The Silent Blade: Renegade

Author: Carcinya (Isolde1 on fanfiction(dot)net)
Author E-mail: carcinya(at)yahoo(dot)com
Category: Action/Adventure/Romance
Keywords: Naruto Hunter-nin Iruka Kakashi
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: Possible up to episode 145
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)
Disclaimer: This story is based on situations and characters created and owned by Masashi Kishimoto, various publishers including but not limited to TV Tokyo. No money is being made and no copyright infringement intended.

Now, now, people. If Naruto were mine, do you really think I'd be sitting at my computer, sipping bad coffee, and writing bad fanfiction? Honestly.

Author's notes: I apologize in advance for any spelling or grammar mistake there might be in this story. I am French, and still only learning the beautiful language that is English. Any comments are welcome, but obviously flames will be used to roast marshmallows. Or flamers. Yummy.

Longest chapter ever.

Betaed by Noods, Telosphilos and tatsumaki. Thanks, girls!


Glossary

Tagelmust: Traditional desert headgear, both a veil and a turban.
Chinkana: Gazelle.

Chapter 4: Full of Sun

Not all those who wander are lost.
--J.R.R. Tolkien

A few hours later

It had taken the Konoha delegation four days to rush back from the Sand, but then the shinobi had been carrying the princess and the two diplomats on their backs, and had chosen the "official" road that circumvented the mountains.

He could reach Suna in half that time, Iruka estimated, if he took the shorter route through the Snowy Peaks. Dangerous and rarely trodden, that path did not appear on any ninja maps -- to the best of his knowledge. It had been made in times of necessity by another, far more ancient people, but even they rarely used it nowadays.

Iruka's family had come to the Fire Country this way, almost seventeen years ago. Though he only held faint, pained memories of that particular trip, he was confident he could find the path again if he put his mind to the task.

Not that he actually had another option. There would be a bounty on his head by now, and soon the Hunters would be prowling the well-traveled roads. But even the best trackers could not follow a prey down a path they didn't even know existed.

He had half a mind to steal a mount at a post house, so as not to leave a chakra trail. But he quickly dismissed the notion: a valley horse would be as ill at ease in the mountains as in the desert. Though it would certainly be more tiring, going on foot might actually prove faster and more discreet in the long run.

With a resolute sigh, Iruka strapped his backpack tight against his back, and set out in the forest at an even-paced jog.

§

Checking his compass from time to time, Iruka neared the outskirts of the Snowy Peaks some time before midnight. He was tired, but not overly so -- as a Hunter, he had sometimes stayed awake for three days running. He ate two energy bars and settled against a tree for a fifteen-minute nap. Then, smothering a yawn, he scrambled to his feet and started running again.

On the second day, after a harrowing climb across the mountain pass, the ex-Hunter reached the desert. The icy night air had a sharp, crisp quality to it, but Iruka knew from vivid memory that in a few hours the sun would rise and scorch without mercy those foolish enough to try and cross the Dune Sea.

As a child, he had often wondered at that designation, but now that he could see it from so far above, the vast ocean of rippling pale sand seemed to wax and wane with the breeze, true to its name.

Iruka licked his already dry, cracked lips, tasting blood.

Trying to cross the Dune Sea was, to put it mildly, pure suicide. Maps were scarce, imprecise, and above all pointless, as the shifting sands made and unmade landmarks, swallowed oases and erased tracks. Inexperienced travelers quickly lost their ways and died of thirst, or exposure to the sun's harsh glare.

The Tribe alone could navigate that ever-changing maze. They were an ancient people, as old and unmovable as the land itself. They lived on their own, reviled and scorned by the shinobi that had settled on their homeland centuries ago and forced them to retreat, some to the desert, others to the mountains, like Iruka's maternal ancestors.

While Iruka himself had little knowledge of the desert, having only crossed it a few times -- almost two decades ago -- ten years as a Hunter had taught the necessary skills to adapt to extremely hostile situations. He had only vague recollections of his final destination, but he was confident he could survive for a while until they found him.

Sometimes you needed to be lost in order to find your way, Karasu-sensei had told him once, rather cryptically, and with perhaps a note of wistfulness. Iruka thought, all peevishness aside, that it summed up his life rather aptly so far.

That was probably the main difficulty between Kakashi and him. The Jounin pretended, artfully, to be lost on the road of life -- when in fact he knew precisely what he wanted, and how to get it.

Iruka admired and envied his quiet, unapologetic assurance, painfully aware that he was the exact opposite, that under the picture-perfect shinobi hid a man deeply flawed: outwardly assertive, moody and headstrong, but in reality scrambling to cover his abiding fear under sheer stubbornness and spectacular displays of temper.

He hadn't been surprised when Kakashi had finally left him; in truth, he had been expecting him to since the day they had moved in together. That hadn't made it any easier to bear, Iruka admitted in the privacy of his mind, but at least he hadn't been caught off guard.

What he found startling, however, was how much time it had taken the other man to see behind the facade. No one had ever stayed that long -- nor had Iruka honestly ever thought anyone would.

He was impossible to live with, that much he knew. His formidable temper aside, he had enough issues to send most people screaming into the night, and make mind healers rub their hands in unholy glee.

From the first, he had tried to push Kakashi away; and even after the Jounin had forcefully shouldered his way into his heart, Iruka had never stopped fighting him, testing him, keeping him at arm's length. Yet Kakashi had stood his ground, meeting him more than halfway, rarely if ever losing patience with his idiosyncrasies, never asking more of Iruka than he could give. In return the ex-Hunter had offered little -- if anything. Not even the three simple, stupid words he had known Kakashi longed to hear from him.

There was only so much a man, even a stubborn genius, could take. He couldn't blame him for leaving.

Two years ago, Iruka had been ready to die. In truth, he hadn't found himself worth salvaging. He hadn't seen the point. Dying in defense of Konoha had seemed a fitting and honorable way out. And then Kakashi had barged into his life and changed everything.

Now the tables had turned. Kakashi was in grave danger. It didn't matter if the Jounin didn't want him anymore. It didn't matter if he never wanted to see him again.

Kakashi needed him -- that was all that mattered. He would not let him down this time.

The ex-Hunter rubbed at his face angrily. It was the wind making his eyes sting, he told himself firmly, nothing more. His jaw set, his back straight, he clenched his fists.

Yes, he would definitely make it up to him.

§

Later in the day

Iruka tipped his head back, careful not to let a single drop of water escape from his canteen. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, the ex-Hunter surveyed his surroundings. He had covered as much of his body as possible with spare clothes, tying a regulation green t-shirt around his neck and head like a scarf.

He truly, deeply hated the desert -- the sweltering heat, sand that got positively everywhere, scorpions and above all, the sheer monotony of the scenery. At least Iruka's dark colorings mostly protected him from burns. He hated to imagine what the sun's harsh glare might have done to Kakashi's pale, delicate skin.

A pang of hunger struck him, only made worse by the knowledge that he wouldn't be eating anytime soon. Digestion required water he couldn't spare.

Even in his desperate need to get to Kakashi as quickly as possible, Iruka was acutely conscious that walking around during the day meant certain death, within hours. He squinted against the harsh glare of the sun, and scooted back further under the makeshift shelter -- a space blanket stretched between two dunes -- and started planning.

Until the sun went down, there was nothing else to be done.

§

The following night, Iruka headed south and slightly west under the moon's watchful gaze. As he progressed, the dunes gave way to dry, cooler gravel plains. Vegetation was sparse, but at least he wasn't breathing sand anymore, which was a definite improvement.

It also made walking easier, and significantly lowered the odds of losing his way. Not that it would matter in the long run. Hunger and fatigue had become his constant companions, and he was quickly running out of water. However, turning back now would mean certain death -- there was no choice but to go on.

After a few hours, Iruka became aware through the haze of exhaustion of a low rumble in the distance. He stopped and crouched down carefully, mindful of his bad knee. He murmured a quick reconnaissance jutsu, asking the rocks to tell him what they heard. He closed his eyes, opening his mind and feeding chakra into the stone.

Horses. The clatter of hooves on dry, compact ground, and the unmistakable snap of leather.

Iruka inhaled sharply, his heart suddenly thundering in his chest.

Riders were coming this way.

Using his tracking jutsu as a guide, he made his way towards the horsemen. He followed them a long moment, studying them, before he allowed himself to be seen, hoping he wasn't making a terrible mistake.

The riders stopped their mounts abruptly when they spotted him a short distance away, drawing their short bows in clear warning. As Iruka remained silent and motionless, one of them heeled his horse into a light trot, reining in only a few meters away from him. He dismounted with the easy grace of one who lived in the saddle.

Taller and slimmer than any of the other warriors, the man wore the traditional garb favored by the men of the desert -- a tagelmust, silver-encrusted leather wristbands and boots, a loose-fitting cotton cloak over simple leggings and a long shirt. A long knife was tucked into the white sash around his waist that identified him as leader. His smooth, unlined face betrayed his youth but the arrogant tilt of his chin and the deep indigo color of his turban confirmed his high rank among the clan.

In spite of his nervousness, Iruka couldn't hold back a small, tight smile at the sight of those familiar black eyes. Against all odds, luck seemed to be on his side tonight.

The man eyed him warily.

Who are you? he signed one-handed, the other never leaving the hilt of his dagger.

The ex-Hunter crossed his arms at the wrists and bowed his head, a gesture of peace and friendship. The other's eyes widened marginally, betraying his shock.

Friend, the shinobi replied in the same fashion, his motions at first hesitant and graceless. Son of mountain clan.

The sign language they had used served as lingua franca to communicate between the different clans of the Tribe. All children learned it at an early age, as soon as their parents could imprint it onto their malleable minds. Once he had "spoken" it as fluently as his mother, but after years in Konoha trying to erase any traces of his maternal heritage, he found himself rusty at best.

Still, a glint of understanding flashed across the warrior's dark gaze, though his face betrayed nothing.

Long time, Full of Sun, Iruka said, warmly.

The man started at the mention of his name. His eyes narrowed to slits, scrutinizing Iruka with eerie intensity. But then a flicker of recognition crossed his dark eyes, and he visibly allowed himself to relax.

Iruka released a short, pent-up breath, relief flooding him even though he had not been overly anxious. Sign language left little to no room for deceit -- had Iruka attempted to deceive him, the warrior would have seen through it instantly, a fact they were both acutely aware of.

Old friend, Full of Sun signed after a moment, The dunes have shifted since we last saw each other.

Iruka inclined his head and gave a soft smile. His hands flowed through the ritual answer, But under our feet, the sand remains unchanged.

Full of Sun took a step forward and opened his arms wide. The invitation was clear, and the shinobi did not hesitate. He was caught in a bone-creaking embrace, trying very hard to quell the surge of embarrassment that rose within him. The Tribe, unlike ninjas, had no reserve toward family members -- or one considered as such. That, too, Iruka had forgotten.

The other released him and stepped back after a long minute.

We thought you dead, the warrior began, his hands made shaky with emotion, Along with your clan.

Iruka fingered the scar across his nose, his expression set in a thoughtful frown.

No, he said slowly. Not dead.

The other stared at him intently, taking in the shinobi's stiff posture and downcast eyes.

Later, Iruka motioned, curtly, cursing his lack of skill with the language. Some things could not be explained in a few words.

Evidently, Full of Sun knew better than to press.

Very well, he replied. Then, raising an eyebrow, You look exhausted.

The shinobi nodded tiredly, resisting an insane urge to laugh.

I explain later, he signed, light-headed with relief and starvation. At camp.

Courtesy commanded that a visitor be treated with utmost politeness and respect. At Full of Sun's barked order, a young warrior dismounted and handed Iruka the reins of his mount -- a sturdy chestnut gelding.

It had been years since Iruka had last ridden a horse, especially bareback; but he quickly found old reflexes surfacing. He jumped, threw his leg over the roan's narrow back. Whipcord lean muscles rippled under his thighs. He shifted, closing his calves around the smooth flanks of the horse, and gathered the simple leather bridle.

His ears flattened against his skull, the animal pranced fretfully. Unruffled, Iruka simply straightened his back and clamped his legs firmly around the gelding's barrel, careful not to heel.

Full of Sun mounted his own black stallion -- a fine, sleek animal with slender legs and a long mane braided with indigo ribbons -- and his warriors quickly imitated him. Soon they heeled their mounts into a gallop, racing with a kind of wild joy along a path only they could see. Iruka led his own horse after them, focusing hard on staying awake in spite of his abiding exhaustion.

§

They reached the Cave some time before sunrise.

It was exactly as Iruka remembered it from decades past -- a huge, half-moon shaped mount of dull red rock next to a snow-peaked mountain range, casting merciful shade on the oasis that stretched at its feet. Shallow caves sheltered most of the actual camp, though many beige canvas tents had been pitched nearby, on the meadow, rustling in the gentle breeze. Women draped in pristine off-white cloth bustled about the fires, some weaving large baskets or scaling fish, others busy preparing noon-meal. Children played in the pond, jumping from palm trees and large rocks into the clear, green water. Goats and domesticated chinkana -- desert gazelles -- grazed peacefully nearby.

The pungent smell of horses, leather and spices filled Iruka's nostrils -- and for a second, he remembered being nine and gazing upon the Cave for the first time in unmitigated wonder. Then the moment faded as the hot desert wind raised a swirl of gritty dust.

A long time ago, before the shinobi had come and changed everything, Iruka's clan had used to roam the cold, arid mountains of Earth Country. Though similar in many ways to that of the desert clan, their ways of life had been vastly dissimilar -- the differences subtle enough to elude shinobi and other city-dwellers, but glaring to Iruka, even after seventeen years in Konoha.

His horse stumbled, startling him out of his musings. Only shinobi reflexes kept him from a most humiliating fall. Blushing slightly, he twined his fingers in the roan's mane to steady himself.

They dismounted near the makeshift stables. Iruka slid off his horse and stretched discreetly, his muscles aching in places he had forgotten the existence of -- provided he had known them in the first place. He pulled down the shirt he had been using as a makeshift turban and wiped his dusty face.

Full of Sun unwound his tagelmust, revealing a face both familiar and terribly foreign. Long black hair fell in waves onto his shoulders -- as Chief's son, he did not have to keep it tightly braided like common warriors.

Make yourself at home, friend, Full of Sun said. I'll meet you at the cavern.

Offering Iruka a warm smile, he clasped his shoulder then went to tend to his own mount.

Before the shinobi could follow his cue, however, a dark-skinned young boy rushed to him and took the reins of his horse. As was proper, the child kept his head bowed and avoided looking at him directly. Still, curiosity warred over manners, and he stole quick glances here and there.

"Sem'eleth," Iruka offered, in hesitant desert tongue. "It's all right."

He reached out to ruffle the boy's braided hair, as he would have one of his former Academy students, but the child adroitly avoided his hand. He made for the stables hastily, tugging the horse after him.

Iruka frowned. After so many years in Konoha -- most of his life, really -- he had forgotten how reserved and touch-shy the Tribe could be. Full of Sun's welcome had been warm and heartfelt, but then the warrior considered him almost family. However, to many in the clan, and especially the children, Iruka was a virtual stranger, and as such excluded from the familiarity of open affection.

Worse even, he was shinobi. One of the Others. He couldn't be trusted.

The thought smarted, more than it should have.

When his family had been forced to seek refuge in the Hidden Village of Leaf, Iruka's idea of the shinobi world had been limited to the bed-time stories his father told him every night. Umino Seki had never endeavored to teach his young son the way of the ninja, as he and his Tribe wife had never intended to turn their back on the mountains.

However, life had decided otherwise. In Iruka's tenth year the Umino family had found themselves fleeing the destruction of their land, and settling down in Konoha's Willow district, immensely grateful for the Fourth's benevolence but still longing for the freedom and open spaces they had grown used to.

Iruka had tried very hard to fit in this new, unwanted life. He had learned to wear stiff, noisy sandals; to sit still for hours on end, listening to a teacher prattle on about subjects he had never even heard of; to stifle his old Tribe-bred instincts and mannerisms, acutely aware of his difference.

It had taken him years of painstaking efforts, but eventually Iruka had managed to turn himself into a picture-perfect shinobi -- working his past into the ground, relentlessly, until appearance had become reality.

Kakashi had been right -- the ex-Hunter was never himself, because his very sense of self had become a moving, adaptable instrument of survival. He wasn't sure much how much of the half-blood boy had survived under the shinobi, how much of Iruka under Kurohyou. In truth, he feared the answer.

This -- stepping into the Cave, unmarked by time, as though his whole life had been a carefully constructed lie, or an incredibly vivid dream -- reopened wounds he had thought long healed, or at least well-concealed enough to be forgotten.

He hadn't wanted to remember.

Quashing an insane urge to turn tail and run away, Iruka took a deep, shuddery breath. Kakashi was worth it. He was worth facing this, no matter how hard his panicked, hammering heart tried to tell him otherwise.

He could not run away forever.

Steeling himself, he raised his head -- only to meet an all to familiar gaze.

Wise One had not changed. Almost eighteen years before, when Iruka had seen him last, the shaman had already looked ancient, his sun-browned skin paper-thin, his eyes warm with knowledge and benevolence sunk low under his hairless brow. The ex-Hunter swallowed with difficulty.

The old man seemed to sense his distress, for he offered a kind, toothless smile.

It is good to see you, child, he signed -- slowly and carefully, so Iruka could follow.

It good, the shinobi acquiesced. Long time. Many memories.

Wise One appeared please with his clumsy efforts.

It will come back to you, he said assuredly. You have the blood. You are Tribe.

Iruka wasn't -- not really, not anymore -- but he didn't have the heart to argue. He gave a jerky, non-committal nod.

You must have been traveling for days, Wise One observed. You need to rest.

No time, the shinobi replied. Must see Chief. Talk first, sleep later.

At least clean up, the medicine man signed, wrinkling his nose in distaste at Iruka's disheveled appearance. You are filthy, child.

The shinobi looked down at himself critically and had to agree. His dirty, matted hair fell in tangled strands over his grimy face. His clothes felt gritty with sand, his skin itchy with two-day old sweat.

Filthy was too kind a word to describe him.

That's settled, Wise One said. Off to the lake you go. Do you remember the way?

With a slight blush, Iruka had to admit that he didn't. To his chagrin, he had not been blessed with the Tribe's almost faultless eidetic memory, though it would certainly have come in handy during his hectic life.

Wise One barked an order, and a nearby girl jumped hastily to her feet. She came back after a few minutes, another child in tow. The same boy, Iruka noted awkwardly, who had taken care of his horse sometime earlier and brushed off his feeble attempts at conversation.

Iruka turned around all of sudden, clearing his throat and catching Wise One's gaze. The old man had been about to leave, and stilled expectantly.

Yes?

Full of Sun? Iruka asked, a touch of concern permeating his motions. He wait. No good.

I'll tell him where you are, the shaman replied, dismissively. Now go. You smell like a hyena.

The shinobi resisted the sudden, insane urge to stick out his tongue. It seemed he had a knack for striking up friendships with infuriating old men, Iruka thought forlornly, trailing after his appointed guide.

The boy led him deeper into the cave, still pointedly avoiding his gaze. Iruka shrugged, too tired and sore to take offence. After sharing living quarters with Kakashi for two years, he had learned to choose his battles.

They walked for a few minutes in silence down a torch-lit tunnel, the boy striding ahead, Iruka following at a more sedate pace. His whole body ached with over-exertion. He had trouble keeping his eyes open, and more than once he stumbled in the dim light, his chakra levels too low to be of any use.

Still his mind raced in spite of his fatigue, or perhaps because of it. All his thoughts, jumbled and chaotic as they were, irremediably turned back to Kakashi's predicament -- more specifically, how to get him out of it no matter what it took.

Even war.

Guilt warred with sick fear until he had trouble distinguishing the two. The very idea of Kakashi's impending death, when it crossed his mind, was enough to make his heart pound with panic. He tried not to dwell too much on it. It took all his Hunter training to keep his formidable imagination in check.

The boy stopped in his tracks, so abruptly it was all Iruka could do not to jostle him. He squinted in the suddenly bright light. In front of them, the tunnel turned into a wide, high-roofed cavern. A wide expanse of clear green water came to lick at a smooth, pale stone shore. The surface gleamed, reflecting the sunshine that fell from two small natural chimneys.

Not an underground lake, Iruka remembered with a jolt. A river, than ran from the mountain range through the desert, feeding oases and settlements as it went.

The ex-Hunter stared at the rippling water intently. Suna was only a few kilometres upriver -- fifteen, twenty at the most. Suna, and Kakashi.

A tap to his shoulder startled Iruka out of his thoughts. He glanced down and found the boy staring impatiently at Iruka's booted feet. With an abrupt jerk of his head, he looked away and took Iruka's hand, tugging him towards the left bank.

There, next to what was clearly a rudimentary well, a small pile of rustic toiletries had been neatly stacked on top of a bundle of white cloth: a simple wooden comb, a lufah sponge, and roots, which Iruka recognized as soapwort.

The child released his hand and turned to him. He pointed at Iruka, then at the water, and made a simple gesture -- a variant of "clean up" one would use when talking to a baby or a toddler.

The shinobi raised an eyebrow, noting with faint amusement that he had just been insulted by a child half his size.

"Ak'ri yala shensu," he said, formally. "Be thanked for your help."

It was one of the few phrases Iruka remembered from the summer he and his clan had spent as guests at the Cave, decades earlier. But then, the boy didn't need to know that.

The child didn't blush -- the people of the desert rarely did, thanks to their darker coloring -- but his embarrassment was palpable.

Iruka took pity on him and laughed without resentment.

You are right, he said. No speak well. Like child.

Wise One had been correct, Iruka noted with distinct pleasure -- he was remembering. Grammar and syntax, he still had trouble with, and probably always would; but he was surprised to find words coming to him more easily.

Shedding some of his former reserve, the boy grinned up at him from behind a curtain of slim dark braids. He was blind in one eye, Iruka discovered abruptly, the skin badly mangled around the right orbit -- an acid burn, by the look of it -- and marring otherwise pleasant, regular features.

"Iruka", the shinobi said, pointing at himself, then making the signs for "Little Raven".

The sign language used to communicate between different clans was as ancient as the Tribe itself, and while it was by all means very useful, it was also rather limited by its descriptive nature. The only way to transcribe names was to use their meanings.

Being a fundamentally earthbound people, the Tribe had no word for dolphins, or any other sea mammals for that matter. Iruka thus had to refer to himself with his childhood nickname -- which, admittedly, sounded a bit silly for a grown man, but served its purpose.

"Aren," the child replied, with a nod of understanding. The hand sign he added translated his name roughly as Dust.

Iruka inclined his head in acknowledgment.

You're shar'ta, aren't you? Dust blurted out. That's why you can speak.

Shar'ta -- half-blood.

Iruka winced, abruptly reminded that few clans were as accepting of outsider as his mother's had been. Unions between Tribe members and one of the Others -- as they called all Japanese, shinobi and civilians alike -- were scarce, and their offspring rarely welcome in both communities.

Dust, however, didn't appear particularly disgusted. Simply curious, as though the idea that such a being -- half-Tribe, half-shinobi -- could actually exist outside of horror stories children whispered between themselves had never crossed his mind.

Mother from Tribe, Iruka said. Father from Leaf.

Considering the boy's perplexed expression, he had clearly never heard of Konoha, and thus had taken it to mean that Iruka's father had come from a tree -- literally.

The Others, the shinobi clarified.

Dust nodded, apparently satisfied with that explanation. The Tribe cared little for politics, and the concept of a Hidden Village where several different clans cohabited and competed for power was as foreign to them as their own community-oriented way of life to a ninja.

The ex-Hunter stripped quickly and efficiently, without a second thought. Modesty did not have its place here. Dust collected his clothes as he shed them, bundling them patiently.

Iruka unstrapped his swords in a smooth, practiced motion, smiling at Dust's unabashed glances. The boy seemed fascinated by the numerous scars crisscrossing his skin -- some old and fading, others more recently healed.

Each mark, each blemish had been won in combat. They told the story of a lifetime on the battlefield. They spoke of a way of life Dust couldn't even imagine -- in that regard most of all, the Tribe and the shinobi were simply too different.

There was wildness among the nomads, a carefully-directed energy contained in hunting, sparring and rituals. But it was nothing like the violence inherent to the shinobi world. The Tribe did not understand deceit. They could not conceive it. There wasn't even a word for it in their language.

Perhaps that was the significance of some of Iruka's dreams. He could lie, though he would never been good at it. He was shinobi, for better or for worse.

Dust gave Iruka a small, shy smile, then left him to his own devices.

With a heartfelt sigh of pleasure, Iruka stepped into the water. It was cold, clear, and blissfully refreshing after three days on the run. He immersed himself completely and swam for a while, intent on relaxing his sore body. There was much to be done before he could get some rest, and he needed to be as clear-headed as possible.

He swam back to the shore and walked out, shivering slightly in the cool air. He rinsed the bowl and filled it. Then he picked up a round pebble and crushed the soapwort roots against the rough sandstone surface, forming a fragrant soapy lather.

Iruka cleaned himself thoroughly, rubbing the grime off his body and face with the lufah, untangling the snarls from his stringy, matted hair with the comb, massaging his aching shoulders and feet until he felt almost human again. He rinsed himself carefully, ladling water out of the well.

Once he had rubbed himself dry with the large cotton towel, Iruka put on the clothes he had been provided -- nondescript, loose-fitting brown leggings and tunic, hard-soled buckskin moccasins, a cream-colored sash and a leather belt.

For once, he fastened both his swords to his waist and legs, forsaking personal preference for convenience. It made him look a little less like a shinobi, and a little more like a regular warrior -- though Tribe fighters favored curved daggers and long, heavy spears over the lighter, nimbler kodachi the Hunter used.

Better to let them assume Iruka was a visiting warrior from a distant clan, which would easily explain his lighter coloring and strange mannerisms. The Tribe valued hospitality, but they had been at odds with shinobi for decades, and could hardly be blamed for being cautious.

Iruka made his way back to the cavern's entrance. As he neared the surface, the air became progressively warmer, the atmosphere brighter. The lively hustle and bustle of the Cave soon reached his ears, both a nuisance and a comfort, soothing in its boisterous normalcy.

He passed by a handful of women on their way to the well, carrying calabash gourds against their hips and chatting animatedly in desert speech. They fell silent and averted their eyes the moment they saw him, but he could feel their curious glances following him as he walked.

In a ninja village, Iruka's discreet arrival would have been remarkably inconspicuous; but at the Cave, strangers were an oddity -- and an endless source of gossip. He would have to resign himself to being all the talk around the cooking pit for a while; perhaps even fend off an offer of marriage or two -- in that department, a brief mention of his mixed heritage would probably do the trick.

He found Dust waiting for him near the Cave's entrance. The boy smiled shyly and handed him his forgotten backpack. Iruka shouldered it, offering a quick, thankful nod in return.

Wise One said you must eat now.

Iruka frowned.

No time, he signed hastily. Must see Chief.

He rode out with the warriors before you arrived, Dust explained patiently. He won't be back until sundown.

Of course, neither Wise One nor Full of Sun had bothered to inform Iruka of that fact. Why was it that people kept trying to teach him patience when he clearly had no time to waste? He bit back an exasperated sigh and clamped down on his soaring frustration, setting his breathing to a relaxing pattern Karasu-sensei had taught him long ago.

Displays of temper would only disparage him in the eyes of the Tribe. Adults, especially men, were expected to master themselves in every circumstances. It was understandable, in light of their communal way of life. Conflicts were considered abhorrent, and as such, avoided with almost neurotic watchfulness, often stifled before they could bring tension to the group.

A warrior raising a hand on another, whether in anger or in cold blood, faced the clan's immediate censure. The dishonor was so great that most left the Cave in shame, shunned by their family and friends, and never came back.

Consequently, they viewed shinobi -- who taught their children to fight from infancy, and generally promoted a culture of deceit and violence -- as dangerously brutal and bellicose barbarians.

Iruka's mixed heritage made him as such an easy target for criticism and contempt. It would not do for him to fuel their prejudiced views by giving in to his temper.

At least not while he needed their help.

Very well, he agreed, seamlessly schooling his features into a pleasant mask.

Once, self-control had been almost second nature to him, and though he didn't keep as tight rein on his emotions as he used to, Iruka had little difficulty exercising restrain when the situation demanded it. One did not spent ten years as a Hunter without consequence -- as Kakashi seemed wont to bemoan, he remembered in annoyance.

Dust beamed, oblivious to Iruka's ruminations.

Come
, the boy urged, grabbing his hand. My mother has made haleem for you.

The shinobi licked his lips. His stomach grumbled audibly. As a child, he had been extremely fond of desert cuisine, and haleem -- a tasty blend of rice, minced gazelle meat, lentils and spices -- had been one of his favorite dishes. It was traditionally only served for celebrations -- rarely for noon-meal on an ordinary day.

For his mother to cook haleem for a shar'ta... Dust must have spoken highly of him to his family. The unexpected kindness eased something within his chest. No matter what came out of this whole mess, he had at least made a friend.

He let himself be tugged outside into the bright sunlight towards Dust's home. Betraying their low status in the clan's hierarchy, the family's tent was pitched near the cavern's entrance and offered little privacy or quiet, at least during the day.

Iruka stepped inside as Dust held out the door flap for him. He squinted, letting his eyes adjust to the change in light.

A middle-aged woman sat in a corner, munching pensively on betel leaves. She looked up at their entrance but quickly averted her gaze, wrapping her pale blue shawl tighter around her bony shoulders. A young girl in a faded red sari knelt next to her, weaving a straw basket with attentive care.

Dust went to stand in front of them, and they spoke for a moment, a quick flow of desert speech Iruka didn't even attempt to follow. Instead, he let his eyes wander, taking in his surroundings.

The ground was covered in threadbare rugs which must once have been colorful and welcoming -- their loss of fortune must have been brutal, and sudden. The tent was sparsely furnished -- only a low wooden table, a handful of cushions and an ancient, ornate chest that probably held the rest of their meager possessions. Off-white drapes curtained off the sleeping area in the back, giving an illusion of privacy.

While his mother busied herself, the boy sat down at the table, facing the entrance, and gestured at Iruka to take a seat -- a right and a duty usually reserved to the head of the household.

Iruka didn't even have to ask -- it didn't take a genius to put two and two together. Dust's father was either dead, or had taken another wife. It explained many things, and particularly their loss of status. Since the boy was too young to hunt, he and his family were a burden to the clan. They would never go hungry, but until Dust could provide for his hearth, they would be reminded of their circumstances everyday, in thousands of subtle ways.

The girl, whom Dust introduced as Flowing Sand, turned out to be his elder sister. At fourteen, her long dark hair was still plaited in the single thick braid of unmarried women, Iruka noted. With her looks it wouldn't be long before she tied it in a more adult style.

The two women waited on Dust and Iruka throughout the meal -- silent, unobtrusive yet helpful, as was proper. Though it irked his own convictions, the shinobi didn't protest or remark on it. It wouldn't do to offend his hosts by refusing their hospitality -- however misguided.

The food tasted even better than he remembered, though perhaps his abiding hunger had something to do with it.

After they were done and the table was cleared, Dust's mother -- Morning -- went out to prepare the bissap at the cooking pit. Flowing Sand sat down behind Iruka and started combing his hair silently.

Iruka grimaced slightly, annoyed at himself. By the time the girl was done, his hair would be braided in hundreds of thin tresses, and she would have spared him a severe loss of face.

The desert clan's hierarchy was strict, complex, and subtle enough to elude outsiders, be they Japanese or even Tribe. Only the Chief and his family had the right to keep their hair flowing free. By appearing thus in front of the Chief, Iruka would have committed a major social faux-pas, and nearly breached a taboo. Such mistakes he couldn't afford if he wanted to gain their trust, and more importantly, their help.

Then again, considering how long it had been since he had last slept, Iruka supposed he could be excused. He gave a jaw-cracking yawn, hiding his mouth behind his hand.

Dust glanced at him sharply.

Come, he said, grabbing Iruka's hand in what was quickly becoming a constant in their dealings. He dragged Iruka to the small, cramped sleeping area at the back of the tent. Weathered sleeping mats had been unrolled behind the privacy curtain.

I'll wake you when they get back, Dust offered. Then he added, firmly, Sleep now.

Iruka shook his head in vague protest even as he sat down. His eyes prickled with fatigue, but he still felt remarkably alert. He was fine, barely tired; he just needed to lie down for a while. Then he would meditate, or...

He was asleep before his head hit the straw mat.

§

A few hours later, true to his word, Dust nudged him awake from a deep slumber.

You talk in your sleep, the boy signed one-handed. He sat cross-legged on the ground, an ornate silver-encrusted bridle in his lap. The distinctive smell of firis -- an oil made from gazelle shins -- pervaded the air.

Iruka rubbed his sweaty face in weariness and untangled himself from the horse blanket Dust had thrown over him, still reeling from a intense nightmare. The dream had faded beyond recall almost as soon as he woke up, as they always did, leaving him edgy and frustrated. He would have given his right arm for a steaming cup of strong, black coffee.

"So I've been told," he muttered, blinking owlishly, his voice still raspy from sleep. "Repeatedly."

Dust shot him a quizzical glance, his hands working the oil into the leather with sure skill.

Sometimes, the ex-Hunter said. Sorry.

The boy stopped in his work to stare at him. Then he shook his head, waving off Iruka's apology.

I have nightmares too, he said, a guarded look coming into his eyes. He twisted his hands in his lap, nervously.

Iruka did not have to ask what they were about. As a former Hunter, he knew more about acid jutsu -- and the damage they could cause -- than he had ever cared to. He scrambled up awkwardly, his usual grace of movement mostly gone. He stretched, stifling a yawn and feeling positively ancient

And he wasn't even thirty, the shinobi mused wryly. When he reached Sandaime's age, he would probably end up in a nursing home rather than the Hokage's office.

He was fastening his swords to his belt when a sudden motion caught his eye and he whirled around, hands flowing to the kodachi's hilts faster than the eye could follow.

Full of Sun raised an eyebrow. Iruka flushed in embarrassment.

My apologies, the tall warrior said, without resentment. I didn't mean to startle you. Wise One said I might find you here.

"That cunning old bastard," Iruka grumbled under his breath, a tad ruefully. He didn't bother to translate, but Full of Sun gave him a sympathetic smile, obviously sharing the sentiment.

There's someone who wishes to see you, my friend. Someone important.

At last, the ex-Hunter thought, definitely pleased with the turn this day was taking. He followed Full of Sun out of the tent, smiling a good bye at Dust who replied in kind. Then the pair made their way across the camp and around the lake, finally reaching a huge, open canvas canopy pitched under the palm trees.

A petite, wrinkled woman sat very straight on ornate, black and gold cushions. Her indigo dress and regal bearing clearly singled her out as the Chief's wife. She wore little jewellery -- only a simple silver braided circlet, and a few bracelets that jingled at her fine-boned wrists. The old woman had the understated elegance and the quiet dignity of long-time shadow rulers.

"Hansil ab'eleth," Full of Sun said, bowing very low. "Honored Mother."

The woman inclined her head, and her son took a respectful step back.

This is White Stone, my venerable mother, the warrior signed for Iruka's benefit. Mother, this man is a son of the mountain clan.

"I know," the woman said, calmly. "I remember him."

It took Iruka a full minute to realize he could understand her. She had used mountain speech -- Iruka's mother tongue, which he hadn't heard or spoken, even in the privacy of his mind, since his parents' deaths. Shocked to the core, it was all he could do to hold back the flow of questions that suddenly assaulted his mind. He took a deep breath, collecting himself.

"I see you can check your tongue," she said, sounding faintly surprised. "Unexpected in a shar'ta."

"My mother taught me well," Iruka replied immediately, voluntarily overlooking the slight. His bruised pride could wait. Kakashi's executioners would not.

White Stone's stern expression softened imperceptibly.

"I don't doubt it," she said, briskly. "She was a fine woman, and a good friend. We were kin-in-kind, and grew up around the same hearth," she added at Iruka's surprised look. "I left the mountains twelve years before you were born, to follow a young desert warrior." She smiled, baring white teeth. "The Chief's son, my husband of almost forty years."

The shinobi nodded in sudden understanding.

"This doesn't explain how you came to stand before me," the woman pointed out, tilting her head to the side. "You look very much alive, for a dead man."

He had been dreading this conversation since he had left Konoha. But White Stone had known his mother, and loved her, perhaps. She had a right to know.

"When the Rock shinobi came, my father was out hunting," Iruka began, resisting the urge to finger the scar across his nose. "My mother hid me in a chest. I don't know what happened after that. My father saw the smoke above the village and ran back. He killed a few of them, put on one of their uniforms, and passed us as slaves. That's how we crossed the border to Konoha."

"Ah," White Stone said, thoughtfully. "Your father." A pause. "A man of the Others."

Iruka stared at her defiantly, anger and pride flaring.

"Yes," he snapped, more sharply than he had intended. "My father. A shinobi."

Unexpectedly, the old woman smiled. It softened her stern features and made her look slightly less forbidding and formidable -- more human.

"I do not judge them," she declared abruptly. "Your mother married for love, as did I. She had spirit."

Iruka searched her wrinkled face for some hint of mockery, and found none. Something eased within him, and some of the tension left his shoulders.

"Thank you," he said, bowing his head slightly. He didn't know why he wanted White Stone's acceptance. He simply did.

"Are they well?" she inquired suddenly. "Your parents."

Iruka blinked, caught off guard. Of course she would wonder, he berated himself. She couldn't possibly know.

"No," he said, curtly. "They died a few years later."

White Stone looked briefly disappointed, but not overly surprised. Still she bowed her head, and murmured a quick prayer to guide them in the spirit world. Iruka barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the superstition.

When she eventually looked up, the Chief's wife graced him with a pensive, oblique gaze.

"Surely you haven't come all this way, after so many years, just to chat with an old woman."

Perceptive and to the point, Iruka thought, amused. She would have made a fine shinobi.

"You're right," he conceded, with a small smile. "I need the clan's help."

A flash of surprise crossed her wrinkled face.

"Do you, now?" White Stone murmured, staring at him intently. Her dark eyes glittered with some unnamed emotion.

She knew what he had in mind, Iruka realized abruptly. She remembered.

"I must be allowed to speak with the Chief," the shinobi said, before he added, in a whisper, "Please."

The old woman pursed her lips. She sighed but kept her head up, proud even when admitting defeat.

"Very well."

§

Less than an hour later, Iruka found himself facing the clan's chief under the same canopy. Blackbird was a short, sturdy man, with thinning grey hair and pox-scarred dark skin. His piercing gaze raked appraisingly over the shinobi.

Full of Sun and his mother stood to his right, his most trusted advisers -- Wise One among them -- to his left. All except the shaman and the Chief's family stared at Iruka in unabashed curiosity, despite the sheer impropriety of such an intense scrutiny.

The ex-Hunter stood calmly before them, thanking his Hunter training for his apparent lack of nervousness, though he was trembling inside with sick fear. He had faced far worse enemies than a handful of Tribe warriors, but then, Kakashi's life had never hung precariously in the balance.

No pleasantries were exchanged. Blackbird was a man of few words, and had little patience for shar'ta. Iruka rapidly outlined the situation, revealing only what he felt was relevant. White Stone translated back and forth with sure skill, easing the conversation between the two men until they almost forgot they didn't speak the same language.

"Why should we help you?" the Chief said after Iruka had spoken. He sounded honestly curious. "You are not from this clan. We owe you nothing, shar'ta."

Iruka took a deep breath.

"You know why," the shinobi said quietly, turning to speak directly to White Stone. "Tell him."

The old woman wouldn't meet his gaze.

"Tell him!" the ex-Hunter ordered, his already frayed patience close to snapping.

Still she hesitated, until Iruka could wait no longer. He took a step forward and raised his head.

Blood-debt, he motioned decisively, the word raising a gasp among the warriors. A dark fire danced in his eyes. I invoke the blood-debt.


TBC

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