A Boy and His Anbu by *Beasiesgal on deviantART
This is an old forest, more than just the collection of trees; it is also the haunt of spirits, of bitter memories, of demons who had once been murdered souls. Like all old forests, it has sections which are more dangerous than others. Yet, the Umino boy insists on playing here.
He is not a bad boy. He is just more curious than other children his age. However, for all intents and purposes, he is also a relatively normal child. He knows he is not allowed to play near this section, and yet he does; that is how children are, I've heard. He also knows that the masked guardians are not to be engaged in conversation and yet...he speaks freely to one.
Iruka sat on the leafy floor, firmly wedged in the space between one thick stalk of bamboo and its neighbour; he had been waiting for quite some time, and at his age, this was a rather serious undertaking indeed. He didn't squirm, he didn't breathe heavily. He was trying to be very, very still and he was going to win the game this time.
He felt a soft tickling sensation at his ear and pressed his lips together; it felt like one of the leaves, but he knew better. The tickling went away for a moment, then there was quick yank on his ponytail.
"Hey!" Iruka yelled, laughing. He tried to scramble up out of his space, but he flailed for a long moment, giggling merrily until strong hands gripped him under his armpits and pulled him out of his own entrapment.
He was lifted up in the air and turned around, seemingly as light as cloth, until he was settled on someone's hip.
"I'm not a baby," Iruka said, pouting even as he put his hands around his companion's neck. "Don't lift me up like one."
The other person said nothing; Iruka had never heard their voice before, never ever, and that was kind of okay. This person was Iruka's favourite person in the whole world, almost as much as his own parents. It was a boy, Iruka knew that much. He wasn't really sure how he knew; maybe it was the slender, strong arms, or just the way he walked. It wasn't an old boy either, even though they had really weird grey hair sticking up over their mask.
The mask was so awesome, Iruka thought, even as he reached out to stroke the surface of it. It was mostly white, and surprisingly warm to the touch. The eyeholes were dark slits, and Iruka could see the glitter of one eye, but not the other. There was a painted-on smile, but it wasn't a really happy smile, as far as Iruka was concerned. It was a...a sad smile.
"You came back early!" Iruka said, patting the cheek of his masked friend. "Did you eat regularly, ANBU-Boy?" Iruka leveled a very serious glare at him. His mother always asked Iruka if he ate something at school; he figured that it was an important question to ask, if she kept bringing it up like that.
The ANBU nodded, slowly.
"Did you get enough sleep?"
Another slow nod; the ANBU seemed amused.
"I'm really glad to see you. And now...tell me your name!" Iruka grabbed onto his ANBU's narrow shoulders as he yelled out this demand, shaking with all his puny might. This was another game of theirs, in which Iruka tried to wheedle out the ANBU's name and the masked boy would simply shake his head, over and over.
"Tell me!" Iruka would never expect to know, really; they weren't s'posed to tell, everybody knew that. He was just joking, trying to tickle the ANBU under his body armour, squirming in the ANBU's grip like a crazy monkey. He grinned as soft laughter drifted out from from under the mask.
"My name," the ANBU suddenly said in a low voice (and Iruka froze, delightfully shocked), "is the Dolphin's Friend."
Iruka blinked for a moment, then tilted back his head, and laughed and laughed. The sound filtered up into the bamboo, twirling with the wind among the leaves. That was funny! He was also laughing because it was nice to hear the ANBU speak for the first time. That made him so happy, he felt like as if joy was bubbling up in him, like water in the pots when his father was cooking dinner.
"And my name is Iruka," he said, when he managed to stop laughing. "I'm the ANBU's friend!"
"I'm not a good friend," the ANBU said, and abruptly tried to put Iruka on his feet. Iruka wrapped his legs around the ANBU's waist, and slung his arms around his neck even more tightly. "Iruka. Please stand up by yourself now."
"No." Iruka shook his head so hard that he felt the end of his ponytail whip against his cheeks. "You're sad now, and I don't like it." He frowned. "Did I make you sad?"
The ANBU shook his head, but Iruka wasn't convinced. Iruka hugged the masked boy, tightly; all limbs were engaged, squeezing as hard as he could. The ANBU let out a complaining wheeze.
"I'll squeeze the sad out of you!"
The ANBU laughed very loudly, and then quietened the sound, as if the echoes would bring shadows that even he couldn't get rid of. As far as Iruka was concerned, there was nothing his ANBU couldn't do; not even shadows were enemies to be feared.
His ANBU suddenly hugged him and murmured, "Thank you."
"No problem!" Iruka said, quite cheerfully, even though he had no idea what he was being thanked for. "I'm your friend."
He finally allowed himself to be let down so that the ANBU could walk him home. Iruka chattered on as they walked, and the ANBU was silent, seemingly content in allowing Iruka's words to wash over him as easily as the evening's warm rays.
Just before they stepped onto the main road (where the ANBU would let Iruka walk by himself, but he remained close by, watching and guarding from the cover of the tall shrubbery), the ANBU paused and looked back over his shoulder.
Iruka looked back too. "What is it?"
The ANBU, now regaining his taciturn silence, shook his head and relaxed his gloved fingers which had been gripping Iruka's; Iruka wondered how he had never been scratched by those dangerous claws.
"Next week?" Iruka asked, gazing up hopefully. The ANBU pulled up the cowl of his cloak, and shook his head. He held up three fingers and Iruka's face fell. "Three weeks? Awww."
Two of the fingers folded down, and the remaining one tick-tocked in a familiar warning. Iruka squinted.
"Okay, okay! I'll be good," he said and then his face gained a foxy expression. "I'll try."
The ANBU may have rolled his eyes, Iruka couldn't tell, and then stepped back into the growing shadows.
"Bye," Iruka said, even though he knew the ANBU was still there. He turned, and raced towards home, legs and arms pumping furiously. He imagined that the ANBU was streaking through the trees above him, a blur of white and red, watching over him. He laughed breathlessly, happily, as he ran.
I had wondered if I should tell the Umino family that their child has managed to befriend an ANBU; I decided that I wouldn't. It is a pure friendship, and I will not take that away from either of them.
Besides, the young ANBU has a friend again. I have always wanted happiness for that particular individual, for life as a shinobi is too short. He is the kind of person who thrives on simple pleasures, such as the trust and delight of a small, mischievous boy.
As his former sensei and now as his Hokage, at least I can give him that.