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The Silent Blade: Hunter [LJ version]

Glossary at the end of the chapter. Author's notes: see prologue.

LJ version table of contents

Prologue
Chapter 1

Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
[Chapter 8]
Chapter 9
Epilogue

***

Chapter 8: Angry Side

When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.
-- African proverb


Sensei.

The word echoed blearily in Iruka's head, eliciting a wave of unexpected pain from a wound he did not know he had been nursing. He stiffened.

Sensei.

There had been a time when Iruka had been proud of this title, even though he had refused it at first. He had only accepted reluctantly, and against his better judgment, as a favour to the Sandaime.

He had known the boy would be trouble the moment he had first seen him -- no normal child had eyes this cold. Itachi's would cloud over imperceptibly whenever someone talked to him, looking past them and through them with frightening disinterest. Iruka had loathed them instantly, those dark unreadable eyes. The Hunter had never completely got past this first impression -- not even a few years into Sanshouou's apprenticeship, when Iruka had come to harbour a certain fondness for his apprentice, had he managed to trust him wholeheartedly.

Time had proven him right.

Iruka understood why Itachi wanted him to remove his mask, and it was not out of curiosity. No, the renegade probably could not care less about Kurohyou's true identity. He did not fear the person behind the mask.

That was his first mistake.

Kurohyou was a legend, and he was the only person in the world Itachi had ever truly respected, however grudgingly. It was part of the reason he had left, and part of the reason he had come back. He had carved a name for himself in the Akatsuki, a name covered with his family's blood, that was as feared as Kurohyou's. But in the secret of his own mind, Sanshouou had never completely managed to step out of his master's shadow.

So when the occasion had presented itself to come back, even if it meant an alliance with the Sound, which he despised, Itachi had probably not hesitated. He had captured Naruto, as was the plan, but then he had done something not even himself had anticipated. He had put the mission at a risk just to lure Kurohyou to him, secure in the thought he would win the inevitable confrontation.

I always said your arrogance would be your downfall, one day, Iruka thought, feeling oddly calm.

Let this be today.

"I am waiting," Itachi said blandly.

Iruka did not answer.

"As you wish, sensei," the renegade said, looking indifferent. He snapped his fingers, once, and Naruto writhed on the floor with a scream of pain.

The Hunter stared stonily at his opponent, not sparing a glance at Naruto, even though his insides constricted painfully and his heart went out to the boy. Rage flooded him, but he clamped down on it with all his might.

Winning a battle is not just about of how good you are, but how good your opponent thinks you are.

From the deep recesses of his memory, Karasu's words echoed in his mind. Iruka closed his eyes for a second, then he made up his mind, and did something he usually hated.

He took a chance.

In one smooth, calculated motion, Iruka reached up and untied his mask with his right hand. He heard the collective gasp of his subordinates behind him, but paid them no notice. Then he carefully composed himself and stared right into Itachi's eyes.

In a flash, he thought he saw those impassive dark eyes widen marginally, but maybe it had just been a trick of the light. So Iruka had guessed right. Itachi had not expected him to actually take off his mask -- but then, the renegade could not have known how much Naruto meant to him.

Know your enemy better than yourself.

Iruka's decision had cost him capital ground, but by doing so he had managed to overthrow Itachi -- if only for a while -- and he very much intended to press his advantage. He let his muscles relax imperceptibly, tilted his head to the side in flawless imitation of amused disinterest.

Taunting.

He did not so much as glance at Naruto.

"I..Iruka-sensei..." the boy said, his eyes very wide and very blue.

"It's always the quiet ones, eh?" Asuma murmured thoughtfully. He cracked his knuckles, bracing himself for a fight.

Gai remained, for once, utterly silent.

Thank the Gods for small mercies.

"You stay out of it," Iruka said, never breaking eye contact with Itachi, "All of you."

"But..!" Kurenai exclaimed, taking a step toward Iruka. Then she stopped, holding herself still by sheer force of will. She took a deep breath and straightened her back. Surprising even herself, she heard herself saying, "Very well."

The Hunter felt a wave of intense relief wash over him. Brave, loyal Kurenai.

"Shark-man in the corner is yours, though," the young man said, with a feral grin. "Happy fishing."

"At your command, Kurohyou-sama!" the three Jounins said in a chorus. They sounded determined.

Iruka studied the renegade for a long moment before he spoke again.

"I know why you came back," the Hunter said calmly. He crossed his arms over his chest, tilted his head back slightly.

His level facade was met by a cold, scornful smile.

"I doubt it."

"To pay off your debt."

"A debt?" Itachi looked faintly amused. "Yes, I suppose this is one way of putting it." The Uchiha pursed his lips. "This village owes me more they can ever repay."

"Oh?" Kurohyou said, raising an eyebrow. "Somehow, I was under the impression it was the other way around."

"You delude yourself, as usual."

Though his expression did not waver, Iruka's dark gaze flickered.

"As a child," Itachi said, "I was led to believe that serving was a privilege. The truth is, they need us for their survival. They use us, when we should reign. Fortunately, I saw through their lies before it was too late."

"An epiphany in which your new master had not part, of course," cut in the Hunter, a scornful edge to his voice.

"Orochimaru was right to forsake this thrice-cursed village," Itachi said coldly. "But I have no master."

"Is that why you killed them all?" Iruka asked sadly. "Your own clan ..."

"They paid the price for their arrogance," Itachi answered, frostily. "I was born to lead, not to serve. And so are you, sensei. Konoha is using you, or are you too blind to see it?"

Iruka chuckled, then began to laugh outright -- a low, bleak laugh that made Itachi's eyes narrow in anger. At last the Hunter stilled and looked straight into Itachi's crimson, burning gaze.

"You are a fool, Uchiha," he said, his voice cold and hard. "I know that, I always did. And yet here I am, and here you are -- that is the difference between us."

"But I am free, and you are not," the Sharingan user shot back. "I broke my bonds, and answer to no one, while you crawl at the Hokage's feet."

Iruka shook his head bitterly.

"Do you even remember it, Itachi? The pledge you made, the pledge you swore to honor..." Iruka began, stiff with poised, pained anger, "'A Hunter is sworn to his village, his heart knows but courage; his blade defends the helpless, in life as in death."

"No one believes in those words anymore," said Itachi with almost painful contempt.

Iruka had a wan smile.

"I do," he said softly. "And that is why I shall kill you."

Itachi had not moved, his face completely blank. Red irises swirling lazily, he beckoned Kurohyou to make the first move.

Giving me a free shot, eh?

Far from being annoyed, Iruka smiled inwardly.

Itachi was a shinobi, in the purest sense of the term. The blood of the Uchiha ran through his veins. From his birth on, nothing had ever threatened that certainty: he was a genius.

Under normal circumstances, the cards would have been neatly stacked in the Uchiha's favour.

Only there was something Itachi could not have foreseen. He had never paid his teacher enough attention for that. He had never bothered to care.

Iruka was a survivor.

He had many flaws, but he was certainly no fool. In terms of raw power, and even ninja abilities, Iruka could not compete with Itachi, or even with Kakashi. As a teenager, there had been a time when he had thought that, one day, he would best the Sannin themselves. Now he knew with the certainty of experience that he never would. The thought did not trouble him -- he had his own strength.

A decade on the battlefield had taught him a few cruel, if necessary lessons. After ten years as a Hunter, Iruka held very few illusions about himself or his abilities. He was neither the strongest, the fastest nor the smartest. There was no shame it admitting the truth, but delusions of grandeur would inevitably hasten one's downfall.

Perfectly aware of both his strengths and weaknesses, Iruka knew precisely what he was capable of. Aware of his limits, he could circumvent them. His blades were as much a part of him as his legs or his arms, and he could wield them with almost unrivalled accuracy.

Above average in everything, but without any outstanding natural gifts -- except maybe an incredibly nimble mind and a surprising disposition for scheming -- Iruka had worked his way up the ladder, relentlessly. Little, if anything, had ever come easily to him. His forehead protector, his Chuunin vest, his Hunter's mask and tattoo -- he had earned them by the sweat of his brow. Through hard training, the Hunter had made himself into a lethal weapon, first mastering his body, then the way of the blade.

Death, pain, loneliness -- all his life, Iruka had been faced with difficulties. And, overcoming them one after the other, in his systematic, tenacious way, he had taught himself to adapt.

Now, faced the most formidable foe he would probably fight in his life, Iruka felt the powerful thrill of challenge. Adrenaline surged through his body; his mind was calm. He was already thinking far ahead, drafting up plans and discarding them as new ideas sprang to life. One in particular brought a tight smile to his lips.

Iruka's wild card and signature jutsu -- an anti-chakra barrier.

A chakra user, deprived of his principal strength, was at his most vulnerable. No ninja in their right mind would ever have thought of coming up with such a jutsu, let alone used it. It was insanity; it was suicide.

But it would work.

The Hunter closed his eyes and flowed through the complex motions of the jutsu, feeling his skin prickle as Itachi's Sharingan activated. Uncharacteristically, Iruka smirked.

"Kyomu no Jutsu," he called, his voice even and unwavering. The air around Iruka seemed to shimmer with a soft glow. Then there was a flash of neigh blinding light, and to all in the room the temperature dropped noticeably. Naruto fell with a dull sound against the floor, and lay there motionless.

Unlike Iruka, most shinobi had little taste for chakra theory. It was thus a little known fact that chakra was similar in function and properties to waves. Iruka's jutsu worked by turning the caster's chakra into a wave of strictly opposite frequency and wavelength. As the laws of physics would have it, both waves cancelled each other out. So long as Iruka's barrier held, nobody within a 500-meter radius would be able to cast a single jutsu. It could not prevent shinobi from creating chakra, but it could make it impossible for them to use that raw power.

A marvel of simplicity.

Itachi's Sharingan would thus still work, but all attempts to use Mangekyou on him would be fruitless, and that was all Iruka needed.

When he opened his eyes, he found his former student glaring at him in frosty hatred. He was ghastly pale. The three black dots swirled furiously in the blood-red irises.

"What have you done?" Itachi breathed.

He could not quite hide the horror in his voice.

Iruka did not have time to answer him. A deafening detonation suddenly shook the whole building. Nearby windows shattered in thousands of shards. Under his feet, Iruka felt the telltale energy ripple of an another oncoming blast. His mind racing, the Hunter crossed his forearms in front of his face to protect himself, and dove behind a desk, just as the right-side wall exploded.

Chakra bombs.

The Hunter could have slapped himself. Of course Itachi would have a back-up plan; and Iruka just had to go and trigger them. Chakra bombs were staggeringly powerful fireballs held together by a single Air jutsu. When the anti-chakra barrier had hit them and dispelled the weavings, the bombs had simply gone off. A wave of guilt threatened to overwhelm Iruka. For a long second, he just crouched there, nauseated by his own sense of failure.

Then he bit the inside of his cheek, hard and clamped down on self-reprieve with all his might. Wallowing in guilt would get him killed before he had time to say "jutsu". He glanced around, quickly assessing the extent of the damage. That was when he noticed the smoke.

The Palace had caught fire.

***

Kurenai sprang back to her feet. The second explosion had thrown her backwards, but otherwise she thought herself lucky to be mostly unharmed. With a wince, she removed the large shard of glass that had lodged itself into her left forearm. The bindings would stop the blood flow, or so she hoped.

She looked around quickly, insanely relieved to spot Asuma picking himself up, safe and sound, a few paces away. When Gai, uncharacteristically silent, moved to stand at her right shoulder, she half-turned to him. Then Iruka entered her field of vision. The moment she saw him, ready to battle Itachi, her first impulse was to rush to his side. She took a step toward him, then stopped herself forcefully, Iruka's words echoing into her mind.

You stay out of it.

This was not their fight.

She caught Asuma's gaze, and nodded. Reaching into her belt pouch, she grabbed a few kunais and readied herself.

Across the room, the shark-like face of Kisame split into a feral, ugly smirk.

***

With slow, deliberate motions, Kurohyou drew out his blades, one after the other. The renegade unsheathed his own black-hilted katana, Satsujinki -- Cutthroat.

No more words were necessary.

Iruka knew better than to rush straight at Itachi. He wasn't a veteran for nothing: staying alive had almost become second nature to him. Iruka simply stood there, his muscled, over-trained body poised for battle. He held his twin swords firmly, without clutching them -- it would only have made his hands sweat, and tire his arms needlessly. The wound on his left palm pulsed with dull pain, but he did not care. The thrill of the coming fight had chased away his doubts and insecurities.

This was what he had trained himself for. Stripped of its moral frills, life became terrifyingly simple. He would fight, and live, or die.

The Hunter smiled.

He could feel Itachi's Sharingan following and memorizing his every breath, his every move.

Let him, Iruka thought distantly, Let him think he knows me.

He was acutely aware of the many failings and loopholes of his plan that might cost him his life. The first part in particular would require utmost concentration and skill. Fighting against a Sharingan user when one did not have this talent themselves was widely considered to be suicidal. How were you supposed to best an opponent who could determine your next move before you even knew it yourself?

The answer was simple: you could not.

Iruka was wrenched off his thoughts when the renegade suddenly lunged at him.

Patience had never been one of Itachi's strong points; wasting time annoyed him to no ends -- a fact that Iruka, as his former teacher, knew perfectly well. Unfortunately, the Chuunin himself did not have the luxury of time. The fire had spread to their part of the palace. With each passing moment, their chances of survival became increasingly slimmer.

The Hunter feinted to the left; on cue, Satsujinki slashed in a wide arc on his other side. In spite of his surprise, Iruka sidestepped the attack easily. Itachi rained blows on him, with frightening speed and strength. Although narrowly, Iruka blocked most of them but, to his dismay, wasn't able to land a single attack in return.

For a moment, the Hunter wondered whether he had underestimated his former student. Then he caught sight of Naruto, sprawled on the stone floor, stunned by the anti-chakra blast.

He forced himself to focus.

After a few minutes' fighting, Iruka decided he had given his enemy enough time to collect his "data". It was time to move on to the second part of his plan, before he got himself beheaded -- or worse.

In his mind's eye, he pictured a black circle. Carefully, he directed the flow of his thoughts into the small area of nothingness he had just created. He felt himself go progressively blank.

When Itachi's katana rushed at the exposed skin of his neck, the Hunter's body reacted on pure instinct, dropping to the hard stone floor and rolling backwards fluidly. Then he sprang up and, growling, launched himself at his opponent. Kiba slashed upwards across Itachi's chest, ripping open the red and black Akatsuki silks. Tsume drew a large, ugly gash on the Uchiha's pale cheek.

Panting, both ninja circled each other warily.

Iruka felt a wild surge of satisfaction at seeing blood run down Itachi's neck. He glimpsed growing annoyance in those red eyes. The Hunter licked his lips. On a distinctly distant level, he was aware he probably shouldn't have been grinning. He could not bring himself to care.

The Sharingan, contrarily to the legends that surrounded it, held no miraculous power of foresight. It simply read the multitude of unconscious signals given off by the user's adversary, and interpreted them accordingly.

In closing his mind and allowing his body's well-trained instincts to react on their own, Iruka had become utterly unpredictable -- to himself as well as Itachi. Adrenaline coursed through his veins like quicksilver; blood thundered in his ears. He had never felt more alive, more alert. He was a Hunter, he was a killer.

And kill he would.

***

Kisame had proved a tougher opponent than Kurenai had initially surmised. He was fast; shuriken bounced on his thick, shark-like skin, and with Iruka's barrier firmly in place, they could not even imbue their weapons with chakra.

Her right side had been nearly crushed by the missing-nin's huge sword. Only her fast reflexes and a quick sidestep had allowed her to lessen the impact, but she had difficulty breathing.

With a frighteningly ridiculous war cry, Gai launched himself at Kisame. A Taijutsu specialist, the Green Beast of Konoha was not affected in the least by the anti-chakra field. He was their best -- only -- chance. She turned to glance at Asuma, who grunted in reply. Kurenai clutched a kunai in her left hand. She readied herself.

A sudden sense of foreboding washed over her. She felt her skin crawl, her stomach flutter; her vision swam. Ever since she was a child, Kurenai had never doubted her instincts. She wasn't about to start. She turned to Asuma, momentum adding to her strength, and kicked him hard in the chest. Her heart skipped a few beats at the look of betrayal in his jet-black eyes, but she did not have time for regrets.

Her throat tightened painfully. Gai and Kisame were still fighting. She would be too late. In slow motion, she watched Kisame dodge narrowly Gai's forceful round-kick. The Jounin's foot hit the wall behind them with tremendous force.

A gigantic beam of wood had been dislodged by Itachi's chakra bombs and hanging precariously. It gave way with an ominous crack.

"Watch out!" Kurenai screamed, against all hopes.

Gai looked up mid-leap at her outburst. When he glimpsed the huge piece of timber, he twisted out of the way with astonishing flexibility, landed on his palms and kicked the beam when it drew level with Kisame's throat. The building swayed once again when both wood and shark-like shinobi embedded themselves into the stone wall. The powerful blow beheaded the missing-nin neatly. His head rolled on the ground then came to a halt at Asuma's feet.

Still panting, the bearded Jounin raised an eyebrow.

"Man," he said thoughtfully, "Remind me never to play Twister with you."

Gai grinned, revealing a row of blindingly white teeth.

"Sandaime-sama himself taught me the art of extreme flexibility."

Asuma blanched, the cigarette dropping from his lips. The shinobi equivalent of the popular game often involved alcohol and scant clothing. The Jounin found he did not want to know.

"You had to ask, didn't you," Kurenai whispered tartly, crossing her arms on her chest.

***

Time was running short.

All around them, the blaze was growing in strength. The building would collapse before long.

Should they ever face each other again, Iruka had sworn to himself years ago, Itachi would not come out of it alive -- even if the Hunter had to die along with him. That was how it should have been -- it was Iruka's duty to destroy what he had helped create.

But he could not resolve himself to sacrificing his friends. Naruto, Kurenai, Asuma, Gai -- they were not responsible for his mistake. It was his to repay alone.

He had let too many people die already. He would not fail the village again.

Kurohyou was more than willing to die for the village's safety -- that was the way of the Hunter, his way of the ninja. Iruka had stopped mattering the moment he had received his mask. He had always known it would come to this eventually. He was not afraid. He would do anything in his power to protect them.

Live, fight, die.

Itachi raised his sword. It was now, or never.

Dropping his guard for a precious second, the Hunter fell into a half-crouch. The opening was too valuable to let pass. The renegade's blade plunged towards Iruka's chest.

Right into the trap.

Bracing himself, Iruka angled his body to meet the sword. It slid neatly between two ribs, at the precise point Iruka had decided -- where it should not, according to his plan, damage anything vital. A single miscalculation would bring certain death.

The pain was staggering. Iruka's gaze never left Itachi's. His fingers tightened on Kiba, his knuckles whitening under the strain.

He smiled as Itachi pulled out Satsujinki with a cruel smirk. Then he drove his own blade straight into the genius' chest, under the ribcage upwards, tearing and slashing his way to his lung. The red irises widened in surprised pain. Blood pearled at his lips.

The Hunter twisted his wrist, half-withdrawing the kodachi. Then he struck again, angling the blade horizontally, and severed Itachi's spinal cord.

Like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been cut, the renegade fell against Iruka, his hand slipping off the hilt of his katana and shooting up to grip Iruka's shoulder, struggling vainly. The Sharingan faded from his eyes. He vomited blood all over the black leather.

The Hunter embraced him, his arms closing around the lithe frame of his former pupil. For a few short, unending seconds, he held him in silence. He closed his eyes.

"I am sorry," he murmured, even though he knew Itachi was not.

Then Iruka snapped his neck.

***

Across the room, the three Jounin had watched the ferocious battle unfold in growing anxiety. Gai held Naruto, still unconscious, against his muscled spandex-clad chest.

The Hunter laid Itachi's corpse on the stone slabs with slow reverence. He drew himself up gracelessly, and he sheathed his swords. He hobbled back to them, obviously favoring his right side. He could feel blood trickling down his stomach.

But he would live, and Iria had been avanged.

He could not find it in himself to meet Asuma's or Gai's eyes, and he had a feeling he would collapse if he started worrying about Naruto's state. He could not afford it. Instead, he kept his gaze fixated on Kurenai's mask.

"I might need some of your bandages," he said, glancing down at his wound critically, "If you're willing to spare them."

The red-eyed Jounin started, suddenly noticing the unnatural palor of Iruka's face. She stretched out her hand in an unconscious display of concern. A small smile graced Iruka's lips, and it was certainly genuine, if a bit strained.

"Are you all right?"

He waved off her concern with a vague shake of his head, already binding the white cloth tightly around his chest. He gave a light hiss of pain, then straightened forcibly.

"My mask," he said, suddenly, glancing around.

Before he could move to retrieve it, however, Kurenai took a step forward and handed her own to him, reverently. Iruka stared, at a loss for words. Such simple, gratuitous kindness left him speechless.

"Thanks," he croaked out eventually, looking away.

With practised ease, the Hunter placed the porcelain mask on his face and tied it behind his skull.

Asuma moved to stand by Itachi's corpse. He crouched down and leaned in, obviously intent on carrying it outside.

"Leave him," Iruka interjected, feeling terribly tired. At the Jounin's questioning look, he added, simply, "This is how a Hunter should go. By fire."

"But..."

"For better or for worse," Kurohyou replied tonelessly, "Itachi was a Hunter."

There was nothing the three Jounin could say to that. Bone-weary but as determined as ever, Iruka reached out to stroke Naruto's hair. It was streaked with dirt and matted with blood, he noticed distantly.

Then he drew back his hand and turned his attention to his subordinates once more.

"We have two men missing, and one of their accomplices is still at large. I'm going to find them. Alone," he added dryly, when Kurenai drew out another kunai, obviously eager to fight.

The young woman looked outraged and opened her mouth to express her utmost indignation, when Iruka put a gloved finger to her lips.

"Don't," he murmured, his voice low and calm. "Please don't."

She turned away, stiff and pained. Iruka's hand fell back to his side, and he sighed inwardly.

"What about us?" Asuma could not help but ask. Even though it grated at his sense of honor to abandon his commanding officer -- and friend, the Jounin remembered with a jolt -- he would not go against his orders.

It was a matter of respect.

"The four of you get the hell out of here," Kurohyou ordered firmly. "I won't say it twice."

Forestalling their inevitable protests, he turned around and made for the staircase.

Kurenai shifted on the ball of her feet, an inscrutable look on her fair, sweat-drenched face.

"Iruka-kun," she blurted out suddenly.

The Hunter turned to her, dirty-white porcelain mask gleaming eerily in the overheated atmosphere. His composure gave off almost nothing. He simply stood there, cold and bloodied and silent. Crimson eyes very wide, she stared at him for a few seconds, before she muttered, hoarsely,

"Please be careful."

Kurohyou cocked his head to the side. She could almost see the tight, wan smile under the mask.

"Aren't I always?" the Hunter shot back, his light tone sounding a little forced. Then he whirled round and jumped into the raging blaze.

Staring into the flames, Kurenai bowed her head. Her smile was strained.

"Yes," she whispered, "I was afraid you'd say that."


***

Glossary

Kyomu no Jutsu: Jutsu of Nothingness.
Satsujinki: Cutthroat.


 

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