carcinya: (Default)
Title: The Silent Blade: Renegade
Genre: Romance/Action/Adventure

Summary: As his lover finds himself caught in a deadly whirlwind of political intrigue that leads Konoha to the brink of war, former Hunter Iruka must risk everything to protect what he holds dear. Just how far would you go to defend what is yours? [KakaIru, Book 2]

Comments
: Unbetaed yet, sorry!
Status: In progress. (Yes, I will finish it.)

TSB: Renegade -- Chapter 5 "Shackled"

Previous chapters

[Book 1]

[Book 2: Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4]

I'd be surprised if anyone even remembers this story. *smiles* Feedback lovely, as usual.
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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]

 


 
Epilogue: Forgiving )

Epilogue: Forgiving

Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
-- James Baldwin

Later

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.

Forever.

***

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.

***

Meanwhile

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.

"Iruka."

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.

"To kill?"

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.

Kakashi.

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."

Iruka laughed.

"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.

 

***

Glossary

Taka: Hawk.
Hakuchuu: Swan.

***

END


To sequel [TSB: Renegade]


carcinya: (Default)

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 )

Glossary

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

 

carcinya: (Default)

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 7: Slow Burn )

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.

Oh, yes.

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.

A clone?

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.

Kurenai-san!

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.

Naruto ...

"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."

"Yes sir!"

"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.

Hime-neesan!

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?"

"Right away!"

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.

Or Kakashi's.

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.

"But ..."

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.

Traitor.

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.

Naruto!

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?"
 

***

Glossary

Hakaze: Breeze rustling through leaves.
Kagami: Mirror.
Shoushin No Jutsu: Jutsu of Combustion.
Sanshouuo: Salamander.
Yuuhei No Jutsu: Jutsu of Imprisonment.
 

 
carcinya: (Default)

The Silent Blade: Hunter [LJ version]

Glossary at the end of the chapter. Author's notes before the 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 3: From the inside )

There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.
-- George Carlin


"And then Asuma-sensei did this very wicked thing with his tongue ..."

Kakashi almost choked on his ramen, and he looked up sharply, his single blue eye widening. So engrossed had he been in his analysis of Iruka's character, that the Chuunin had managed to catch him quite unaware. He did not like it.

"Asuma did what?"

"Somehow I thought that would catch your attention," Iruka murmured, pursing his lips in slight distaste. "Did you even listen to a word of what I said?"

"No, I didn't," the Jounin confirmed amiably. "What did you say?"

Iruka struggled visibly for a few seconds to compose himself, cursing inwardly his lack of control over his emotions. The man's sheer presence never failed to make his blood boil. Especially these days, when even petty little things had a severe tendency to grate on his nerves.

"Would you mind," he asked as politely as he could, "If I borrowed Naruto for the afternoon?"

Kakashi seemed to consider that for a moment, tilting his bushy head pensively.

"Actually, yes, I think I would."

Which was absolutely false, and both of them knew it. It was Sunday, and Naruto was technically off-duty. Iruka had only been asking Kakashi out of professional consideration.

It was the proverbial straw. Iruka saw red.

As the Jounin turned back to his meal, the Hunter grabbed him roughly by his flak jacket, and, with surprising strength, yanked him off his stool, before pushing him out in the fortunately deserted street.

"What's your problem?" Iruka yelled. Behind him, he could feel his former students' bewildered eyes on his back, but at this point, he was beyond caring.

Kakashi, slightly surprised, straightened his ruffled clothes and pride.

"I could ask you the same question," he retorted dryly, vaguely amused, as he admired shamelessly Iruka's darkly flushed face. Anger suited him well, Kakashi thought. "You're the one screaming your lungs off, not me."

The Chuunin looked faintly insulted at that, but went on doggedly.

"Don't play innocent with me," he seethed. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."

Kakashi did. However, he certainly wasn't going to tell him that. He found this new version of Iruka curiously fascinating, and besides, he wasn't quite done with him.

"I do?" he said, looking rather bored with the whole conversation.

Iruka's fury increased with the Jounin's nonchalance. He wanted to get a reaction, any reaction out of the aloof, indifferent ninja. The tension that had been bottling up deep inside him since the runaway's execution suddenly focused solely on Kakashi -- a man who stirred painfully confusing, contradictory emotions in him, and who seemed, plainly, to bring out the worst in him. Anger, obviously; jealousy, for being close to Naruto on a daily basis; involuntary, childish delight at his antics and unusual way of life; and lastly, desire -- he could not deny it.

"Is it about that fucking exam? I said I was sorry, for Hokage's sake! Won't you ever let it go? Why do you do that to me?"

Kakashi was surprised at hearing him swear. It was the last question, however, that appalled him. What was Iruka ranting about?

The three Genins watched their elders in growing dismay, confusion written plainly on their young faces. Even Sasuke seemed slightly distressed. Never before before had they seen calm, laid-back Iruka-sensei so enraged.

What had started as innocent teasing -- maybe not so innocent, Kakashi admitted -- was quickly turning into something a lot uglier.

It wasn't about him or their dispute anymore, Kakashi realized, it went far beyond that. The Chuunin was alarmingly close to a nervous breakdown, the tight grasp he kept on his power dissolving as his anger neared its peak. The air crackled around him, and chakra flared between his fingers as he clenched and unclenched his fists spasmodically.

He was pale, and there were bags under his eyes, the Jounin noted suddenly. He looked taut and drawn and ready to burst and why hadn't he noticed it sooner?

Kakashi had to end it, and quickly. He grabbed the young man by his left arm arm and shook him without gentleness.

"Snap out of it, Iruka!" he ordered firmly.

Iruka flinched visibly, his dilated pupils coming back into focus. Then, with a hiss of pain, he wrenched himself from Kakashi's grasp. His right hand flew to his arm, and he stifled a curse. A rush of fresh blood seeped through the material of his shirt, smearing his fingers and spattering the ground.

"Iruka-sensei!" cried Naruto, horrified. He lunged forward to help his beloved teacher, but Sasuke's strong grip on his shoulder stopped him.

"Leave them," he cut in coldly. The blonde Genin stepped back reluctantly, nibbling his lower lip in worry.

Kakashi had not moved. A succession of images passed through his mind at an alarming rate. Kurohyou, injured during their mission, a kunai sticking out of his left arm; his surprising consideration of Naruto, earlier that morning; Iruka, gentle Iruka, radiating astounding power and fury; Iruka, clutching his wounded limb ...

And suddenly, everything clicked together.

Their eyes met. The breathless Chuunin's gaze locked with the Jounin one-eyed, shocked stare.

"Looks like the cat got your tongue," murmured Kakashi eventually, wincing inwardly at the awful pun. He had wanted to discover Iruka's secret, and he had gained his end, as he always did. There was no triumph to be seen in his single blue eye, however -- he merely felt drained, and surprisingly sad. He had succeeded, pushing the right buttons at the right moment -- but at what cost?

He knows, thought Iruka in silent despair. He knows.

There, at that fleeting moment, his mask slipped. A profound lassitude washed over the young man, and he wished he could curl up in a ball, and sleep, sleep the pain away.

I don't want to kill him.

The mere thought twisted something viciously in his gut.

There was only thing left for him to do at that instant.

Iruka turned around and fled.

Kakashi watched him go, hoping against all odds that he had merely been jumping hastily to conclusions.

Knowing he hadn't.

Midnight found Kurohyou standing stiff and straight by the memorial stone outside the village. He knew Kakashi would come -- his legendary curiosity would undoubtedly get the better of him.

After their altercation at the Ichiraku -- and his embarrassing, unreasoned bout of anger -- the young man had spent excruciating hours ruminating his possible courses of action -- and insufferable though the Jounin could be, slaying him definitely held no appeal to him. Quite the contrary.

He had been lenient with his secret of late, he knew -- sparing Kurenai's life, letting her and the Hokage continually joke about his identity...

Careless. The word echoed eerily in his head.

Prostrated on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, Iruka had realized that he had no choice but to confront Kakashi. There was no mission scheduled that night -- if the Jounin came anyway at their usual summoning spot, Iruka's doubts would be confirmed.

Then, Iruka would have to kill him.

And now, shivering in the chill night, the Hunter merely felt bleak, and very, so very tired.

Had Iruka been less distressed, his mind turned less inward on his incertitude and guilt, he would have noticed the warning signs his body was sending him. When he had extracted the kunai, almost a day ago, a dirty shard of metal had lodged itself, unnoticed, deep inside the wound. He had only disinfected it shallowly and quickly; his weakened state had done the rest. Back there, at the ramen restaurant, he had already been experiencing the first symptoms of the infection -- he had merely dismissed them as side effects of his humiliating lack of control.

Kakashi's sudden appearance caught him off guard. He was wearing his ANBU uniform, complete with the mask and steel breastplate. The metallic glint of the armor in the pallid moonlight irked Iruka's over-sensitized, bloodshot eyes. He blinked, trying to get some moisture back -- in vain.

His worst fear had just been confirmed. The Jounin knew.

Head spinning, black spots dancing before his eyes, the hunter readied himself. As he lunged toward his opponent, he let Kurohyou take over, burying his pain and fatigue along with his reason.

Steel crashed against steel, in a silent contest of will and skill. Iruka observed the scene distantly, detachedly, dealing blow after blow without thinking, basking in the almost restful normality of it all. Slash, feint, slash, dodge, step, slash -- a routine his muscles and the remotest part of his brain could have accomplished in his sleep.

Iruka struggled both against Kakashi and his body's constant betrayal. Abruptly, one of his knees gave out, and he faltered, the Jounin's katana only narrowly missing his head. With a sudden burst of desperate energy, he effectuated an almost elegant backflip, and promptly regained his balance.

Hands gripping the padded hilt of his sword, slightly winded, Kakashi began to doubt the wisdom of his decision to defy the Hunter. For the first time in countless years, he felt something akin to fear creeping up his spine.

Kurohyou was a killer, and Kakashi was his prey.

And yet, the Jounin could not help feeling that something was off. Iruka's technique was flawless, his speed astounding, but his reflexes seemed somehow dulled, dimmed, and his reactions vaguely ... out of phase.

Iruka was very far from such cares. He did not feel anything anymore, be it anger, sorrow, or mere weariness. Not even the cold. He fought mechanically, relying sorely on his over-trained instinct, his mind clouded by the fever that wracked his body.

Suddenly, Kakashi lunged at him. The hunter moved at the last second, stepping aside and ... vanishing. Sandaime himself had taught him that particular move, which he had named the "Phantom Step". Using the flash of Kakashi's blade as a cover, he had propelled himself at the edge of the Jounin's field of vision -- thus disappearing from view and concealing efficiently his next attack.

Kakashi ducked with surprising dexterity the blow that would have beheaded him, Tsume and Kiba swishing above his bushy, silver-haired head. He rolled quickly on the grass, dodging another slash by a few inches. He twisted, grabbed a shuriken, and threw it deftly at a nearby branch. Then, tapping into his considerable Ninjutsu skill, he used the Kawarimi No Jutsu at the very moment Iruka's blade should have embedded itself in his skull -- effectively destabilizing his opponent.

He let himself drop from the tree a few meters away from the hunter, chest heaving. He would never beat him without the Sharingan, he realized grimly. Iruka, too, seemed to understand that perfectly, and would never give him the opportunity to actually use this advantage. If he tried but to remove his mask -- offering a invaluable opening in the process -- the younger man would be on him in an instant.

Iruka's masked gaze never left him, his slender dark body poised for attack, obviously ready for the last, lethal assault. Kakashi was surprised to see his hands shaking slightly -- from the thrill of the hunt, or from exhaustion? He half-hoped, for his health at least, that it was the latter -- fighting a worn out Hunter would certainly give him an edge. Yet the more rational part of his brain, that wasn't clouded by his instinct of survival, screamed at the absurdity of it all. Kakashi rather enjoyed living, thank-you-very-much, but that didn't mean he wanted Iruka to die, either.

His hesitation lasted but a few seconds before he resolutely made up his mind. Maybe he could still save that stubborn Chuunin from himself. Tightening his grip on the heavy katana, he launched himself at the Hunter, raised the weapon high above his head, and, flipping it at the last moment, flung the dull edge of the blade right at Iruka's skull.

Or at least tried to. Tsume and Kiba shot up at an alarming speed, only narrowly blocking the Jounin's sword. Kakashi had put all his physical power in this move, hoping to stun him into dropping his weapons with his mightier attack. They remained locked in that stance for a few excruciatingly long seconds, each daring the other to give in. Iruka's arms trembled under the strain -- Kakashi really was stronger than he had anticipated --, biting his lips to stifle his cries of pain as the muscle of his biceps began tearing anew. He almost dropped Tsume, but held on by sheer willpower.

With the last of his strength, the young man unexpectedly lowered both his blades, and let himself stoop down below the Jounin, back hitting the grass. His right leg then shot up straight, his leather boot slamming between Kakashi's eyes at full force. The ANBU mask broke with an ominous crack under the impact, and he staggered backwards.

Iruka sprang back to his feet, swaying slightly, and forced the Jounin to step back. It was all Kakashi could do to protect himself against the more or less lethal blows the hunter rained on him. His back suddenly hit the bark of a tree, blocking his precipitate retreat. In a matter of seconds, Kiba's sharp edge pressed threateningly against the pale, tender skin of his throat.

The fight was over. Kakashi had lost. He dropped the katana listlessly.

They contemplated each other for a long time, both trying to catch their breath, the eerie silence of the night only disrupted by the wild beating of their hearts.

Without knowing exactly why, Kakashi wasn't afraid anymore. Slowly, ever so slowly, his hand sneaked up, caressing Iruka's burning skin, resting on his neck in silent question. The blade did not move. Forsaking his hesitations, Kakashi lifted up the feline-like mask.

The hunter's face was abnormally flushed, noted the more detached part of his mind, while the more sensual portion merely took in his lightly parted lips and labored breath with a flaring, disconcerting surge of desire. On impulse, Kakashi leaned in and pressed his lips softly against Iruka's.

The Chuunin's mind, already rather cloudy, went utterly blank. Instinct, once again, took over, and he kneed Kakashi viciously in the gut. The older man doubled over in surprised pain. As he straightened, another sword went to join Kiba against his neck. Iruka looked plainly murderous.

"So wild," murmured Kakashi, "So savage ..."

He had yet to remove his hand.

Mismatched eyes plunged into the dark depths of Iruka's feverish gaze, probing, questioning, wondering.

"Are you going to kill me?"

The question seemed to jolt the Hunter back to reality. He stepped back slowly, staring at Kakashi in dazed horror. He had been close, so close to lose himself into Kurohyou ... To yield to the ruthless killer hidden deep within himself.

The blades fell limply from his hands and clattered on the ground, like an ominous knell that echoed in Iruka's heart alone. He slid to his knees, an animal, terrified yowl rising in his chest, choking, burning, excruciating -- the mind as fevered as the body.

He hugged himself desperately, tears running down his cheeks, rocking back and forth like a small child, unable to stifle the anguished cries that escaped his lips.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no ...

He was only vaguely aware of Kakashi's strong arms lifting him up with surprising care, before he sunk into a heavy, fever-induced sleep, his dark head pillowed on a warm, broad shoulder.

 


 

 

carcinya: (Default)
Title: The Silent Blade: Renegade
Genre: Romance/Action/Adventure

Summary: As his lover finds himself caught in a deadly whirlwind of political intrigue that leads Konoha to the brink of war, former Hunter Iruka must risk everything to protect what he holds dear. Just how far would you go to defend what is yours? [KakaIru, Book 2]

Comments: Betaed by Noods and [livejournal.com profile] bronzetigress. Thank you!
Status: In progress.

(TSB: Renegade -- Chapter 3: "On the Warpath")

Feedback *more* than welcome, as usual! *worried*
carcinya: (Default)
Title: The Silent Blade: Renegade
Genre: Romance/Action/Adventure

Summary: As his lover find himself caught in a deadly whirlwind of political intrigue that leads Konoha to the brink of war, former Hunter Iruka must risk everything to protect what he holds dear. Just how far would you go to defend what is yours? [KakaIru, Book 2]

Comments: Betaed by Noods. Thank you!
Status: In progress.

(TSB: Renegade -- Chapter 2: "Fall to pieces")

Feedback more than welcome, as usual! *anxious*

PS: [livejournal.com profile] bronzetigress, [livejournal.com profile] telosphilos, my dears -- don't worry, I will post a new, edited version as soon as I hear from you. (I just couldn't wait! *bows very low* So sorry!)
carcinya: (Default)
Well, here we go again.It seems being angry makes me creative. ^^

Title: The Silent Blade: Renegade
Genre: Romance/Action/Adventure

Summary: As his lover finds himself caught in a deadly whirlwind of political intrigue that leads Konoha to the brink of war, former Hunter Iruka must risk everything to protect what he holds dear. Just how far would you go to defend what is yours? [KakaIru, Book 2]

Comments: Betaed by Elizabeth Tan, [livejournal.com profile] bronzetigress and [livejournal.com profile] telosphilos. Thank you!
Status: In progress.

(TSB: Renegade -- Chapter 1: "Twisted Logic")

Feedback more than welcome to ease the anxious author...