The roof tiles were cold beneath his fingers as he sat back, but Iruka didn't mind. He breathed in deeply; the night air was crisp and clear, it smelled of pine needles, smoke and autumn. It wasn't that chilly really, considering it was the second day of October. A brilliant Hunter's Moon hung in the sky above the quiet village. Iruka had a large bento box next to him, some hot tea in a thermos by his foot and no need to go to school tomorrow. The night, he judged, was perfect.
This just goes to show that you can be a good Shinobi and an excellent teacher, and still have all the prescience of a rock. Iruka was about to have a very bad night indeed.
His eyes stayed fixed on the stars, while his hand reached absently for the bento. He caught himself in time. He'd already polished off the fried squid bites, he really shouldn't pick at it any more. His stomach growled its own opinion. He'd inhaled a cup of soup between two parent meetings this evening, and he'd eaten nothing since. The rice dumplings were calling to him like a bunch of little sirens.
But he could wait a while longer. His, ah, 'date' was already thirty minutes late, so Iruka was expecting him soon. He didn't get to see Kakashi that often outside of teachers' meetings and their occasional one-night stands. Assuming you could still call it a one-night stand when it happened on average once a month...He had no complaints about it either way, but sometimes it was nice to just meet up and talk like the friends they'd also become in the last couple of years. These occasions were rare, and Iruka wasn't going to spoil this perfect night by eating all the dinner while his dining companion had yet to arrive.
Okay, maybe just half the rice dumplings. Kakashi didn't like them much anyway, he preferred the-
Iruka's hand darted from the bento box to his weapon satchel. Twenty plus years of ninja training didn't go to waste, even if he nailed his opponents with chalk rather than shuriken nowadays.
He scrambled into a wary crouch, the food forgotten. A quick check of his surroundings revealed nothing suspicious. That didn't mean the danger wasn't real. But there weren't many approaches open to an enemy, all the way up here. The trapdoor down to the level below was closed and there were no other rooftops nearby. This was the highest building in Konoha, bar the Hokage's HQ; it was the public library, with a decrepit tower observatory that twisted its way up towards the stars. It was right next to the school, so Iruka knew the place well. The roof's occupants couldn't be seen from anywhere else in the village, which was why he and Kakashi had met here a few times in the past couple of years to eat, chat and watch the stars before-
Iruka's eyes twitched back towards a spot between two chimney flues twelve feet away, a slice of night he'd already examined. Instinct had made him look again, to find that moonlight and darkness had solidified into a familiar figure.
Something in Iruka refused to relax.
Then the killing intent hit him like a gale wind.
For an instant he thought it had actually picked him up and flung him off the roof. He was falling through darkness, he was dead-
The thermos was knocked over as he staggered back; it clattered against the tiles, rolled and took the long, silent plunge towards the ground below. Iruka managed to shake himself out of the dark terror that gripped him.
An enemy?! Masquerading as Kakashi?
...No. No, he knew that presence all too well.
"Kakashi?" His voice faltered, while the metal of his drawn kunai warmed in his palm.
The shape flickered.
Something hit him in the midriff and he folded over the blow he'd never seen coming.
Pain and pressure, sharp, biting, tearing -
- knife. He'd been knifed.
He scrabbled blindly at the body keeping him upright; touched warmth beneath a black sleeve; a faint smell of coffee. Then there was only the meaty copper tang of blood.
Iruka gasped; the cold air bit into his lungs, his whole body shook as muscles moved against embedded metal. He instinctively reached for the forearm that had driven the kunai into his stomach; he straightened painfully and tried to pull away-
He saw Kakashi move this time, but he couldn't dodge the fist aimed at him.
It ripped him from the blade, half-punch, half-shove, and sent him staggering towards the apex of the roof. He fell over, nearly braining himself on one of the flues.
His left hand went to his side instinctively, assessing the damage. The other still gripped his weapon.
Kakashi's kunai had ripped into his flak jacket and scored Iruka in the side, slanting to chop muscle instead of slicing into his guts. Iruka's fingers found the ragged edge where the blade had pierced the reinforced cloth, cut through his undershirt and mesh vest. Warmth coated his fingertips, cooled rapidly in the cold October air. The pain flared in his side, the aching pull of severed skin and flesh.
The inner scream of pain and confusion was abruptly cut off. Iruka shut down.
The strict yet kind teacher; Naruto's 'big brother'; Kakashi's friend and occasional lay...doors slammed shut in his mind, locking away all that wasn't necessary for immediate survival.
The Chuunin got swiftly to his feet, kunai ready in defense, controlling the pain with a small flash of concentration and two deep breaths. His mobility was reduced on the right side, but he could still strike accurately if he didn't extend too far.
Kakashi's visible eye was as remote as the moon above them. He hadn't bothered lifting his headband from the Sharingan pupil. Iruka wasn't surprised; it would have been a waste of energy on him.
"Why the hell did you attack me?" Iruka ground out. The challenge was automatic; get the attacker talking, gather any information you can...gain a few more seconds in which to recover.
"That should be self-evident. You are going to die," Kakashi informed him, in a voice that implied it was already done, and not much to get excited about.
No jokes, no lazy one-liners. Far in the darkness of Iruka's mind, a tiny part of him was screaming and sobbing and this couldn't be happening - he ignored it.
"We all die," he retorted, eyes darting around the rooftop looking for any other attackers. "But why?"
There was a moment of silence which Iruka put to good use, double-checking that there were no roofs within easy reach and that the trapdoor was indeed shut. By the time he got it open-
"Orders," Kakashi finally answered, the word short and clipped. There was a hint of something in his voice, and if Iruka hadn't shut down, he'd have tried to analyze it and qualify it as pain. You had to know Kakashi very well to tell though.
No flare of chakra. Yet Kakashi was there. In his face. The distance between them had simply disappeared; probably murdered and buried where no one would find the remains.
Iruka's mind was still stunned, but his body had reacted out of sheer self-preservation. The knife whistled past where his shoulder had been as he twisted and ducked.
Still bent over from dodging, Iruka lunged forward and drove his shoulder into Kakashi's chest, trying to overbalance the Jounin. Kakashi had the roof's slant behind him, he might lose his footing-
It was like hitting a wall.
The fist that slammed into his ribs was like a wall hitting back.
Iruka let the momentum of the blow bounce him against the chimney flue and into a new attack. His kunai missed the tendons in Kakashi's right arm by four sickeningly wide inches. Kakashi's lazy dodge made it plain he could have cleared it by more than that if he'd felt like it.
Iruka - who'd pretty much expected to miss - slammed the kunai sideways before his first move was even finished, catching Kakashi in mid-motion, forcing the Jounin to fall back a step to avoid the second blow. The blade's tip managed to slice the cloth over the clavicle, just above the edge of the flak jacket-
Deep inside, Iruka hated that he'd even tried to- that had been two inches away from the throat! Was he trying to kill Kakashi-?
- what was he doing?!
The answer was cold and clear and without a doubt: Iruka was trying to survive.
He managed to throw one more desperate stab. He'd taken Kakashi off guard; if he could create an opening-
The Jounin twisted away from the blade and caught his wrist.
The next move was a blur. Iruka ended up pressed against the flue, aching in three different places, his kunai gone, his right wrist caught in a grip like a vise.
Kakashi was silent. Iruka, dazed, stared into the single expressionless eye, trying not to lose himself in the killing intent, in the sheer strength of will. Distantly he noted the way Kakashi was breathing, labored and painful, as if the fight had cost him more than it should...but there wasn't the slightest tremor in the hand that kept Iruka imprisoned and at Kakashi's mercy.
There was a silver earpiece in the Jounin's ear. 'Orders', he'd said.
Survive. Iruka had to survive. That meant he had to get away from this elite killer.
Iruka triggered the reaction that melded body and spirit into chakra, building it up as quickly as he could. The grip on his wrist tightened in response. The knife glinted; the tip dipped towards Iruka's chest in a silent threat, daring him to try an attack.
The single eye widened as Iruka released the energy- but not at the man holding him. He thrust it out behind him with a backward jab of his free arm, blowing away the crumbly chimney flue against which he was pinned. It shattered, raining chunks of brick against the old tiles. Iruka staggered back, twisting away from a knife thrust that fortunately didn't materialize. Now he was no longer cornered by the piece of masonry, he was only caught by the wrist. His left arm whipped back and he hit Kakashi's hand on the thumb joint - hard! The fingers jerked, releasing him-
Chakra flow to the legs. Now!
Iruka's energy propelled him straight off the wide roof; his feet didn't even touch the tiles after that initial leap backwards, away from his attacker. Then gravity caught up with him and he started to plunge, without any sideways momentum left and nothing nearby to break his fall.
He thought he heard a gasp from- It might have been the sudden whistle of wind in his ears as he fell.
The tower was high. And what he was doing was beyond stupid.
The wind snatched at his body, at his fingers. The seals he was forming were probably all wrong - suicidal to do this while in motion anyway-
Kawarimi no jutsu!
He landed heavily; he was off by a few feet. He hadn't managed to dispel all the inertia from the long drop, it sent him sliding across the floor, his injured side screaming and leaving smears of blood on the linoleum. He fetched up hard against a table. It clattered and shook, and half a dozen potatoes rolled off of it and pummeled him before hitting the floor.
He'd displaced himself over sixty feet away into the kitchen of the school cafeteria, switching places with one of the potted shrubs on the balcony outside. The plant was now taking the plunge to the ground in his place, wearing an illusion of his body. He'd managed the technique while falling from a tower, switching for an object he'd barely glimpsed and despite an injured side and bruised wrist. Iruka was vaguely impressed with himself. Amazing what overwhelming odds against you can do for your ninjutsu skills. If he ever caught a student trying this kind of stupid stunt, Iruka would tan his little hide.
He got to his feet and staggered towards the door, his body blind and deaf to injury and pain. He had to survive.
Kakashi could have followed him if Iruka had run away physically; child's play for the Jounin, even without the Sharingan. But the unexpected jutsu had hopefully bought the wounded Shinobi precious seconds.
Iruka slipped out the back door of the kitchen and vaulted down the emergency exit. A small twinge of homing instinct made him want to head towards the school next door: his territory, safe. But it wasn't safe, not from Kakashi. He had to get away. The plan for now was to keep to the streets and the shadows and run like hell.
He was two blocks away from the tower by the time he slipped away from the school grounds. No familiar chakra anywhere near him.
Surely he hadn't lost Kakashi. Not for long. But he'd bought himself time to think as he ran.
The moonlight pared the night down to its bare bones, cutting everything into black and white. All emotions similarly stripped, Iruka's thoughts were quick, cold and efficient as he ghosted through the empty streets.
'Kakashi is not trying to kill me.'
'If he was, I'd be dead five times over. He's not the kind of man to toy with an enemy for the fun of it.'
'He's not trying to kill me, but he's serious. He has orders.'
The facts clicked together like some morbid puzzle. There might be dozens of possible reasons and causes, but he didn't have the time for speculation. He went for both the most likely explanation and the most dangerous. Pointless optimism of the 'it's all some kind of mistake' variety got Shinobi killed.
'If he's been ordered to attack me, I must be considered a danger to Konoha.'
'A Chuunin teacher is not a danger by himself.'
He could hear his own voice lecturing a bygone classroom.
"To uncover a hidden enemy, find and attack the weakest first. Wound him, send him running - Naruto, stop clowning around, this is important. Send him running and follow him; he'll take you to the others."
No. Concentrate. Survive.
It would take a strong group to infiltrate Konoha; the defenses had been beefed up over two years ago after the invasion and the murder of the Third. If an enemy had managed it with the help of spies and Iruka were one of them, then he'd be amongst the weakest.
Kakashi would attack with intent to wound, and then hound him until Iruka fled to warn his co-conspirators. Then-
He ran past one silent door after another; the homes of people he'd know all his life, but he didn't stop. If he talked to anyone, he'd be condemning himself and possibly the other to death. He couldn't get any help.
While his mind caught up, his instincts had already been leading him towards his only hope. From the start he'd been running towards Konoha's main building, the centre of the village.
He had to reach the ANBU. If he turned himself in, he could make his case. Survive just a few hours longer. Hopefully prove his innocence.
They were probably out there too, watching while Kakashi chased him. But if he went to their base, then they'd be forced to see he wasn't going to betray any putative fellow spies. He might be dead a few seconds after they realized that, of course, but he'd take that risk over his chances in a fight with Kakashi any day.
He was now half a dozen blocks away from the tower and a third of the way there.
Somewhere behind him, he heard a dog bark. The sound fitted in so well with the Hunter's moon and the silent streets that Iruka missed its import for a couple of seconds.
Konoha pets were well trained in a village full of light sleepers and twitchy ninja. They didn't bark out of order.
Iruka managed to run even faster somehow, after a single stagger of disbelief. Kakashi had sent the hounds after him!
Only one by the sound of it. But one was enough to track him down and panic him, strip him of whatever resolve he had not to betray his fellow spies.
Since Iruka didn't have any fellow spies, and also a lot to live for, he didn't panic. He couldn't afford to. Besides, he was a Chuunin of the village of the Leaf; he'd followed one of the strictest trainings on the planet; he wasn't prone to flying off the handle.
There was, once upon a time, an Iruka who had been a clown and a bit of a prankster...
Unlike Naruto, who did everything openly and then acted all surprised when he got caught, Iruka had devised a way of getting to and from his crime scenes undetected by adults, so he could brag to his peers about both the trick he'd played and the daring escape that followed. He knew a way around Konoha that most rooftop-sprinting ninja didn't immediately think about; one that would hopefully lose the dog.
The sewer grating groaned a bit; it had been many years since a teenage Iruka had thoughtfully de-rusted and oiled every one in the village.
He didn't bother with the narrow walkway and slid down directly into the water below, up to his waist. Good luck following me now, hound.
The icy liquid invaded his clothes and did ugly, painful things to the cut in his side as he moved forward. It was castoff water from the recent rains, not dirty, not particularly clean either. He didn't think too much about it; at this point, dying of an infection wasn't too high on his list of concerns.
Survive and worry about it later, in the rather unlikely event there was a 'later'.
He waded towards his goal slowly and quietly, suppressing his presence. The walls of his control were strong; he allowed none of the shock, fear and horror of the situation to seep through and cause a tell-tale ripple of aura. His mind was empty of everything but the mechanics of survival, and a distant echo of his own voice, hectoring students to do better.
'Practice hiding until its second nature'. 'Conceal your chakra'. 'Blend with the shadows'. 'Stealth is the Shinobi's first weapon'...
At the far back of his mind where it didn't distract him, he felt torn between regret that he'd been so strict with those kids - this really wasn't easy, especially for young children - and the wish that he had driven them even harder. When your life was on the line, it didn't matter how hard it was, how your wounds ached, how your soul felt as ragged and bleeding as your body; you just had to do it.
Here, this was the right sewer exit. He hoped. He didn't have the time to check and then hunt around for the right one if he'd made a mistake. Kakashi might, if Iruka was extremely lucky, be several blocks away, but there would be ANBU spread out all around Konoha looking for him. If Iruka's theory was correct, they wouldn't attack him directly; they wouldn't want him aware that the whole defense force was ready to bag any conspirator that Iruka betrayed. But they'd warn Kakashi through that little silver earpiece.
He glanced through the crack in the barely lifted grating, then quickly pushed it open and crawled out, soaking wet and shivering. He'd been right; this was the sewer near the HQ. He couldn't get any closer; the waterways beneath the heart of Konoha were trapped and watched. But he was close enough. He moved as silently as he could to the building and glanced around. All quiet, and he could see the entrance from here. He broke into a run-
He almost made it.
The slight hiss in the air behind him made him hit the ground on instinct. The shuriken missed him anyway, by a very comfortable margin. Kakashi wasn't trying to kill him just yet.
He scrambled into a defensive crouch in time to see his hunter striding towards him with that familiar loose, loping step, hands in his pockets. There was a chubby terrier trotting at his heels, with the leaf symbol on a thick leather collar around its neck. It lolled its tongue at Iruka and gave him a doggy grin with plenty of teeth.
Iruka was up against the headquarter wall, but Kakashi's strike range was now between him and the door, forty feet away. There were no windows on the first floors of the building; Konoha headquarters could be turned into a fortress if need be. The windows started on the third story, high above his head with no easy handholds to help him leap that high before Kakashi could strike; they were shuttered and dark. The place looked empty.
Kakashi had followed his glance.
"I don't know where you think you're going, but nobody in there will help you. I can guarantee that."
The dog growled a counterpoint to the curt statement. Go to your friends, spy, they're the only ones who can help you now.
Deep inside, denials, pleas and frantic words clamored and wailed, but Iruka ignored them. What was the point? They were not going to save his life.
His mind hunted for a way out. Each chance was caught, scrutinized, dissected in instants. Find a way around this man, this magnificent killer, this-
Kakashi slowly drew a kunai from his hip holster and flipped it into his palm, a gesture as graceful as the turn of a prayer wheel and as deliberate as a death sentence. A jagged smile twisted Iruka's lips, because the Jounin's movements were just so perfect; deadly and beautiful, like the elegant arc between a shuriken's points...
"I promise..." Iruka whispered, while his mind concentrated on his dwindling options. "I promise you I'll survive..."
Kakashi was absolutely still- but the dog at his side suddenly whined and cringed.
Iruka threw himself towards the door, a flurry of deadly stars ripping the air before him, aimed at his adversary.
Kakashi's blade created a strange, chiming melody as he struck them out of the air with a measured swipe. The end of the gesture casually buried the kunai into the wall, right in front of Iruka's face as the teacher tried to slip past him towards the door. Then the small dog was chewing at Iruka's ankles.
One sharp kick followed by a muffled bark, and Iruka was pressed against the wall with Kakashi's kunai in hand and less than a chance in hell. The door was still too far away; Kakashi was closer and would be on him in a heartbeat.
The mutt glared at Iruka from behind Kakashi's leg. The Jounin glanced down at the creature and cracked his knuckles, apparently unconcerned by the throwing weapon in Iruka's hand.
"You're not going to stop running yet, are you? My dog needs the exercise."
"My apologies to your dog," Iruka muttered, desperately thinking. His eyes measured distance and angle between his position, Kakashi's, the building's wall, the door, and...wait a second, how about...?
"You should run. Traitor." The dog flinched, as if frightened by an undercurrent in its master's voice, though Iruka hadn't heard any variation in the deadly tone. "If you tire us out enough, we might even kill you quickly. As it is, I-"
The strategies had all boiled down to one last, desperate gamble. Iruka leapt forward, straight at Kakashi, stabbing with the kunai.
It was batted out of his hand with little effort. Iruka braced himself for the retaliation-
With some skill, he managed to catch the blow squarely on his crossed wrists. Instead of letting the impact dissipate through his body and absorb into his chakra, Iruka took the full pounding head on, even shoving back against the blow - he distinctly felt something in his wrist go crunch-
All his chakra flowed into the desperate jump; that and the strength of the punch threw him up and backwards, as high as the third story.
He was right on target for one of the windows behind him. He didn't even have to twist his body to correct his aim, which was good because the blow had apparently turned his bones to mush.
Somehow he bullied his stiff, probably broken wrist and aching fingers into forming seals; his back smashed through the shutter but his movements didn't falter, fuelled by desperation.
- note to self: next time you train jutsu usage under duress, throw students through a window -
Three Iruka's hit the floor, all bleeding. He couldn't manage more clones than that. They struggled to their feet and rushed towards the door. Behind them the moonlight flickered as someone passed through the window, the only sign of a completely silent pursuit. The two clones ran down separate hallways, leaving Iruka to take the direct route to his goal. One chance in three that Kakashi followed the right one. That was assuming Iruka had been able to make his clones even remotely convincing despite his injuries.
Iruka ran. The ominous silence behind him snapped at his heels.
He felt a sudden ripple in his chakra- a clone had 'died'. Attacked?! Kakashi had fallen for the trick! Or maybe he'd only sent the dog after the clones, and he was right behind the real Iruka, ready to strike-
The door to the ANBU emergency desk, manned twenty four seven, was straight ahead at the end of the hallway. Only a few more yards- please, I don't want to die- I can't die! Not like this! I can't do this to him I promised-
Five steps away from his goal, Iruka forced out his last breath into a shout.
"It's Umino Iruka, I need help-I'm coming in-"
He slammed into the door, hoping that was enough of a warning or he'd end up looking like a pincushion in a second. The door opened easily; since he'd hit it hard enough to go through it even if it'd been locked, Iruka shot helplessly through the room, unable to stop until he fetched up against the far wall.
He spun around, panting, hands held out before him and away from his weapons. A distant tremor in his chakra heralded the demise of the second clone. He felt the distinct bite of phantom teeth against his throat as the clone's energy reintegrated his body. The dog, then. Where was Kakashi? It didn't matter; Iruka had made it.
Three men in ANBU uniform were looking at him. One of them was sitting down with his mask shoved up to his forehead, a black hood hiding his features apart from the eyes and mouth; he was looking at Iruka in a bored way and taking a bite out of a sandwich.
That was way too relaxed- didn't they know what was going on? No matter! Iruka had to explain!
He opened his mouth and all his breath left him in a desperate whimper.
The nearest ANBU had moved towards Iruka and revealed the Hokage sitting at a desk nearby.
The next breath the teacher took was weak and shaky, as if startled at being drawn. If the ANBU thought he was a traitor and he'd just burst into a room where the Hokage was sitting, he should be deader than dirt.
What could he say? Anything he said would be a lie if he were really a-
Tsunade was staring at him; there was no surprise at his presence in the cool gaze.
She had a little silver earpiece in her ear, a crystal ball on the desk and a clipboard on her shapely knee.
Everything in Iruka broke. He sagged back against the wall and slid to the floor. The black and white world of survival fractured around him; in its place there was only messy reality, full of doubt, pain and torturous choices.
He wondered what Tsunade felt, looking at the bloody lump on the ground that was normally one of her best schoolteachers. Probably not an ounce of regret. That was what being Hokage meant.
"He's here and safe. End mission," Tsunade murmured into the mike, then she unhooked the earpiece and put it on the desk.
The only noise in the room was Iruka's harsh breathing and the ANBU's mastication of his sandwich.
"Get the man some water," Tsunade finally ordered one of her guards.
Iruka didn't wait for small mercies. "Hokage-sama...am I under suspicion of anything?"
"Oh." He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "I thought we didn't test people's abilities like this any more. The previous Hokage always said it was barbaric and way too dangerous."
"That's what the Third decided. And look what happened to him."
You-?Iruka swallowed several times, then finally accepted the drink one of the ANBU was dangling in front of his face.
"I was told that you did the same to your students," Tsunade pointed out. "Over two years ago, when you wanted to see if Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura had what it took for their first Chuunin exams."
"I didn't draw blood," Iruka objected in a low voice. The water canteen was creaking as his fingers clenched and unclenched. His left hand had gone stiff and numb around a core of palpitating ache, and the cut in his side was radiating pain all the way to his chest. It felt like the recent exertion had split the wound wider and he was about to spill his guts on the floor.
"Blood was needed. There were some concerns amongst the elite and the council that you were getting a bit soft."
Iruka choked on the water.
"The demonstration this evening should shut them up," Tsunade pursued without a pause. "All in all, your performance was adequate."
The word 'adequate' started to rummage around Iruka's shattered mind, looking for a powder keg of anger.
"Don't you think - Hokage-sama - with all due respect- that setting a- setting a Jounin against a lower level schoolteacher was overkill?" he managed to say.
"I sent out one of my best," Tsunade corrected him in a voice that suggested he was being dense. "The more skilled the hunter, the less chances of a nasty accident to either participant. Besides there were other circumstances to consider."
Circumstances? What circum-
Tsunade continued, implacable. "As for the test itself: you are the teacher of our children. You are shaping the next generation of Genin. But you're not a field agent; it's been several years since you've had to subject yourself to an actual life-or-death situation with the odds stacked against you. We had to make sure you were of an appropriate level to-"
Iruka was on his feet.
"So all this was because you thought I could use a few more training sessions?! Couldn't you just send me a memo to exercise more, you-?"
"Go on, say it," Tsunade drawled.
Iruka realized an ANBU had him by the elbow. He thought it was to restrain him, then he noticed how badly his legs were shaking. Behind the mask, the man's eyes were distantly sympathetic. He might be in Iruka's place next time, hounded by his friends to make sure he still had what it took to face an enemy who would not stop short. And like Iruka, he would shut down all but his survival instincts and run and fight as if they were not his friends, because he was a Shinobi; that was what they did. They cultivated hair-trigger reflexes and paranoia, and that was a healthy alternative to a knife in the back. But that didn't mean they always liked it.
"Go on," Tsunade repeated with a hard smirk, as Iruka felt his jaw work. "You've had a rough night and you're still in shock. I'm giving you a free shot; you might as well take it. It'll be therapeutic."
"There, don't you feel a whole lot better? You, take him to the clinic, make sure he's okay. He's got to teach on Monday after all. Have a good weekend, Iruka-sensei."
Iruka was still spluttering when the ANBU escorted him out of the room.
An hour at the hospital saw him showered and stitched up, and injected with various immune boosters after he mentioned his trip through the sewers. Then they sent him home, dressed in a set of spare clothes two sizes too large, with strict orders to go to bed and rest.
He trudged up the four flights of stairs to his apartment under the eaves, trying not to wake the residents on the other floors with his dragging footsteps. His two rooms felt like foreign territory, somehow smaller than when he'd left it three long hours ago. He navigated the furniture like a minefield, avoiding any corners that might bump into his bruises.
He piled the cushions up to lie half-reclining on the bed. Then he stared at the dark patches in the room for a while, too keyed up and exhausted to let go and sleep. The hours drifted by like dead souls, slow and heavy with regrets and past choices.
When he felt the sudden brush of a familiar presence above his head, Iruka realized that it wasn't sleep he'd been waiting for after all.
"Kakashi, don't just sit on the roof like a rooster waiting for dawn," he mumbled. "Come on inside."
Silence. Of course.
"I'm too sore to come and get you," Iruka sighed, eyes closing. "But I will if you don't get your ass in here."
He waited a minute, then levered himself up on his good hand, injured side complaining bitterly. "Have it your way, you stubborn son of a-"
The presence was suddenly beside him. With a great deal of effort - and a good helping of exhaustion - Iruka managed not to jump, start backwards or lunge for his weapons. Things were awkward enough already.
"I came to see if you were all right."
The words were clipped and toneless. It wasn't as bad as when he was issuing death threats, but neither was it very pleasant.
Iruka waved his left arm, up to the elbow in a mobile cast, in illustration. "I was injured worse than this during the finals of my Chuunin exam."
Kakashi didn't answer.
The darkness between them seemed to solidify. The moon's light had dwindled to nothing; the night was drifting into the hour of the wolf.
"Please don't leave," Iruka whispered in a voice he barely recognized as his own.
Kakashi hadn't made any kind of move...but Iruka felt them teetering on the edge of a night that wouldn't end.
Then the Jounin hooked a finger over the edge of his mask and slowly tugged it down. Something else seemed to fall away from him; the darkness in the room became nothing more than what you'd expect at four in the morning, and a tired man sank down onto the bed next to Iruka.
"What are you grinning at?" Kakashi grunted, tossing his jacket at a nearby chair and slipping off his sandals to lay bare feet on the blankets. "Are you planning just how you're going to dismember me and get rid of the body?"
"No," Iruka answered softly, still smiling in relief. For the first time since the blade had slammed into his side, he felt like he was fully himself again.
He sighed and leaned back against the pillows, trying to find a position that didn't hurt too much. Just because he'd been injured more seriously on other occasions didn't mean he was particularly enjoying any of this.
Two streets away, the baker's door opened with a creak. Neither of them blinked, both used to the routine after dozens of shared nights in this room.
"Well, that was a mindscrew and a half..." Iruka finally muttered.
"...That it was..."
"Hey..." Iruka rubbed his neck as he moved his head. Felt like he'd picked up a mild case of whiplash, probably when he'd displaced himself away from the tower and crashed into the cafeteria kitchen. "Do you think she knows?"
Kakashi turned his head to look at him. The headband was still over the Sharingan, Kakashi rarely took it off except to sleep and fight. Serious fights, of course. Hunting down schoolteachers didn't qualify.
"The old tartar," Iruka clarified when Kakashi still looked blank. "Do you think she knows about us?"
Kakashi slowly turned his head and scrutinized the room. "You know she could be watching us right now through her crystal-"
"She better not be. Even if she is, I have a free shot. I'll assume it lasts until I pass out. So, you think she knows we've been sleeping together? We've been very discreet. What with your fixation that every enemy in a thousand mile radius would target me to get at you."
"They'd target my pet gerbil to get at me, if I had one," Kakashi countered with a dismissive shrug. There were stress lines in his voice and in the reflex sarcasm. "And you don't want anyone to know either. You think that if Naruto finds out the two adults in his life who actually care about him are banging each other, he'll feel all neglected and depressed."
Iruka bristled right on cue, like he always did. "Naruto is only fourteen, and at a very delicate stage of his emotional development, I don't-"
"The brat's more solid than a set of brass knuckles and you know it. You baby him too much."
"I do not- can we not have this argument?"
"Of course she knows."
"Tsunade. We can be as discreet as we want to; she's the head of a Hidden Village. She knows everything, it's part of the job description. It wasn't you they were testing tonight."
Iruka blinked. "What? What do you mean?"
Kakashi was silent.
"Hey." Iruka poked him with the cast. The bone twinged. "What do you mean?"
"They did set about testing your skills...but do you think it was a coincidence that she asked me to hunt you down?" Kakashi asked slowly, his lips twisting into a cruel half-smile.
Iruka suddenly remembered the way Tsunade had said 'circumstances'. He felt his jaw hit his collarbone.
"Wha- she did this because we're having sex?! You mean she was testing your-your loyalty?! Your resolve?!" He was massively insulted on Kakashi's behalf; if the Hokage thought that a warrior of the Jounin's standing would hesitate-
"She didn't do it because we're having sex."
"She did it because we've been having sex for two years, however sly we were about it. Maybe at the beginning we fell into bed by accident, but since then-"
"Accident?!" Iruka huffed.
"That's certainly how I remember it. One minute we were arguing about Naruto - as usual - the next you had your tongue in my mouth."
"That was after you put your hand on my-"
"Whatever. So we creep around and screw whenever I'm not on a mission and you can make the time...and we've been doing it for far too long to keep pretending it means nothing more than a convenient way of getting laid."
Iruka gaped at him. First Kakashi sliced him up, then- then he just went and said-...that. They never said stuff like that. Sure, they had good sex, and they were friends, and -but-but it was an unspoken rule from the start that it shouldn't get more serious, that emotions shouldn't be involved. Iruka would never have dared to say- even think-
"Stop giving me that walleyed look," Kakashi ordered, his wolfish smile twisted and self-derisive. "After tonight, I'm tired of playing silly buggers and avoiding the word 'lover'. We're both alone, bar three pests who practically count as our kids; we protect the same lives; we've mourned the same dead; we're friends and we understand each other, and, hell, we've been doing this for two years, Iruka. How many life-and-death situations is that? Face it: in ninja terms, we're married. Get used to it."
Iruka swallowed, gripped by some nameless fear. The blunt words ripped away dissemblance and protective layers; they flayed him and laid him bare. He looked at the exposed emotions...and he wasn't particularly surprised to find that what Kakashi was saying was simply the truth, despite his long-held intentions to not develop feelings for a man who could die at any time. Kakashi was right; two years had been too long.
Once revealed, the truth couldn't be buried again. His feelings were out in the open now, where they could be easily recognized and hurt. The night that was dying outside the window was just one of many dangers that could pounce on them and rip them apart.
"I just never thought I'd have to make this choice again."
Kakashi's voice was so soft, Iruka could barely hear him. The Jounin wasn't looking at him, opting to stare at one of his sandals on the floor. Iruka felt his newly-bared emotions twist under the sudden feeling from Kakashi, the hidden bite of an old pain, still raw and bleeding.
"Choice?" he whispered, reaching out despite his reserve and his better judgment to touch that ache and share it.
"...Between my duty and someone I care about..."
Then he turned towards Iruka and there was steel in his eye and voice.
"But I made the choice. I had to."
Iruka found himself pinned by a searching look. The next words were not quite so uncompromising.
"Iruka, you realize I had to do it...right?"
"Of course!" Iruka blurted out, his words ringing way too loudly in the quiet room. It was a reflex reaction to that thin thread of unusual hesitation in Kakashi's voice, that hint of something lost, vulnerable - as if it was waiting for a blow it wouldn't dodge. Dammit, hadn't they been hurt enough? "I know it was your duty! What- I'm not angry- do you think I'm angry with you? Do you think I'm going to make a scene?"
"Well..." A flash of resilient humor flickered wanly in the single eye. "You did call Tsunade a harpy. I'd like to say at this point that you've got more guts than I do. I thought you might at least want to take a swipe at me."
"No." Iruka shook his head slowly, serious. "I know how it works. I know that there are two sorts of missions. There's the kind with a paycheck at the end; you're honor-bound to succeed, but if you have to choose between your orders and your teammates..."
He fell silent; Kakashi already knew that kind of choice better than he did, in all its bitter, ugly glory.
"But then, there is the other kind of mission," Iruka finally added, "the kind you can't fail."
"When she gave me the outline of her 'demonstration', I couldn't refuse." Kakashi's gaze was back on his sandal again. "I knew it was only a test, but the parameters were there: 'What if this man was a traitor?' The defense of our village-"
"-takes the highest priority. That's the reason for our existence. I know that. The Shinobi code isn't just something I bore my kids with; it's our blood and bones, it's what makes us who we are. It's hard, but we accept it. Don't you think- I've had to wonder before if I could hurt someone I love to defend Konoha. A dozen- a hundred times, I've wondered if I could bear to take him on. But if it's to defend the place where I was born, I will."
"Who-" Kakashi's look went from puzzled to grim and understanding. "Naruto."
"You've thought of it too."
"Only every time I felt that bloody seal crack."
"If it ever breaks and the Fox takes over, we will attack him to defend Konoha."
"And get our asses handed to us, but that's beside the point. I know what you mean."
"I...am very fond of that kid. But I won't hesitate. It's my training. Know what?"
Iruka struggled away from the pillows and let himself flop onto the covers in front of Kakashi, where he could look the man full in the face. "Let me tell you something."
"You're going to kill me slowly and painfully?"
"No," Iruka growled. "I wanted to say, I wasn't thinking about you tonight; I'd forgotten you were the one hunting me."
Kakashi blinked and cocked his head.
"That's a rather novel approach to escaping from someone who is trying to kill you. Does denial work well, as a strategy?"
Iruka tried to bop him over the head with the cast. Kakashi caught his elbow in a swift, fluid movement at odds with his banter and relaxed posture; he patted the cast gently and protectively, a silent admonition to Iruka to take broken bones a bit more seriously.
"What I meant," Iruka fumed, the last dregs of adrenaline crackling in his system, "was that from the moment you attacked me, I became completely detached; I wasn't thinking 'Oh no, my lover is trying to kill me!'"
Whoa. He'd said it. He'd said the word 'lover' and he hadn't hesitated, stuttered or blushed. Looked like Kakashi was right. They should stop avoiding that word and its implications, since it had obviously snuck up on them and ambushed them, ninja-style.
He had the Jounin's full attention now. Kakashi was looking at him with the weary recognition of a warrior watching the sun rise after a night of bloody battle. Humbled by that intense gaze, serious now, Iruka sorted through the words until they came out firm and certain.
"I was only thinking of escape and survival. It was how I was trained. I do not let my feelings interfere with my abilities. From the moment I realized you were serious, you were nothing but something to escape from. I shut down all emotions that might impede me. Like you, I did what I had to, and I don't regret it. This is the path we've chosen, knowing this. This is who we are."
His words echoed the Shinobi code of conduct, the Nindo of the Hidden Village of the Leaf. And that was one truth.
There was another truth here, which in no way invalidated the first; it lingered in the look they shared, in the silence of understanding. It was the truth behind that bizarre promise Iruka had made, an inch from what he'd thought was his death: 'I promise you I'll survive'. His training as a Shinobi had given him the skills to endure, but the reason he'd wanted to live was to spare Kakashi the necessity of killing him, of having Iruka's blood on his hands and in his memory.
What also went without saying was that it was a rather large coincidence that Kakashi's last blow had flung Iruka so neatly through that window and into HQ, practically home and dry. It might have happened by chance...even Tsunade and the ANBU couldn't affirm otherwise. It was just a rather opportune fluke, maybe even a bit of a mistake for someone of Kakashi's skills.
But all that went unsaid, because the two Shinobi didn't really have the words to express that truth. They didn't need to anyway.
"You know, in a way it was interesting," Iruka said loudly while scratching his nose with his good hand, breaking the mood before the gathering blush did any more damage to his composure. "I never saw that side of you before; the one your enemies see. You're damn scary when you want to be, Hatake. And you railroaded me good. I think the Hokage's right; I need more training."
Iruka glowered at him. "You could have disagreed with me, you know. Just for tonight."
"You were still damn good for a Chuunin. You got in some pretty nice swipes, and I nearly lost your trail twice. The bit where you threw yourself off the tower was either inspired or suicidal; I've not made up my mind yet. Are you...alright?"
"I better be, I'm teaching on Monday."
"Let me see."
Kakashi pulled him forward gently until Iruka was sitting between the long, outstretched legs. Hands carefully checked each bruise, the set of bandages and the looseness of the cast around the swollen wrist.
"The ulna is broken and two of the carpal bones are cracked. I shouldn't need pins or surgery though," Iruka explained as his lover checked the range of immobilization. There was no point downplaying the injury. Kakashi would already know what kind of damage he could inflict, and he hadn't needed any fact sugarcoated for him since the age of six.
A finger brushed the bandages under the mesh shirt Iruka was wearing, over the cut in his side; a silent question.
"Twenty two stitches. But the abdominal wall wasn't punctured, just skin and muscle; you have good aim. No risk of septicemia. Apart from that, just a lot of bruises. My right wrist is a bit sprained, but I should be able to write in a couple of days. How about you? Are you okay?"
Kakashi gave him a blank look.
"Come on," Iruka grumbled. "Give me something to salvage my pride."
Kakashi hesitated, then lifted his hand up. "My thumb's pretty sore."
"Your thumb." Oh yes, Iruka had punched the joint to get Kakashi to release his grip. Kakashi had taken off his gloves to examine Iruka's injuries; in the slash of light from the street-lantern outside, his hand looked ever so slightly swollen and a nice bruise was forming.
"You also sliced up my shirt a bit-"
"As soon as I'm healed, you and I are going to practice together."
"Me? I already have to train the brats, why-"
"I guess I can ask Gai-sensei. Do you think that haircut is mandatory for all his special students?"
Arms gathered him gently, and Iruka let himself be maneuvered until he was curled up against the other man. Kakashi's body was warm through the black shirt; it smelled faintly of dog. Fingers found and rubbed Iruka's neck; he hadn't mentioned the whiplash, but apparently he didn't need to. The way he was spread out over Kakashi spared his wounded side, his left arm and most of his major bruises. That and the warm, comforting pressure on his neck almost made him pass out in sheer relief.
A gentle whisper brushed his hair. "Sleep if you can."
"Can you stay...?"
"For a few hours."
"Will I ever be able to lure you out for another late-night date of dinner and stargazing after what happened tonight?"
Iruka started and struggled to lift himself away from the warm body beneath him.
"Shit! I left the bento box on the tower- and the thermos is at the foot of it-"
Kakashi's arm fastened around his shoulders and kept him where he was.
"I cleaned up before coming here. The kitchen where you landed, too. Not much I could do about the shrub you switched with, but they'll assume it got knocked down by some practicing student. We should still be discreet, even if the upper echelon of Konoha knows about us. I don't want my enemies targeting you. And I don't want to have to put a hurt on Naruto if he gets stupid about this."
"Naruto is not-"
Kakashi's spine must be made of rubber to be able to hold Iruka that way and still twist around and muffle the words with a well-placed kiss.
A minute later...
"Answer my question."
"Er..." Iruka blinked and tried to focus. What question?
"Dinner? Stars? Making out on the rooftops?"
Iruka's head felt stuffed with straw, like one of his training dummies. He was two seconds away from blacking out. It wasn't going to be easy to forget about this night...The fear, the pain, the sheer anguish at what he'd had to do, how he'd had to think...It would come back to him again, he knew that. Each time he'd see the moon - or a box of bento for that matter - he'd remember that feeling of being hunted. And that was nothing to how badly he could be hurt now that he'd acknowledged his feelings for the hunter. Ignorance had been easier to handle by a long stretch.
The arms around him were warm and gentle, careful of his bruises. Kakashi's presence and scent were comforting and familiar. Iruka wasn't really sure of anything right now, except that he didn't want to lose this. Not over a bit of fear and pain. They'd both survived worse in their lives, hurt and loss that would lay normal men low. They both had a lot of inner strength; they could surmount wounds and trauma, and keep to the Shinobi code they honored.
And it looked like...just maybe... the strength and the burden might be shared from now on....
"Sure, s'a date," he slurred, eyes closing. "Anytime."
"Excellent. I'll bring the dango and tea, you bring the full body armor and broadsword."
"Hmmno I won't..."
"You can if you want to. I'll just have fun removing them."
Iruka snorted into the black shirt.
It didn't matter who or what Tsunade thought she was testing tonight. He knew it now, they'd be alright.
They'd survive this night together.