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A Thoughtful, Moving Exploration of Passionate Youth

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The child blinked up at Iruka, as if he wasn't accustomed to being spoken to.

"Where are your parents?" Iruka repeated slowly. He couldn't believe that anyone would actually let a child sit in the Academy playground at midnight. Iruka was on his way back from a mission, and it was pure chance that he had chosen this way home and seen the child out at a time when children should be inside.

The kid tilted his head. "Don't have any," he answered finally.

Iruka took in a deep breath. "Who are you staying with?" he asked, unwilling to believe that his village would really leave an orphan so young to his own devices.

"Nobody," the kid answered.

Iruka took a close look at the boy. His clothes seemed too big, and his bones too prominent. Frankly, he'd seen too many hungry children on his last mission to be able to ignore one from his own village. "Come on. I haven't had dinner yet, and I bet you haven't either."

The kid just stared up at him.

"Ramen?" Iruka tried, hoping it was still the universal language of kids, abandoned and half-starved or no.

The kid stepped off the swing warily. "Nobody's open."

"I know the owner of Ichiraku, and I bet he might do a favor for a shinobi of Konoha, don't you think?" Iruka said, with as much patient cheerfulness as he could muster.

The kid's eyes widened. "I want to be a shinobi," he said, his voice almost below a whisper.

"Well, you need to eat, first. Come on, I'll buy you a bowl. My name is Iruka. What's yours?"

The kid stared at Iruka's outstretched hand for a moment, before gingerly reaching up to take it, like he was half-afraid Iruka would sooner strike him.

"Naruto," the boy said. "My name is Naruto."

***

Iruka was the first to admit that this was the dumbest thing he'd done in years. He was eighteen years old, and he could barely take care of himself -- what did he know about taking care of a child? Still, he figured if he kept feeding Naruto and giving him a place to sleep out of the elements, he was doing better than the kid had managed to do for himself.

"Take it slow," Iruka said, for probably the hundredth time that week after they'd sat down to yet another dinner. "It isn't going anywhere."

Naruto looked suspicious, one arm cradled protectively around his bowl. But he did eat marginally slower, and Iruka decided if he hadn't been sick yet, it was probably better just to leave him be.

Iruka ate slowly, in the hope that Naruto might learn from his example. But Naruto finished his only minutes later, and was eyeing the pot on the stove and not being particularly subtle about it.

"If you want more, all you have to say is, 'May I have another bowl,' Iruka said, hoping the kid actually was hungry and not going to make himself sick.

"MayIhaveanotherbowl," Naruto repeated in a soft rush.

Iruka stood up and ladled another half-bowl for Naruto. "Chew this time," he said.

When dinner was over, Iruka had Naruto help him clean up, just a few simple little tasks to get Naruto used to the idea of working together. And afterward, Naruto nodded off under the kotatsu while watching some silly game show that he had fixated on when Iruka gave him the remote and told him he could watch whatever (within reason, of course). Iruka picked him up carefully, but Naruto didn't so much as stir when Iruka deposited him on the futon and pulled the quilt over him.

Closing the door behind him, Iruka realized he was going to have to make a decision.

***

"Naruto," Sandaime said slowly, "could you go wait outside for a moment, please?"

Naruto's hand tightened around Iruka, and he looked up at Iruka questioningly.

"It's all right," Iruka said, giving him his best reassuring smile. "Go wait outside, and I'll come get you in a minute, okay?"

Naruto gave Sandaime one last suspicious look before shuffling out the door.

"Iruka, you do realize who that boy is, don't you?" Sandaime said slowly, packing his pipe while he talked.

"I know," Iruka said. "I didn't put it together until a few days ago, but I know." His ears had caught the whispers around him and Naruto when they went out, and it made him feel all the more protective.

"You don't blame him for the deaths of your parents?"

"He's a kid," Iruka shot back, horrified. "He isn't…he isn't the Nine Tails. I know it's inside him, but it isn't Naruto."

"Good," the Hokage said, and the old strength in his eyes made a shiver run down Iruka's spine. "If your answer had been anything other than that…"

Iruka didn't need to have it spelled out for him. "I can't leave him alone. I know you tried to arrange for people to take care of him, but it isn't working. More than anyone, I think I understand at least a little of what he's going through. Please," he said, bowing his head respectfully.

"There are other matters to consider. How will you take care of him if you're always on missions?"

Iruka was ready for that. "I'll sit for the Academy teacher exam, like you've been wanting me to. If I pass, then I'll always be in Konoha."

Sandaime raised an eyebrow. "I seem to recall someone telling me just last month that he would be able to walk across the fiery lakes of hell without the aid of chakra before he'd consent to teach children."

Iruka flushed. "It's different, now."

Sandaime looked at him steadily.

"I'll do what I have to do," Iruka said, determined. "Please, Hokage-sama."

"Go bring him back in," Sandaime said, waving his pipe in the direction of the door.

When he came back in, Naruto in tow, Sandaime said, "It's been some time since we've met, hasn't it, Naruto?"

Naruto had reattached himself to Iruka's side, half behind Iruka's leg and gripping his hand tightly. He didn't seem inclined to answer the question.

"Iruka says he wants to adopt you. He wants to take care of you, make you part of his family. What do you think about that?" Sandaime said gently.

Finally, Naruto said, "Nobody will ever take him away?"

Iruka was a little startled to hear their relationship outlined in those terms. He hadn't considered that Naruto might feel just as proprietary about Iruka as Iruka did about him.

"You'll be together," Sandaime confirmed.

Naruto snuck a look up at Iruka, his bright eyes remarkably serious for someone who was six. "Okay," he said.

Iruka squeezed Naruto's hand gently, not even knowing what to say.

"Well," Sandaime said. "We can take care of the paperwork this afternoon, Iruka. Which reminds me -- what are you going to call him, Naruto?"

Naruto looked puzzled, and Iruka realized that neither of them had really thought about that part.

"He can't be my parents, because you said they're gone," Naruto said calmly, with all the surety of childhood logic. "So he can be my nii-san."

Sandaime's lips twitched. "I suppose he can, at that," he agreed.

***

It took another two weeks for Naruto's scared hesitance to melt into something closer to normal behavior. Iruka was starting to suspect that he was beginning to see the "real" Naruto.

And the "real" Naruto was loud.

"I don't know how you get dirty so fast," Iruka said, scrubbing at Naruto's hair.

"Ow ow ow, you're getting soap in my eyes!" Naruto whined, twisting every which way.

"I wouldn't if you'd just hold still," Iruka said. "Come on, tilt your head back. Real shinobi value hygiene."

"Hy-what?" Naruto asked, but obediently tilted his head back so that Iruka could rinse out the shampoo.

"Cleanliness," Iruka told him. He looked at Naruto's hair critically. "And you need a haircut."

"Nooo, I want my hair to be like Iruka-nii's," Naruto said, in some strange mix of a sing-song and a whine.

"No way. I'm not going to wash that all the time," Iruka muttered. "And scrub your feet, they're filthy."

After he had judged Naruto to be sufficiently clean that he wouldn't pollute the bath, Iruka settled him in with a few hastily-purchased bath toys, and sat down on the stool to wash himself down.

He heard Naruto making up stories in the bath, a wildly improbable adventure about a dragon who was going to save three ships before they sunk to the depths of the tub.

"Oh no!" Naruto said dramatically. "The dragon saved the ships, but they're going to crash into each other! Only one shinobi can save the day -- Umino Naruto!"

Iruka grinned to himself and was glad his back was turned.

***

"He looks weird," Naruto said mutinously, looking at the green-clad figure sitting seriously in the sandbox.

"Real shinobi look underneath the underneath," Iruka said, trying to be patient. "He might be a good friend."

Naruto semi-buried his face in Iruka's waist. "He won't want to play with me."

"You don't know until you try. Go over and ask. Nicely," Iruka said, giving Naruto a little push.

He watched Naruto half-stomp, half-shuffle over, stopping near the sandbox. He cast one beseeching look back at Iruka, and then muttered, "Wanna play?"

The boy's eyes (which, Naruto had a point -- they were a little unusual) lit up, and soon he and Naruto were happily engrossed in building hidden villages in the sand.

"Ah, the flowering youth of Konoha," said a voice beside him.

Iruka looked up, a little surprised that someone got so close without Iruka noticing.

There was no doubt who the little boy in green belonged to. "Ah," Iruka said, trying not to feel flustered. "It's very nice of your son to play with Naruto." He tried not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of green spandex the man was wearing.

"He's my student, not my son," the man corrected gently. "But I take care of him whenever I can."

"Still, the resemblance is remarkable," Iruka said politely.

The man flashed him a smile with remarkably white teeth. "Lee works hard in all respects. And surely the boy in your care is not your son, either? You look far too young," the man said, a sharp glance at Iruka.

Iruka tried not to fidget. "I'm his guardian, actually."

The man's smile was nearly blinding, and he gave Iruka a thumbs up. "Excellent! Shepherding the tender youth of Konoha is indeed a noble and worthy challenge in life!"

Iruka looked out at the sandbox, where Naruto was getting ready to wreak havoc on their sand village, with Lee gesturing emphatically saying something that sounded suspiciously like a speech with the same cadences as the man next to him. He felt a smile quirk his lips. "Yeah, I think you're right," he said.

"My name is Maito Gai," the man introduced himself. "Would you do me the honor of giving me your name?"

"Ah, sorry," Iruka said, ducking his head belatedly. "Umino Iruka. It's nice to meet you."

"Iruka-san," Gai said warmly. "A pleasure. Perhaps, since the boys seem to get along so well, we could arrange future meetings?"

Iruka looked back to the sandbox, where Naruto and Lee were now in a knock-down, drag-out fight. And then he looked back at Gai, who was waiting with a hopeful, expectant look on his face, and Iruka felt himself turn a little red at being looked at with such concentration.

"I'd like that," he said, and Gai beamed at him while the kids shrieked in the background.

***

"I want to go with you," Naruto said for at least the tenth time that morning, looking like he was ready to dig his heels in.

Iruka tried very hard not to sigh or clench his jaw. "Naruto, you can't go to the Academy yet. Maybe next year. In the mean time, you're going to go to the temple school like everyone else, and learn how to write."

"Why do I have to do that?" Naruto asked, sounding deeply suspicious.

Iruka took their bento off the counter and checked his bag for his house keys. "Because," he temporized, and mentally flailed around for a Naruto-acceptable reasoning, and found it. "Because shinobi have to write reports. How are you going to be a shinobi if you can't write?"

Naruto gave a heavy, put-upon sigh. "I can go next year?"

"Next year, I promise," Iruka said. "Come on, we don't want to be late on the first day. You'll get to see Lee-kun again, won't that be nice?"

Naruto brightened, and obediently followed Iruka out the door.

***

The temple school wasn't really so much a school as an ad-hoc daycare. In a village where parents might have to depart on a moment's notice, it served as a place to safely care for children until another adult could come pick them up, as well as teaching the very basics of education to its regular attendees.

There had been no question in Iruka's mind that Naruto could use a year at the temple school. Children of both shinobi and non-shinobi families attended here, and Naruto could use the socialization. That, and he could barely write his name, so Iruka was hoping to kill two birds with one stone.

"Here's your bento," Iruka said, handing it to Naruto on the steps of the temple school. "Have a good day today -- please be good, try not to break anything, and listen to Tsukasa-sensei, okay?"

Naruto looked like he was on the verge of attaching himself to Iruka's leg, limpet-like, and not letting go.

Iruka gave him his best cheerful smile. "You'll have fun. I'll see you later this afternoon, okay?" Something in him twisted a little at the thought of Naruto out of his supervision for so long, but he tried to stamp down that feeling.

Naruto still looked uneasy, but then he spotted something behind Iruka and shouted, "Lee! Over here!"

Lee bounded up the steps. "Good morning, Iruka-san! Naruto, we have to go and put our bento away!" He thrust out a cloth-wrapped bento box that was surely too big for one little boy.

Naruto gave one last glance to Iruka, and swallowed, and said, "I'm going, Iruka-nii."

Iruka smiled. "I'll see you when you get back."

And then Lee almost yanked Naruto up the stairs in his enthusiasm, and Iruka set off for the Academy.

***

Sandaime, as far as Iruka was concerned, was a dirty, manipulative cheat.

As he'd suspected, teaching was a form of hell that involved thirty nine-year-olds with too much energy and far, far too many sharp objects. At ten in the morning, they'd been about as civilized as a pack of wild dogs, and at noon, Iruka vowed he would have his vengeance on the parents who so helpfully packed items containing sugar into his students' lunches. When he finally lost his temper at one, in the middle of teaching them the most basic of jutsu, and growled at them, the kids miraculously became model students for last two hours of the day.

After the students cleared out of the classroom, Iruka let his head thunk down on his desk and wondered if every day was going to be this hard.

"It won't always be this bad," a voice said from the doorway to his classroom.

Iruka opened one eye to peer at his friend Mizuki, who had been teaching at the Academy for a year already. "Are you just saying that to make me feel better?" Iruka said suspiciously.

Mizuki laughed, open and pleasant. "Don't let the little monsters get you down," he said. "Come on, I'll buy you a drink. You've survived your first day, surely that's cause for celebration."

Iruka smiled back reflexively, about to accept, but then said, "I can't tonight. I have to go pick up Naruto."

"So it's true, then?" Mizuki drawled. "I thought for sure it was just a nasty rumor. I didn't think anyone would actually adopt that little demon."

"He's not--" Iruka began sharply, and then softened his tone into something quieter but no less firm. "Don't call him that."

"He is what he is," Mizuki said, narrowing his eyes. "Even if it's forbidden to tell him, you can't expect that people will forget."

***

Naruto was waiting on the front steps of the temple school with Lee at his side, when he caught sight of Iruka. "Iruka-niiiiii!" he caroled. "Come see what I did!" He thrust a piece of paper up at Iruka. Naruto had copied his name in several mostly neat rows down the paper, before it devolved into doodles and one laborious but incorrect effort at the kanji for dog.

"That's...very well done, Naruto," Iruka said, and mussed up Naruto's hair with an affectionate pat.

Lee wasn't smiling, and was looking down at the ground, his own paper clutched in one fist.

"Lee-kun? Why don't you show me yours?" Iruka coaxed, unable to stand that much unhappiness on the boy's face.

Lee looked up cautiously, the heavy bangs of his bowl cut almost obscuring his eyes. "You want to see it?"

"Of course I do," Iruka said firmly.

Lee warily held up his paper, with row after neat row of his name, at first shaky and messy, but finally resolving into reasonably clean kana.

Iruka reached out one hand to pat Lee's hair. "That's very well done, too. I can see all the effort you put into it."

"Gai-sensei says that hard work and practice always pay off," Lee said almost automatically, gazing up at Iruka with something like wonder.

"Gai-sensei is right," Iruka said. He looked around. "Speaking of, where is he?"

Lee and Naruto traded looks that were far too dark for children their age. "He has a mission," Lee said. "My cousin is coming to get me."

"I see," Iruka said, not liking the doubt in Lee's tone. "Well, we'll just wait here with you. So, what else did you two do today?"

He sat down on the steps between the two boys, and Naruto launched into a very detail-oriented account of lunchtime. But it became rapidly clear that either Lee's cousin was going to be extremely late, or was not coming at all. Iruka hoped that the cousin was not, in fact, completely fictional, although he doubted that lying was one of those things that Lee had practiced with all of Gai's much-preached hard work.

"I think," Iruka said eventually, "that you cousin is going to be late. Why don't we leave a message with your teacher and you can come over to play before dinner?"

Lee looked both ashamed and resigned, as if this happened all the time, and Iruka's gut feeling was that it did when Gai was otherwise occupied.

Naruto looked only excited. "Yeah! Lee, you can come see my room!" He burbled on happily about toys he was going to show Lee, and Iruka thought with soft fondness that this was probably a first for Naruto -- not only had he made a friend, but he had a home to show off, too. It was going to make him maudlin if he didn't nip it in the bud.

"Off we go," Iruka said, after having a quick word with the teacher.

***

Iruka had thought he'd been prepared. He could hold his head high and ignore malicious whispers throughout the village, he could tolerate being offered third-rate cuts of fish and meat in the marketplace, and he could put up with stares of hostility and even pity from his colleagues.

But he hadn't seriously banked on being actively shunned by his friends. At first he'd put it down to just being busy -- with Naruto and his new job at the Academy, it wasn't like he had much in the way of free time. But that excuse only stretched so far -- when his friends put him off, when he was distinctly not invited to the usual gatherings, it wasn't hard to put two and two together. He was trying not to mope about it, but seeing as Mizuki's reaction to his adoption of Naruto had been, by far, the mildest among his social group, it was hard not to feel at least a little depressed.

Fortunately, at least Naruto's social circle of one had embraced their friendship fully. It led to a lot of minor property damage, but still, Iruka found it encouraging.

"Naruto! Lee-kun! Dinner!" Iruka hollered out his window down into the courtyard of his apartment building.

He rolled his eyes when he heard the two boys pound up the stairs like a herd of elephants, and opened the door to find Naruto and Lee, grinning and unimaginably filthy, with Maito Gai standing just behind them. "Gai-san," he said, surprised.

Naruto and Lee edged past Iruka, pulling off their sandals in the entryway. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Lee thoughtfully lined them up against the wall, while Naruto left his in an untidy heap.

And then, remembering his manners, Iruka said "Won't you come in for dinner?"

Gai gave him his trademark, sparkling smile, and said, "Truly, your kindness is just as magnificent as Lee has told me." For Gai, that was positively restrained, and when Iruka looked closer, he could see the edges of exhaustion around Gai's face. Of course, Gai was only human, and even elite jounin were frequently tested to their limit. But still, Iruka had grown used to his mental image of an indefatigable Gai.

And then, without turning around, Iruka said sharply, "Hold it right there."

He could sense Naruto and Lee obediently halting in their tracks on their way to the kitchen.

"What's the rule?" Iruka asked sweetly, looking over his shoulder.

"We're not that dirty," Naruto ventured hopefully. Lee looked like he disagreed, but was too polite to contradict him.

"Bathroom," Iruka said firmly. "Wash your hands, wash your faces, and -- Naruto, do I even want to know why you have green sludge in your hair?"

Naruto blinked, scrubbed the back of his head, and something hit the floor with a plop.

"We'll go clean up right away," Lee said hastily, and herded Naruto off to the bathroom.

Iruka waved Gai into the kitchen, unsurprised when Gai also neatly lined up his sandals next to the door -- Lee had to learn it from somewhere. "Something to drink?" he said politely.

"Please don't trouble yourself," Gai said politely.

Iruka turned away to put a kettle on the stove, but was disturbed by Gai's silence. It had never really been an issue before -- Gai could carry on both sides of a conversation, if necessary, and frequently did. When he turned back to the table, teapot in hand, he said hesitantly, "Gai-san, are you -- I mean, I know you can't really talk about, well, you know, but -- are you okay?"

Gai looked grave, and said seriously, "I may not speak of it, you are right -- but I am touched by your tender concern, Iruka-san."

Iruka flushed wildly -- he wouldn't have called it tender. It was perfectly normal concern for a perfectly abnormal person. "I -- uh. You're welcome."

Taking one appreciative sip of the tea Iruka prepared, Gai mustered up a Nice Guy smile, and said, "Tell me how you have fared in raising the flowering youth of Konoha -- Lee has given me a preliminary report, but I would like to hear of your trials and triumphs from you directly."

"Right," Iruka said faintly, taking a seat. "Well. The boys can both write their own names now, which is an improvement."

Gai tilted his head to Iruka's refrigerator, covered in pieces of paper with Naruto and Lee's handwriting, as well as numerous illustrations of Naruto and Lee triumphing over imaginary beasts and sometimes, each other. "Lee tells me that he has spent most afternoons here since I have been away."

Iruka tried not to fidget. "It just worked out that way. His cousin's family -- they're, well -- " he trailed off, but the commiserating look in Gai's eyes told him that the situation wasn't anything Gai didn't know about. "Too proud to let me interfere too much, but too resentful to care about him. Even if they would allow it, I can't just adopt every kid who needs help."

"That you would even consider it proves that the shining fire of Konoha burns bright in your soul," Gai said with a satisfied nod.

Iruka scrubbed the back of his neck and ducked his head a little. "To be honest, I've got my hands full with Naruto, as it is."

"The burden of challenging a young soul can weigh heavily even on the mightiest warrior."

"Oh, no, it's not that!" Iruka said hastily. "Well, it is that, partly. But mostly it's that there aren't a whole lot of people who approve of me adopting Naruto in the first place."

"Surely your bosom companions can be counted on to support you?"

Iruka's eyes almost crossed for a moment at hearing his friends referred to like that, but he managed, "Not so much, apparently."

Gai frowned, and then leaned forward and looked at Iruka with the sort of intensity that Iruka could imagine being absolutely terrifying when aimed at an enemy. "People who can't see the measure of Iruka-san's youthful spirit and selfless duty don't deserve to be your friends."

He was spared having to answer that by Naruto and Lee finally clattering out of the bathroom and tromping into the kitchen, although he was pretty sure his face was bright red, because Gai was still looking at him like that, as if he could make Iruka understand if he just thought hard enough in his direction.

***

That probably had something to do with why Gai showed up on his doorstep the next day at 6 a.m.

Iruka leaned in the doorway and rubbed his eyes, not even trying to stifle his yawn. "Gai-san? Why are you -- is everything okay?"

Gai struck a pose, one hand dramatically outstretched to Iruka. "Iruka-san!" he said, at a volume likely to earn complaints from the neighbors. "Would you accompany me on this fine and glorious morning?"

"Accompany you?" Iruka repeated, not entirely trusting his ability to comprehend words at the moment.

Gai thrust forward a thermos and a startlingly twee picnic basket. "I have taken the liberty of preparing a breakfast guaranteed to make any shinobi ready to face the day with vigor."

For a moment, Iruka was well and truly concerned that he was still asleep, and just having an exceptionally weird dream, where jounin with bowl-cuts and green spandex showed up to escort him to breakfast. He cast a look over his shoulder to Naruto's bedroom, where the door was still firmly closed. And then he looked back at Gai, who was still waiting with one hand out, palm up.

"We have to be back by seven," Iruka cautioned him, and then, because Gai seemed to expect it, Iruka hesitantly laid his palm against Gai's.

Gai beamed at him. "I'll have you back before 6:45, or I'll run five hundred laps around Konoha."

"That's really unnecessary," Iruka protested. "You don't have to do that on my account."

Gai's fingers, warm and rough with calluses, tightened briefly around Iruka's. "Have to? No, but the spirit of challenge keeps our hearts pure."

"If you say so," Iruka said, and gamely followed Gai to a forest clearing. Gai had brought a blanket to combat the dew still clinging to the grass, and Iruka forgave him instantly for the rude awakening when Gai unscrewed the thermos and poured a cup of steaming coffee. Iruka may have actually made a vaguely-inappropriate noise of pleasure after his first sip.

"Is it to your satisfaction?" Gai inquired seriously, as if breakfast were an exam he was determined to pass.

"Mmm," Iruka said, almost dreamily.

The rest of breakfast was just as good -- really, far better than Iruka usually managed, although to be fair, his idea of making miso soup was to open a packet and dump boiling water on the contents. Gai kept up a steady patter about the virtues of a bright and beautiful morning, the training he was going to do today, and Iruka nodded along until Gai mentioned his plans to defeat his eternal rival.

"Your who?" Iruka said faintly. It wasn't as though other shinobi didn't have rivals, but they usually didn't include them in their to-do list for the day, as ordinary as grocery shopping.

If possible, Gai straightened a little more where he sat. "My eternal rival, Hatake Kakashi. We have faced each other in challenge numerous times, and I am proud to say that I have won 29 challenges to his 28."

Iruka raised an eyebrow. "He sounds like a worthy opponent."

"As always, Iruka-san, you see to the heart of the matter," Gai said approvingly. "Have you an eternal rival of your own?"

Iruka thought that over. "I have a few sparring partners. But I don't think it's the same."

"The bond of True Competition is without compare," Gai said, and then looked like he'd accidentally swallowed something the wrong way. "Not that such a bond deserves envy! Far from it, when there are other meaningful bonds."

"Right, right," Iruka said peaceably.

Gai poured the last of the coffee for him, and then said, "Do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Have other...bonds."

"It's just me and Naruto, you know that," Iruka said, a little baffled.

"I wouldn't assume," Gai said with quiet sincerity. "And I think you underestimate the quality of your ties with others. The Hokage speaks highly of his regular shougi opponent."

"Oh," Iruka said, embarrassed and pleased all at once.

Gai stowed away the remnants of their meal in his basket with a swiftness that Iruka had a hard time following, and then stood and held out a hand. "Come, Iruka-san, the hour of your promised return is upon us!"

"We don't have to rush," Iruka said, allowing Gai to pull him to his feet. "I mean, I need to get back before Naruto wakes up, but I'm not in a real hurry. We can walk back."

His hand still clasped around Iruka's, Gai did the most extraordinary thing -- he flushed a bright, tomato-red. "As Iruka-san desires," he said.

***

The stack of papers to be graded didn't seem to be appreciably diminishing, which would probably teach him to assign so much homework. Iruka rolled his head a few times, and reached for the next paper.

Naruto was on the other side of the kotatsu, drowsing while watching a historical drama with shinobi that was wildly inaccurate. When Naruto's cheek finally made contact with the table top, Iruka said, "All right, it's officially bedtime." He normally would have sent Naruto to bed in another twenty minutes, but the kids at the temple school had gone on a nature hike today, and Naruto had looked done in when Iruka had picked him up that afternoon.

Naruto allowed Iruka to shuffle him into the bathroom to brush his teeth, and from there to his futon in the little room that Iruka had previously been using as storage space.

Frankly, he could have done with an early bedtime, too, but with all those ungraded papers left, that looked to be several hours off at least. He'd just settled down at the kotatsu again when he heard a gentle knock on the door. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he sighed, extricating himself from pens and organized stacks of paper.

He wasn't entirely surprised to see Gai on the other side -- there had been something about the quiet knock that had made Iruka think it was him, chiefly because Gai was his only regular visitor over the age of ten, and scrupulously sensitive to things like bedtimes for young, hyperactive future shinobi. "Gai-san? What are you doing here so late?"

"May I speak with you?" Gai said, and Iruka realized that it wasn't a rhetorical question, and that Gai would indeed wait outside his door until bidden to enter.

"Of course, of course -- come in, have a seat at the -- well, at the only free space at the kotatsu," Iruka said, trying to keep his voice down to avoid waking Naruto up.

Gai obediently sat at Naruto's recently vacated seat, the only place free from the proliferation of homework and exams.

Iruka sat back down too, only to discover the teapot on the table was empty. "Oh dear, I'll be just a minute," he said, but Gai stopped him from rising with a hand on his elbow.

"Iruka-san, I have a request. You might find it a bit odd -- I hope you'll forgive me."

Privately, Iruka thought that Gai and oddness went hand in hand, and if he had objected to general weirdness he would have to move away from Konoha altogether. "What is it?"

"May I stay here for a bit?"

His face must have betrayed his surprise, because Gai hastily said, "Just a few hours, until you retire for the evening."

Iruka looked at the stack of papers still waiting for him, and then said doubtfully, "I'll be terrible company, I'm afraid -- I still have all of these to get through."

Some of the tension left Gai's face, and he said, "I would never wish to impede your valiant efforts to train future shinobi. I won't disturb you -- I'll just sit here."

"Okay," Iruka said slowly. It was a little weird, but he could handle it. He started in on the next assignment, and found his grading groove after not too long. He was aware that Gai was sitting near him, but true to his word, Gai didn't speak or fidget or do anything distracting. For all he knew, Gai was engaging in some kind of bizarre meditation ritual. In any case, his presence seemed to help Iruka feel more alert and more determined to finish his grading.

He rubbed his neck absentmindedly, trying to loosen muscles that were protesting being hunched over the table all evening. He must have done it one too many times for Gai's tastes, because Gai slid over and said, "Will you allow me?"

Iruka had time to say, "Wha--" before Gai dug his thumbs into Iruka's neck and Iruka melted.

A few minutes passed in bliss while Gai's fingers had their way with Iruka's tense back muscles, and then Gai said quietly, near Iruka's ear, "Can I ask you something?"

"Mmph," Iruka said in agreement, leaning back into the thumb that Gai was kneading against the knot at the nape of his neck.

"Purely hypothetical," Gai said.

"Of course," Iruka said, not believing any such thing.

"If you had a duty that you've done for some time, but think that maybe you shouldn't anymore, is that an abandonment of every strong and pure principle of the shinobi way?"

Iruka tried to parse that. "Why do you think you shouldn't, anymore? Hypothetically speaking."

Gai's hands slid up to Iruka's shoulders, and it seemed natural to lean back against Gai's chest. He was aware, after a moment, that Gai's face had dropped down to rest against Iruka's shoulder. "Iruka-san," Gai said against his shoulder, and there was something terrible about that murmur, something distressed and sharply fragile from a man whose reputation was built on the strength of his mind and body. "It's my duty, but I wouldn't want you to know," he said, and there was something about the grieving shame in that confession that let Iruka make a leap of intuition -- Gai was the right rank, the usual age, and there was a pattern to the secrecy of his coming and going.

Iruka would bet anything that Gai was ANBU, and he needed out.

Iruka let Gai take the rest of his weight, and didn't tense up when Gai's arms closed around him. "I think a shinobi who recognizes that he will no longer be able to be effective at a certain duty is no traitor. You know what happens to those who cross that line and keep going. It's not good for them or the village." He felt Gai draw a deep breath, and said gently, "But you know that, you must know that, or you wouldn't be talking to me. You can't think that's the only way you can serve the Hokage -- or do you think that someone like me who gives up taking missions and becomes a teacher instead is a worthless coward?"

Gai's arms tightened around him, and he said, "Never. I would never think that about you."

"Then don't think it about yourself," Iruka said, and brought up one hand to stroke through Gai's hair. It was just as smooth as it looked.

Gai caught his hand after a few moments, and his eyes widened when Gai pressed his lips against Iruka's palm. "I need to go," Gai said, sounding resolved. He stood up and went the door, pausing in the entryway.

"Then I'll see you when you get back," Iruka said.

Gai stared at him for a moment, and then smiled, something as private and soft as the confession he'd murmured against Iruka's shoulder.

***

In the middle of a basic geography lesson (Iruka despaired at the three kids who had thought Sunagakure might be on an island), Mizuki slid open the classroom door and motioned to Iruka.

"Class, I'll be just a minute. Everyone should be able to tell me where the daimyo's three main residences are when I get back," Iruka said, and followed Mizuki out into the hall, sliding the door shut behind him.

"I don't think you're going to be gone for just a minute," Mizuki said. "The temple school sent a runner for you -- there's a situation with Naruto."

"A situation?" Iruka said blankly.

"They want you there immediately. Go on, I'll take over for you," Mizuki said soothingly.

Iruka squeezed his shoulder. "Thanks, Mizuki. You're a good friend," he said sincerely.

When he arrived at the temple school, it was clear that "situation" didn't quite cover it. "Structural damage with smoke and an unusual quantity of amphibians" would have been more accurate.

Tsukasa was normally a sweet woman -- she was an older chuunin who lost her left leg in a mission years ago, and had settled down to teach. But there were no two ways about it -- she was furious, and the target of her ire was small, covered in green paint, and clutching several frogs in his arms.

"Iruka-sensei," Tsukasa said threateningly, "I took a chance on you and this boy, and look what happens!"

Naruto glared at her defiantly, or at least as defiantly as one could while trying to keep green paint from getting into his eyes while still maintaining his hold on the frogs. "I didn't do anything wrong! I told you what happened!"

Iruka could practically feel his blood pressure go up. The last thing he needed was for Naruto to be kicked out of school. "Naruto," he growled. "What did you do?"

"It wasn't my fault!" Naruto yelled. One of the frogs slipped through his fingers and placidly made a break for it.

The rest of the kids were huddled on the other side of the room, also variously decorated with green paint. Unfortunately, many of their parents had already arrived and were giving Iruka and Naruto rather epic looks of disgust and disapproval.

Iruka tried to get his temper under control, and took a deep breath. "Okay. Why don't you tell me what happened?"

"Ino-chan pushed me into the ladder, and the paint fell down off the top," Naruto said, pointing at a blond girl across the room.

Ino didn't look too repentant about that, nor overly concerned with being accused of such.

"Why did Ino-chan push you?" Iruka asked, his teacher senses tingling.

Naruto didn't look like he really wanted to answer that, but finally he mumbled, "I pushed her first."

Ino's mother actually started across the room, but Tsukasa held up a hand. "Why did you push her, Naruto?"

All of the anger boiling Iruka's blood evaporated when Naruto snuffled once and then started to cry messily. "She kept saying bad things about Iruka-nii, and they're not true, they're not--"

Lee, who until this moment had been silent, said, "Ino-chan said you didn't really want to adopt Naruto, that nobody wants him."

"That's not true," Iruka said automatically, and then gentled his voice. "Naruto, you know that's not true."

From the gulping sob that shook Naruto's body, it was clear that he wasn't, in fact, absolutely sure.

Iruka dropped down to his knees, held out his arms, and kissed his clean uniform goodbye. Naruto carefully put down his remaining two frogs and shuffled forward, still weeping, and Iruka pulled him in close. "Oh, Naruto," he sighed.

Naruto hiccuped. "Said you were going to give me away."

Iruka cupped the back of Naruto's head, all slippery with paint, and said low in Naruto's ear, "You listen to me, Umino Naruto -- I adopted you because I wanted to, and I'm not giving you up to anybody, you understand?"

Naruto pulled back to look at him, his face streaked with green paint and tears and his nose running.

Iruka gripped Naruto's shoulders. "Understand? On my honor as a shinobi of Konoha, you're my kid, no matter what."

"Even if I blew up part of the temple?" Naruto said in a small voice.

Iruka shut his eyes briefly. "Even then."

"Iruka-sensei," Tsukasa interrupted. "Naruto-kun. You get one more chance, you understand?" There was some dissatisfied muttering from the other parents, but Tsukasa looked less furious and more resigned.

"Thank you, Tsukasa-sensei. And of course we'll clean everything up," Iruka said, although he hardly relished the prospect.

"I'll help!" Lee said, raising his fist in the air in a blatant copy of Gai's usually gesture of enthusiastic determination.

"That's very kind of you, Lee-kun," Iruka said. The crowd started to disperse, and Iruka surveyed the damage. "Let's start by putting these frogs outside. I wonder where they all came from?" he asked, looking at Naruto out of the corner of his eye.

Naruto winced and applied himself industriously to frog-removal.

***

Iruka was sitting on the bench at the playground with a book, letting Naruto and Lee work off some excess energy by running around and yelling and making incidental use of the playground equipment. It was a nice day, not too hot, and he looked up periodically to make sure that nobody was bleeding.

"Good book?" someone said next to him, and Iruka nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Uh, yeah," Iruka said, and considerately turned the binding toward the stranger so he could see the title. "And yours?"

The man, who was masked and had only one visible eye, held up his book in return. Iruka nearly had an aneurysm -- here was this guy, cool as could be, reading that book in public, a book that had almost caused Iruka to combust while reading it in the privacy of his bedroom.

The man laughed lightly. "Well, that just improves my opinion of you."

"I'm sorry, have we met before?" Iruka asked carefully. He didn't really want to offend someone who had sneaked up on him so easily, even if he was reading a spectacularly smutty novel in broad daylight.

The man scratched the back of his head. "Nah, but Gai talks about you so much that I feel like we have, even if I try to ignore about ninety-five percent of everything he says."

Iruka put it together, then. "You're Gai-san's eternal rival," he blurted out, and then wished he hadn't.

Hatake Kakashi's lone visible eyebrow raised slightly at that. "Well, well, you have been spending some quality time together," he drawled.

Iruka could feel his face burn with embarrassment. "We -- I --"

Kakashi carefully turned a page. "Hasn't sealed the deal yet, has he. I keep telling him, there's taking it slow, and then there's letting the grass grow under your feet."

Iruka sputtered in a fit of indignation. "I don't care if you are his -- his friend or whatever, but that is none of your business."

"Oh?" Kakashi said, suddenly serious. "Because I could have sworn that Gai spent the evening with you before he made a pretty important decision. And that is my business." He was quiet for a moment, his eye moving up and down the page. "Also, he's hiding in the trees over there, waiting to ambush me with a challenge, and I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm trying to seduce you, which is inconvenient for me."

"Seduce me?" Iruka repeated blankly.

"Well, it's not like you're hard on the eyes. And you apparently like your men weird, so it's not as if it's entirely out of the realm of possibility."

Iruka shut his book abruptly. "Except that yes, it really is, because I would never," he snapped.

"Ouch," Kakashi said mildly.

Gai chose that moment to burst out of the foliage and land in front of them. "Greetings, Iruka-san!" he said in a warm-sounding bellow that made every head on the playground turn in their direction. "And you, my eternal rival -- I challenge you!"

"Not now, Gai, I'm at the good part," Kakashi said absently.

"I won't be put aside by your words, no matter how hip and modern," Gai said sternly, although his eyes kept flicking in Iruka's direction.

"Tell you what, Gai. It's a beautiful day, but not all of us tan so well. Why don't I go sit under that tree over there, and you can have my seat here on the bench?"

Gai looked torn.

"Unless you don't want to sit next to Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said, and no one was ever so ruthless while sounding completely offhand.

Gai's eyes snapped back to Iruka's and held them for a beat before dropping to one knee. "Iruka-san," he said, his tone almost anguished. "Please ignore Kakashi's unseemly insinuations -- of course I wish to sit next to you."

"That kind of requires sitting on the bench, and not, say, kneeling on the ground," Kakashi said helpfully.

Iruka glared at him, and then reached out for Gai's hand, gently tugging him up to the bench that Kakashi instantly vacated.

There was a careful amount of space between them on the bench, and Iruka let his right hand rest there. It took the better part of twenty minutes of watching Lee and Naruto play a modified version of Rescue the Daimyo with some younger children, before Gai slowly uncrossed his arms and hesitantly edged his hand next to Iruka's, and then clasped it firmly.

They stayed that way, Gai's thumb stroking Iruka's palm in distracting patterns, until Naruto lost a fight with the force of gravity and Iruka judged that it was time to go home.

***

Hand-holding in public must have been some sort of watershed moment in Gai's conception of romance, because there was an insanely large bouquet of hand-picked posies waiting for him on his desk in the teachers' room the next day.

Mizuki made a face when he saw them, somewhere between having just sucked a lemon and trying not to laugh like a lunatic. "Must have been some night," he said.

"It's not like that," Iruka muttered.

Mizuki plucked out a card that had been just hidden from Iruka's view. "'From your fervent admirer'?" he read, incredulous.

Iruka went bright red and unsuccessfully tried to snatch the card back from Mizuki.

"It's so first-year I could die," Mizuki said, almost doubling over with laughter.

"Let me help you with that," Iruka growled.

"But seriously," Mizuki wheezed, after Iruka clobbered him and reclaimed the card, "You and Maito Gai?"

"Where did you hear that?" Iruka asked, narrowing his eyes

Mizuki looked distinctly unimpressed. "There were plenty of people over the age of ten at that playground, and they're not going to miss it when a jounin wearing green spandex offers to duel the legendary copy-nin for your hand."

Iruka gaped at him. "That is not what happened."

"But you are involved," Mizuki said, looking shrewdly at him. "Iruka, do you really think that's a good idea?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Iruka," Mizuki said, as if he were a particularly slow student, "Maito Gai is crazy."

"Oh, he is not," Iruka said dismissively.

"No, he really, really is, and you would have said the same before you adopted that kid. How much more attention do you need, Iruka, that you have to adopt the thing that killed your parents and offer yourself up to a nutjob who wears legwarmers and regularly destroys the east training ground?"

Iruka jerked back, caught between hurt and furious. "That's not -- you don't know them at all if you'd say that. You don't know me."

"Really? Then give me an explanation, Iruka, something I can understand. Because I've known you since before the Nine Tails attacked, and I know you used to get in trouble just to make anyone look at you. And now, out of the blue you're doing these things without even telling me, and if it's not for everyone to notice you, then I don't understand why."

Iruka looked at him helplessly. "I don't know what to tell you."

Mizuki's hands clenched. "Then I don't have anything to say to you right now," he said, and stalked out of the room.

Iruka watched him go, and then he sighed unhappily before rounding up two vases to put the flowers in.

***

Iruka's weekly shougi game with Sandaime had turned into every other week since he had adopted Naruto, and while he'd sort of felt bad about foisting Naruto off on Izumo and Kotetsu in the Mission Room while he did so, he was always glad for the chance to spend some time with Sandaime.

Particularly times like these, when he needed some advice.

They began their game slowly, not in any particular hurry. Iruka knew that he had only a pedestrian gift for shougi, but sometimes he could still surprise Sandaime. And anyway, his skill at shougi wasn't the point of these afternoons, and never had been. Even at twelve, he'd seen this for the ruse that it was -- a way to keep Iruka in his seat for more than five minutes and get him to talk.

Iruka moved a foot soldier, and then, still staring at the board, said, "I had a fight with an old friend this week."

"Oh?" Sandaime said, and when Iruka peeked up, Sandaime was still scanning the board instead of looking at him. That made things easier, somehow.

"He accused me of adopting Naruto just to get attention," Iruka said, and he could hear how miserable he sounded.

Sandaime smoked his pipe for a few moments in silence. "If attention was all you wanted, there are easier ways to get it," he suggested wryly.

Iruka couldn't help it -- his lips twitched into a smile. "Well, that's certainly true. I just -- is that what people really think of me?"

"And if it was?" Sandaime captured his silver general.

Iruka looked at the board without really seeing it. "It wouldn't matter," he said finally. "I wouldn't stop loving Naruto."

Sandaime tapped his pipe. "Iruka, that you can see yourself in Naruto is one of your strengths, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Keep doing what you're doing."

"I'm not sure I'm good at this. I'm not sure I'm doing it right. He almost burned down the temple school," Iruka fretted.

"And this is so dissimilar to another young boy I once knew. In particular, I recall an incident with the Academy's toliets," Sandaime said, his voice bone-dry. "Nobody does it right, Iruka. We can only do our best."

Iruka pondered that through the rest of their game, and conceded to Sandaime in the end. Although, he was proud to note, not without giving him a fight.

"Oh, and Iruka," Sandaime said, as Iruka was on his way out the door. "Please do make every effort to enjoy the springtime of your youth."

Iruka strongly considered dying of embarrassment, and gave Sandaime a short bow before fleeing.

***

Iruka loved festivals, and there was some part of him that was over the moon at getting to share this with Naruto for the first time. Naruto didn't say as much, but it wasn't hard to deduce that he'd never been to a festival properly before, and the naked longing in his eyes when Iruka pulled out a yukata he'd worn when he was Naruto's age was almost too much to bear.

"There, now," Iruka said, after he'd tugged Naruto's sash into place. "Stand up straight and let me see."

Naruto looked unsure, but obediently let his arms fall to his side and stopped slouching.

Iruka grinned, and took a quick picture. "Well, don't you clean up nice," he said, putting the camera down and fussing with his own sash.

"When are we going?" Naruto asked, perilously close to a whine.

"As soon as Gai-san and Lee-kun get here," Iruka said, for probably the fifth time in ten minutes.

There was a knock shortly after, and Iruka pulled open the door to see Gai and Lee, for once wearing something other than their usual spandex. Lee's yukata bore his family crest, and Gai, it seemed, couldn't leave his trademark color behind entirely -- although his yukata was in a stern, dark green instead of the brighter hue of his jumpsuit.

"Good evening!" Iruka said cheerily, sliding on his geta. Naruto and Lee were already halfway down the stairs when Iruka registered that Gai wasn't moving. To be strictly accurately, Gai was staring at Iruka, slack-jawed.

"Um, Gai-san?" Iruka said, waving his hand a little near Gai's face.

"Iruka-san," Gai said. "May I say -- may I say, you look lovely."

"Hey, now," Iruka said, keeping his tone light, "is that the kind of thing you say to a man?" He self-consciously ran his fingers through his hair, lying loose around his shoulders.

"But it's true," Gai insisted, and the weight of his gaze made Iruka feel even warmer than he already was in the mid-summer heat.

"It's kind of you to say so," Iruka said, but it wasn't quite what he wanted to say. Everything he could think of to say in return about Gai's yukata seemed to involve a jumpsuit comparison, and he really didn't want to go there, mostly because it was sort of growing on him. So he carefully leaned up to brush a kiss against Gai's cheek.

"Ewwwww," Naruto said from downstairs, his nose wrinkled. Lee, for his part, looked disturbingly starry-eyed.

Iruka rolled his eyes, and said to Gai, "Shall we?"

Naruto wasted no time in seizing one of Iruka's hands in his own, in blatant copy of the other families on their way to the shrine, and Iruka could feel Gai's hand brushing his for a good five minutes as they walked before he tangled their fingers together.

They made their way up the stairs to the shrine, and Iruka only narrowly prevented Naruto from making an immediate dash to the takoyaki stand. "Come on, let's write down some wishes first," he said.

"All right," Naruto huffed, and let himself be tugged over to the table that had been set up, colorful slips of paper and brushes at the ready. "I can do it, I can do it!" he said, when Iruka moved to help ink the brush.

"Well, then, I'll just write my own Tanabata wishes," Iruka said. He wasn't much of a poet, but he always gave it his best shot at Tanabata. He'd been thinking of this year's wish poem for some time, and wrote it down with a smooth, confident hand. When he was done, he carefully folded the paper and tied it to the nearby bamboo. Gai was still staring at his paper as if in deep thought, before he brandished his brush and attacked the paper with all the vigor Iruka had come to expect from him.

Lee attempted likewise, although in his case, it resulted in a great many ink splotches. He looked a little disheartened, but Gai just clapped him on the back and said, "Some geniuses are born, and some are made through hard work! You can be a genius of hard work, Lee, even in the mighty art of the brush!"

"Yes! Gai-sensei!" Lee shouted, and then folded up his paper slip and tied it to the bamboo, wet pools of ink and all.

"Takoyaki takoyaki takoyaki," Naruto sang.

"Okay, okay, takoyaki it is," Iruka said, and let Naruto pull him off in the direction of the stand with a rather enormous octopus balloon.

The boys played a few games before the lure of dango grew too strong, and afterward, Iruka took them to the temple school's tent as promised, to do their part in the fundraiser.

Naruto looked suspiciously at the whole set-up. "I thought you said this was going to be fun," he said.

Iruka crouched down. "See that line of people? Your job, Naruto, is to hit them with these water balloons."

Naruto looked unimpressed.

"They have slime in them," Iruka confided in a whisper, which Lee also heard.

Naruto and Lee traded a look, which clearly conveyed that this was awesome. Iruka personally didn't know what to make of the skilled shinobi who paid for the chance to evade small children hurling dubiously-filled projectiles and then contorted themselves in laughable positions before purposefully letting themselves get hit, but it was rather sweet of them (if messy).

"I'll come pick you up for fireworks," Iruka said, and waved to Tsukasa, who was watching over the horde of children.

He and Gai attracted a few odd looks as they meandered through the festival, although Iruka didn't know if it was due to the unfamiliar sight of the two of them together, or the unfamiliar sight of Gai sans spandex. Iruka resolved to ignore it anyway, because it was a beautiful night and he was honestly having a good time.

He told Gai as much, and Gai gave him a version of the Nice Guy smile that Iruka was starting to realize was just for him. "Perhaps you would be interested in seeing my favorite stargazing place," Gai said. "The festival lights can make it difficult to see."

It said something about Gai that Iruka was actually unsure whether that was a line. From anyone else, he would have definitely said it was an invitation to get it on, but there existed the strong possibility that Gai intended nothing more than to show him a particularly good place to see the stars to which the Tanabata festival was dedicated.

"Lead the way," Iruka said, and Gai reached for his hand again.

They ended up not too far from the shrine grounds, in a clearing in the woods that was relatively unpolluted by the festival lights. Iruka looked up and saw Orihime and Hikoboshi, bright in the sky, and he could maybe be forgiven for taking an extra half-second to register how close Gai was standing to him.

"Iruka-san," Gai said, his voice low. And apparently he was incredibly wrong about it not being a line, because Gai carefully placed his hands on Iruka's hips. "Of course I hold you in the highest respect," he said, dipping his head until his mouth was almost against Iruka's, and the tease of being almost there made a shiver go through Iruka. "And I have been told that my pace can be a bit too energetic for some, so of course Iruka-san should tell me if I am too forward or in any way--"

Iruka wrapped his arms around Gai's neck and pulled him down into a kiss.

Gai must have been genuinely worried about going too fast, because he kissed Iruka achingly slowly, as if he didn't want to give Iruka any cause for alarm. If anything, the slow, simmering pace made Iruka all the more aware of how much Gai was holding back, how much was tightly leashed.

Mizuki was right about one thing: Iruka used to love making mischief, and he found in this moment that he hadn't entirely lost his taste for it. Or at least, that was the only reasonable explanation he could find for doing the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull, namely, stepping in flush against Gai's body and rolling his hips forward.

Gai groaned against Iruka's lips, and he couldn't help gasping, himself -- it wasn't as though yukata were thick, and if he could plainly feel Gai's heat and hardness, then Gai could feel him, as well. And gone was all the careful, restrained kissing, to be replaced by something more frenzied and urgent, then Gai was pulling aside Iruka's yukata collar and kissing down his neck. Iruka would have reciprocated in some way, except that Gai had one hand in Iruka's hair, gentle but firm as he bared Iruka's neck and shoulder, and Iruka shouldn't have found that hot but he obviously did, gasping when Gai nipped at the base of his throat.

It was only when Gai worked his thigh in between Iruka's legs that he remembered that he really, really couldn't have sex in the forest, no matter how much he wanted to. "Gai-san, we have to stop," he said.

Gai froze exactly where he was, both hands still on Iruka's ass. His voice sounded hoarse as he said, "Have I given some offense, Iruka-san? I can do it differently, just tell me--"

"No, that's not it," Iruka said, pulling back to look Gai in the eye. "We have to go get the boys. Fireworks, remember?"

"Ah," Gai said, looking relieved, but then his gaze turned considering. "I've no wish to rush you, Iruka-san -- if my pace was too exuberant, you only need to say the word. I'm overjoyed with even this much closeness."

"I want more," Iruka said bluntly. "Tonight. Unless you think I'm being too forward."

"Never," Gai said, and caught Iruka's mouth in one more toe-curlingly good kiss before they went back to the shrine.

***

When it was time to go home, it was as if both Naruto and Lee simultaneously ran out of steam, and Iruka and Gai ended up carrying them home on their backs.

"It reminds me of when I was a kid," Iruka whispered to Gai, not wanting to wake either of the boys up. Which was pretty unlikely, given the quality of Naruto's almost-snores in his ear.

Lee, likewise, was completely sacked out on Gai's back. "Your parents did this often?" Gai asked.

Iruka smiled. "My father did, until I got too old. Did yours?"

Gai was quiet for a moment. "When I was younger," he conceded finally, and there was a wealth of meaning in that statement, but Iruka didn't want to press.

The boys didn't even wake up when Iruka and Gai laid them down on the futons in Naruto's room, and Iruka didn't have the heart to wake them to change out of their yukata. So he left them be, sliding the door shut, and turning to face Gai.

"It's not much of a porch, but maybe you'd like to join me for a cup or two?" Iruka said, nodding his head to the balcony.

"I would be delighted," Gai said solemnly.

It wasn't much of a brand of sake, either, but they toasted the stars and drank it anyway. "What did you wish for?" Gai asked.

"A few things I've never wished for before, so I'm not going to tell you," Iruka said, smiling to soften his words.

"Ah," Gai said. "I would never want to jeopardize your wishes." He said it jokingly, but Iruka could tell it was sincerely meant.

"Still," Iruka said. "I suppose I could let you in on part of it."

"No, no, keep your secrets, Iruka-san."

"I didn't say I was going to tell you," Iruka said, glancing over his cup at Gai.

"Then how do you--"

"Not with words," Iruka clarified.

Gai set down his cup with a quiet clink, and reached for Iruka's.

"Hey, I'm not done," Iruka said in protest.

Gai took it anyway, and spared one look for the remaining contents before tossing it back. "Iruka-san," he said. "Would you grant me the great privilege of taking you to bed?"

Iruka thought for a moment that it was his bed, so if anyone was taking anyone anywhere, it was Iruka. But he didn't know who he thought he was kidding, because he'd wanted this since their trip into the forest that evening, and even before that. And he was more than a little charmed by being asked so in such an old-fashioned way.

"Please," Iruka said. He stood, reaching down a hand to help Gai up.

His bedroom was dark, but there was still enough light from the moon and stars to see, and Iruka was loathe to alter the atmosphere by turning on a lamp. He locked the door, and formed the hand seals for a basic silencing jutsu. It was one that he frequently used in class to contain the noise of explosions and general rowdiness, and to prevent disturbing the classrooms next door. However, he was sure that he was far from the only adult in Konoha who had adapted it to this purpose.

Gai pressed him against the door, and started in again with those careful kisses, fingertips sliding just inside the collar of Iruka's yukata collar before withdrawing again. After a few moments, they broke the kiss, and Gai hooked his thumb around Iruka's collar and pulled it back. "Ah," he said.

Iruka turned his head a little, but he couldn't see anything. "What?"

Gai's thumb stroked the skin on his neck. "I'm afraid I marked you earlier with my passionate enthusiasm."

Only Gai could say words straight out of Icha Icha Paradise and mean them sincerely. "Mark me some more," Iruka said, in the hope that he could get Gai to stop treating him like he was breakable.

He judged it a success when he ended up flat on his back in bed, their underwear discarded, and Gai pushing himself fully against Iruka and kissing that spot on his neck again. Iruka didn't have a lot of attention to spare, but it didn't take much to brush his fingertips over the cotton covering Gai's hardened nipples, and the thrust of Gai's hips against his in response just made him that much eager to touch bare skin. Gai leaned up on his forearms, allowing Iruka to pull his yukata open, and when Iruka moved down just a little to taste as well, Gai let out a gratifying groan before returning the favor.

There was a moment when Gai paused in the middle of his quest to do just as Iruka had asked and leave more marks, and when he looked down at Iruka, Iruka was sure that no one had ever looked at him with a tenth of the emotion in Gai's eyes. He hadn't specifically written this down for his Tanabata wish, but then, he hadn't known that something like this could be for him, because of him. So he pulled Gai down into another kiss, hoping to convey his own feelings through the language that Gai understood best.

It wasn't long before he was bucking up against Gai, trying to get closer, to get more, and Gai had him halfway out of his yukata but it wasn't enough. Iruka flung out one hand for his bedside table, hit the wood sharply in frustration when he couldn't summon the presence of mind to disable the locking jutsu on the first try, and then successfully fished the lube out of the drawer. He had only just pressed it into Gai's hand when Gai abruptly rolled them over so that Iruka was on top.

"Iruka-san," Gai said, and it might have been a question or a warning, because he felt Gai's hand sliding up the back of his thigh under his rucked-up yukata. "Iruka-san, look at me," Gai said, and it wasn't a command. It was a request, as considerate and gentle as the slick finger that Gai pressed inside him. Iruka relaxed into it, mouth open as he adjusted, and his eyes fixed on Gai's. Gai was paying what Iruka might describe as serious, analytical attention to Iruka's responses, which might have struck Iruka as cold and unaffected except that Gai didn't waste much time in giving Iruka three fingers once Iruka had writhed and panted and pushed back onto Gai's hand demandingly, and he obviously was affected -- his cheeks were red and he was watching Iruka's face with such naked, obvious hunger that Iruka really couldn't stand it anymore. He reached down to flip Gai's yukata out of the way, stroked Gai's cock once before Gai's fingers tangled with his, slippery with more lube, and then he braced his hands on either side of Gai's head, letting Gai hold his cock in place while Iruka sank down on it.

Iruka moved slowly at first, only rising a little before coming back down, but Gai kept his hips firmly on the bed, still watching Iruka intently. Iruka's yukata was hanging off his shoulders, and he thought about pulling it off entirely, except that Gai's was pulled half open, and his hair was mussed and his face flushed, and that was hot, so Iruka just thrust down harder, taking all of Gai inside, and said, "Gai-san, you can -- you don't have to hold back."

Gai obediently thrust up into him, but the firm grip he had on Iruka's hips clearly indicated that he had other things in mind. If Iruka had thought about it, he could have maybe guessed that Konoha's taijutsu expert could read Iruka's body like an open book, and that there was nothing random about the rhythm of Gai's thrusts against him, that Gai was purposefully keeping Iruka from coming by backing off when he got too close. He wasn't sure how long Gai could keep him teetering on the edge, hands hold Iruka's hips still as he thrust up, but Iruka was too far gone to want to figure it out, he only wanted Gai to cut loose already, and he thumped the bed with one hand in frustration and moaned, "Gai, give it to me."

It would have made him blush to death under any other circumstances, but right now it was fine, it was necessary, because Gai groaned and rolled them over and gave it to him, and it seemed like sensory overload, damp skin and rumpled yukata and hard, perfect strokes right where Iruka needed them, and when he came, he hadn't known that he could make that kind of vulnerable, choked cry. Gai smoothed one hand over Iruka's hair, gave him a moment, and then thrust in a few last times, slow and drawn-out like he didn't want it to end, before he groaned and the muscles in his back under Iruka's hands went tight, then relaxed.

Some time later, Gai sacrificed the inside of his yukata sleeve to a quick clean-up, and settled down on the bed next to Iruka. The bed wasn't wide, by any means, but since Gai was all wrapped around him anyway, it would do. "Iruka-san," Gai said after a moment. "About your Tanabata wishes..."

Iruka just smiled, squeezed Gai's hand once, and they both drifted off to sleep.

***

The morning after was surprisingly not awkward, largely because Gai surfaced from sleep, kissed Iruka's shoulder, and mumbled something about training and staggered out of bed.

"I'll make breakfast," Iruka said, and promptly rolled over to go back to sleep. When he woke up again, it was a far more sane hour, and he threw on a t-shirt and a clean-ish pair of pants before wandering to the kitchen. He stared at the inside of his fridge for awhile, before deciding that eggs were a safe bet. Gai was sure to need the protein after training. And after --

Iruka shut the fridge firmly, willing down his blush. He ought to make sure that the boys were awake before he started making food.

As it turned out, Gai must have taken Lee with him, because only Naruto was still conked out on his futon, limbs splayed out like some sort of mutant starfish in a yukata. He was kind of ridiculously cute, and Iruka felt his heart go a little wobbly at the sight. He figured he'd let Naruto sleep until the smell of breakfast cooking roused him.

Wandering back to the kitchen, he investigated his vegetable situation, and figured that the leeks and mushrooms looked okay enough. He was just cracking eggs into a bowl when something caught his attention, and without a second thought, he pitched one of the eggs in his hand in the direction of the window and brought up the whisk to -- well, presumably, to defend himself.

Hatake Kakashi was holding the egg in one hand. It was still in one piece, which made Iruka hate him a little. "So," Kakashi said.

"Get out of my kitchen," Iruka said evenly, lowering the whisk.

"I think we need to have a small conversation," Kakashi said, remarkably casually for someone crouching on a window ledge while holding an egg.

"Really."

Kakashi's visible eyebrow lifted in a way that suggested he was smiling, and Iruka sighed in defeat.

"So, Gai tells me that his feelings for you are 'virile and ardent' --"

Iruka squeezed his eyes shut, as if he could ward this off by not looking.

"Although I'm guessing you got the 'virile' part already, and how," Kakashi said, entirely too cheerfully.

Iruka opened his eyes again and scowled at him. "Do you mind?"

"Well, clearly you didn't, if your neck is anything to go by," Kakashi said. "But anyway. Of course, when I say that Gai told me about his feelings, I should mention that he really sort of announced it to the entire village."

"Ah," Iruka said faintly.

"So, I'm thinking he's pretty serious about you."

"I see."

Kakashi scratched the back of his head. "So, the thing is. Gai is, well, very, very Gai, if you take my meaning."

Iruka nodded, not entirely mystified. Gai was his own sort of descriptor.

"And we've known each other a long time, so he talks at me a lot about stuff. My point is, if you break his great big green spandex heart, I'm going to have to hear about it. I'd like to take this opportunity to emphasize that it would be pretty inconvenient for that to happen." He paused. "Inconvenient for me, I mean."

"Right," Iruka said slowly. "Well, I'll certainly try to avoid inconveniencing you, Kakashi-san."

Kakashi tossed him back the egg, which Iruka caught and then cracked into the bowl. "By the way, Gai's going to be another ten minutes or so. He lost the challenge this morning, so he's walking around the village on his hands."

"Thanks," Iruka said, and nodded in what he thought was clearly a dismissal.

"Ah, Iruka-sensei, I don't suppose you could make up an extra plate?" Kakashi said hopefully.

Iruka eyed him warily, and then decided that Kakashi was, after all, Gai's eternal rival, so he probably should get used to him being around. "Fine, but you're on chopping duty," he said, and pointed at the vegetables on the cutting board.

He saw Kakashi's eye curve up again, and though he couldn't actually see Kakashi smile, Iruka was still somehow sure that it was a real one, this time. "Deal," Kakashi said, and hopped down off the window ledge.

***

Maybe, Iruka thought, Gai would be waiting when he got home. Gai had never actually said, but even if he wasn't ANBU anymore, there were still more than enough A-rank missions to go around. The difference was that Gai could at least give Iruka a vague estimate of how long he might be gone. He'd been gone for two weeks already, but since he had whispered, "Seventeen days" into Iruka's ear before kissing the daylights out of him, Iruka figured he'd be back any day now.

Naruto was spending the afternoon at the Lee family compound, so Iruka had taken the opportunity to run some errands and go grocery shopping in peace. He was just about to unlock his front door when Mizuki took a leap off a nearby roof and swung on to the balcony next to Iruka.

"Come quickly," Mizuki said, sweat beads on his forehead. "Naruto's been hurt."

Iruka dropped his grocery bag right there and followed Mizuki. "What happened?" he called, following Mizuki from roof to roof and then into the trees.

"There was an accident," Mizuki said shortly, and Iruka decided to save his breath in favor of running faster. He was trained for this, trained to do his duty no matter how he thought or felt, but he'd never had this sour, sharp fear sitting in his stomach before, either. He'd worried after team leaders, teammates, friends, and clients, but this was different than the rest, and unbelievably worse.

He had expected to see a crowd of people, but when Mizuki halted and jumped down to the ground, there was only Naruto, standing in the middle of the clearing, looking not at all hurt and even a little excited.

"Mizuki?" Iruka said in confusion. It wasn't that he wasn't grateful that Naruto wasn't hurt after all, but what the hell?

"Iruka-nii!" Naruto called, smiling widely. "Mizuki-sensei said he was going to show us something really cool."

And that was when Iruka heard the tell-tale rotation of shuriken in the air, and he took one at the knee and another in the shoulder as he snatched Naruto out of their path. And then he heard two slower rotations, lower in pitch, and he knew in that moment that he could not evade two large shuriken and keep Naruto safe.

That didn't mean he was prepared for how much it hurt when one pierced his back. And when Mizuki hauled him to his feet by his hair, the burst of pain he felt when Mizuki pressed on the large shuriken, embedded dangerously close to his spine, almost made him pass out. "Back up, Iruka, and behave yourself," Mizuki said, his voice a parody of pleasantry. "Or I'll set off that trap your little demon is sitting right in the middle of."

Iruka saw the exploding tags then, and Mizuki pulled them both back beyond their range.

"Iruka-nii," Naruto cried out, high and frightened.

"Listen up, Naruto-kun. There's something you're going to do for me," Mizuki said, and Iruka felt the edge of a kunai under his jaw. "You're going to steal a very important scroll, and you'll do it quickly and tell no one, or I'll slit Iruka's throat."

***

"I wonder if he'll bring it back before you bleed out?" Mizuki asked conversationally, yanking the large shuriken out of Iruka's back after he had bound Iruka's hands.

Iruka's vision swam for a long, sickening moment. "He's not coming back," Iruka said through gritted teeth, trying to ride out the pain. "He'll go straight to the Hokage."

Mizuki clucked his tongue. "And leave his dear, dear Iruka-nii to die in the woods? Please. Everyone in the village hates him -- if you bite it, he'll be alone with that hatred again." He paused for a minute. "But that's not exactly right. I think he's never stopped being alone."

"Are we talking about Naruto or about you?" Iruka asked. "I never would have thought you would turn traitor."

"You don't think about me at all," Mizuki spat. "All these years, I've done everything right, everything to make people recognize me -- and you, Iruka the screw-up, just have everything fall in your lap. Even the Hokage recognizes you, and what for? Because your parents died? Don't try to tell me that you don't hate the brat for that."

Iruka heard someone moving toward them, and identified it as Naruto. And he wished he could shut Mizuki up, even more than he wished he could stop hurting, because Mizuki called out, "Who would blame you for hating him? Naruto is a demon fox who killed your parents."

"No," Iruka managed to say, even though he felt sluggish, like his body wouldn't respond. He'd lost a lot of blood already, enough to know that the fact he wasn't really worried about it was a bad sign. "He's not."

"What?" Naruto said faintly, looking at Mizuki with something like confusion and suspicion, all rolled together.

"Didn't you wonder? Didn't it seem strange to you that everyone hated you so much? It's a secret that everyone knows, except for you. Uzumaki Naruto is the Demon Fox of Nine Tails."

The scroll still clutched in his arms, Naruto said quietly, "You're wrong."

Mizuki laughed, short and without humor. "Sorry, kid. The truth hurts, and all that."

"You're wrong," Naruto repeated, sounding absolutely sure of himself. "I'm Umino Naruto, and you're going to stop hurting my nii-san."

"Do you seriously think you can make me, you little --" Mizuki was cut off, and there was a sudden rush of air displacement. Iruka's body was reacting before his mind quite caught up, and he used his last reserves of energy to duck and step out of the way just in time to see the shocked look on Mizuki's face before a fist connected with it and sent Mizuki plowing through the dirt.

"Iruka-san is my precious person," Maito Gai said, fierce and utterly deadly. "I would use the Lotus to defend him, but I won't need it today. Not for someone as unworthy as you."

Mizuki had the good sense to look very afraid.

Iruka dropped to his knees, unable to keep standing anymore. He heard movement behind him, but it was Lee, who started to work on Iruka's bindings with the kunai Mizuki had dropped. "Lee," he said urgently, "Take Naruto and get out of here." His vision started to go dark around the edges, and he heard the sound of Gai pummeling Mizuki stop when Lee called his name, and then he blacked out entirely.

***

He woke up slowly, taking stock with his senses before opening his eyes. There was something warm at his feet, and for a moment, he was confused -- he didn't have a pet. What would be curled up on the end of the bed?

He was lying on his stomach, and when he carefully craned his head around to look, he could just see spiky blond tufts of hair at the foot of his hospital bed, and realized that it was Naruto, folded up around his feet like some living piece of origami. And when he turned his head the other way, he saw Gai sleeping in a chair at his bedside. At least, he thought Gai was sleeping until Gai opened his eyes, blinked once, and then a radiant smile took over his face -- and where Gai was concerned, radiant smiles weren't hyperbole.

"Iruka-san!" Gai said in what he had probably intended to be a whisper. "You're awake!"

"This isn't how I--" Iruka stopped, his throat dry, and Gai offered him a sip of water from a cup with a straw. "Not how I wanted to welcome you back," he finished. "How did you find us?"

"Lee followed Naruto when Mizuki led him to the forest," Gai said. "And then he came and found me as I was leaving the Hokage's Tower."

"Good timing," Iruka said, letting his eyes fall shut again.

He felt Gai slowly stroke his fingers through Iruka's hair. "You don't know how good," Gai said, and it must have been whatever was in the IV, because he thought he heard a little wobble in Gai's voice.

"Gai-san," Iruka breathed, and then he slid back into sleep.

***

As it turned out, Gai was an awesome nursemaid. Which was probably for the best, because Iruka was a correspondingly terrible patient. He could barely keep a lid on his temper, and he loathed being bored. And to add to that, he didn't know what was worse about his wound: the throbbing pain, or the fact that as it began to heal, it also began to itch.

"Iruka-san, I believe you would benefit from another one of my Special Revitalizing Massages!" Gai said, when he caught Iruka trying to reach the middle of his back to scratch around the edge of his bandage.

"Well, if you think so," Iruka said with a reluctance he didn't feel, and let Gai arrange his body to Gai's exacting standards before doing wonderful, wonderful things to him. How Gai managed to loosen the muscles in Iruka's back without aggravating his injury was a matter of some curiosity for Iruka, but not enough that he actually wanted to interrupt to ask. And when, at the end, Gai did actually carefully scratch around the taped edges of his bandage, Iruka moaned with relief.

"Would you like me to read to you?" Gai asked later on, when Iruka had had enough of propping himself up on his elbows to watch something terrible on the television.

Iruka sighed and turned his head to face Gai. "What did you have in mind?"

Gai whipped out a book with a gaudy pink cover. "My eternal rival lent me this novel to entertain you on your heroic road to recovery."

Iruka twitched. "Oh, did he."

"I have not read it, but I am assured that it is a thoughtful, moving exploration of passionate youth," Gai said, and opened to the first page.

Considering the source, Iruka was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a rather sweet romance, and Gai's reading certainly didn't lack for dramatic intensity.

Iruka had envisioned a long stretch with Naruto insisting on sleeping right beside his bed, because the whole incident had scared him but good. Instead, when he'd been allowed to leave the hospital and return to their apartment, he found that his small bed had been replaced by a larger one, and Gai looked a little anxious.

"Iruka-san, I took the liberty of exchanging your bed for mine. I thought you'd be more comfortable. Of course I can switch them right back, just say the word," Gai said, even as he guided Iruka to lie down.

"You're going to sleep in Iruka-nii's old bed?" Naruto said skeptically, watching them from the doorway. "It's not very big."

Iruka could practically hear Gai's face go red. "Ah. Well. I thought I would sleep next to Iruka-san, actually."

"So you can protect him until he gets better?" Naruto said approvingly.

"Gai-sensei! You're so amazing!" Lee shouted.

"Er," Gai said, and both boys tramped off to Naruto's room for bed.

Iruka was trying not to laugh because the motion hurt, but he wasn't very successful. "Well, come here and protect me, Gai-san," he said, after he'd mostly gotten a hold of himself.

Gai obediently slid into bed next to him, but scrupulously avoided touching him. Iruka poked him in the arm, and said, "Gai-san, I'm okay," before laying his head down on Gai's shoulder, one arm thrown across Gai's chest.

He felt Gai's arm cautiously wrap around his waist, his hand resting on Iruka's lower back, well away from his injury. "Would you be offended, Iruka-san, if I said I wanted to protect you?" he asked quietly.

Iruka thought about it. "Only if you'd be offended if I said the same."

Gai was silent for a long moment, before he said very seriously, "I would be unoffended and even overjoyed."

"Well, then," Iruka said with a smile, and snuggled down a little and fell asleep.

***

"Iruka-san, I have something important to tell you," Gai said, after he had sat down next to him.

Iruka had progressed to sitting up carefully at the kotatsu, where he working through lesson plans. He put his pen down, though, and gave Gai his full attention. "Yes?"

"I have decided to become a jounin sensei, and to take Lee on as one of my genin students when he graduates from the Academy. It's all because of your fine example."

"That's wonderful," Iruka said sincerely. "Only, I'm not necessarily a good example, you know -- I've been a teacher for less than a year."

Gai gave him a brilliant smile and a thumbs up. "It is the beauty of the effort with which you strive to become an excellent teacher to young shinobi-in-training that inspires me. I know that you are working hard, and your skills can only improve."

"Thank you," Iruka said, both embarrassed and pleased by the praise. "That's...actually reassuring." He picked up his pen again. "You know, that's not at all what I thought you were going to tell me."

Gai's infamous eyebrows furrowed. "What did you think I was going to tell you?"

Iruka smiled a little. "I thought you were going to tell me that you--" He stopped, because Kakashi's stupid romance novels were clearly corrupting his brain. He'd gotten used to Gai's declarations, and he had just assumed that sooner or later, Gai was going to tell him (and everyone else in earshot) that Gai loved him. Gai had called Iruka his "precious person," had vowed to protect him, and had demonstrated with every action that he plainly cared very much for Iruka, but he hadn't actually said it straight out.

"Gai," he tried again. "You know that I--" and then he stopped again, because Gai's expression changed from confusion to such desperate hope that it was almost painful to see. Iruka had thought all this time that action was more important than words, but he hadn't stopped to think that Gai might really need him to say it. "I thought that you knew," Iruka said apologetically, eyes down, a little disappointed in himself.

"Knew what?" Gai asked, and he was so close to pleading that Iruka couldn't stand it.

"I thought you knew that I love you," Iruka said, and looked up.

Gai looked thunderstruck. His mouth worked silently for a few minutes, and then he cried out, "Oh, Iruka-san, you've made me the happiest man in Konoha! No, in the whole of the Fire Country! No, in the world!" He seized Iruka's face in his hands and covered it with enthusiastic kisses.

"Gai-san," Iruka said, laughing a bit in protest.

"I have been informed by no less than eight people that it is unseemly to declare my love for you from the rooftops, but I very much wish to, Iruka-san," Gai said, and Iruka had absolutely no doubt that he was dead serious, and that if Iruka gave him the okay, he'd be up on the roof in under five seconds.

"Stay here," Iruka said. "Stay here with me, Gai-san."

"Whatever you want," Gai said, and laid one hell of a kiss on him.

***

It was new student orientation day at the Academy, and Iruka and Gai had walked with Naruto to the front gate of the school grounds, despite Naruto's protestations that he was seven years old and could go by himself. Lee was waiting out front, and Naruto broke into a run to meet him. Naruto was almost vibrating with excitement, and he and Lee waved in their direction. "We're going now, Iruka-nii!" he hollered.

"Have a good day!" Iruka called back, and watched Tomoe-sensei herd the first years into a line for orientation.

Who would have believed that talking to the kid he'd first met out on a swingset a year ago would turn out like this? Naruto was laughing and engaging in some sort of friendly game with Lee that seemed to involve punching each other's palms and a complex (and possibly arbitrary) point system. He looked healthy and happy and Iruka was astonished all over again that it was real, that it had happened: Naruto was his kid and he seemed to be thriving. "I think I might cry," he murmured, and turned to look at Gai.

Gai was already actually weeping.

Iruka wrapped one arm around Gai's waist. "Lee's going to do great. He'll be fine," he said.

"I know," Gai said. "These are tears of pride and manly joy, Iruka-san!"

Iruka wiped away a bit of suspicious moisture from the corners of his own eyes. "They are, aren't they," he said. "Come on, Gai-san, let's go home."

Gai took his hand and they walked back down the road, the clamor of the school fading behind them.