It is the early hours of a midweek morning and Konoha is still and dreaming. Snow falls softly across the streets, filling the eaves and gutters and smoothing away the edges of the rooftops. A lone figure pads silently through the twisting back alleys, his image reflected in the icicles that hang from the edges of windows and gables. Pale clouds of mist form in the air around him as he breathes out, and there is no breeze to snatch them away. In the perfect stillness of midwinter, he is a stranger with the dust of the desert swirling in his footsteps.
Four weeks and six days have passed since he last walked the streets of his hometown. Just under five weeks spent amongst the sand and hidden dunes of Suna have touched his skin with gold and pulled it dry and tight over his features. The snowflakes that swirl towards him seem to melt before they even touch his face, dissolved by the memory of the desert that clings to him.
As he passes beneath the windows, coloured lights glitter in the corners of his eyes like the flares from burning chakra tags. He can smell sulphur on the air and the stink of burning cloth, but as soon as he turns his head it is gone, curling away into the snow and the darkness. He pauses to let the scent settle from his nose and feels a fool when he catches the smoke from a chimney and knows that it is the sole scent on the air.
Pale eyes blink lazily, wariness hidden beneath a hooded gaze, and hands that have clenched around the cold steel of a shuriken are pushed further into the folds of his pocket. Deliberately he sets his gaze on the snow beneath his feet and resumes his steady progress through the village.
The snow has ceased to fall by the time he reaches his destination. The gloom beneath the trees is deep and a thousand shadows stir in the darkness beneath their branches. Remembered tension picks at his nerves, coiling in his limbs like taut elastic, and it is an effort to resist the urge to take refuge in the treetops. Konoha is home and safety he doggedly reminds himself.
This is an area he knows well, come rain or heavy summer, high noon or midnight. Even hidden beneath a layer of new snow he knows every rise and angle of the ground. It's a ritual of his, as old as he is and older; a watching carried out by generations long gone. And for shinobi, generations are often so very short.
It is with surprise then that he sees the discrepancy in his usually solitary spot, a visitor unannounced and unwelcome, and yet forbidden only in the reasoning of his own heart. Caught a little off guard, if not by the presence of the other, then by the reaction he should give, he pauses, one hand flat against the bark of the training dummy, and watches.
Iruka can smell the desert on the breeze. An unusual thing for the sands of Suna are far distant and the light wind that stirs on the hillside is hardly enough to carry their scent so far. He makes no reaction to the oddity, instead running his fingertips across the carved writing on the obelisk, carefully scraping away at the frost the rimes the sunken lettering. Suna is an ally now, even after so much treachery and deceit, and his first thought must not be one of anger. Wariness, care, preparation - yes. These things are all requisite for an encounter with another shinobi, even an ally. But even now he must not let personal vengeance cloud his judgment, or his reactions.
And so it is with something that borders on relief that he perceives the other step out from the darkness, dropping the play of shadows from around himself to stand in clear outline against the hilltop. It is a courtesy and a formality only. Iruka recognises the casual slouch and tilt of the head and knows that this shinobi is legend.
He smiles to himself against the biting chill and affords the other acknowledgment by the slightest turn of his head over one shoulder. He does not take his eyes from the sticks of incense burning softly in the darkness. It took him too many fumbled attempts to light them to be chased away now. Even legends should show respect and wait their turn. Iruka is a great believer in order.
He knows who the other shinobi is from the silhouette and the scent of corridors and classrooms that hangs around him. Kakashi's nose is finely tuned to the individual scent signatures of other people. He knows the incense too, has smelled it on the man's hands in the past and imprinted on the mission papers that he has been handed.
Umino Iruka. The name sounds in his mind, long and vaguely melodic against the silence. This man is out of place here at this time. Umino Iruka visits the memorial on five days of the year only. Christmas, New Year, the anniversary of the Kyuubi attack and two other dates that he assumes are the birthdays of his parents. Usually the visits occur in the daylight hours and last no more than three quarters of an hour. Long enough for the chuunin to shed his tears and pull himself together again before leaving.
It is strange then, that he is here now.
Kakashi has checked the surrounding area for the whispers of life that betray the presence of hidden others without even registering the action. From the current state of the surroundings, he is almost completely certain that they are alone. Nonetheless when he moves forward into the clearing he is ready and expectant.
It does not occur to him to wait.
Iruka is at first surprised and then soundly embarrassed by the flash of fury he experiences as he perceives the presence of Hatake Kakashi at his shoulder. The man is standing so that he casts no shadow even in this dim light; his approach so utterly devoid of sound that the chuunin is aware only of his proximity by process of elimination. The chakra signature at the edge of the clearing is gone. He cannot sense it in the surrounding trees and the path to the Village is deserted. Where else would the troublesome trickster be if not directly behind him?
Iruka draws breath and beneath the bitter smoke of incense lies the tang of the desert's hot winds.
"You smell of the desert, Jounin-sensei," he remarks politely and immediately regrets his indiscretion. Hatake-san has been absent from the streets of Konoha for over a month now, obviously on a mission. It is of no concern to Iruka where the jounin has been. The void of silence that fills the space at his back is telling enough.
"Forgive me," Iruka adds softly, "I meant no indiscretion."
When the silence stretches, filled with the soft patter of snow from the branches, he wonders if he has overstepped the limits of good taste. Turning fully he begins to bow an apology and is startled to find the clearing stands dark, filled only with the graceful spiral of falling snow.
Sighing softly, but not in relief, he turns back to the obelisk and reaches down to retrieve the sticks of incense. It is his shinobi training that prevents him from reacting with a jump to the gloved hand lighting a new stick from the smouldering length of his own. Instead, he turns the movement of his hand into a smooth gesture that helps to shield the incense from stray flakes and contains his embarrassment by staring fixedly at the other shinobi's hands. Seeing the glowing tip fade, Iruka produces a lighter from a pocket on his flak jacket and helps the process along. Nodding in thanks, Kakashi allows him to light the sticks before placing them in the holder beside the chuunin's own.
His voice, when he speaks, is not the nonchalant drawl that Iruka has come to expect. His tone is rough, coarse, as though the very sand of the desert is caught in his throat. Iruka blinks and schools his face to stillness.
"Maa, sensei. It's not important."
They pause then, the chuunin standing at the other's shoulder, and both watch the curls of pale smoke meandering upwards. It is a long time before Kakashi rises and suddenly Iruka wonders if he was meant to have left the jounin in peace long since and gone on his way. He draws breath to speak and Kakashi cuts across his thoughts with words of his own.
"It's late, Iruka-sensei, I hadn't expected to find you here."
If the question had come from anyone else, Iruka would have simply laughed, scratched at the back of his neck and spoken vague words of nonsense to direct their curiosity elsewhere. But here, now, standing next to this man, he is more than aware that he stands in the presence of danger. He can feel it coiled whip-tight around them both, sense it in the gentle non-concern of the other's tone. The half-rumours passing through the subtle fingers of his brother shinobi whisper ANBU, and here, now, he believes it.
"Since Naruto left, there's been somewhat less noise in my life. It's been quieter around the village. Even at the Academy."
Iruka pauses and draws a long breath of chill night air.
"I've had more time to think these days for some reason. I don't know why exactly, I always have plenty to do after all."
His wry smile is not met by any reaction from the other shinobi. Kakashi's face is turned from his, regarding the glowing tip of the incense and Iruka's humour fails and dies.
"I've felt the need for more contemplation recently," he continues. "It's why I come here. To remind myself I guess, that I'm still here. Still alive."
Iruka falls silent and waits. Maybe the jounin will judge his answer sufficient, maybe not. He does not doubt that the emotion threading between the words like a creeping vine will be met with unspoken disapproval. A shinobi suffers not the weakness of the heart. So many years he has taught the words to his students. One day, one day, he will take them into his own heart too.
"The dead do not offer answers, Iruka-sensei. For they are dead and know nothing but what they once were."
Iruka blinks across at the tall jounin and, had he been a lesser man, would have gaped soundlessly. Instead he frowns and the words are out before he can rein them back.
"The dead may not learn, Kakashi-sensei, but we're not dead, and we most certainly can. When I come here I think of all the people I've known, all the people whose names are written on this stone and all those who are not. Without them I'd not be here. I'd not be me. I'd not be alive."
He can feel the hot flush of anger raising the blood in his neck and cheeks. Incredulity has been displaced by growing anger at the callousness of the other and all thoughts of rank are forgotten as has happened so often in the past with the chuunin. He draws breath to continue and finds that he has no more words. The jounin beside him has cocked his head in his direction and the one visible eye is alive with an emotion that might be anger, might be amusement. His voice, when he replies, is smooth enough for it to be either.
"Calm down, sensei, I meant no disrespect. Forgive me if I sounded harsh."
Kakashi turns his eyes back to the obelisk and sighs softly. "We all have our reasoning after all."
The last words are soft and almost conciliatory and they cool the chuunin's anger like water. Iruka watches the thin shoulders slump as the jounin stuffs his hands deeper into his pockets. Almost, if he were to be asked, he would say that the other man looks tired.
Silently the chuunin berates himself. It's been a month since Kakashi was last in Konoha, no doubt he is tired from his mission. The gods only know what he has had to endure. Even if he has been in Suna, there is no telling what hardships the desert people have had him suffer, what trickeries their shinobi have employed to test the will of the Leaf. No doubt this is amongst the first spots he has visited since he has been back. The last Hatake is famous for his loyalty to the ghosts of his past, and here is Iruka lecturing him on their proper appreciation.
In the pit of his belly Iruka feels the fluttering of embarrassment. For a long time the two shinobi stand in silence as the night creeps chill around them. Kakashi stares fixedly at the obelisk, seemingly lost in thought, and Iruka works furiously through ways of undoing any insult he has caused.
"You know, Kakashi-sensei," he says quietly. "It's Christmas in two days time?"
Kakashi makes a small sound of acknowledgement in his throat but does not move.
"Perhaps…" Iruka continues uncertainly. "Perhaps…"
Perhaps what? Honestly, the chuunin can think of nothing that will not sound foolish to the other's ears.
"Perhaps we shall see each other here again then."
Iruka stumbles into silence as Kakashi finishes the sentence for him. It is an easy escape route, offered in kindness to one who is so obviously in need of help. But how can that be? What place in the heart of a shinobi such as the Hatake is there for kindness?
Once, Iruka would have said "none". But now, after so many years, after so many names etched into the dark marble…who is he to say anymore?
"I will look forward to it, Kakashi-sensei," he replies softly. "Good night."
Retrieving the sticks from where they have burnt themselves away to dust, Iruka bows politely before disappearing into the darkness and the snow.
Hatake Kakashi listens to the chuunin retreat, marking his progress by the silences he leaves in his wake. The other man's words bit him more deeply than he wishes to admit, even to himself. But Kakashi has not survived this long by concealing his inner workings from the critical analysis of his mind. It's just that sometimes his mind gets so very lost amongst the workings of his heart that he can no longer tell the difference between the two.
Learning from the dead, hmm, Iruka-sensei? It's a hard thing to do if one considers oneself already dead, he muses to himself. But which of us is at fault there? It is hard to believe that the chuunin, with his ready cheer and easily provoked ire is anything but fully alive.
Truthfully, Kakashi has learnt all that he can from the dead long ago. These days, he looks only to the living for his answers. You mistake my meaning, sensei, he thinks.
Tilting his head back, he takes a deep breath of the air. It does not surprise him to note that he can no longer scent the incense. It seems almost as though the chuunin's departure has taken with him the last of the fragrant smoke. He stands there for a long time, the snowflakes settling across his features, and thinks not of ghosts, but of the living. And for the first time in over a month he relaxes and lets himself go.
He is home, and all is right with the world.
Very nearly all.
Iruka has only been home ten minutes and is just flicking the kettle on to boil when he hears the tapping at the kitchen window. Curious, he pushes aside the curtain and looks out into the darkness. Hand cupped against the window peering inwards, he is startled to find Hatake Kakashi. The jounin's eyes crinkle into that cheerful curve that indicates a roguish grin and he waves, holding up a small object in one hand. Iruka is surprised to recognise his lighter.
Quickly he opens the window, pushing aside a pot plant to make room.
"Maa, sensei. You forgot this!" Kakashi drawls.
"Thank you, Kakashi-sensei! I didn't realise…here, you should come in. Have some tea before you head off. No, I insist, please…"
Umino Iruka may be but a chuunin to Hatake Kakashi's jounin, but he is still shinobi and so he catches the difference in the other's presence as soon as he opens the window. It is not until much later, days in fact, that he realises what has changed.
The scent of the desert is long gone from the jounin and in its place there is only the scent of the trees and the snow.