ONE WINTER EVENING

- no spoilers. Slightly AU for now, as the series has not been concluded, but only for a tiny part where the Uchiha is mentioned. I don't own Naruto. Or his kinky teachers, for that matter. All I own are a bunch of dogs, a cat, and the typos in this page.

- This contains implied yaoi, which means guys on guys, which means I've taken two Naruto dude characters (none of whom I own, unfortunately, they are all Kishimoto-sensei's) and toyed around. Please do us both a favor and NOT read if you're squeamish with this.


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The paired butterflies are already yellow with August

Over the grass in the West garden;

. - Ezra Pound, "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter".


Tragedy is a resident of Konoha.

In a ninja village, where lives sold for information, for status, for money (commercialism, after all, still embraced the hidden villages wherever they were created in the service of a country or a lord), tragedies were almost common drama: a mother returning wounded but victorious, confidential scrolls in hand, bloody from an accidental miscarriage; a father, all senses lost in a single skirmish, a vegetable in the name of a single password; a son, or a daughter, too horribly disfigured to be recognized.

Often bodies covered in cloth were brought in by wide-eyed medic shinobi; that was, if they were lucky. The more unfortunate ones were carried in with missing parts. Worse still was when only remnants were left of the slain ones, a mangled hitai-ate perhaps, fragments of a dog tag bearing the deceased's rank and clan, a special charm or the other that failed its wearer terribly.

It was almost, if not always, a case of losing someone precious.

That was the ideology that governed the residents of the village, the psychology that children as early as four understood: our centers are not within ourselves. It is the other one, the precious one, who gives us our identity.

If, to be a good ninja, one must known one's limits, it is the Other who sits outside it, existence enough to quietly challenge those very limits. It is the Other who waits after a grueling mission, it is the Other whose gaze matters. To be a good ninja is to train incessantly and know one's self; to be a strong ninja is to have that precious person.

That was why the Shinobi Memorial was of a great, almost sacred importance. Carved on the great rock were names of nin who'd died in service, a tribute to the fallen ones of the village. The names seemed mere etches on stone, which glowed with the jutsu that prevented the elements from wearing them down.

To those who visited and left offerings (and an occasional libation), it was good enough. The name is as good as the face because it belongs to only one person. To those who visited, the other names that shared the space on the rock didn't matter; invisible eyes watched them now, but watched them nonetheless.

Tragedies were common lot for the people of Konoha. But, life went on, because inevitably the village did not live for its own, but for the names and faces of its residents.

-

-

But what is a bigger tragedy for a ninja if not to have a precious person? To have no 'center'? What bigger tragedy than to return from a mission, unscathed and whole, to a room echoing with one's own denial? (To have no 'center' is to have no identity)

Everyday is a day of little deaths. Everyday, the tragedy that has been the music of their elusive waltz resumes anew, rousing with the morning sun, never quite setting even in sleep.

It was a double-edged sword, this philosophy of the village; while on the one had learning to love someone meant being stronger than you would ever know yourself to be, it also meant, on the other hand, that you would inevitably lose this precious person, precisely because you did not own that person.

In the bridge by the creek, in front of the dilapidated old tea stand, the play would commence.

From either side they would approach: one, emerging from the cherry orchard that led to the student dormitories, crossing the bridge to get to the western end of the village, and the other ambling casually down the sidestreet, nose buried in a novel.

Being good ninja, both of them, each would be vaguely aware of the other even from a distance. There would be curiosity, cat-like, pawing at their consciousness enough to make them look up discreetly, to slide covert glances at the approaching figure.

What is he still doing in the Academy so late in the evening?

It's him again. I wonder what he's reading?

There would be confusion, because each was torn whether or not to speak when they finally intersected. Perhaps a neutral "Ohayou gozaimasu" like what he was taught to do in school? Perhaps a simple acknowledging nod would do. Or maybe…

Steps would quicken, silent on the wooden surface of the bridge. Even when they would finally meet in the middle, they did not stop thinking, wondering, and when they finally realized that they had passed each other, they both would be hit by a momentary, overwhelming need to turn back.

But neither stopped.

Neither ever did, even if this all-too-familiar scenario had played itself over and over for more than thirty years hence.

Not in that first winter when the snow fell thick on the ground, coming up to the ankles, so that shinobi had to wear thermal stockings and thick leather shin wrappings to keep out the dampness. The too-young Jounin scowled from beneath his mask, looked up secretly from behind the fingers he held and rubbed vigorously in front of him to keep warm. The wide-eyed genin made a show of pulling his overcoat tighter about him, lifting a gaze from the ground to the other.

One had daily chores to accomplish in the other side of town; the other paid daily visits to the Shinobi Memorial which was located in-campus. Before long they memorized each other's faces, the shuffle of each other's sandals.

Good grief. He startled me. He's so white I can't tell him from the snow.

…silly Genin.

They would recognize each other when chance permitted them to be in the same space—graduation ceremonies on the Academy roof deck, debriefing of newly promoted shinobi, the dango shack along the street—but they never met each other's eyes, and they never knew each other's names.

It was, one of them thought, some silly coincidence. It was, thought the other, perhaps a mere overlapping of lives; the village wasn't so big, and there was only one Shinobi Academy. Perhaps they just happened to rise at the same time each morning (a little after dawn), walked at the same speed and distance to get to the bridge; that was there all there was to it.

They would hear of each other in the seasons to follow, but they never associated the name with the face.

"I hear Sharingan Kakashi came home after the Ichigo river skirmish." Mizuki's eyes had rounded whenever talk of war reached the walls of the academy, a perfect contrast to the boy's generally soft-spoken personality.

"Sharingan Kakashi?" the ponytailed boy would ask cluelessly.

"Hatake Kakashi. Sakumo-sama's son." Anko had smirked haughtily. "Orochimaru-sensei brought me with him once, when sensei talked to Sakumo-sama."

"He comes here in the Academy often, I've heard."

At first their names were alien to each other, an almost foreign sound to each other's ears and tongue, readily forgotten after a conversation.

"Kaminari-sensei's entire team made it to chuunin, they say." Asuma read out from the announcement board. "Tachiko Mizuki, Umino Iruka, Kaji Karin. Not bad, if you ask me."

"Umino Iruka? What a funny name," the silver-haired boy chuckled.

"Lost his second match, but not without employing good strategy," Hayate, youngest proctor of the event, was proud of his observation. "Good sport too."

"…silly name."

That was all there was to it, it seemed. One was a highly talented jounin fast rising in the ranks of ANBU, his name gradually becoming as prominent as his sire's; the other, content in his lot, a face among faces, well-loved by younger shinobi.

Tragedy always had a way of displacing.

They both thought they had found their centers once more, however. After the events they could not control forcibly tore theirs away from them (both picked up what was left after the demon fox had been sealed—one, who lost his team, the other who lost his parents), they had reached out look for others.

Kakashi had his missions: grueling, one-man, known only to a few of the ANBU and the Hokage himself. In his missions he found his identity; in his missions he came to terms with himself, his disabilities, his strengths, his ignorance. It was the slash of the opponent's kunai that whispered his name in his ears. It was the giddy feeling of existence, of being alive, every nerve tingling with strain as he stood over the body of a target that reminded him why he was Hatake Kakashi, shinobi of Konoha.

For Iruka it was simpler: he had his students, and his subjects to teach, and minds brimming with curiosity and thoughts of adventure. In his classes he faced dozens of mirrors of himself, when he in turn had been full of impossible dreams; in the sun-baked classrooms he often made comparisons, how he had grown, how he had matured, in his understanding, his ignorance. Each stroke of the chalk across a dusty blackboard tallied the reasons for being a shinobi of Konoha.

For both, however, these were mere instances; instances existed only for the next, so it was almost an obsessive drive for both to find the embodiment of such instances. This was a glaring reminder, when, exhausted from their work, they returned to an empty room.

"Good day, Kurenai-sensei. I heard about the jounin nominations, congratulations."

"Thank you, Iruka-sensei. Oh, by the way, this is Sarutobi Asuma, and Hatake Kakashi."

"Good to meet you both."

"Hey!"

"Hi."

They were introduced, inevitably (it was a small village, and there was only one Academy, after all), and the faintest sense of de ja vu—an almost dreamlike tugging at the recognition the other's name induced—hung over the encounter, making Kakashi's stare linger a moment longer, Iruka's voice falter half a beat.

It was almost uncanny, how time never altered the context.

Their little play continued of course; in their heads, they called out greetings to each other that never quite found their way into speech.

Good day, Hatake Kakashi.

Hello, Umino Iruka.

It was always the barest inclination of the head from Iruka perhaps, who hastily and embarrassedly looked away when he thought his subtle greeting wasn't noticed, averting his gaze too soon for a single, observant eye to lock with.

I don't understand how you can allow children who have not had experience enough to go through such an exam.

I don't understand how childlike your arguments are; this is an experience, this is what will define them.

Perhaps it was the unseen ironic smile rippling under a black facemask, or Iruka's barely perceptible clearing of the throat. Perhaps it was, in the summer, a hand conveniently swiped over a sweating brow that shadowed a stolen gaze, or perhaps, in the spring, an angled umbrella that obscured the view.

I wish you would turn in your reports on time.

I wish you'd man the desk most of the time.

It was easier to dodge each other when they were in the company of other people. In the mission rooms when Iruka would receive the folders he would only greet the jounin formally and then pretend to look for a pen. When Naruto would call his former teacher from across the street while Kakashi took them out on missions, the jounin pretended to be more interested in his book.

Hokage always holds me accountable for Team 7's logs, because of you.

You are the only one I can trust with Team 7's logs, because you're the only one the children trust.

Perhaps, if they only stopped but once to realize that maybe it wasn't just coincidence, or the fact that the village wasn't actually so small, or the sidestreets so narrow, or the hallways empty in the darkening hours of the afternoon, the play would have moved on.

Why do I always see you at this time of the day, Kakashi-sensei?

Who do you go out to meet at this hour, Iruka-sensei?

It would have meant, perhaps, that Kakashi needn't hurtle into one dangerous mission after another, in the fevered crusade to find his center. It would have meant that Iruka needn't feel the inexplicable ache in his heart upon seeing his students leave the Academy.

Everyday is a day of little deaths. Tragedy watched from the dilapidated old tea stand as the two intersected, and moved on.

I wish you'd just acknowledge my greeting, Kakashi-san.

Would you please look up just once, Iruka-sensei?

It was Kakashi who was starting to suspect, but he banished the thought as quickly as it had come, reminding himself that there were more missions to be fulfilled, and that this schoolteacher, busy all the time with his children it seemed, would have nothing to do with a lonely jounin.

It would be good for us to talk, sensei, because…because I think I might have much to tell you.

And Iruka, who refused to even consider the thought, knew that such a superior jounin (who, after all, went to missions that few would come out of, alive) would want nothing to do with a simple chuunin teacher.

It would be nice, Kakashi-sensei, if we talked sometime, and not just about Naruto's silliness or Sasuke's bitterness or Sakura's issues.

And Tragedy watched, silent resident, as both continued to throw themselves into their work, quietly permitting chance to do away with their semblance-of-centers.

-

-

And now it was the autumn of their lives.

Time surged on, of course, and the names in the cenotaph multiplied with each turn of the season. Iruka found himself faced with the progeny of prominent shinobi who had (it seemed only yesterday) been screaming and pulling pranks in his very classroom not too long ago. Kakashi found himself being approached by aspiring young ANBU for advice, regarded highly among his peers.

For shinobi to live past their prime it was impressive, because, in such a dangerous flesh trade the village engaged in (where lives sold for information), life was fleeting and often short-lived.

Iruka taught lesser classes, sometimes staying home for a day or two. He now coughed lightly from time to time, and his voice was softer after straining it all these years in rebuke, in the daily roll, in shouts of encouragement. A kind of sadness lined his smile, something that one could sense was rooted deep down when he was once young, finally emerging after years of masking it.

His hair remained silver, Kakashi's, but crow's feet creased the edges of his eyes, and his missions regressed from S to A, sometimes B-rank in favor of hotter, younger blood. He could still predict movements with his Sharingan eye and his aim was still true, but he now walked with a slight limp, an exchange for escaping with his life one particularly desperate mission.

And it was on a rainy day, after accompanying a younger jounin party on a mission that Kakashi, returning tired, worn, and decidedly unfulfilled, picked up the thread of thought he had left off many years ago.

I wonder how Iruka-sensei is doing these days.

Now, it was fast approaching winter, and the leaves rained from the trees. Like red little boats they tossed about in the swelling current of the creek, and as he waited, in the middle of the bridge where he knew he would meet the other, Kakashi tried to count how many had slipped downstream, one for each instant in all the years since he'd met Iruka (that dawn of winter solstice) that he'd let slip between his hands.

Perhaps Iruka-sensei would have wanted to talk with him, even after that heated misunderstanding many years ago (Naruto was now candidate for Hokage; Sakura, co-head of the medical team and Sasuke, recovering steadily). Perhaps, when he had crossed the bridge to greet Obito and Rin and the Yondaime all resting in the monument grounds in the campus, they were all in fact, in some unseen way the dead all have, trying to tell him something.

Perhaps their centers had been taken away from them, sometimes by time, sometimes by force, because they were too stubborn to realize that they, after all this time, had had a precious person "reserved for them" so to speak, each only waiting to be accepted by the other.

And damned if he did not read the message underneath, he shamed only himself.

It was autumn, fast approaching winter, but perhaps it was not too late. So he took his long-overdue cue and took his place by the bridge.

Iruka didn't know how to react when he emerged from the Academy gates (after a small special class on advanced trapping to selected graduate candidates) to see Kakashi, leaning against the railing of the bridge casually, as if waiting.

Iruka didn't know whether to walk past or not, but after many years of hurrying by when he met that all-too-familiar figure, he had tired of it, he decided.

Kakashi didn't turn, continued to look at the falling leaves in utter concentration; hadn't they memorized each others footfalls in all the years they'd passed each other by?

"Hello, Umino Iruka."

And then Kakashi turned, to face the teacher who had stopped in front of him.

Something stirred in the silence between them, something old and nostalgic and familiar and as Iruka tried to pin it down, it hung, a heaviness in the air, palpable and throbbing.

"Good day, Kakashi-sensei."

They appraised each other in that long moment, as if for the first time: like a vortex all memory and time and the years of self-imposed isolation coagulated in an almost haphazard pastiche in that instant of true recognition.

Then they were as if children again, in that cold winter dawn.

A smirk readily detected from beneath the mask shifted the shadows on Kakashi's face. "You were always so jumpy in the morning."

"That one time only," came the almost petulant reply. "I didn't see you, you were all in white, and it was snowing."

"And you were shuffling along, shivering."

"Do you have any idea how hard Kaminari-sensei drove us back then?" Brown eyes squinted in remembering.

"Ah, but because of him all of you made it to chuunin, if I remember correctly."

"Y-eah. Well. You knew about that?" A hand came up to scratch at the scar on his nose, now faded and less glaring. "He made sure we were all ready."

The years were the leaves, brittle and red and floating downstream in the creek beneath the bridge, and they stood speaking to each other, in the dialogue that they had rehearsed all this time in their head.

"You didn't think Naruto and the others were ready," Kakashi offered, quietly, gently, as if probing a long-forgotten bruise.

"No." Iruka looked away for the briefest moment. "But of course, you would know better." It was a concession borne without resentment or bitterness, only a mild regret that, perhaps years ago from this moment Iruka would have taken pains to hide.

But both were tired of hiding now, and keeping quiet, and for once, the sound of their voices speaking what they never said before seemed so strangely comforting.

"You, after all, took them out on missions. I'm aware just how life-changing missions can be. Though," the teacher continued, and directed a mock-scowl at Kakashi, "It would have been better if you kept your file to-date."

The sudden burst of laughter from Kakashi was a pleasant surprise. "It's your fault, you know. You only manned the desk—what?—twice a week?"

Iruka's eyes widened and he blushed (he, a man in the autumn of his years) like it had been yesterday. "You—you mean to tell me—?"

"Well, it seemed, someone liked slacking off from work…"

"I beg your pardon, but I had other important things to d—"

"Who did you always go out to meet in the evenings, Iruka-sensei?" The gleam in Kakashi's eye was curious and teasing, and it seemed out of place, in context, for a man of his age and stature.

"My… my students," Iruka replied softly, remembering the walks he took around town, randomly checking in on his orphaned wards, the emotionally unstable ones that he always seemed to get, before he went back to checking papers late into the night. "And—and you, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Well," came the amused reply, as Kakashi once more smiled beneath his mask, "Obito always likes to be told stories about missions and his nephew's antics. And also—"

Here Kakashi leveled his voice and the one eye Iruka could see was serious, probing, curious. It didn't disconcert him as much as he thought it would, and it shocked him to think that perhaps, he had been anticipating this all his life.

It only took a slow blink and then Kakashi's grin was visible, bared, a firm mouth softened by a jovial upward curve. His facemask was bunched underneath his chin, and without meaning to, Iruka found himself staring at the words that mouth formed, watching Kakashi speak as much as listening to him.

"Also, I have always wanted to meet someone in the Academy after my missions, but chance never really permitted me."

They were standing in the twilight of a village they had lived for, and protected all their lives. Here, where the leaves fell and the creek rushed by and the echoes of children's voices faded into cricket song keening in their ears—here they felt like they had found their center.

And where will you be at the end of all things?

They stood in the middle of the bridge, in the middle of the world, centers to each other, concentric circles finally aligning. Beneath them, ripples in the creek; above them, the skies of an early winter.

"Iruka-sensei?" Kakashi chose to break the silence, the question he'd been meaning to ask all this time, rehearsed, in his head, in the wee hours of the morning, swimming beneath that one word.

"Kakashi-san," Iruka replied, an almost boyish tremble to his voice as he turned to finally lock gazes with the Other he had passed by yet sought after for most of his life.

"I should like—" He could hear the jounin take a sharp intake of breath even as he found his own throat tighten with what he knew somehow was coming. "I should like to invite you for—tea, perhaps, Iruka-sensei, or a shogi game? It would be…good for us to talk. It's been so long, don't you think?"

A streetlamp flickered to life a little ways down the street.

In the semi-darkness of a deepening dusk, Iruka found himself grasping (almost desperately, in a quiet outpouring of relief) the clammy, calloused hand that brushed against his. Why it felt familiar when it was technically the first time he had touched Kakashi-sensei since they learned each other's names so long ago, Iruka did not know.

"That…would be very nice. It has been long, Kakashi-sensei," he agreed.

As they both left the bridge together—in the same direction for the first time—the first snows dusted the sky above Konoha.

And in the empty lot where the tea stand used to be, Tragedy stood up to leave, the play it had been conducting finally concluded.


Author's notes:

Oh okay, why did that depress me, paradoxically, in a good way? I'm twice as awful with my titles as anything, but perhaps I can resolve that soon. (-sweatdrop-) This was inspired by a beautifully-drawn fanart by the Japanese fanartist Sidoro, whose works simply beckon.

Some sidenotes:

(1) Ichigo river: well, well, somebody obviously has been reading one too many BLEACH episodes in a day, ne?

(2) When I mean 'past their prime', and 'thirty years', I mean for both sensei to be in their mid/late forties thereabouts. Obviously being a jounin would require one to be in tip-top shape for the more taxing missions, and, the human body being an organic whole ("You can't buy your 'parts' like a Gundam" to quote Duo Maxwell) has to start slowing down on its gears by then. "Past their prime" in the context of being shinobi does not necessarily mean they're wizened old jiji, because, hey, Sandaime-sama was sixty-something and he put on a very impressive fight. They're just... that, I suppose. A little past their prime.

(3) I gave the concept of tragedy an "anthropomorphic personification" (whew, Death XD) here.

(4) I have allusions to works that I like all around the fic. :D So many, many people think up better things than I T.T

This is for Shin, Goukii and Rach, for differing and conflicting reasons, hehe. Many thanks also to paxnirvana, whose carefully-constructed Naruto Timeline helped muchly while I tried to dance around the more important, specific events the canon deals with. I wanted to do something else with their relationship, something possibly more realistic (nin grow old too) and more deep-seated. :) Please leave a note if it was okay.