Glossary at the end of the chapter. Author's notes: see prologue.
LJ version table of contents
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
-- James Baldwin
Iruka shivered. Even in early May, the cotton hospital gown and stolen sweatpants did little to ward off the cool air of daybreak. He did not have enough chakra left in his body to teleport, or even jump from rooftop to rooftop. Instead, he trudged wearily down the narrow cobbled streets of Konoha, every step a test of will. Kiba, rolled in a scarf and strapped tightly to his back, slapped painfully against his bandaged chest when he suddenly faltered and lost his footing. He had to stop for long minutes, trying to catch his breath, before he felt steady enough to go on. Never did it occur to him to turn back.
As he made his way to the Hokage's temporary headquarters -- he had tricked a nurse into revealing that particular piece of information -- Iruka noticed the usually bustling streets of the Maple District were mercifully deserted, the doors barred, the windows barricaded. Small wonder, he reasoned, since the village had been under attack but a few hours -- days? -- before.
Iruka thanked his lucky stars all the same. He did not think he could have faced anyone, not in his state, not after...
The young man swallowed the bile he felt rising in his throat. He had seen nobody but nurses and the occasional medic-nin since he had woken up, and they had all, infuriatingly, avoided his questions and told him to rest.
The extent of his disgrace was not hard to guess.
Iruka allowed himself a small, wan smile. Soon, it would be over, one way or another. Then he would rest.
As he neared the building Tsunade had elected as temporary HQ, Iruka did not bother to screen his chakra -- there was almost nothing left to hide, at any rate, given his abiding, bone-deep fatigue.
Scrambling up the stairs proved more difficult, and a great deal more painful, than he had anticipated. All his muscles and joints ached with chakra exhaustion, and the wound on his torso throbbed in unison. The medic-nins had not been able to heal it completely, as jutsu medicine required energy from both the healer and the patient, and, if Nenani-sama was to be believed, his chakra levels when he had collapsed had been frighteningly low.
After what seemed like excruciatingly long hours, the Hunter climbed the last step -- for a moment, Iruka wondered, peevishly, whether Tsunade had chosen the top floor just to spite him. Already he could feel powerful auras behind the closed door -- many Jounins, he surmised, three Hunters and the Hokage.
His hand on the door latch, he hesitated. Even though Iruka knew he needed a public for what he was about to do, that did not mean he had to like it.
And he certainly did not. But he had shamed the whole village, and the Hokage most of all, and there was only one way of atoning for his mistakes. He took a deep breath and opened the door.
Tsunade surveyed the assembly with half-closed amber eyes, and stifled a jaw cracking yawn. She had summoned all the Jounins and remaining Hunters. Along with her personal advisors, they had been trying, for hours on end, to assess the extent of the damage inflicted on their village.
Human losses had been kept to a minimum, thanks to Kurohyou's apt planning, but Itachi's chakra bombs had left chaos and destruction in their wake. The Palace had been burned to the ground; none of the surviving workers had managed to escape the blaze. Hours later, when Iruka's anti-chakra field -- which, Tsunade had to admit, was an impressive piece of work -- had dissipated, there had been nothing left but ashes and charred remains.
Five ANBU and two Chuunin were missing, and the death of Hinata weighted on everyone's mind. A funeral would be held in the coming days, when the situation went back to normal -- or as normal as it could be.
The medic-nins of Konoha, led by Nenani and Tsunade themselves, had been been working days and nights to heal the wounded and the suffering. Most would recover, like Iruka and Kakashi, and would simply sport new scars; but other stigmata of the carnage would never disappear. Some had lost an eye or a limb; others, burned to third degree by the five minor chakra mines the enemy had scattered throughout the village, would not live out the night; one, a newly promoted Jounin, would never walk again.
On the brighter side, there had been no civilian death to report, and not a single child had been harmed.
A red-eyed Jounin -- Kurenai, she thought, Genjutsu specialist, ANBU Squad leader, Iruka's friend -- took a step forward. Her dark hair in disarray, her clothes rumpled, she looked like something the cat had brought in, she estimated. They all did. Tsunade suspected she herself must have looked a bit weary. In a sexy, eye-catching, way of course.
"The fires in the Cypress and Willow Districts have been put out," the woman announced, in a tired, but clear voice. "The villagers have started filing out indemnification forms, even though we told them it was useless."
Tsunade groaned. Konoha had literally walked through the fire, and, on a human level at least, escaped mostly unscathed. Administratively, however, the attack had been a complete disaster. All the paperwork accumulated since Konoha's foundation had vanished in clouds of dark smoke. More jutsu scrolls and books than she cared to think, including the Forbidden Scrolls, had been lost forever. They would have to start again from scratch.
It suddenly occurred to her that Kurenai was giving her a quizzical look.
"Good work, Jounin," Tsunade said shortly, resisting the urge to sigh. The weeks to come would undoubtedly prove fascinating.
All of a sudden, she felt Kuma tense next to her. The bearish Hunter stiffened with a grunt of surprise. Across the room, Washi looked up from the report he had been thumbing through, his masked face focusing automatically on the doorway. Yamainu sprang to his feet and let out a curse.
The large wooden door opened slowly to reveal one Umino Iruka.
The young man looked exhausted. His dark messy hair fell in limp strands all over his sallow face.
There was a collective gasp of surprise. Some Jounins stared openly, others turned to the Hokage in askance -- wondering, no doubt, if the Hunter had managed to catch her unaware as well.
Kurenai made a small, concerned sound and rushed forward to help. She froze at Tsunade's sharp glance, and held her place, though if her scowl was any indication, she was far from pleased.
Nobody else had moved. No one dared offer assistance to the proud Hunter .
The Chuunin kept his eyes fixated on the Hokage as he took an unsteady step toward her, then another. The crowd parted automatically as he hobbled across the room.
Tsunade was not annoyed. No, she was beyond furious. As he drew level with her, she glowered at him meaningly.
"Iruka!" she barked. "You should not be here."
It should not have been possible for anyone to pale further, but then the young man did have quite a history of rule-breaking. When Iruka dropped to his knees in a humiliated kow-tow, Tsunade understood in a flash that she had made a tactical mistake.
Bowing his head, Iruka reached behind him to unstrap Kiba from his back. Then he carefully balanced the weapon on his upturned palms, and held it up in silence.
"Hokage-sama," he began, his voice low and atrociously calm. "This shinobi has failed you and this village in every regard. Lives have been lost, building destroyed, and secrets revealed. The Hunters have been disgraced. This shinobi's shame knows no bounds. Please allow your humble servant to take his unworthy life, and let his blood wash away the dishonor."
The ancient ritual words flowed out of his mouth, and he meant them with every fibre of his body, with every breath he took, with what little energy he had left. Few ninjas knew of the Old Code, and even fewer followed it, but the Hunters were shinobi of a different kind, a fading memory of a time long past, when honor mattered to warriors more than life, before greed supplanted duty, and interest replaced ideals.
It was not for Hunters to feel, to love, or to mourn. Hunters were weapons. They served their people with utmost devotion from the instant they took up their masks to the moment they fell in defence of their village, and gave their last breath.
That knowledge made Iruka's failure all the more unbearable to the young man.
He closed his eyes, and waited. The silence in the room was deafening. Iruka could hear his own heart beating steadily in his chest, and suddenly it occurred to him it might be one of the last times. His pulse sped up at that, and he could not help the violent shiver that coursed through his body. He squashed the tiny flicker of fearful regret that danced in his heart with impatient self-reprieve.
You've brought this upon yourself, he berated himself sternly. Now face the consequences.
His knees and arms were screaming in protest at remaining immobile for so long, but Iruka did not change his posture. He wished the Hokage would speak up at last, accept his request or scorn it. In that last case, Iruka would have to find another way to end his life, and his honorless spirit would never find peace.
The thought made him want to throw up.
He did not quite dare look up, but his eyelids fluttered open of their own volition, and he found himself staring at the artfully painted toenails of the powerful Fifth Hokage.
At last she shifted on the balls of her feet, and Iruka felt the familiar, comforting weight of Kiba removed from his hands. He let out a sigh of bone-weary relief. His gratitude was short-lived, however, as the clatter of a scabbard hitting the marble ground made him cringe. The involuntary motion had him raise his eyes and meet the Hokage's gaze. A maelstrom of emotions crossed Tsunade's usually impassive face -- Iruka read anger, shame, outrage, and a few others he could not name.
The young man looked away uneasily, his throat unbearably tight, painfully aware he was the direct cause of her ire.
She had all the reasons in the world to despise him, and none to grant him the mercy of an honorable death. Despair washed over him for a moment, but when hot tears prickled at the corners of his eyes, he bit them back savagely. Disgraced or not, he was still a Hunter, and it would not do to shame the Hokage further in front of witnesses.
He forced his voice to be calm and steady when he next spoke up.
"I understand, Hokage-sama."
Tsunade's answer was immediate, her tone cold and clipped.
"No, you don't."
He kept his head bowed, refusing to meet her eye, not wanting to see the frosty scorn that he knew had to be there.
"Up," the Hokage said suddenly. Then she added, more softly, "Do you think you can you get up?"
The Hunter nodded uncertainly, taken aback by the sudden, unexpected gentleness of her voice. He scrambled up stiffly, all of his usual grace gone. There he stood facing the most powerful ninja of the Leaf, on wobbly legs, feeling faint and light-headed. He had to squeeze his eyes shut to keep his balance. For a moment, he wondered whether he was going to pass out. Mercifully, he did not.
He straightened, bracing himself. Then he looked up.
Tsunade searched his face for a long second. What she found, Iruka could not tell. He swallowed audibly.
"Thank you," she said, in her direct, brisk way. She bowed, slowly, deeply.
Speechless, the young man watched in utter bewilderment as one after the other, the Jounins kneeled behind the Hokage. Then she drew herself up. A light smile hovered on her sensuous lips. The Jounins remained immobile.
"You have served this village well, Hunter," she announced, her voice loud and clear. "Will you continue to serve?"
"I am not a Hunter anymore," Iruka murmured, pained. "I disgraced the very name."
Tsunade held up a placating hand.
"If disgrace there has been, it was none of your doing. You have my gratitude, and that of the village. But let me finish, brat. Will you continue to serve?"
Iruka's gaze was troubled, his face set into a frown, but he bowed again.
"Anything you demand of me, Hokage-sama."
"I want you to do what you do best, Iruka," she said at last.
The young man looked resigned.
Tsunade smiled at him then, a slow, rich smile that warmed her steely amber eyes. Iruka released a breath he had not realized he had been holding.
"No," she said simply. "To teach."
To say Iruka was surprised would have been the understatement of the century. He was completely speechless.
"You understand, however, that I cannot allow your potential to go to waste at the Academy," Tsunade went on, briskly. "As a special Jounin, your Kenjutsu skills and teaching abilities will be put to good use."
The former Hunter stared at her in wide-eyed astonishment.
"A Jounin? Me? But..."
With a careless wave of her hand, Tsunade dismissed his objections.
"Yes, well, you cannot stay a Chuunin all your life, now, can you?" she said, before she added, "And don't even think of having your tattoo removed. You will keep it as a token of your devotion to the village. It will do you good to get some recognition, for once."
Iruka nodded, too stunned to protest. He had come in fully expecting to be dead before dusk, and here the Hokage was offering him a brand new life, in restored honor. It was overwhelming.
"I will take the Jounin examination as you command, Hokage-sama," he began, earnestly. "But I will need two senior Jounins to nominate me."
"Don't be ridiculous," she scoffed. "You're not taking it."
Iruka raised a curious eyebrow.
"I am not?" he repeated, clearly surprised.
"Of course not. Do you realize the ruckus it would cause? We'd have to start selling tickets -- wait, maybe that's not such a bad idea after all..."
The young man let out a light sigh, amused in spite of himself. Those who thought retirement was restful had probably never met Tsunade.
9 months later
On a bright cold day of February, a young man crossed a clearing, to the memorial stone dedicated to the fallen Hunters. The stark winter light cast a gleaming coat over the pine trees. Crisp fresh snow crunched under his feet.
On impulse, Iruka put his head back. The hood of his woollen cloak slid off easily. A tan hand reached up to tuck stray locks behind his ears. The wind played in his unruly dark hair -- he had taken to letting it down these days, because Kakashi liked it this way. He still dressed in black, his outfit practical and simple, though he could not wear the Hunter's garb anymore.
So much had changed.
In the course of a few months, Iruka's life -- or rather, lives -- had taken an unexpected turn, for better or for worse.
Washi had stepped up as leader of the Hunters after him, as Iruka had planned. What the former Hunter had not expected, however, was the tentative friendship that had slowly grown between them. And it was not the only bond Iruka had formed over the past year.
When Itachi had threatened the village, Iruka had not paused to take Sasuke's feelings into account -- he had simply done what he had to in order to insure Konoha's safety no matter the cost -- even if it meant hurting the boy irremediably.
At first, it had seemed the Genin had simply transferred his hatred of his brother onto Iruka. It had stung, more than the young man had cared to admit, to feel such venomous loathing directed at him. He would have been content to simply grin and bear it -- he had taken away Sasuke's revenge, after all -- but Tsunade had decided to step in.
To Iruka's astonishment, she had asked him to become the last Uchiha's teacher. However skilled he night be in the traditional ninja skills, she had reasoned, he was still direly lacking in more physical martial arts, and who better than a retired Hunter to train him?
Iruka had hesitated for weeks, tossing and turning in bed all night long, as Kakashi had grumpily informed everyone who had cared to listen. The former Hunter had not been the only one sporting bags under his eyes these days.
Tsunade, uncharacteristically, had not pressured him. Though nobody had ever blamed him, Iruka's latest apprentice had turned out to be a murdering traitor -- such things tended to encourage wariness.
He had accepted, and he did not regret it.
It had taken him three endless months, but eventually the boy had let go of his anger and accepted him as his teacher rather than as his enemy. In time, hate had turned to contempt, then to grudging respect -- Iruka scarcely allowed himself to hope they could ever become friends.
Sasuke had turned out to be an eager, clever, talented student; and, if at first the lack of vengeful drive that had sustained him for so long had deadened his spirit, a new-found, healthier thirst for knowledge had eventually come to replace it -- under Iruka's watchful tutelage.
In training the sullen boy, Iruka had found a new purpose. Sharing his knowledge, his experience and his love of the village, he had at first merely hoped to be part of Sasuke's slow recovery. Only when he had found himself sleeping through the night had Iruka realized they had been healing each other all along.
Team Seven -- Sakura trained by Tsunade, Naruto by Jiraiya -- had taken and passed their Chuunin exams, along with a few of their comrades. As for the Hunters, Washi and Kuma's apprentices had received their names and masks five days ago -- Hakuchuu, the white Swan, and Tora, the Tiger.
All in all, it had been a fruitful year.
And then, there was Kakashi.
Kakashi, who upon his waking up, had run barefoot all the way to the Hokage's headquarters, glared at Tsunade, teleported them both back to the hospital, and promptly collapsed; who had spoon-fed Iruka, against his vehement protests, when a fever of exhaustion had left him too weak to move, and who liked to brush Iruka's hair until it became almost as soft and brilliant as his mother's dark tresses.
Kakashi, who had carried him in his arms, flaying and trashing and cursing, across the threshold of the Jounin lounge, to their friends' endless amusement; who had not even blinked at Iruka's culinary catastrophe on their first dinner at home, and who had the good grace never to comment on his frightening lack of cooking sense.
Kakashi, who snored and hogged the covers, stole his shirts and used his toothbrush; who hid erotica in Iruka's favorite books on a weekly basis; and who had atrocious taste in music and literally no sense of punctuality.
Kakashi, who had been through hell and back again, and yet shown him there was more to life than duty and blood and pain; who had taken in stride Iruka's obsession of control, his explosive temper and even the abiding, soul-shaking terror of abandonment that woke him up at night; who held him through the panic attacks as if he had done it all his life, and never once questioned Iruka on the nightmares that left him quaking and repeating the same words over and over in a strange, guttural language.
Kakashi, who had made love to him with a gentleness the Hunter had not known could exist, and pretended not to notice Iruka's reddened eyes and damp cheeks; who whispered in his ear, almost every night, three words that meant nothing, and everything -- and never expected Iruka to say anything in return.
Kakashi, battle-scarred, twisted, manipulative bastard; incredible, mischievous, sensual, fascinating genius.
Iruka came to a halt in front of the memorial, gleaming into the sunlight, and smiled wistfully.
He closed his eyes briefly, his fingers tightening on the small bundle of cloth he held against his chest, under the heavy black coat. Then he kneeled in a fluid motion, bowed low in front of the memorial stone, his brow nearly touching the snow.
"Honored Hunters of Konoha," he murmured. "Brothers, sisters -- sensei -- please forgive my weakness."
There were things not even time could erase, and Iruka's guilt would follow him into the grave.
Ever since that fateful day, almost a year ago, Iruka had felt the need to come there alone, to pray. But he was not a Hunter anymore, and part of him wondered if he still had the right to.
He bowed again, sharply, before he drew his left land out of his woollen coat. He hesitated, then he opened it and found himself staring at a pristine white mask. He swallowed, feeling strangely nervous. Then, in a single, precise motion, he set the mask against the memorial. It looked straight back at him, but Iruka found he did not hate the sight of it anymore.
"Kurohyou is dead," he said, getting back up in a graceful movement. "Long live Iruka."
A light screeching sound made him look up and meet the unreadable gaze of a raven, perched on the stone. Its dark eyes glinted. Then it took off in a rustle of wings.
He felt his heart clench. What would Karasu-sensei think of him? Or his parents?
He had lost his position for the love of a man, yet could not find it in himself to regret his choice. He could not help relishing his new-found freedom, and felt incredibly selfish because of it. Had he not sworn to always protect Konoha?
"So," said a voice behind him, jolting him back to reality, "Happy? A Jounin's life -- now that must feel like retirement to you."
Iruka did not bother turning around. He stared off in the distance, a distressed frown creasing his forehead.
"I don't know," he said truthfully. "Somehow, I feel like..." He trailed off, suddenly unsure of himself.
"Like you're deserting," Hime finished for him.
Iruka did not answer, but his silence was eloquent.
The cougar snorted.
"Nonsense," she said, dismissively. "You never learn, do you, Iruka?"
He turned to her, tilting his head to the side, warily.
"The purpose of life is not death," she explained, more patiently than was usual for her. "Though we all come to that eventually. The purpose of life is making the better of the time that's been given to you."
The young man sighed at his friend's cryptic words. "Your point being?"
She gave him a pointed look.
"I think it's high time you got a life."
"Maybe you're right," he said, unaccountable warmth filling his chest.
They walked back to the village in companionable silence, lost in the memories of many years past. A slow, wistful smile danced on Iruka's lips.
Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for him yet.
To sequel [TSB: Renegade]