At about one in the morning, the knock to the front door of Iruka's apartment was really quite a peremptory sound: short, sharp and exact in the timing for each of the three muffled strikes against the timber. Startled, Iruka looked up from where he had been perusing a crackling scroll on teaching assessment, and glanced to the bedroom door which stood slightly open. The light from the cramped living area fell inside the bedroom, and he could see strands of Naruto's hair peeking out from underneath the covers of the bed. Naruto didn't shift at all, which was good. A few months ago, when he had first moved in with Iruka, Naruto would jump awake at any small noise, waking up Iruka to go investigate with fretful pokes of his cold fingers against Iruka's shoulder.
The knock occurred again, just as precise as it had been before. Iruka unfolded his legs and rose from the tiny table, striding over to press a hand against the surface of the door. He couldn't detect any chakra at all. Either a civilian was at his door at this time of the night, or someone with an intense amount of control. His traps were armed, but they would hold an individual of great power for only so long. He hoped the ANBU on duty were being extra watchful tonight.
He opened the door and blinked at the sight of the Jōnin Kakashi Hatake standing in the darkened corridor. Hatake was dressed in full field-gear, appearing worn and rumpled. His cloak was travel-stained, and he wore the hood up over his head as if he was still on a mission.
"Is the jinchūriki here?" he asked in a nearly toneless manner, and Iruka felt his face wrinkle in confusion. Hatake gave him a very long and very unreadable stare. "I went to check his apartment. The neighbour told me he stays with you now."
"Yes, he does," Iruka finally managed and then felt even more confused. He could only imagine the reaction of poor Yukiji-san, Naruto's elderly neighbour. She must have been quite bemused at being confronted by a tall, taciturn shinobi in the middle of the night. "Wait...why were you checking his apartment in the first place?"
Impossibly, Hatake's expression became more inscrutable. It was like trying to read the side of a mountain, and the mask wasn't helping in the least.
"That is my job." Hatake stressed the last two words ever so slightly, and stepped past Iruka with a smooth gliding motion, entering the tiny space he had shared with Naruto for the past six months. Iruka actually stood staring at the shadows in the corridor, nearly breathless at this display of presumption. With some effort, he swallowed down a wave of temper and shut the door, turning to give Hakate a look that he hoped was a great distance away from caustic, and closer to a polite blandness.
"Why is the jinchūriki in your home?" Hatake asked, standing the middle of the messy living area and looking around. He moved his head slowly, his eye tracking over Iruka's many shelves, crammed with the numerous items he had managed to salvage from his childhood home after it had been reduced to rubble after the attack of the Nine Tails. Hatake appeared to be cataloging Iruka's belongings. He turned on one heel to regard Iruka himself. It felt as if that everything in the flat had been tallied up, and had fallen woefully short.
Iruka took a moment to soften his jaw. He could feel the sharp pain from clenching his teeth. "Naruto is here because he wants to be here," he said. "And because I want him to be here."
To his credit, Hatake didn't seem stunned at Iruka's life-choices (some in the village called him 'foolhardy'; others just stuck with the 'fool' part). Instead, he tilted back his head very slightly and looked at Iruka from underneath a heavy eyelid. Iruka fully expected him to make some comment about the Nine-Tails being the cause of his parents death, but Hatake was apparently a contrary individual.
"You are not listed as one of the jinchūriki's approved custodians," he said and Iruka's surprise broke the tenuous hold he'd had on his irritation.
"What does it matter?" he bit out. "I take care of him. I've been taking care of him for quite some time. He needs a safe place to be and...and attention. And his name is Naruto!"
Hatake's bored expression did not shift. "I know what his name is. It's right above mine in a document filed and signed by both his parents. And my name happens to be in the section that says legal guardians." He actually huffed and rolled his eye. "This is what I get for accepting a mission for six consecutive months. My ward is kidnapped."
"I didn't kidnap him," Iruka said. His stomach twisted into hot and cold coils. "I saw him being treated unfairly. And I didn't like that. So--"
"So you removed him from his place of safety and carried him here." Hatake looked around at Iruka's home again, and twitched his shoulders in an extremely dismissive fashion. "Here, where there are no chakra wards. And under your watch, when you clearly do not have the rank nor the capacity to be in charge of his well-being."
With very deliberate care, Iruka unfurled his fingers from where they had been clenched so tightly that his short nails left painful half-moon shapes in his palm.
"Does he even know you?" he asked, as softly as he could and was meanly pleased to see a flicker of uncertainty in Hatake's expression. "What did you do, watch him from afar? Were you the one that kept leaving boxes of instant ramen on his doorstep?" Iruka laughed a little at the way Hatake's eye narrowed. "Right, so it was you. He's not a ninken puppy, you know."
Hatake started with, "I--", but Iruka was on a roll.
"And if I wasn't capable of taking care of him, why would the Sandaime allow me to take him in? Why didn't he just let ANBU watch over him until you returned to do your stalking and food delivery?" Iruka took a deep breath, and stepped forward. He could see the rising colour in Hatake's cheek, but he was filled with a reckless anger, so much so that the edges of his words were honed to sharp edges. "You want to know why? Because I actually care for him. You? You're just playing a role that some paper says you have to, like the fucking robot you are."
"Stand down, Umino," Hatake said in voice as cold as a winter storm. Iruka realised that he now stood so close, he was practically up in the jōnin's face. Iruka didn't give himself time to feel stunned at his own daring.
"Get out of my home," he hissed. "You might outrank me in the field, but you have no say here. Not when it comes to Naruto."
Hatake looked at him for a very long beat, and then his lips moved under his mask in a slow smile. Under any other circumstance, Iruka would have been terrified. It was a horrible smile; it promised, among other things, quite a large amount of personal damage, personally inflicted.
"We'll see," was all that Hatake said, but he was still smiling. He stepped past Iruka and strode towards the door. He was upon it in a few steps, mostly because his legs were disgustingly long and Iruka's place was really quite miniscule. He reached out to grab the handle of the door and Iruka realised that he had been wearing a pair of long gloves, with clawed nails.
Fuck me, Iruka thought dimly as Hatake opened the door and exited with an eerie silence. Iruka sank to the ground, sitting in a clumsy cross-legged manner. Then he leaned over and took a few deep trembling inhales.
"Hey, Iruka," Naruto called from where he sat at the short table and Iruka turned around to blink blearily at him. He had been so rattled from what happened last night that he hadn't gone to bed. Instead, he'd slept on the sorry excuse for a couch, an item of furniture which forced Iruka to curl up into a tight ball in order to fit properly.
"Yes?" he replied, still whisking the eggs in a bowl he held in the crook of one arm. His voice felt very creaky in his throat and he tried to clear it. However, it still felt sore, as if he'd been yelling. Naruto eyed him, his mouth pursed.
"Are you okay?" he finally asked. "You've been beating those eggs for about ten minutes."
Iruka looked down at the bowl, staring at the frothy mess in its depths. He wasn't sure if they could be cooked in this state, but he wasn't about to waste them. "I'm fine," he lied and Naruto's bright gaze dimmed.
"Gonna send me back to my own place?" he asked, his voice misleadingly light. "I mean, you're probably tired of me by now."
"Nope," Iruka said, very firmly as he tried to coax the eggs into some sort of shape in the pan. "Not even close. Try again."
"Aw, crap." Naruto pouted, but Iruka could hear the relief in his voice. "I mean, I've been doing everything to make you send me back. I'm a problem child, you know."
"Lies," Iruka pointed out, flipping the eggs into two plates and bringing them over to where Naruto sat. "You've been nothing but perfectly well-mannered."
Naruto's gasp was loud and overly dramatic. "Don't let anyone know that!"
Something in Iruka's chest loosened considerably. This had been the right decision. It had been right when he'd realised that the only place he saw the jinchūriki smile was in the ramen shop. It had been right because when he walked on the road with Naruto, no one thought to scowl at the little boy. They chose to gape at Iruka instead, which was a far better alternative in his humble opinion. When he'd told Naruto that he would like to be his guardian, Naruto had been completely suspicious for about five minutes; he was too much of a sweet soul to continue past that point.
Taking care of Naruto was so easy. He soaked up attention like a flower seeking the sun. He wasn't the neatest person, but neither was Iruka, and for the past six months they had found an easy balance. Iruka fed him and bought him clothing in shades other than eye-melting orange and told him horrible jokes that Naruto always laughed at...and sometimes Iruka dared to think this is my family when Naruto slumped against his side in the evenings as they sat on the awful couch, reading a book. He wished he had more time to train Naruto in preparation for the Academy, but he was still in training himself: being a teacher took a lot more than showing kids how to throw weapons. In addition, he still had his missions and had even taken on a few shifts at the Missions' Desk to increase his funds a little more. He'd get around to it...eventually.
"So what's the problem?" Naruto asked after he'd swallowed down a great portion of the breakfast. Iruka chewed in a contemplative fashion, and then shrugged.
"I'm not sure if it's that serious a matter yet," he said. "If it gets to be, I'll definitely tell you."
Naruto nodded solemnly and then a wry smile broke over his face. "Iruka, these eggs are awful."
"Ugh, I know," Iruka groaned, and they were both giggling over the horrible eggs when a knock sounded at the door, just the same as it had last night. Instantly, Iruka's stomach clenched into anxious knots.
"I'll get it!" Naruto sang out and before Iruka could stop him, he had scrambled up and sprung over to the entry. Flinging the door wide open, he blinked up at Hatake Kakashi, who levelled a very judgemental stare at Iruka over Naruto's head.
"I could have been an assassin," he told Iruka in very oily tones. "And you had him open the door."
"Luckily for us that you weren't, Hatake-san," Iruka answered with acidic sweetness and Naruto actually turned to look at him with eyebrows raised very high. Iruka kept his focus on Hatake, who seemed intent on drilling a hole through Iruka's face by the sheer force of his glare. "What do you want?"
Hatake tilted his head from side to side. "Oh, nothing much. Just delivering a summons to an emergency council of the village elders." His eye squinted shut in the most fake smile Iruka had ever seen. "Happening in, oh, ten minutes."
"Is this the way we're going to do it?" Iruka stood up so suddenly that he turned over the short table in his outrage. Breakfast scattered to the floor and Iruka tried to rein in his anger, because Naruto looked so confused. He took in a deep, shaking breath. "Okay. That's the way we do it. Fine. Naruto?"
"Yeah?" Naruto answered, drawing out the word very slowly. He glanced between Iruka and Kakashi with wide eyes.
"Please stay here until I get back, all right? Don't worry about the mess, I'll--"
"I'll get it, don't worry," Naruto said with a reassuring smile, flapping one hand in Iruka's direction. "I'll be here when you get back!"
Iruka couldn't help himself: he grinned at Hatake, quite sure that his face was filled with a contemptuous sort of triumph. The harsh glint in Hatake's eye seemed to confirm that thought.
"Shall we?" he asked and followed Hatake out the door.
Iruka chose to walk to the Hokage Tower instead of flitting from roof to roof as Hatake did. It gave him a chance to calm himself even more, and he liked the idea of having that supercilious bastard waiting on him. A shinobi at the Tower's front desk directed him to the assigned meeting room.
Four village elders gazed with varying degrees of interest as he entered, all seated on a platform to the left side of the room. The Hokage sat a platform on the right, legs folded under his long robes. Facing them, Hatake Kakashi stood at ease, hands clasped behind his back. Iruka took up a position to his left, hoping that his irritation came off in palpable waves to smother the jōnin.
"Hello, Iruka," the Sandaime said with a smile with deepened the crinkles in his cheeks. "Welcome to this special meeting of elders."
"Good day, Hokage-sama." Iruka bowed deeply from the waist. "Good day, honoured elders. Hatake-san," he finished from between stiff lips. Hatake did not reply.
"Jōnin Hatake has brought forward a complaint against you in regards to the jinchūriki," Elder Shiori said in her strong voice, which in no way matched her papery appearance. "He indicates that you have removed the child from his place of safety. Is that true?"
"It is true," Iruka confirmed, holding a very loose stance. "I took Naruto into my care. He was living on his own in this so-called place of safety, and was being ill-treated by members of his village."
"Well, can you blame them?" Yayoi-sama hissed from between her loose lips. Iruka didn't particularly like her. "The Nine Tails nearly destroyed us nine years ago."
Iruka kept his gaze fixed on a point on the wall to the back of the room. "Naruto is the host for the Nine Tails. He is not the Nine Tails. He is a little boy who needs a loving environment...a good home."
"And you think you can provide that in the hovel you call an apartment?" Hatake broke in softly. "That is no place to raise a child."
The Sandaime remained quiet, his hooded gaze resting on Iruka's face with intense concentration.
Iruka snorted. "At least I'm there. Elders, I know that I'm not one of Naruto's legally assigned guardians. But I think I'm--"
Elder Basho cut in with his usual sharp manner: "Iruka, how old are you?"
Iruka bit the inside of his lower lip before giving his reply: "Nineteen, sir."
The members of the Council tilted their heads and pursed their wrinkle-lined lips. "Old enough, I suppose," Elder Hachiuma rasped. "Although taking care of a child is a daunting task, not to mention that this particular child is the jinchūriki."
"Iruka has taken care of himself since the death of his own parents," the Sandaime put in, rubbing the material of his sleeves between his fingers in a deceptively idle fashion. "And he has helped his neighbours with the care of their children when they've gone on missions. With the support of the ANBU, the jinchūriki is in safe hands."
Despite this display of support from the Hokage, the elders didn't seem relieved. Iruka tried to breathe through the tight sensation in his chest.
"Considering the fact that Jiraiya-sama cannot be located at this time, Jōnin Hatake is currently the only legal guardian of the jinchūriki," Elder Yayoi declared. "He is powerful enough to provide protection to the child. He also has the means to control it if it gets out of control."
His name is Naruto! Iruka longed to scream at them. He's not an 'it'!
"At his rank, he is also financially stable," Elder Hachiuma added. "And he can officially adopt the jinchūriki into the Hatake clan. That would solve some lineage problems, wouldn't it, Hiruzen?"
"It would," the Sandaime said very softly, now looking at Hatake with his considering expression.
"Then that's solved, then!" Yayoi-sama said, quite cheerfully. Iruka kept himself standing as straight as he can, through sheer force of will.
Elder Shiori held up one hand, the skin so thin that Iruka felt he could see the mapwork of veins in her palm. "Wait. Kakashi, are you not still assigned to covert operations?"
"Yes, Shiori-sama," Hatake answered, and there was a terse note in his voice. The elder closed her eyes briefly.
"Fellow members of the council," she said. "I acknowledge Jōnin Hatake's legal standing, but he is not the most appropriate guardian. Konoha guardianship rules are very clear: covert operatives are not to be assigned the direct care of children in such a manner. Not without a non-operative partner."
"The jinchūriki can survive with just the assigned security detail, can't he?" Yayoi said, cupping her painted cheek in one hand, eyelids drooping even more. It gave her quite a sleepy air, although Iruka was sure that she could be deadly when required.
"No," Iruka heard himself say very forcibly. "That is not acceptable." He felt his cheeks get warm as the elders stared at him, obviously affronted.
"Iruka really believes that the jinchūriki needs a stable environment in which to grow," the Hokage said. "He is willing to provide that. But Iruka, you simply do not have enough resources at this time. You would need to attain a post which pays more than your assisting teachers' salary."
Out of the corner of his eye, Iruka saw Hatake lift his chin in a slight display of pending victory.
"Kakashi," the Hokage continued, "you are powerful, yes...but for you to be properly effective, you would have to leave your post in covert operations in order to give more focus to the rearing of a child. I am not sure if you are willing or able to do so."
Hatake's chin dropped. Iruka bit the inside of his lip once more.
"If they had been spouses, it would be acceptable," Elder Shiori murmured, her pale eyes now fixed unblinkingly at Iruka. "Wouldn't it?"
If the Hokage had gotten yet another grandchild, he wouldn't have appeared more pleased. "Shiori-sama, that is a wonderful idea! It would be very ideal, I think." He laced his fingers together, nodding slowly. "As Kakashi's spouse, Iruka would be a legally recognized guardian, and could continue to provide emotional stability. As Iruka's spouse, Kakashi would be accepted into the jinchūriki's life quite easily, and the Hatake name would serve as protection for the Uzumaki bloodline."
That is the craziest idea I've ever heard, Iruka thought. There's no way that Hatake would agree to it.
"That is an adequate solution," Hatake murmured. Iruka whipped his head around to gaze in bewilderment at the masked cheek. "I have no issue with that."
Iruka tried to speak but nothing came out. He cleared his throat so forcibly that it felt scraped raw and then made another try. "Are you saying that you would be willing to marry me just to keep Naruto under your protection?"
Hatake turned his head so that he could look at Iruka's face with his uncovered eye. "Yes."
"But--" Iruka cut himself off and stared down at the floor. Same-sex unions were accepted in Konoha, albeit grudgingly, and Iruka had no particular preference in terms of his partner's gender; from what he'd heard, Hatake was the same. Still, this was bigger than that. This was a fundamental shift in his whole life.
However, it was obvious that Hatake was willing to go through this just to keep Naruto safe. That was actually very admirable. Iruka was a good fighter, he knew that of himself. Yet, there were people out there who would do anything to take Naruto and the Nine Tails, and would easily tear Iruka to pieces to do so. It was a wonder there hadn't been a serious attempt to date. Hatake could teach Naruto advanced techniques for his own safety. Iruka could make sure that Naruto got all the attention and care he could ever want.
"Alright," he said in a rough whisper, staring straight ahead once more. "Anything for Naruto."
"We should go through the sealing procedures as soon as possible," Hatake said. "I may be called off on a mission at any time."
Iruka took a few moments to blink at the wall and then turned back to Hatake. "Wait...what seals?"