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Fine Point of A Blade

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               Iruka had always been terrible with projectiles. Something would catch inside him halfway through the throw, weaken his aim, make him second-guess. The frustration with it just grew the longer he was in the academy, watching his peers pick it up with ease. He liked barriers and seals, the power contained in words alone. Weapons seemed so crude and too personal, so he practiced as little as he could. He didn’t know why he cared so much now. Well yes, he did. That stupid Anko had made fun of him, told him the Hokage himself wouldn’t be able to pull enough strings to make him a chuunin. Unfortunately, that meant he’d had to set a seal that exploded powder that turned her entire body blue; his teacher had not been impressed. He’d made Iruka scrub the class desks all day today, listening to the boy muttering curses under his breath.

               Finally, when the teacher had stopped him, a hand pressed to the bridge of his crooked nose like he had a migraine, he’d finally just asked Iruka what the hell the girl had done to deserve being a blueberry for the next week. Iruka had spat out the truth quite rudely and the teacher had stared for a bit then simply said,

               “She’s right you know.”

~

               Iruka growled, ripping out the few blades that had made their mark haphazardly in the target, retrieving the rest from the surrounding low foliage that had seen quite a bit of damage the last hour. He walked back to the middle of the field, set his stance, took aim and collapsed to the ground. The kunai scattered around him and he dug the heals of his palms into his eyes. He knew they were right; Anko, the teachers, the Hokage. He was drowning, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. His anger was out of control, his pranks becoming more harmful and desperate as he failed to pass tests and learn new techniques. He'd started so promising when he’d been enrolled at the age of 6 and the shame of failing last year haunted him, kept him from focusing. It had been two years since his parent’s death and it wasn’t getting easier. The nightmares came every night, the pitying looks came every day, and talking to the monument was becoming more filled with illusions of love than any real relationship he had.

               “Your aim is shit.” A sarcastic, bored voice called across the clearing. Iruka grabbed one of the kunai, coming up and spinning around so fast he surprised himself, loosening the weapon while snarling,

               “Like I don’t know that!” Iruka’s body froze as terror gripped his heart. With claws. He watched a gloved hand deftly pluck the blade out of the air, bringing it up to a porcelain mask painted with red, waved lines. ANBU.

               “Not surprising, this blade was horribly made. I would have been more afraid if you’d been aiming for the tree to my left.” The voice was mocking. Anger and embarrassment were thawing the feelings inside Iruka, but there was still the glow of nervousness at being so close to such an elite ninja. Iruka tried to tell himself if the man, well he sounded more like a teenager, wanted him dead, he’d be dead already. But the boy was just standing there, looking at the kunai, mask moving to glance his way a few times, and he relaxed a little more.

               “That’s what the school thinks is good enough for students.” Iruka wiped a hand across his eyes, not knowing if he’d been crying, but trying to pass it off like he was wiping away sweat just in case. The boy twirled the kunai around a finger, stepping closer with such lethal grace Iruka’s heart began pounding in his chest again. The ANBU was definitely young, now he came to look beyond his surprise. He was tall, but probably only a little older than Iruka, his skinny frame chiseled with youthful muscles. The kid had to be incredibly gifted to have been chosen for ANBU so young. Iruka clenched his hands to keep from shaking, the boy cocked his head to the side.

               “Are you afraid of me?” The question caught him so unawares he automatically answered,

               “No.” A laugh was muffled behind the mask. Iruka smiled a little. “You’re a Konoha shinobi, I have no reason to fear you.” The mask shook.

               “You shouldn’t be so quick to trust.” A gloved hand reached inside the vest and Iruka tensed. Another laugh. “Better.” The ANBU pulled out a bundle and handed it out to Iruka who took it curiously. He flipped open the sides and stared down at 6 elegant and deadly looking kunai.

               “Try again.” Iruka looked up into the mask, so close now he could just catch a gray eye hidden in one of the eye sockets, the other eerily blank. A small shock of hair, gray despite his age, peaked above the mask. Iruka crouched, setting the bundle on the ground and pulled out one of the blades. Even his inexperienced hands could tell the balance was perfect and it was expertly crafted. Then a deep and old part of himself that had grown out of death and destruction wondered how much blood this blade had seen. For some reason, this was reassuring. This blade was supposed to kill, to be used by a ninja for a purpose. The school blades were designed to be safe. Being a ninja wasn’t safe. Iruka came out of the crouch swiftly and loosed the blade before thinking. Its tilt was off, but the thunk came right from the center of the target. He felt a fission of triumph, but shock kept him silent as the other boy strolled up beside him, hands loosely curled at his sides. He tilted the mask to look down at Iruka.

               “There, that’s not so hard.”

               “If I were a teacher, I’d get real weapons to teach with. Ours suck so much, kids get hurt and feel bad when they can’t use ‘em properly.” The ANBU simply looked at him.

               “Try again.” The next three were better than any of the throws he’d made with the school blades, but no where near as good as his first using the ANBU’s.

               “You’re thinking too much about the ending and not enough in the throw.” The ANBU quietly chided. He came up behind Iruka, so close he could feel the heat of the other boy. The entire expanse of his body broke into goosebumps and he tried not to shiver.

               “I won’t hurt you.” The teen said quietly, fingers moving to the back of the younger boy’s head, moving the headband he wore to keep his hair out of his face down, covering his eyes. The hilt of a kunai was pressed onto Iruka’s hand, the gloved hand running up the younger boy’s arm to clench at his bicep, moving Iruka’s arm up into a throwing stance.

               “Feel the way your muscles move, the way they tense along each moment of the throw. It is about repeating this motion over and over, not about where the blade goes, because when you know the movements as well as your own hands, the blade goes where it needs to be every time.” Iruka flexed his arm, trying to feel what the other boy was saying. Still holding Iruka’s arm, they slowly went through the motions several times, the steady hand on his arm correcting the path a few times. Then the body was removed.

               “Try again.” Iruka tested the new path one more time, recalling where the target was in front of him, and then executed the throw, trying to replicate the way his muscles had felt while the ANBU had been gripping him. As soon as the thunk hit Iruka pushed the headband up to look. He couldn’t help it, he whooped and jumped in the air. The kunai was almost dead center, the blade half-way through the wood. He grinned up at the masked boy, who tensed slightly.

               “You should be a teacher.” A startled laugh rang in the meadow and Iruka joined him.

               “Do you mind if I practice more?” The ANBU waved a hand towards the target and stepped back to watch. Iruka grabbed the rest of the kunai, slipped the headband back down and continued to practice. The ANBU was strange company and Iruka had no idea why he was here. He spoke often, to correct something Iruka was doing, to chide him, but never to give direct praise and Iruka found himself responding well for the first time to instruction. After another half hour he forewent the headband and simply focused on the muscle groups the ANBU had pointed out. At the hour mark he looked at the target in front of him, three kunai thrown with his left hand, three with his right, all dead center.

               “Wow.” He felt stupid for not practicing earlier, but he’d never been taught like this. He looked up at the teen next to him, the mask facing the target as well. “Thank you, ANBU-san.” The formality seemed to take the other boy by surprise because he gave a little jerk, the mask whipping around to look at him. Iruka smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner and wondered how long the kid had been in ANBU, if it was still strange to find himself addressed that way.

               “Hound.” Iruka looked around the clearing in confusion, looking for a dog. “Don’t call me-just, call me Hound.” Iruka blinked, looked back at the mask and realized it was indeed a dog mask. He wondered if ANBU picked their own.

               “I’m Umino Iruka.” He gave a small bow, much more formal than he was used to. “Thank you Hound-san, for showing me how to properly throw these stupid things.” Then he turned in embarrassment and ran to the target, gathering the kunai and bringing them back to the roll, inserting them very carefully in the holders. He handed the bundle to the other boy. As he took them, their fingers brushed and Iruka felt a blush creeping onto his face, which was stupid, because the boy had been close to him for the last few hours.

               “I should go home.” The masked boy nodded but didn’t move. Iruka took a few steps backwards, not sure why he was staring at the porcelain mask, not sure what it was bubbling in his chest he wanted to say. Eventually he turned and started towards the path back to his small apartment.

               “What weapons are you practicing next?” The question startled him, and he turned back slightly.

               “Shirukan.” His stomach dropped as he said it, his hand reflexively rubbing the scar on his nose. Hound nodded and then gave Iruka a slight bow and leapt like flowing water into the branches of the nearest tree, disappearing as if he’d never been there.

~

               The next kunai practice at the academy Iruka had to readjust back to the school’s secondary weapons, compensating for the bad weight with a little extra flick, a little more force, but it was still a vast improvement. Iruka’s teacher was so impressed he had the whole class watch as Iruka landed perfect blow after blow. Iruka felt warm with the praise and the awe of his classmates, the center of attention without needing any of his childish antics. Even Anko, now back to her normal color, slapped him on the back, laughing, and told him she just might let him be her boyfriend. He looked so shocked and horrified she laughed even harder.

               “Fine, fine, you can be my best friend then!” And when he realized he could live with that, he smiled back. For the next month, Anko trailed around with him, helping pull small, harmless pranks on their classmates, buying food with him, forcing him to come to dinner at her house. Her parents were both jounin, loved to laugh and were explosive in their happiness and anger, and they accepted Iruka like he’d always been in the house. Iruka had forgotten what it was like to have a friend, to have adults outside of the Third who enjoyed having him around. Every time he thought about it his throat constricted and he had to force himself to keep breathing. At first, he felt like he was cheating somehow, filling the loss of his family with someone else’s. But when he’d talked to the Third about it, the old man had smiled over the Shogi board and said,

               “Your parents would want you to be happy.” And Iruka found he was.

               He hadn’t seen Hound in that month and couldn’t help remembering the boy’s parting question. He didn’t want to think the ANBU had just been wasting time and Iruka would never see him again. He’d been strange but had seemed like he’d enjoyed their time together. Iruka thought, instead, the boy probably had a mission, little comfort as that was. He tried not to think of the types of things ANBU missions would involve and what they would ask of the young teen. You couldn’t rank up to ANBU, you were chosen for talent and abilities, you had to have a personality designed for subterfuge and lethal situations. After being chosen, ANBU were groomed to such a high skill, most villagers and even fellow shinobi treated the elite ninjas with awe bordering on fear. Iruka had always felt the echoes of that idea, overhearing conversations about the darkness ANBU members had to have in their hearts. He had a hard time reconciling that fear with the boy who had patiently and skillfully coached him with kunai.

               Late May Iruka found himself on one of the more secluded training grounds, early morning light filtering through the tops of the trees, a cacophony of sounds surrounding him like a barrier jutsu. He was wrapped in thoughts of Anko and her family and the strange ANBU, a shuriken lightly clasped in his hand, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw. Anko took a viscous pleasure in the weapon, loving that it had multiple sharp sides, winging so many of them at their last practice that Iruka had been able to be distracted with trying to corral her and only thrown two, extremely weak attempts.

               “You’re holding it wrong.” Iruka wasn’t as startled as the first time, recognizing Hound’s sardonic tone, but he still jerked around quickly in time to watch the teen flow to the ground like he had no bones. He pictured the boy having tentacles and he laughed. Hound cocked his head to the side, curious.

               “You have to be part jellyfish, the way you move.” The boy chuckled, stepping closer without making a sound.

               “It would be nice to not have any bones to break.” Iruka wondered how many the other boy had broken, his own and others. “Are you going to throw?” Iruka looked down at the shuriken, wishing he could drop it and never have to pick it back up.

               “Did a shuriken do that?” Iruka looked back up to see the boy pointing a finger at his nose, the hand moving closer to slide two fingertips along the scar. Iruka jerked back in surprise, his face heating, tingling where the boy had touched him.

               “Yeah, when I was young. I wanted to play ninja and I took one of my mom’s…” His voice gave a little and he turned away, so Hound wouldn’t see the hot tears in his eyes.

               “You didn’t know what you were doing then, you have training now.” Iruka sighed, he felt pathetic in front of the teen that had likely been good enough to be a jounin by Iruka’s age. He’d probably mastered every weapon as soon as he picked it up.

               “I don’t like blades.” He admitted, taking a deep breath. “I keep worrying about cutting myself. A kunai’s just one point, but this thing…” Quick as lightning, fingers plucked the shuriken out of his hand. Hound brought it up quite close to the mask, turning it a few times inspecting it.

               “This was expertly made.” Iruka nodded, this throat tight again.

               “It belonged to my dad.” He fervently hoped the boy wouldn’t ask any questions, he still couldn’t talk about his parents without that clawing, burning sensation in his belly.  But the masked boy simply nodded, gently taking Iruka’s hand in his own and Iruka tried not to flush. He placed one of the flat sides of the blade firmly against Iruka’s thumb, bending his finger in to grip it tightly.

               “Hold it firmly like this, it won’t move or shift, and it won’t cut you.” For the next few minutes he showed Iruka the range his hand had with the weapon, where the points would hit if he bent his wrist in a certain way. Then he moved Iruka’s arms again in the correct range of motions. The boy’s body was still like fire in its proximity to Iruka’s, but he was beginning to adjust to it and it embarrassed him less. Finally, the lithe body moved back and waved Iruka towards the target. Iruka breathed in deeply and threw with the exhale. The blade embedded, off-center, but still a better execution than Iruka had assumed he was capable of. He grinned.

               “You make it so easy Hound-san, you probably had no problem with any weapon.” Iruka blushed as he said it. The other boy shrugged carelessly.

               “Not my fault I’m a genius.” Iruka snorted, pulling out the next shuriken. He looked at his grip, adjusting it the way Hound had showed him.

               “Guess that explains the arrogance.” Hound gave one of his startled laughs, like he wasn’t used to people poking fun at him.

               “I guess a little.” Iruka threw for another half hour, getting more use to the blades in his hand and becoming less afraid. Then Hound moved his headband down and fear gripped Iruka again. He hadn’t realized how intently he’d been watching his hands pulling the shuriken out of their holders. He reached hesitantly to his weapons pouch.

               “Just be gentle, put the image of where all the blades are in the front of your mind, grip the blade how you need to before you even take it out, don’t readjust it after.” Iruka did as the teen instructed, fingers slow and questing. He jumped a little when he felt the prick of one of the points, but it wasn’t enough to draw blood. He carefully slid his fingers around the blade, gripped it firmly and set himself to throw. He heard the thunk but didn’t move the headband. He sent three more out before he looked. All of them were vertical, only two just outside the center.

               “You’re a quick learner.” Iruka shook his head, the rare compliment warming him, but it was more Hound’s instruction than his own talent. He gathered up the shuriken

               “Only with you, can’t seem to figure out what the teacher are talking about.” He took his place again.

               “Maybe if you weren’t so busy pulling pranks you could pay attention.” Iruka gave a start.

               “How do you know about that?” Hound laughed, more genuine sounding, like he didn’t mind Iruka hearing it as much.

               “The entire village knows about the terror that is Umino Iruka.” He blushed, feeling weird that this kid knew about him and he didn’t even know what the other’s face looked like. Instead of answering he pulled the headband back in place and took more throws, forcing himself to focus on his muscles than what else Hound might know about him. As the sun began to decend through the trees Iruka gathered up his things and turned to leave, giving the other boy a small wave. Hound suddenly asked,

               “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” Iruka was surprised, the tone was flat and slightly sardonic, but the question felt tinged with hope.

               “Yeah, I was gonna practice weapons some more and maybe some taijutsu.” Hound nodded, giving a flick of his wrist that seemed to be his version of a wave and then, staring right at Iruka, flowed up a tree like liquid. Iruka snorted.

               “Show off!” He called before running down the path towards Anko’s house.

~           

               Over the next few months, as often as he could, Iruka shook off Anko and went to the training fields. Hound would find him more often than not, willing to give advice on taijustu and genjutsu as readily as weapons. His sardonic commentary becoming more laced with witty remarks and more playfully joking. Iruka liked the boy, he was smart and a patient teacher, easy to talk to and easy to be silent with. He still got weird, tingling feelings whenever the other boy touched him, which didn’t happen with anyone else, so he thought it must be because Hound was, after all, in ANBU. Despite the huge difference in power and talent, Iruka considered him one of his best friends. He finally got up the courage one day to ask,

               “Will you spar with me?” The teen had stared for such a long time Iruka thought he might have stepped over some line, but then the masked boy shook his head.

               “Spar more with your peers, get more comfortable with someone wanting to hurt you.” He didn’t ask again after that. Iruka wondered sometimes what the other boy thought of him, why he kept coming around and hoped it was because he enjoyed Iruka’s company. He never sought out Iruka any time outside of the training grounds, but Iruka saw him around the village, which shouldn’t have happened. The first time had been while he was out shopping with Anko, he’d felt a tightening at the back of his neck like he was being watched. When he looked up to one of the shop roofs he saw just the outline of a shadow and the smallest glimpse of a red and white mask before the figure disappeared. He’d stared, amazed. ANBU were only seen if they wanted you to see them. Finally, he’d pulled his eyes away before Anko noticed, but the image stayed with him and the giddy feeling of his friend allowing Iruka to see him like that stayed even longer.

               Iruka started wondering if the teen was following him, as a month later he saw him in a tree just inside the academy grounds, then again on one of the roofs near his apartment building. He should have been terrified that an ANBU was tailing him, but instead he found it comforting because it was Hound. It was like having his own protector. But the knowledge that the elite ANBU could be anywhere, watching, made some of his normal antics a little embarrassing. He self-consciously pulled less pranks, or at least made them elaborate and harmless, rather than desperately show-offy. He tried harder in class and found that once he started paying attention the subjects became easier to grasp and his teachers seemed to warm up to him. He never got up the courage to ask Hound about the visits or occasional glimpses.

               A year went by this way, Iruka steadily improving and feeling more than ready to graduate, to finally get his own hatai-ate and a genin team. He’d become such a permanent fixture in Anko’s family that he had his own futon and plate set, not even minding that the set was decorated in dolphins, obviously Anko had picked it to rile him up. He’d also made a few more friends and talked to the Third in more detail about his nightmares and the kyuubi attack. But he never told anyone about Hound. The teen had never asked him to keep their relationship a secret, but he felt that ANBU weren’t supposed to interact so much with the public and that what they had was special. He looked forward to seeing the boy more and more and couldn’t imagine that being taken away.

               The spring before Iruka was set to graduate the academy, found him practicing genjutsu. Weaving illusions had come as naturally to him as barriers and seals. He watched the way a tree melted into a puddle only to reform again as clouds drifting up, rain pouring down, taking shape and solidifying into the tree again. Once satisfied, he moved through a taijutsu technique that he had been practicing with Anko. The tough girl kept him on his toes and made him more than willing to take the hits landed with precision and no care for how much it hurt. It made it easy to give as good as he got.

               High noon hit and Iruka had to sit, panting, under one of the shadier trees, wiping sweat off his face. He looked up at the teen lounging on a branch just above him like a lazy panther; all long limbs and relaxation, but ready to strike out with deadly elegance in the space of a heartbeat. Iruka felt comfortable, lying on his back and watching the fluffy clouds drift through the leaves, Hound’s foot swinging back and forth like a metronome. He focused more and more on the swinging leg, surrounded by peace, and drifted into a light, easy sleep.

               He came awake gasping, heart pounding as if it wanted to crack his ribs open and escape. Hands grabbed his shoulders tightly and Iruka clenched his shaking hands around steel-strong forearms.

               “Iruka-kun, are you alright?” He took a deep breath, his body saturated with adrenaline, making him feel shaky and disoriented. The white and red waved mask came into focus and Iruka remembered where he was. The heat wasn’t fire burning the buildings around him, the noise only harmless natural buzzing, not screams of fear and pain. He was on the training grounds, not struggling in the grip of a shinobi ripping him away from his parents. Hot tears dripped down his cheeks and he jerked away to wipe at them, but a hand shot out and grabbed both his wrists in a tight grip.

               “Hound-” He choked out but was silenced as the teen’s other hand gently came up to trail along his tear tracks, thumb brushing over the scar on his face. Iruka’s whole body shook, closing his eyes as the teen’s hand gently cleared the sweat and tears from his face.

               “Were you dreaming?” Iruka shook his head frantically, he couldn’t talk about it, not with the memories so fresh. Hound made shushing noises and Iruka took a few more deep breaths, relaxing into his friend’s hands.

               “Iruka-kun, how old are you?” Iruka smiled at the honorific, liking that the boy felt that comfortable with him.

               “Eleven. I’ll be twelve in fall.” He wanted to ask how old the other boy was but knew the ANBU would never answer personal questions, so Iruka never asked. He thought his friend had to be around 14 or 15. He held his body with more assurance than other kids Iruka knew that age, but his voice was still young muffled behind the mask.

               “I’m going on an assignment soon.” Iruka stilled, looking into the holes in the mask, seeing just that one gray eye looking back at him. Hound never talked about his missions, instead disappearing for a time and reappearing looking clean and healthy even if he was sporting new injuries. “I don’t know how long I’ll be away, but it might be a long, long time.” Iruka nodded slowly. They were both sitting cross legged, one of Hound’s hands still tracing the scar and the other holding Iruka’s wrists, gentle now. Iruka could pull back if he wanted, but he stayed, liking the contact. Hound seemed to be waiting for something. Iruka wanted to tell him to be careful, to come home safe, but he knew that the life of a ninja was never careful or safe and it would be an insult to suggest it.

               “I’ll miss you.” It was breathed quietly, but there was a sharp intake of air behind the mask, both hands moving to run down Iruka’s arms, caressing the bare skin there.

               “Iruka-kun, cover your eyes.” It was said in a strange, urgent voice, but Iruka did it immediately, sliding the headband down. There were shifting sounds of cloth in front of him, then gentle fingers, bare of gloves cupped both sides of his cheeks. He felt hot breath on his face before a warm pair of lips gently pressed into his own. Iruka gave a muffled gasp and jerked back, his eyes flying open, but saw nothing but the back of his headband. A pleading whine filled the air and lips sought his out again, kissing him again and again, sometimes hitting his chin or the side of his mouth. Iruka hesitated, his heart fluttering in his chest, but then he closed his eyes and leaned into the pressure, kissing back at the skin that kept appearing under his lips, hands reaching out blindly to grab at wide, strong shoulders. Hound pulled him up to his knees and into his chest, long arms wrapping around his back and curling into the short ponytail Iruka sported.

               With his eyes closed, Iruka had no idea how long they knelt there, sharing warm, heated kisses, Hound’s breath shaking almost as much as his own. When the air around them began to cool the older boy finally pulled away completely and Iruka gave him a moment to get his mask back in place. When he finally pulled the headband off his eyes, he almost couldn’t look at the boy standing in front of him, but his eyes managed to make the meandering journey up his lanky body to settle on the mask, back in place and passive, but the boy’s chest was almost heaving. Just like Iruka’s.

               “I’ve never kissed anyone before.” Iruka whispered. Hound laughed a little.

               “Me neither.” Iruka laughed too, out of nerves and adrenaline and felt deliriously happy when Hound joined in. When they subsided Iruka stood and stretched a bit.

               “I should be heading back.” Hound nodded and Iruka wondered when they would see each other next, if they even would. His chest tightened painfully, not wanting to imagine the other boy dying and Iruka would never know, never even know his name. Something seemed to show on his face because long arms came out and pulled him into a hug, pressing his head into the taller boy’s shoulder, Hound’s head resting atop his own. Iruka wanted to make promises, wanted to tell Hound he’d tell him about graduating, that he would love help with the techniques he’d be practicing in preparation, tell him how much every moment with him meant. But the words choked in his throat and he just pressed his face into the skin of the other’s neck, kissing him there, feeling answering kisses pressing into his hair, wondering when the boy had moved his mask again, but Iruka didn’t look. Then the boy was pulling away and Iruka could feel the movement of the body under him as he flowed silently up to the tree above them. Not only did it look like liquid, it felt like a tendril of water slipping away from him and he smiled. Iruka took a deep breath and looked up into the branches, but there was no sign of the boy. He turned to head home when a voice whispered out of the foliage,

               “I’ll miss you too.”

~           

               Years passed and Iruka could never quite give up hoping his friend would appear from the shadows anytime he entered the training grounds. He knew Hound had said it would be a long time, but what did that mean? He thought he sometimes felt his friend’s presence, eyes watching him from the shadows, but never saw the swirl of a white and red mask, not that that stopped thoughts of his friend.

                When he’d graduated and received his hitai-ate he’d thought it would be easier to tie around his eyes when he practiced and…did other things. He’d blushed furiously, which his teacher interpreted as nerves, smiling warmly at his silence. When Iruka’d became a chuunin at 14, he’d gone to the monument that evening to give prayers and thanks to his fallen family and comrades. He’d hesitated, but added,

               “Hound-kun, if there is no other way for me to tell you some day, then know that everything I’ve accomplished is because of you.” He couldn’t say more, feeling like he was betraying the faith he had in his friend’s abilities. But he’d felt better afterwards, feeling that whether his friend was dead, or alive but unwilling to show himself, he would get the message. He enjoyed being a chuunin, taking C-ranked missions and even accompanying some B-ranked that called for barriers and seals which he was more than proficient at, but there was something inside him hesitating. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. His parents had been jounin and when he was little that was all he could imagine doing, but in the fall of his 17th birthday, something changed that.

               He’d been called in by a friend when he had some down time to help shepherd a group of pre-genin through the forest as they learned survival skills that week. The kids were chaotic, loud, impossible to control, obsessive over strange details and looked up at him in awe and fascination. They burned with a need to learn and Iruka finally understood what it meant to pass along the Will of Fire. It was one of the most angering and wonderful weeks of his life. The next time he took tea with the Third, he’d said casually over the shogi board,

               “I don’t think I want to be a jounin.” The Hokage hadn’t answered for a while, taking puffs of his pipe and concentrated on moving his next piece.

               “What makes you say that Iruka?” Iruka hesitated, not sure if he could explain himself.

               “I was thinking of teaching.” He went with instead, carefully making his own move on the board. The Hokage sat in silence for even longer, the smoke becoming thicker in the room.

               “Children need a strong, constant adult presence in their life.” Iruka nodded, wondering if the Hokage was suggesting he might not be that. One of Iruka’s pieces was captured. “A jounin is required to take many dangerous assignments, take a great many more risks, put their life in much greater jeopardy, all of which I am sure you would do with pride for Konoha. I think you would make a wonderful teacher Iruka.” He stared at the Hokage for a moment, but merely moved his piece into a checkmate formation and the Third laughed.

~

               He’d only been teaching on his own for six months, accomplishing his student-aid training within a year of his conversation with the Third, when he realized that it was the perfect occupation for him. He had no stage fright, loving to be the center of the young attention, his voice was strong, his scolding and punishments creative enough to keep the kids in line and his teaching method seemed to be the envy of his peers. The hands-on assurance he used when showing even the most basic of skills got on well with the age group and he’d laughed to himself a few times. It had worked with him when he was their age.

               The summer after he turned 19, the first class he helped teach graduated, receiving their hitai-ates and Iruka thought he might actually burst with pride. After the celebration, worn out from receiving thanks from all the parents and congratulating all the kids, he made his way to one of the old training grounds he used to frequent in his youth. He smiled broadly at the wooden training boards, wondering if they were the same ones and if any of the holes were his. He began going through a complex taijutsu Gai-sensei had shown him, sweat forming quickly in the morning heat. He striped off his vest and undershirt, letting the light breeze cool off his skin. His moves became faster as his muscles warmed up. As he executed a complicated flip he pulled three shuriken out, sending them towards the board. He smiled in satisfaction when they hit their targets perfectly; spread at the correct intervals for a stomach, chest and head wound.

               “You’ve improved quite a lot Iruka-kun.” Iruka was rooted in place, like vines had wrapped around his legs and immobilized him, his heart shot into such a hard pulse his entire body shook with it. The voice was deep, much deeper than he remembered, but that sardonic lilt had lost none of his edge. He turned slowly, and a pale lithe body slid from the branches of the nearest tree. Iruka dazedly realized that the other had purposely done the same thing every single time they met after Iruka had pointed it out; waiting until he had Iruka’s full attention in order to show off. Iruka wanted to shout, he wanted to be angry, he wanted to run and hide and not face the joyous, billowing sensation blowing through his body.

               “Hound.” He breathed out. The boy had grown into a strong, wiry man. His gray hair much longer now, though not nearly as long as Iruka’s. The grace he’d displayed as a teen had only intensified, the man moved like every part of him was honed to a perfect balance. He was an expertly crafted weapon and Iruka wanted nothing more than to hug the stupid man. He couldn’t help the grin that suffused his face and the other paused, still a few feet away. Iruka was shocked to realize they were almost the same height now, he remembered looking up both from adoration and physicality to the other man. He swallowed around the knot in his throat.

               “When did you get back?” Hound tilted his head to the side.

               “Two years ago.” Anger did rear its head now. Iruka’s face screwed up.

               “Why didn’t you tell me?” He turned away then, moving to the board and retrieving the blades. There was a sigh behind him, which sounded angry too.

               “Why did you stop coming out to the training grounds?” Iruka looked around in surprise. He hadn’t realized, but he’d stopped making his solo trips out a few years ago when he picked up shifts at the missions desk, then he’d become a student aid and simply trained on the academy grounds.

               “You could have found me anytime, you know where I live.” He hadn’t meant to spit it out that angrily, but Hound held all the cards of finding him, Iruka had none.

               “I thought you stopped coming here, because you didn’t want to see me anymore.” Iruka’s vicious anger faded so quickly he sagged. The ANBU sounded hurt, like he was embroiled in some kind of emotional turmoil. It was the most expressive that voice had ever been and it broke Iruka’s heart. He wondered where Hound had been, what he’d been sent to do for almost 7 years, a time in which Iruka had never wanted to quite believe his friend was dead, but a part of him always thought it must be true.

               “I’m sorry.” Iruka tried to put the same amount of emotion into the words and he was startled when the man flowed into his arms, moving so quickly Iruka wondered if he’d used a flicker jutsu. But then there was that familiar heat and the smell of Hound, like wood smoke and dog, the same lanky arms clasped around him in a pressure Iruka would never forget. He buried his head into the crook of his shoulder where the mask and vest ended, slick skin under his face. It felt like they were kids again and no time had passed since they had been together. They stood for a long time, bodies pressing tightly, long fingers carding through Iruka’s loose hair. When had the man undone the tie? But it seemed to soothe him, so Iruka said nothing.

               “I’m retiring.” The deep voice rumbled in Hound’s chest and Iruka drew in a deep, shuddering breath. Ok, so one important thing had changed. Iruka knew and understood his sexuality now, understood the strange tight sensation of being around Hound when he was just a kid. The prickling sensations along his skin were no longer a mystery and he wondered how the man would react if Iruka couldn’t keep certain parts of himself under control. They had shared kisses, but over the years Iruka had wondered how much of that had been attraction and how much had been Hound’s desperation to not die without at least having kissed someone. Iruka finally got his brain to come around enough to ask,

               “From ANBU?” He thought he knew the answer and was thrilled at the idea. Maybe they could meet for real, would he recognize Hound? Did the man use any kind of henge? How well could they get along in the village surrounded by other people? He knew almost nothing about the man, what if they didn’t really like each other now?

               “Yes. I’ve been in for a decade and it’s time to become a real person again.” Iruka frowned.

               “You are a real person.” Hound laughed, a deep, rich sound Iruka could feel through his whole body. He had to step back and felt terrible when the man moved in quickly to catch him back to his chest, almost like he was afraid Iruka was going to run away.

               “Please, let me explain.” Iruka sighed, moved his hands up and down the man’s arms, trying to soothe him.

               “I’m not leaving, I just don’t like hearing you say things like that.” It was close to the truth.

               “It’s true though. I didn’t understand it when I was young, but I do now. I’ve been Hound for so long, my real identity has become a stranger. The few times I slip back into him, I don’t know what to do, how to say things. I want to know him again, and I want you to help me.” It wasn’t a question, but there was a searching, hopeful note in there that made Iruka smile.

               “Of course I’ll help, you’ll just have to-” find me. It went unspoken because Hound moved back enough to reach for his mask, beginning to push it aside. Iruka slammed his eyes shut.

               “No,” the man pleaded, fingers coming up to caress Iruka’s cheeks, “please, look at me.”

               “Hound, I can’t! ANBU identities are concealed for a reason!” The man chuckled.

               “I guess I’m as good at following rules as you used to be. You’re going to recognize me anyway, we know each other too well. You’ll pick me out in a heartbeat, but I want to show you this before it happens, where you won’t mind swooning at first sight.” Iruka snorted at the teasing tone. God, he’d missed the man’s humor.

               “I see the arrogance hasn’t changed a bit.” Hound shook his head, moving a hand back up to the mask, his other circling around Iruka’s back.

               “Can I-?” Iruka swallowed, opened his eyes and nodded. He had to bite back a laugh when the mask moved up to reveal a black cloth mask underneath, thinking the other man was teasing. But then he was staring into bicolored eyes, grey and red. Red with swirling black dots; the Sharingan. He suddenly realized he was staring into the eyes of Hatake Kakashi, Master of 1000 Jutsu, one of the most famous and honored shinobi in the village. Iruka felt dazed and was immediately grateful for the two hands holding him because he was certain he actually was going to swoon.

               “I’ve never kissed anyone.”

               “Me neither.”  

                Iruka took a steadying breath, noticing that those eyes looked wary and unsure. He smiled through his nervousness.

               “I think genius might have been an understatement Hatake-san.” He watched the cloth shifting, both eyes closing and crinkling under a wide smile.

               “Please call me Kakashi.” Iruka chuckled, but nervousness was throbbing through him again. He moved back out of the embrace, watching as Kakashi’s eyes opened in confusion and fear.

               “I just-I mean, I just realized I know very little about you and it feels, weird, holding you when-” Kakashi nodded, but seemed sad. Iruka looked around the clearing again and saw his clothing, only then noticing he wasn’t wearing anything on his chest. A blush suffused his cheeks when he looked down and saw only tan skin.

               “You’ve certainly changed a lot Iruka-kun.” He glanced up to see Kakashi’s eyes raking down his body. His skin tightened, his breath coming faster. There was heat in those eyes, an appreciation that went beyond mere curiosity. He wanted to be comfortable with this man again, but even more he wanted to touch him and be touched.

               “Would you like to spar with me Kakashi?” Those eyes looked up at him then, and Iruka tried not to squirm under the intense appraisal.

               “No weapons, no genjutsu or ninjutsu. Just hand to hand.” Kakashi finally answered, pulling a hitai-ate out and tying it around his forehead, covering the sharingan. Then he shrugged out of his vest and started unwrapping his thigh bandages, blades scattering onto the ground. Iruka crouched down to untie his own. When he looked back up Kakashi was peeling off his undershirt, revealing a long frame, lean and impressively muscled, crisscrossed with a complex mess of scars. Iruka could only stare; the man was very beautiful and very deadly. Kakashi raised an expressive eyebrow and looked like he was smirking.

               “Do you like what you see Iruka-kun?” Iruka couldn’t help but nod.

               “Iruka. Call me Iruka.” Kakashi’s gaze softened and Iruka realized how fond of him Kakashi was, had always been. It was heady and thrilling, but he couldn’t keep thinking about it because Kakashi had moved into the middle of the field and stood waiting. Iruka moved into position across from him, taking a defensive stance. They both seemed content to stand facing one another, enjoying the peace around them. Then Kakashi moved and Iruka suddenly realized why the younger Kakashi had refused to spar with him. Killing intent rolled off the man in waves that Iruka almost drowned in, but he blocked the hit on pure instincts he didn’t have at 11 and Kakashi jumped away before Iruka could come around with a retaliation. They began to dance around each other, hitting and springing away, Kakashi moving like flickering fire, seeming to tease at him, testing his boundaries.

                Iruka knew Kakashi was holding back, afraid his more rigorous training would hurt him. It fanned a fire inside him to show the other man just how much he had changed. Once he became use to the weaving pattern Kakashi employed for confusion, Iruka waited till the man came at him from the side, feinted a grab and when the other man stepped in the direction Iruka knew he would, grabbed his arm and flipped him into a tight arm-lock, Kakashi’s bare back tucked into his broad chest. The copy-nin laughed out loud, a joyous, full sound. His legs came up, wrapped around Iruka’s head and spun them both forward. The shock of his back smacking against the ground forced Iruka’s hands to open and Kakashi broke away. But after, the man seemed to take him more seriously.

               The sun moved slowly overhead as both men fought for dominance and hand-holds, laughing each time the other broke a hold or performed a tricky piece of footwork. Iruka knew his stamina was waning, while the other man still seemed fresh, barely out of breath. Iruka didn’t want it to be over, didn’t want to end this strange reunion with his friend. A knee came at him from nowhere and Iruka didn’t manage to get a hand up in time to deflect it and was pummeled backwards, jaw exploding in pain, stars bouncing around in front of his eyes.

               “Iruka!” Kakashi was at his side in an instant, helping him sit up. A hand caressed his cheek lightly, chakra pouring out and along the worst of the damage. The pain receded and Iruka took a few gasping breaths, trying to calm his nerves, looking up into a shocked and worried eye.

               “I’m sorry Kakashi. It was-too much fun, I should have said something, that I was tiring.” Kakashi shook his head, that fond look coming back. Iruka suddenly noticed every place the side of his body was fitted into the curve of Kakashi’s bare abdomen, the sweat coating their skin slick and sensual. Iruka squirmed, trying to pull away, but Kakashi held him tighter, bringing their faces close together.

               “I was having fun as well, I always hoped I’d be able to touch you again.” Kakashi’s face was right there, all he had to do was lean forward… “Wait, Iruka-” Iruka stilled, had he gotten this wrong? Was he more interested in Kakashi than he was with him? One of Kakashi’s hands came up to hook around the mask, pulling it down. Iruka stared, wide-eyed at a face almost no one in the village had seen. He was handsome, stupidly so, even had a ridiculously cute birthmark right below his lips. Iruka gave him a goofy grin.

               “Guess the arrogance makes even more sense now.” Kakashi gave a bark of laughter, his expressive face lighting up and Iruka felt like he might swoon again. Instead, he kissed him. But they were not longer kids, unsure of themselves and their bodies; the kiss deepened quickly, Kakashi’s tongue coming out to lick at Iruka’s mouth and he gasped, opening up to the other man, groaning when wet heat slipped inside. Both their hands moved Iruka around till he was straddling the other man, hands slipped up sweaty backs, moved down flexing, trembling arms. Iruka’s head was spinning, his body aching with the same desire he could feel rolling off the other man. He pushed his hips forward, erection pressing against Kakashi’s hard stomach. Hands flexed on his hips, sliding in sweat as he was pushed down and Kakashi surged forward, the length of his cock pressing into Iruka’s tight balls. Iruka groaned as they pressed and rolled against each other, hips moving erratically as they tried to find a satisfying rhythm. He broke away from the kiss, a strand of saliva connecting them.   

               “I want you, please god, fuck, please Kakashi; right here, anywhere I don’t care, just please.” Then he dove back in and took the other man’s mouth up into a kiss. Kakashi whimpered, hands tightening almost painfully. He pushed a startled Iruka back, standing them both up quickly. He flickered around the meadow, grabbing clothes and weapons, throwing some at Iruka, his movement hurried and almost frantic. Iruka tried to focus. Was someone coming? Had he pushed too hard? But before Iruka could voice his questions, arms full of clothes, Kakashi flickered to him, wrapped long arms around his shoulders and transported them.

               Iruka placed a steadying foot behind him as a room swam into focus. It was a single bedroom, lightly furnished, a few plants and pictures the only decor. Iruka looked around only once before all the items were ripped from his arms and he was pushed back onto the twin bed. Kakashi joined him only a moment later, pressing his chest fully into Iruka, taking his mouth up into another kiss. Iruka moaned as Kakashi’s body came into fuller contact with his, his hand slid down to fumble at Kakashi’s pants, the other man’s hands getting in the way as he tried to do the same to Iruka. They both laughed, Kakashi falling sideways onto the bed to get a better angle. They kissed lazily, a soft pressing of lips very like the first kisses they ever shared. Then hands were pushing pants down and heat was beginning to form between them again.

               Finally naked, Kakashi pushed away to look down the full expanse of Iruka’s body. The chuunin might have been embarrassed if he wasn’t busy taking his own fill of the pale body. Almost shyly, Kakashi shifted forward, bringing their hips into contact and Iruka gave a shuddering groan at the feeling of the other man’s hard length dragging along his own, the precum tipped head pushing into the soft skin next to Iruka’s hip. Kakashi seemed to break then, a keening moan falling from his mouth, pushing the other man onto his back and settling between open, tanned thighs. He pressed his hips forward, pulling one of Iruka’s hands up to his mouth, tongue shooting out to lathe at the skin, saturating it with thick saliva. Iruka groaned again as his fingers were sucked into the swirling heat of Kakashi’s mouth, not needing prompting when Kakashi’s other hand hovered over his own mouth. Iruka’s tongue danced along callouses and swirling fingerprints, not caring how sloppy or messy it was because Kakashi was moaning in his ear now, dragging Iruka’s hand down between their bodies.

               Iruka reached out, rubbing one cock then the other, wrapping his palm around both of them and beginning to jerk them off in tandem. Then Kakashi’s hand was pulling away from his mouth, joining Iruka’s and pressing their balls together, fingering their heads, running over Iruka’s swiftly moving fist. It was good, it was so fucking good, and Iruka wanted to stop and do more things, but he couldn’t stop touching them, couldn’t stop snapping his hips up with every other thrust and Kakashi was pushing too, kissing him again, whimpering and moaning against Iruka’s lips and heat was pooling in his gut, tightening. Kakashi gasped, hips stuttering to a halt, but Iruka was too far gone, barely registering the splattering heat pulsing across his stomach, because he was so close so goddamn close to it, and there were teeth, sinking into his neck, marking him for everyone to see and he was coming, coming undone under his and Kakashi’s moving hands and gasping up into the searching mouth above him and it was perfect, so perfect, so…

 

               Iruka peeled his eyes open, a hot heaviness draped over half his body. A wide, open grin lit up his face and he slumped further into the bed.

               “Hi.” A voice huffed into his ear. He looked over and into the gray eye of Hatake Kakashi, master of 1000 Jutsus, the man Iruka had just jerked off till he came all over both their stomachs. 

               “Hi.” He knew he sounded stupid and deliriously happy, but it was worth it when the other man’s small smile ticked up into a pleased smirk.

               “I’ve wanted to do that since we were kids.” Iruka let out a hysterical laugh.

               “I was eleven!” Kakashi shrugged, still smirking. “Oh my god, you’re such a pervert!” Kakashi just licked his nose and Iruka snorted again.

               “So why didn’t you?” Kakashi cocked an eyebrow.

               “You were eleven.” Iruka rolled his eyes, pushing at Kakashi’s shoulder so he could move in closer.

               “A gentleman pervert then.” Kakashi laughed, low and deep and Iruka felt himself relaxing at the sound. “I wanted you too, but I didn’t know what it meant.” Kakashi just nodded, trialing a hand lazily up Iruka’s back.

               “I wanted to keep you.” Kakashi said it very quietly and Iruka felt that hot, glowing sensation in his chest again. He leaned forward to just brush a kiss against Kakashi’s mouth.

               “And now?” The other man rolled them until he was raised up above Iruka, fingers caressing along Iruka’s scar.

               “I intend to.”