A/N: Am I actually doing this? …Yes. Yes I am.

This crosses the AU line in a way that 'Pieces' never did. I deliberately wrote Pieces so it sat in the middle arc as a thing that could have happened when you weren't looking. This was planned many many chapters back in the manga, about the time of Asuma's death, and the plot has not changed since and must, as a result, be AU.

Which is fine, I suppose. I'm still going to aim for a sort of 'it could have gone that way' feeling.

The title comes from song that sort of spurred me to get back in to this: "The Riddle" from The Scarlet Pimpernel (Broadway Musical).

Disclaimer: I still don't own these guys, despite some claims to the contrary.

Warnings: Slash, and lots of it, but—as usual—that isn't the focus of this story. Maybe some NaruHina or TsunaJira if I can squeeze it in. Don't hold your breath, though.

Summary: Sometimes, you must give up what is most precious in order to save it. AU-Sequel to 'All The Broken Pieces'.

Falling Like Stars
By: Reggie

Chapter 1

Iruka's hand wasn't trembling as he pushed open Tsunade's door, and he thought it was strange that he even noticed the lack of it. There was no logical reason he should be nervous about going and seeing the Hokage. Maybe they weren't as close as Iruka had been to Sandaime, but she had always been decently nice to him.

The only reason he could see that the oddness of the LACK of trembling had crossed his mind was this horrible sense of foreboding he hadn't been able to shake all week. There was no explanation for it, the people he cared the most about were all safely in the village, but still…

Tsunade glanced up at him, her eyes wooden and somehow cold. He'd never missed Sandaime's warm eyes more than that moment. "Have a seat, Iruka-sensei."

He did as instructed, dropping silently into the hard-backed chair on the other side of the paperwork laden desk. "You wanted to see me, Hokage-sama?"

The papers rustled slightly as Godaime leaned forward on her elbows. "You aren't going to like what I have to tell you."

Iruka's eyes blinked at her stupidly without his permission. This didn't bode well. But he couldn't think of what it was she might say to him that he wouldn't like. Naruto was back from his training, stronger than ever, and safe here. Kakashi was safe here, and Sakura. No one he knew had even been out on a mission in the last week or so.

Tsunade leaned back in her chair, squaring her shoulders and frowning at him. "I have a mission for you, Iruka."

"Me?" It was a childish thing to say, but he couldn't help the surprise. Chuunin sensei did not get missions handed down to them directly from the Hokage. They just didn't. And, yes, he'd been on more A-ranked missions than other chuunin his age but a surprising number of those had been as a genin, and Kakashi had begged him not to advance his rank to avoid missions that came down direct from the Hokage.

Tsunade knew this last part, of course. She knew much more than he let anyone know, and this was probably the reason she chose to ignore his innocent sounding surprise. Instead she stood and started pacing. Do you know what day is fast approaching, Iruka-sensei?"

The chuunin suppressed a snort. Friday, the end of the month, Christmas—all of those would have been equally as appropriate answers to that question as whatever Godaime was fishing for. "No, Hokage-sama."

"How long has it been since Sasuke left?"

All of Iruka's insides twisted unpleasantly and froze there. He could even feel all the blood draining from his face, racing to his toes. "It's been nearly three years…"

Tsunade nodded, walking back from the window to her desk. "I don't need to tell you what this means, do I, Iruka-sensei?"

"No, Hokage-sama," his voice was barely more than a half-whisper. He knew only too well that Orochimaru could take a new body only every three years. Sasuke…

"It says here," Tsunade sat down and picked up a specific, surprisingly thin, folder that was sitting at the top of the pile, "that you, Anko, and Hayate had a way to find Orochimaru, if the need was dire."

Iruka visibly startled, and his eyes flashed defensively. "We offered, before, to help Sandaime find him. We weren't keeping it a secret. He just turned us down every time we offered."

"There were others on the job at the time," Tsunade conceded, her voice neutral. "But those resources have since been diverted to keeping track of the movements of Akatsuki. Until now, they have been the biggest threat to our village. However, if Orochimaru gets his hands on a body with the Sharingan…"

It was a scenario Iruka had gone over in his head a thousand times since the chuunin exams, when Sandaime had called him in to watch Sasuke's fight and see if the seal was at all similar to what Orochimaru had been working on before he left—if he had any ideas what they could do about it. He would come after Konoha, and with that power there would be no one that could stop him.

Iruka swallowed thickly against the sudden dryness of his throat, and he had to take a deep breath before he could speak again. "What is it you need me to do, Hokage-sama?"

"The impossible." She smiled, but it looked oddly out of place on her face in that moment. The smile of the dead. "Orochimaru needs to be stopped, and Sasuke either brought back or killed, before the transformation can take place. I've looked at every possible solution. Sandaime believed that what about to suggest was the most likely solution, to be used only in the worst case scenario. I agree with him."

A fragmented flash of memory, of this same office what seemed a life time ago. Sarutobi's kind voice, so sad with worry. 'If the worst happens, and Sasuke chooses to join Orochimaru, what do you think we should do, Iruka?'

"You are the one most likely to complete this mission successfully, Iruka-sensei." Tsunade was looking at him over the steeple tips of her fingers, gauging his reaction.

Iruka blanched, suppressing something that was half a gasp and half a wave of nausea. "What is this mission, exactly, Hokage-sama?"

Her mouth was a thin line as she lowered her hands. It looked as if someone had placed too much weight on her shoulders, and she couldn't seem to hold even her head up anymore. "Know this, Iruka. No one can know about this as a mission. If anyone asks me, it is your idea and your actions only. I cannot tell them differently, for your safety and ours."

Unofficial missions were always the worst. Kakashi had been on a few, when he'd disappeared for weeks and then been unable to mention where he'd gone. There had been weeks of nightmares after those missions.

But what could he say? Tsunade had already said that whatever she wanted him to was most likely the best solution. That Sarutobi-sama had thought so. He may not yet know their current Hokage very well, but he trusted Sandaime explicitly. If this had been his plan, he could go with it. "What do I need to do, Hokage-sama?"

For the first time, her eyes looked sad. "I need you to defect from the village, convince Orochimaru you are joining him, and do whatever has to be done to stop the body transfer."

There was a beat as what she said sunk into Iruka's mind, during which he stared at her dumbly. He snapped his jaw shut audible. "What?"

Tsunade shuffled her papers again, waiting for…what, exactly, he didn't know.

There had to be a level the Hokage could not ask you to go, and this HAD to be it. Leave his home, his students, his…everything…here? To what? To try and take on Orochimaru ALONE? Was this woman mad?

He closed his eyes and forced down his immediate panic to really think about what she wanted. She was asking him to convince Orochimaru that he was going to join him. Iruka had never, in his childhood, outright defied Orochimaru in the way that Anko had—that Hayate had when he'd gone to get Anko back.

All three of them had received spookily anonymous notes with detailed instructions on how to find their former sensei if they ever chose, but Iruka was the only one that might even seem plausible.

And it had to be him for the note to work. It required his blood.

And the point wasn't even so much to defeat Orochimaru. If he got Sasuke away from the man, he would still be powerful, but it was a level of power they could deal with. Iruka held no illusions about his ability to kill the little boy who would so often stay late at the academy simply because he had nowhere else he needed to be. It would be unlikely, for a combination of reasons, that he could kill the boy.

But maybe he could make Sasuke understand that Iruka had seen this path, walked it himself, and knew where it would end. He had always been good at negotiating; it was one of his strongest points.

This was a desperate attempt, but a logical one. It maximized the results if successful, minimized the ninja risked to only himself, and still left opportunity for another strike if he failed.

And yet…"I can't tell Naruto, or Kakashi, or anyone?"

Tsunade closed her eyes and gave the tiniest shake of her head. "The more people that know, the greater chance of it being leaked, however unintentionally. For your safety, we must make your departure as real as possible. You are well aware of the consequences if Orochimaru should discover your ruse."

Iruka couldn't help but shudder. Death would be the best he could hope for then. "You'll be sending ANBU after me then?"

"Someone on the squad will know that this is a mission, though no details beyond that, to best assure your safety. However, he or she cannot prevent the others from stopping you, so I suggest you lose them as quickly as possible." Godaime opened her eyes again, folding her arms below her chest. "I trust you'll be able to think of something."

He sure hoped so, although dying at the hands of his comrades certainly had some appeal over what would lie ahead of him. "Can I request Genma be the one in on the ruse, Hokage-sama? He and Kakashi have a good relationship. Kakashi will believe whatever it is Genma tells him, without the same need for proof he would demand of anyone else."

Tsunade nodded, seeming to take this advice in to account.

The thought of leaving Kakashi behind like this nearly made Iruka choke on his own bile. They had been together almost eighteen months now, and knowing that he would be one more ghost for Kakashi to visit, if he even would after…it made his insides ache in a way they had not since he'd lost his parents. It was possible, probable, that once he left the village he would never see Kakashi again.

Iruka's hands were shaking now.

How could he leave them all behind? Now, when he finally had someone to hold on to? When Naruto had just gotten back? They were his family, everything to him! Kakashi didn't deserve this kind of pain in his life, after having lost so much. And Naruto…who would feed him now? Who would make sure to fix his hot water when someone sabotaged it, or make sure the boy had enough blankets? There was almost no one else in the village who would think, who would care, about the boy. How could he hurt them so badly, betray them?

And yet, to protect them, how could he not? He really was the best shot for success. "I will accept the mission, Hokage-sama."

Her smile looked painful now, and there was something angry in her eyes that Iruka could not quite explain. "I knew you would."