Honokuni Monogatari - “Fire Country Stories”
Hanekaeri - “the Rebound”
A Naruto Fanfiction by Aoikami Sarah
Note: If you are familiar with the actor Hugh Grant, imagine him in the role of Iruka… or even Iruka playing Hugh Grant.
~ PREFACE ~
He wasn’t the best shinobi in the village. He was, by all accounts, average: a Chuunin but never a captain, versed in several jutsu but nothing exotic or forbidden. He had no advanced bloodline or special powers. His clan was neither noteworthy nor prolific but he was one of the kindest people Uzuki Yuugao had ever met.
His warm smile and affection towards his students attested to the goodness of his soul. Sometimes, he reminded Yuugao a great deal of Gekkou Hayate.
She had known Hayate’s sweet smile, his caring ways. She never thought anyone could fill the void he left when he died…
…Until she met Umino Iruka.
It was still a few days until the third Chuunin exam. The lounge was a buzz with rumors and bets as to who would prevail. Most of the talk was light and friendly. They were trying not to dwell on the heavy atmosphere surrounding the tests. All Jounin and Anbu had been on high alert since Hokage-sama informed them of S-Class criminal Orochimaru’s presence in Konoha. Though most of them could not understand why they weren’t told to find and eliminate him they were loyal to their Hokage and waited for his orders.
The call to a meeting was not uttered but visually communicated. Heads looked up, conversations stopped. Yuugao stifled a giggle at a companion’s joke and nodded. They were to see Hokage-sama immediately.
Anbu and Jounin and even a few Chuunin selected to be on the task force met in the leader’s chambers. The only sound the rustling of canvas or the idle scuffing of a sandal. Hokage entered and cleared his throat.
“If we were on high alert before, that status has been elevated. It seems someone got to close to something we are not to know. We have lost one of our nin.”
Hands clenched, teeth gritted. Someone used Orochimaru’s name as curse. Yuugao scanned the room for her lover. There were so many nin crammed into the tight space, she couldn’t pick him out.
“No knowledge was gained, unfortunately,” Sandaime continued, “but we must not let this intimidate us. Every one of you is to never be alone from now on. You will travel in groups of two or more. The rest of the emergency plan already in place remains the same. You are dismissed.
“Uzuki Yuugao, please remain…” he added. She froze in place. People moved around her. Their voices returned, but she could no longer hear them. She stared at her leader and read his kind eyes.
“It’s Hayate, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m sorry, Yuugao.” Sandaime nodded, but didn’t take his eyes off of her. How many times had he been the bearer of such news? He could no longer keep count. ‘It will never end,’ he thought. ‘Such eyes like hers, I will never stop seeing them so long as men like Orochimaru exist.’
Finding her voice again she asked, “Was it quick?” The tears brimmed over, but her words were clear. “Did he suffer?”
“I don’t believe he could have,” Sandaime answered, careful to avoid describing the grisly wound that ran from his shoulder to his pelvis. “His murderer has not been found.”
“This is war, right, Hokage-sama?” Yuugao looked to the floor. “He wasn’t murdered. He was killed in the line of duty.”
“Yes.” Sandaime watched her as she walked to the door. “He will be honored as one of this gakure’s heros.”
“That’s good. He’d like that.” The door closed behind her and she ran down the hall, her footsteps’ echo like a heartbeat inside a metal cage.
There wasn’t time to grieve.
War hovered over Konoha like haze on a mid-August morning.
It started in the middle of a Chuunin selection match. Only then did the Leaf learn it was not solely Orochimaru and the Sound ninja they were fighting, but the Sand as well.
Yuugao and three other Anbu set out on their mission, but first, she had to pay her respects. She had not yet visited the memorial. His funeral had been hard enough. As per his will, Hayate was cremated and his ashes scattered in the lush Fire Country forest. His friends and family were devastated to lose him, but all around, their eyes shared a certain relief; he had gone quickly. They had that to be thankful for.
Yuugao knelt before the memorial and brushed her gloved fingers over the sharp, new engraving that read ‘Gekkou Hayate’. “You shall be avenged,” she whispered, her brows arched with sorrow.
“Let’s go,” the taller of her companions ordered. Now was not the time for emotion.
Yuugao’s expression went blank. She nodded and put on her assassin’s mask. “Yes,” the assassin answered and they vanished.
Nearly 10 years ago, Yuugao had wanted to become not an assassin but a medical ninja. She worked in the hospital as a candy striper, assisting the nurses and seeing to the patients’ basic needs. One afternoon she was chatting idly with a nurse when a young man was being wheeled down a hall on a gurney. He was unconscious. A drip hung from the pole attached to the gurney; nothing out of the ordinary for a hospital, but then someone said, “ah, he’s back again,” and still unconscious, Gekkou Hayate entered Uzuki Yuugao’s life.
“Again?” she asked, innocently.
“Yeah. Poor kid. He’s one of those Gekkous.”
“What’s a Gekkou?”
The nurse laughed at that. “It’s this unfortunate clan. Most of the members inherit a degenerative disease. They’re really nice folks, but they don’t last long.”
Yuugao was already wandering away, following the gurney as it turned into a recovery room. When the doctor left the room she sneaked in and looked at his chart. He was only 20 she read, but having hardly even a basic knowledge of medical terminology; words like ‘dyspnea’ and ‘edema’ meant nothing to her.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” *cough, cough* his soft, cool voice startled her. The clipboard clattered to the ground.
“I... I’m sorry!” Yuugao cried and clumsily put the chart back where it belonged. “I shouldn’t…” She started to back out.
“It’s all right.” He smiled softly. *cough, cough* “Please don’t run away. It’s really all right. I’m not contagious.”
His smile drew her back into the room. Sadness radiated from him as if the smile were nothing more than a mask. “What are you here for?” she asked, touching the unintelligible chart.
“Congestive heart failure,” he answered, laying the hand without the IV across his heart. “Both sides.”
“That’s horrible!” Yuugao gasped. “Does that mean… you’re dying?”
He laughed and coughed a little. “Aren’t we all?”
There it was. If she looked above the smile and into his eyes, the sadness burned there like a candle guttering before it went out. “No,” she whispered. “We’re all living.” She took the visitor’s seat and sat with him for most of the afternoon.
In the melee it was hard to tell just who was winning. Yuugao bounded off walls and sprinted through the streets, her katana touching everything not wearing Konoha’s symbol in sight. As an Anbu, Yuugao was one of the best: a cold, calculating killer. Her job was not to protect or defend but to attack. She had yet to take damage as so many other Leaf nin fell around her.
After nearly an hour of intense fighting, a sharp, high-pitched whistle told them it was over. Yuugao panted and looked around through the slits in her mask. Two Leaf Anbu helped each other to stand, but as far as she could see there were nothing but enemy bodies. It always took a little while for her to come back to reality after a good fight, but this had been an unusually arduous battle. She sank to her knees into a puddle of blood.
“Tori-san,” a familiar voice called from behind. “You hurt?” The large Anbu man squatted down next to her.
“No,” she raised her bird mask. “Just spent.”
He gave her a hand getting up. “Better mask back up,” he advised. “Something’s wrong over at the coliseum.”
“It’s not over, yet, eh?”
“I think it is…” His voice was tinged with worry.
In just a few hours, the war was over. Historically, it would be known as the “Chuunin Exam War” but it might just as well have been called the “War of One Afternoon.” The Leaf showed its strength to the world that day by defeating two other hidden villages before the sun set.
The challenge before them was to remain strong in its wake. This was a difficult task, especially without an Hokage.
No one could believe he was dead. Some had not even known he fought against one of his former students. The rumor was that Sandaime didn’t go down easily and that Orochimaru was forced to retreat. Despite the victory, the Leaf mourned the loss of its leader as if its collective father had been killed.
Yuugao was surprised to find him at the memorial on the day of Sandaime’s funeral, but knew what his death meant to him.
“Are those for Hayate?” the older Jounin asked. “The ceremony for Sandaime is about to begin. If you don’t…”
She wasn’t in the mood to be told who she should mourn. “Kakashi-sempai, you’re here for him, aren’t you?” Yuugao answered with her own question. “You’re always late for things… Is it for any special reason?”
“Actually, today I was early…” he artfully avoided the topic. They talked briefly, as people in mourning do, in quiet and poetic tones and then made their way up to the service.
When she returned to her apartment, the afternoon sunlight filtered through thinning clouds. Her black dress was fairly soaked through. She sloughed it off and crawled into bed where she lay, only half-sleeping for hours. It had been hard to keep back the tears during the wake; tears she had held in for three days; tears she had not allowed herself to part with. At last, in the privacy of her room, Yuugao let go.
All those years they had been together, she had prepared herself for Hayate’s eventual, slow, painful death. She never thought that he would leave her so suddenly.
Sorrow echoed off the Hokage monument and into the valley. The sunlight spilling through the window onto the floor seemed cold and stark, as if it too felt lost. Only when a messenger bird chirped at her window a few days later, did Yuugao reluctantly leave her apartment.
Work was a good distraction. To be Anbu meant to act as a machine: to fight, kill and move without emotion. Yuugao was one of the best. She was not only very skilled, but startlingly good at turning herself off. Once she was on the job, the job was all that mattered.
In the aftermath of the Chuunin Exam War, the Anbu found themselves very busy. Yuugao hardly had any free time and for someone trying hard not to think about how miserable she was this was just fine.
Yuugao got by behaving like that for a few years, but as peace settled on the Hidden Leaf and missions tapered off, her heart grew heavy again.
One sunny, beautiful afternoon, she walked as she usually did to the memorial with a small bundle of seasonal flowers. Wordlessly, she talked to him, updating him about happenings in the Leaf, and telling him how much she missed him. It was this particular, slow, sunny afternoon that she realized she was no longer in mourning. He would always be in her heart. The ache she still felt in her chest wasn’t the same anymore.
“Hey,” a woman’s voice called smoothly, breaking her from her reverie. “Is that you, Yuugao-chan?”
She shielded her eyes and looked up at the woman’s silhouette. “Oh, hello Kurenai-sempai.”
Kurenai smiled. “Am I interrupting?”
“Oh, no,” Yuugao stood and dusted herself off. “I’m done for today.”
The other woman stared at Yuugao with her large, reddish eyes and suddenly clapped her hands together. “Would you like to get some dinner with me? Asuma’s out on a mission and left me to fend for myself tonight.”
“Sure,” she agreed and the two headed into Konoha as the sun dipped behind the tree line.
Dinner turned into dessert and dessert turned into drinks when they ran into Anko on the way out of the restaurant.
The bar was clean and relatively un-crowded. Yuugao nursed a beer while Anko pounded shots and Kurenai sipped sake politely.
“Heeeey,” Anko slurred. “Why you so down, Yuugao-chan?”
“Anko,” Kurenai warned. “Be nice.”
“Eh?” she blinked. “Come on! It’s a great time to be alive!” she shouted and tossed back another shot.
“She’s right. It’s a wonderful time to be alive…” Yuugao finished off her beer and beckoned the bartended to bring her another one. “And I am still alive.”
The other two women exchanged looks, but listened to Yuugao’s story.
She knocked on his door. There was no answer. She pounded on it. “Hayate!” she called, her voice tinged not with panic but with desperation. “Let me in! I know you’re in there!”
Finally, the lock turned and the door opened. He invited her in, knowing she wouldn’t go away if he asked her to. He couldn’t look her in the eye.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, getting straight to the point.
“Doing what?” *cough, cough* Hayate turned and flopped back down into an overstuffed chair. He was still in his pajamas and it was at least two in the afternoon.
“You’re not going out for the Jounin exam?” she asked, incredulously. “When I registered they told me you backed out. Why?”
“You know as well as I do that I’ll *cough, cough* never make it.”
She folded her arms and looked down on him. “So you’re just going to give up?”
“Yes,” he answered and turned on the television.
“Are you done? Springer’s on.”
Yuugao grabbed the remote from him and turned off the set. She crouched down and looked him in the eyes. “So you’re just going to quit?”
“I CAN’T make it, Yuugao,” he shouted back, causing a coughing fit. Her brows came together, but she pressed on.
“You can try. If you give up… if you stop trying… then you might as well…”
“Die now?” he finished. “Say it, Yuugao. I’m going to die.”
“Some day, yes. We all will…”
“*cough, cough* I’m dying NOW!” he barked.
She stood up. “You…” tears came to her eyes. “You’re trying to push me away, aren’t you?”
“Ju… Yuugao…” he stuttered and hung his head. “I don’t want to hurt you. You don’t have a future with me. It’s best if you just leave me now.”
“BAKA!” she shouted. “I will do no such thing!” Hayate stared up at her. Her fists were clenched and the tears ran down her face. “I love you. I want to be with you. I want to make you happy, and being with you will make me happy. I know that I don’t have much time with you. Call me selfish, but I want as much of that time as I can get. But, if you don’t love me… then I’ll go. If I can’t make you happy…”
He pushed himself out of his chair and took her into his arms. “Yuugao. I love you more than anything in this whole world…” He repressed a cough and squeezed her. “I just…”
“I know,” she whispered. “I’m willing to stand by you. I’ll take the good days and the bad ones. I’ll be by your side till my time with you is up.”
As she collected herself and nuzzled her face into his shoulder, it was his turn to cry.
“We were together for almost seven years. He finally did become Jounin, just a special tactics, but he still made it. After the exam he went in the hospital again for a week…” Yuugao trailed off. “I’m sorry, how long have I been babbling?” she asked and blushed a little at the line of empties in front of her.
“No no!” Anko waved. “That’s a great story!”
“Anko…” Kurenai sighed. “So he’s been gone for three years now, hasn’t he?”
“Yes,” Yuugao sighed as well and finished off her fifth beer.
“Wow. That’s a long ass time to go without.” Anko squinted at her.
“Without… what?” Yuugao asked.
“Anko!” Kurenai swatted her friend on the back of the head. “What she means is… well… have you gotten back out there yet?”
“Out where?” Yuugao squinted back.
“Oy god,” Anko slurred. “The game, woman! You need to play the field again!”
Yuugao blushed furiously, finally catching on to what they were getting after. “I… I just… I’ve never thought of it…”
Kurenai put her hand over Yuugao’s. “Perhaps it’s time.”
“Kyaaa if I went three years without any I’d ‘splode!”
“ANKO!” This time, Kurenai didn’t have to use violence. Anko fell off her stool and whacked her head on the bar on the way down. She lay on the floor, motionless. “It’s about time,” Kurenai grumbled. “Don’t worry about her. Yuugao-chan, I think it’s time.”
“Like Anko said, well, not exactly. You should date again.”
“I couldn’t! I…”
Kurenai waved her hands. “Yuugao-chan, you’re obviously lonely. I know this Chuunin I can set you up with if you don’t want to go looking yourself. He’s a really nice guy.”
Yuugao stared at Anko who was blowing a snot bubble as she dozed on the floor. She muttered something foul and laughed in drunken slumber.
“Um… What? Like a blind date?”
“Yeah, why not? If you don’t like him, you don’t like him. You should give it a shot.” Kurenai’s friendly smile and the half a dozen beers were fairly convincing. Yuugao agreed.
The end of summer echoed off of the houses and the shops of down town Konoha as cicadas sang their annual song. It wasn’t as disgustingly hot as it could have been, but warm enough for Yuugao to put her hair up. She was doing this as she waited in the shade under the pavilion in the center of town when he walked up.
“Yuugao?” the ninja asked. The scar crossing the bridge of his nose told her he was the one.
“You must be Ikura?”
He blushed slightly. “Um, it’s IRUka.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I…”
“It’s ok, people tend to…”
They both laughed nervously.
Iruka handed her a single black-eyed susan. “I don’t usually do this so my apologies if this seems a little outdated.”
“I never do this, so it’s new to me.” She smiled and accepted the flower.
Awkwardly, they chose a little sidewalk café to eat at. He was all insecure smiles and arched eyebrows and she avoided eye contact and rubbed her hands methodically. They seemed like a cross between young kids on their first date and strangers on a train.
“So,” he began. “You’re a Jounin?”
“Mm.” She nodded, and thinking that she might as well test him as soon as possible, she added. “Anbu,” and stared at him.
“Ah. Good for you,” Iruka blanched and tapped his hands on the table.
Their waitress approached and handed Iruka a glass. “Unsweetened?”
“That’s mine.” Yuugao reached across the table. Trying to help, Iruka stood and in a move only seen in the movies managed to spill not one, but both glasses all over the poor girl.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I’ll… Here. We’ve got some extra napkins…”
“Just, don’t. Ok?” She scowled. Looking up, she saw him hovering over her, gobs of paper napkins stuffed in either hand with a worried, confused look on his face. She snorted a short laugh and took them from him.
“Shall I walk you home or just leave now?” he asked, doing his best to pat the less embarrassing parts of her dress dry.
Yuugao squinted at him for a moment. Well, at least he didn’t want to keep the date going… “You can walk me home. That would be fine.”
Hayate liked to kiss the nape of her neck. She never knew why, it was just something he did. One sweet summer night with his arms around her and his face buried in her long, black hair he kissed that spot again and sighed.
“Are you happy, Yuugao?” he asked, running his fingers through her hair.
“If you’re ever unhappy, don’t think about what I would think about it…” he whispered. “Know that I’d want you to be happy.”
She knew exactly what he was talking about. “Hayate…” They had been together for five years. Yuugao knew he was no longer morose about his terminal illness, but to hear him talk about it was always difficult. “All right,” she answered, hoping that he would leave it at that.
She didn’t think about that night again for another five years.
At the steps to her apartment, Yuugao turned and faced Iruka. “Can you wait here for a moment? I have something I want to give you.”
He was visibly shocked. “Uh, sure! Though I hardly think I deserve anything!” he laughed. “Your dry cleaning bill, perhaps.”
The Anbu woman smiled and an honest laugh escaped her lips. “Just stay right there…” Five minutes later she locked the door and hopped down the steps. “Ok.”
Iruka blinked a few times.
“Tada!” She presented her empty palms. “It’s a do-over.”
“A second chance.”
“You mean it?” he asked, excitedly. “Well, what would you like to do, Yuugao?”
She looked up at the riot of color peeling across the sky with the setting sun. “I want to watch the sun set.”
He grinned. “Come on, I know the perfect place, but we’ll have to hurry!”
They zipped up to the top of the Hokage monument and leaned against the railing.
“Breathtaking,” Iruka stated.
“Mm,” she agreed and burned the image into her mind.
“This one’s a keeper.”
“Today; even with the mess earlier, or even because of it!” He took a deep breath and sat down, straddling a fencepost.
To his surprise, she joined him. “Sometimes it’s hard to enjoy days like these when you know they won’t last.”
“Oh sure,” he added. “Especially after all Konoha has been through. In peace time, I try to take each day and hold it close to me like a leaf you press in a book. So when times are bad, I can pull it back out and remember how nice things were and how they will be again when the seasons change…” Iruka noticed she was staring at him. “Did I say something weird?”
“No.” Yuugao shook her head slowly, a soft smile on her lips and in her eyes. “That makes perfect sense.”
Summer descended into autumn and class went back in session. Iruka had his hands full with dozens of new students as a recent enrollment campaign had been wildly successful. The din from the 30 plus students in his classroom was giving him a head ache.
“All right, class, lunch time. Please try to remain quiet and in your seats. Until we can break up this class into two smaller ones, I need your cooperation with me on this, Ok?”
He sighed heavily and jumped out the window. There was a three foot ledge just a few feet below. He leaned against the wall and listened to birds chirping in a nearby tree which was already changing color.
“Some Chuunin you are,” a voice from the left nearly startled him off the ledge.
“Kidding!” She laughed and sat down next to him. “I was in full stealth, honest.” She handed him a box wrapped in a piece of cloth.
“Ah! Yuugao’s Bento!” he cried and accepted the lunch box. “This day has just taken a serious turn for the better.”
“Trouble with the brats? I mean, the kids?”
He rolled his eyes as he crammed a bit of okonomiyaki into his mouth. “There’s just such a great lot of them at the moment. Ah well.” He smacked his lips, appreciating the wonderful lunch she had brought him. “This too shall pass, right?” Iruka tended to close his eyes when he smiled, and with Yuugao being Anbu, he didn’t notice she was that close to him until their lips met.
“You’re a keeper,” she whispered. They kissed again, this time more slowly and it would have been a beautiful scene had it not been for 30 plus students at the window who could no longer hold in their comments.
“Wa! Iruka-sensei’s got a girlfriend!!!”
He blushed crimson. “This is not what I would call sitting quietly in your seats…” he growled. They didn’t hear him over the din.
“I got this one,” she whispered and stood up. “Yes, Iruka-sensei has a girlfriend: a super-elite Jounin Anbu girlfriend who knows where you all live!” she shouted, sending them scurrying back to their seats. When Yuugao turned around, Iruka’s mouth hung open in shock. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“You’re incredible! Ever consider teaching?”
Yuugao laughed, and as she looked into his soft, brown eyes she briefly remembered a time when laughter seemed impossible. She kissed him again and let him get back to work, the smile clinging to her lips and warming her heart.