides constrict when he recognized her. Sakura-kun?
He took a few steps toward the young girl and stooped down in front of her on the cobbled ground, braced on one knee.
"Haruno-san," he said, unable to help the urgency in his voice. "Haruno-san, what happened?"
She looked up into his masked face then, and said nothing, tremors coursing through her body. She shook her head mutely.
"Don't bother," cut in Kurenai's soft timbre, "She is completely incoherent."
Iruka's eyes narrowed.
Hating himself, he raised his right hand and slapped Sakura twice, hoping the pain would jolt her back to reality. He heard the three Jounins stiffen behind him, but at the moment, he really could not care less.
The girl seemed more focused now, training progressively overtaking the shock. Sakura was a promising ninja, he knew, and would not have let herself be overcome by fear unless she had witnessed something truly horrible -- which accounted for Iruka's impatience. She glared at him, and the Hunter almost smiled under the mask. That was the reaction he had been hoping for.
"Tell me," he urged her, "tell me what happened."
Sakura swallowed audibly, trying to compose herself. She kept wringing her blood-covered hands nervously on her lap.
"We were all together," she began, "Sasuke-kun, Hinata-chan, and ... and Naruto."
Iruka bit his lip as anxiety flared through him.
"We ... we were attacked," she continued, obviously forcing herself to report the way she had been taught to at the Academy. "They were three."
Sakura looked away, her voice but a shaky, hoarse whisper.
"One of them had the eyes of a devil," she murmured, "They burned ..."
The Hunter froze.
"The Sharingan?" he asked, gripping her shoulders and shaking her slightly. "That man, Haruno-san -- he had Sasuke's eyes, didn't he?"
The young girl acquiesced vaguely. "The eyes of a devil ... he burned Hinata-chan," she sobbed incoherently, clutching his wrists, "And he burned me, too ..."
"We found Hinata-san's ... remains ... not far from her," cut in Genma, his voice oddly thick.
"Naruto? Sasuke?" Iruka questioned urgently. "What about them, Haruno-san?"
Sakura turned around as much as her battered body could manage, and gestured toward the Hokage's palace. "Took them."
Iruka had heard enough. He got up quickly, inwardly boiling and yet feeling very cold. He understood now -- everything suddenly made sense, and the newfound knowledge was dizzying in its terrifying implications.
The Village of Sound is not trying to invade Konoha, came the brutal realization. They are trying to buy themselves time -- and I'm afraid I know what for ...
Iruka cursed under his breath -- with one Hunter down, two on body-guarding duty, and another away from the village, the cards certainly were not stacked in their favor.
"Kurohyou-sama?" Kurenai asked, uncertainty seeping through her voice. Genma and Gai turned to him as well, clearly awaiting his orders. For all his petulant behavior, Genma was a highly-skilled, trustworthy Jounin -- the Hunter had no doubt he would obey him whatever the cost. As for Kurenai and Gai, Iruka would have trusted them with his life.
"I want the Academy cleared and the children sheltered within ten minutes," he began, "Squad 1 -- you go and help the teachers."
They bowed curtly and disappeared without losing another second.
"You two," Iruka said, motioning at the remaining members of Squad 4, "Sound the alert."
"As for you ... " Iruka began, turning to the three Jounins.
At that moment, a strong gust of wind interrupted him, raising dust and ruffling his dark hair. The Hunter reached for his weapons, stiffening in anticipation, before he recognized the golden-clad shape and the firm, assured aura of Washi. Two ANBU Squads materialized behind him.
"Washi," Iruka called out, voice warm with heartfelt gratitude. "How...?"
The brown-haired Hunter tilted his head to the side. He had crossed his arms on his chest, and for a second Iruka was certain he was smiling lightly under the eagle-like mask. A timeworn leather scabbard was strapped to his back in the traditional Hunter fashion, the blue and black hilt pointing behind a muscled shoulder. Though left-handed, Washi wielded Kagami, the blue-steeled katana, with a proficiency many had come to respect -- and fear.
"Your cat proved most persuasive, Okashira," Washi said blandly.
The young man felt immensely relieved, for an enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders -- he could count on Washi to lead the troops in his stead without faltering. Iruka himself had another objective in mind -- one that both exhilarated and terrified him.
"Konoha is officially under attack, starting from now - Code Red, Level III," Iruka said firmly. "Act accordingly."
He heard the collective gasp of his subordinates. Even Washi seemed faintly surprised, Iruka's words rippling his countenance, and it was to be expected, for Kurohyou had just given every inhabitant of the village the direct order to attack and kill on sight any potential enemies.
"Who ... ?" asked Washi, composing himself within a second.
He had stiffened, all his senses on alert, chakra at the ready, Iruka noted appreciatively. In his four years of service, the now twenty-two-year-old had improved remarkably -- and that, without forsaking his rigorous sense of morality. He would probably make a fine leader after Kurohyou, Iruka estimated.
Byakko's death had both pained and shaken him -- her demise a stark, grim reminder of his impending fate. He had survived nearly ten years already, through sheer luck, carefully honed fighting skills, and razor-sharp instinct -- but one day, it simply would not be enough. He would be outmatched, and that would be the end of it. When Iruka fell -- and fall he would, there was no escaping it -- another Hunter would step up and become leader in his stead, just like he himself had replaced his own teacher, Karasu-sensei, many years ago.
"The Hidden Village of Sound," interrupted a terse, hoarse voice, "And they have breached the Northwestern wall already."
Perched on the tiled edge of a slate-colored roof, an enormous eagle was grooming his dark bronze feathers. Around his neck dangled a forehead protector branded with Washi's personal mark.
Iruka frowned -- the situation was quickly getting out of hands. His mind was functioning at full speed, two different plans already roughly drafted in a matter of seconds.
"Hakaze-san, please try and locate Kuma," Kurohyou requested as politely as he could manage under such pressure -- he knew perfectly well he held no authority whatsoever over the aloof, free-spirited planar who served nobody but Washi -- and only when he actually felt like it.
The huge bird, sensing the gravity of the situation, swallowed what he would rather have said, gave a curt nod and flew away. Iruka let out a breath he did not realize he had been holding.
"Squad 8, head toward the eastern front -- there are mostly clones in the area, you should be fine."
"At your command."
Iruka felt some of the tension between his subordinates ebb as he began dispatching the troops. Someone was taking charge at last, and the ninjas of Konoha were eager to fight back.
"Squad 6, gather the Chuunins -- I want the villagers ready for urban warfare as soon as possible. We don't want a repeat of last time's fiasco. Clear?"
He turned to the other Hunter at last and stared hard at him. The younger man almost -- almost -- squirmed under the piercing, appraising gaze of his leader. Whatever it was Kurohyou had been pondering, he seemingly made up his mind within seconds, and allowing Washi to relax slightly.
"Washi, I'll leave the counterattack to you and Hokage-sama. The remaining Squads and all the Jounins are under your command."
"Won't you lead us, Okashira?" the Eagle asked, unable to keep the surprise from showing in his voice. Like the others, he had been fully expecting Kurohyou to take charge as usual, secure in the knowledge that their leader would show them to victory. To be honest, he had not even considered being entrusted with such responsibility. Kurohyou's decision left him faint with pride, and for a few seconds, he stood at a loss for words, before he composed himself again.
"No -- the invasion is but a decoy designed to hide their actual purpose. The Salamander is here," Iruka said curtly.
Kurenai started in shock. Her hand flew to her mouth, found the mask, and dropped back listlessly at her side. Gai looked up sharply, equally stunned. His very silence told much about his shock.
"You mean ..." the young woman began.
"Are you certain, Kurohyou-san?" asked Washi sternly.
Iruka's breath caught in his throat. He thought about Sandaime, the blood and the pallor of his body once life had left it. He thought about Konohamaru's tear-streaked face. He thought about Hayate's broken body. He thought about Iria's unseeing eyes.
He could not afford another mistake.
"Are you?" Washi insisted.
"Yes," he said, sounding more assured than he felt, "I'm certain."
Washi winced imperceptibly. "It is worse than I thought."
"Indeed," replied Iruka, authorizing himself a small, wan smile -- knowing Washi's concern for Konoha matched his in intensity, even though the other Hunter would die before he admitted it.
The golden-clad Hunter gave a respectful bow and disappeared with a swirl of gritty wind.
Iruka drew in a deep breath.
"Kurenai-sensei, Gai-sensei, with me," he ordered, before turning to the honey-haired Jounin, "Genma-san, please bring Haruno-san to the hospital. Then if you can locate Squad 9, Shosawa might need you."
Genma nodded. "I'll do that." He carefully picked up Sakura, who had been mutely staring at them during the whole exchange, and settled her onto his back. The girl gripped his shoulders listlessly as he teleported away.
The Hunter scanned the area quickly, glancing around.
"Where the hell is Kakashi?" he muttered under his breath, exasperated. That was so like the Jounin, to go and disappear when Iruka needed him the most!
"We got there first," Kurenai said, "But as soon as he heard Sasuke had been taken, he went after him."
"Why aren't I surprised?" Iruka sighed, massaging his neck. He winced a little as sore, tense muscles protested under the rough, careless ministrations.
The black-haired woman shifted uncomfortably on the balls of her feet.
"I'm sorry about Byakko-sama," she blurted out, before adding in a strangled whisper, "It must have been horrible ..."
Iruka was touched, particularly since Kurenai and Byakko had never been the best of friends, especially after Sandaime's death -- in all honesty, only his intervention had prevented an all-out feud between them.
Byakko had looked down on Kurenai's late-acquired Jounin status, and with each pique the Hunter had sent her way, Kurenai had seen her patience thin; till the day she simply had not been able to bear it anymore, and had started fighting back -- verbally, of course. Iruka, finding their behavior childish and completely out of place in high-ranked ninjas, had stepped in and used his authority over the both of them to cut off their constant bickering. After that episode, the two women had not dared try Kurohyou's wrath again and had seemingly settled their quarrel -- but neither had managed to hide their shared contempt whenever the Hokage or a mission brought them together in the same room.
But with the white Hunter dead, Kurenai knew Iruka was bound to be hurting, and her heart went out to him. Her words were laced with genuine regret and sorrow, and the young man marveled once again at having such a wonderful friend.
Maybe one day he would have to close her eyes as well.
The very thought sent a wave of intolerable pain through his body. The intensity of his reaction surprised him. So the shrewd Jounin had managed to worm his way into Iruka's heart after all -- for a second, the young man was torn between elation and gut-wrenching fear as the sudden realization hit him hard.
Death had been the essence of his life for years -- first losing his family, then becoming a killer himself, and watching his comrades fall, one after the other -- but somehow Iruka simply never managed to get used to it.
Karasu-sensei, Taka-sempai, Nezumi-sensei, Kame-san, Kairi-kun, Ojika-kun ...
Iruka had often wished he had known their real names, or at least their reasons for joining the Hunters' ranks -- had it been out of duty, of pride, or of despair? The young man did not like to dwell too much on that thought -- he still was not certain what had motivated his own decision.
There had been loneliness, certainly, barely-healed heartbreak, and a defiant, abiding need to prove himself -- to prove the world he had not survived in vain the horrors of his early childhood, the atrocities that had put out the joy in his mother's eyes forever; that hehad not lived through that dreadful, bloody night of October twelve years ago for nothing. Some survivor's guilt, then -- for Iruka was nothing if not a survivor. Deep down, he was still the tenacious, turbulent little brat who used to be told he would never make it to Genin. Nothing short of a miracle would earn him a Chuunin vest, they said, loud enough so he could hear them. He was just a good-for-nothing, loudmouthed prankster of an orphan.
And they wondered why he felt so close to Naruto.
He had passed the Chuunin exam, of course -- his marks among the best of the decade -- and, shrugging on the green flak jacket he had so feverishly sought, had felt the powerful thrill of intense elation and sated revenge.
Receiving the mask of the apprentice from Karasu-sensei's hands, Iruka had felt faint with breathless pride, and he had thought, then, that Sandaime had been right to nudge him into that direction. The months spent training with his new master had been the best of Iruka's short life -- he had always delighted in learning, and Karasu had been a patient, if demanding, teacher.
The gleam in his eyes had faded after the first mission, and his first kill -- when it had finally hit him, once and for all, that a Hunter was nothing but a weapon, a razor-sharp, bloodthirsty blade in the Hokage's hands, to be used in the village's best interests and discarded when it could no longer fulfill its purpose -- to kill.
That night -- a cold, windy night of December -- Karasu-sensei had watched impassively as his student wrenched the mask off his face, fell to his knees and reacquainted himself with his last meal. He had helped him up once there had been nothing left for Iruka to throw up. He had told him each life on earth was precious and unique, and was not to be taken lightly -- ever. He had told him Hunters killed so others could live -- and living by the sword, would be killed by the sword in turn.
He had named him Kurohyou, the Black Panther -- even to that day Iruka did not understand his choice -- and handed him the feline-like porcelain mask that symbolized his accession to Hunter status.
Iruka had never regretted becoming a Hunter, not even once -- he was proud to protect Konoha, even at the price of his own self-esteem -- or what was left of it. But there had been times, in the dead of the night, his hands and mask soaked with blood, when Iruka had caught himself thinking with a shudder that life might be long.
Such was the way of the ninja, his way of the ninja -- wasn't he the very epitome of the Hunter precepts?
So why, why, after so many years, after so many deaths, did it have to keep hurting so much?
"Not now," he murmured, shaking his head, feeling every single one of his twenty-five years of life.
Iruka gave a tiny, tight smile, but she could not see it. He straightened his back.
"'Care for the living before you mourn the dead', that's what Karasu-sensei used to say. Let's go."
Leaping across tiled roofs at top speed, the three ninjas made their way to the Hokage's palace. Asuma caught up with them midway, having trailed Kurenai's chakra, and Kurohyou welcomed him into the team without hesitation. He hoped the four of them would be enough -- but he could not help the twinge of worry tugging at his heart. It had been years since the Salamander had left the village, and there was no telling how much he had improved since.
He had been a formidable opponent back then, even by Kurohyou's standards, and a frighteningly ruthless one -- who knew what the renegade Hunter was capable of now that nothing restrained him anymore?
And Sakura had mentioned three enemies -- he had accomplices then, and likely from the Sound. The idea surprised him -- being both too independent and unpredictable, Shanshouuo had never functioned well in a team, as far as Iruka could remember.
They reached Konoha No Dairi at last, the silence eerie and unnaturally heavy, only broken by the howling wind. The large, weather-worn oak doors of the palace had been left ajar.
"Where are the guards?" Kurenai whispered, glancing around warily.
Iruka wordlessly motioned for the Jounins to stay put and wait for him outside. All his senses on alert, he sneaked to the huge marble threshold and slipped inside without a sound.
After three minutes, which felt like an agonizing eternity to those waiting, the Hunter reappeared as silently as he had gone.
"The way is clear, and I have found the guards," he said tersely. "They are scattered a little everywhere. Mind you don't slip in the blood."
Iruka failed to mention that the first three levels were littered with mutilated corpses. As he led them through the palace, he purposely avoided the more crowded area -- there simply was no time to mourn, and distraction, of whatever sort, would prove fatal against the opponents they were facing.
The moment he had stepped into the ancient building, Iruka had detected his signature aura -- almost as if the Salamander had been expecting him all along, and cockily showed off his power to lure him. Of course he was waiting for him, Iruka realized grimly.
After all, they still had an account to settle.
Each stride brought Kurohyou closer to a fight he both desired and dreaded keenly. He had known the young man would come back one day, unable to cut off all ties with his past and his home village, and hating himself for that -- but so soon?
Shanshouuo, the Salamander.
So young, Iruka thought, and already so cruel. Even as a young boy, he had been frighteningly intelligent, and equally pitiless. They had called him a prodigy and lavished him with praise and proud smiles, and he had paid them all in return with pain and scorn and hatred.
Iruka had not forgotten -- and he had certainly not forgiven.
The Hunter came to stop in front the Hokage's office. Shanshouuo was waiting inside, as expected, but try as he might, Iruka could detect neither Godaime's nor Yamainu's auras. They had probably joined the battle raging outside before the Salamander wrecked havoc on the palace, Iruka reasoned.
That, or Shanshouuo had killed them both.
The young man noted another powerful presence in the room, as well as an all too familiar aura -- at the moment wild and struggling with useless fury.
Which meant, Iruka deducted quickly, that the third ninja had taken Sasuke, and that Kakashi was probably on their tail.
Be careful, you idiot...
The Hunter drew a deep breath and steadied himself for the fight to come. He closed his eyes, found his focus and cleared his mind. His senses grew increasingly sharper, until he felt aware of everything around him. His aura brushed past Kurenai, Gai and Asuma; met and defied the Salamander's. They battled for dominance, circling around each other, until Kurohyou decided to let Shanshouuo get a taste of his abilities.
For a brief instant, less than a second, Iruka released the tight control he had been holding over his chakra, letting sheer power flow into his veins and warm his blood -- overpowering and blazing. Then he wrestled back the wild power under his command, and pushed the doors open with the flat of his gloved hands.
Iruka had known he would be there, had felt him -- but actually seeing him in person, after so many years, was quite another thing. Anger nestled, fast and hot, in the pit of his stomach.
The Salamander stood by the window, gazing peacefully at the battle raging outside, in Konoha's streets. He whirled around at Iruka's entrance, the graceful motion rippling dark and crimson silk.
He had not changed much, Iruka estimated. Though still slender and fine-boned, he stood taller now, almost reaching Iruka's height. He looked perhaps even more handsome, if that was possible, the pale features pleasant and affirmed, with a straight, finely-chiseled nose, making him look older than his years. Yet his cheeks still held some of the soft roundness of childhood and Iruka remembered with a pang that he was only seventeen.
"It has been a long time," the boy -- man -- said smoothly, "Okashira."
"Itachi," Kurohyou growled, low in his throat. His hands curled into fists, short-trimmed nails scraping against worn leather. Hot-white, sharp pain flared up across his left palm and gave his thirst for vengeance an almost tangible edge.
On my blood, sister.
There was another ninja waiting a few feet to the right, clad in the same fashion. Iruka's trained eyes took in the enormous hilt protruding behind one shoulder. Unlike Itachi's, the high-collared coat he wore was buttoned up and hid the lower half of his face -- yet failing to conceal the stark ugliness of the bluish, almost shark-like face.
Hoshikagi Kisame, his mind supplied helpfully, missing-nin of the Hidden Village of Mist and S-ranked criminal.
Next to him, kneeling on the cold stone slabs, a chakra-restrained Naruto gazed up bleakly at Kurohyou. The Hunter could feel waves of grim despair and cold fury radiating from him.
Yuuhei No Jutsu, Iruka surmised. The high-level jutsu shrewdly used both physical and mental restraint, shackling the victim in chakra bonds, and annihilating any will to escape. As such, the cost in power was not very high, and the spell could be maintained over long periods without difficulty.
Naruto was in all likelihood trying to fight off the jutsu, but Iruka already knew it would be in vain -- unless the Nine Tails decided to come out, obviously, but that was not a prospect Iruka found very appealing.
The renegade Hunter quirked an eyebrow at the scrutiny, and reached up to tuck a stray lock of raven-black hair behind a slightly pointed ear.
"Now, now," he remarked, infuriatingly calm, "There is no need to hide behind a mask. Not between us ..."
The Hunter tensed, sensing the quizzical gazes of his subordinates riveted on his back. Naruto's blue eyes were very wide.
Though Itachi's face and tone remained perfectly bland, the red irises held an almost amused glint, and there was the faintest of twitches at the corner of his mouth.
"Why don't you take it off," the Salamander said, his voice at its mildest, "Sensei?"