"If there be any truer measure of a man than by what he does, it must be by what he gives."
The night was bitterly cold. One of the two shinobi on guard at the massive front gates of Konoha pulled his scarf closer about his neck. He glanced quickly down the wide road and frowned; an odd mist rolled in, bank of pure white that grew higher and higher as it came closer, shining in the light of the half-moon. He shook his compatriot, who came fully awake and peered at the mysterious fog as well. They both started as something massive and dark seemed to twist in the mist, and two pinpricks of light appeared in the moving air, jade-green and set close together. They reached for their weapons and gripped them tightly.
As they were just about to sound an alarm, a worried voice called from within the depths of the low cloud.
"...Konoha," a man's voice said, sounding muffled in the mist. "Is this Konoha?"
"Yes," one of the guard-shinobi answered fiercely. "Speak your name and business!"
There was a long silence, in which the shinobi grew even more tense, and then a man walked out of the mist. Whatever dark shape had been writhing in the mist faded abruptly, and the shinobi of Konoha realized the strange man was not alone. Behind him, a slender woman came padding silently out of the fog, which began to dissipate as suddenly as it had appeared. She kept her eyes down, gaze on a small bundle cradled in her pale arms.
"I am Umino Isamu," the man said, his expression and tone very wary. "I seek asylum for my family here in Konoha." He motioned to the young woman beside him. "This is Ren... and my son, Iruka."
His wife, Ren, did not look up at all; she rocked the fussing baby in her arms, pulling the blanket over the little face so that the cold air wouldn't affect him. They were both dressed in fighting gear, and their forehead protectors denoted that they were from the Hidden Village of Mist.
"Please, allow us an audience with your Hokage," Isamu said; his voice was very calm, but his eyes were openly honest, and pleading. "We cannot return to Mist."
After a moment's hesitation, the guard-shinobi gave their assent; they found it was hard to look at Isamu's dark eyes and refuse. "Follow me," one told Isamu and he smiled his gratitude, putting his hand under Ren's elbow and leading her forward. They all walked in under the archway; the remaining guard-shinobi was the only one who saw when Ren raised her head and fixed her gaze on her husband.
"Will we be safe now?" she murmured, and a strange green light glowed in her eyes. "Isamu?"
"Yes, we are safe now," her husband answered without hesitation, placing his arm around her shoulders and when the guard blinked again, the green light was gone. Ren glanced at him, and smiled thankfully. She was very beautiful, and the guard couldn't help blushing.
"Our deepest thanks, Shinobi-san," she said with a respectful bow of her head, and then she walked with her husband towards the Hokage Tower. The green glow must have been a trick of his sleepy eyes, the guard thought. He went back to his duty, and the chill of the quiet night.
* * *
Naruto didn't know the entire truth about Iruka, and as much as Iruka hated keeping anything from him, this had to remain a deeply buried secret; his mother and father had given their promise to the Hokage and their unfailing allegiance to Konoha. He would not defile their memories and their commitment by just blurting out what he was.
Naruto didn't know. But... Kyuubi did.
It had happened quite by accident. Iruka had been doing some extra-lessons with Naruto in an attempt to bring the boy up to scratch; sometimes, he found that certain troublesome students did much better with one-on-one attention, and Naruto was no exception. While his attention-span was generally very short, Naruto was elated to have Iruka all to himself, and therefore paid more attention. Without a doubt, Iruka loved him. There was a part of him that understood Naruto's differences completely, and accepted him for what he was. Most people thought he would hate Naruto for being the container of the monster that took his parents away; for a long time, he did hate the child, but for what the Kyuubi had taken from him, not for what Naruto was. It would be hypocritical to fear and dislike the jinchūriki just for being the jinchūriki.
He had been showing Naruto a quick kick-punch combo, where one had to twist one's body in the air while snapping out limbs in a neat pattern. It was a move that Lee, Neji, Sasuke and Shikamaru picked up very easily; even Chouji showed a passable effort, but Naruto was too wild at times. He was getting it, though, and had been gleefully turning head over heels when he missed a particular twist and landed right on his head, crumpling to the ground.
Iruka had raced over to him, kneeling beside his still form in the tall grass. He focused his chakra in his hands, grimly staving off the panic rising in him and pressed his hands to Naruto's neck, cursing himself for not being close enough to catch the boy before he fell so hard. He was just ascertaining that Naruto was knocked out, and didn't have anything broken (or it had been broken and was now perfectly healed), when something caught hold of his chakra and yanked his conciousness down into what appeared to be a dark room.
Iruka stood still for a moment, composing himself; somewhere out in the real world, his body was just fine, but he could lose himself in here. He turned around and the room seemed to expand around him, the walls growing taller until he couldn't make out the ceiling hidden in shadow. One wall divided himself into bars and Iruka felt fear well up in him as a pair of eyes, bright with malice and mischief, slitted open to regard him.
"Ahhh," a deep voice rasped mockingly. "The young water-dragon pays me a visit. How nice."
Iruka said nothing, but took a step back, making sure he was out of reach if Kyuubi wanted to make a swipe for him. The fox had been strong enough to pull him in when Naruto was knocked out, but Iruka really wasn't taking any chances right now.
"I remember your mother," Kyuubi said conversationally. "She was powerful, but in the end, she was no match for me. She died protecting your father, you know, and a village that wasn't even her own. What an ignoble demise for such a splendid creature as her."
Iruka still did not answer, but he clenched his fists; drops of water gathered in his palms and oozed through his fingers to the ground, hissing into steam when they hit the stony ground. Kyuubi laughed with snide delight.
"You are not as strong as your mother... but you do have your own appeal. I could show you power beyond your dreams. I could increase your abilities. You wouldn't have to be trapped in the guise of a simple, weak teacher any more."
"You assume that everyone wants power, Kyuubi," Iruka finally said and backed away some more as the fox sent out a wave of aggrieved heated air through the bars of his prison. "I like being this way. I like being a chuunin-sensei."
"Then you are a fool," Kyuubi snarled at him, and Iruka found himself being hurtled out of that dank, foreboding space that was locked into Naruto's mind. When he came to himself, he gasped in the fresh Konoha air and was glad.
"My head," Naruto whined piteously, and his eyelids fluttered open, staring up at Iruka. "Iruka-sensei, what happened?"
"You didn't follow through the combination properly," Iruka scolded, helping him to his feet; he hoped that Kyuubi wouldn't tell Naruto about their little conversation in a fit of pique. He doubted it though; in the grand scheme of things, he was nothing to the Kyuubi's consideration, and he liked it that way.
As he put a hand on Naruto's shoulder and began to patiently explain where he went wrong, he decided he liked it that way just fine.
Mizuki had aimed to kill, but it took more than a monster shuriken to dispatch with a monster. However, when Iruka turned up at the hospital with a festering wound in his back, Toshiaki took one look at him and said, "To the private emergency room with you, Iruka-kun."
Toshiaki, a battle-scarred medi-nin who reluctantly headed the hospital, was one of the few people who knew his secret. Toshiaki had even treated Iruka's mother when she was wounded or ill, and his calm demeanour fostered the trust of the Umino family. Ren had even helped find water for the hospital during a difficult drought, pulling it deep from the ground and placing it in the large storage tanks on the roof one night; anything for Toshiaki, who had a face full of disfiguring welts and a caring heart.
"I'm fine," Iruka had mumbled, but he had obediently made his way to the rooms that Toshiaki used as his personal offices. His assistant Sachiko was already in there, quickly laying out fresh supplies and giving Iruka a small smile before he collapsed face-first onto the narrow bed.
"There's poison in the wound," he heard Toshiaki say. "Iruka... I'm going to need you to change for me. I can't do much when you're in this form."
Iruka sighed and closed his eyes, searching in his mind for the seal his mother had helped place on him. It wasn't a rigid seal, he could alter it as much as he liked, but he didn't like tampering with it too much. He reached out with his chakra and tugged at the seal, keying open the visual aspect that locked his body in a particular state.
"How beautiful," Sachiko whispered, and Iruka grimaced. Sachiko always thought that, and used to beg him to change for her, but after Iruka's constant refusal she had ceased. Iruka didn't like his body this way; he still had the form of a human, but his skin gained a blue-green tinge, thanks to his mother's blood, with a faint scalloping pattern of golden scales at his elbows and knees, and even over his eyebrows. He blinked rapidly, acclimating his now slitted pupils to the bright light of the room.
"Thank you," Toshiaki said, and pressed his fingers around the wound in Iruka's back; the act of pulling out the destructive substance hurt so much, but Iruka bit his lip and tried not to cry out. Helpfully, his mind shut down to block the pain, and Iruka went gratefully into the darkness.
When he came awake again, he knew that while he was still in Toshiaki's protected offices, he was not alone in the warm darkness. He turned his head and looked into the lined face of the Sandaime, who was sitting next to the bed.
"Hokage-sama," Iruka croaked and attempted to sit up. Sandaime placed a hand on Iruka's shoulder and squeezed. Iruka took the hint and relaxed a bit.
"Always so polite," Sandaime said with a smile, but it was a distant sort of expression. Iruka watched his face, certain that he wasn't really focusing on Iruka right now. "Just like your mother."
Iruka tensed up once more; his back made it known that if he did something like that again, he would pay dearly for it. Sandaime smiled again, but this time it was one that was all for Iruka.
"When I first met your father and mother," he said, "I must admit that I did not trust them. After all, they were technically missing-nin, according to the laws of Kirigakure. What would stop them from turning on Konoha?" The Sandaime's eyes hardened a little as he gazed at Iruka. "After all, your mother was... what she was. It would not have been far-fetched to expect her to revert to her true nature, and run a rampage on our village.
But," he continued, his expression softening considerably, "your parents became a shining example of fighting spirit and Konoha loyalty. After a few months, I was ashamed of my initial assessment, for they gave everything they had for this village, and best of all, they passed those sentiments to you." Sandaime rose to his feet and pressed his palm to Iruka's cheek. His hand was warm and dry, just like it had been when Iruka was just a mourning child. "You have made me proud, Umino Iruka," he murmured. "And have done the memory of your parents great honour."
Iruka's throat was blocked with emotion, but he managed a faint, "Thank you, Hokage-sama. It is but my humble duty."
Sandaime nodded and gave his cheek a gentle pat. "Remember: the measure of a man is not what he is, but what his heart is made of. Well done, Shinobi of Konoha."
As Iruka healed, he carried those words in his soul.