By The Stone.
A/N: Kakashi and Iruka. Could be taken as both shounen-ai or friendship. Depends how you squint. Dated one month after the Nine-Tails attack. Also could be considered canon, depending how you squint. Quite Kakashi-centric POV.
Warnings: it's quite dark and depressing near the start, but the ending is nice enough. I think.
Disclaimer: YES, I OWN NARUTO. *Thus tackled by lawyers*. Aww, apparently not.
The very, very first time Kakashi noticed Iruka was through the dark eye holes of his porcelain ANBU mask. The moment was fleeting, and wouldn't even imprint on the young men's memories; years and years would pass before they even met again, and by that time, so many other experiences would've scoured their minds of the meeting. Nonetheless, this is the story of their first encounter.
It was night time, a full moon, exactly a month after the Nine-Tailed Fox had attacked the village and had consequently been taken down and sealed up in the body of a newborn child. News of it had filtered throughout the village, but the ANBU 'Hound' was of the few who were there to bear witness to the final moments of the Fourth Hokage as he explained his suicidal plan involving his child, and was the only one in the group who was held back by the Third Hokage as he watched his mentor run fluidly to his death.
So helpless, so weak, so useless, so pointless. Again and again. It was like a loop that he couldn't jump out of. He couldn't stop Obito's death, his mother's illness was beyond his understanding, his father's suicide out of his control, and his teacher's sacrifice one he could not volunteer for himself.
The sacrifices great ninja had to make. The final adult to fall in his world that had attached themselves to his heart. His mother went first, only to be followed by his father, and finally went his greatest teacher. Even with the shining stars, the world seemed as dark as when the sky was a dark crimson stain of the boiling chakra of the demon fox.
How could one hope any longer when everything bad seemed to come to be? He wanted to cry, but even his best friend's eye seemed to have expended all the tears he could afford. Kakashi was only a dried husk of a human, and he wondered since he couldn't seem to cry for the fallen, whether he had enough water within him to bleed for them.
Truthfully, still in mourning, he doubted he would even feel if his body was littered with scarlet lines of dripping blood. Pain seemed to follow him constantly, almost—but not really—desensitizing him to it, his nerves taut like the chakra strings in the most intricate traps, and his body was heavy with a burden his small frame simply couldn't support.
It was all too much, sometimes. He was only a teenager, not even an adult according to official documents. However, he was more grown up than some of the adults that walked the streets, having witnessed more in his short life than some with entire decades to carve away. A lost childhood and a fast track to adulthood. No wonder he was so messed up.
The fact that he was walking from the funeral of his recently deceased mentor did not help his darkened mood. Only time could help. He knew he'd move on, somehow. He'd eventually stop thinking about the deaths of his family, his friends, his teachers. He'd someday have trouble recalling the details of the fox's attack, the clarity of his visions would fade as the years roll by. He'd come to stop waking in the night sweating and crying out for someone who wasn't there, grappling blindly at his sheets only to have a cold wave of dread wash over him. And someday he'd become a better liar, to himself, and to the world.
It was midnight, and the village was seemingly garbed in black for mourning; buildings everywhere were charred from fire, covered in a fine black ash from the billowing clouds of dust that seemed to finally dissipate, even the banners fluttering near the tower darkened with a spray of dried arterial blood, so dark that black wasn't enough a shade to cover it.
Not so startling was the lack of sound. A year ago, the forests would be brimming with an undercurrent of noise, an indication that there was more to the eye than one would think; the insects chirping, the animals growling, the birds cawing softly to one another under the cover of night. Yet since the attack, and the consequential burning down of many parts of the forest, so much being razed to the ground, the wildlife had either been killed or had scattered. Of that which had tentatively stayed were slaughtered for food for the starving masses, many of the farms losing their crops and their herds. Only now, a month later, was it all stabilizing, but the silence remained.
It had been hard for the rebuilding process. Many ninja and civilian alike had been killed by the fox, only for the survivors to face another adversary; food supplies had been rationed so thinly that many of the weaker had been on the brink of starvation, not to mention that the ash and dust had poisoned many of the waterways, so fresh water was a rarity, as even the storm clouds had held off from their area, weapons and medicine was in short supply, and still, men were being sent out to fight, to do their duty for the village, to complete missions for money so desperately needed.
The adults had gaunt faces with hardened expressions, and Kakashi noticed how after the first week or so, the children stopped crying and laughing. It seemed that things were taking a toll on the people, leeching them of any emotions apart from the drive to survive. So while the air was clear, there hung a dark cloud of turmoil that was only felt, not seen. So many were grateful to be alive, but they resented having to survive.
Weakly, he pushed back some frayed hairs, singed from fire, with gloved hands, the sharpened ornamental claws glinting wickedly in the moonlight. The tips of his hands were scratched and stained with blood that wasn't his. Not that he could remember whose it was.
He killed three enemy-nin as he hurried back from his mission to attend the funeral. Perhaps his technique was a little more grotesque and sloppy than was his usual standard, but he could not be late for this important engagement. He made it on time, but he belatedly realized that putting himself in danger with his rash moves wouldn't have been something the Fourth would've wanted.
Blinking several times in rapid succession, trying to clear his thoughts and moisten his dry eyes, Kakashi looked up to finally see where his feet were taking him. The undergrowth and path were more eroded than he remembered, but he was still able to recognize his way nonetheless. He'd traveled this way far too many times not to be able to.
If he could, he made his way to the memorial stone once or twice a week. Yet Kakashi had a strong inkling that with the onslaught of recent deaths, he'd have to make room in his depressingly empty schedule to go there more often, to pay respect to more of his fallen comrades.
A quiet sound that wasn't the muted padding of his feet stopped the ANBU clad teenager short. Dissolving into the darker shadows, Kakashi cocked his head to the side and listened. It was the dry whisper of a mourner, he realized. It seemed that he was not the only one to escape sleep this night and feel the need to talk to the dead.
Cautiously, he crept to the edge of the forest, and up a tree that had a clear view of the stone. Years of practice made his as silent as the brushing of the most gentle breeze, and he gave nothing away to his location. Sight, sound, smell and chakra—all were blocked or masked in some way. It was as if he didn't exist. He wanted to see who else was there, talking to the ghosts with the moon so bright.
He saw a small child sitting on his knees before the stone, his body seemed frail in comparison to the hunk of rock that loomed over him. Bathed in moonlight, he appeared more pale than he should, evidence of that being his tanned hand in the shade which was obsessively tracing some names carved into the metal plate on top of the stone.
From here, the ANBU's sharp eyes saw his hunched frame, hair thrown up in a spiked brown ponytail, the agony deep within the boy who remained impressively quiet despite the nonsense that dribbled from open lips. Garbed in only in fishnets, a pair of cotton khaki shorts and a matching wide collared shirt, Kakashi noted the child must have been freezing in the crisp night air. As if on cue, the boy shivered, thin arms wrapping around his torso in a defensive gesture.
"Mother... Father... I miss you so much... Mizuki says it won't hurt... Well, nothing could hurt as much as this." Kakashi strained his ears, and was able to catch fragments of his murmurs. This was a private moment, a moment of suffering and pain, something that he felt like he shouldn't interfere with. Yet he didn't move away from where he was perched on the tree's sturdy branch. A force greater than serendipity was keeping him in place.
"I will see you both again very soon," the boy announced with a voice of resolve, his volume slightly raised from his previous muted mumblings. Kakashi saw the boy raise his head defiantly, his shoulders slumping as if a great weight was unburdened from him. A flash of silver from a sharpened blade caught his eye and his body made the connections between the child's words and his actions before the brain did. It wouldn't be the first time he acted without thinking everything through.
Blinking dumbly a few times, he was slightly disorientated with the use of the Flash Step, something the Fourth taught him with fond smiles and warm pats on the back when he successfully pulled them off. Shaking his head of the thought, his eyes widened slightly with shock as he realized finally that he stood between the stone and the boy, his clawed hand grabbing at the tiny wrist of the boy who was seconds away from committing suicide, a silver kunai inches from his throat.
The blade felt from the slack grip with a clatter of metal to stone that resonated throughout the silent forest, a flash of reflected moonlight sparkling onto the stone. Neither boy seemed to be breathing.
Already pale from the moonlight and the cold, it was incredible that there was any blood left to drain from the kid's face, smooth and round with the features of a child still growing into his body, a scar crossing over his cheek, marring the perfect skin.
"Wh—wha—what are you doing?" For a moment, the boy seemed to have trouble choking out the words but by the end of his startled question, his volume had risen and his tone changing from scared to bitter and disbelieving.
"Saving you from a regrettable decision," deadpanned Kakashi in a dull monotone, who easily covered how startled he was himself at his actions, the mask helping as it hid his features, and his height giving him an air of seniority and authority.
"How do you know whether I would've regretted it?" yelped the boy, who seemed torn between deference to an ANBU black-ops soldier and anguish over his foiled plan. "That fox stole everything from me! Everything!"
"When you mourn death, your own mortality seems inconsequential. Sadness and pain lead to depression which lead to rash thoughts. Kid, you're not thinking straight," Kakashi said as he stared down sadly at the boy, who was shaking his head, tugging weakly as he tried to free the arm Kakashi still held.
"My death is inconsequential. I am alone." On the last word, the child's voice broke and a sob broke free before being masked with some coughing. "No one cares about me, and it hurts to breathe."
Crouching down, Kakashi stared at the other in the eye, surprised that child didn't cringe away from the sight of his blood-red Sharingan spinning wildly. "Name?"
Scrunching his nose which bunched up his scar, the boy looked at the older teenager with a suspicious glance before hesitantly answering. "Umino Iruka." Huh, Kakashi thought; dolphin. Odd choice.
"Well, Iruka," Kakashi said bluntly, "I'm alone, too. I've got no parents, no friends, and my mentor just was killed when the Nine-Tailed Fox attacked us. But I'm not going off to kill myself." Not that the thought didn't cross his mind from time to time.
Kakashi didn't miss the flinch when the demon was brought up. Every villager seemed to fear it even being mentioned. Soon they would forget the fear and eventually only the hate would remain.
"My parents didn't just die—they ran to fight it. I wanted to help, but they told me to stay back," Iruka started to hyperventilate. "It was their duty as ninja, but I'm a ninja too! I wasn't enough to keep them back. They died, while I was holed up in some shelter. I should die too!"
Kakashi summed up that he was a genin; his reference to ninja parents, in alignment to his age, looking only a few years younger than himself, not to mention the way he held a kunai that showed indications of formal training, led him to this conclusion.
Iruka was still struggling to breathe, his lips turning blue as he panicked, his free hand clutching his chest as panic seized his control from his grasp. Air was going into his lungs, but he couldn't seem to get enough of it. Kakashi had seen this before in comrades overcome by horrible, horrible things, and he knew what he needed to do.
Pulling his ANBU mask off, ignoring the way the kid's eyes widened, he moved in closer to the genin's face, a knee sliding between his legs, while his free hands moved and pulled his second cloth mask down and letting his nose brush Iruka's. His arms circled that of the smaller boy, Kakashi rubbing warmth into Iruka's frozen limbs dangling limply from his sides.
"Listen to me breathe," he murmured calmly, inches from the other's lips. "Listen to me breathe, calm down, and stay grounded."
Iruka nodded wildly, his lips still paling and the blue colour creeping further. For what seemed like an eternity, they sat their faces inches apart as if they were frozen in a moment before a kiss, even though there was nothing remotely romantic in the air; Kakashi simply giving the other something to concentrate on, something to help him calm down and breathe properly.
For the first time, he saw just how brown the kid's eyes were. They matched the cherry wood favored for desks, the tall trees commonplace around the forest before the fires burned them down. Around the pupil, the brown was a shade lighter, more like maple leaves in the fall as they crunched underfoot. He wondered how his eyes looked like at such a close distance—Kakashi wouldn't know himself, never favoring looking in mirrors or reflective surfaces too closely.
Just as Kakashi was feeling slightly uncomfortable with the way his feet were bent, Iruka started to breathe correctly again, rattling breaths desperately sucking up oxygen to his brain, his lips flushing cherry red, the disturbing blue draining away. He could taste a certain sweetness in the other's breath from the tip of his tongue.
Sitting back slowly, Kakashi replaced both masks faster than the human eye could follow. The ANBU trained his gaze on the boy who was tearing up, his cheeks flushed in shame and embarrassment.
"See?" Kakashi said, his monotone back in full force. "Not thinking properly. You're still mourning."
"It just hurts so much. Why does it have to hurt? Why won't you let me stop the pain?" Iruka's tone lost it's fighting spirit, and became weak and almost pleading. His arms encircled his waist again, and it looked as if he was trying to hold himself together, as if his stomach was about to pour out of his gut.
"It hurts because we love them," explained Kakashi, feeling an ache close to his heart. "The pain is a mirror of how much we care." ANBU were meant to be emotionless, but Kakashi felt himself slipping more and more.
"Then I don't want to care!" cried out the genin in an almost-sob.
"Listen to me," Kakashi said gently, placing a hand on the hunched shoulder closest to him, frowning at the way his claws clacked threateningly and the way the kid flinched at the sound. "I've lost many people too. Good people; people I was close to. Sometimes the pain just eats you up to the point where you just can't move, let alone breathe. But we have to survive so that they do, too."
"Huh?" Iruka looked up, his eyes desperate and forlorn, searching for answers.
"If you die, who will carry on the legacy of those who have fallen? Those who are buried six feet under are never really dead if we remember them. Their ghosts will haunt us, but at least they'll exist like that. And if they follow us, we may as well live a life worth watching. We mourn the loss of life, but the dead wouldn't want us to waste away our own."
"I've never thought about it like that..." Iruka muttered quietly, his hands rubbing roughly at his eyes, as if his fists could keep the tears at bay from brute force.
Honestly, Kakashi hadn't thought of things in that way either. Wording his half-formed ideas gave him a feeling of warmth in his stomach, a sense of closure, a burgeoning hope that things weren't that bad.
"And your parents, my mentor; they died fighting the fox so that we would have a chance to live," Kakashi intoned sagely. "It would be sacrilegious to kill yourself, to waste away their gift."
"You're right. You're absolutely right." Iruka rocked back from his knees and sat properly on his backside, still rubbing fruitlessly at his eyes, his head nodding jerkily at Kakashi's words.
Carefully, Kakashi grabbed Iruka's chin and forced his eyes to meet his own.
"Promise me you won't try kill yourself again. We don't need another body amid this carnage, understood?" A swift, albeit jilted, nod released a bundle of tension from the ANBU's shoulders, and he smiled with his eyes at the genin. "And soon, you will find someone to protect and die for, and you'll understand the burden."
Iruka visibly blanched at the thought, the idea of the future and later expectations a worry for any person. "Who do you fight for?" he blurted out rashly, suddenly, and immediately contrite seconds after the words left his lips.
"I fight for Konohagakure. This village and everyone in it. Including you," Kakashi said without hesitation.
"That's not an answer," Iruka mumbled almost incoherently, his eyes on the floor.
Shrugging, Kakashi replied, "It's true, but I understand what you mean. One day I guess I'll find that special someone, but until then, I'll fight to keep my home safe, and to keep myself alive so that I can meet them. Okay?"
Unexpectedly, Iruka smiled and a laugh bubbled out from his lips. "You're absolutely right. I've got something to live for; everyone does. And I guess... I guess I can wait to see my family."
"They can wait for you." Another weak bout of laughter came from the boy, and Kakashi marveled at the sound. He had not heard a child's laughter in so long. Actually, it had been ages since he'd heard any laughter at all.
"I can't believe I've just had my life saved from an ANBU. I've read about you guys in class!" Iruka sounded quite excited, if not slightly embarrassed. He rubbed the back of his head and tugged anxiously at the base of his ponytail.
"You saw my face," Kakashi warned, "but you can't tell a soul." It was all formalities, really. Not many would listen to the ramblings of a suicidal genin, if he did try to tell anyone.
"Wouldn't dream of it." Glancing at the honest face of the genin, he nodded and decided to trust him; a rash decision for a ninja, but he figured the kid owed him for saving his life.
"I'll leave you be then," Kakashi said with an air of finality. "And I'll take this, just in case you get second thoughts." Before the genin could say anything else, the ANBU disappeared with the silver kunai packed away, leaving only a swirl of leaves where he once stood.
From the edge of the forest, Kakashi eyed the boy who was looking around dazedly before turning back to the stone, his apologies quiet but pulled to him by the slight breeze that picked up.
"Sorry, mother, father... I will not let your sacrifice be in vain..." From here he saw the fingers tracing the carved letters with a care he saw between loved ones. The stars shining down seemed a little bit brighter than before.
Nodding once, he spun around and made his way back to the village, giving the boy some privacy. He felt oddly buoyanted as he ran swiftly through the charred forests, being careful to avoid weakened branches and wobbly trees. Only when he got home did he fully understand why. Fingering the silver kunai as he lay in bed, flipping it expertly in his hands, this way and that, he thought things over.
He couldn't stop Obito's death, his mother's illness was beyond his understanding, his father's suicide out of his control, and his teacher's sacrifice one he could not volunteer for himself.
He had the power to save the life of a small orphaned boy who thought the world was far too much for him, his loss too much to cope with. It didn't reverse the travesty of his life, but it made things a bit more bearable. He wasn't weak or useless. For sure, he had room to improve, but knowing that who he was right now was enough to save someone made a difference.
For the first time in months, Kakashi fell to sleep with ease, and slept without dreams. The kunai in his hand fell from his slack grip and into the gap between the bed and the wall with a muted thud. When the ANBU awoke, he'd be inundated with work to rebuild the village and paperwork to complete and his mind would push away the memory of the boy next to the stone. He would forget why he felt so content, but even that feeling would dissipate with the next mission he took, when he would kill a man with his bare hands, reverting himself to question everyone and everything once more.
And when he visited the memorial stone a week later, he wondered why he was so fascinated with the origami dolphin left beside it.
A/N: Was originally intended as part of another KakaIru story I've been writing, (could be considered a weak prequel to it), but it grew too long (and was a bit too dark for the fluffy angle I was aiming for) and took up a mind of its own. If you're interested in the other story I've been writing, it's called, 'Blind To Notice'. You can find it via my profile.
As to why Kakashi forgot? He was dead tired when they interacted, and he was just so busy when he woke from such a nice sleep. And come on, even geniuses would forget important things. [Edit: I re-read and noticed his Sharingan was activated... well, I doubt he recalls every moment he's recorded, so, eh. Let's just say I call creative license on this.] Iruka would remember this for much longer, but eventually his memory of the mysterious ANBU would be sketchy at best.
You've read, enjoyed (?), and if you could spare the time, review?