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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 9: Into the fire

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.
-- Lao-Tzu

He had always hated the dark.

Iruka coughed. His breathing was ragged, his throat sore from the heavy, noxious smoke that had filled the building. He willed himself to focus on the task at hand -- and, above all, not to let claustrophobia take over whatever sanity he had left. He could not afford to fall into hysterics, for obvious, scalding hot reasons -- unless, of course, he wished to end up as Hunter kebab.

In front of him, a large span of the floor had collapsed. Iruka gave the gaping dark hole a wide berth, circling around it as carefully as speed could allow. Even blurred by pain and smoke and fear, his well-trained senses detected the tell-tale crack of wood about to snap, a split second before another part crumbled under his weight, and he dived forward head-first, hoping the panelling would hold.

It did.

Iruka picked himself up with a groan, and made a mental note to avoid flips and other somersaults right after having been skewered like a vulgar piece of meat. His memory diligently mapped out the level for him. He edged closer to the left-hand wall, where he assumed the atmosphere would be somewhat cooler, and crouched low. His desperate attempts to calm himself using one of the relaxation techniques Karasu-sensei had taught him years ago proved useless.

As he progressed along the corridors, the mask seemed to grow heavier, its oppressing weight adding to Iruka's quickly rising panic. The wound in his chest sent ripples of agony throughout his whole body with each step he took. He stopped, his feet feeling like lead.

Can't breathe! Can't breathe!

Suddenly, Iruka could not take it any longer. He wrenched the mask off his face. He barely registered the sound of it clattering a few meters ahead onto the ground as he sunk to the floor. The wild throb of his heart echoed painfully in his head. He was shaking all over. Hot beads of perspiration rolled down his cheeks. He tried to wipe them off his face frantically, without success. He coughed again, then pressed the back of his hand against his nose and kept his head bowed, trying to inhale as little smoke as possible.

Behind him, a span of ceiling collapsed with an ominous crack.

Find Kakashi.

His heart pounding, Iruka held onto this single thought the way a drowning man might clutch a life-belt. Tapping into resources he did not know he had, he pushed himself up on shaky legs, steadying himself with his right hand. His claustrophobia came back with a vengeance. His head swam. His legs would not move. His knees threatened to buckle.

The darkness. The heat.

Find him.

Trembling, the Hunter gritted his teeth and set his gaze on the darkened end of the corridor. It could cave in and bury him alive anytime. It could...

Find him!

Iruka started to run.

He raced down the hallways at full speed, spurred on by sheer terror -- though he could not tell who he was more afraid for, Kakashi or himself.

***

The three Jounin made their way out of the building as quickly as their exhausted legs could take them. Gai blathered for a few minutes about Iruka's "youthful ardor and dedication", until Asuma sombrely mentioned the potential side-effects of spandex melting on certain delicate parts of a man's anatomy. It apparently gave him much to consider, for he did not speak again.

No matter how hard she tried not to think about it, Kurenai's mind always drifted back to Iruka. From what she had glimpsed of their battle, Itachi's blade at struck him in the chest, between two ribs. He had probably meant it that way, she knew -- Kurohyou had never balked at injuring himself purposely if it meant winning a fight.

As ANBU captain, Kurenai had been through a crash course in emergency field medicine, and her trained eye could tell the younger man's wounds were more serious than he had let on. He was lucky not to be down with pneumothorax, to be sure; but he was in all likelihood bleeding internally, and with the added strain of the anti-chakra barrier -- which she suspected he could not simply cancel -- Iruka would soon find himself dangerously weakened, and in no state to fight.

Kurenai could have slapped herself for letting him go and face danger by himself. But Iruka simply was not the sort of man you could refuse. He had a presence, and years as at the top of the hierarchy had only sharpened his commanding aura. When he gave out orders, he expected them to be obeyed at once -- not out of arrogance, though that might have been part of it in his younger years, but rather because he knew his place, his responsibilities, and carried out his duty with sometimes frightening devotion.

But no matter how hard Kurohyou tried to pretend otherwise, Iruka was only human.

And still very young.

All of a sudden, the reality of what she was doing hit her hard. They were almost out -- already she could see the sky, the bright blue sky and the warm spring sun...

And she was abandoning her friend.

Leaving him to die.

Kurenai gasped. A surge of anguish left her reeling. Her hand shot up to her throat. She was aware, on some level, that she was coming dangerously close to hyperventilating, but she could not help herself.

She had to go, she couldn't leave, she had to go back...

Asuma's large hand landed on her arm and jolted her back to reality.

"Iruka told us to leave," he said, tonelessly.

"I know what he said!" she hissed, angrily. "And I know he's making a mistake!"

She wrenched her forearm from his grip, already moving to turn around.

"Do you trust him?"

Kurenai stopped dead in her tracks, unable to take another step.

"Do you?" Asuma insisted. He stared at her intently, refusing to let himself be swayed by her haunted air. Locks of dark hair stuck to her damp, soot-covered brow. She had bitten through her bottom lip. Blood pearled at the cracked skin, matching her crimson eyes, bright with unshed tears.

"I would trust him with my life," she choked out at last.

"Then why can't you trust him with his?"

Kurenai swallowed audibly. She had no coherent answer beyond the immediate, unspeakable thought that burned foremost in her mind.

I don't want him to die.

"Iruka is my friend."

"Kurohyou is a Hunter," Asuma reminded her without mercy. "We must not interfere." Then he added, more softly, "If anyone can find a way, he will."

Her throat squeezing painfully, Kurenai glanced back above her shoulder one last time before they started running again. When they burst out the palace, she hated herself for the relief fresh air brought her, unable to chase off her last image of Iruka -- the silent, wounded, proud Hunter standing alone before the raging blaze.

Please let him be all right.

***

After what seemed like hours to him, Iruka eventually detected Kakashi's chakra signature, about twenty feet ahead. It was a wonder he had sensed it at all -- in truth the anti-chakra field dimmed everything. But the Jounin was still alive. Relief flooded him, and he staggered, barely keeping his footing. He regained his balance almost instantly and bounded forward once again.

He barged into the Hokage's office, slamming into the large wooden door shoulder first.

The room was in shambles On the right-hand side, the wooden floor had been blown off, probably by one of Itachi's chakra bombs. Fire roared out of the hole. Slats were embedded in the walls, hinting at the strength of the explosion. The other side was hardly better. A battle field, came the immediate, grim realization. The massive mahogany desk had been overturnedscattering papers all over the room. The white linen curtains had been badly slashed and hung limply from their poles. He scanned the room, frustrated. Worry gnawed at his insides.

Kakashi was huddled in a corner, in a vain attempt to protect himself from the blaze. He had drawn his knees to his chest, and seemed to be holding them into place with one of his arms. He was not moving.

Why hadn't he fled?

Iruka was by his side in a few steps. He gripped the Jounin's shoulder, hard enough to bruise, and shook him without gentleness.

"Kakashi-san!" he called out, torn between insane relief and barely contained anger. Why hadn't he fled? The older man looked up sharply. He looked drawn and tense and all in all exhausted. Since he had discarded his mask, Iruka guessed darkly, he must have been using the infamous Sharingan.

"You came," Kakashi said, vaguely.

He sounded almost awed.

"I just happened to pass by, is all," Iruka replied tartly. Kakashi gave no indication he had heard him at all.

"You came for me," he repeated, slowly. "Does that mean you like me, then?"

His smile was but a ghost of his usual impish grin. Iruka felt faintly ill.

Something was very wrong.

"Don't delude yourself," the Hunter snapped. Or tried to -- his voice cracked.

Kakashi's empty smile widened, but did not quite reach his mismatched eyes. Above the two shinobi, the ceiling gave an sinister creaking sound.

"Let's get out of here," Iruka said, urgently. He shifted his weight to get up, stopping when he noticed Kakashi had not moved an inch.

"Ah," the Jounin murmured, "But you see, there's this little problem."

"Quit fooling around!" Iruka all but yelled, "Get up!"

"I can't," came the listless reply. The firm, bleak resignation in his voice was heartbreaking.

Something clenched painfully in Iruka's gut. He stared at him, aghast.

"I had to use the Sharingan," Kakashi specified, gesturing vaguely behind Iruka, "To kill this guy."

Iruka's gaze followed Kakashi's, settled on a dark, charred silhouette that lay a few feet away from them. A battered, half-burned forehead protector sent off sparks of glaring light.

It was branded with the Sound sigil.

"Kabuto," the Hunter breathed, turning back to Kakashi. "You killed him."

The Jounin tried to shrug, then bit back a gasp of pain.

"I may not be a Hunter," he huffed, looking falsely offended, "But I'm still a genius."

"And Sasuke?" Iruka questioned instantly. He could not feel the boy's aura anywhere in the palace.

"I might have mentioned Itachi's presence at the southern border," Kakashi offered off-handedly. "I ordered him to go 'after' his brother, of course."

"You are the worst," Iruka replied in obvious relief, his smile tight and painful. "Come on, let's go."

"I can't move my legs," Kakashi informed him, patiently.

With Iruka's anti-chakra field firmly in place, there would be no miraculous teleporting out of the building. Both of them knew it.

"I can carry you!" the Hunter shot back, half-desperate and half-delirious with fear.

"Don't be stupid! What would be the point of us burning together?" Kakashi snapped. "Aside from the whole 'cursed lovers' thing, of course..." he added, far too amused for Iruka's nerves.

"We're not lovers!"

"No," Kakashi murmured, "Not yet..."

The unspoken 'and probably never' hung heavy between them, heart-wrenching and leaden with regrets.

"Don't I get a farewell kiss?" the Jounin asked, almost teasing, flippant and casual as he had ever been -- but Iruka was not fooled. He could see the fear under the resigned glint of Kakashi's eyes.

For a fleeting second, the Hunter hesitated.

He's right, said his mind. Save yourself.

They locked gaze.

Prove him wrong, said his heart. Don't leave him.

Iruka made up his mind. Taking Kakashi's face between his gloved hands, the young man leaned forward. Lips met lips. Iruka claimed Kakashi's mouth, hard and frantic and desperate -- trying to express without words everything he dared not tell him.

The depth of his passion gave the furious, bruising kiss an almost painful intensity. Kakashi gave as good as he got, matching every stroke, every lick, every caress. So caught up was he in the delicious task of ravishing Iruka's mouth, that he did not notice the hand sliding from his face to the crook of his neck, loving and stroking and inconspicuously settling on an energy point. The Hunter pressed two fingers against the pale skin, and Kakashi went limp in his arms.

Iruka had decided there was always hope.

The Hunter ripped a large strip of his uniform, and tied the black cloth around Kakashi's head, to protect his nose and mouth from the smoke. Then he shifted Kakashi's weight in his embrace before he heaved him onto his left shoulder with a grunt of effort. He cursed under his breath at the sharp pain flaring up in his chest. He scrambled up to his feet, his fingers gripping the smooth fabric of the Jounin's pants.

When he realized just where his hand was resting, Iruka gave an almost hysterical chuckle.

Can't believe I'm groping him at a time like this, he mused darkly. He would have a field day, I'm sure.

All lecherous thoughts left his mind, however, as part of the ceiling collapsed behind him with a deafening crack. With a rather undignified yelp, he bounded forward as fast his exhausted body could take him. Half-leaping, half-running, he dashed at top speed through the suffocating darkness. A slat gave way and crumbled under his weight. His ankle twisted painfully and he faltered, only narrowly regaining his balance. He dropped down to one knee. Breathless and trembling with chakra exhaustion, Iruka realized Kakashi had been right.

The Jounin was weighing him down.

They would never make it out of the building in time.

Naruto. Kurenai-san.

It was hopeless. They would die.

Karasu-sensei.

They would both die.

Kakashi.

With an almost feral growl, Iruka hauled himself back to his feet.

RUN!

Something snapped inside his mind, like a string drawn too tight. He let the primal instinct of survival take over. Fear and pain faded to the background, becoming increasingly dim and distant. Rage filled him -- raw, unadulterated fury. Rage at being hopeless, rage at his own acute sense of failure, rage at life, that had taken from him everyone and everything he had ever loved.

He would not fail again.

***

Down the hill, armed villagers and ninjas stood watching the blaze, their heads bowed in grim resignation. Their colored uniforms covered in grime and dried blood, two Hunters framed the Hokage. One of them, the red hue of his uniform turning crimson in the sunlight, waved his arms about in obvious agitation. Another, a brown-clad giant, was holding a trashing boy against his chest.

"LET GO!" a young, hoarse voice shrieked, cutting through the heavy silence. "IRUKA-SENSEI!"

"Naruto," the Godaime said in a low voice, without turning to him.

For a split second, she regretted not to have sedated him as she had the Uchiha boy. Then she shook off the thought. Not even a Hunter could have prevented Sasuke from going after his brother, but Naruto deserved as much as anyone -- perhaps more than any of them -- to know Iruka's fate.

The Genin stopped his vain struggling, his balled fist bouncing harmlessly on Kuma's broad, muscled shoulders.

"But Iruka-sensei..." he began. He looked about to cry. Heartbreakingly young. "We have to help!"

"The brat is right," Yamainu interjected heatedly. "Give me two men and I'll bring them back for sure!"

Kuma and Naruto both glanced at the Hokage hopefully, but Tsunade stared stonily at the burning castle.

"No," she said slowly, hating herself. "It's too late."

"But!"

"Loath as I am to admit," Washi cut in unexpectedly, "Hokage-sama is right. With Okashira's anti-chakra field in place, it would be murder to send anyone in there." He crossed his arms on his chest, shook his head, then added quietly, "Konoha cannot afford it."

"You'd leave your leader to die, Washi?" Yamainu spat, fuming. "You coward."

Washi whirled around, quick as a flash. The air crackled perilously between them. Yamainu's hand came to rest on the hilt of Shuurai, his silver-bladed katana.

"Stop it, the two of you!" Kuma growled, low in his throat. "You're making a spectacle of yourselves!"

"They're probably dead already," Tsunade murmured, her defeated tone betraying her sadness.

With a frustrated grunt, the red-haired Hunter kicked a pebble angrily, raising dust. Then he stalked away, throwing his hands down in disgust.

"That's no reason for abandoning them!" Naruto yelled, his eyes turning red. Malicious, powerful chakra swirled around him as nearly unbearable pain fed his fury. Kuma gasped, but did not release his hold on the Genin.

Tsunade turned to face him then, her face very pale.

"You claim you want to become Hokage one day," she said, tonelessly. "This is what being Hokage is about."

The boy stared at her, stunned into speechless despair. The Kyuubi chakra settled down after a few seconds, his pupils returning to their usual crystal blue. His scarred cheeks were streaked with tears. Kuma's huge, slightly trembling hand patted Naruto's tousled blonde hair solemnly as he sobbed into his shoulder.

Naruto was not the only one mourning. Among the crowd, villagers and shinobi alike, the atmosphere was leaden with unspoken grief of varying intensity.

Most of them lamented the loss of the shinobi who had protected their village without fail for the past ten years; but only those who knew the persons behind Kurohyou's and Kakashi's masks understood, with acute clarity, just how much they had lost.

Prostrated on the ground, Gai was bawling like a small child. Kurenai was crying silently into her hand, head bowed, without shame. Next to her, Asuma stood at a loss, caught between his own pain and the almost overwhelming need to comfort the woman he loved.

Then the palace crumbled.

Over the collective gasp of horror, Naruto's wail echoed in every heart.

"Iruka-sensei," he whispered desperately. "Iru-- IRUKA-SENSEI?"

He had yelled the last word in sheer incredulity. Kuma dropped the boy in surprise.

A lone black silhouette staggered down the rocky path. In his arms, he held a body tight against his bandaged chest.

"Okashira!" Yamainu and Kuma exclaimed at the same time, before rushing forward to help their wounded leader. That seemed to wrench Washi out of his astonishment. He assessed the situation quickly, his overtrained mind already taking over his obvious shock.

"A medic, quick! He's wounded!"

Haggard, Iruka stared at the two Hunters, without seeming to recognize them. It was obviously all the young man could do not to collapse. Then Washi grabbed his shoulder and Iruka's gaze focused on him. His face was frighteningly pale under the soot and crusted blood.

"Kakashi," he mumbled, too exhausted to be thinking clearly. He was beyond caring. "Kakashi. Please."

The moment the Jounin was taken from him, the Hunter felt a wave of dizziness hit him hard. He felt Kuma's strong hands on his back, steadying him. Then he noticed the crowd, heard the whispers. The look on their faces.

They knew.

They all knew.

Free, came the sudden, unbidden thought. I am free.

"It's over," he whispered. Tears ran on his smoke-darkened cheeks, but he did not feel them. "Everything is over."

Then the world went black, and Iruka knew no more.
 

***

Glossary

Shuurai: Lightning speed.
Kuma: Bear.
Washi: Eagle.
Yamainu: Mountain Dog.
 

 

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