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Better Late Than Never, Or So They Say

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‘Better late, than never.’ He had heard the saying before, but in this case, sitting alone in the apartment he had shared with his lover for ten years; it was a knife cutting out his soul. “Why did you have to tell me? Why couldn’t you have just left me in the dark?”

He would never have believed he’d be the one wishing he didn’t know. He had always put so much weight on honesty, but in this case, the lie would have been kinder. It had been a lie by omission; and one he truly wished was still in place.

He sat in the dim light, clutching his lover’s pillow. Tears rolled down his face. Grief, loss, and humiliation warred inside his heart. The man he had loved for so long may never really have existed, and Umino Iruka may well be the biggest laughing stock in Konoha. Kakashi, Hatake would be remembered as a fallen ninja, a Jounin of incredible skill, and a former Hokage. Umino Iruka, would be remembered as the lover he had kept longest and loved publicly. He would also be remembered as the Chuunin academy teacher who was too stupid to realize his lover was a promiscuous cad.

The bastard had unburdened his soul of his sins in the final moments of his life. “I never deserved you, but I loved you in my own way.” After confessing his sins, he smiled and slipped from the grip of this world. His sins passed through his breath from his heart and mind, to Iruka, it tore his heart to pieces, and wrapped around his soul, crushing it, before pulling it down into a deep hole of darkness and despair.

You aren’t supposed to speak, or think, ill of the dead. You are not, supposed to hate a valiant warrior who gave his life for the village. You are not, supposed to have ten years of tender memories destroyed, by the knowledge that when he left you, it was to hold another. You aren’t supposed to walk around your hometown, and wonder, ‘is he one of them’, with every face you see and every person you hold in your heart.

Sitting in the Missions Room, he scanned the faces of all the ninja there and wondered, ‘did you know, are you one of them, did you ever consider telling me?’ Everyone treated him with great respect and care, like the widow of an exalted king. It made Iruka nauseous. Naruto, sensed something was wrong. He tried to spend time with Iruka when he wasn’t on missions, but he had become the ‘go to’ ninja for the missions that would have previously gone to his Jounin teacher. Kakashi’s death had left a large hole in the Jounin roster, which Naruto and the others were struggling to fill, while covering their normal missions. There were fewer nin now, and an even greater demand and need of them.

As he scanned the mission scrolls, Iruka found one that pulled at him. Carrying correspondence from the Hokage to the Kazikage would be perfect. It was a Chuunin level mission. It required strong use of jutsu and would not be so dangerous that someone might try to stop him from going. They all treated him like a woman in some epic tragedy who seeks her own death, after the death of her love. It was all starting to make him a little crazy. He set that scroll aside and focused on finishing his shift at the office.

Before he left for the night, he filed the paperwork, re-did the missions schedule, and arranged for another Chuunin to teach his students. He felt a twinge of guilt at leaving them, but it wouldn’t be for long. He just needed to get away from everything for a little while.

As seemed to be the story of his life, things did not go as planned. He was assigned a partner, a Jounin. He was not asked who he’d like to work with. That wasn’t how things worked in the ninja world, but the person he was paired with would have been his second to the last choice.

The last would have been Naruto. The blond was perceptive on an innate level and if they were stuck together on a trip like this, he would surely be found out and end up spilling all the horrid details of his misbegotten relationship; and waste of the past ten years.

The second least desirable partner for this mission was standing at the gate waiting for him, two days after he signed the mission contract. The Tokubetsu Jounin was tall and thin. His light brown hair was shot through with red and blond highlights. The sun also glinted off the senbon between his thin pale lips. It was cold comfort, that he didn’t seem any happier about the matchup than Iruka was.

He had often been assigned missions with Kakashi. They’d spent a great many hours together, alone. Had he been one of the many? Kakashi had not divulged any of the names to him; there hadn’t been time, even if his silver haired lover had been inclined to unburden himself of the identities of his many trysts before he breathed his last breath against Iruka’s tortured ear.

They did not speak the entire first day. Iruka was focused on their goal and adjusting to the road again. He’d been cooped up in the village for too long. Genma watched him closely. Iruka just ignored it. He knew, or thought he knew, what was going through the man’s mind. To everyone he had ever come across, he was surely just Kakashi’s ‘widower’. Iruka was a ninja in his own right, with his own set of skill sets well outside the scope of just being anyone’s widower. He didn’t need a Jounin, or anyone for that matter, to watch over him and he was almost hoping for a chance to prove it.

Genma took the first watch. Iruka made the decision then and there, if the man didn’t wake him for his turn, if the man insulted him that way; Iruka had a list of dirty tricks he was more than ready to use. Most of those tricks were learned the wrong way from his students, Naruto chief among them, but he realized now that they had a place and a use.

The tricks planned wouldn’t be necessary, yet. Genma woke him, as agreed. The man hovered over him for a moment, before Iruka opened his eyes. The expression on his face was a combination of anguish and another feeling Iruka couldn’t quite name. “There’s someone else out there. A small group of merchants from what I can tell, but you never really know.”

That was all the man said, before he crawled into his own bedroll, and fell promptly to sleep. Iruka was a little taken aback. Either the man truly believed they were harmless, even though his tone had betrayed a wariness that belied that notion, or he actually trusted the Chuunin to do his job. Iruka was able to quickly locate their neighbors, and kept careful watch; while the Jounin slept soundly. He tried not to think, but in wee small hours of the night, Kakashi’s whispered words returned to him. The sweet words of love and the confession of repeated betrayal. His feelings were still balled up in knots. He really couldn’t tell you, whether he was grieving for the loss of the man he loved, or the loss of the lie of being loved by the man.

He was grateful when it was time to wake the slumbering Jounin and head off again. Genma woke without Iruka even needing to touch his shoulder. It was as if he had felt Iruka’s eyes upon him, and awakened by instinct alone. They packed up camp and headed out again in silence. At first, Iruka appreciated the silence, but after a few days, it grew very irritating. However, he couldn’t bring himself to break the silence, so it dragged on until they reached Suna.

Oddly enough, the little band of merchants seemed to share their path the entire way. The group never passed them nor fell behind. That was the strangest part. The mission wasn’t urgent, so they certainly weren’t moving fast, but they were ninja and their moderate pace was much faster than any merchant could manage or maintain.

They didn’t openly discuss it. They just kept careful watch on their unwanted travel companions.

That was, until they left Suna with messages from the Kazikage to the Hokage; and their ‘friends’ followed along their back route. “They’re after something, and they’ll be coming at us soon.” Genma was laying out his bedroll, before taking the first watch as he had for the entire journey.

They were at about the halfway point of the return trip. So, it made sense that the attack would come now. They were far from any help or patrols. Iruka nodded his understanding. He had a little trouble drifting off to sleep.

It wasn’t until the next day that the trap had been sprung. “There are five more in the trees ahead of us. Two on the ground.” Genma reported quietly, without taking the senbon from his mouth.

Iruka grimaced, with a sigh he held out a provision he had fished out to hide their communications. “We still have the six behind us.”

Genma nodded and took the wafer. “They’ll fan out, but in clumps of two or three to give them the advantage no matter which way we make a break for it,” he warned, as he nibbled on the wafer.

It was a grim reality; they were outnumbered. “What do you think their ranks are?” He had to ask.

Genma frowned. “I think at least half of them are swordsmen, not ninja trained. They don’t move like ninja, too noisy and clunky. That makes it harder to gauge.” He gave Iruka a hard look. “The rest are Chuunin to Jounin level. This won’t be an easy fight, but I’ll try to give you a chance to get free.” Iruka started to protest. “Whatever is in that correspondence is worth them sending this many men. It has to get through. And I have a better chance of holding them off of you.”

It was a hard fact, but a fact nonetheless. Iruka bit his lip and nodded. “Iruka, there’s something I need to tell you; and I don’t think taking the time to do so will hurt us, much.”

Iruka shook his head. Tears rose unbidden to his eyes. Not another hurtful confession, he couldn’t bear the weight of another. Genma put his hand on Iruka’s shoulder to steady him; and to force him to listen. “Iruka, I can tell that he told you. I know the look in your eyes. I see it every time I look in the mirror.” Iruka didn’t look at him. “He didn’t deserve you. You deserved far better, but in this life…” Genma looked away, “we take what we can get.”

“How many people?” Iruka choked. “How many people, have been laughing at me behind my back, this whole time? The whole time I smiled and was so happy and in love… were you one of them?”

“I’d never laugh about it and I would never let the bastard touch me.” Genma forced Iruka to look at him. There was so much pain between them. “He stole Raidou from me; he stole the only man I ever loved. I wish it had been you. If I had only loved you, then Raidou would have had the one he truly wanted, even if the man was a lying bastard. I would have made you happy; you would have been faithful…”

“You and Raidou have been together this whole time. He didn’t steal him.” Iruka challenged.

“Raidou and I split up every few weeks. Didn’t you ever notice? It was only when Kakashi was in Konoha. He would pick some ridiculous fight with me, so he could break up with me; and then he could screw Kakashi with a clear conscience. He knew if he did it while we were ‘together’, I would never be able to forgive him, so he gave me an out and - and I took it like the coward I am.

“No one has ever laughed at you Iruka. Everyone either wanted to be with you, or they wanted to be you.” Genma pulled him into a tight embrace. “I’m sorry Iruka. I never told you. I was afraid. I was afraid that if you tossed Kakashi aside as he deserved, then Raidou would never look at me again. He hates you. He always has. He’s loved Kakashi, for forever. I never really let myself know how much, until it was too late, until he had fully captured my heart; and I was completely in love with him.” He stroked Iruka’s neck absently, lost in his own pain. “I thought, I could win his heart, his love. I really did, until I didn’t… I never knew which was kinder. Raidou picking the fights and breaking up with me for the duration of the next affair, or Kakashi never letting you know. They’re both bastards, but we loved them; and we wish we didn’t. I’m so sorry Iruka.”

Iruka was clinging to him now, sobbing uncontrollably. The dam broke; and his feelings just poured out. When he could breathe enough to speak, he asked a question he didn’t really think he wanted the answer to. “Did Naruto know?”

“Of course not. None of that bunch knew. Not as many people as you seem to think would even have ever suspected. And I’m sure the bastard knew what that blond baka of yours would do to him if he did get found out.” A weight lifted from his heart. He took a deep breath and nodded his understanding, overwhelmed by emotions again. He did love Kakashi, even now. He cried his eyes out for what had been, what should have been, and what never was. It didn’t take nearly as long as he would have expected; and he wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse.

They were making the last of their preparations, when Iruka placed his hand on Genma’s shoulder. “You know, I’ll never get through and make it back. There’s too many of them.”

Genma looked deep into his eyes and sternly hissed, “We have to try.”

Iruka looked at the man solemnly and informed him that “No, you have to try; and I have to stay.”

Genma whirled on him. “No.”

“Yes. You are a ninja, a Jounin nonetheless, and you know I’m right. You stand a better chance of getting through and delivering the scroll safely to the Hokage. I will buy you what time I can and take as many of those bastards with me as possible.” Genma moved to protest again. “Jounin, you will NOT let your personal feelings cloud this. You owe me nothing. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same in your place. Love crippled us both. Thank you for telling me. I feel better knowing… what you told me.” Iruka hugged him. “Tell Naruto that I love him.”

Two hours after he had sped away from Iruka, Genma heard the explosion. It was enough to bend the trees for miles. Tears streamed down his face as he sped away from his last incursion. There were still more of the marauders coming after him. He had to keep moving. He was a ninja, a Tokubetsu Jounin, and a very special Chuunin had just given his life so that Genma could complete the mission they shared. Doing less than succeeding would be disgraceful; and a snub to the sacrifice that had been made to Iruka. He would mourn properly later; right now, he had a mission to complete.

Maybe it was his heart or the adrenalin rushing through his system, but the world seemed to be a grimmer, darker, place now.