Chapter 1: Five
Umino Iruka was five when he first noticed the older boy. The boy always seemed to be alone. The other kids his age would cluster together, throwing sideways looks at him, and whisper. The silvery haired boy hid his face behind a mask, but from what Iruka could see, he always looked sad and a little angry. Iruka didn't understand. The boy seemed lonely.
Months after he first noticed the boy, and had celebrated his sixth birthday, Iruka had been down near a stream, catching fireflies which he had put into a jar. He was crashing noisily through the woods, running home, when he came into a small clearing. There, seated on a large rock, was the silvery haired boy. What expression could be seen of the boy's face looked completely benign, but as usual, it seemed to Iruka that he was sad, and a little angry. Iruka ran up to the rock and looked up at him. The boy looked down impassively. Iruka smiled up at him and then carefully clambered up on to the rock, tongue poking out of his mouth with concentration, careful to neither fall, nor drop his jar of fireflies. The boy watched as Iruka took a seat next to him.
"Hi!" Iruka said brightly. "I caught fireflies! Aren't they pretty?"
The boy didn't respond immediately, he just looked at Iruka. When he did speak, he didn't answer the question, but instead asked somewhat bitterly, "Aren't you frightened of me?"
Iruka's brow furrowed in confusion, "Why would I be frightened of you?"
"Everyone is frightened of me," the boy replied.
"I'm real brave!" Iruka announced boldly. "I'm going to be a shinobi, like my parents!" He grinned at the boy, "Are you gonna?"
"Going to be a shinobi?" the boy asked.
Iruka giggled. "You're funny."
"No, really, I already am. I'm a chuunin."
"Then," Iruka replied, puffing out his chest and looking sternly at the other boy, "I'm the Hokage!"
The boy raised an eyebrow and Iruka giggled.
Iruka looked away, out over the clearing and wriggled a little. The motion caused him to remember the jar in his lap. He held the jar up and watched the fireflies as they spun and danced in the twilight. He looked back at the boy and grinned at him again. The boy looked at the jar, and then at the grinning little boy next to him, and then he slowly smiled behind his mask. Iruka could see the outline of his mouth.
Iruka wiggled his toes and looked up at the sky. "I like fireflies," he said, setting the jar back into his lap, "they are why the night doesn't come as soon in summer. In winter it gets dark real early, but the fireflies are sleeping. When they wake up they shine and help keep it bright. The days are longer in summer because they are shining and helping the sun. But they can't keep it bright all by themselves, so once the sun goes away they turn into little tiny lights that watch over us when it's dark. I always feel safe when there are fireflies around." He turned his head towards the boy and smiled happily. The boy was watching him silently.
Iruka leaned back on his hands and looked up into the sky again. "I think that fireworks got invented because of fireflies. Don'tcha think that fireworks look like a million fireflies? I'd love to lie in a field of a million fireflies." He closed his eyes and spread his arms wide, imagining. "Nothing bad could ever happen in a field of a million fireflies." He leaned back on his hands again and looked at the boy.
The boy smiled slowly again, "No, I don't think anything bad could happen in a field of a million fireflies."
Iruka looked back at the darkening sky and sighed. "The dark is winning. My parents say I have to be home when the dark gets too much for the fireflies. They worry if I don't. Although," he said emphatically, looking at the boy again, "if I have a jar of fireflies I wouldn't be afraid!" He paused, regarding the boy thoughtfully. "Don't you have to get home to your parents?"
The boy was still smiling, but his eyes looked sad. "No. They aren't there."
"Oh!" Iruka didn't know of many reasons why parents wouldn't be home, so he made what seemed to him to be a logical conclusion. "They're on a mission!"
The boy neither confirmed nor denied Iruka's assumption. Thinking about missions reminded Iruka of what the boy had said to him before and he grinned.
"I have a mission for you, chuunin," Iruka announced, adopting his stern expression again. He thrust the jar of fireflies at the other boy, "Take care of my fireflies. They're real brave, too. They'll keep you safe."
The boy took the jar with a somewhat surprised expression on his face. Iruka beamed at him and jumped off the rock. He landed awkwardly, falling on to his knees. He dusted his knees off, and looked back up at the boy. The boy was looking at him still looking a little startled. Iruka waved at him and ran out of the clearing.
Chapter 2: Eleven
When Umino Iruka was eleven, he graduated from the Academy with a reputation for being somewhat lucky. Iruka didn't consider himself lucky, but he knew others did. If he was so lucky, then why were both his parents dead? Other people thought that he was lucky, because HE wasn't dead, despite having run out of the safety of the caverns, and into the battle zone with the Kyuubi. He had managed to actually locate his parents in the chaos, before they had fallen foul of the rampaging demon. But he had been forcibly removed from the area without getting any kind of injury. In fact, despite developing a certain recklessness after the deaths of his parents, he didn't seem to get injured very often at all.
His friend Mizuki used to complain about it. He couldn't understand why Iruka didn't get hurt more often. It didn't seem particularly fair. Iruka didn't really care. The fact that he should have been hurt more often than he was never really troubled him. He was too busy making sure that people paid attention to him. Getting hurt would have been a small price to pay.
If there were times when Mizuki and Iruka snuck off to practice throwing shuriken or kunai and Iruka would turn to find Mizuki staring into the trees looking angry and frustrated, he thought no more of it. He assumed one of the other boy's throws had gone completely wild. Although he did think it was kind of weird that Mizuki never went to the place he was looking to find the missing weapon. It was even more weird that Mizuki went to collect weapons in the opposite direction to which he had been glaring. But then Mizuki was kind of weird, so Iruka shrugged it off.
The fact that Iruka had a propensity to run around outside the protective wards of Konoha caused him to be on the receiving end of more danger than other boys his age. Not having any parents to tell him off for doing risky things, he gained a reputation amongst the other genin for bravery, recklessness and sheer luck.
He came across enemy shinobi sniffing around the surrounding areas of Konoha more than once, yet he always managed to get away safely. It did help that he could run like the wind, but he seemed to be able to reach safety without incident far more easily than was reasonable. And he had enough luck that help seemed to find him when he really needed it.
Once he had heard the sounds of pursuit change into the sounds of fighting, and had cautiously, heart in his throat, doubled back to go see. He had found the enemy shinobi unconscious or dead on the ground, with a young ANBU standing over them, bloody kunai in his hand. The ANBU had turned his dog-masked face towards Iruka and Iruka had fled.
Another time Iruka had been skulking where he shouldn't have been and had found himself running from a group of unknown shinobi again. While he was still a genin he'd seen enough combat to be able to quickly assess the enemy, and what he saw terrified him. He'd turned tail to flee, but even as he ran he was certain that this time he wasn't going to be able to successfully reach safety though sheer speed alone. His thoughts raced as he tried to think of any tricks he might have up his sleeve to slow down the pursuit. Explosive tags could only do so much, although he utilised all that he had to the best of his ability.
The enemy drew inexorably closer.
He was having a harder and harder time dodging the kunai and shuriken being thrown at him. These enemies weren't trying to catch him to gain information about Konoha. They were trying to kill him. Whatever they were up to, they were intent on remaining undiscovered. Iruka knew he was outclassed.
He knew the terrain as well as anyone from Konoha did, and he used it as best he could. He was managing to stay ahead of them, to stay out of killing range. But they were definitely closing in. Just when he knew that it was about to end, that he was going to be hit by a weapon or jutsu that he simply couldn't dodge, an ANBU had dropped out of nowhere between him and the pursuing shinobi.
"Run," the ANBU had said, even as he threw a barrage of kunai at the pursuers. Iruka had done as he had been instructed. This time he was so terrified he didn't pause to watch the ensuing fight, he just ran, but he was certain it was the same ANBU who had saved him once before. When he found more ANBU clearly looking for something, or someone, he had pointed them in the direction he had come from, and had kept running as if his life depended on it, until he reached the safety of Konoha.
Iruka might be reckless, but he also wasn't stupid. After this last experience he curtailed his excursions. He also started taking his training more seriously. It was easy to forget, when you were surrounded by genin, and taking predominantly D Class missions, that there were some very scary people in the world. Even if he was never going to be particularly strong, he wanted to be more capable than he was, to be better.
He appreciated his own limitations. He knew he wasn't a genius, like some shinobi. There was an Uchiha boy a few years younger than he was who had graduated the academy at seven. From what Iruka had heard it wouldn't be long before they had him sit the chuunin exams. Iruka had even heard there was one boy who'd become a chuunin at six. Six! When Iruka was six he had been blissfully running around skinning his knees and catching fireflies. But at fourteen and still a genin he was wasting his time. He could still improve his skills within his own limitations.
He stopped wasting time.
Chapter 3: Fifteen
Iruka was fifteen when he was able to repay the ANBU, at least in part.
He had been training in the fields with some other boys his age when they had seen a team of ANBU departing. Iruka had recognised the mask of the ANBU who had saved him twice amongst their number. The four man squad had been so graceful and fast. The boys had watched the team depart with mixed expressions on their faces. There had been a large portion of envy, but not for Iruka. He'd grown up since his last encounter with the ANBU and some particularly frightening enemy shinobi. He'd had time to think about himself, and about the shinobi in the village. He wasn't envious, he was grateful.
The boys looked at the ANBU as being the ultimate shinobi. ANBU were true warriors, elite and deadly. They moved with dangerous grace like birds of prey. They made everything they did look so effortless. Iruka knew the other boys hoped that one day they would be good enough for one of those porcelain masks, that they would feel triumph if they did. Those porcelain masks came with recognition and validation.
Iruka respected and admired the ANBU, but he didn't want to be one. What he had learned about the ANBU so far only showed him how much he didn't know about them. He didn't know how they trained, but that appearance of effortless was the result of a lot of hard work. Only extreme devotion and dedication of a level that consumed their lives would result in that effortlessness.
He didn't know how dangerous the missions were that they went on, and he didn't really want to know either. Everything about the ANBU, including their identities, was shrouded in mystery. His assumption was that their identities were kept hidden so that no one outside of the higher ups could truly appreciate how many of them were lost each year.
More than that, though, the ANBU were just... elite... and ruthless. If Iruka was honest with himself, which he was, he didn't have the ruthlessness to be ANBU. He knew that he would put himself on the line to defend his village and the people in it if required, but he didn't have a killer instinct.
After seeing the ANBU squad depart, the boys had thrown themselves into training even more vigorously than before. The other boys were energised by seeing the team, by their dream of becoming a member of their ranks, although secretly Iruka doubted any of them ever would.
Iruka was energised by seeing them as well, but he was energised by his respect and admiration for the ANBU. He wanted to be good enough to not be a burden to them, to be able to help them. He wanted to be able to make their lives easier when he could, while they protected every one else at the cost of their own individuality and even their lives.
He wasn't really sure what he did want to do with himself. Konoha had a lot of shinobi that fulfilled a lot of roles. He was still trying to work out where he would best fit in.
He had his own strengths and talents, such as the ability to honestly assess himself and other people around him. And while he couldn't create fireballs and twisters or summon cliffs or dragons made from water, he was exceptional at the basics. His errant prankster youth had led him to practice a lot of things that he now appreciated. He could maintain a transformation for an inordinately long time, and through a lot of distraction. He could make impeccable clones. He could channel chakra to where he needed it to make his body work how it needed to. He could rig explosives and lay traps.
For the moment he was content to continue training and learning on his D and C class missions. He was good support to the flashier shinobi he was teamed up with. He believed, however, that there was something out there where he could truly shine. Plus he really wanted to make chuunin.
Several days after seeing the ANBU team departing, Iruka, Mizuki, and another genin were sent out on a simple patrol mission. There were rumours of activity of Cloud-nin at the border with the Land of Hot Water. Their mission was simply to watch the border, and make sure no one crossed it. If someone did cross, they weren't to fight, but to report. They were only sent as a squad of three genin since the mission was low level, and too many higher level shinobi were occupied at present to be spared.
They had been out for a couple of days already, starting to feel bored, when someone did cross the border. Iruka was hiding, watching one part of the border, when his dog-masked ANBU jumped out of the trees. His movement was wrong. The grace and fluidity was hampered. The blood on him was obvious, even from a distance. A single Cloud-nin pursued him, also clearly wounded.
Iruka considered the situation. If he didn't help, the ANBU was probably going to die. He almost certainly had some vital information for Konoha, and based on the dogged pursuit by the enemy, the enemy wasn't going to let him get away with it. Helping, however, was inherently risky. There was no sign of the rest of the ANBU squad they'd seen departing, and the dog-masked ANBU was seriously hurt. The ANBU was running from the Cloud-nin, which meant that he had to be dangerous, and not someone Iruka was of a level to contend with.
He could, however, assist the ANBU. Whether that simply meant providing a decoy while the ANBU got away, or if there was a chance the Cloud-nin could be taken down, was in many ways irrelevant. Whatever information that ANBU had had to get back to Konoha. Without further thought, Iruka backed out of his hiding spot and positioned himself in the path of the ANBU. As the ANBU appeared and registered the presence of a Konoha shinobi, Iruka instantly transformed himself into the ANBU. He'd seen him enough now to know how he looked without having to put too much thought into it. The real ANBU paused, and Iruka proceeded to create two clones. The ANBU melted backwards in to the trees. Iruka sent one of the clones into the trees near where he had gone, and kept the other beside him. He waited for the Cloud-nin to appear, while his heart beat in his throat.
When the enemy shinobi appeared, he paused, and his face registered surprise. Iruka wasn't certain if he was surprised that his quarry had stopped running, or that he had the chakra in him to make a clone, or both. After a beat, the Cloud-nin smirked.
The smirk dropped when kunai hurtled out from the trees around him. Iruka threw his own weapons at the Cloud-nin, more concerned with quantity over accuracy. The Cloud-nin managed to successfully dodge them all, and launched himself at the clone in the trees. It was dismissed instantly and the shinobi turned to the two remaining figures in front of him. The attack he launched took them both in. Iruka managed to dodge any serious blows, but the clone fell to the attack. The Cloud-nin smirked as he turned to Iruka.
Then his eyes widened as a hand crackling with visible chakra punched out the front of his chest.
The Cloud-nin fell to the ground, and the ANBU collapsed on top of him.
Iruka dropped to his knees beside them both. The Cloud-nin was decidedly dead. The ANBU was unconscious, but breathing shallowly. Iruka gave him what first aid he could, then and there. The ANBU apparently had been actively bleeding for some time now. Iruka cut of the flow of blood, but there was nothing he could do about the extreme chakra depletion. The ANBU was as helpless as a newborn kitten.
Iruka channelled chakra into his muscles to make himself stronger, and picked the unconscious ANBU up, surprised as he did at how little he weighed. He leapt off into the trees, in the direction of a small cabin that he and his team had been using as a base.
He made the ANBU comfortable on a futon and felt conflicted as to what to do now. The ANBU was in terrible condition. He needed more medical attention than Iruka had been able to give in the field, but more than that, he was severely dehydrated. He needed fluids for his body to function normally, let alone to heal and replenish his chakra. Iruka didn't know how to get fluids into the man without taking off his mask, but taking off the mask violated the anonymity of the ANBU. He filled a bowl with water, and prepared himself to try and get it in to the young man's mouth whilst squinting so he couldn't see. Fortunately, before Iruka found himself in an awkward situation, he regained enough consciousness for Iruka to gain his assistance.
"ANBU-san," Iruka said with relief, holding up the bowl, "you need water. Can you manage?"
The mask turned towards Iruka. After a pause he nodded weakly. Iruka raised his shoulders enough for him to be able to drink. He held the bowl near the man's face and carefully looked away. He felt the ANBU's eyes on him, and then he felt the man's arm move as the ANBU raised the mask. His hand guided Iruka's hand and the bowl closer to his mouth. The bowl was tilted and Iruka heard the sounds of swallowing. The ANBU pushed the now empty bowl away, replaced his mask and his head fell heavy against Iruka. Iruka turned back to look at him, and gently lowered him back down to the pillow. The ANBU was very still and his breathing was even. He had fallen asleep again.
Iruka refilled the bowl and kept it on hand, in case the ANBU woke again. That one bowl of water was not going to go far in replenishing the dehydration that Iruka could see. The young man's skin looked awful. He filled a second bowl with water and antiseptic, and carefully cleaned the sleeping ANBU's wounds and rebound them with fresh bandages. The ANBU woke once during the procedure, and drank another bowl of water before falling back asleep.
Iruka's team mates appeared a while after. The three of them been positioned at various points along the border, and were due to check in. The other genin, a boy called Makoto, was first to arrive, but Mizuki wasn't far behind. Upon seeing the unconscious ANBU and the bloody bandages Iruka had yet to dispose of, the two boys fired a barrage of questions at Iruka. He didn't tell them a lot about what had happened, just that he had found the ANBU injured and had brought him here to help him recover.
The pair of them started whispering, wondering who he was. Iruka ran interference, trying to keep them quiet, and to keep them away from the weakened ANBU. They kept peering at him, wondering who it was. He was teenage lanky and thin – maybe they knew him.
"Who do you think he is?" Makoto whispered. "He doesn't look much older than we are."
"We could look," Mizuki replied slyly, "he's out to it. He'll never know."
"I'll know," Iruka said sternly.
"Like you could stop us, Iruka," Mizuki said arrogantly.
"Perhaps I wouldn't be able to stop you," Iruka replied with irritation "but I'd still know. And there'd be some pretty severe consequences."
"You'd tell?" Mizuki was aghast.
"You'd really do something that shameful?" Iruka replied with some asperity.
The ANBU groaned softly at that point, and his head turned towards the three of them. Mizuki and Makoto froze, clearly afraid that the ANBU had heard them. Iruka contained his smirk. They were very brave when the ANBU was unconscious. The ANBU motioned Iruka to his side.
"Pouch," he said, voice barely audible.
Iruka collected the pouch from the small pile of belongings he'd created out of the armour and accoutrements he'd removed from the young shinobi. He set it into the ANBU's lap, and then helped him to sit, and supported him so he stayed upright. The ANBU pulled out blank paper and a brush and quickly wrote two messages.
The ANBU then pulled out a sealed scroll, and a small cloth bag. His masked face turned towards Mizuki and Makoto and he gestured them over. "Hokage. Fast." He sealed one of the notes he'd written with a brief flare of chakra.
Makoto looked thrilled. This was far more exciting than the border scouting they were doing. Iruka wasn't sure why, but Mizuki looked irritated.
"Makoto and Iruka should go. I'll stay here," Mizuki said. "I'm better at first aid, and Iruka runs faster."
"No," the ANBU said shaking his head slightly, "important. You two stronger. Could be more Cloud-nin."
Mizuki looked appeased and he smirked at Iruka. Mizuki and Makoto both quickly grabbed their backpacks and headed to the door. Mizuki waved jauntily at Iruka. "See you around," he said, as he and Makoto disappeared out the door.
Iruka watched them leave, feeling a little dejected that the ANBU could already tell that they were better shinobi than he was, but then he straightened his shoulders. The ANBU was right, and clearly whatever information he had for the Hokage was important. He hoped that the two of them would be okay.
The ANBU's hoarse whisper roused Iruka from his ruminations. "Water." Iruka's head snapped up.
"Of course!" he said. He already had another bowl of water waiting and gave it to him. He stayed supporting the ANBU while he drank, but looked away again.
"Thank you," the ANBU said softly. Iruka turned his face back to him and smiled. The ANBU held up the other piece of paper, "Messenger bird."
Iruka took the note off him and nodded. "Sleep, ANBU-san," he said, lowering him back to the pillow.
The ANBU's hand took Iruka's and he squeezed. "Thank you," he said again.
The ANBU slept.
Leaving the ANBU to sleep, Iruka attached the message to the leg of one of their messenger birds. It did occur to him that this one was unsealed, unlike the one the ANBU had given Mizuki. He knew however, how badly depleted the ANBU's chakra was - if it wasn't necessary, even sealing a note was more chakra than the ANBU could really spare. Iruka released the bird, and it took off in the direction of Konoha. It never occurred to him to look at what the message said.
Iruka allowed the ANBU to sleep through the night, but woke him in the early morning.
"I'm sorry, ANBU-san," Iruka said as he stirred, "I know you need to sleep, but you also need water, and food. I need to change your bandages, too - you've bled through in places."
The ANBU nodded weakly again, and Iruka propped him up with pillows. As usual he looked away as the ANBU drank.
"I hope you like okayu," Iruka said as the empty water bowl was placed back in his waiting hand. He looked back and added, "It should be easy for you to eat." The ANBU's impassive mask regarded him. "You should probably eat a soldier pill as well, but with injuries like those, I think you need some real food."
The ANBU chuckled softly and held out his hand. Iruka placed the bowl of okayu in it, then held out the spoon and turned his head. After a moment the spoon was taken from his grip and the ANBU began to eat.
Iruka remained motionless until the ANBU said softly, "Enough." Iruka turned his head to look at him once more, and then proffered a soldier pill which the ANBU took and ate. Iruka fetched some more water for the ANBU to wash the pill down with.
Finally, content that the ANBU had received fluid and nourishment, he turned his attention to the young man's wounds. He carefully removed the bandages and began to gently clean the wounds again. The ANBU sucked in air occasionally in pain, but remained absolutely still until Iruka finished.
"I'm sorry," Iruka apologised, tying off the last bandage.
"Needs to be done," the ANBU said softly.
Iruka chewed his bottom lip nervously, "Do you need to, uh, relieve yourself?" he asked awkwardly.
The ANBU's impassive mask regarded him. "I'm afraid so," the ANBU replied.
Iruka nodded resolutely and set about assisting the young man. Task complete he once again made the ANBU lie down and sleep.
The ANBU continued to mainly sleep for the rest of the day, and through the following day. Iruka became accustomed to waking him to make him eat, drink and to change his bandages. He didn't exactly get used to helping the young man take care of his more personal needs, but he did it nevertheless. It was an odd experience, becoming completely familiar with every part of another person's body, but never seeing their face.
After two days of almost solid sleep, the ANBU was far more coherent and conscious. He was still inordinately weak and unable to do little for himself, but he didn't just sleep. He wasn't capable of moving around at all, but Iruka often found himself under scrutiny. The ANBU watched him as he went about his tasks such as preparing food and washing the bloodied bandages. The ANBU started to speak a little more as well.
"The others, they should have reached Konoha by now," Iruka said, having been thinking about the two that had been sent back, and trying to figure how fast they could travel when pushed.
"Yes," the ANBU replied with his soft voice, "which is good. The Third needs that information. The messenger bird would have been faster, so some information already got through, but what those boys are carrying is important."
"Mm," Iruka replied non-comittally.
"I expect ANBU aren't far off from us as well. Once the messenger bird got to Konoha, they probably sent a team with a medic to come help get me back to debrief as soon as possible."
Iruka nodded, and wondered what was going to happen to him. The ANBU squad would have instructions for him. Was he supposed to go back to watching the border once his patient was gone?
"Good," Iruka said aloud, "I'd much rather have a proper medic take a look at your injuries!" He looked a bit fretful, worried that there was something he should have done that he hadn't.
"You've taken good care of me," the ANBU said softly, "thank you."
Iruka shook his head a little, "I haven't really done anything! Anyone could have done what I've done."
The ANBU watched him in silence for a short while and then said, "But you've never tried to look behind the mask even once, have you?"
Iruka looked over at him quickly, "No, of course not!"
The ANBU regarded him silently, and then chuckled. "I like how you think that goes without question."
"Well, it does, doesn't it?" Iruka replied, confused.
"It should be, but not everyone sees it that way. A lot of people would give in to their curiosity, would have found an excuse to have to take off the mask justifying it to themselves that they needed to in order treat me. Or to catch a glimpse when I was eating or drinking. You've done everything you could to avoid it."
Iruka shifted his feet a bit awkwardly. He really didn't think he'd done anything out of the ordinary. Being complimented on doing something he thought was completely normal felt a bit odd.
"Those other two," the ANBU continued, "if they'd been in your position, they probably would have."
Iruka automatically began to defend them. "What? No, they respect the ANBU, I don't think..." he trailed off. The ANBU was probably right. He looked over at him. The ANBU was watching him silently. Iruka sighed. "I don't know what they would have done."
"They certainly seemed to want to," the ANBU said, "based on your conversation."
Iruka looked away. "You heard."
"It's hard to truly sleep when you're ANBU. I only properly sleep when I'm in Konoha, or around people I trust, and even then not a lot of the time."
"You've slept around me," Iruka said.
"I have, haven't I," came the reply.
Iruka busied himself around the cabin, frowning in thought. He looked over at the ANBU. He could tell that he was still awake.
Iruka spoke softly, "You know, the others, they were only curious... you don't look to be all that much older than we are... Mizuki was just being... he likes to act tough. I don't know if he would have done anything if it had really come to it."
"Maybe the other one wouldn't have, but that Mizuki... I'm pretty certain he would have. There was something about him. I'd watch out for him if I were you."
"Oh he's all right," Iruka protested, "he's just a bit intense. He doesn't do well if he doesn't get recognition. He really wants to be ANBU one day... they both do."
The ANBU snorted, "They won't be ANBU." He paused, regarding Iruka. "You say that like you feel differently. You wouldn't want to be ANBU?"
"No," Iruka replied honestly.
"Maybe at one point I had aspirations of being the most kick-ass shinobi in town, but I've come to realise that not only am I not right for that particular role, but that role isn't right for me." He paused and considered his thoughts for a moment. The ANBU waited for him patiently. "I have nothing but admiration and respect for you," Iruka continued, "but I also feel sad for you. The things you must see and do, the comrades you must see fall with far too much regularity. I think you lose yourselves to the role. I think it's heroic. And if I'm honest with myself, I think I'm a bit too... soft."
The ANBU regarded him, "You're interesting."
Iruka chuckled. "Not really. I've just been lucky enough to get the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and to get to know who I am."
"That's what makes you interesting. You're, what, fourteen?"
The ANBU regarded him silently. "You're pretty smart, aren't you? Wanting recognition and validation, that's pretty normal for boys of your age. But you're already seeing the bigger picture, looking past the impressiveness of the ANBU and other elite shinobi. Those others, they're still wanting to stand out and be admired. "
"Is that why you wanted to be ANBU?" Iruka asked. The ANBU looked at him. "Never mind," Iruka said, "I know I can't ask personal questions."
The ANBU chuckled. "You'd have been a good ANBU. You get it."
Iruka smiled wryly, "I'd be a dead ANBU, I don't have anywhere near enough power."
The ANBU chuckled again, "Your ability to assess yourself and your honesty is refreshing. Most teenage boys have far too high an estimation of themselves."
"Pride is a shinobi's downfall," Iruka said.
The ANBU chuckled delightedly, "You sound like one of my old instructors."
Iruka smiled wryly, "I just have some common sense. I know I don't have the physical abilities needed. I'm not sure I have the mental strength needed to do the things you have to do."
The ANBU regarded him. "You've shown an inordinate amount of mental strength, and willpower. And you're pretty level headed. And smart. Perhaps you should be an instructor. Hopefully turn out more genin like you."
Iruka laughed, "But I was a terrible student."
"That would make you a good teacher."
Iruka looked at him bemusedly and shook his head. "They might turn out like I used to be. You don't need more genin getting into trouble being where they shouldn't be. You've got enough to deal with." He looked over at the ANBU and then looked away again. "Thank you, by the way. I should have said something sooner. I know it was you who saved me those times... you've given me that opportunity to learn who I am. Now I just need to work out where I fit in."
The ANBU regarded him silently. "You're welcome," he said so quietly Iruka wasn't sure if he was supposed to hear or not.
"You should get some more sleep, ANBU-san."
"Mm," the ANBU replied and obediently dozed off.
On the fourth day, Iruka noticed the ANBU suddenly become alert, like a hunting dog on point.
"They're here," the ANBU said. "Thank you again, Umino Iruka."
Iruka inclined his head, "You're very welcome, ANBU-san." He frowned thoughtfully as it occurred to him that no one had used his family name around the ANBU. Then the ANBU team came through the door, and he lost his moment to ask his ANBU how he knew.
One of the new ANBU was medically trained and immediately knelt at the dog-masked ANBU's side and began to examine and treat him. Iruka noticed the dog-masked ANBU sharing a look with one of the others, an ANBU in a bird-faced mask. The bird-faced ANBU turned his head fractionally towards Iruka. The dog-masked ANBU shook his head a tiny bit and the other nodded once. Iruka wasn't sure what it was all about, but he was fairly certain it was related to whether the anonymity of the dog-masked ANBU had been breached. He was also quite certain he wasn't supposed to have noticed the exchange, so he pretended that he hadn't.
The medic looked up at the bird-faced ANBU. It seemed that he was the senior member. "Give me a little time. He'll be able to travel. We need to get him to the hospital for proper care."
"Good." The bird-masked ANBU turned to Iruka, "You're coming with us. A new team will arrive shortly to continue the border patrol."
Iruka was relieved. He didn't want to admit how exhausted he felt. He had been on edge the entire time, worried that Cloud-nin would find them. He hadn't slept very much, making sure that his ANBU was taken care of. Apparently his relief showed in his face.
The dog-masked ANBU chuckled. "I'm sure you'll sleep better once you're back in Konoha too."
The medic spent some time with Iruka's ANBU, while Iruka packed in preparation to leave. Eventually the medic nodded to the bird-faced ANBU. "Should be good to go now."
The dog-masked ANBU got to his feet unsteadily. One of the others immediately fitted herself under his arm. The ANBU put his armour back on. The bird-masked ANBU put whatever of the dog-masked ANBU's possessions were left that he wasn't wearing into his own pack. Iruka shouldered his pack, and followed the other shinobi out the door. They set out for Konoha.
The day after they arrived home, Iruka was surprised to be summoned to see the Hokage.
"The ANBU you cared for was very impressed by you," the Third said to him.
"By me?" Iruka asked.
"Yes, you," the Third replied. "You have made yourself an interesting ally."
"I don't understand," Iruka said, genuinely confused. "I didn't really do anything."
"That's not true. I've read both of your reports. You willingly stood in front of what you knew to be an elite enemy shinobi to provide distraction for that ANBU so he could take out that Cloud-nin. While your own mission wasn't supposed to put yourself in danger, your assessment of the situation and response was appropriate, and most likely saved that ANBU's life, as well as what was a highly important mission."
Iruka rubbed his nose, a bit embarrassed by the praise.
"You also showed great discretion and respect for the ANBU and the secret surrounding his identity."
"He mentioned that too, but that's just normal!" Iruka protested.
"Curiosity is normal. Yes, I expect my shinobi to not look at a report if they are told not to, to not try to uncover the face of an ANBU if presented the opportunity, but many fail to resist temptation. People can come up with excuses to justify anything if they want to. You, however, instead of trying to find reasons to pry, found ways to avoid doing so."
"Iruka, do you understand why that ANBU sent Mizuki and Makoto back to Konoha with the information, and kept you to care for him until he could be helped back?" The Third was watching him intently.
"Because there could still be Cloud-nin pursuing and he could tell I was the weakest of the three of us."
The Third smiled at him. "You underestimate yourself, Iruka. He didn't choose Mizuki and Makoto to go. He chose you to stay."
Iruka frowned at him. "But they were carrying vital information."
"He trusted that they could run quickly. He sealed everything he gave to them, just in case they were tempted to look. They were just couriers." The Third smiled at Iruka. "He trusted you with himself. That's a hard thing for an ANBU to do to someone who isn't another ANBU."
Iruka rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"Iruka, strength is important to a shinobi," the Third said, "but strength can be trained and developed under the right guidance. You have something that can't be trained. You have trustworthiness and discretion. If you continue in the manner in which you held yourself in the past week, you will find yourself considered for roles in Konoha that involve high security clearance."
Iruka looked startled.
"I have my eye on you, young Umino, even more now than before." The Third smiled at him. "That's all for now."
Chapter 5: Sixteen
When Umino Iruka was sixteen, three things of importance happened to him.
The first was that he finally became a chuunin, a feat which came accompanied by genuine feelings of satisfaction and pride. Over the past few years he'd been teased a bit about still being a genin when his peers had already made chuunin, but he had surprised himself by not being particularly bothered by what anyone else had achieved. All that mattered to him was what he thought about himself, and what the people who were important to him thought of him.
The second thing of importance that happened to Iruka was that he realised that he had people in his life who were important to him.
After the deaths of his parents he had been living a somewhat superficial life. He smiled and he joked and everyone liked him, but no one really knew him. He didn't feel particularly connected to anyone. There were, however, two people who were becoming increasingly important to him as time went by. The first and foremost of these two was the Hokage, the most well known and respected man in the village. The second was also someone who Iruka respected, but who operated from the shadows, living in anonymity and who Iruka didn't even know away from his ANBU identity.
In some ways the Hokage's opinion mattered to every one in the village, but Iruka had come to realise that he had a unique relationship with the older man. After the Kyuubi attack there were a lot of children missing parents, but fortunately not many who, like Iruka, had lost both. He could so easily have been overlooked, left to fend for himself, with people assuming that someone else was giving him support when he needed it. Not every child who lost their parents had someone who cared about them in their lives. The Third had quietly and patiently stepped into Iruka's life when he hadn't realised how much he had needed him.
In the self-centred viewpoint of the world that was typical of teenagers, Iruka hadn't really taken in just how different his relationship with the Hokage was to other people's. He wasn't stupid enough to not realise that he was being shown some degree of favour, he did know that he spent more time drinking tea and having conversations with the Hokage than his peers did, but he didn't realise he spent more time drinking tea and having conversations with the Hokage than most of the residents of Konoha did. When he finally did begin to fully appreciate his relationship, he also came to realise that he wasn't as orphaned as he had thought. He had family after all.
He treasured the relationship, and didn't know what would have become of him if it hadn't been for the concern of the Third, or what would become of him if the Third was taken away from him. He didn't dwell on such unpleasant thoughts, however, he just appreciated how fortunate he was.
Unfortunately, as much as the old man might care about Iruka, and give as much time to him as he could, Iruka was still left to deal with his own thoughts and worries by himself most of the time. Iruka was used to being alone, and internalising his worries. Not having any other family to talk things over with, it would have obviously been to his friends that he should have turned. The problem was, however, that he didn't feel all that comfortable talking to his friends about anything important. They had repeatedly shown that they didn't understand him, and he'd learned to keep quiet.
They didn't understand that he didn't just want to get to jounin as fast as possible. They didn't understand that he wasn't falling all over himself for the attentions of one or the other of the more popular kunoichi. They didn't understand that he didn't enjoy blowing off steam the way they did at the end of missions. Iruka liked to spend time by himself, watching fireflies, taking a warm bath, drinking tea. Sometimes he thought that he was an old man in a young man's body. Perhaps that's why he got on so well with the Third.
The day he'd finally been confirmed as a chuunin, he had been showered in the congratulations of his friends. He'd been happy with his achievement and had enjoyed their company, even if Mizuki had still managed to tease him about taking so long. Nothing, however, felt as good to him as the proud smile of the Hokage ... except the simple nod of acknowledgement from his ANBU, when next he'd appeared on the rooftop opposite Iruka's small flat.
Not long after Iruka's return to Konoha with the injured ANBU, said ANBU had started appearing from time to time on the roof opposite Iruka's apartment. At first he'd had been startled to see an ANBU outside his window. Usually whenever he saw ANBU they were on the move. He knew that they assisted in the security of the village, but you didn't normally see them doing so. He had had that initial visceral fear reaction that maybe he'd done something wrong and the ANBU were coming for him, he had spent several years getting up to all sorts of mischief after all, but that soon settled. He couldn't think of anything that he could possibly have done that would require disciplinary actions. And of course he recognised this particular ANBU. He figured the ANBU was probably a bit eccentric, and who wouldn't be, being ANBU.
Once he had processed his initial response to the ANBU's appearance, and had calmed himself down, he had opened the door onto his little balcony. He stood in the doorway, looking across to the rooftop opposite. The ANBU had turned his head towards him, and Iruka had raised his hand in greeting and offered a small smile.
"Good evening, ANBU-san. I hope you are well," he said quietly. "You're certainly looking better."
The ANBU nodded briefly to him once, and then looked back out over Konoha. He hadn't stayed for very long before he had leapt out over the rooftops and disappeared.
After this initial visit, the ANBU continued to appear from time to time. He didn't come every day, but sometimes he came several days in a row, just perching on the roof opposite Iruka's flat, and watching out over the village. The length of time he spent there varied, sometimes he appeared only very briefly, other times he seemed quite comfortable in his post and stayed for some time. Iruka became accustomed to his appearances, and in fact began to look forward to them, despite there being little interaction between the two of them.
When Iruka noticed the ANBU's presence, he would open the door to his little balcony, and carry on with whatever it was that he had been doing. He was a bit self conscious to begin with, but after a time he got used to the other's presence. The ANBU never spoke to him, or even looked his way very often that Iruka saw, but he was there. Iruka found his presence comforting, partly because he felt safer knowing the ANBU was around, and partly because he liked the confirmation that he was alive and well.
Despite the fact that the ANBU never responded to him, Iruka began softly talking to him. He wasn't sure if the ANBU could even hear him, but it made him feel better. He talked to him things that were happening in his life, and found that he was able to voice the concerns that he was unable to bring up with his friends. He also found that, unwilling participant perhaps, the ANBU was helping him with his troubles. Just speaking out loud helped him put his thoughts in order.
Sometimes he wondered if the ANBU thought that he was a bit soft in the head. And when he found himself talking to himself when the ANBU wasn't there, he wondered if perhaps he was.
One cold afternoon Iruka was making himself a cup of tea when the ANBU appeared. After a glance at the motionless ANBU, Iruka poured a second cup. He placed it on the little balcony to his flat, and went back about his business. When he next looked, the tea cup was gone, and the ANBU was on the other roof holding it in both of his gloved hands. Iruka smiled. The ANBU came to have a cup of warm tea every day he appeared through the cold days that followed.
It was around this point that Iruka realised that if a day went by and his ANBU hadn't appeared, he missed him. Iruka looked forward to his visits, no matter if they were long or short. He liked seeing him there. He liked talking to him. He liked to think that the ANBU was perching on the roof opposite his apartment because he liked being around Iruka as much as Iruka liked having him around, although the logical part of his brain told him that it was just a good vantage point over Konoha.
He found himself thinking about the ANBU all the time. He was getting a bit scatterbrained, and people were starting to notice. He was distracted when he shouldn't be. Sometimes apparently people had to call his name several times before he responded, having been staring into space, lost in thought. It was even more noticeable if the ANBU hadn't appeared in a few days. Iruka worried that he might be injured, or worse.
He also worried that the ANBU may have witnessed him when he accidentally walked into something (or someone), had to run back for something he'd forgotten, dropped something, not heard someone calling out to him, or all the myriad other things he was doing when his daydreams were taking up his attention. If the ANBU wasn't in his uniform, with his dog-mask in place, Iruka wouldn't be able to know that it was him. He found himself looking at the shinobi in the streets, trying to work out if any of them had the right body type, the right hair colour to be his ANBU. Ironically the one time he had seen a shinobi, dressed in the regular uniform, who did fit the bill, the man had had his face almost entirely covered, so Iruka still wouldn't have known what he looked like if it had been his ANBU. He'd laughed at himself at that moment, and had received some peculiar looks from both the shinobi as well as other people on the streets. He'd reminded himself that the ANBU was anonymous for a reason and had made himself stop trying to find him. Most of the time. It was hard not to wonder at least, since the ANBU was on his mind most of the time.
It was just as well that he hadn't felt this way about the ANBU when he'd been caring for him. That would have been all kinds of awkward.
And finally Iruka realised the third thing of importance that happened to him that year; he had a crush on his nameless, faceless ANBU.
Chapter 6: Seventeen
This chapter is for mature audiences. There are boys getting it on. And depending where you live, there could be underage issues.
Umino Iruka was seventeen when he first had sex.
After realising that he had a crush on his ANBU, Iruka was, for a while, even more distracted than ever. He was self conscious again, as he had been when the ANBU first started appearing on the rooftop. He was fidgety. When the ANBU appeared he tried- very hard- to be natural. Unfortunately his current natural state appeared to be 'agitated'.
He was a bit embarrassed about having a crush on the ANBU, and didn't want the object of his affection to know. First of all, he didn't even know the ANBU. He was letting himself get carried away by the other's aura of mystery and all around awesomeness. Second of all, he knew his crush would remain inevitably unrequited. He might as well have a crush on the First Hokage. Or a rock.
Over a period of time he managed to come to terms with his emotions and get them settled. But just when he started behaving like his normal self again, the ANBU appeared on the rooftop, emitting a killing aura, covered in blood... and everything changed.
It was sunset. Iruka was standing on his balcony, holding a cup of tea, watching the colours in the clouds as the sun went down. Suddenly the ANBU, his ANBU, landed on the opposite roof. He was just a dark shadow against the coloured sky, but even still Iruka could see the ANBU's stance was abnormally high strung and tense. Iruka's heart leapt into his throat, and he had to force himself to breathe as he was bombarded by the intense killing aura emanating from the ANBU.
As Iruka stood motionless, like a terrified rabbit, the light gradually changed with the setting sun, and his eyes adjusted. He could see the ANBU's armour was blood stained and cut, and he bore long gashes on his arms. The ANBU stood, watching him, poised tautly, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice, and oozing that malevolent aura.
Iruka's heart fluttered in his throat as he beckoned the ANBU over.
The ANBU continued to stand, watching him.
Again Iruka motioned him over.
In a heartbeat the ANBU was standing immediately in front of him, so close they were almost touching. The heat of the ANBU's body was radiating like a furnace onto Iruka's uncovered skin. Iruka paused a moment, again forcing himself to breathe, making his heartbeat steady. The aura coming from the ANBU was intense and powerful, but Iruka wasn't afraid. This was his ANBU, the ANBU he seemed to have known forever, without knowing him at all.
Then slowly, carefully, he took the ANBU's hand, and pulled him gently into the apartment. He led the ANBU over to a chair, and pushed on his shoulders to make him sit. The ANBU resisted at first, his body still tense, but with insistent pressure from Iruka, he sat.
Iruka fetched his first aid supplies from his bathroom. He returned to the living area, setting the supplies carefully on the table. He went to the kitchen and filled a bowl with water, and returned to set that beside the first aid supplies. Then he turned his attention back to the ANBU, who had remained motionless throughout Iruka's activity, beyond the mask following Iruka as he moved around.
Carefully Iruka removed the ANBU's armour. He unbuckled the shoulder straps, and slid it gently over the man's head, careful not to bump the porcelain mask he wore. He undid the bracers, and then slid the long gloves from the ANBU's arms.
The ANBU was no longer a lanky teenager; he now had the muscle definition of a full grown man. Based on what he knew of the ANBU from their interactions over the years, Iruka figured he must by now be at least twenty. A twenty year old killing machine.
Iruka diluted antiseptic in the bowl of water. With gentle care he proceeded to clean the ANBU's wounds. Whilst bloody, for the most part the wounds were quite shallow. It seemed most of the blood on the ANBU was not his own.
"You should get a medic-nin to heal you, ANBU-san" he said quietly. The ANBU shook his head, the motion barely perceptible. Iruka smiled slightly and continued his ministrations.
The wounds clean to the best of his ability, Iruka made sure that they were dry before he proceeded to bandage them with care. The ANBU sat, still as a statue. Not once did he twitch, not once did a sound come from him. There wasn't even any sharp intakes of breath, unlike the last time Iruka had tended his injuries. The aura still emanated from the ANBU in breath-taking waves. Iruka doubted he felt much of anything.
But Iruka felt. He could feel the man's powerful aura. He could feel the heat of his skin. He could feel the desire inside himself, making his belly warm. Iruka's infatuation overtook him once more.
Without even thinking about what he was doing, he gently kissed the man's neck where it melted into his shoulders. The muscles were so tense beneath his lips. The ANBU made no reaction, continuing to remain completely motionless. Iruka had enough presence of mind to be surprised at himself, but he didn't stop. The ANBU had not responded negatively and that was encouragement enough. Iruka hadn't been around anyone emitting an aura like this before. The longer he spent with the ANBU in this condition, the stronger his own emotions were growing. And he didn't want to stop.
He trailed kisses along the back of the man's neck, beneath the fine silvery hairline and above the high collar of his shirt. He ran his fingers up the man's arms, careful to avoid the wounds, and traced the tattoo on the left shoulder. Then suddenly the ANBU moved, fluid, like a panther. He turned in his seat and the painted mask regarded Iruka. The ANBU stood and Iruka straightened himself, tilting his head back to look into the eyes of the mask. He couldn't see the eyes within, there was only shadow and inky darkness.
Without looking away from Iruka, the ANBU reached down to the table, where Iruka had put his hitae-ate after arriving home. The ANBU took it into his hands and raised it in front of Iruka's face. Iruka closed his eyes. The ANBU tied the hitae-ate over them, and then Iruka heard the soft clink as the porcelain mask took the place of the hitae-ate on the table.
Then the ANBU's lips were upon his.
Iruka didn't know if this was what the ANBU needed, or if Iruka was what the ANBU needed, but this was what Iruka wanted, so it really didn't matter. Oh, was it what he wanted. He had been watching this ANBU, talking to this ANBU, dreaming about this ANBU for so long. He had assumed nothing would ever come of it, but now that it was, there was nothing in this moment that he wanted more.
The ANBU stripped Iruka of his shirt and closed his mouth over his jugular. Iruka could feel his pulse beating beneath that hot mouth. The ANBU bit down the length of Iruka's neck and then licked at the sensitive flesh. Savagely he sucked on Iruka's neck, and Iruka could feel the bruise blooming.
The man's hands slid up Iruka's chest and found his nipples. The thumbs drew tiny circles over them and then one of the hands slid around Iruka's back, and the hot mouth took its place. Iruka moaned as the man sucked hard on his nipple and his nails bit into the flesh of his back. The ANBU straightened and his touch was gone, although Iruka could still feel his heat like a furnace. Iruka whimpered with need. He heard the sound of movement and a soft click and then the ANBU moved around behind him.
The ANBU bent Iruka over his table, so his forearms rested on the cool surface. His hands drew Iruka's pants down around his ankles, and then a slick, hot hand enclosed Iruka's even hotter cock and began to pump him. Iruka moaned - it felt so good. Slick fingers worked their way into the cleft of his ass, and slid over his ring of muscle. Iruka moaned again, surprised. He hadn't imagined that would feel so good. He wanted more. And then he had more as the fingers worked their way inside, stretching him.
The hand around his cock, and fingers in his ass were too much. "ANBU... san..." he panted, and the ANBU seemed to understand that he wouldn't last much longer. His hand stilled on Iruka's cock, and his own pressed up against him. With firm pressure he slid inside and Iruka cried out, the sudden pain yet another surprise. The ANBU bit him, hard, on the shoulder and Iruka cried out again. The ANBU repeatedly kissed and lapped at the spot where he had bitten, and moved his hand to stroke Iruka's cock again. The pain in Iruka's shoulder receded, and he realised that the other pain had gone as well. The ANBU began to fuck him.
It was strange at first, having another man inside his body, but as the hand continued to stroke him, and the cock moved back and forth inside him, Iruka began to feel a new sensation. There was a point inside of him that every time it was touched just felt so damn good. He began to moan rhythmically with the pounding he was receiving. He felt the oncoming rise of pleasure, rising and rising, and then he burst, his come shooting out over the ANBU's hand, and his table. He lowered his head to his forearms as the ANBU continued to thrust into him. Then, after a while, the ANBU pushed one last forcible time, and his body shuddered with his own release.
The ANBU collapsed over Iruka, bearing his weight on his forearms. His breath in Iruka's ear was ragged. Iruka could no longer sense the menacing aura coming from him.
"ANBU-san," Iruka said. The ANBU pushed himself upright and stepped back. Iruka pulled his pants back up and turned around. The ANBU kissed him, hard, his tongue delving deep into Iruka's mouth. Iruka whimpered and wrapped his arms around the other man, pulling him hard against his body. Iruka heard a scrape as the ANBU reclaimed his porcelain mask. Then Iruka's arms were empty and the ANBU was gone.
The ANBU came to him on other nights after that. Not often, usually he still just perched on the roof opposite. When he did come to Iruka, it was always when he was fresh from a mission, surrounded by a killing aura. Sometimes he was injured, sometimes just covered in someone else's blood. Iruka wondered how many times when he hadn't appeared on that rooftop over the past many months, it had been because he was like this. Iruka also wondered why he'd changed his mind about avoiding Iruka when he was in this condition.
Over time the ANBU's touch became less violent, but it was always full of need. Iruka took it as it was. If the ANBU needed him, he was perfectly willing.
He wondered if it was possible to be in love with a man whose face he had never seen, and whose voice he hadn't heard in years and couldn't remember. To be in love with someone without knowing their name, what they liked and disliked, what they found funny, what made them cry...
But before he worked it out, a day came when Iruka realised that the ANBU had arrived and was standing on the opposite roof, watching him. He stopped what he was doing, and smiled hesitantly. There was something wrong with the way the ANBU was standing, but he wasn't coiled like a spring, and there was no menacing aura.
"ANBU-san?" Iruka asked quietly.
The ANBU raised his hand, and then slowly, as if reluctant, his fingers slowly curled into his palm. His hand dropped to his side. Then he was gone.
Iruka stared at the spot where the ANBU had been standing, his heart full of pain he hadn't anticipated. "Goodbye, ANBU-san," he murmured to the empty space.
The ANBU was gone for good.
Chapter 7: Eighteen
Eighteen year old Iruka blew on the cut on the little girl's knee before sticking a plaster over the top.
"There you are, Miko. Don't cry."
The little girl sniffled and looked up at him, tears in her impossibly large eyes. Iruka smiled comfortingly at her, and she threw her arms around him impulsively. He wrapped an arm around her and ruffled the hair on top of her head.
"I'm sorry, Miko," a little boy called Kei said apologetically from behind her. Iruka smiled encouragingly at him. "I didn't mean to," Kei added.
The little girl in Iruka's arms turned her head to look at the boy. He looked at her with puppy dog eyes and held out a small bunch of flowers. The little girl slowly released Iruka, and hesitantly walked over to the boy, accepting the flowers. He smiled, she smiled and suddenly it was all over.
Iruka was relieved. He looked around at the rest of the children. They were all happily picking flowers or running around in the sunshine. Kei, who had been gallivanting with his friends and had accidentally knocked Miko over, went back to join his friends, and Miko went back to hers who were weaving daisy chains.
Iruka sat down, a gentle smile on his face, and watched them play.
Some time had passed since the ANBU had left Iruka's life. It had taken getting used to. He had taken the presence of his silent companion for granted. The ANBU might go missing for a few days, but he always turned up again. The sudden permanent absence was like a house once full of children, now quiet with them gone - there was just something empty about it. But just as he had had to get used to the presence of the ANBU, now he had to get used to his absence. Iruka just lived his life; there was nothing more he could do.
He was a chuunin now, and with being a chuunin came more responsibility. The types of missions he was being sent on became more challenging and interesting. He was still predominantly going on missions with shinobi he was already familiar with, but more and more often he was finding himself in teams with shinobi who were new to him. It was always interesting to see what other shinobi could do, especially the jounin and special jounin, who always had some flashy trick up their sleeves.
Keeping busy did help distract him from thoughts of his absent companion, so when he wasn't on missions he occupied himself learning new abilities. He'd been out working on some barrier jutsus he'd learned when he received a summons to the Hokage for a mission. Heading there he had run in to Gekko Hayate heading in the same direction. They'd shared a look, and then entered the Hokage's room. Inside they found the Third's seat empty, but there were six other people present.
Iruka and Hayate both already knew Hagane Kotetsu and Kamizuki Izumo who had graduated the Academy the year after them. Kotetsu and Izumo were apparently entertaining themselves whilst they waited with a staring competition, although that didn't stop them greeting the newcomers cheerfully. Iruka also recognized Hana, a young genin of the Inuzuka clan. Only one of her three ninken was present, and he was sitting patiently on his haunches by her side. Iruka had also already come across Shiranui Genma, who waved a hand casually and went back to chewing thoughtfully on his senbon. The final two Iruka didn't know. One was a member of the Hyuga clan, to judge by the distinctive pale eyes. The last was a man whose face was hidden behind a cloth mask and who was leaning against a wall, reading a book.
Iruka's eyes went to the Hyuga. He knew of their abilities with the Byakugan. He wondered what kind of mission he and Hayate would be sent on that would require the Byakugan. His attention was diverted however, when he heard Hayate choke out in a strangled and barely audible voice, "Kakashi..."
Iruka looked at the masked shinobi. Hatake Kakashi? He'd heard of Hatake Kakashi. Who in Konoha hadn't? He'd never met him before though. They clearly operated in different strata in the village. Hatake Kakashi was one of Konoha's elite, even though he was only a few years older than Iruka was himself. He'd trained under Namikaze Minato who'd become the Fourth Hokage, had become a jounin when he was barely a teenager, had fought in the Third Great Ninja War... and he was not what Iruka was expecting.
Hatake Kakashi was surprisingly inconspicuous. Iruka had barely even spared him a glance at first. He wasn't exactly non-descript... his hair was a bit too untamed for that, and the book in his hand was just too orange (was that porn?!), but there was little to draw attention to him. His clothing was standard issue. His face was almost entirely covered, but the one eye that was visible looked half asleep. He carried himself in a relaxed manner, leaning casually against the wall. His attention was seemingly diverted into a book. The more Iruka studied him, the more he could see little things that added together and made the man seem entirely non-threatening and that he could fade into the background. Iruka could only assume it was intentional since he knew by reputation how very threatening indeed Hatake Kakashi could be.
Kakashi's eye lifted from the book and met Iruka's. Iruka looked away with a faint flush, embarrassed to have been caught staring.
There was something familiar about Hatake Kakashi. Iruka frowned, trying to think what it could be. The unobtrusiveness of Kakashi... Iruka could have walked past him any number of times and not really seen him. He wondered if Kakashi had been one of the shinobi he'd seen when he'd been trying to work out who his ANBU was. Kakashi did have the right kind of hair colour and his build wasn't completely wrong - although the regular uniform was a lot more equalising than the ANBU attire was. Iruka remembered the masked shinobi he'd seen when he'd laughed at himself and given up on trying to find the ANBU. Now he thought about it, that shinobi had had most of his face obscured like Kakashi. Good grief, had he chortled to himself in public in front of Hatake Kakashi? Iruka winced a little internally.
The door opened and the Hokage came in. Iruka was relieved to turn his thoughts from possibly having looked like an idiot in front of one of Konoha's elite, to the Third.
"Ahh, good, you're all here," the Third said, shuffling across the room and taking his seat. He looked around at the gathered faces. "Ko, Hayate, Iruka, Izumo, Kotetsu, Hana... I have a mission for you all."
"The Daimyo has requested assistance in eliminating a group of unknown shinobi who are raiding border villages. There are two villages close to each other in the vicinity of the attacks, and it's highly likely that one of them will be the next target. You're being deployed as two squads with a squad protecting each of the villages. The two squads will be lead by Hatake Kakashi and Shiranui Genma, but the intention is for the two squads to be each other's back up and Kakashi is in ultimate command." The Third pulled his pipe out of his pocket and looked at Kakashi.
Iruka turned his attention to Kakashi. He'd put his book away but was still leaning against the wall.
"We don't know who they are," Kakashi continued whilst the Third packed and lit the pipe, "although we suspect that they missing-nin, rather than being sent by one of the other shinobi nations to harass our villages. Information from the raided villages indicates that there aren't very many of them, three or four at most, however we believe there is at least one of them who is jounin level. One of our patrol squads in the approximate vicinity of the raider's activities was found slaughtered, and a second squad has simply gone missing."
"The problem is that these squads were not without skills," the Third said, puffing on the pipe. "To be eliminated as they were shows that at least one of the raiders has a great deal of skill, including one who likely has access to multiple chakra natures, based on evidence gathered from the bodies of the fallen. We also know the raiders are indiscriminate with who they kill. Entire families, children included, have been found dead on farms in the area... and the bodies have shown evidence of lightning based attacks."
Iruka felt a wave of anger pass through him. Children.
"The eight of you have been chosen for this mission due to your abilities and squad balance. You're young, Hana, to be going on a mission such as this, but you have abilities that will prove useful." Hana nodded tersely. The Third looked around the group. "You all do. But take care. It's difficult to predict just how strong these raiders are. I want you all to come safely home." He rose to his feet. "Good luck." He nodded to Kakashi. "Kakashi, I'll leave the rest to you." Kakashi inclined his head towards the Third, and the Third exited the room leaving the eight alone.
There was silence. Iruka looked around the group. Ko was as perfectly expressionless as only a Hyuga could be. Hana, Hayate, Kotetsu and Izumo looked as trepidatious as he felt. Genma had his usual slightly bored expression. He looked over at Kakashi who also looked slightly bored. Iruka had a feeling it was as normal for him as it was for Genma. Genma and Kakashi were both watching them all, giving them a chance to process just what they had been told.
Having been caught staring at Kakashi earlier, Iruka wanted to make sure he made a better first impression. "Hatake-jounin," he said, breaking the silence, "I'm sure as our captain you already know who I am, but it seems only polite to introduce myself. I'm Umino Iruka. I'm pleased to meet someone I've heard so much about."
"Please," Kakashi replied, looking pained, "call me Kakashi. We're on the same squad now. Hatake-jounin makes me sound old."
"You've always been old, Kakashi," Genma said dryly, smirking around his senbon.
"Since I'm several years younger than you, I choose to assume you've gone senile." Kakashi replied, and then turned his attention back to Iruka.
"As you say, Kakashi-san," Iruka said with a smile.
What the Third had said was echoing around his mind. Clearly his thoughts were playing on his face because Kakashi looked at him questioningly.
"The Third said we have abilities that will be useful for this mission... but I don't really have any special abilities."
Kakashi looked amused. "We need to get moving so I'll explain everything later, but you actually have several skills that make you perfect for your role. The Third and I selected you quite specifically... Iruka-sensei."
"Later!" Kakashi said cheerfully. "Right, everyone go get organised. We could be away awhile. We're leaving in an hour."
"So," Kakashi said that evening as they rested after hours of hard travel, "as we explained at the briefing, these two villages are pretty close together so the two squads are intended to work together as one team. Of the two villages one is more spread out and agricultural, the other is more populated but it's more compact."
"Now as the Third indicated, each of you was chosen for a reason to come on this mission. Between us we have eleven ninken, a medical ninja, the Byakugan, a variety of fighting styles including combination techniques, combat field control jutsus," Kakashi beamed at Iruka, "and a reformed reprobate."
Genma smirked at him.
"Uh," Iruka said, slightly concerned by the expression on their faces and scratching his nose.
"I told you that you have several skills that make you perfect for this mission. Your barrier jutsus are included in combat field control, but you have a very special role that you're particularly suited to. Firstly, because you can hold transformations for an extended period of time, a skill you apparently learned being a troublemaker, and secondly, because you're eminently likeable."
Iruka was confused. "How is being likeable helpful in combating raiders?"
"Since we already know this group doesn't hesitate to kill civillians, we're trying to minimise risk and potential hostages. On the off chance that the raiders manage to get past all our lookouts – which admittedly with eleven ninken and the Byakugan is next to impossible – you're going to be stationed inside the village. You can transform yourself so you can wear full shinobi attire, including your weapons, with no one any the wiser – you'll just look like a regular villager. We're only worrying about having one person inside one of the towns since they are close enough that they share a school. We want to ensure the safety of the children to the best of our ability, so you are going to be spending your time as a teacher's aide."
"The up side is that you'll get to sleep at regular hours, in a comfortable bed," Genma added, "although the downside is all the snot."
"I'd rather hide up a tree," Kotetsu said with a grimace.
"Tell us that again when it's three a.m. and your butt has gone numb from the branch you're sitting on," Izumo said dryly.
"Still," Kotetsu shuddered, "all day with kids... poor Iruka."
"You're nuts," Iruka said with a grin. "Kids are great!"
And so Iruka found himself pleasantly rested, sitting in the sunshine in a field of flowers, contentedly watching children play.
Iruka's heart leapt into his throat when he heard the bird cry and looked to see what it was doing. It wasn't just any bird cry, it was the signal... they were here. He got the teacher's attention and gestured. Together they worked on calmly returning the children to the school building.
Trying to get a class of young children indoors quickly without panicking them was somewhat akin to herding cats - it took longer than Iruka was comfortable with. Eventually, however, they managed the feat, and he quietly slipped out the door, leaving the teacher to keep the children distracted and safely inside. The behaviour of the bird had told him in what direction the raiders were being engaged and he moved quickly through the village to his staging post.
En route to the village, Kakashi had gone over several possible strategies and formations in which to best engage the raiders, taking into account the abilities of the various team members. On arrival, once they could appreciate the layout, he had included variations based upon the terrain and behaviour of the enemy. He had, as best as could be expected, considered every possibility, given they had little information on the raiders or their capabilities. Iruka and Hayate had just looked at each other. If his preparation and tactics were anything to go by, his reputation was every bit earned. It was somewhat strange to hear such well-considered plans emanating from someone who looked like he could doze off at any second. Iruka decided that he liked him.
He could see as he arrived at the edge of the village that the others had already engaged four shinobi. Pakkun, one of Kakashi's ninken, was waiting for him. Pakkun gruffly informed him that they were certain that all the raiders were currently engaged, and that he was best utilised taking part in combat, rather than remaining in the village. There was a wide stretch of fields between the village and the treeline and the Konoha shinobi had jumped the rogue ninja as they had exited the trees, forcing the combat to take place in the open fields. Iruka ran across the fields as quickly as he could while still being able to observe the combat and learn as much as he could on approach.
The first raider appeared to be the dangerous one. He had been engaged by their captain, Kakashi, who appreciated the raider's combat abilities enough to be utilising his sharingan. The raider was clearly adept at ninjutsu, and like Kakashi, could mould multiple chakra natures, although Iruka had yet to see him use the expected lightning. Even as he ran across the fields Iruka witnessed the pair of them hurling impressive looking abilities at each other, peppered with kunai strikes and parries.
The second raider was up against Hayate. He was using a strange bladed weapon, so the kenjutsu style of Hayate had made him the obvious opponent. They would leap towards each other, their weapons clashing, and then leap away again. Neither appeared to be getting the better of the other.
The last two raiders were both predominantly fighting Ko. The third raider was mainly taking cheap shots, either throwing weapons or physically striking Ko, while the fourth kept him engaged with taijutsu. The fourth raider was holding his own against the Hyuga's Gentle Fist style, and Iruka thought it actually looked like the raider might have the edge - if he was able to end the combat quickly. Iruka knew that drawn out close combat against members of the Hyuga family tended to end poorly for the opponent.
His intention was to assist Ko, to give him time to shut down his opponent's chakra pathways, but then, right before his eyes, Hayate suddenly vanished. The raider Hayate had been fighting looked around wildly, trying to find him... then blood blossomed out from his torso. Hayate reappeared, his arm extended at the end of what was clearly a successful sword strike. The raider collapsed to the ground.
The balance of power in the combat shifted. Not only was one of the raiders down, but Iruka's arrival had bolstered Konoha's numbers. The odds changed from four raiders fighting three Konoha shinobi, to three versus four. The third raider, the one who hadn't really been all that involved in the fighting, suddenly bolted.
Hayate's eyes flickered to Iruka, and he leaped forward to assist Ko. Kakashi had considered that one of the raiders might run if Konoha appeared to have the upper hand, and it was up to Iruka to chase him down. It was Iruka's task for several reasons; firstly, because Iruka was fleet of foot, secondly because his barrier abilities could stop a runner dead in their tracks, and thirdly because the odds were that any one running would be on the weaker side in combat – and compared to Kakashi, Hayate and Ko - so was Iruka.
Iruka pursued fleeing shinobi. The raider appeared to be trying to get to the town. Iruka would have thought the treeline would make more sense, if he was trying to escape, so perhaps the he was intent upon some kind of hostage.
As expected, Iruka's speed proved superior to the enemy's and he closed in. As he drew closer, he began to appreciate that his quarry was young. To date this raider hadn't shown any significant ability of any sort including ninjutsu, taijutsu, kenjutsu or genjutsu. Of course it was hard to ever be sure about genjutsu, but Iruka was decent at detecting it for the most part, and the raider hadn't done anything that resembled a genjutsu. The lack of demonstrated ability combined with him fleeing appeared to confirm that the raider was quite simply weak – and frightened. Iruka was still cautious, however - an overconfident shinobi could easily become a dead shinobi.
They were approaching the village outskirts, which meant the raider was approaching some of Iruka's prepared diversions. He exploded several paper bombs, causing the raider to start and change direction. The change in direction was just enough so that his trajectory brought him closer and Iruka cast his jutsu. The raider ground to a halt, trapped like a bug in Iruka's barrier.
Iruka also stopped. The raider spun to look at him, his eyes wide and wild. Now Iruka could see him properly, he could see that the raider was even younger than he had thought, a couple of years younger than Iruka was himself. The boy's eyes darted around and he tried to break out of the barrier's hold. Iruka gripped his kunai in his hand and took a couple of steps forward, and then... hesitated.
The raider's hands flashed through seals, and lightning arced between the two of them.
The lightning slammed into Iruka, and threw him violently away. The electricity surging through him took all his control of his body, and he smashed into the side of a building, his head and shoulders shattering the wood as he hit. The weight of his body slid him down the outside of the wall and he collapsed like a broken doll on the ground, crackles of remnant lightning energy playing across him. Everything went white and there was a ringing in his ears. For a moment even his automatic bodily functions ceased, his breathing stopped and his heart was curiously still in his chest.
With a forceful thump his heart hammered back into action, and he drew a deep breath. The ringing in his ears lessened and he made out the sounds of metal upon metal, followed by what sounded like blades striking wood. Then, as quickly as he regained his ability to breathe, he lost it again as he found himself frozen under the influence of a seething, murderous aura. His vision slowly cleared and he saw death.
An angel of death, bearing down on the raider.
Iruka forced himself to breathe.
Iruka's barrier had fallen when he had briefly lost consciousness. The boy wasn't trapped by the jutsu anymore, but he wasn't going anywhere. Kakashi was upon him - and unlike Iruka, Kakashi had no mercy, and Kakashi didn't hesitate. Kakashi clearly had the greater strength and the boy was not going to win in a physical fight. The boy was avoiding close combat to the best of his ability, which only left him thrown weapons and jutsus. When he threw weapons towards the merciless jounin, they were countered dismissively. He tried a jutsu, but Kakashi blocked it with an earth wall with not even a single flicker crossing his coldly expressionless face.
It was perfectly obvious that the boy was no match for the jounin. But he also couldn't get away, Kakashi either blocked any attempt to get away physically, or with a jutsu. The boy was becoming more and more panicked as he realised it was only a matter of time before he was defeated.
Finally, he made a fatal move, and tried to use the lightning strike that had felled Iruka against Kakashi.
The boy's hands formed the seals for the jutsu, but as they did, Kakashi's hands did the same. The boy's eyes widened. He completed the series of seals and the lightning arced out towards the Konoha jounin. More lightning arced straight back at him. The two streams met between them, flared, and then the boy's lightning failed, as it was overwhelmed by Kakashi's, and it became part of Kakashi's jutsu. The combined lightning blasts smashed into the boy, throwing him away as bonelessly as the boy's jutsu had Iruka. He crumpled on the ground, and didn't move.
The fight had seemed to be in slow motion to Iruka, but in reality it was over in a matter of moments. His body had still not had time to recuperate. He was unable to voluntarily move, his limbs still weak and numb from the electrical effects he'd been subjected to.
Kakashi jumped over to where the fallen boy lay and examined him. Content with what he saw he stood, then turned to face Iruka. He squared his shoulders, and resolutely approached, still wrapped in that menacing aura. Iruka hadn't experienced anything like it since his ANBU. This was just as intimidating - possibly more. He wished he could scramble away from the approaching storm, but he couldn't. He did the only thing he could - he blinked.
Iruka could see the expression on Kakashi's face as he registered Iruka's movement, small as it was. His eyes widened, and then closed, just a fraction longer than was needed for a blink. It was subtle, but Iruka could see the relief.
Kakashi had thought that he was dead.
As his captain realised that, although injured, Iruka was alive, his intense aura dispersed as if blown away by the wind. He dropped to his knees beside Iruka, and examined him.
"Can't move, huh?" he said softly. He straightened Iruka up into a more comfortable position. His eyes looked a bit worried and he touched the back of Iruka's head, his fingers coming away covered in blood. Kakashi looked back to where the main combat had been taking place and apparently liked what he saw. His hand went up to his hitae-ate and pulled it down over his sharingan eye. "You'll be okay," he said to Iruka, standing as Hana dropped beside them and began to use her healing abilities on the fallen chuunin. "He was struck by lightning," Kakashi said to her. "In the weaker form the jutsu causes paralysis by interrupting the electrical impulses of the body. His heart may have stopped for a moment, and then repolarised and restarted. In the more powerful form," Kakashi looked over at the fallen body of the boy, "it doesn't start again."
Iruka stared at the body of the fallen boy, paying no attention to Hana, barely registering when Kakashi moved away. He just stared at the boy. He knew well enough that there were plenty of shinobi out there younger than him who could kill him without trying. Kakashi had been one of those boys. He should never have let his guard down. He was an idiot. He sat in his broken state while Hana continued to heal him, chastising himself, feeling guilty.
They had known that there was a lightning-nin amongst the raiders. The bodies of the slaughtered Konoha squad had shown signs of lightning. The slain families had been scorched by lightning. Children lay dead because of the lightning user. Iruka's hesitation could have resulted in more children lying dead. Iruka could so easily have been lying dead.
He should have taken the shot while he had the boy surprised and caught in his barrier, but because his opponent had looked young and frightened, Iruka had hesitated. He'd given the boy the chance to use the lightning attack on him. He figured the jutsu took a lot of chakra, that the boy didn't use it unless he was confident, or desperate, but trapped in Iruka's barrier, and with Iruka giving him the chance to use it... if that jutsu had been even a little more powerful, Iruka doubted he would be alive. Even as it was, if Kakashi hadn't intervened, the boy would have killed him while he lay paralysed and helpless.
And then what? He could have gone on in to the village to murder more civilians, more children. Perhaps one of Iruka's comrades would have followed him as victim to the boy's jutsu.
And he couldn't help feeling guilty because his hesitation had even killed the boy. If he had taken the shot, the boy may still be alive - but once Kakashi was involved, there was no surviving unless Kakashi wanted you to. The boy might be dangerous, may have killed civilians... but Iruka liked to think there was always a chance at redemption for anyone - especially for the young. There was no chance at redemption now.
The use of his limbs had returned some time ago, but it didn't really register. He just sat stupidly, berating himself, staring at the body of the boy. Kotestu appeared next to the boy and unfurled a scroll. A moment later the body was gone, stored for convenient travel.
"Iruka? Hey, Iruka. You okay?" Izumo was squatting next to him. Iruka wondered when he arrived.
"I healed him as best I could," Hana said. "But he isn't moving." Iruka hadn't even noticed when she'd stopped healing him.
"He'll be okay. Don't worry; I'll take care of him," he heard Kakashi say. "Genma, take Kotetsu, Izumo and Ko. Head straight back to Konoha with the captive and the scroll. The rest of us will come behind."
"Righto," Genma said. He, Kotetsu and Izumo disappeared again. Iruka idly wondered where Ko and Hayate were. With whichever of the raiders had managed to live through the fight, he assumed.
"Hana, go check on Hayate and Ko, then let the villagers know it's safe." Hana ran off, her three ninken at her heels. Iruka could hear the soft sound of dog paws running through the grass after her.
Kakashi sat down next to Iruka.
"Iruka," Kakashi said. Iruka kept staring into middle distance. "Iruka, come on, snap out of it."
"I'm an idiot," Iruka said softly.
"You're not an idiot," Kakashi replied.
"He killed Konoha shinobi. He's the one that murdered children. The lightning user. I could have been killed. He could have gotten into the village and killed civilians if you hadn't been there. I'm an idiot. I almost got myself killed because I hesitated."
There was a pause then Kakashi asked, "Why do you think you did hesitate?"
"He was so young. He looked frightened. I felt sorry for him."
Kakashi sighed and laid his hand on Iruka's shoulder. "Don't beat yourself up."
Iruka looked at him. "I'm a liability," he said dully, then looked away again.
There was a long pause before Kakashi spoke.
"I kind of think that when I die it will be because I finally got it wrong in some flashy ninja showdown far from home." Kakashi looked off into the distance. "But if it's possible, I just want to know that I made a difference. I want to know that the people I care about, that my village, are better off as a result. I'd like to know that somehow I've saved even one person from having to live a life like mine." He turned his face back to Iruka. "You know what I mean?"
"Would you die to save someone from Konoha?" Kakashi asked.
Iruka turned his head and looked at him. "Without hesitation."
Kakashi's nod indicated that that was the answer he had expected. "Then you're not a liability. If the enemy were to come to our village, I believe you would fight like a demon to protect everyone. Anyone. I have no doubt that you would sacrifice yourself if it meant saving just one person."
"I would, that's what the Will of Fire means to me," Iruka said softly.
"Listen, Iruka. Shinobi... we're tools and tools need to be used in the right way. Just because a hammer doesn't cut wood doesn't make a hammer wrong. It's the same for shinobi. There are plenty of shinobi, like me and Genma who can just switch off our consciences, who don't hesitate to kill when we need to. But in a lot of ways we're not all that special, that's what our training intends of us – to be able to do what needs to be done."
"What's special is someone who's come through shinobi training, and despite it all, still cares. You... you have a good heart, and a soft spot for children. That's not a bad thing. People like me need people like you in our world. I can bring death without a second thought, but you... you breathe life into jaded souls like mine, you remind us why we're fighting in the first place. You're the heart of Konoha's future."
Kakashi said nothing else for a moment, just watched the life slowly returning to Iruka's face. Then he tapped Iruka on the shoulder and pushed himself up onto his feet. "Come on. Let's go see your kids. Put the teacher's mind at ease that they're safe." He offered a hand to Iruka. Iruka looked up him, and then after a pause, took the proffered hand, and let Kakashi lead him to the schoolhouse.
I love Kakashi's squishy underbelly.
Iruka made sure that his transformation was back in place before let himself in to the schoolhouse. "I don't want to startle the kids," he explained to Kakashi, who merely nodded benignly. The atmosphere inside the classroom was a bit strange. Clearly the kids knew that something was up, but didn't know what. The schoolteacher had quite a worried expression on her face when the door opened, which rapidly changed to one of relief at seeing Iruka. Kakashi quietly followed in behind him, and lurked unassumingly by the door.
"Iruka-sensei! Where've you been?" one of the kids called out.
Iruka smiled in acknowledgement at the child, but didn't reply. He went over to the teacher and spoke to her quietly. The teacher was greatly relieved to know that the raiders had been taken care of, and that her village and students were safe. Iruka was a little surprised when she decided to give the children the general idea of what had been happening, as well as Iruka's role in it. Finally she told them that Iruka was leaving.
There was a chorus of "Awww!" and then the kids started calling out.
"You're a ninja?"
"You don't look like a ninja."
"HE looks like a ninja," the speaker was pointing at Kakashi. Kakashi looked back at the boy mildly.
"Show us a ninja thing, Iruka-sensei!"
Iruka looked at Kakashi and Kakashi shrugged. Iruka let his transformation drop.
"Oooooh!" the children chorused.
"Oooh," they said again, more subdued, when they noticed his worse-for-wear appearance, and the scorching on his clothes, evidence of the fight that had just taken place outside their homes.
"Did you have to kill someone, Iruka-sensei?" a boy asked. Iruka shook his head.
"Did he?" The speaker was pointing at Kakashi again. Iruka paused.
"Now, now, kids," Kakashi said, "that's enough with the questions. Ninja have a duty to be mysterious, so we can't have you knowing too much about what we've been up to. Say goodbye to Iruka-sensei, he has places to go, people to see, things to do." Kakashi slid open the door and waited.
Iruka smiled at the class, then bowed to the teacher before moving across to where Kakashi hovered in the doorway.
"Iruka-sensei!" a voice called out. Iruka paused and looked back.
Miko stood up from her desk, and with a glance back at her friends, walked over to him. Iruka squatted down so she could look into his face without having to crane her neck.
"Thank you, Iruka-sensei," she said quietly. "Thank you for looking after us." She reached up and placed her daisy chain on Iruka's head.
Iruka smiled and ruffled her hair. "You're welcome." He stood, bowed politely to the class, and followed Kakashi out the door.
Kakashi sent Iruka to collect his belongings from his room, while he reported in to the village chief. They met up soon after with Hana and Hayate, and the four began the journey back to Konoha. It was still early enough that they could get some travel in, although they took it very easy. Iruka had been knocked around by a nasty jutsu only a short time prior, Hayate was never at 100%, although he never let his illness hold him back, and Kakashi had burned through an exorbitant amount of his chakra in the fight. Only Hana was close to normal status physically, but she was only a thirteen year old genin, and had never been on a mission of this calibre – so her mental health needed to be considered.
When they stopped for the night, no one really talked. Hana had her hands in the fur of her ninken and just seemed to be mulling over things in her mind. Hayate was cleaning and maintaining his sword, which Iruka knew sent him into a kind of meditative trance. He could be brought out of it easily enough if required, but it was a peaceful place for him to go to. Kakashi was on a tree branch overhead reading his book. He was there, and he was not there. He was really very good at this. The three more inexperienced shinobi had plenty of space to process the day in their own way, yet he was unobtrusively nearby if any of them had needed him. Iruka didn't know how the other two felt, but he found Kakashi's presence comforting. Strange that such a deadly person could feel comforting, but then Iruka had found his ANBU comforting, and ANBU were, without exception, deadly people.
Iruka himself had a lot of thinking to do, and was happy with the companionable silence around the campfire. He'd been trying to work out for years now just how to fit himself properly into Konoha society, and he thought he'd finally figured it out. He'd known for a long time he wasn't ruthless enough to be ANBU, or really for that matter to be a jounin. It was possible that he could train hard enough and get himself to jounin level, but he wouldn't be any good at it. Iruka's strengths lay in protection and defence, in his well-formed basics, and, as his current captain had said, in his eminent likeability. Iruka grinned to himself. Kakashi... that conversation with Kakashi while Iruka processed his near death experience had had a far greater impact than Kakashi could realise. Added to conversations he had had with the Third, and all that time ago with his ANBU... Iruka finally knew what he wanted to do.
He felt peaceful as he unrolled his bedroll, but also melancholy, as he allowed his thoughts to drift from his worries and decisions, to the ANBU. He hadn't allowed himself to think much about the ANBU after his departure from Iruka's life, but now he found himself making a life altering decision, one that the ANBU had been instrumental in helping him to make, he allowed himself the luxury of missing him. He thought that his ANBU would probably be amused by his decision. He hoped his ANBU was still alive to be amused. As he drifted off to sleep that evening, it was to thoughts of his lost sentinel.
On arrival back in Konoha, Kakashi sent Iruka to the hospital to be checked over. Iruka had started to protest that he was fine now, but Kakashi just stared at him flatly and Iruka had stopped midsentence, turned on his heel and gone to the hospital. He wasn't there very long. The medical-nin had examined him, and agreed that there really wasn't much for them to do at this point. The injury on the back of his head had looked frightening in the field, but head injuries always bled worse than they really were. Hana's initial healing had prevented any swelling in his brain, so he hadn't even developed a headache. The effects of the lightning had fully resolved with time, so after examining him they had really only needed to apply fresh bandages to the wound on his head and one on his arm he hadn't even noticed in the aftermath of the lightning jutsu, and send him away again with instructions to take it easy for a few more days. Given how close he had come to death, he really had come away fairly unscathed.
Iruka received the message that the Third wanted to see him and headed to the roof of the Administration building as instructed. As he climbed the staircase to the roof he could hear the voices of two people – the Hokage, as expected, but also his mission captain, Kakashi.
"Kakashi, how is it that you were there, but still...?" the Third asked.
"I'm so sorry," Kakashi replied. "I missed with the formation. I should have kept him with me."
Iruka frowned. Who were they talking about? He stepped on to the rooftop, and the two men turned at his approach. The Third watched him approach sombrely. Kakashi was standing rigidly and didn't make eye contact with Iruka. Iruka frowned again. He hadn't known Kakashi very long, but such rigidity and formality sat all wrong. He knew Kakashi was very serious about his role as a Konoha shinobi, but he seemed to be really troubled. Iruka developed the uncomfortable feeling that the person they had been discussing was him.
"Oh, Iruka," the Third said. "How are your injuries?"
"It's nothing serious," Iruka replied. "Thank you for your concern."
"You did a good job with the mission," the Third said. "Take some time off to let your injuries heal properly."
Kakashi was still standing rigidly, looking into the space between Iruka and the Third. Iruka wondered what it was he was missing. The mission had been successful. No one had died, only one member of the team had even been injured. Given the squads of Konoha-nin that had been killed by these raiders... From what he'd heard and seen, it seemed that for some reason the Third was upset with Kakashi because he'd let Iruka get injured, which was ridiculous. Iruka was a shinobi, injuries happened and more than that, this time Iruka was entirely responsible for his own injuries. It was only due to Kakashi that he was even alive! He found himself speaking, compelled to speak up for the jounin.
"Sandaime, my injuries are all my own fault," he said hastily. Kakashi didn't move his head, but Iruka could feel his gaze turn to him. "My commanding officer is not responsible," Iruka said, turning to look directly at Kakashi.
"I know that without you telling me," the Third replied.
"Of course," Iruka said, facing the Third again and straightening. There was rebuke in the Third's reply, but Iruka didn't regret speaking. He still didn't know what was going on, but it was important to him that both men knew he only blamed himself for what happened. Kakashi had considered so many possibilities. He couldn't be held accountable for Iruka's hesitation. The Third didn't understand.
"Iruka," the Third said patiently, "you've always been very kind. However this time that kindness was detrimental at a crucial moment against enemy shinobi."
Iruka closed his eyes. Perhaps the Third did understand after all.
"Due to who you are," the Third continued, "there may come a time when you may put the lives of your friends in danger."
"Yes," Iruka replied without opening his eyes. Exactly the conclusion he'd come to himself. "I had thought that I knew myself well enough." The Third was right, he could put someone else in danger. Or get himself in more serious trouble. He never wanted to see the expression that had been on Kakashi's face on anyone's face ever again, if he could avoid it.
"Well, there's nothing we can do about that now," the Third said. Apparently that was all he was going to say on the matter, because he changed the subject. "Now, for your next mission..."
"Sandaime!" Iruka interrupted, his eyes snapping open. He didn't want to let this pass, he didn't want to carry on the way he was going any more. The Third and Kakashi were both looking at him. "Actually, I would like to talk to you about that..."
"What is it? Tell me."
"Sandaime, do you remember what you told me, that time after my parents died, in front of the Monument, regarding the Will of Fire?"
"What you told me back then helped give me the strength to get through my training and my missions... and I want to teach future generations of shinobi about the Will of Fire."
The Third's face shifted subtly. Iruka thought he looked pleased. "Hmm? Are you saying that would like to become an instructor at the Academy?"
Iruka felt hope flare. "Yes, if I can," he replied, and held his breath. He could still feel Kakashi's gaze upon him.
"Very well," the Third said. Iruka's heart leapt in his chest. "From tomorrow you will start assisting the teaching staff at the Academy."
Iruka couldn't believe his ears. The Third agreed so readily. Iruka was delighted. "Really, Sandaime?" He wanted to dance. He wanted to do handsprings. He contained his motions, but he knew that his face was shining with his joy.
The Third chuckled. "Really. Now go home and rest."
Iruka grinned at him and bowed, then he turned to Kakashi and bowed again. Still grinning, he ran off the rooftop and down to the streets where he continued grinning like a loon. He was fairly certain that somehow he'd just played into the Third's hands, but since it was what he wanted, he didn't have a problem with it.
to be continued...
Chapter 10: Twenty
Umino Iruka was only twenty when he successfully completed the graduation exam for the Academy, although his birthday went by before he held his first class manifest in his hands and stared at the page with trepidation.
Iruka's training at the Academy went by in a flash. He had always known he was smarter than many, but he discovered that he hadn't needed to learn what to teach, only howto teach. He also discovered that he was somewhat gifted when it came to the latter.
Iruka the student had been a far more effective pupil than he had ever thought. It seemed that he retained information and had learned to a higher degree during his own time at the Academy than he had appreciated. His former instructor, in retrospect, had known it all along. In the year following the death of his parents, Iruka had been particularly troublesome but he had been on the receiving end of very little discipline. He had always ascribed this to the instructor not really knowing how to handle the orphaned trouble maker. On reflection it seemed his old instructor had known exactly what he was doing.
Iruka had always been a mischievous child, made worse by the attention seeking phase he went through after his parents were killed in the Kyuubi attack. He frequently had been paying little attention in class, with his mind either on the sorrow of his situation, or on mischief he was planning. Even so, he had been taking in the theory the instructor had been teaching, like a plant absorbing water, and when his friends had had trouble understanding, Iruka had been able to patiently explain to them. In showing lenience to young Iruka, his instructor had advantaged all the children in his class; the general class, because he had more time to deal with them, Iruka's friends because they were getting beneficial one on one tutelage, and finally Iruka because the best way to truly understand something is to teach someone else.
And yet again Iruka was finding the benefits of his miscreant youth. His basics being so well practiced and impeccable meant that he understood the nuances of what he was doing to such an extent that it made explaining to others easy.
He had only been assisting and learning at the Academy for a bit over a year before the instructors started talking about him taking the graduate exam. Since he wouldn't be able to be an instructor in his own right until the new academic year however, there was no need to rush things. He did take great satisfaction in the knowledge though, as it came as a kind of redemption for his delayed promotion to chuunin.
The same could not be said for his old friend Mizuki.
On arrival at the Academy, Iruka had been surprised to discover that Mizuki was also assisting the instructors there with the hopes of becoming one himself. Iruka had been shocked when he realised how long it had been since the two of them had caught up. He hadn't known Mizuki was at the Academy, or that he had even aspired to teach. He had always thought that Mizuki would never be happy unless he was in some testosterone-filled adventursome career path. Mizuki had always wanted to become more powerful, to rise up through the ranks and become a jounin, or better yet an ANBU. Seeing Mizuki seeking a position that would effectively make him a desk jockey was unexpected, and more surprising was that he wanted to work with children. Iruka hadn't thought that he even particularly liked children. When he had voiced his surprise, Mizuki had looked at him with a smile and responded with something along the lines of the most satisfying job in the world was growing young minds. Iruka had raised an eyebrow skeptically, but Mizuki had continued to smile at him so genuinely that Iruka had been convinced.
Besides, it was nice to be able to share the experience with a friend.
Upon re-establishing their friendship, they had decided that they needed to make time to catch up more often. It became a regular occurrence for the pair of them, and some of their old friends, to meet up at the end of the week and have a few drinks or a meal together. Iruka was pleased. He'd started to feel isolated and lonely. It was so easy for shinobi to become preoccupied with their missions and their training and the things they had to do. Even though Iruka was well liked and could easily find someone to talk to when he felt like company, he didn't seem to have any one who really sought him out. Now, once again, he did and he had forgotten how nice it really was.
The only fly in the ointment was that Mizuki was frustrated at Iruka's advancement. He had started at the Academy first, but Iruka rapidly overtook him and progressed farther and faster. Mizuki had always found things came to him easily. He was a good student at the Academy, he always picked up new jutsus without trouble, but now he was needing to work for what he wanted. He simply didn't have Iruka's gift for teaching. What was worse was that his frustration only increased when the instructors started giving Iruka more and more new things to do outside of the normal assistant activities.
Iruka had quickly become invaluable in his role as assistant. Discovering he was sensible, dependable, reliable, patient and trustworthy, the Academy instructors had started to utilise him as the resource he was. His quick progression left him with time to spare and he found himself increasingly somewhere in the Administration section of the building. If someone needed research doing they sent Iruka. If someone needed documents retrieved they sent Iruka. Somewhere along the way he found himself with security clearance to go pretty much any where he pleased within the Administrative building, including the sealed document rooms. He didn't know if it had been requested on his behalf by the Academy, or if he'd been unaware he'd been granted it at some point prior, but it certainly wasn't standard for the assistant instructors.
On one occasion he was heading back to the Academy section with some materials he had gathered when the Third stopped him. He had asked Iruka if he minded helping out in the mission desk since they were understaffed - if his current supervising instructor could spare him. The instructor hadn't minded at all, so Iruka had headed to the mission desk. He was only involved in accepting D rank missions, but apparently his efficiency, attention to detail and politeness impressed. Other occasions arose when he was asked to help out at the mission desk, and by the time he had become a full instructor, regular shifts had become part of his routine.
Mizuki never failed to ask him about the things Iruka was up to, what he had seen, what he had done. There wasn't much Iruka could really tell him though, and Mizuki always looked a bit hurt when Iruka wouldn't speak of it. That didn't change anything though, Iruka maintained discretion. Besides, he tried to speak of it as little as he could to the man anyway since it only seemed to heighten his frustration that the instructors thought that Iruka had time to spare.
Finally the time came and Iruka took his instructor examination. Not surprisingly he passed easily. Mizuki had to wait for the next examination. There was some doubt about whether he was ready, but also there was apparently some kind of controversy about him and a mission he'd been involved in. Iruka didn't know what it was about, and Mizuki didn't want to talk about it. Iruka knew he was disappointed, but he was clearly doing his best to be happy for Iruka and there was nothing either of them could do about it, so Iruka let it go.
The instructor exams had culminated with a physical examination, and his graduation was assured upon successful completion. That evening Iruka was in all honesty exhausted, but he felt obliged to go celebrate with his friends. Personally he thought they were really just using him as an excuse for a celebration more than anything, so he really didn't feel too guilty when he called it a night early and left them to continue the festivities without him. Besides, Mizuki could probably do with a bit of stress release and would almost certainly have a better time without Iruka there to remind him of his own issues.
Arriving home Iruka turned on his lights, and saw something out of the corner of his eye on his balcony. Curiously he went out to see what it was, and found an exquisite tea set - far more beautiful than the simple, practical set he currently used. He held a delicate cup in his hands, eyes wide with appreciation. The pattern was deceptive in its simplicity. The more he studied it, the more he could appreciate in the simple lines, swirls and colours, then with absolute delight he realised he could see fireflies swirling between rushes. He was in love.
He was also aware that one cup was missing. He pondered for just a moment and then the breath caught in his lungs and he looked out over at the roof opposite. He jumped across, and sure enough, there was the last cup, resting in the spot where his ANBU used to perch. Iruka picked up the cup and held it against his chest, eyes closed, and a smile on his face. The ANBU.
He had no idea if the former ANBU was in earshot, but he hoped that he was lurking somewhere, watching for Iruka's reaction to his gift. Iruka didn't look for him, he just kept his eyes closed and spoke into the night.
"Thank you, ANBU-san. It's perfect," he said smiling. "And thank you for letting me know you're still safe. Although you know it's not fair," he chided, "that you know who I am, but I don't know who you are." He paused a moment at the tinge of melancholy that was intruding on his happiness. "I miss you. I hope you're happy." There was no reply, nor had he expected one. He jumped back to his apartment and smiling took his gift inside and put it to use.
Iruka's days continued much as they had for a little while longer, until the new Academic year drew near. Eventually he received his first class manifest which he read with excitement. He was being assigned the position of homeroom teacher for a class of predominantly eleven year olds. Iruka himself had graduated by their age, and generally all of the high achieving shinobi in Konoha typically had, but it wasn't that he had a class with no potential. Policy had changed in recent times and the Third wanted the children to spend longer at the Academy. In fact, as he read his class list, he realised that many of the children he was going to be responsible for had impressive shinobi pedigrees, and had a great deal of potential indeed. There was an Inuzuka, whom he assumed was the younger brother of Hana, as well as children from clans such as Nara, Yamanaka, Aburame... But there were two names, however, that had him stopping and staring at the page with what could only be called trepidation; Uchiha Sasuke, and Uzumaki Naruto.
The Uchiha survivor. Was he really the most appropriate instructor for the Uchiha survivor? Sure, he was an orphan too, so he might understand the boy a bit better than some of the other instructors, but he hadn't had his entire clan killed by his own brother. The Uchiha survivor had to have issues. Serious issues. He wasn't sure if his particular skills were up to the support this boy would need.
And then there was Uzumaki Naruto. He'd stared at that name for a very long while. The Kyuubi vessel. Who'd killed Iruka's parents. Okay, so the kid didn't do it, but that... thing was inside the kid. How was he supposed to deal with that? Every time he saw the boy in the streets he felt pain as he was reminded of his loss. How was he supposed to deal with that on a daily basis? It didn't take a lot of thinking before he sought out the Third to protest.
The Third made time to see him, as he almost always did. It had been a little while since the pair of them had caught up, so they talked about general things over tea first. Eventually Iruka came around to his concerns about being responsible for that particular boy. As it so happened, at that very moment, the boy in question was up to his usual mayhem, this time covering the giant stone faces of the Hokages in paint. Iruka stood with the Third and watched the boy for a short while, becaming increasingly adamant that he should not be the one to have to deal with him. But the Third was a wily old fox and was far too crafty at getting the results he wanted and by the time Iruka headed home he had been expertly manipulated, yet again, and had agreed to be the boy's homeroom teacher after all.
The Third had looked so happy. Iruka was still worried. He understood that he really was this child's only hope to become a shinobi, and to therefore not spend the rest of his life as an outcast. No other instructor would take him. In fact, despite the fact that none of the other kids in his class had been allowed to take the graduation exam, Naruto had already taken it, unsuccessfully, twice. The other instructors had been patently trying to get rid of him, to make him a jounin's problem.
But now he was Iruka's, and while the Third may have convinced him to teach the boy, he still had no idea what he was going to do.
This chapter deals with things quite extensively covered in the canon. I'm sorry if it's a little repetitive to people well versed with the canon, but there's relevant stuff going on I wanted to address.
When Iruka reflected back on the following year of his life, he came to recognise it as one of the most traumatic and one of the most wonderful of them all.
He began his career as a teacher. He almost failed the student who needed him the most. He learned to see beyond his childhood scars. A friend betrayed not only him, but the village they called their own. He lived up to the Third's expectations. He almost died. He gained a little brother. He almost died – again.
And he began a friendship with one of Konoha's most infamous shinobi.
That in itself became even more significant once events that followed that year were taken into account. It wasn't an overt beginning to a friendship, nor was it the first time they had spoken, but Iruka felt that if he traced back their relationship, like trying to find a river's source, that it really all began here, with a conversation on a bench and a well-timed rescue.
Uncertain of how to deal with having such a disruptive child as Naruto in his class, Iruka had sought the advice of one of the more experienced instructors. Funeno-sensei had advocated ignoring any undesirable behaviour, and that if the boy didn't get the reactions he was after, he would soon settle down.
In retrospect Iruka realised he had heeded the advice because it was the easy option. He also realised that as a result of not being able to properly handle his own visceral response to dealing with the vessel for the Kyuubi, he had more ignored the child than just the troublesome behaviour. He was accustomed to sending the boy back to his seat after some kind of mischief, instead of punishing him. He was accustomed to ignoring the crestfallen expression on the boy's face when he failed to perform the way he wanted to in practical tasks. He was accustomed to the disappointed shrug whenever the boy got a test back with the inevitable F written on it in red. He was accustomed to ignoring the other children's general unpleasant treatment of the boy. He was accustomed to ignoring the fact that the child got himself to school in the morning, and took himself home at the end of the day and lived entirely on instant ramen that he brought with him in his schoolbag.
At least the Uchiha boy hadn't been as much of an issue as he had anticipated. Sasuke was disturbingly taciturn, but very dedicated. His skills were far beyond the rest of the class, and if it had been a different time he would have long since graduated to become a genin. The only thing that troubled Iruka about him was that he isolated himself completely, and had no friends. Shinobi functioned in teams, and even more difficult personalities needed to be able to work with others. With Sasuke, the girls were enamoured of his abilities and his pretty face, but weren't seeing any deeper into him as a person. The boys pretty much ignored him, jealous of his abilities, as well as the attention he got from the girls. In response, Sasuke ignored them all.
All except Naruto.
It was an unexpected advantage from having Naruto in the class – for some reason Sasuke reacted to him when he steadfastly ignored everybody else. Iruka might have difficulty in dealing with Naruto, but the one thing he could say about the child was that he was eager. He truly wanted to become a shinobi – he just wasn't very good at it. Sasuke's adeptness frustrated the boy, and he took it upon himself to not just attempt to outshine the Uchiha survivor, but to make sure the other boy knew that he viewed him as a rival. Sasuke, for his part, seemed to thoroughly enjoy crushing the noisy child like a bug.
And Iruka didn't stop him. Nor did he stop any of the other children who mocked and teased Naruto - beyond telling them he wasn't worth it. In later years Iruka wondered how Naruto ever came to forgive him. Naruto never once brought up their relationship prior to Iruka's acceptance of him. He never hung it over Iruka's head – not even to wheedle Ichiraku ramen out of him. Iruka felt guilty when he thought back on how he had behaved, but if Naruto could move on so completely, then so could he; and he did.
But first came the chain of events that brought it all to a head, and took Iruka from seeing the monster, who had caused him to suffer, to seeing the child, who was suffering because of the monster too.
Iruka had been out in the late evening when he had come across several boys from his class running in terror from the graveyard, shouting about the monster fox. His blood had run cold and he had drawn a kunai from its pouch, holding it more tightly than was necessary as he sped in the direction from which they had come. He didn't know what he was expecting to do – the Kyuubi had caused mass destruction to the village ten years earlier, and taken the lives of many elite shinobi, including the Fourth. If it was really back, he was running towards his certain death. But still he ran forwards, heart in his throat.
What he had found was indeed the monster fox, but still safely inside its unknowing vessel. Naruto was laughing gleefully at his success in scaring the other children. Iruka had not responded well.
For just a moment he had been anticipating the demon once again destroying his home.
For just a moment he was ten again, reliving his parent's death.
For just a moment he turned cold, hard eyes on the demon and caused pain to an innocent child who didn't understand.
The boy's face had crumpled. He had seen that look from so many adults, it wasn't right that even his teacher looked at him that way. He had shouted his defiance, running away into the night, claiming he would never return to the Academy. Iruka had only half-heartedly made an effort to stop him. Adrenaline, memories and pain were coursing through him, holding him back. The boy disappeared into the darkness.
Naruto hadn't come to class the next day. None of the kids seemed to notice, or care. Iruka continued with his lessons, but there was a feeling like lead in his stomach. While in the night all he had seen was the shadow of the demon, when he remembered the face of the child, he was less a demon and more an angry kitten. If he didn't come back to the Academy, that was it; the son of a hero would be an outcast forever. His father had sacrificed his innocent baby, died for the sake of the village and entrusted the little orphan to the village to raise. They were failing them both and Iruka was failing them most of all.
Clearly he couldn't do this. To continue trying was just punishing both himself, and the boy. It wasn't fair for either of them to have to cope with Iruka's inability to deal with him. The boy was needlessly suffering, and every day Iruka could feel his soul withering.
He made up his mind, and asked to see the Third. He had to get someone else to be responsible for the child, for both their sakes. Unusually, the Third didn't have time to see him. He found himself wandering the streets of Konoha despondently, lost in thought. He didn't even have anyone he could talk to, without the Third to listen. The other Instructors were completely disengaged when it came to this particular child, and were of no more assistance than Funeno-sensei had been. His best friend was ostensibly Mizuki, but Mizuki wasn't dealing well with his promotion. He always had a pleasant smile on his face whenever they caught up, but Iruka had a feeling that might just be a little pleased that he was struggling and wouldn't be of any help at all. The irony wasn't lost on him that it was times like this it would be really nice to have family.
Sitting dejectedly on a bench, he sighed; a sigh that inevitably changed his world forever.
"Hey!" he heard the voice coming from overhead. He looked up to see the jounin, Kakashi, lounging on a tree branch above. He hadn't seen or spoken to him since he'd started at the Academy.
"That's my special seat," Kakashi said, looking down at him. "If everyone were to go around sighing here, I'd be interested, and then I wouldn't be able to read my book, now would I?"
"I'm sorry," Iruka replied somewhat dully, standing. "I'll move right away."
Kakashi dropped down in front of him. "It's all right, I was about to leave anyway." He put his book away. "See you around."
Iruka sat back down listlessly.
"What's wrong?" Kakashi's voice intruded on his thoughts again. He realised the man had stopped and was looking back at him. "You look troubled. If you want someone to talk to, I'm happy to listen." He came back and took the seat next to him. Iruka didn't know why he was offering to listen to the troubles of someone he didn't know, or even how the jounin felt about the Kyuubi vessel, but here was someone offering to listen when he really needed to talk. He didn't really even think about it before he started speaking.
"The thing is, I became that boy's... Uzumaki Naruto's homeroom teacher."
"Yeah?" Kakashi leaned his elbow back on the bench and waited for Iruka to keep speaking.
"I've been trying to get the Third to see me... I want to be relieved from being his teacher. I have no idea how I'm supposed to get close to that child... I'm just not the right person to teach him." Iruka clutched at his head. Saying it out loud made him feel even worse than he already felt. He was a terrible person.
"I see..." Kakashi replied. "So that's why they're dead."
"Eh?" Iruka looked at him. Kakashi was looking up into the sky.
"Your eyes... they sparkled back then, but now they're dead." He turned and looked at him. Iruka was surprised; he hadn't expected Kakashi to really remember him, let alone a conversation from over a year ago.
"You have to open your own heart before others will open to you," Kakashi said. "That's pretty obvious - you should already know that." He looked penetratingly at Iruka, causing him to blink. "No," Kakakshi said, looking away again, "you're trying to forget it, aren't you?"
Iruka's temper flared. This wasn't just any child they were talking about. This was the Kyuubi. He wasn't incapable of opening his heart! But this child..."The Kyuubi inside of Naruto is responsible for the death of my parents," he said with asperity. "Of course I know Naruto isn't to blame personally for what happened, but I can't help it, whenever I see him I see the Kyuubi. How can Naruto open up to someone like me?"
"You're the only one capable of opening Naruto's heart." Kakashi said, standing. "That's your ordeal."
"My ordeal?" Iruka replied looking up at him.
"Yeah, given to you by the Third. Just... try your best. Try a little longer. If you do, something's bound to happen. The Third believes in you."
Iruka didn't have a response.
"See ya!" Kakashi said cheerfully, walking away with his hand raised in farewell.
Iruka sat for a while longer, thinking. As was usual whenever he spoke to anyone about Naruto, the conversation had only been brief - but in this case it wasn't because the jounin was being dismissive. Iruka wasn't sure how he had come to the heart of it so quickly and managed to convey so much in only a few words. Clearly the jounin was of the same opinion as the Third - they were depending on Iruka to find a way to be able to help the boy. It was... odd. Iruka hadn't expected Kakashi to remember him, but now it felt like Kakashi knew exactly who he was, and understood what he was going through, but believed that Iruka could surpass his own shortcomings. But why him? Why was he the one the Third and this elite jounin thought could teach the boy, why was he the only one that could open up his heart? Nothing changed the fact that whenever he saw Naruto he was constantly reminded of his loss. Why did they have so much faith in him when he didn't have faith in himself?
Sighing once more he stood and started to walk again, still trying to process his thoughts. The sun was setting as he approached a playground and he stopped to watch the children in the fading light. The one causing him his consternation was amongst their number. As he watched, one by one parents came and collected their offspring. Eventually Naruto was left standing alone. Iruka could identify with the pain he knew the boy was feeling in this moment. The Kyuubi had taken his parents, too. He knew exactly how it felt to watch your playmates go home to their families one by one until you were left standing by yourself in a rapidly darkening playground, wishing that someone would come for you too. But they never would.
Although he knew the loneliness and sorrow that was inside the young boy at this moment, the cold grief in his own heart loomed larger, and he turned and walked on. But that night he couldn't sleep. Two sides of him were at war, and there is no peaceful sleep during war.
He knew Naruto was a lonely little boy, just as he had been. But Naruto made him the lonely little boy. No, the Kyuubi did. But the Kyuubi was Naruto. He curled into a ball. How could he live up to the Third's expectations like the jounin had said? How was he supposed to open his heart to the boy when every time he looked at him his heart broke all over again?
In the morning, after nowhere near enough sleep, Iruka had tried to talk to Naruto, to make sure he came to class. Not surprisingly the boy evaded him, and Iruka had found himself looking around his empty apartment. The evidence of his isolation was apparent. The child truly lived on instant ramen – the only other thing of any kind of nutritious value was milk. There was no one in his life to teach him to eat better, no one to nag him to clean his room, or to take a bath or to do his homework. Iruka, and even Sasuke, may have had a tough time losing their parents in the manner in which they did, but this little boy had never had anybody, ever.
The realisation of the wretchedness of Naruto's situation crashed down on him. The boy had been so resilient to the poor treatment he'd been shown his whole life, and so determined to become a shinobi, and he'd done it all without support of any kind. Iruka had been blinded by the shadow of the Kyuubi, but right now the neglect Naruto had received from the village he'd been sacrificed for seemed far more monstrous.
When his fears were confirmed and Naruto didn't come to class again, he was frightened that he'd come to his senses too late. That fear became magnified and he could taste it when he discovered that Naruto had been manipulated by some of his classmates into a fool's errand in the hills around Konoha. There had been combat in that area only the day before, and it was highly likely there were still enemy forces around as only one shinobi had been defeated and the body brought in to Konoha. A child like Naruto wouldn't stand a chance if the others were still lurking around. Iruka rushed out of the classroom praying he really wasn't too late.
His knowledge Konoha's environs helped him to travel quickly and he was relieved to find the boy within a short period of time. Convincing him to return to the safety of the village was another matter. The boy was still hissing and spitting at him like a wildcat and only saw Iruka as the neglectful cold-eyed adult he'd shown himself to be.
"You don't understand how I feel," Naruto said sadly. "Even if I go to the Academy, nothing will change. I'm always alone, I'm always without friends, nobody gives a damn about me."
Iruka wanted to say something, but there was a bitter taste in his mouth that was taking away his voice.
"But this time it's different!" Naruto stated defiantly. "If I manage to bring back something from the battleground, then everyone will acknowledge me as their friend! If I do it, I won't be alone any more! I won't have to experience that feeling again. And that's why I am definitely going to find something."
Iruka looked at Naruto sadly. The omnipresent demon fox no longer loomed over the child and cast him in its shadow. Iruka was finally seeing the boy, and the boy alone. He had to make sure he stayed safe and told him as much... but Naruto had other ideas. With a transformation that academically Iruka was impressed by, but as someone trying to keep him safe was frustrated by, he distracted his sensei long enough to make his escape. Iruka was not planning on sharing those particular details with anybody.
As he wiped the blood away from his nose and resumed his search for the boy, memories of his own past came back to haunt him. They had nothing to do with the destructive capacity of the Kyuubi, but rather the way he felt after the Kyuubi and his parents were gone. He understood Naruto's desperation for acceptance. He understood why he needed attention and friends. He understood because he'd been that way too.
His heart sank. The Third's expectations... what this child needed, more than anything, was just someone to believe in him. All troubled children did. Iruka didn't know what would have become of him without the belief of the Third. The Third wanted him to pass that on to another child in need. How could he be so stupid?
This time it took him a lot longer to find Naruto than he was comfortable with. Eventually he heard the boy's cries in the distance, and followed the cries to their source. He found Naruto unconscious at the bottom of an embankment. Heart in his throat he jumped to the boy's side, and was relieved when he woke up at his voice.
The relief was short lived when he discovered that Naruto had attracted the attention of three enemy shinobi. And then Naruto fell unconscious again.
It was hardly the first time in his life Iruka found himself running from enemies he didn't think that he could defeat alone. It was the first time he did it with an unconscious eleven year old on his back, however, and the extra weight was limiting how fast he could move. And unfortunately the three kunoichi were not slow or stupid. He pulled all his usual tricks to throw them off of his scent, and to boost his speed but they kept coming. He managed to counter their melee attacks, but they changed to ranged jutsu.
As a team they summoned an overwhelming number of shuriken. Iruka knew instantly that there were simply too many blades for him to successfully dodge. It was really just a matter of time, and already the blades were cutting into the flesh of his shoulder, his face. Safety was too far away, and unlike when he was a boy, there was not going to be any timely ANBU intervention.
His heart almost stopped when a kunai with an explosive tag attached to it suddenly flew past his face in the opposite direction. Taking shelter behind the trunk of a tree he heard the explosion as the flying arsenal was destroyed, and pieces of shrapnel went whizzing past. Somehow someone was here to save them? How was that possible... the ANBU...?
Kakashi landed on the branch in front of him. "Are you two all right?"
"Kakashi-san!" Iruka said with disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"Your students told me, and I became interested." Kakashi replied mildly.
The kunoichi may have evaded capture the day before and they may have been too much for Iruka, but they weren't even a challenge for the jounin. There was a brief moment when Iruka wondered if their linked fire technique had proven too much for Kakashi, but in retrospect he should have known better. It took longer for Kakashi to tell Iruka why he was there than it did for him to defeat the three with his raikiri.
Iruka thanked his lucky stars once again that he was never going to have to fight the other man. And that for some reason he had taken an interest in Naruto.
"Thank you very much," he said as he approached the other man. "I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't come."
"If I hadn't, you'd have defiantly protected Naruto." Kakashi replied.
Iruka looked away. "I think I understand now what you were talking about, Kakashi-san."
"I wasn't up front with Naruto. I was trying to avoid him. But I think I can be up front with him now."
"I see," Kakashi said. He smiled and put his hand on Iruka's shoulder. The hand was warm, and so was the smile. They both felt nice. "Well, that's good."
Iruka smiled back at him.
When Naruto eventually discovered that his precious trophy was gone, he was singularly unimpressed. Iruka had given it to the Third, with the security information attached to it, and his thanks for making him Naruto's teacher. The Third's expression had first registered surprise, and then Iruka assumed he could see the change in him when he told him he wanted to pass on the Will of Fire, because he smiled, satisfied.
Naruto, on the other hand, found himself being shouted at by his sensei. "Idiot!"
Iruka was saddened to see Naruto recoil and guard himself with his arms. Perhaps he wasn't an angry kitten. Perhaps he was more a beaten puppy.
"Who cares about your trophy? You were almost killed!"
"Well yeah," Naruto pouted at him "but ..."
The Third wasn't the only person to recognise a change in someone. Iruka couldn't help but notice that Naruto's response was far less vehement than he would have expected.
"You're awfully obedient today," he said.
"Because this is the first time you yelled at me. It surprised me."
"Ah I see." Iruka wanted to ruffle his hair. Instead he just smiled at him. "That's true. Your sensei has decided to be more up front with you from now on. Henceforth from tomorrow I'm going to be stricter with you."
"What? Maybe I don't want to come back to the Academy after all."
Iruka kept smiling. Naruto was special, and from now on he was going to make sure the boy knew it.
"Tell me Naruto, do you know about the Will of Fire?"
The next time Iruka found himself on duty in the mission desk he didn't find it strange when Kakashi came and spoke to him after handing his report in to the Hokage. The same could not be said of some of the other people on duty who had worked there longer. Apparently the elite jounin Kakashi did not often engage in casual conversation with lower ranked shinobi. The chuunin who matter-of-factly informed Iruka of this gave him a strange look and asked what it was that he and Kakashi had been talking about. The other chuunin nearby had looked at him with interest too, and Iruka found himself rubbing his scar under their scrutiny.
He had chosen to not tell them what they had been discussing. They had in fact been talking about Naruto, about how he was doing after his run in with the kunoichi and after Iruka's epiphany. Iruka already felt defensive discussing Naruto with people, given the way they treated him, and now he felt defensive of Kakashi too. He didn't know what Kakashi's reasons were, but he was confident that the distance the man kept between himself and other people was entirely conscious. He felt that revealing what they had been talking about would have been a betrayal of his trust, and frankly was nobody else's business anyway.
Kakashi continued to speak to him whenever they were in the mission room together, or on the odd occasion when they ran into each other outside of its walls. Usually the topic was related to Iruka's students – particularly Naruto – but with increasing frequency he realised they were just having normal every day conversations. Iruka felt strangely pleased that the elusive jounin was letting him into his world, even if it was just a little. Besides, it was such a weight off his shoulders to have someone he could talk to who didn't think that Naruto was some kind of vermin to be exterminated.
With Iruka's acceptance of Naruto had come an increasing fondness for the boy. Now that he wasn't looking at the Kyuubi, but at the boy, he wondered how the shadow of the Kyuubi had ever hidden his bright, shining spirit. Naruto was almost permanently joyful. Occasionally he pouted, but his mood always reverted rapidly to brightness and happiness, as if his worries could be blown away by the wind.
Naruto was doing somewhat better in class now that Iruka was giving him the discipline he needed, the attention he craved and the care he deserved. He was still down at the bottom of the class, but Iruka had hopes that he would actually be able to graduate, which for Naruto was almost certainly a good thing. He had determined that Naruto was the kind of person who learned better by doing things himself and the classroom environment wasn't ideal for him. The things the boy showed talent for – general athleticism, being sneaky and transformations – were all things he did on a regular basis. What he wasn't good at was theory, and anything requiring fine chakra control. Iruka couldn't quite work it out; Naruto had a lot of chakra, but no matter what he did he always seemed to use far more than necessary for substandard results.
Another thing Naruto continued to show increasing talent for was mischief. That particular talent was also being used on a regular basis. Now Naruto even had co-conspirators for his troublemaking, which meant he was getting up to a wider variety of shenanigans. Naruto, Shikamaru, Chouji and Kiba had developed tentative bonds of friendship and frequently found themselves on the receiving end of Iruka's reprimands. In a lot of ways shouting at the four of them was good stress release for Iruka. He was never anywhere near as angry as he let himself appear; he'd been a troublemaker himself when he was a child, so it would have been hypocritical of him to resent it in his students. He wasn't sharing that with them, however, and dutifully shouted at them in class.
He was pleased that Naruto had found some friends who appreciated him for who he was and didn't harbour ill intent towards him. The other boys were still influenced by the standoffishness and disdain the adult population projected towards Naruto, but they appeared to have formed their own opinions and were gradually letting him into their lives. The only thing that concerned Iruka was that Naruto's friends were academically at the bottom of the class with him. The other three gave him almost as much cause for concern as Naruto did, and he fretted a bit that their association would hinder their chances of graduation.
Kiba had trouble sitting still for any length of time and was only really happy gallivanting around with his ninken. Athletically he was good company for Naruto, but that wasn't an area Naruto needed to improve upon, so it was proving somewhat distracting.
Chouji tended to be somewhat lazy, and far more interested in food than in learning or training. He was happy as long as he had some kind of snack on hand, and Shikamaru for company. Unfortunately for Chouji he did not have great academic ability, so his lack of application was to his detriment. He would have benefited from spending less time eating, and more time studying.
The biggest concern came in the form of Shikamaru and his unparalleled laziness. There could be no doubt that he had plenty of brains in his head, but the trouble with the Nara boy was that he quite simply would rather do absolutely nothing at all than anything. Iruka could never be sure when he collected Shikamaru's papers whether they would be pure genius, or if he would even have finished writing his own name. The latter tended to happen more often than the former, which meant despite being clearly intelligent, and competent with physical abilities, he was barely scraping by in class.
It was nice to see the boys laughing, however, and Iruka was reluctant to consider any kind of friendship between them a bad thing. They certainly seemed to be in good spirits, which particularly for Naruto, could only be positive.
When the time finally came for his class to sit their graduation exams, Iruka had a pleasant surprise; Mizuki, who was now a full instructor in his own right, had been assigned to assist him in the assessment of the examinations. Iruka couldn't help but worry about how well his students were going to perform, but at least his friend had succeeded in his endeavours. He hadn't as yet been assigned his own home room class and was mainly working as a relief teacher, but at least he'd been accepted into the Academy. Iruka was looking forward to having a reason for them to work together.
The pair of them were together when they received the examination requirements and looked over it in preparation for assessing the class. The examination was perfectly reasonable, especially in the light of the children having been kept at the Academy longer than previous generations, and he wasn't too concerned about the majority of his class. The examination was structured such that the ones that he knew had weaknesses would be able to compensate in areas where they were stronger. As for his poorer performing students; as long as Chouji and Kiba applied themselves, they should be all right and Shikamaru would have no trouble as long as he actually put in a modicum of effort.
Naruto though, Iruka was worried for Naruto. He expected the boy to struggle with most of the examination, but he could probably manage to scrape by through most of it. The issue was in the final section – the jutsu demonstration. Naruto still had issues with all of his jutsus because his chakra use was still ridiculously inefficient, but given his extraordinary chakra reserves, he managed to bull through most jutsus he was required to learn before becoming a genin. The trouble was that that didn't work when it came to creating clones, and yet again that was the jutsu the class was being asked to demonstrate. Cloning didn't just take a good amount of chakra, it also required some finesse, which was probably why it kept coming up in the examinations. Unfortunately for Naruto his heavy handed jutsu technique made him exceedingly poor at cloning.
When Iruka had seen cloning in the examination, he hadn't been able to stop his dismayed exclamation, "Oh no."
Mizuki had looked at him curiously. Iruka thought for a moment about what he was going to say to him. While his and Mizuki's relationship had improved again, now that Mizuki had been made a full instructor, he still felt strange discussing Naruto with anyone. As he looked at Mizuki, however, he could see something in his friend's eyes that he read as conceren and Iruka had missed having him to talk to. He found himself explaining his worry about whether Naruto would get through the examinations. Mizuki's eyes had narrowed just a little, and Iruka instantly regretted saying anything after all, but then Mizuki had smiled gently and laid his hand on Iruka's shoulder.
"You're a good teacher. I'm sure he, and all the others, will be fine."
Iruka felt his regret pass and smiled back at him. Maybe people's attitudes towards Naruto really were changing.
Unfortunately, when the actual examination happened, Naruto had struggled through the early sections as much as Iruka had suspected he would. When he wasn't able to perform the cloning technique to an acceptable standard, they had had no choice but to fail him. Mizuki had clearly taken pity on the crestfallen boy and had softly suggested they allow Naruto to graduate anyway. Iruka really wished he hadn't said anything. He knew Mizuki was only trying to be kind, but all his kindness served to do was to get the boy's hopes up, only to have Iruka dash them. No matter how much he might want to graduate Naruto, the boy needed to show a level of competence he just hadn't managed.
Iruka wasn't able to sleep that night. He felt terrible for Naruto; failing for the third time, and being the only one in the class to do so. Not only that, but he was going to be separated from the friends that he had just made, and even from his self imposed rival. Iruka wasn't sure what was going to happen to him now.
When Mizuki pounded on his door delivering the distressing news that Naruto had stolen a sealed scroll and run away with it, Iruka's heart sank. After all his work trying to save him from being an outcast, stealing a sealed scroll was going to be hard for the village to forgive. His future as a shinobi might truly be over.
Iruka ran himself short of breath in his desperation to find Naruto, but it was worth it though, when he was the person who found him first. He rapidly went from anger and fear for the boy, to astonishment. The scenario before him was completely unlike what he had been expecting. Naruto only seemed to be chagrined at being caught - he didn't seem to have any idea of the seriousness of what he had done, or the importance of the scroll he held. He had been trying so hard to learn from the scroll that he had just about worn himself out. It quickly became apparent that someone had fed him misinformation; Naruto had taken the scroll because he had been told that learning a technique from within it would guarantee his graduation.
Iruka's blood ran cold. Who would tell the boy something like that? There might be a lot of people in the town who hated Naruto, but who would encourage him to steal a forbidden scroll? When Naruto happily told him that it had been Mizuki... Iruka couldn't even comprehend what was happening. That didn't make any sense, Mizuki wouldn't...
But Mizuki would, and Mizuki had.
Once Iruka was impaled by a large number of kunai, having successfully pushed their intended target, Naruto, out of their flightpath, and had Mizuki sneering at him from up in a tree, he was left with no doubt.
He found himself wishing that he had listened to his ANBU all that time ago, and seen that there was something not quite right with Mizuki. If he had, then perhaps he wouldn't have had to see Naruto's face as Mizuki informed him that he was, in fact, the nine tailed fox that had killed Iruka's parents, and destroyed the village.
Perhaps he wouldn't have had to shield Naruto with his own body from the oversized shuriken that Mizuki had intended for him, allowing Naruto the chance to escape.
Perhaps he wouldn't have had to lie helplessly propped up against the trunk of a tree while his best friend prepared to kill him.
But then he wouldn't have been able to see the determination on his student's face as he stepped in to save the teacher he now realised believed in him.
He wouldn't have been able to witness the miracle of Naruto creating more shadow clones than he could count, and proceed to beat Mizuki into a bloody pulp.
He wouldn't have felt the pride in his student and the love for the boy as he tied his own hitae-ate onto Naruto's forehead, and congratulated him on his graduation.
Although he also wouldn't have had to admit that that damn jounin had been right, again.
"I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't come," Iruka had said, after Kakashi had saved him and Naruto from the kunoichi in the hills.
"If I hadn't, you'd have defiantly protected Naruto," Kakashi had replied.
And this time, when push came to the shove and he had known that there could be no one to save either of them, that is exactly what he had done. He had known the days of the ANBU miraculously materialising were long gone, and he had known Kakashi was away on a mission and wouldn't providentially appear, and he had known that no one else had any idea where he, Mizuki and Naruto were. His flight, disguised as Naruto, had taken him far from Konoha, so the people searching for Naruto and the scroll wouldn't be anywhere nearby. The only person that could have saved him was himself, but the injuries he had accumulated protecting Naruto meant that he was in absolutely no condition to take on Mizuki – he had always struggled fighting Mizuki on a good day. He had been calmly anticipating his own death, absolutely certain that this time, it was really the end.
He hadn't expected to be saved by the other person who was out here in the woods, Naruto; not that he was complaining. There was nothing more satisfying than being saved by the boy who Mizuki had tried to break, the boy that no one had believed in, the boy who had squirmed his way into Iruka's heart.
Iruka had tried to make light of his injuries in front of Naruto, but there were quite a number of them, and the one in his back was particularly serious. Running disguised as Naruto to misdirect Mizuki had been about as much as his body could handle, and he'd had to admit to his injuries after being tackled in a fierce hug from Naruto.
He'd given the boy a rain check on his promise of ramen and had admitted himself into the hospital. They'd patched him up, as they did so well, and kept him in overnight. When he was released the following morning, with strict instructions to not use himself as a living shield for at least a week, he bumped into Kakashi in the corridor as he was leaving.
"Kakashi-san!" Iruka exclaimed. "What are you doing at the hospital?" He felt a jolt of worry. "You weren't injured on your mission were you?"
"Not at all," Kakashi said with a smile. "I came to look in on someone here." His smile dropped and he looked seriously at Iruka. "I heard what happened. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine!" Iruka replied with a smile. "Got an impressive new scar that itches that I can't reach." He looked in to Kakashi's face and then let his own smile fade. It was a habit to show a strong facade to people, but for some reason he didn't need to with this man. Kakashi had already seen him when he was troubled and had only ever offered him support. Iruka could tell by the expression in his visible eye that he wasn't just asking out of courtesy. Iruka exhaled heavily and looked away.
"I'll be fine. I just... I don't understand what happened with Mizuki. I've known him a long time... I thought he wanted to be strong for Konoha. I thought he had come to terms with how strong he could be, how he could best help the village. When he became an Instructor I thought..." Iruka looked back at the jounin and knew there was pain in his expression. "I should have helped him, I..."
Kakashi's warm hand came to rest on Iruka's shoulder and he cut off Iruka's words. "Stop. Don't you dare, Iruka."
"I know you don't think I know you very well yet, but I know you well enough to know you're blaming yourself for Mizuki's decisions. But did you ever reject him? Ever not make time for him when he asked? Ever not support him?"
Iruka shook his head slowly.
"You are not responsible for which wolf he chose to feed."
"Wolf?" Iruka asked, not understanding.
"The inner battle within us all - it's like two wolves, fighting to survive. The one that lives is the one you feed. You can feed the wolf of love, hope, kindness, humility and truth; or you can feed the wolf of anger, jealousy, inferiority, resentment, and lies. Mizuki not only chose the wrong wolf, but he let it gorge."
Iruka looked into Kakashi's face – what he could see of it any way. He liked the analogy, and somehow it seemed very fitting for Kakashi to identify with wolves. And Kakashi was right. He had tried to be there for Mizuki for years; when they were growing up, when they were training to become instructors...that Mizuki hid so much anger and resentment inside... he was far more twisted than Iruka could ever have imagined. He sighed softly.
Kakashi's finger touched Iruka's hitae-ate-less forehead. "You feed the right wolf, Iruka-sensei. And so does Naruto."
Iruka put his hand up to his forehead. He'd been so busy dwelling on Mizuki he'd almost forgotten Naruto. A slow smile came to his lips as he thought of the bright little boy.
"He made clones," Iruka said with immense satisfaction. "Shadow clones. Lots of shadow clones. He mightn't have a lot of finesse, but I think he's going to do more than all right, in the long run."
Kakashi smiled back at him, "I'm sure you're right. Hopefully his jounin instructor gets it right." He indicated at Iruka's forehead. "You should go get yourself another one of those, Iruka-sensei. You look half-dressed without it."
Iruka laughed and touched his forehead again. "I feel half-dressed without it!" He inclined his head to the jounin. "Well, I'll go do that now then. I hope whoever you've come to see is doing all right."
"They will be," Kakashi replied, putting his hand in his pocket and continuing down the corridor.
Chapter 13: Twenty three
The year Iruka turned twenty-three his important people impacted on his life in ways he couldn't have predicted. The emotional upheavals he went through in dealing with death, separation and conflict was soothed by the comfort and love he received. He would never regret letting any of them into his heart; he was the better person for having known them all.
As Naruto moved on into the next stage of his life, so did Iruka.
He had successfully graduated his first Academy class, and satisfyingly, the inclusion of Naruto meant that all of them had graduated - from the Academy at least. They still needed their jounin's approval to become genin, and there was zero chance of all of them achieving that. Not that they realised that yet.
But that wasn't Iruka's responsibility. In fact, for the moment he had very little responsibility at all while the final decisions were being made in regards to the constitution of the genin teams and their designated jounin. He was enjoying having a few quiet days to himself to relax and recuperate, with no work to be done at the Academy, and only a few shifts in the mission room. By the time the meeting was called to make the announcements, all of his wounds had healed completely, and he was able to stand without discomfort.
Physical discomfort at least. Nothing could stop the discomfort he felt around the announcement of the seventh team - due to a conversation behind him.
The jounin and chuunin were all gathered in front of the Hokage. At the front of the group were the jounin being assigned his newly graduated students. He could see Kakashi's untidy hair amongst them. It occurred to him he'd never seen Kakashi with a genin team - or Yuuhi Kurenai for that matter, who was standing nearby.
He was dying to know how his students had finally been grouped. He had been consulted on the abilities and levels of his students so appropriate teams could be formed, but he hadn't yet heard the final assignments. He was also dying to know which jounin were to be allocated to which teams, and particularly which jounin was going to be taking on Naruto.
When the announcement of team seven was made, he had barely had time to process the information that Naruto and Sasuke were being placed into the same group, and that Kakashi would be their jounin, when he heard familiar voices from behind.
"I've heard that Kakashi-san has yet to pass a single genin he's been in charge of," Genma said.
"Is the Third trying to crush Naruto?" Kotetsu asked.
"And teaming him with Sasuke!" said Izumo.
That jounin! " Hopefully Naruto's jounin instructor gets it right ," Kakashi had said when they bumped into each other at the hospital. Gets it right indeed. Iruka glared daggers into the back of Kakashi's head. He was willing to lay odds the man knew he was going to be assigned to Naruto even then! He seriously doubted, with the way many people in the town felt, that Naruto's jounin wouldn't have been carefully preselected, and well prepared for the task ahead of them.
"Are you all right with this, Kakashi?" the Third asked.
"Sure," Kakashi replied simply.
Iruka had to speak to all of the newly assigned jounin instructors, to arrange the time and location for their meeting with their genin squads, and to provide them a bit of information about their new charges if they wanted it. Kakashi, Kurenai and Sarutobi Asuma were together when he spoke to them. Kurenai did ask about the personalities and natures of her three charges, but Kakashi and Asuma didn't seek any intel from him. He would have liked to have spoken to Kakashi about Naruto, but it wasn't appropriate to do so other than to provide any information requested, and frankly Kakashi was coming across a little dismissive. Iruka didn't take it personally - this was Kakashi doing his job, and now that Naruto was no longer his student, Iruka was becoming less impartial by the day. Until Kakashi made his decision, his and Iruka's relationship was as compromised as it was between any jounin and the family of the young shinobi they were to assess.
He didn't speak to Kakashi at any point before team seven's assessment. He knew when the test was taking place - Naruto had told him when Kakashi had asked them to meet him at dawn. Naruto was fairly excited about the following morning, although he was a bit nervous that Kakashi had told them not to have breakfast or they'd throw it up. Iruka thought he'd have only been more nervous if he'd known that the following morning was yet another test. It was definitely in Naruto's best interests that he didn't know that Kakashi had the ability to send him back to the Academy, or make him quit being a shinobi all together... and apparently had a track record of doing so.
While the group were out with Kakashi, doing whatever it was that constituted a test in his eyes, Iruka sought out the Third. Now that the busy time of assigning groups and jounin was over, he didn't feel like a bother asking the Hokage to share tea with him - although the Third wasn't fooled for a moment.
"So? What do you want to know? I'm sure you didn't just want to have tea with me."
"What kind of teacher is the jounin for Naruto's team - team seven? Is he strict?" Iruka asked.
"Are you talking about Kakashi? Are you worried?" the Third replied.
"I heard a disturbing rumour about him..." Iruka admitted.
The Third pulled out a book and offered it to Iruka.
"What's that?" Iruka asked.
"The pass/fail list for the genin Kakashi has been responsible for."
Iruka took the book, and opening it to the appropriate page discovered a flight of butterflies living in his stomach. Genma had been correct; Kakashi had never graduated a single genin. Iruka realised he shouldn't have been surprised, Genma was unlikely to say something he didn't know was true in the first place, but he still couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
"No way. No one has passed?"
"Iruka, even I don't know if those children are ready to become shinobi… but Kakashi's assessment has always been accurate."
Iruka blew out a breath and passed the book back to the Third. He smiled a bit wanly. All he could hope was that Naruto and his team would be able to sufficiently impress Kakashi. From what information he had gathered, apparently Kakashi was harsh, but not unfairly so. He wouldn't let them through if he didn't think they were ready, but Iruka was firmly convinced that that would be the only reason he wouldn't let them through; Naruto's history, and what he carried inside him wouldn't be a factor in the jounin's decision. He really couldn't ask for anything more.
"Don't hate Kakashi if it doesn't go the way you hope," the Third said quietly.
Iruka shook his head. "I wouldn't. All anyone can ask is a fair chance. Naruto will get that from him."
The Third nodded and smiled, and the conversation turned to other things.
Iruka was waiting for Naruto when he came back from the assessment. He was trying his level best to not look nervous, but had in fact chewed the inside of his cheek raw. When Naruto appeared, he was positively glowing. He hurtled towards Iruka, and threw his arms around him.
"He passed us, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto exclaimed happily. "I'm a genin for real!"
Iruka's relief was palpable. Naruto had proven to be unfailingly resilient and positive, no matter what was thrown at him, but Iruka couldn't help but be afraid that something might finally push him too far. Given Kakashi's predisposal for failing genin teams, it had seemed entirely possible that Naruto would not be celebrating right now.
As Naruto happily chattered about his day to Iruka, telling him what had happened, Iruka had to hide a smile. Sasuke's skills, as expected, had been excellent, but it didn't sound like Sakura or Naruto had done anything impressive - quite the opposite. The three of them hadn't worked together as a team until after Kakashi had told them that was what he expected from them. Only after that had the three young shinobi shown loyalty and commitment to each other, standing up to the seemingly infuriated jounin. And that had been enough to satisfy Kakashi. Kakashi had had completely valid grounds to send these children back to the Academy, or make them quit if he had wanted, but he had given them what was clearly a second chance. The jounin who had passed no one had given them a second chance. Iruka was starting to wonder who had the softer spot for these two challenging boys.
Iruka's life returned to regularity. His new Academic year began, with a new group of children, which included the Third's grandson, Konohamaru. Konohamaru reminded him far too much of Naruto, and when he eventually determined that the Third's grandson saw his former student as a mentor, he wasn't particularly surprised.
He regularly caught up with that young mentor, who he acknowledged had become family in his heart. The pair of them shared a love for ramen, and quietly for each other. He enjoyed listening to the boy chattering on about his experiences with his team and his new instructor.
His shifts in the mission room continued, but now extended to include Naruto and his other former students, who he was enjoying watching steadily improve beyond his teachings. He was also seeing far more of all the jounin who had become the squad leaders to his former students. They were all intelligent and interesting people so he looked forward to the completion of each mission not just to see his former students, but to see their instructors as well.
Other than Naruto, however it was Kakashi who he had come to most anticipate seeing. As they came across each other in their daily lives more and more often he was beginning to see new sides to the jounin that he appreciated most people didn't notice. He was learning to read the jounin better, and realised he had a much greater sense of humour and mischief than was immediately apparent. Underneath the underneath indeed. Iruka was also continually entertained by how much trouble his former students could cause and how Kakashi dealt with it. Those three were certainly a trial by fire for his first genin team.
One afternoon Kakashi appeared to present his team's report - his erstwhile charges nowhere to be seen. He crossed the room and smiled cheerfully at Iruka.
"Iruka-sensei," he said, offering his report.
"Ah, good afternoon, Kakashi-sensei," Iruka replied smiling back at the jounin and taking the report from him. "Alone today?"
"I made the kids go and wash up. Especially Naruto. He was covered in... let's not get in to what he was covered in, actually." Iruka raised his eyebrows. "They were most put out that only they got filthy," Kakashi continued, "and insisted I take them out for ramen tonight. Of course it was entirely their own fault... but I ended up agreeing to it - the entertainment was well worth a few bowls of ramen." He beamed happily at Iruka. "Anyway, Naruto asked me to ask you if you'd come too. He said you two haven't been to Ichiraku's in forever and he wants to tell you about what happened. And why Sasuke is an ass. And also why I'm an ass." Kakashi continued to smile happily. "He made me promise to say that last bit. Anyway, he'll explain it all later."
"Um, all right, Kakashi-sensei," Iruka said, rubbing his nose.
"Good! It'll do him good to let off some steam." Kakashi said.
Iruka turned his attention to the report and quickly checked it. It all appeared to be in order, so he stamped it set it to the side. "Thank you for your work," he smiled at Kakashi.
"Later!" Kakashi said, raising his hand and vanishing.
That evening, after Naruto had regaled Iruka with his account of the day and had turned his attention to bickering with Sasuke, Iruka found himself in an engaging conversation with Kakashi. It was the first time they had been in a situation to really have a good conversation – not standing in a hallway or at the mission desk. For Iruka, it was one of the best evenings he had had in a long while. He hadn't really been able to relax in anyone's company and just talk about whatever, and as he was accustomed to the sounds of noisy children, the bickering of the three genin barely registered. He wasn't sure if Kakashi felt that way, judging by the not quite successfully suppressed winces he spotted every now and then. The children keeping each other successfully distracted was advantageous however, when he decided to ask the jounin about a phenomenon he had become aware of, but wouldn't have felt comfortable discussing if they'd been paying any attention.
Iruka had become increasingly, and confusingly aware that he was shown a greater level of respect than he was used to. He was used to being regarded a little differently because of his relationship with the Third, but there was more than that at work. Somehow his position in the strata of Konoha changed. It was subtle, but he had become accustomed to people knowing his name who he wouldn't have expected to, and to being treated deferentially by other chuunin.
When he asked Kakashi if he had any insight on the situation, Kakashi simply shrugged at him. "You have a reputation."
"Well, you aren't intimidated by anyone."
"I'm intimidated by plenty of people. I'm just an Academy teacher - an ordinary chuunin."
Kakashi turned to face him, "You're not 'just' anything." He rested his chopsticks on his bowl. Iruka was baffled to realise it was mostly empty. When exactly had Kakashi eaten?
"What I mean is... you talk to the Third like a person, not just as the Hokage. More than that, jounin, chuunin, civilian - you're polite to everyone, but you aren't obsequious when you talk to people that are considered more important in the village. Through your work at the mission desk you know the vast majority of shinobi in Konoha - and anyone who hands you a report that isn't up to scratch is as likely as the next to get told off for it, no matter who they are." His eyes flicked to the children still completely absorbed in their argument, "You've been seen a lot in the company of Konoha's most infamous genin, and if anyone treats him poorly, you don't hesitate to give them a piece of your mind."
"He's a good kid, he deserves better," Iruka said emphatically.
"You don't have to tell me that," Kakashi replied.
"So people are showing me greater respect because I'm assertive?" Iruka asked, a bit confused.
"Not just because you're assertive - it's how you go about it. It's easy, when you're being assertive, to be obnoxious or aggressive about it, but you manage to remain rather likeable. You've won over the Hokage, children, parents, your peers, and pretty much every jounin knows who you are now - and I don't know of one who doesn't like you. You talk to every single person in this town as a person, without being affected by who or what they are, and remain yourself completely approachable."
"Oh," Iruka said, a bit bewildered. It was odd hearing that jounin not only knew who he was, but approved of him.
Kakashi smiled happily at him, "You're a presence in Konoha, like it or not."
"Apparently," Iruka said rubbing the back of his neck. "Although," he said looking at Kakashi, "that book of yours is complete deception isn't it? You're paying a lot more attention to things around you than people give you credit for."
Kakashi stiffened slightly and rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. "I expect you to keep that theory to yourself, Umino Iruka-sensei. I have my own reputation to worry about and I've worked very hard at knowing more about the people around me than they do about me."
Kakashi looked past Iruka at his genin team and winced openly at the strident noises coming from them. "I don't know how you put up with those two for a year. I might kill them before then."
Iruka grinned at him. "It's a fine balance between ignoring and disciplining. At least Sasuke and Sakura tend to behave themselves most of the time. It's Naruto you've got to keep your thumb on."
Kakashi jumped off his seat, moved around behind Iruka and smacked Naruto and Sasuke upside their heads. "That's enough out of you two."
"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto whined.
"That was your fault," Sasuke complained.
"You're both too noisy, stop complaining," Sakura said primly.
"Kakashi-sensei, when are we going to get a more interesting mission?" Naruto asked. "Sasuke says we only get easy ones because of me."
"Dobe," Sasuke muttered.
"Shut up," Naruto responded.
"Enough!" Kakashi said with exasperation. "The missions you're doing are appropriate for your level." He looked at Sasuke. "That means all of you."
"Hn," Sasuke said, looking away.
"You three need worry about working together better, not what your missions are. Now we're getting out of here. You're disturbing the other customers." He paid Teuchi for their meals, then smiled at Iruka as he pushed the children out into the street. "Night, Iruka-sensei!"
Iruka sat for a moment before he let himself grin. Then he went to pay Teuchi for his own meal, but the storekeeper shook his head. "Hatake-san gave me enough for you too. Come again soon, Iruka-sensei."
It wasn't, in fact, all that long before the children got their wish. Despite Kakashi's insistence that the missions were appropriate for their level, they were becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of challenge. The frustration was only increasing the bickering, and like a small volcano, it was only a matter of time before Naruto erupted.
The final straw came when he was standing in front of the Hokage himself. Iruka wanted to bang his head on the desk but instead met Kakashi's eye flatly. He was going to give the jounin a piece of his mind later, letting Naruto speak to the Third like that. It could have been his imagination, but he thought Kakashi paled.
The Third, however, surprised them all. Instead of being angry with the presumptuous child, he assigned the team to a C rank mission. Iruka tried to keep his face expressionless. In any other child the behaviour Naruto had shown would have been completely unacceptable, but for Naruto it actually showed great restraint. He was quietly pleased that the Third had acknowledged that fact by responding positively.
The reality of the situation hit Iruka after it was all organised and the children scattered to organise their gear for what was going to be a lengthy escort mission. It suddenly occurred to him that he wasn't prepared to have Naruto leave his life for an extended period. He felt a bit ridiculous, but he couldn't help but worry that he was going so far away – Naruto had never left the greater Konoha area before. More than that though, he was simply going to miss him. Iruka's life was different to what it had been a couple of years ago. Naruto was like a firefly, all brightness and energy, and having him around helped to chase away the dark. Not having him buzzing about was going to be lonely.
The Third obviously saw the conflicting emotions he was dealing with, and told him he was relieved from the desk for the rest of the day. Iruka was grateful. He could have finished the shift, but he was glad that the Third appreciated his connection to the boy. As he walked home, he sighed.
"What have I said about people taking deep breaths near me, and making me interested, Iruka-sensei?" Kakashi's voice came from beside his ear.
Iruka jumped. "Ah! Ka-Kakashi-sensei!" he stammered.
Kakashi regarded him with amusement.
"You startled me," Iruka mumbled.
"Apparently," Kakashi replied. "So, out with it. What has you sighing so deeply this time?"
Iruka chewed his lip and glanced up into Kakashi's eye.
"I'm just being a selfish brat," he said after a pause. "I don't want to get used to being alone again."
"Going to miss me?" Kakashi said cheerfully.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Iruka protested with a flush and his heart hammering just a little harder than it should.
Kakashi's warm hand rested on his shoulder. "Don't worry, you won't be alone for long," he said, his expression turning gentle. Iruka's heart thudded again. "I'll bring him home safely."
Iruka was trying to concentrate on his job. Really he was. But his mind just kept wandering.
Team Seven had been gone for a very long time now. So long that he had already gone back to look at the in-progress missions and fished the relevant one out to see exactly what it entailed. He had known the mission was to escort and guard the client, Tazuna, until he completed building a bridge in the Land of Waves. How long does it take to build a bridge? After he looked into it, Iruka realised he should have paid more attention at the outset. It wasn't just a bridge - it was a bloody big bridge. Team Seven were going to be gone a very long while.
At least it was simple enough mission. It might be long, but it was only C rank so there was no anticipated conflict with shinobi, only robbers and brigands to worry about. As the days passed and they failed to return, however, he couldn't help himself worrying regardless and that only made him miss them more. All of them.
He was missing Naruto. He enjoyed having the boy flitting in and out of his days bringing equal parts joy and mayhem. He was missing Sakura and her cheerful smiles. He was missing Sasuke with his studied surly detachment that he couldn't quite keep in place when something managed to pique his interest.
And he was missing their instructor – and that was entirely Kakashi's fault. Iruka was absolutely positive the only reason he kept thinking about the man was because of the power of suggestion. Suggestion could put thoughts into a person's head and that departing "Going to miss me?" had done exactly that. Damn jounin.
He accepted a mission report and smiled dutifully at its bearer. In all honesty he was feeling kind of down and was making himself smile. He promised himself he would get Kotetsu and Izumo to do something with him tonight. Maybe Hayate – although Hayate was hard to come by since he had been made a special jounin. Iruka needed to get his mind into the present and live in the moment – it was pointless feeling lonely and wishing for people who weren't there, especially when there were people around whose company he enjoyed.
He stamped the mission report and thanked its bearer.
Not to mention while it was perfectly valid for him to worry and miss his former students, especially Naruto, it was stupid to be thinking so much about Kakashi - he still didn't even know him that well. Kakashi was someone who smiled and talked to him whenever they saw each other. He was someone who had stopped to help him a few times when he had needed it. He was someone with bad posture and terrible taste in literature. Someone who pretended to be oblivious but missed nothing. Someone who was wondrous and terrifying in combat. A genius who took every opportunity to be lazy, but who always did what needed to be done. Someone whose serious demeanour overshadowed the undercurrent of humour.
Dammit. Iruka shook his head. This was the problem. He kept thinking about that damn jounin.
"Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said.
And now he was even hearing his voice. That wonderful, mellifluous voice that he hadn't heard in far too long now.
"Iruka-sensei," Kakashi repeated.
Iruka's head snapped up and he focussed on the person standing in front of him, his eyes widening. "Kakashi-sensei!"
Kakashi smiled at him and Iruka felt a curl of warmth in his belly.
"Long day?" Kakashi asked, proffering his report.
"Oh!" How embarrassing! "Yes... no... sorry" he deliberately took a breath to compose himself. "Things have just been a bit hectic lately." He took the report which Kakashi was still holding out in front of him. There were a lot of pages. He looked back up at Kakashi feeling a bit calmer and added belatedly, "Welcome home."
"Good to be home", Kakashi replied with another smile.
"You've been gone a long time. I trust the mission was successful...?"
"Did you miss me?" Kakashi responded without answering the question.
"Kakashi-sensei..." Iruka said, levelling a flat gaze at the jounin, but feeling his cheeks heat a little. Then it finally occurred to him that Kakashi was alone. "The kids?" he asked feeling guilty it had taken him so long to realise they were missing, and worrying a little that they might not be all right.
"Are fine! I made them go to the hospital to get checked over. Well, mainly Sasuke. He... got a bit... banged up. But it does them all good to make sure they're all right before I set them free on Konoha again."
"Oh," Iruka said and then looked back at the report. He flipped through it. There were really a lot of pages. "This is a very long report for a C rank mission..."
"It was a very long mission for a C rank mission," Kakashi replied seriously.
"It really was," Iruka replied without thinking.
"Been counting the days, sensei?" Kakashi asked.
Iruka's flustered feelings had settled and he was able to successfully level a flat look at the jounin without flushing. He then looked at the rest of the people waiting to hand in reports. While he had been daydreaming the work apparently had been piling up.
He nodded towards the rest of the people waiting patiently in the room, "Well... there are a lot of people waiting to file reports. How about I read this properly later and come find you if I have any issues?"
"Works for me, sensei," Kakashi said, sticking his hands in his pockets and sauntering away.
Iruka stopped himself from sighing as Kakashi walked away. He wished he could have talked to him longer. A little bit of him hoped he'd find something wrong with the report so he had a reason to go seek him out. He blushed. And to see Naruto. He was looking forward to having him babble excitedly about the mission over ramen. He hoped he'd have time. Once he got through this shift it was entirely likely the Third would have some more work for him. He'd been giving Iruka a lot of extra tasks to do of late which was contributing to Iruka's difficulty in concentrating. He was really feeling quite run down.
Focus, Iruka. First get through the day.
He looked up at the next person waiting for his attention and smiled.
When Iruka finally read through Team Seven's report his jaw dropped a little. Naruto certainly was going to have a lot to tell him. The more he read, the more he couldn't stop reading it, even as he realised it was a report he should have handed on to someone else.
Sasuke got a bit banged up? They thought he'd died! Kakashi had been captured by an S-class criminal in a water prison! Naruto had been turned into an ice needle pincushion by a missing-nin with a bloodline limit! He didn't know which particular instance had given him the biggest heart palpitation as he'd read it. Probably that someone was actually able to stop the copy-nin. That thought was quite frightening. What if someone else had taken that mission? It was just C rank – in theory it could have been him, although he was far too busy these days to go gallivanting around on escort missions, but the principle remained. Someone of Iruka's ability would have been massacred. That damn jounin... casually handing in that mission to him.
He rubbed his eyes. When he finally got out from his shift, he went hunting down the perpetrator. He found him easily enough, sitting comfortably on a large low hanging branch in a tree near the administration building, reading his ubiquitous Icha Icha Paradise.
"Kakashi-sensei," Iruka said, standing under the branch with his hands on his hips. Kakashi looked down at him. "Do you really think that I was an appropriate person to hand that mission report to?" he admonished.
"Whatever do you mean?" Kakashi replied innocently. "You're allowed to receive C rank missions. This one just went a bit... pear shaped."
Iruka jumped up onto the tree branch so that they could speak more quietly. "Pear shaped?" Iruka protested. "You fought an S Class criminal! By yourself!"
"I wasn't by myself. I had help."
"They were very helpful. By the end of the mission Naruto had a bridge named after him. They didn't name it the Kakashi Bridge you know. They have to have done something right."
Kakashi beamed cheerfully at him. "Besides, it's not like you won't hear all about it from Naruto later any way. I thought I'd give you something interesting to read. Make your day pass more quickly."
"Interesting! It was meant to be a simple C rank mission but you fought two elite missing-nin - one had a bloodline limit and the other was one of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist!"
Iruka covered his eyes with his hand. He wondered what kind of example the jounin was going to set for Naruto. "Whatever am I going to do with you?" he muttered rhetorically.
"Whatever you like, sensei," Kakashi replied mildly.
"What?" Iruka said blushing and dropping his hand from his eyes to stare at Kakashi.
"What?" Kakashi replied blankly.
Iruka looked down and pinched the bridge of his nose. Apparently Kakashi had been away for long enough that he had forgotten how to read him. He took a breath and looked back at the jounin who was watching him curiously. Iruka sighed.
"Whatever. Anyway, the report looks fine to me and I've passed it in. I'd better go - the Third has me so busy at the moment I don't know how I'm finding time to sleep." He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Will you tell Naruto that I hope we can catch up soon." He levelled a dark look at Kakashi. "He can tell me all about his bridge."
Kakashi grinned at him. Iruka couldn't see past the mask, but he was positive there were teeth showing in that smile.
But he didn't see Naruto for some time. His work was keeping him extraordinarily busy and he didn't get a chance to track Naruto down. The Third really was up to something mysterious. He had several people, Iruka included, scurrying around finding scrolls ad drawing up documents. Iruka didn't know about anyone else, but he had no idea what was going on. Between teaching at the Academy, shifts at the Desk and tasks for the Third, he barely had time to eat – he was eating far too many instant and take away meals at present. Eventually, however, the Third sat back, looking satisfied and puffed contentedly on his pipe. He told Iruka that he had no further tasks for him at the moment, and that he was to take the following day off. More than that, since there was no class at the Academy the day after he was only to come in to work the Desk in the afternoon if he was needed. A day and a half guaranteed downtime. Iruka really could put that to use.
The following day Iruka discovered that he was, in fact, far from the only person receiving the Third's benevolence. A number of shinobi, including all the genin, were specifically put on duty in Konoha – it never did to let your guard down – but the vast majority of those at home were instructed to take a day to relax. As there was an abnormally large number of shinobi currently home in Konoha, a spontaneous day of celebration resulted.
Iruka was enjoying the lovely summer weather, walking through Konoha's busy streets when he ran in to Hayate. Hayate looked quietly as happy to see Iruka as Iruka was him.
"You got the day off too?" Iruka asked. Hayate smiled and nodded. "They're keeping you pretty busy these days," Iruka observed.
"There's a lot of expectation on the special jounin. I'm honoured that I've been given the position, but there is always more training to be done, or a task to complete. Still, it was nice of the Third to make us take a day." He followed the sentence with a light cough.
Suddenly an arm draped across each of their shoulders and Genma's head appeared between theirs.
"I've got a job for you two."
"The Third gave us the day off," Hayate replied softly.
"Me too!" Genma replied. "And the rest of us, don't worry, this is a good job."
Hayate looked at him dubiously and Iruka raised an eyebrow.
"What are you talking about?" Iruka asked.
"Eating barbecue and drinking sake!" Genma said enthusiastically. "You have to take your moments when you get them. There's a bunch of us meeting up at Yakiniku Q. I'm heading there now but the plan is if any of us come across likely companions to drag them along - and you two are a likely pair if ever I saw any!" He beamed happily. "Come on, come and be sociable."
Hayate looked at Iruka.
Iruka grinned. "Sounds like fun."
Hayate nodded, "Sure."
Genma linked his arms through theirs and dragged them through the busy streets. As he pushed through the door at Yakiniku Q he threw his arms up and loudly announced, "I'm here! Let the celebration begin!"
"Genma, what took you so long?" Iruka recognised Asuma's voice.
"I was making sure I was pretty for the ladies," Genma replied, flipping his hair to illustrate his point. "And accosting these two," he gestured with his thumb over his shoulder and stepped out of the doorway, letting Iruka and Hayate in.
"Hayate! Iruka! Welcome!" Maito Guy boomed cheerfully, leaping to his feet at the far end of the table. He addressed the group crowded around the tables, "Make room, you lot!" There was some shuffling as people squeezed closer to make room for the new arrivals. Iruka hesitated for just a moment as he recognised only the faces of jounin or special jounin - he didn't see a single chuunin, but Genma's hands were on his shoulders with insistent pressure, and he let himself be sat at the table. Hayate squeezed in next to him, and Genma merrily bounded around to the other side, taking up a spot next to Mitarashi Anko and winking at her. She chuckled and shook her head bemusedly.
"Sake for our new youthful arrivals!" Guy boomed loudly, raising his own cup of sake and sloshing a little over the side.
Flasks of sake and cups appeared in front of both Hayate and Iruka. While Genma had been up front about the sake consumption, Iruka still felt a little dubious about drinking with this group. He looked at Hayate doubtfully while Anko enthusiastically poured for them both.
"It's probably best to just drink it," Iruka heard a mild voice say from his right. He turned to find Kakashi to his side. "Guy only gets louder if he doesn't get his way," Kakashi added.
Iruka hesitated and then picked up the sake cup.
"You haven't drunk enough, Kakashi, my esteemed rival!" Guy boomed again. "I'm already ahead of you by two flasks!"
"Well done, Guy!" Kakashi congratulated the boisterous jounin. "I cede the victory to you."
"Oh no, you aren't getting out of it that easily!" Guy said. "We should go flask for flask and determine which of has has the heartier constitution!"
"If we get him drunk enough, he may take off the mask!" Genma grinned wickedly.
"Firstly... no. And secondly... no." Kakashi, said, levelling a flat look at Genma. He glanced at Iruka. Iruka decided that he liked seeing Kakashi at the pointy end of teasing and couldn't contain his amusement. He grinned at the jounin.
Kakashi looked woebegone. "Et tu Iruka-sensei? I had hopes you might help shelter me from these reprobates."
"Where's the fun in that?" Iruka asked innocently, taking a sip of his sake.
Several flasks of sake in and Iruka was feeling decidedly happy. He was self consciously aware of the press of Kakashi's leg against his, and the odd brush of their fingers when they reached for something at the same time. He wasn't at all self conscious of the same thing happening on the other side of him with Hayate, but then the heat of Hayate's leg didn't feel like burning.
He tried to stop paying attention to it, and let himself get carried away by the group he was associating with. The jounin crowd were a lot of fun when they let their hair down. There was quite a lot of them, and there were moments when things got positively riotous. He couldn't hear the conversation at all further afield from where he was, although he was content with the people he could hear – Kakashi, Hayate, Genma, Asuma, Kurenai, Guy, Anko and Namiashi Raidou.
Recently the conversation had turned to Iruka and his job with the pre-genin. Iruka wasn't surprised to learn that small kids were not popular amongst them and the general consensus continued that small children always came with snot. Which wasn't entirely true, although Udon, one of Konohamaru's cronies, did nothing to deter that opinion. Iruka wondered why his mother didn't get him a handkerchief. Or take him to see a doctor.
"Let's hope none of the kids he has to look after were like you when you were a kid, Kakashi," Genma grinned, interrupting Iruka's musings. "Incorrigible brat."
"Hey now," Kakashi said, looking pained. "I didn't know how to be a kid."
"Aww," Genma said with fake pity. "You were pretty cute, even if you did have attitude."
Kakashi looked levelly at Genma and raised an eyebrow, "Cute?"
"It was a daily struggle not to pinch your cheeks."
"What are you talking about?" Asuma said. "He was like a grumpy old man."
"That's what was so adorable!" Genma said cheerfully. "I bet you wanted to ruffle his hair whenever he made one of those patronising little comments."
"Or hang him by his toes from a tree..."
"Now now," Kakashi interrupted, "what you both were truly fond of was my ability to kick your asses..."
"... still is like a grumpy old man, if you ask me," Asuma said.
"...I can remind you what that feels like – if you wanted." Kakashi added.
"You're right, Genma," Asuma said dryly. "He's adorable."
Iruka giggled a bit squiffily. It was hard to picture Kakashi as a child, but these men had watched him grow up. Asuma was a couple of years older than Kakashi, Genma a couple more, and six year old Kakashi had outranked them both. That hurt his brain a little to think about. Both Asuma and Genma were among the very best that Konoha had and they hadn't become chuunin at such a precocious age. There were very few who had. Kakashi must have been a very strange child.
"Ah! Now MY experience with Kakashi as a child..." Guy began.
Speaking of strange children, Iruka thought to himself.
"Acorn." Kakashi said, without looking at Guy. Guy's mouth closed with an audible click.
"Oh my god!" Anko gushed. 'How did you do that?' She turned and stared at Guy.
Guy glared at Kakashi, his cheeks red. Iruka heard Kakashi's soft chuckle.
When Iruka reflected on the evening the following day, he wondered if it had really been wise to drink as much as he had around that particular group of shinobi. He'd drunk just enough that he took the restraints off of his mouth and said pretty much what he thought without any editing. Through the evening it hadn't really resulted in anything that had been taken poorly; there was some uproarious laughter at times when he blithely made his opinions known, but the jounin took everything he said with the right spirit. The problem more arose on his way home. Although it might not be a problem. He wasn't all that sure.
At some point late in the evening the gathering began to break up. Quite a lot of the revellers were somewhat worse for wear. Iruka didn't think he was anywhere near as badly off as Anko or Guy - after his challenge to Kakashi Guy had clearly come out the loser, although he was perfectly happy about it and was waxing poetic about enjoying life keeping a person young. Some of the others looked pretty dubious as well and he was fairly certain they were just better at hiding how much they'd consumed. But when he stood he was more unstable than he had anticipated. Mistake drinking with jounin. Clearly they had greater constitutions than he did. Or did they do this more often? He peered at Kakashi. Damn jounin looked fine.
"You going to be okay to get home, Iruka-sensei?" Kakashi asked with a tinge of concern in his voice.
"Um," Iruka said thoughtfully. "Probably!"
Hayate was also looking somewhat unsteady and Genma had taken it upon himself to make sure he got home all right. Genma, who wasn't doing much better himself and was giggling far too much for a twenty nine year old man. Iruka wondered who was really going to be helping the other.
Iruka turned his attention back to Kakashi.
"I think I'd better make sure you get home," Kakashi said.
"Righto," Iruka agreed.
As they walked Iruka realised that Kakashi really did seem quite unaffected by all the alcohol he had consumed.
"How on earth have you stayed relatively sober?" he asked bluntly.
"You drank as much as I did."
"No, I didn't."
"Huh?" Iruka had seen a large number of sake flasks appearing in front of the jounin throughout the night.
"I don't mind having a few drinks, but I don't like being out of control. Fortunately Kurenai feels the same way so we've come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement that makes that lot think we're drinking more than we are so they don't pester us." He glanced at Iruka and smiled cheerfully. "We switch our drinks all the time, trading fuller ones for the almost empty. We've become quite adept at it, but it's even easier when someone is backing you up and providing distraction." He was still smiling but he looked a bit evil. "Guy and Asuma both drink a fair bit more than they realise they do. Not just them though, we dispense our favour to whoever gets in our bad books. Anko and Raidou had more than they realise tonight. I usually don't do anything to Genma though – he's more than capable of getting himself plastered all by himself."
Iruka had started smiling as Kakashi spoke, and when Kakashi fell silent he sighed.
"What is it?" Kakashi asked.
"You have a lovely voice," Iruka said a bit dreamily.
"What?" Kakashi asked with a hint of a laugh.
Iruka looked at him, "It's true! You do! I've often though how nice your voice is. I think I could listen to you speak for hours. It's a shame you don't speak more often. I reckon you could read the ninja registry and I could just happily space out and listen for hours."
"You could, could you?"
Iruka nodded. "I decided your voice is like warm butterscotch."
"When did you decide that?" Kakashi asked.
"Awhile back," Iruka replied happily, looking up at the stars. He then realised what he'd said and looked hastily at Kakashi. Kakashi was smiling. Iruka smiled wryly and rubbed at his scar self consciously. Kakashi laughed and a frisson ran up Iruka's spine. He decided that drowning in warm butterscotch wouldn't be a bad way to die.
"So you DID miss me!" Kakashi said, elbowing him in the ribs and laughing teasingly.
"Shut up!" Iruka said but laughing in return. "You're insufferable."
"No, I'm charming," Kakashi replied.
"Charming my ass," Iruka retorted, "you just admitted to intentionally getting your friends very drunk!"
"Only the ones that deserve it."
Iruka grinned and shook his head.
While the conversation didn't stop, they managed to make it to Iruka's apartment without him running off at the mouth any further, and telling the jounin things that he wasn't sure he wanted him to know.
At his door Iruka had been briefly unable to find his keys and had found himself on the receiving end of yet more good natured teasing from the jounin. He found them in the end and let himself in. Kakashi said goodnight in his low, soft voice, and as Iruka closed the door behind himself he was aware of a delightful warm feeling in his body that wasn't due to alcohol. It occurred to him that he might just be in a lot of trouble.
Iruka, transformed to look like a Rain-nin, landed on the dark rooftop behind Kakashi. He was fully aware that he had no need to hold the transformation any longer, that he was wearing it as a kind of armour to protect him from the penetrating gaze of the jounin. He needn't have worried. As he landed, Kakashi turned to face in the opposite direction. Iruka wasn't sure whether he should be upset or relieved.
Kakashi. Iruka had spent most of that day thinking about Kakashi. He had made a colossal mistake and had spent hours with his thoughts racing. As he considered and processed just what had transpired, he had come to an uncomfortable conclusion.
Kakashi wasn't the person he thought he was.
Rather, he was the person he thought he was and he also wasn't.
And Iruka had no doubt whatsoever in his mind that if he couldn't fix things between himself and the jounin here and now, the tenuous friendship they had developed would shatter beneath the weight of unspoken words.
The day before, and two days after the spontaneous day of celebration, Iruka was back at the Academy and the Desk. He hadn't been needed at the Desk the day after, so he had just stayed at home and hadn't come face to face with any his drinking companions since that night. He suspected that perhaps Kakashi and Kurenai were, in fact, incredibly wise to limit the amount they drank. While the jounin had taken everything he had said that night with great humour, he couldn't help but feel a little paranoid that on reflection they might feel differently; and he was particularly concerned about that strange confession to Kakashi.
Said jounin and his team were currently on a D rank mission - walking dogs of all things. Sometimes Iruka boggled at what people would pay ninja to do, but a paid job was a paid job. In any case he had to presume that team seven's report would come in later that day. He hoped this time when the report came in that the entirety of team seven would appear, partly because he still hadn't seen the children since they had come back from the Land of Waves, and partly so they could act as a buffer between himself and Kakashi.
But later that day Kakashi appeared alone, as had become standard. He handed the mission report over before putting his hands in his pockets.
"Thanks," Iruka said as he accepted the report. He barely glanced at it before looking back up at Kakashi, feeling awkward. He wasn't quite sure what to say, so he reverted to the safest topic he knew. He appreciated the irony that the safest topic for him and Kakashi was of all things, the Kyuubi vessel that had for so long been despised by the village.
"By the way, is Naruto getting along well with his team-mates?"
Kakashi looked at him with some surprise and then demurred, "Well, to an extent..."
Iruka blushed. He felt unexpectedly odd asking about Naruto, and Kakashi clearly hadn't been expecting it. Now he was feeling even more awkward. Naruto wasn't really even a safe topic.
"I've been busy lately, so I haven't seen him once since he got back," he explained, self-consciously scratching his cheek, "so, I was a little worried." He realised that the man sitting next to him at the Desk was giving him a bit of an odd look. He wondered if he was squirming and concentrated on behaving normally.
Kakashi smiled at him. "Well, as you know he has Uchiha Sasuke with him, Iruka-sensei. Since Naruto sees him as a rival things can be a bit difficult..." Iruka felt relieved. Kakashi was engaging in the topic of conversation. "...but subsequently," Kakashi continued, "he is improving. He's improving so fast that he'll reach your level, the level of a man he respects, in no time."
"I'm so glad," Iruka replied and smiled happily back at Kakashi. Kakashi wasn't coming across strangely whatsoever and everything felt like usual. Perhaps he didn't have anything to worry about after all. Kakashi hadn't avoided giving him the report, and was speaking to him normally. He was coming to the conclusion that Kakashi wasn't troubled by his unusual confession. He couldn't feel the eyes of his neighbour at the Desk on them any more either, so he figured he had been successful at controlling his body language. His cheeks felt warm however, so he suspected he was flushing again. Flushing, unfortunately, wasn't so easy to control.
He didn't really want Kakashi to leave yet, but he didn't have anything of importance to hold him there, and he did have work to do. He dragged his eyes off the smiling jounin and down to the report before his neighbour started looking at them oddly again and noticed his flush.
"Naruto would insist on the big dog, wouldn't he?" he chuckled as he stamped the report.
"Sometimes his greatest rival is himself," Kakashi replied as he started to turn away. "I'll catch you around, Iruka-sensei!"
Iruka watched him leave.
Later that day Iruka finally found out what he had been helping the Third to organise. The announcement came through that the chuunin exams were being held in Konoha, beginning on the first of July – in a week's time. In retrospect it made sense, but up until that point he hadn't been able to see the big picture from the pieces he had previously seen. It did explained why the Hokage had given as many people as possible a day off with the instructions to relax... security was going to be high in Konoha as large numbers of people from other countries, shinobi and civilian alike, would be flooding in to participate and observe. There would be no relaxing for the shinobi of Konoha until it was all over.
Other than heightened security Iruka wasn't really expecting it to have much impact upon himself. The Academy would still run, missions would still be assigned and reported. He wondered if he would even have time to see much of the event personally. Not that that particularly troubled him beyond interest's sake – his graduate students were still too inexperienced to participate and he didn't have much connection to any of the other genin. He was curious how Guy's team would fare - he was certain they would be participating. Hyuuga Neji was one of those young shinobi, like Sasuke, who had the genius label attached to him, Tenten was a fiercely competitive weapons expert and then there was the determination of Rock Lee who had graduated the Academy with only being able to use taijutsu. That must have been an interesting decision for the Academy examiner who chose to allow Lee to graduate.
The following day he was called to a meeting regarding the imminent exams. Various Academy instructors, all of the genin team jounin, and the shinobi who would participate in the exams as proctors were called together for the nominations of the genin who would be given the option to participate.
When the Hokage called forth Kakashi, Kurenai and Asuma, the leaders of Iruka's nine graduates, he knew that they would decline participation. Traditionally every genin team leader was called forth if their teams had completed the required minimum of eight missions, but no one nominated them that early. The three rookie teams were still far too inexperienced.
When Kakashi nominated Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura he was astonished. When Kurenai and Asuma also nominated their teams he went somewhat into shock. He wasn't the only person floored by the situation and murmuring immediately broke out after Asuma fell silent. It was unusual for any rookie genin to attempt the chuunin exams let alone three teams of them. What were the jounin thinking? Was this some kind of weird competition? There was no way these kids were ready.
Kakashi and Kurenai hadn't had genin teams before. Surely they were overestimating the abilities of their teams? He didn't know what Asuma's excuse was, but then if Kakashi and Kurenai nominated he probably figured he might as well... except... the chuunin exams were dangerous. People DIED in the chuunin exams. These jounin were all so exceptional surely it was colouring their perspective. His worry became greater than his sense or propriety and he couldn't hold himself back.
"Please wait!" he spoke up.
"What is it, Iruka?" the Third asked. The three jounin turned to look at him.
"Hokage-sama... please let me speak!" Iruka said, worry making him feel almost nauseated. "Excuse me for interfering, but the nine who were just nominated were my students at the Academy. Every one of them is talented, but it's too soon for them... they need more experience before they attempt the chuunin exams!"
Kakashi looked at him squarely, "I became a chuunin six years younger than Naruto."
"Naruto is not you!" Iruka shouted at him. "Are you trying to crush him?"
"They always complain during important missions," Kakashi said dispassionately. "Putting them through some pain might be interesting. Crushing them might also be interesting."
"What did you say?!" Iruka said, anger rising from his stomach and radiating through his body. He could taste bile in his mouth.
"That was a joke," Kakashi said without any change to his expression. "Iruka-sensei, I understand where you are coming from, you are clearly worried, but..."
"Kakashi, stop," Kurenai said softly.
Kakashi paid no attention to her. "... don't interfere! They aren't your students any more. They're my subordinates now." Kakashi was looking at him with cold, hard eyes.
No, not Kakashi. Hatake Kakashi, Copy-ninja, Master of a Thousand jutsus.
Iruka was shaking from more than just anger. He made himself breathe and calm down just a bit before speaking again. "But the chuunin exam is also known as the..."
"Iruka," the Third interrupted. Iruka looked towards him and the three jounin turned back around. "I understand what you are saying..."
"Hokage-sama," Iruka said with a bit of hope.
"... so we will put the rookie genin through a special preliminary exam," the Third continued.
"A preliminary exam?" Iruka wasn't sure what that meant, but it was something and while he was still worried, he was relieved the Third was listening to him.
"Well," Kakashi said, "that really isn't necessary Hokage-sama, but if it will silence the doubters. I myself have no doubts in the abilities of my students. Or Kurenai's and Asuma's, if they think they are ready, for that matter. These kids are perfectly capable of getting through a dangerous situation like the chuunin exams."
Kakashi's words refuelled Iruka's ire and he said angrily, "I don't accept it! They may be your subordinates now, but they used to be my students. I know more about..."
"Iruka's right," Guy interrupted, stepping forward out of the ranks. "This isn't so easy. You're rushing things. My team waited a year to get stronger first. Let them mature a little."
Kakashi laughed scornfully. "They may not be perfect, but they'll quickly blow by your team."
Guy glowered at Kakashi. Iruka just stared at him. He was going to get the kids hurt with that arrogance. Even Guy didn't seem to know what to say. He made a sort of growling noise in the back of his throat.
"That's enough," the Third said. "That's it for the rookies. We'll move on to the nominations for the non-rookie genin."
His words shut down any further discussion and Iruka and the four jounin stepped back into the ranks. Iruka couldn't look at the three instructors he'd spoken up against, especially not at Kakashi. While the rest of the genin team instructors nominated or declined their teams, he wasn't paying any attention. His mind was racing. He was so worried for his students, but at least Guy agreed with him, and the Third had listened. But he shouldn't have spoken up like he had in front of everyone. He ground his teeth. The three jounin had every right to be very angry with him.
He had publicly questioned them, so as soon as the meeting was called to a close he immediately went to them before everyone could disperse.
"I'm sorry, Kakashi-sensei, Kurenai-sensei, Asuma-sensei. I was inappropriate."
"Thank you, Iruka-sensei," Kurenai replied. "We can understand your concern, but thank you for apologising."
Asuma rubbed the back of his head. "Don't worry about it, Iruka-sensei."
Iruka looked at Kakashi who merely nodded stiffly without making eye contact. Iruka hadn't expected anything more. He bowed again and left the three jounin to discuss the preliminary exam for their charges with the Hokage.
After Iruka's part in the affair he wasn't particularly surprised to become further involved in the proceedings. He, along with two other chuunin, were given the task of testing the nine rookies. Iruka was personally responsible for testing team seven, but the other two chuunin came to him with the results of their challenges to the other teams. It was up to Iruka to report to the jounin in charge. He was quite certain it was no accident that it was to Kakashi that he had to make that report.
The results of the challenges showed that all nine rookies had become more adept than he had given them credit for. They had shown the proficiency the Hokage required of them to allow their participation in the chuunin selection exams. Even though, he still didn't personally like the idea of them participating, but there was nothing further he could do about it. The Hokage and jounin had had no requirement to tolerate his outburst in the first place.
He went to make his report.
Kakashi was sitting patiently on a rooftop in the darkness, looking out over Konoha. When he turned to face in the opposite direction to where Iruka stood, Iruka's emotions went to war; relief that he wasn't being subjected to his insightful eyes, and sorrow that the jounin couldn't even bear to look at him.
"So? How did they do?" Kakashi asked.
"Although we went through the trouble of setting up a special preliminary exam, all nine rookies passed," Iruka replied a bit stiffly. Given Kakashi wasn't looking at him there was no need to hide behind the transformation, so he let it drop. "Apparently their skills are growing, just like the three of you said," he admitted. Even without Kakashi's eyes on him, he looked down at his feet.
"But the real Chuunin exam isn't going to be that easy," Kakashi admitted softly, still looking out into the night.
Iruka looked back up, and studied Kakashi's back.
He had been thinking, all day, ever since he walked away from the three jounin after apologising, and right now, Kakashi was supporting the tentative theory he had developed.
Iruka felt sick in his stomach. He was disappointed in himself. He was disappointed in himself, because Kakashi was disappointed in him. It would be easier, in a lot of ways, if the jounin was angry with him. But he wasn't. There wasn't a trace of anger in his voice, in his posture. Iruka closed his eyes.
The Kakashi in front of him was not the Kakashi who had turned cold eyes on him at the meeting. The Kakashi who had spoken of crushing his team was not the Kakashi who had offered Iruka supportive words that had helped him to develop a relationship with Naruto. Kakashi was cold, unrelenting, terrifying, but Kakashi was considerate, kind, caring. Kakashi was merciless, but Kakashi didn't leave people behind. Kakashi was unstoppable and unbreakable, but he was vulnerable and fragile.
Kakashi was full of inconsistencies, but inconsistencies only seen by tiny group of people. People who he let see those inconsistencies. People like Guy, Asuma, Kurenai and Genma.
People like Iruka.
And Iruka was certain that Kakashi didn't give second chances when it came to himself. If he didn't figure out how to fix things between them right now, the friendship that had been developing between them would die, here and now. From this point on Kakashi would be cordial, even friendly, but Iruka would never feel that warmth he had felt as they had laughed together when Kakashi had walked him home.
His inability to control himself had jeopardised everything.
"I really am sorry," Iruka said.
"You said that already," Kakashi replied quietly.
"Not about what I said," Iruka said, "what I did."
"What do you mean?" Kakashi said, turning his head to the side just enough that Iruka knew he could see him with his peripheral vision.
"That I put you through that," Iruka said, "that I made you do that."
"Wait," Kakashi said, turning completely around, "do you mean to say you aren't angry with me?"
"Angry with you? Of course not!" Iruka replied with surprise.
"Behaved in a way that I could have predicted if I'd been thinking for even a moment instead of letting my mouth run away with me in front of everyone like that. I forced you into a situation where you had to be him."
Kakashi just looked at him for a moment then said, "You're going to have to explain what you're thinking right now. I want to be sure I understand just what is in that head of yours."
Iruka paused. He felt presumptuous under the gaze of the other man.
"No, go on," Kakashi said. "What do you mean about me having to 'be him'?"
"Well... there's you," Iruka ventured carefully, "and then there's the Copy-ninja. He's part of you, but he's also greater than you. He's a reputation, a story to intimidate our enemies with, all the more frightening because he's real."
Kakashi's eye wasn't wavering from Iruka's. As Iruka spoke Kakashi stood, watching him carefully, head tilted ever so slightly to one side. "Go on," he encouraged.
"The Copy-ninja's reputation is part of who he is, one of his abilities. He's cold, merciless and unstoppable. You let him dominate your public face and you can't allow people to think he's gone soft – not even in your own village. But I think you'd prefer it if his reputation just kept itself alive and no one really paid you any attention. Guy-san – he's flamboyant, people pay him attention wherever he goes and he clearly craves that to an extent, but you... you try to disappear into the background." Iruka looked down at the roof again. "You're a shadow and I shone a light on you. I'm sorry."
Kakashi was silent for a long time and eventually Iruka looked up at him. He was just watching and then he shook his head disbelievingly, muttering something under his breath that Iruka thought sounded like 'I thought I'd lost you'.
"What was that?" Iruka asked, wanting to know if his ears had heard what he thought they had.
"I was sure you'd be angry or upset with me. I didn't want to look at you," Kakashi said, "I was certain that if I looked into those big brown eyes of yours that I would feel like I had kicked a puppy. I'm used to people recoiling from me, taking it personally when I get like that. I pretty much expected you to, but instead of getting upset at how I was... you've just tried to understand why. You never cease to amaze me. You're an extraordinary person."
"Ha! That's rich, coming from you!" Iruka said trying not to blush.
"No," Kakashi shook his head, "I'm an extraordinary shinobi. You are an extraordinary person. I'm glad you're not angry with me for saying such cruel things."
Iruka shook his head.
Kakashi's face turned strangely gentle. "Have I ever told you just how much I like you Iruka-sensei?"
"I really like you."
Iruka had no chance at controlling the blush at this point. "Well, thank you. I like you too. Although..."
"I still think you're wrong about those kids!"
Kakashi threw his head back and laughed.
"Do tell," Kakashi said when he eventually stopped laughing.
Iruka pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I'm sorry. I need to learn to shut up. I'm sure I'm just being a mother hen. It's wrong of me to question you, I shouldn't have said anything in the first place." Frustrated with himself for not being able to understand the decisions of the three jounin, nor hold his tongue, he turned to leave before he made it any worse.
"No," Kakashi took the few steps that separated them and put his hand on Iruka's upper arm. Iruka blinked, turning his head back to look at the jounin. "Don't apologise for that. Don't ever apologise for having questions or concerns. At a public meeting in front of the Hokage mightn't be the place to voice them," the smile he projected was wry, "but you can always say something to me." The smile fell away and he looked earnestly into Iruka's eyes. "I'm not infallible and I want to be questioned, when it really matters. It makes me think about why I do the things I do, why I think the way I think, why I say what I do." He took his hand off Iruka's arm and rubbed the back of his neck. "The only thing," he said, serious expression evaporating like mist, "is that you'll have to get used to being wrong. I haven't been wrong since I was thirteen."
"Is that so?" Iruka said.
"Anyone ever tell you that you're insufferably egotistical?"
"Yeah, but then I kicked their ass."
Iruka chuckled. He looked back at Kakashi and bit his lip. "Do you honestly think they're ready to become chuunin?"
Kakashi shrugged, "No idea."
Iruka knew his face registered his surprise.
"But I think they're ready to try. Listen, Iruka... they aren't that young, really. I know you think they are, but they aren't. Most of our elite shinobi became chuunin somewhere between when I did at six, and when you did at sixteen, not even considering the current ANBU jounin. Raidou, Genma, Aoba, Asuma, Kurenai, Guy... even Hayate were all their age or even younger."
Iruka nodded. He knew how old the non-covert jounin were when they became chuunin, and jounin for that matter. He was surprised Kakashi knew when he was made chuunin though.
"Often the future of a shinobi can be predicted by when they graduated the Academy, when they became chuunin, but just because the legendary sannin graduated at six, and these kids didn't graduate until they were twelve... if you think that they can't surpass the sannin, you're doing them a disservice."
"But they're still so inexperienced," Iruka argued.
"Sure," Kakashi agreed, "in some ways they are more inexperienced than usual. Most shinobi spend at least a year as genin before they attempt the chuunin exams, but there's always exceptions. If one rookie team had been nominated people probably wouldn't have really paid much attention, but the decisions to nominate that Asuma, Kurenai and I made were independent of what the others were doing. But don't forget that while the kids may have been out learning on missions less, they were still learning – just at the Academy. Under you. Keeping these kids at the Academy until they were older may have had the intended effect and advantaged their development."
Iruka frowned thoughtfully and looked away as he considered what Kakashi was saying.
"The other thing though, is that taking part in the chuunin selection exams, it's also going to help these kids gain more experience, quickly, and to become a better team as a result. I wasn't an easy kid," Kakashi said very quietly, "my best friend died because of my arrogance."
"What..." Iruka began, eyes returning to Kakashi, but Kakashi stalled him by holding up a hand.
"Not now; that doesn't matter at the moment. It's not about me, it's about these kids. The point is that I know how important it is for shinobi to learn, as early as possible, not just to be able to work together, but to hear each other and be able to rely on each other. The chuunin exams will need them to work as a unit. In order to make it through successfully Sakura needs to stop letting the boys do all the heavy lifting - they're leaving her behind, Sasuke still needs to learn to depend on others instead of trying to do everything by himself, and Naruto is still getting used to having others he can depend on." Kakashi smiled gently at Iruka. Iruka was rather fascinated how well he could project emotions through that mask when he chose to. "All of them have something to benefit from going into a forum like the chuunin exams, and how far they progress is going to depend upon them being able to function as a team, without you, or me, or anybody else telling them what to do. And if they can do that, then they've shown that they've learned a large part of what being a leader is about - which puts them into consideration for becoming chuunin."
As Iruka listened to Kakashi he was coming to realise just how much thought the jounin had put into nominating his team - but nevertheless the chuunin exams could still end the career, or the life, of a young shinobi.
"It's so dangerous," Iruka said softly, looking at his feet. "What if they die?"
Kakashi paused, considering, and then lay a hand gently on Iruka's shoulder. "That'd be a possibility even if they didn't sit the exams until they were sixteen. Those kids have been on missions already where they could have died. We thought that Sasuke had, in the Land of Waves."
Iruka looked up.
"Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said gently, "would you trust me with your life?"
"Then trust me with theirs. They're not going to die. They're smarter than that. Believe in them. They may not be ready to become chuunin, we'll see how they do to determine that, but they ARE ready to take the exams."
Iruka looked into Kakashi's face and sighed. "Why are you going to so much effort to make me understand? Why do you care?"
"I told you before," Kakashi said. "I like you. In fact, as of today," he said with a smile, "I like you even more."
Iruka was well aware when the first of the chuunin exams was being held. He knew that large numbers of genin didn't even get past this first hurdle. Wondering how the kids were doing was in the back of his mind the entire day, distracting him from the lessons he was trying to teach.
He was relieved to reach the end of the day and dismiss the class. He was also relieved because by this point the rumour had made it to him that all nine rookies had passed the first examination. Now that they were participating he wanted them to do as well as they could.
He had some papers he needed to give to one of the other chuunin who worked the mission desk, so he ducked in to drop them off before heading home. Inside the mission room he could see the Third had moved away from everyone and was currently quietly speaking with Kakashi about something he clearly didn't want overheard.
They must have finished what they were speaking about almost the moment Iruka walked into the room, because Kakashi started towards the doorway. His path took him directly past Iruka. As he walked by he didn't stop, but said smugly, and quite clearly, "Thirteen."
Iruka aimed a kick at the retreating jounin's ankle, but Kakashi simply hopped that foot out of the way and Iruka had to content himself with a muttered "Ass," at his back. Kakashi threw a cheeky smile over his shoulder as he disappeared out the door.
The only person in the room who could have properly noted the exchange was the Hokage, in his position off to the side. He puffed thoughtfully on his pipe as Iruka delivered his papers to the chuunin. As Iruka went to leave, he gestured him over.
"Hokage-sama," Iruka said, "I really am very sorry." He'd apologised to the jounin he'd called out, but he hadn't apologised properly to the Third whose meeting he had disrupted.
The Third waved his hand dismissively, "Never mind that," he said, "I know you were just acting on the best interests of the kids. Not all of them have family looking out for them. I'm glad there is someone who cares - and so are their instructors for that matter."
He looked towards the doorway where Kakashi had gone and then his eyes went back to Iruka. He lowered his voice as he continued. "I'm pleased you two have been able to move on from what happened. I think you mean more to him than you realise you do. Your good opinion matters a lot to him."
"Kakashi-san?" Iruka asked with a bit of puzzlement, taking his cue from the Third and also dropping the volume of his voice.
"He smiles at you."
"He smiles at a lot of people."
"It's different, with you. His smiles are genuine. I haven't seen him smile like that since..." he cut off and watched Iruka.
"He got his best friend killed," Iruka guessed.
The Third smiled. "He told you that. I'm so glad. Although it may have even been since before that. He was such an exceptionally gifted child, he was isolated from the start. He has spent most of his life around people older than himself, and more often than not he's had the additional challenge of being in command of them. He's always been so serious and has become accustomed to internalising everything. He likes everyone to think that he can handle anything, himself included, but everyone needs someone to look out for them. I've been a bit worried about him. He's more fragile than he realises."
Iruka looked back at the doorway. "Yes, I know," he said softly, turning back to face the Third.
The Third looked at him appraisingly, "Why yes, I do believe you do," he said nodding happily. "Good. I don't want to see him become self-destructive and lose himself. He needs someone in his life who'll remind him why he's fighting in the first place."
Iruka paused and then said quietly, "He said the exact same thing to me once."
The Hokage's smile broadened, "Did he now? Good, good. Between you and those kids... there's hope for him yet. Now, I hope you have some time right now? I was about to make myself some tea."
By the time the second stage of the chuunin exams was over, Iruka had to admit that Kakashi apparently knew what he was talking about. Iruka had begged Anko to allow him to be the person that told team seven whether they had passed or failed, and it was with some surprise, but quite a lot of pride, that he got to inform them that they had passed.
He tried to caution them about the next stage, particularly Naruto, who he couldn't help but worry about, but Naruto cut him and demanded that Iruka recognise him as a ninja now, not as one of his students, and with a smile Iruka conceded the fact.
Damn jounin was always right.
Preliminary matches were needed to decrease the number of examinees that had made it past the second stage. Of the seven teams that made it through, all three rookie teams were present. By the end of the preliminary matches, nine genin moved forward to the final public battles. Of the nine, four were from Konoha's rookie teams and two of those from Kakashi's.
No one could doubt the decisions of the three jounin instructors at this point.
At the insistence of the Hokage, Iruka had even remained to witness the preliminary bouts himself. He did have to admit that the rookies had a lot more ability than he had given them credit for. The only thing that worried him was that during the preliminary fights there was some kind of agitation and an underlying current of stress going on that he couldn't quite pinpoint.
Before the bouts began team seven had been whispering fiercely between themselves – particularly Sasuke and Sakura. Anko had been stressed and speaking intently with the Third. Even Kakashi had seemed somewhat unsettled. Iruka wasn't quite sure what it was that made him think Kakashi seem unsettled – he had projected his usual facade - but something just didn't seem right. It was almost as if he was trying too hard to act like nothing was happening, which only someone sensitive to his mannerisms would have noticed.
And Sasuke's bout had been strange. The boy had seemed to be in more pain than his physical appearance would imply and he had relied solely on taijutsu. At the end of the fight he had collapsed to the floor, but Kakashi had taken him to one of the back rooms instead of allowing the medical team to take him away for assessment. Not long after Kakashi had returned by himself and Iruka had later discovered that Sasuke was now in the hospital. He couldn't help but wonder what had been going on back there, and why Kakashi hadn't just sent Sasuke to the hospital in the first place. And why he was still unsettled.
But Iruka was accustomed to not always knowing what was going on. He considered himself lucky that he had found his way into a position in the village where he often knew more than most people, but even so secrets were a way of life in a hidden village. He was very good at not letting unsatisfied curiosity unbalance him.
Regardless of what was going on, and whether Iruka would ever know, there was now a month for the nine genin and their mentors to prepare for the final battles. As much as he hadn't wanted his students to participate in the first place, Iruka was inordinately proud that almost half the genin competing in the final stage had been his students, and he was particularly proud that Naruto stood amongst their number.
The month after the preliminaries passed swiftly, but unpleasantly for Iruka. He spent a great deal of it worried and uncomfortably stressed. He had never quite put the discomfort he had felt after detecting the ambient unsettled feeling during the preliminaries behind him. The Hokage and the jounin had put up normal appearances once they walked away from the preliminaries, but something had troubled them, and that made him worry. It particularly bothered him that something had troubled Kakashi - and that he'd noticed. He wasn't sure if it was just he had learned to read the jounin better, or if whatever it was that had shaken Kakashi was just that bad. Regardless he couldn't help but fret somewhat. Especially when Kakashi went missing.
Technically, Sasuke went missing and Kakashi couldn't be found, which didn't necessarily equate to 'missing'.
Sasuke going missing from his hospital bed was somewhat of a concern. As for Kakashi, normally Iruka wouldn't worry if he went missing since he was one of the strongest shinobi Konoha had. The problem was that the pair of them went missing on the heels of news that Iruka had had trouble digesting and left him abnormally concerned about the welfare of people he cared about.
Hayate had been killed.
Being a shinobi in a hidden village, Iruka was somewhat used to death. Whenever shinobi went out on missions there was a chance they wouldn't return. Iruka knew that, and in his position in Administration he was perhaps more aware of it than many. While the missions he processed tended to be low level and with little risk, he still spent a great deal of time in the mission room and was generally aware when faces he had been accustomed to seeing on a regular basis didn't reappear. But he accepted it. They were shinobi and losses were only to be expected.
That was small comfort when it was one of your friends that didn't walk back through the doors. When word reached him that Hayate had been found dead, he couldn't even comprehend it at first. Hayate was more than just a familiar face, he was someone Iruka considered to be a friend. He had just seen Hayate, being the proctor of the preliminaries. Hayate couldn't be dead, he wasn't out on a mission, he was just at home, in Konoha, in a time of supposed peace. It didn't make any sense and it was difficult to absorb.
Iruka knew he wasn't the only person disturbed by it. Why would any one have reason to kill Hayate? Who would be able to? Apparently Hayate had been involved in combat when he was killed, but since no one had seen anything, despite the presence of ANBU patrols within the village, whoever had done it had to be powerful. He hadn't been taken by stealth, he'd been fighting back, but they'd been able to take him down without any one seeing... and Hayate was one of Konoha's rapidly advancing elite. There weren't even many outsiders within the walls of Konoha currently, and most of those present were from the allied Sand village. Something was very wrong with the situation.
As Iruka struggled to come to terms with Hayate's loss, one of the hospital's nursing staff had found Sasuke's bed empty and no one knew where he had gone. Iruka still wasn't entirely sure why the Uchiha boy was in hospital in the first place, but as far as the medical staff were concerned, he was still supposed to be there and they were worried about him.
No one was able to ask Kakashi if he knew where the boy was, since simultaneously the jounin was no where to be found. Naruto had seen him briefly, at the hospital, not long before Sasuke went missing. Iruka knew because Naruto had complained long and hard about Kakashi favouring Sasuke. He had wanted the jounin to train him for the fights in a month, but Kakashi had passed his training on to someone Naruto was calling the 'closet-pervert' because he was going to be busy training Sasuke.
Iruka theorised that the two of them were somewhere together, but he still didn't like the uncertainty. Assuming that they were together and all right, he intended to have some harsh words with the pair of them when he saw them next. Neither of them seemed to appreciate that they had people in their lives that cared and were concerned about them. Disappearing without a word had made quite a number of people worry, and was particularly bad timing as the loss of Hayate only served to show how easily even an elite shinobi could fall in unexpected circumstances.
At least Naruto had been buzzing noisily around Konoha for the month, so Iruka knew where he was and that he was well. That at least provided a modicum of relief from his currently escalating stress levels. Whoever was training him also seemed to be doing a good job of it. At some point the boy had changed trainers and the 'closet-pervert', whom Iruka eventually identified as the special jounin, Ebisu, was replaced by someone the boy referred to as the 'perverted hermit'. Iruka found it extraordinary that Naruto kept identifying people as perverts. He was wondering whose perspective on things was skewed - Naruto's or his own. When he considered Kakashi's choice of reading material he did consider that the boy might actually know what a pervert was, but it could just be the difference between being a child an adult. Iruka wondered if Naruto thought he was a pervert as well.
Anyway, thoughts of perverts aside, whoever was instructing Naruto at present seemed to know a thing or two, and was getting through to the boy. When Naruto demonstrated a jutsu for Iruka, he was amazed at how much the boy's chakra control had improved. Naruto also seemed to be very excited at the prospect of summoning a frog, although when he tried to demonstrate for Iruka all he managed was a tadpole. Iruka had scratched at his nose and wondered why this perverted hermit thought that frog-summoning was a useful thing to spend the boy's training time on, but since Naruto had made noticeable progress who was he to question?
By the end of the month Kakashi and Sasuke still hadn't returned. Konoha was now full of outsiders, civillian and shinobi alike, who had come to witness the chuunin exam fights in Konoha's enormous stadium. He would have liked to have gone himself, but he had his classes to teach, and since witnessing the preliminaries hadn't set his mind at ease, as he was sure the Third had intended, it was perhaps for the best that he didn't.
That still didn't stop him thinking about it though.
From the Academy the sounds of the stadium could be heard in the distance. He stayed inside during the time when Naruto was fighting, but the noise still filtered in. Loud cheering had indicated the end of the first fight, Naruto's fight.. He couldn't help himself wondering who had won. His class had seemed as restless as he felt, so he took them outside to run laps. He might not have the world's greatest poker face, but even still he was somewhat embarrassed to be by his students, caught completely distracted with his mind on Naruto and the outcome of his fight. There wasn't much time to dwell on his embarrassment however, not only did his observant class notice his distraction, but also smoke above the stadium and rumbling sounds to the east that could only be the heralds of trouble. Iruka quickly ushered the class inside, all worries about Naruto's battle, or whether Kakashi and Sasuke had turned up, forgotten.
Within minutes all the Academy instructors had assembled in the faculty room to discuss what was happening. Reports had already reached them that there were enemy squadrons advancing into the village and it didn't take them long to initiate evacuation protocols. Under the guise of an evacuation drill, they began the process of moving the children as quickly as they could to the caverns where other shinobi would be moving the town's civilian populace.
From a personal perspective, evacuating the children to the caverns while Konoha went into chaos was difficult for Iruka. He'd been on the other end of this experience when he was about the same age as his class were now, and he'd been sheltering in the safety of the caverns when he had realised that his parents were dead. But he smiled to comfort the children and spoke to them reassuringly, calmly guiding them down tunnels and up staircases even as a coldness settled into his bones as a new war began. There were going to be a lot of faces not walking through doors when the dust settled.
An icy dagger plunged into his stomach when a crack appeared on the stone edifice of the Third Hokage. It was a terrible omen, but at the same time he didn't really think anything bad would happen to him. The Third might potter around most of the time smoking his pipe and seeming completely grandfatherly, but he was Hokage because he was the strongest shinobi in Konoha. Only another Kage could hope to rival him.
Helping keep the civillians and children calm as the war raged outside, Iruka learned small pieces of information. He knew Sound, and incomprehensibly, Sand were behind the attacks. He knew the Third was fighting Orochimaru, the legendary sannin, now considered an S-Class criminal. He knew that Jiraiya, one of the other sannin had simultaneously reappeared and was helping Konoha's forces repel the enemy. He even managed to hear that Naruto had won his fight, and that Kakashi and Sasuke had turned up before the chaos began.
He maintained his composure, no matter how troubling the news coming in was. His calm face kept not only the children calm, but a lot of adults seemed to feel better with him around as well. He hid his own stress well, focussing on what he needed to do, and not reflecting on how he had felt when he had been a child in these caverns.
The trouble came when someone ran in to the caverns and, clearly shaken, announced that Sarutobi Hiruzen, the Third Hokage, had died.
Iruka felt himself grow numb. It was no way to learn a man he loved as family was dead. It was no way for the Third's grandson, Konohamaru, to learn of his loss. Iruka's eyes turned to the boy and as he registered the shock and despair on Konohamaru's face, it reminded him of everything he'd been trying to forget. For a moment he was himself and he was Konohamaru and a man he loved and called family had died and Konohamaru's grandfather had died and Iruka's parents had died and Iruka was ten and... he closed his eyes as the cavern began to swim.
Through the shock and disbelief he knew he stood on a precipice. He knew that if he indulged the pain and despair that they would take him entirely and he would shatter into pieces.
He chose instead to crush his emotions, to let the coldness in his bones take over and do what the village needed doing. If he could keep busy, his mind wouldn't have a moment to fully process what had happened. He knew it was a temporary measure, that it would be like restraining water behind a cracked dam. It was only a matter of time before the dam burst, and when it did he knew he was going to fall apart. But that was okay. For the moment it was enough. He had to take care of Konohamaru. He had to take care of all of the kids. He had to take care of the village. He could let himself fall to pieces when everybody else was all right.
He held Konohamaru back as he tried to run to his grandfather's side. When Konohamaru gave up and began to cry, Iruka held him in his arms. He didn't know how long for, it didn't matter. He held the crying child until he was taken away by his family. Then Iruka stood and looked around. The shocked and silent evacuees were being allowed to return to the village and the caverns were emptying.
He made his way to the mission room, needing to do something useful. There weren't many Konoha-nin around, most of them out chasing down Sound and Sand, but someone had to keep them organised. Someone had to take care of the bodies of the fallen. Someone had to keep it together when everything was falling apart. Someone needed to keep the village functioning. Someone needed to ensure that Konoha showed no signs of weakness before enemies and allies alike. And this, this was something Iruka was good at.
The mission room became even busier than normal, quickly developing into a war room and operational centre beyond its usual function, and the organisation of the village began. He didn't move from the mission room. People came and went all day and all night giving information, receiving orders. Iruka helped as he could, quietly and efficiently. He lost track of time.
At some point he realised Kakashi was present. In his intentionally emotionless state, Iruka wasn't feeling any kind of curiosity, or paying much attention to the people around him, but even still two observations regarding the jounin penetrated his dull haze. Firstly, he looked tired, and Iruka knew he would have single handedly taken out an exorbitant number of the enemy. The other was that the Copy-nin was completely at the helm. Kakashi was in full command mode and Iruka realised that the ANBU were answering to him. He had briefly wondered who the ANBU would be taking orders from, without the Hokage. Now he knew. He hadn't really thought about the hierarchy of Konoha much before, the Hokage and the elders had always been around. He hadn't ever thought about who had the ability to give orders to ANBU, but seeing the jounin in action, it didn't seem in the slightest bit surprising. He'd learned some time ago not to underestimate the man.
He continued with the work he was being assigned. It was doing an excellent job of keeping his mind occupied, especially as he was being exposed to information of a higher clearance than was normal for him. He didn't question whether he should be privy to this level of information, just kept processing and doing what he could. Wars tended to elicit change.
At some point an ANBU appeared in front of him and handed him a scroll. The ANBU told him insistently to give it to Kakashi when he next appeared in the mission room. Iruka hadn't realised he'd left. He had no idea how long ago it had been that he'd last seen him. He assured the ANBU that he would and she left.
Kakashi reappeared in the mission room, and again Iruka had no idea how much time later, engaged in a heated conversation with Guy. Iruka got up from his seat, idly noticing that his muscles were unpleasantly stiff, and handed the scroll over. Kakashi took it without any acknowledgement of Iruka, not that he cared in the slightest. Task complete he had already returned to his desk, but then Kakashi walked over and looked down at him.
"Have you slept?"
Iruka looked up at Kakashi briefly, then back down at his paperwork. "Yes," he said, figuring that since the jounin's question had been entirely non specific it wasn't a lie.
"In the past two days?"
Iruka looked back up at him. Two days? Had it been that long? He looked back at the papers. Too much to do to worry about such things. "No."
"You should get some sleep."
He looked back up irritably. "I'll sleep when you do," he responded flatly, confident that even if the jounin had had some sleep in the same time frame, it would have only been a few snatches here and there.
Kakashi left him alone.
He still hadn't slept when the funeral for the Third and the other shinobi who had fallen in the attacks finally took place. He had gone home to shower and to put on the mourning attire he'd worn only a few weeks ago for Hayate, but that was all.
The rains came as they stood on top of the Administration building, with the stone faces of the four Hokage looking down on them. The sky was crying for their beloved leader too.
Konohamaru was trying to be strong, but as he began to cry again, Iruka took him in his arms once more, intentionally not thinking about anything, lest his dam break prematurely.
"Iruka-sensei?" Naruto's voice brought his focus back to the present.
"Hmm?" he acknowledged.
"What do our lives really mean? Is life really so simple?"
Iruka had thought about death a lot since the loss of his parents, and he had taken the Third's words to him about the Will of Fire deep into his heart. He didn't need time to consider his answer at all.
"Death affects us all, whether it is in the past, the present or the future," he began. "He died fighting, was caught by death because life was that simple. Many of us die in missions, or war, more easily than you can imagine. Hayate was like that. When you die, everything you were aiming for ends with no concern to whether you reached your goals or not. But the one thing that we all have in common, is that we know that the most important thing is to die for a reason. Family, friends, lovers, everyone in the village... all of these people are precious. From the moment we are born until the day we die we trust and help each other, and as time passes we realise that the most important thing we share is love. As time passes that love and trust connects us more and more strongly to those around us. Everyone who wears the hitae-ate has learned this."
"Yes. I understand that," Naruto said quietly. "But, death is painful."
"The Third didn't die for nothing," he heard Kakashi's voice say. The jounin hadn't been there when the funeral started. Iruka had no idea when he'd arrived. He didn't feel any curiosity or surprise however, nor turned to look at him, just calmly held Konohamaru as the jounin continued, "He wouldn't think his death painful. He left something precious for us. You'll understand someday."
"I do understand that somewhat," Naruto replied.
Iruka remained silent. Kakashi completely understood what he was saying and as much as he would prefer the children not need to understand death, and the sacrifices shinobi made, he was glad through the sorrow that Naruto understood.
As the funeral came to an end, the sun reasserted itself over Konoha. Warmed by the rays of the sun, and the love the village held for the fallen, spirits had noticeably improved. Iruka stood quietly, watching his precious children leaving, for some the first funeral they had ever been to. Naruto smiled as he bade farewell and joined Kakashi, Sakura, and Sasuke as they left.
Sasuke and Sakura too were smiling. He couldn't tell how Kakashi was, expression hidden by his masks, but he was fairly certain the jounin had completely retreated into the armour of the Copy-nin. At another time Iruka might be worried because the risk was real that he might just stay there. It was much less painful than letting yourself care.
But right now the only think Iruka really cared about were the children, and he couldn't help but feel satisfied that if team seven were any indication, the children of the village were going to be all right. If even orphans like Naruto and Sasuke could smile, they were feeling the trust and love that connected them to the rest of the village. Just as Iruka wanted. Just as the Third had wanted. Just as Iruka had felt when the Third had rescued him as a child from the grief of his parent's death. The Will of Fire was burning brightly.
He turned and calmly walked home. For the moment he was satisfied that he could indulge his selfish need to shatter into pieces, just for one night. For one night he would let the emotions show that a shinobi shouldn't reveal, let alone feel. For himself he would fall apart, and in the morning, by himself he would repair his fractured heart and put himself back together. And he would give his love to the village, and feel love in return, and that was enough.
Stepping through his door, he took off his shoes, and set his hitae-ate on the table... and like a puppet with its strings cut, he collapsed to the floor, wrapped his arms around his knees, and wept.
The facade he'd been maintaining, his composure, it all vanished like a dismissed clone. All the emotions he'd experienced when his parents died hit him like a tidal wave. He'd cried for a year after their deaths, when he'd thought no one was looking. He'd sat by himself with his arms around his knees just like he was now, staring into middle distance as tears ran down his cheeks. The Third had rescued him from his sorrow, held it at bay like a sorcerer. And now he was gone too.
He didn't know how long he sat there, but the light was long gone when he finally stood, dully, and moved into his bedroom. He didn't bother to change out of his mourning clothes, just curled up on top of his covers and cried. He'd been awake for so long now he expected that he would cry himself to sleep, but he didn't. He felt so out of control, memories coming unbidden to his mind as he began to feel even the slightest bit drowsy, and he'd be hit once more by emotions so raw they made him nauseous.
He felt like it had been going on for days, the oncoming drowsiness, followed by horror and nausea. He didn't know how he was physically able to produce any more tears. He wanted to hit something so hard that either it would break, or his hand would. But he didn't have the energy to even lift his head.
And then there were strong arms around him, and a warmth against his back. He stiffened at first, his tears stopping for a moment in shock. But then he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was his ANBU. Even now, after the destruction of Konoha, his ANBU was still alive and still cared what became of him. He turned around in the circle of the ANBU's arms and the ANBU pulled him against a chest that was covered only in the dark cloth of the standard issue uniform shirt, no ANBU armour, or the Konoha flak jacket. He cupped a hand behind Iruka's head and pushed it down onto his shoulder, tucking Iruka under his chin, and gently rocked him.
Comforted by the rocking, the warmth of another person and the beat of the ANBU's heart, Iruka discovered that he had even more tears inside him, and they released with all his sorrow and all his rage.
"Shh," the ANBU said, rubbing his hand in circles on Iruka's back.
After he didn't know how long the tears began to dry up, and drowsiness once more encroached. He didn't fear it this time though. Within the circle of the ANBU's arms he felt safe, even if it was only for a short time.
"ANBU-san..." he mumbled softly, "I hope I know you, you know, out there in your non-ANBU life. I hope I know how kind you are."
The ANBU's arms tightened around him and Iruka fell asleep.
He didn't reawaken until the new day had dawned. He opened his eyes into early morning light, with no sign anyone had even been there. He wondered if he had imagined it until he stumbled into his living room, and found a covered bowl and a note that simply said 'Eat.' He looked dubiously at the bowl as he reached out for the lid. He didn't think his stomach could handle food, but he had to smile wryly when he discovered the bowl contained okayu, and that his stomach was quite willing to accept it.
After finally allowing himself to mourn, a few hours of sleep and the bowl of okayu, Iruka felt a lot better than he had anticipated. He took a shower, put on clean clothes and determinedly tied his hitae-ate around his forehead. Slipping on his shoes he stepped out of his door to face a new day.
It was a long time before Iruka got the chance to give Kakashi and Sasuke a piece of his mind about going missing and making people worry, because the next time he saw either of them, they were in a coma. A coma caused by the same person – Sasuke's elder brother, Uchiha Itachi. The worry he had felt then paled in significance, and he never did get around to saying anything to Sasuke, in the end. Although Kakashi was another matter.
Another matter entirely.
Everyone in Konoha was busy. Many people were working on rebuilding the town. Civilians in particular were pulling together to make sure the town returned to normality as quickly as possible. Shinobi and shinobi in training, were helping with that as well; Iruka and his students were repairing damage the Academy had taken for instance, but there were still all the other things that shinobi had to do that couldn't be neglected. There was training to be done, missions to be completed – particularly vital to not reveal that Konoha was down below half strength – organisation and administration to be done; and a fifth Hokage to name.
There were also, apparently, more obscenely strong shinobi to repel from the village.
While Iruka had been organising his class in the repairs they were undertaking, Kakashi, Kurenai, Asuma and Guy had been fighting Itachi, and another dangerous missing-nin, Hoshigaki Kisame, formerly of the Hidden Mist. That four of Konoha's elite jounin had been needed to drive the pair of them away... only drive them away, not take them down, and that Kakashi had wound up unconscious from a nasty jutsu of Itachi's... only served to show that the village didn't have time to relax for a moment while regrouping after the Sound and Sand assault.
It happened suddenly, and was over almost as suddenly. Iruka hadn't even caught wind of the conflict until after Guy delivered Sasuke to the hospital some hours later, victim of the same jutsu that felled Kakashi.
When he did find out what had happened, he'd dropped what he was doing, and had immediately run to the hospital. Sasuke was back in the same room he had disappeared from a month ago, pale and wan and most definitely unconscious. The hospital staff had been reluctant to tell Iruka what his condition was at first, because Iruka wasn't family. Iruka had ground his teeth together and pointed out quite forcefully Sasuke only had one living member of his family left, and that's who had done this to him, and also to Sasuke's jounin sensei, and that Iruka was almost certainly the closest adult the boy had who was alive and conscious. They acquiesced and told him what they knew.
Not that they knew all that much. Before the Uchiha massacre, the Tsukuyomi jutsu that had taken the two of them out had only been used on the enemy, so the medical staff didn't have experience treating the victims. Since there were no Uchihas left to ask they were somewhat at a loss as to how long a victim of Tsukuyomi stayed unconscious, or what they could do, if anything, to hasten recovery. They were doing their best to try to work it out, but they needed time.
Despite the sick feeling in his stomach at seeing the boy like this, Iruka could understand the difficulties they were facing, and there was nothing he could do for the moment. He left them to their ruminations and examinations of Sasuke and went to see the other victim of the jutsu, who he was just as concerned about, if not more.
He found Kakashi's room occupied not just by the unconscious man and attendant medical staff, but also several jounin. He couldn't see much of Kakashi, with the medical staff hovering over him, and his face still mostly covered with a mask. What was evident was pale, as Kakashi was normally pale anyway, but there was an unhealthy pastiness to the skin that was similar to Sasuke. The sick feeling in Iruka's stomach magnified. There was something incredibly disturbing and wrong at seeing the indomitable Kakashi helpless and being fussed over by a perplexed team of medical staff.
The jounin were all watching the medical team silently. Iruka thought that perhaps the medics would be more comfortable without the pressure of stressed jounin watching them like hawks, but they were giving off an air of immovability. He was fairly certain the medical staff would have already tried, and failed, to evict them from the room. Iruka himself felt out of place, like he was intruding on a family in crisis, so as much as he would have liked to hover himself, he left to fret in private.
Days passed. Iruka kept checking in on the comatose pair. There was always at least one of the jounin in attendance on Kakashi. He didn't stay for long when he visited - he continually felt like he was intruding. The jounin were the closest thing Kakashi had to family and as much as their expressions were controlled, he could feel how worried they were. He did manage to accumulate information over time, however, from whoever he found hovering in the room or from medical staff he extracted information from.
He discovered that it had taken a while for the jounin to even bring Kakashi to the hospital in the first place. After his initial examination they had taken him back to his own apartment, against medical advice, which was where Sasuke had learned that Itachi was in the village. Eventually however, it had become apparent that the effects of the Tsukuyomi weren't going to wear off any time soon, and it had become necessary to transfer him to the care of the hospital.
That didn't mean they intended to leave him alone at any point. However, in Konoha's undermanned state, the jounin were all needed to complete missions. Finally Iruka found Kakashi's room empty but for the one comatose occupant. Without the feeling of intruding where he didn't belong, he took the seat next to the bed and watched Kakashi breathing. He wasn't quite sure how the jounin was breathing so easily, since his mask was still firmly in place over his face. He was quite sure the jounin contingent would have threatened the hospital staff quite strongly if they had made any moves towards taking it off, and since Kakashi did indeed seem to be breathing comfortably, they wouldn't fought over the point.
Iruka had been thinking about the jounin group, and their behaviour. He'd never seen them so vigilant in their attendance of one of their own before. They had even tried to keep Kakashi away from the hospital. It was strange to see him on the receiving end of such protective actions. It made Iruka think about how young Kakashi really was, barely a couple of years older than himself, despite the vast difference in their experience.
"You have no idea, do you?" Iruka said eventually to the unconscious man. "You think you're an island, but you're not alone." He smiled wryly. "I don't know why you don't already know that. The jounin should have beaten some sense into you by now. But since they haven't, I'm going to, when you wake up. Although there won't be so much beating as me yelling at you. There's going to be a lot of yelling. You should be prepared for that."
He fell silent again and continued to sit quietly beside Kakashi's bedside, a hopeless, helpless feeling sitting uncomfortably under his skin. After a time Kurenai arrived at the room, and Iruka stood to leave.
"Iruka, you don't have to go," Kurenai said.
Iruka shook his head, "I don't want to intrude."
"You're not intruding," she replied looking at him with her intense red eyes. "You're one of us now."
"One of who?"
"His long suffering family," she replied, looking at the unconscious man.
"Oh, he doesn't like to acknowledge that he was one. His blood family are all gone, but I think you know as well as anybody that families aren't always linked through blood. He thinks it's much easier to do what he does, take the risks he does, if there isn't anyone who worries about him. So we pretend that we don't, for his sake. But we do. He puts himself in harm's way to make sure no one else has to. But sometimes even he needs rescue. Just don't point it out to him. He doesn't like it."
"That's stupid," Iruka said. "Everyone needs important people in their lives. Even him."
There was a pause from Kurenai, and then she said very softly, "They died."
"Everyone who was important to him. One by one they died, and he blames himself for not being able to prevent it. The last was the Fourth. He was only thirteen."
Iruka paused for a moment and thought about what she was saying. Then he nodded slightly and looked at the unconscious man. "He wants to protect everyone, and he tries to not feel anything. He doesn't want anyone else to go through what he's been through so he hides loneliness with kindness, sorrow with smiles, damage with wisdom. He's brave and he's self sacrificing, but he's stupid because he's missing the point. Everyone's burden is lighter when it's shared, and carrying someone else's burden weighs nothing." He looked back at Kurenai. "You shouldn't pretend for his sake. He's admitted that he needs to be reminded what he's fighting for. It will only make him stronger."
Kurenai looked at Iruka a moment and then spoke softly. "I want to tell you that we've known him since he was just a child, and you have no idea who you're talking about, but I'm starting to think you understand him better than any of us." She looked at him penetratingly and Iruka resisted the urge to squirm. "After the Third died he retreated back behind the wall he built around his heart. Maybe you can break it down again."
Iruka blinked a couple of times. "I'm sorry, I really don't think I understand him better than any of you. I just think maybe he needs to have some sense beaten into him when he forgets what's important. I doubt I'm the best person to do that, although I do intend to yell at him when he wakes up."
"I suspect you're exactly the best person to do that," Kurenai replied, taking the seat next to Kakashi's bed.
Iruka left her to watch over the unconscious man.
Kakashi remained unconscious for some time. Kurenai must have said something to the others, because they made sure to make Iruka feel like he belonged when he stuck his head in the room. They all continued to keep Kakashi company, and sometimes there were more people in the room than in the jounin ready room. The hospital staff gave up trying to chase them out, and the hospital wasn't far from the ready room anyway so as long as they could be found it didn't really matter. As for Iruka, when there was no one there he used the time to mark his class' homework, since the Academy had reopened, but was able to satisfy his need to watch over the unconscious jounin.
Konoha was starting to depend upon his usefulness to a new level since the war, and he often had to cut classes short or cancel things he had intended to do. He felt a little neglectful towards his class, but he knew the situation was only temporary. He had known since Guy brought the unconscious Sasuke back to the village that Naruto was with the sannin, Jiraiya, who was also apparently the same perverted hermit who had been training him. What he hadn't known was what they were doing, but he knew almost immediately once they were successful.
They had been looking for the third of the sannin, Tsunade, and she had accepted the nomination to become the Fifth Hokage. Iruka was immediately pulled into helping to organise her inauguration once word of the Daimyo's approval had been received.
Tsunade was an extraordinary medical ninja, and no sooner had she met with the elders, Koumura and Kohara, than Naruto had dragged her off to the hospital. To the great relief of a great number of people, not the least of which was Iruka, she quickly brought Sasuke and Kakashi out of their comas. The jounin had all made themselves scarce before Kakashi regained consciousness, all except Guy who was more worried about Lee. As soon as Kakashi was awake, Guy dragged Tsunade to go assess his favourite student, who was still badly injured from his fight with Gaara.
Kurenai had been right about Kakashi. Iruka hadn't spent much time with him – awake at least – in what felt like months, so he hadn't been able to see how much he had retreated into his armour. As he understood things, if Guy hadn't shown up, there was a good chance Kakashi, Asuma and Kurenai would have been killed, defenseless against the genjutsu of Itachi. Kakashi seemed to blame himself. After waking he was declared mission-capable after only a very brief period of observation in hospital, and he became scarce as he was kept busy by the new Hokage. What Iruka did see of him showed no sign of the laid back Kakashi that had existed previously. He was like a machine, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the S-rank missions Tsunade was assigning him.
Iruka didn't know how to get through to him. He was barely pausing between missions, and Iruka was only catching glimpses of him. He didn't think the jounin were even seeing him very much as the missions Tsunade had him running were back to back solo missions, and he wasn't taking time to pause between. Iruka was worried. Tsunade was obviously confident in his physical ability to do what he was doing, but he wasn't coming back from Copy-nin mode. Iruka fretted that the longer he kept up his machine-like mission running, the greater chance there was of him staying that way long term.
And then Sasuke abandoned the village.
Kakashi wasn't in Konoha the night Sasuke left. He'd left that day for yet another mission, but when he heard the boy was gone he turned and ran straight back out again to go find him, returning only with Naruto. Genma and Raidou were severely injured in the wake of Sasuke leaving, having been returning to Konoha after a mission with Shizune and Iwashi, when they came across the Sound-nin escaping with the young Uchiha. Shikamaru, now a chuunin, Neji, Chouji, Kiba, Naruto, and Lee had been trying to to catch Sasuke and prevent him from leaving, but they too sustained injuries. The departure of Sasuke caused physical damage to a lot of people, and mental damage to a lot more. Naruto and Kakashi particularly took it hard. On top of everything else Kakashi was agonising over, this was going to only drive him further into himself.
Genma and Raidou were almost ready for release by the time he eventually paused in his non-stop missions and came to see how they were. Iruka happened to have dropped in to see them himself and had found both Asuma and Kurenai there, when the jounin let himself into the room, an unreadable expression on what was visible of his face.
The worry in Iruka's gut boiled up instantly and he exploded. He knew he was overreacting, that Sasuke's abandonment of the village, and Kakashi finding Naruto defeated and unconscious, and Naruto's own worry about Sasuke were all stacking on top of the worry he was feeling for Naruto and Sasuke and Kakashi himself, but he didn't care. He charged towards the jounin, who threw his hands up defensively in front of him, surprise appearing on his face, as he took a step backwards, looking uncertain.
"What the hell?" Iruka fumed.
"You've got to take better care of yourself! Don't you know people worry about you?"
"About me? No, they don't." Kakashi scoffed.
"First of all they do, and second of all you are wrong. It might be the first time since you were thirteen but you are just going to have to get used to it. "
"People don't need to worry about me. I can take care of myself."
"Clearly you can't because you've retreated from all the people you try to tell yourself you don't care about. You're forgetting what you're fighting for, Kakashi. You're fighting for everyone in this room. You're fighting for the kids. You're fighting for the people of this village. And you need to remember that all of those people care what happens to you - whether you like it or not."
He glared at Kakashi and continued, "When you were unconscious there was almost always someone by your bed. The jounin ready room? Gathering dust! Whenever anyone wasn't on a mission, they were in your room! No one even bothered looking for them in the ready room, they were never there!"
Kakashi looked at the other jounin who found somewhere else to be looking.
"And did you not think people were worried about you when you were off training Sasuke? Ever think it might have been nice to tell someone where you went?"
"I know people were worried about Sasuke. I didn't know he hadn't told anyone he..."
"YOU! Not Sasuke," Iruka cut in angrily. "People were worried about Sasuke of course, but they were also worried... about... YOU! You might think you're invulnerable but who knew the Third would die fighting Orochimaru? That Hayate would die when he wasn't even on a mission? That Itachi might be better at the Sharingan than you are?"
Kakashi looked like he was going to protest, and then thought the better of it.
"You can't do everything yourself, no matter how much you think you can. I know you think it's your job to look after everyone in this village, but you know what? It's our job to look after you too. People care about you, and you need to stop denying that they do and denying that you care about them as well. You think that letting people in will take your edge, but it makes you stronger. You can stare down death all you want to, but it's far better to do so with something to live for."
Iruka indicated all of the room's occupants and included them in his tirade. "All of you jounin would do well to remember that you don't need to be so stoic all the time. This is your family and it's okay to need each other. You take the whole 'shouldn't show emotions' thing beyond the level you need to most of the time. The biggest difference between you lot and me isn't our power levels, it's that I don't believe in your crap!"
He turned back to Kakashi with a glower and gripped the front of his shirt with both hands, pulling him forward until their foreheads were practically touching. He intended to lecture him some more, but he was assailed by an almost irresistible urge, the intensity of which caused him to recoil back in surprise. He released Kakashi's flak jacket like it was making his hands burn, and blushed furiously. Kakashi continued to watch him, silently. Iruka looked around at the other jounin. They were also watching him, looking somewhat abashed.
"So what have you to say for yourself?" Iruka said crossly to Kakashi, hoping everyone would attribute the flush to his temper.
Kakashi looked at him for a moment and then said quite calmly, "I was wrong."
"What?" Genma yelped.
"I was wrong," Kakashi repeated. "Iruka's right, I have been forgetting what's important."
"That's right," Iruka said, poking him in the chest with a finger. "So start letting people back in. Now, if you don't mind, I have a class of pre-genin to teach. Hopefully they are less troublesome than certain jounin."
"Damn, Iruka," Genma said with admiration colouring his voice, "you're something else."
"I know," Iruka said, stepping out of the room and closing the door behind him. Once out of the sight of a roomful of elite jounin, he leaned heavily against the wall.
He had had to get away quickly. He had wanted. To kiss. Kakashi.
It had been overwhelming. He wondered if he would have stopped himself, if the other jounin hadn't been there. His legs were shaking. He thought about it for a long moment.
He really, really wanted to kiss Kakashi.
Oh, damn. How had he not realised this before?
Sure, he knew he had a bit of a crush on him, he wasn't stupid, but he hadn't realised just how muchhe liked him. The only other time he'd really felt attracted to someone else, it had been his ANBU, and that had been the rapid obsessive crush of a teenager. This, this had been developing, slowly over time, so he hadn't even realised just how much he liked him. Kakashi wasn't someone Iruka should have feelings for, not these kinds of feelings anyway. He could think of a lot of reasons why not. Kakashi was Naruto's sensei. He was at the top of Konoha's strata. He was famous and feared. He was... sexy as hell. Iruka covered his eyes with his hand and groaned softly.
He let himself think about it now. The warm feeling in his belly that he had become accustomed to whenever Kakashi was around unfurled and radiated out and made his skin tingle. As he thought about him he realised he didn't just want to kiss him. He wanted to push him up against a wall and run his hands over the warm flesh of his chest. He wanted to pull his mask down and stick his tongue down his throat. He wanted to take him in his mouth and watch that face as he came. He wanted to do very, very bad things to him.
He took a deep breath and looked behind himself, worried one of the jounin might come through the door. He hurried down the corridor, lost in his self realisation.
He had to stop thinking about Kakashi. He had a class to teach, and he wasn't prepared to have any kind of conversation with them about why he wasn't able to stand up at the front of the room.
This was not good.
Iruka was glad that Konoha was so busy. It was going to take some time before the village regained the strength that it had lost, although the repairs were under control. That it needed to be so busy due to the tragic circumstances of recent history was a terrible thing, but in this particular moment it was working in his favour. All the jounin and chuunin were needed to complete missions, to keep up Konoha's military strength. Including Iruka.
To his relief, Shikamaru had been assigned to the Academy and was taking on some of his classes when he wasn't available, which in the current situation was quite often. His role as an instructor was important to him, and ensuring Konoha's future was being properly trained was of paramount importance to him, so he was glad that his pre-genin weren't being neglected.
But the requirement for so many shinobi to be out on missions, including himself, offered him a great deal of relief. He had some time to pull himself together, away from the observant gazes of a particular group of jounin. He didn't want to avoid said jounin, he was enjoying developing his relationships with them after all, but he needed just a little time out from under their radar. The feelings he had finally acknowledged he held towards Kakashi were... inconvenient to say the least. He wished he'd had his epiphany away from such observant witnesses, but since he hadn't, he wanted to provide nothing to make them think his behaviour was due to anything but his fit of temper. What had transpired in the hospital room would be less suspicious in retrospect if he was able to keep it together. With just a bit of space to breathe he was confident he could remember how to be around Kakashi, without the extreme awareness of the other man he was currently experiencing reflecting in his actions.
Fortunately, as time passed, he had no indication from the jounin that they were aware of the way he felt. No one was offering sly comments, or giving him assessing looks or anything that might lead him to believe they were suspicious of his feelings. In general, in fact, the jounin contingent were treating him more and more like one of them and he began to feel more relaxed around them.
With, of course, the exception of Kakashi.
Iruka couldn't relax around him at all. Not only because he was aware of his feelings, and was determined to keep them hidden, but also because his body apparently had different ideas. Whenever he came across the other man, there was that surge of warmth, originating from deep in his belly, and he kept needing to clench his hands together to remind himself to control his behaviour.
At least he wasn't coming across Kakashi all that often. Or was that bad? He ached to see him, now he was cognisant of himself, but he needed to not see him, so that made it good. Iruka ran his hand over his eyes. Truly, convenient that people weren't paying him much attention. He knew how oddly he was behaving at various points. He looked up and saw Anko watching him thoughtfully. He squeezed his temples as if he had a headache, which truth be told he felt like he was going to develop any moment now, and concentrated on what he was doing.
At least he was content that his tirade towards Kakashi had indeed had the intended effect. He barely saw him, afterwards, since Kakashi was still running mission after mission as assigned by the new Hokage, but there was a lightness to him that had been missing. The other jounin seemed lighter as well, like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders.
Iruka knew that Kakashi was still unhappy about what had transpired with Sasuke, and that he felt responsible. Apparently he'd literally tied Sasuke to a tree at one point and given him a lecture, but his words hadn't penetrated Sasuke's need for revenge. Iruka didn't see him long enough to try and pry the guilt out of him, but he could understand how he felt. Sasuke had turned his back on his village, on his friends and comrades to chase after power.
It was just like Mizuki.
Iruka had never really put Mizuki out of his mind. They had grown up together, had trained together, had worked towards becoming Academy instructors together. Mizuki was one of his oldest friends, and even though he had tried to kill him, Iruka couldn't bring himself to hate him. He wished he had known what he could have done differently. So he could completely understand the second guessing he knew that Kakashi was currently subjecting himself to.
Iruka's guilt over what he saw as his failure with Mizuki was somewhat appeased by having been successful in the task asked of him by Kakashi himself, and the Third. He might now have a heart that hammered when he even caught a glimpse of Kakashi, but he was satisfied that he had been able to be that voice that reminded the other man what was important, before he became lost.
Now Iruka just had to deal with his own problem, before he became lost in the almost dizzying flood of want that kept catching him by surprise.
It was just as well that everyone was busy.
As days passed, the altered structure of Konoha began to feel routine. Shinobi began to joke more with each other between missions, which meant Iruka found himself on the receiving end of jounin intentionally seeing if they could either fluster him or make him throw things at them, just because he was well known for his short fuse. He quite enjoyed complying with the latter. It was part of what made him a good schoolteacher.
Just as he was starting to feel a little complacent, he was assigned a mission he would never have anticipated. As a result of it, he came to appreciate his own physical and mental strengths, and came to understand the way Kakashi thought when he was embracing the Copy-nin, just a little more.
Iruka had completed a mission, and had come across a fleeing man wearing the uniform of a prisoner from the high security shinobi prison. He had captured the man, and handed him over on his arrival back in Konoha, then presented himself directly to the Fifth to inform her of his mission's completion. Upon opening the door he had discovered she wasn't alone; both she and Kakashi turned to look at him as he entered. His heart started the hammering, and the surge or warmth in his belly appeared, but he managed not to blush.
He tried to retreat with apologies, but Tsunade called him in. Before he knew what was going on, Kakashi had taken him by the hand, causing his skin to tingle and his stomach to flip, and while he was still trying to control the riot of emotions he felt, Kakashi summoned his ninken pug into Iruka's palm.
"Yo, youngster," Pakkun greeted him.
"It seems neither of us will be getting much rest for a while, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said, vanishing. Iruka was somewhat overwhelmed by everything; being in the presence of the new Hokage, of Kakashi, of his bodily reactions, the warm pug he was holding. It was all a bit too much, for just a moment.
"Iruka, I have a mission for you," Tsunade said, and Iruka grabbed on to her words like a drowning man and brought himself into focus.
She filled him in with what Kakashi had already known when he had summoned a ninken for Iruka. The high security prison had suffered a major break out and Iruka's captured prisoner was just one of a vast number of escapees. All the guards had been captured or injured, including Kotetsu and Izumo, all the prisoners escaped. Before they had known the extent of the break out, she had sent Asuma and Kurenai to get it under control, but it had proven too much even for them. They had joined Kotetsu and Izumo in needing to be hospitalised.
The village was mobilising all available shinobi immediately to catch the prisoners before they got too far. Iruka's task was slightly more specific; Ton Ton had returned to the village in a fluster, Shizune injured, and Naruto hot on her heels. What Tsunade requested of Iruka was that he track down Naruto, then to help him find Shizune and recapture her target... Mizuki.
Tsunade didn't share a lot of further information except to warn him to take care. Mizuki seemed to be a major player in the events playing out.
Iruka accepted the mission, but his thoughts were in turmoil. As he ran with Pakkun on Naruto's trail, he desperately tried to organise his thoughts and calm his emotions.
He was worried about the injured. He had had just about enough of seeing people he cared about in the hospital. At least Tsunade had assured him that Izumo, Kotetsu, Kurenai and Asuma all would be all right - in time.
He was uncomfortable with seeing Mizuki. That wasn't really a great stretch, since Mizuki had tried to kill him. Iruka hadn't been allowed to see him in the year since he was imprisoned and that had been both relieving and guilt raising at the same time. He felt like a bad person for being relieved that the decision was out of his hands. The truth was that while Mizuki had been a good friend to him over the years, even Iruka didn't get over someone trying to kill him, or one of his precious students, that easily.
And now Mizuki was apparently involved in the prison break out? Iruka found that hard to believe and had his doubts about Tsunade's intel. Mizuki might have a degree of deviousness to him, evident in his manipulation of Naruto to steal the forbidden scroll for him, but orchestrating a prison break out just seemed beyond his scope.
He had been hoping that with a bit of rehabilitation, maybe Mizuki might come to his senses, atone and return to being a productive member of Konoha society. He had grown up there! How could he harbour ill intent towards the village and the villagers? Iruka was getting a sinking feeling, however, that Mizuki hadn't reformed at all, given the current circumstances.
At least Iruka's worrying about his injured friends and his having to capture his former friend was distracting his thoughts from Kakashi. The way his skin had tingled and his stomach had flipped when the other man had taken his hand. It was lingering even as he ran, possibly fuelled by the comment Kakashi had left him with. Had he intended it to sound like a double entendre? Iruka flushed a little. He couldn't have, it was Iruka's besotted brain creating something out of nothing.
He found Naruto and Ton Ton without too much difficulty. Ton Ton returned to the village, and the three continued on Shizune and Mizuki's trail. Not too long later they found Shizune, unconscious, but not badly injured. She was able to immediately join them on the trail of the prisoners. Iruka's suspicions arose when she told them her team mates had continued on without her - she wasn't injured enough to stay behind. Something smelled off. Her behaviour continued to not sit right with him and when Shizune was revealed to be, in fact, Mizuki, disguised with a jutsu, he wasn't as surprised as Mizuki had intended him to be.
What did surprise him, however, was that quickly in the ensuing conflict he realised that Mizuki wasn't remorseful in the slightest. He wanted power and power alone and appeared to be completely willing to betray his village on his quest for power. Iruka felt nauseated when he realised that not only was Mizuki not the person he had known any more – he never had been.
Mizuki had long ago embraced the darkness within him. He had spent their life together practising deceit on Iruka, on Konoha. He wasn't repentant in any way. He felt victimised, that he had been under appreciated, and had had to fight for everything. He was jealous of what he saw of Iruka, weaker than he, being held in everyone's favour just for being Iruka. And while he had at first enjoyed watching Iruka in his pain after his parent's deaths, as Iruka had embraced and been embraced by the village, Mizuki had let his resentment burn. He never let the village become part of him. He wanted to destroy Iruka, as an example of caring about people being a weakness. He wanted revenge on Naruto, the Academy failure who had prevented him from stealing the forbidden scroll. He wanted revenge on the village that had held him back even though, or even because he was willing to do whatever it took to complete his missions. Everyone was just an obstacle to be removed, his fiancee, his friends, his comrades. He had no remorse.
And Iruka had no pity.
Even having had Mizuki try to kill him, even as Mizuki tried to kill him now, he had harboured a small hope that he could be saved, that he would weigh his comrades and his home above power. Finally the scales fell from Iruka's eyes. There was no hope for the man he thought he had known, but never had. As the truth of Mizuki sank in, all the emotions he had held towards the other man left him, and he realised the only feeling he had left towards his former friend... was coldness.
It gave him more respect for Kakashi. All that power at his disposal, and all he ever did was whatever he could for everyone else. The kind of person who was willing to make sacrifices for others. Iruka knew how he felt, in that regards, and embraced the coldness within, the absence of emotion, just as Kakashi would have done, focussing on stopping Mizuki so he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone again, no matter what.
He didn't anticipate Naruto's role in the fight. Mizuki had spent the past year making himself stronger, and then used forbidden techniques of Orochimaru's to make himself yet stronger, but Naruto was outstripping him just from growing up. Iruka had always known he himself was weaker than Mizuki, but he still had his ability to out think the other man, to scheme. He was glad for the work he had put in to learning barrier techniques as he ground Mizuki to a halt, but it was the Rasengan that his student used that finally brought him down. His student, the Academy failure, using the Fourth's technique. Together they stopped Mizuki, enhanced powers and all, and then the power of Orochimaru's imperfect medicine stripped Mizuki not only of his enhancement, but then of his own strength, that which he had fought so hard to achieve.
As Mizuki lay under the care of medics, reduced to frailty and still railing against the world, Iruka felt nothing for him. Mizuki had thrown away the right to earn Iruka's pity as he had thrown away his right to his respect. Iruka realised, growing up, how important it had been to him that he was liked. Mizuki's opinion of him had mattered so much. But now, now Mizuki's bitter words meant nothing. He realised that he liked and approved of himself, and had people in his life who liked him for who he was.
He felt warmth towards Naruto. Mizuki had felt like he had had such hardships to overcome, but Naruto had had so much more and here he was, still kind, still hopeful. Still trying to do the best he could for the people he cared about, for the village he called home.
Just like Kakashi.
People like Mizuki... just weren't that important and Iruka turned away. He just wanted to go home. To Konoha. To his bright eyed pre-genin, wanting to take their place in the village. To ramen at Ichiraku's with his former students who had taken their place, and were growing every day. To the jounin who treated Iruka as valuable for his strengths, not as irrelevant for his weaknesses. He wanted to go home to Kakashi, who, like Naruto, maintained Iruka's faith in humanity.
Before he vanished, Pakkun tilted his head to one side and said to Iruka, "You're different."
A lot had changed in Iruka's life since the last time the ninken had seen him and he said as much.
"It's good," Pakkun said. "I was a bit worried, but I've reconsidered. You'll do," and enigmatically he disappeared.
Iruka rolled his eyes. Like master, like ninken. What on earth was that supposed to mean?
Arriving back in Konoha, Kakashi was nowhere to be seen, still out on the mission Tsunade had sent him on. He was right about not getting much rest. She really was working him hard.
Iruka wanted to see him. Even if it was just to see him, from a distance. Kakashi tried to stay as unobtrusive as he could, most of the time, but Iruka felt like he filled the room with his presence. He wanted to breathe that in. He just wanted to be nearby. He wanted to hear his liquid voice.
He felt the need to be busy, instead of pining to see a person he couldn't even let know how he felt. The administrative side of Konoha was suffering from neglect. Tsunade was personally handling so many of the missions and the paperwork was beginning to pile up. She had Shizune as her assistant, and had taken to Kotetsu and Izumo in that light as well, but now all three of them were injured and in the hospital. Tsunade had demanded Iruka also get checked out by the hospital, but unlike the others, his wounds were superficial.
Leaving the hospital he went straight to Tsunade's office. He tapped softly on her door, and on being admitted entrance, politely asked if he could be of any help. Tsunade eyed him thoughtfully, and then he had walked out with an armload of paperwork. Both of them had smiles on their faces. Tsunade appeared to hate paperwork, wheras Iruka found it strangely satisfying.
He returned to the mission desk so he could help keep lower level missions flowing while he worked through the piles Tsunade had given him. But whenever someone entered the room, he couldn't stop himself looking up, to see who it was. He tried to tell himself he was relearning who the shinobi still active in Konoha were. He was really just always hoping it was Kakashi. He felt eyes on him, and saw that Anko was watching him curiously again. He stopped reacting every time the door slid open. It took a lot of focus, but he managed.
Suddenly an ANBU was standing in front of him. Typical of ANBU one moment there was empty space, the next that space was filled with a cat-masked man giving orders. "Come with me," the ANBU said.
Iruka looked up at him, startled. "What is it, what have I done?"
"You haven't done anything," the ANBU answered, "it's Kakashi. Bring that," he said indicating Iruka's paperwork.
Butterflies in his stomach, Iruka stood, the chair scraping noisily along the ground as his legs pushed it back. The ANBU turned and Iruka hastily gathered up his papers and followed.
The ANBU led him to the Interrogation headquarters. Iruka couldn't stop the slight hesitation in his step as he crossed the threshold. This wasn't really anywhere he had ever intended going. The place was austere and intimidating. He felt nervous just being here. He felt a certain dread, wondering why he was being brought here in regards to Kakashi. If he hadn't done something, had Kakashi? And what did it have to do with him?
The ANBU led him down a few corridors, past a few people who looked at Iruka, and then let their eyes slide away. Eventually the ANBU led him through a door at the end of a long empty corridor.
As he entered the room, it felt somewhat like he was in the hospital. The room was hospital white. There were machines and instruments and a pair of cots that looked about as comfortable as the ones in the hospital. One was occupied by Kakashi, who was lying with his eyes closed. He wasn't wearing his usual long sleeve shirt, but the sleeveless one he had on still included a mask that covered his face. His right arm was swathed in bandages from shoulder to fingertips. The left arm looked fine although the crook of his elbow bore the evidence of venupuncture marks and a drip line was feeding into the back of his hand.
Iruka's stomach rose into his mouth. What was going on? Kakashi was clearly injured. Why wasn't he in the hospital? Why was he attached to machines in an isolated room in the Interrogation headquarters? Why were ANBU watching over him? Was Kakashi even conscious? A dozen questions and worries leapt into his mind. He wanted to go to Kakashi's side, but he felt frozen in place by the intimidating environment he found himself in, and the presence of the ANBU.
He heard the door close behind him and jumped a bit, turning to see a second ANBU, who must have been standing against the back wall when he entered.
"I brought him... Kakashi-san, " the first ANBU said, a slight hesitation in the way he addressed Kakashi, like he'd been about to say something else.
Kakashi's eye opened. He looked a bit vague and then he focussed on the ANBU and then Iruka. "Iruka," Kakashi said with a small smile, "I need your help."
A wave of relief swept through Iruka. He still didn't know what was going on, but Kakashi didn't seem to be in any kind of trouble. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kakashi forestalled him by lifting his hand a few inches, bending from the wrist. His arm never left the bed as if doing so would take too much strength.
"Before you ask anything," Kakashi said, "before I say anything more, I need you to be clear on one very important thing; you can't ask me any questions until I'm done explaining. Not a single one."
Iruka closed his mouth, looked at the ANBU next to him and then back at Kakashi. He nodded silently. What had the damn jounin gone and done this time?
"I'm afraid I got myself in a bit of trouble on my last mission," Kakashi said a bit ruefullly. "I'm injured – not terribly," he added quickly, and Iruka wondered exactly what expression was on his face that made the jounin do that, "but enough that I need medical assistance." He looked at the drip line running from his hand for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Iruka waited for him to keep speaking.
"The problem is..." Kakashi continued, looking back at Iruka, "I let my guard down. I thought I'd dodged an explosive tag sufficiently, and I didn't take any damage, but its explosive property was only part of its function. It was designed to release an inhalational drug with the explosion... and that I didn't avoid. It slowed me down, for one, but it had a second effect which has caused the complication." He clenched his hand. "Apparently it functions as a kind of truth serum and I can't stop myself answering questions directed at me with complete honesty."
Iruka's eyebrows shot up and he couldn't stop himself releasing a surprised,"Oh."
Kakashi smiled humourlessly. "Unfortunately for them, even slowed down I was too much to handle, and what information they extracted from me they took with them to their graves." His countenance relaxed. "The trouble is that the effects are yet to wear off and I'm still inclined to tell the whole truth when questioned. And I know too much."
Iruka frowned and nodded his acknowledgement of the statement.
"I'm not sure if you are aware of what happened recently with Yakushi Kabuto?"
Iruka shook his head in the negative a fraction.
"Kabuto was one of our genin who took part in the recent chuunin exams. He's the one that took the option to retire at the beginning of the preliminaries."
Iruka remembered who Kakashi meant. One of the older genin he hadn't had much to do with beyond accepting team mission reports. "Right."
"The thing is that turns out that Kabuto was a spy, working for Orochimaru, and he was a lot more powerful than he appeared. He was pretending to be an ordinary genin, but he was strong enough to take out three ANBU I had stationed watching over Sasuke, and gave me a bit of trouble."
Iruka glanced at the ANBU beside him who nodded sharply. Someone gave Kakashi trouble? Worse than that, if this genin had been strong enough to take out three ANBU he was fairly certain 'a bit of trouble' didn't do the situation justice.
"Anyway, the point is that while he mightn't have been born in Konoha, he was brought in and raised as one of our own. We thought he was loyal to Konoha... but apparently not. We had someone living within our walls who was working for the enemy, and we can't be certain there isn't someone else doing the same. Not surprisingly we're feeling a bit paranoid about the possibility, considering what the village has been through recently, and we need to make sure that enemy agents don't get access to high level information. Which brings this back to me, because there's a lot of high level information in my head. Someone needs to stay with me at all times until this drug wears off, someone that can be trusted, so no one has access to that information."
"But, the ANBU..." Iruka said, feeling a bit frantic as his intended role became clear.
"Are needed – desperately – elsewhere. I know you know how weakened Konoha is at the moment, we need our ANBU out on missions." Kakashi shrugged fractionally. "I've been examined. The medics seem to think the serum will be out of my system in under 24 hours, but in the meantime I can't stop myself answering honestly any question put to me. This room was built for enemy shinobi requiring high security, but medical attention. I should be safe here from anyone who might abuse my current state, but I can't just be completely isolated. Medical staff need access to me, and there are the people who work in this building. I'd like to be able to trust them, but there are reasons why we can't take the risk."
"I..." Iruka shifted a bit on his feet and glanced at the cat-masked ANBU.
"You, on the other hand," the cat-masked ANBU said, "have already proven your discretion in a situation not entirely unlike this. We know you saved and cared for an ANBU when you were younger and he and the Third both gave you high praise for your ability to refrain from asking things you weren't supposed to know."
Iruka blinked. He hadn't expected the ANBU to really pay any attention to who he was, or remember what he had done when he was fifteen. He turned back to Kakashi, at a loss for words.
"I trust you," Kakashi said. "The ANBU trust you. The Third trusted you. Tsunade is more than happy to go with our judgement on this." He smiled wryly and indicated towards the paperwork Iruka was still holding with a nod of his head. "Plus she already seems to be happy to throw paperwork at you she should be doing herself. She must have confidence in what she's seen even without our recommendations."
Iruka felt a bit overwhelmed.
Kakashi offered another small smile. "All you need to do is stay with me until the drug wears off, and not ask me any inappropriate questions about people, or missions, or Konoha... or about me."
He fell silent and gave Iruka a moment to think. Being alone. With Kakashi. For hours. He didn't know whether to listen to the excited part of himself that was humming like a live cable, or the terrified part that wanted to run away as fast as he could.
Slowly he nodded, "Okay." It was ironic, really, that Kakashi needed him to stay with him because he was afraid what he could reveal against his wishes, and Iruka was afraid to be with Kakashi because of what he might reveal against his wishes. "I can do that."
"Good," Kakashi replied. He looked at the ANBU. "Go."
The two ANBU vanished without a further word.
Iruka was thinking of the wisdom behind 'be careful what you wish for.' He'd wanted to be around Kakashi, to breathe in his presence, to listen to his voice. He had what he wanted, but in a way he hadn't even considered. He felt like a thirsty man who instead of receiving a glass of water to drink, was thrown into the middle of a lake.
"Sorry to do this to you," Kakashi said. "It will be hard to really converse even, since you can't ask many questions. Although you can, as long as you think about it first and make sure it's safe."
"Are you hungry?" Iruka asked after a pause.
Kakashi smiled, "No."
"Good. I have no idea where I'd find food in here."
Kakashi chuckled. "Pretty sure you won't find any. The people normally kept in this room don't need to be able to get something when they're hungry. I haven't looked in the other room myself though, but I expect it's just a bathroom."
Iruka looked around the space they were in, and Kakashi closed his eyes and rested his head back while he did. The main room just consisted of the two cots, the one Iruka would be able to use if he needed to was closer to the lockable door. There were pieces of medical equipment, but no cupboards or storage units of any description. The second room to which Kakashi was referring was to the side of the cot that he was in. Iruka looked in and confirmed that it was indeed just a small bathroom containing a shower, a sink and a toilet. A thought occurred to him, and he turned back to the main room.
Then he paused.
From this side he had a clear view of Kakashi's left arm. His uncovered shoulder bore the distinctive red tattoo of the ANBU. Iruka blinked a couple of times as he let that information settle into his brain. And then he resisted the urge to snort. It made perfect sense. Of course Kakashi had been ANBU at some point. Or still was? He didn't really know how the ANBU operated. Did you retire from the ANBU or was it once an ANBU, always an ANBU? Kakashi still clearly had some kind of relationship to them; he gave them orders, and it apparently was of importance that the ANBU trusted Iruka, although that could simply be because he was a high ranking jounin and his ANBU history irrelevant.
Kakashi's head turned towards him, and his eyes opened. Hastily Iruka voiced his earlier thought, before the jounin thought that he'd had been staring at him. Which, to be fair, he had. Well, the perfect curve of his triceps anyway.
"I've been thinking," Iruka said, taking care with the inflection of his voice. "In a normal situation, I'd ask you if you needed anything." He watched Kakashi carefully.
Kakashi looked at him for a moment and then broke into a smile as he replied. "You, Umino Iruka, are a very clever man."
Iruka smiled slowly back at him, "I've always suspected as much."
"And no, I don't need anything - although I am glad for intelligent company. Perhaps we'll be able to converse more than I expected."
Iruka shrugged. "I don't know how many questions you'd be inclined to answer anyway. You've spent most of your life being an enigma. Not answering questions strikes me as being fairly second nature to you. Most of what I know about you I know by reputation and I wouldn't even know what is inappropriate to ask you about. And that's okay!" he said hastily, worried that what he was saying might sound critical, "What I'm really trying to say is that I'm glad you can easily not answer, or edit, anything I shouldn't know about, or even you just don't want to talk about."
Kakashi offered a small shrug. "It's convenient most of the time, being an enigma, since I don't really like talking about myself. And since just about everyone I spend time with on a personal level watched me grow up, they don't need to ask questions."
"It's okay," Iruka replied. "I already know everything that's important. You're a good person who cares about people and has sacrificed more than I'll ever understand. Everything else is just stories."
Kakashi watched him for a moment, considering, and then asked quietly, "Do you want me to tell you one?"
Iruka shook his head, "Honestly, I'm not angling to make you share anything with me you don't want to. I mean it when I say I understand."
"And that's why I'm offering. You make me want to tell you something." Iruka's heart did a little skip. "I can tell there's something I've said to you that you want to know, but are afraid to ask," Kakashi said. "So ask."
"Well," Iruka paused and looked at his hands.
"Go on," Kakashi said. "If I don't want to tell you I won't."
Iruka looked up and with his heart thumping nervously said, "You said to me once that you got your best friend killed." He didn't really expect Kakashi to tell him what happened.
But to his surprise, he did.
Quietly, somewhat haltingly, and with a lot of self loathing evident in his voice at points, Kakashi told him about the battle of Kannabi Bridge. Iruka had heard of the mission, it was a famous event for Konoha in the Third Great Ninja War.
The version Iruka knew was so empty. He had known the four man team, which had included the Fourth, had been involved in what was a conflict with heavy odds. The mission was considered a great success, not only because they achieved their goals, but also because they only lost one member doing so. It was completely different when you learned who that member was as a person, what he meant to the person telling the story. How he had come to die.
Through Kakashi's pained words, Iruka learned a lot about who Kakashi was, what made him the way he was both as a person and as a shinobi. Kakashi couldn't properly explain why he had behaved the way he had without also telling Iruka what had happened with his father, White Fang. In order to tell both stories, Kakashi had to unlock the pain that was inside him, and Iruka could feel it, like a weight. Kurenai had said that everyone important to Kakashi had died, and in these moments, Iruka experienced the deaths of two of them through Kakashi's eyes.
And Kakashi's eyes also became relevant to why the jounin struggled so much to let it go. It is one thing to forgive yourself your mistakes and to move on as Iruka always tried to do. It was another when every single day of your life you were reminded of those mistakes. The Sharingan eye that Kakashi utilised to such great efficacy came to him out of the tragedy, and whether he used it or kept it hidden, his eyes were always with him, the reminder always present so he could never manage to let Obito go.
As Kakashi fell silent, he continued to watch Iruka. Iruka felt that he was expecting to be judged as harshly as he clearly judged himself. But what Iruka wanted to do was to pull him into his arms, so that even for a moment he felt safe, and appreciated, and loved. And forgiven.
But that would be weird. So he just smiled understandingly at him, at a loss for words. And then he decided he didn't care if it was weird, and did exactly what he had wanted to, and wrapped his arms around Kakashi and hugged him. At first Kakashi was stiff, but then he relaxed and let his head fall forward onto Iruka's shoulder. Iruka's heart fluttered like a trapped bird in his chest. He worried that Kakashi would be able to feel it and he really should release the other man... but he didn't want to and Kakashi wasn't pulling away.
The decision was taken away from him when there was a tapping at the door. Kakashi's head lifted from Iruka's shoulder, and Iruka gently sat back. He smiled at the jounin, feeling a bit awkward and then crossed over to the door. Checking through the spy hole, he could see that it was a medical-nin.
"Medic," he said to Kakashi who nodded. Iruka let the medic in, and locked the door behind him again.
The medical-nin opened his mouth to speak. "No questions," Kakashi said.
The medical-nin glared at him and then looked at Iruka. "I need to ask questions. How can I assess a patient without asking him questions?"
"How do you assess someone in a coma?" Iruka responded.
"It's not the same!" The medic protested. "He's not in a coma."
"What do you want to ask?" Iruka queried.
"Well, first of all, how he's feeling is always relevant to a medical assessment and isn't a state secret!" the medic snapped. Iruka resisted the urge to smile.
"Tired," Kakashi said from his bed, "mostly. Weaker than I'm comfortable with. And not just a little embarrassed to be in this situation in the first place."
The medic stared at him and then looked back at Iruka who shrugged.
Via Iruka the medic asked his questions, checked the readings on the instruments Kakashi was attached to, drew some more blood and checked the jounin's vitals. He was somewhat abrupt, and a little testy at needing to use Iruka as a conduit, but he seemed fascinated by Kakashi's condition and easily distracted by his own thoughts. Eventually he seemed to have gathered as much information as he needed, and Iruka let him out the door again.
"He needs to sleep," the medic said sternly. "Don't keep him awake because you're bored."
Iruka resisted the urge to glare at the medic, and instead tilted his head towards the papers sitting on the second cot. "I've got plenty to keep me occupied. He can have all the sleep he needs."
"Hn," the medic sniffed and headed down the corridor.
Iruka smiled as he closed and locked the door.
"I don't think he likes you very much, Iruka," Kakashi said. "He seems to be under the impression you're going to keep me up all night."
Iruka was glad he was still facing the door as a blush hit his cheeks full force. He paused a moment and then turned around to fire a glare at Kakashi, but Kakashi had already closed his eyes.
Iruka relaxed his glare, and resisted the urge to sigh. He didn't think Kakashi had any idea that he kept saying things that sounded so suggestive. He took a breath, and wished that he could just indulge and watch Kakashi sleep, but he wasn't certain the other man even was asleep yet and he could guarantee he'd feel Iruka's eyes on him if he wasn't. Besides he had a lot of paperwork to do. He settled himself on the other cot, and started working on the paperwork he'd gotten from Tsunade.
Kakashi woke up again later when the medic came back, bringing them both a meal. He fussed over Kakashi some more, looked down his nose at Iruka, but seemed content that Iruka wasn't doing anything to compromise the jounin's recovery.
Kakashi didn't stay awake for long and Iruka wondered if the medic had given him something to make him sleep.
Eventually Iruka grew tired himself, and curled up into bed and fell asleep, listening to the sounds of Kakashi's breathing, and the mechanical whirr of the fluid pump.
He awoke during the night when the sounds changed. He was groggy when he first came to, and it took him a moment to realise that he'd awoken because Kakashi was restless, muttering something under his breath. Iruka sat up and swung his legs over the side of his cot.
"Kakashi, what is it? What do you need?" he asked, without thinking about his phrasing.
"You," Kakashi answered clearly, and fell to stillness.
Iruka came completely awake as his heart jumped in his chest. Kakashi stayed motionless, and silent. Iruka slid off the cot and approached him. He was fast asleep. Iruka could feel a flush on his cheeks. That can't have meant what it sounded like. He stood and watched Kakashi sleep for a moment, his breathing deep and even through the mask covering his face. How that was comfortable Iruka couldn't imagine, but Kakashi was clearly used to it though after twenty odd years. Kakashi's eyes fluttered open and Iruka took a guilty step back in his surprise, his pulse escalating.
"Iruka?" Kakashi said coming instantly alert, sleeping medications or not. "What is it?"
"You were restless," Iruka explained hastily. "I thought you were awake and needed something."
"Oh. I guess I was dreaming. I don't remember." Kakashi closed his eyes tiredly and then opened them again and looked at Iruka. "Sorry that I woke you."
"Don't worry about it," Iruka replied, feeling his racing heart beat slow back down again. "Actually, it's kind of flattering that you've been sleeping with me here in the first place. That ANBU I helped, I remember him saying that no ANBU sleeps well around someone who isn't another ANBU. I'm sure that's not something that's easy to get over." It was the only thing he ever intended to say about his recognition that Kakashi had been, or still was, an ANBU.
Kakashi looked at him for a long moment and then replied, "No, it's not."
Iruka smiled. "I'm sorry that I woke you. Go back to sleep." Kakashi's eyes closed and Iruka climbed back into his cot. It took awhile to fall back asleep. His heart rate was closer to normal, but it was still being driven up by adrenaline. Was it coincidence that Kakashi answered Iruka's question or was he actually answering Iruka? What had he been dreaming about when Iruka asked? He had no idea what it meant, if anything. He fell asleep allowing the besotted part of him believe that the jounin had been answering him. Even though the realistic side of him knew that wouldn't be the case. He was in bed, he could allow himself to dream.
In the morning when he awoke he found Kakashi already awake and beaming at him happily.
"I feel different. Ask me a question!"
Iruka looked at him a bit blearily. "Good morning, Kakashi," he replied, giving himself a moment to wake up. "Are you always this perky in the morning?"
"I normally keep my perkiness well suppressed behind a facade of lacksadaisical laziness. It helps add to my mystique."
"Well that was hardly a straight response, so I guess the drug is gone. Now you just have to get over... whatever else is wrong with you."
Kakashi raised an eyebrow.
"Er, I meant medically."
It sank in to Iruka's head with disappointment that, with the clearance of the drug, the need for him to keep vigil over Kakashi was at an end. He knew he should feel glad that Kakashi was better, and he was, but from a completely selfish position it had been nice having the jounin all to himself. There was always someone else around – a student, a jounin, the Hokage, ANBU. It had been nice having him to himself, even if it had indeed been less than twenty four hours, and Kakashi had been asleep most of the time.
He was relieved to realise that he was, in fact, completely capable of spending time with Kakashi without turning into a quivering heap, or doing inappropriate things to him. And something had changed between them with Kakashi's willingness to open himself up a bit to Iruka. It meant a lot to him that Kakashi trusted him and felt comfortable with him - firstly to ask Iruka to be the one to stay with him, but then to actually share something of himself.
From a completely selfish point of view, Kakashi's exposure to the inhalant had been kind of awesome, for Iruka.
As the medics organised Kakashi's transfer to a regular hospital room, Kakashi looked at him with something in his eye Iruka couldn't read. "Thank you, Umino Iruka." A cheerful smile broke out over his face as he added, "I'm sure you'll sleep better tonight."
The medic glared at Iruka and Iruka threw his hands up with a frustrated gesture. Kakashi laughed.
Iruka wondered why he had this nagging feeling of deja vu.
It's typical, as a person lives their life, to not be able to properly appreciate all the little moments that, one after the other, lead to something important. Iruka only appreciated them, like everybody else, in retrospect.
There are times, however, when even as you live them, you can appreciate the importance of a moment, can see there will be far reaching consequences, whether for good, or for ill.
Iruka was about to live through two such moments. Two moments, one beginning with Anko and ending with despair; and the other revealing the first to be nothing more than a catalyst.
Iruka's new class of students were coming along well, and between teaching them and his administrative duties, he was being kept busy. Pleasantly busy. He was probably spending more hours than he rightfully should be engaged in work, but he liked what he was doing, and was good at it, so the end result was that Iruka was happy.
His former students, with the exception of Sasuke, were proving to be productive members of the village. He couldn't help but feel a quiet satisfaction every time he saw one of the young shinobi he had helped shape growing before him; particularly Naruto, who had spent so long with no one believing in him. Comparing where he was now, and where he was when Iruka had been coerced into taking him on was really quite astonishing. An eye did still need to be kept on him to ensure he wasn't at loose ends, otherwise he got bored and terrorised the village, although privately Iruka admitted that Naruto's shenanigans only made him more fond of the boy.
Iruka was also growing more fond of the jounin he was increasingly interacting with. They were interesting and challenging and some of them were people he would never have imagined himself ever having any kind of conversation outside of his duties in the village. And he might be completely, inappropriately, besotted by one of them, and had to live knowing nothing could ever come of it, but he'd learned how to accept it as a part of himself without it impacting on how he lived his life, and no one seemed to be any the wiser.
Although that said he did have to wonder how his life would be going right now if he hadn't developed the somewhat unusual relationship with Kakashi that he had. Inevitably it had brought him to the attention of the other jounin and the consequence of it all was that he found himself, unexpectedly, in the company of jounin... a lot.
He often found himself working the mission room towards closing, when it was quiet and he was the only person left, waiting for straggling reports to come in. He liked the graveyard shift. He had the chance to get his work done in peace.
Quiet and peaceful the mission room might be at this hour, empty it was not. Much like when the jounin had taken to loitering in Kakashi's hospital room when he had been unconscious, so too was the quiet mission room now strangely attractive to them. There were sofas in small room that was used when the hour grew late, and certain jounin could be found with increasing frequency seated upon them talking quietly amongst themselves whilst Iruka worked through his piles of papers.
For the most part they didn't provide distraction, and once his shift was finally over they'd include him in what they were talking about, and more often than not he'd find himself herded out to join them for a meal or a drink, depending on the hour.
But even on the nights when that didn't happen, he found it remarkably pleasant to hear the soft murmur of voices while he finished his work, waiting for his shift to end. Work, which he had to admit, quite often involved marking his student's papers. Work that he previously used to get done in his lunch hour, eating something he'd made specifically so he could eat one handed, leaving the other free to make notations.
But that time was past. His lunch hour had become something else entirely and while Iruka might love evening, as the day came to its conclusion, lunch had become his favourite time of all.
Invariably, as the children disappeared out the door, Kakashi would enter through the window. More often than not Iruka was waiting for him, although occasionally he would have something he had to finish first, and the other man would perch patiently on the window sill quietly reading his book.
The two had become what Iruka could only describe, with a degree of disbelief and wonder, as friends. Friends that regularly spent time together. Friends that talked, whether it be serious or nonsensical. Or in fact, contentedly didn't talk and just enjoyed each other's company. It seemed, somehow, by not trying to make Kakashi volunteer information that he didn't want to, Iruka had somehow broken down one of the walls Kakashi had been so careful to erect. There was a warmth that settled low in his belly whenever he thought about it. Kakashi trusted him, and as a consequence, was comfortable with him.
The best thing of all was that the more time Iruka spent with him, the more he liked him. Kakashi was so much more than Iruka could ever have thought. No, he wasn't often serious and Iruka would often be torn between laughing and throwing things at him. But there were hidden depths to what he had to say, and Iruka was becoming very good at reading between the lines. His new skill was appreciated by many, and when other people found Kakashi his usual perplexing self, it was increasingly to Iruka they turned in hope of translation. More often than not, to their consternation, Iruka would just shrug. Kakashi could make himself understood quite plainly, if that was what he wanted.
Iruka hadn't really thought about how he hadn't had a really close friend in a long time, but now he had one there was a contentedness to him that he hadn't known was missing. He now realised he'd never had someone who just accepted him for who he was, as close friends did. He hadn't formed an unshakeable bond with Academy classmates or his genin team. He had naively thought what he and Mizuki had shared was what other people experienced, but even from the outside looking in, he could see that compared to Naruto's dedication to Sasuke, the closeness between Shikamaru and Choji, or Kotetsu and Izumo, even the antagonistic relationship of Sakura and Ino; he could see what he had thought of as friendship had not even come close.
But things had changed.
He had a variety of people that he considered his friends., and while he was never going to stop being the independent person that he was, it was nice to know there were people who cared about him. People he could go to when he was troubled. People who knew when he could use company, and when he needed time alone.
And then... there was Anko.
Iruka had known Anko longer than most people he associated with – they were the same age and had gone through the Academy at the same time. He'd never been close to her though. It's not that he didn't like her, they had just never had much in common. He didn't think Anko had ever really paid much attention to him. He was fairly certain she just remembered him as the mischievous boy he'd been. But as certain jounin started to loiter more frequently in the mission room, so too did other shinobi, exposing Iruka to even more people that a short time ago he had barely any contact with. People like Anko.
And the thing was that lately Anko was paying him attention. It seemed that whenever he looked at her, she was watching, with an expression on her face he could only describe as 'calculating'.
Like she was at this very moment.
The hour had been growing increasingly late and the flow of new submissions had dwindled. People had been drifting in and out, and other than the three people manning the desk, no one had stuck around. Other than Anko, unobtrusively leaning against a wall.
He had been ignoring her, partly because he had things to do, partly because he was hoping she'd just go away. Unfortunately she didn't seem to bore of it easily, and even after a couple of hours and the other two chuunin who had been working the mission desk with him had said their goodbyes and left Iruka to close, he could still feel her eyes on him.
He could have retreated to the sanctity of his own apartment, if he could have just managed to ignore her a little longer. The trouble was that under her scrutiny his skin was pricking with irritation, like he had found himself in a swarm of biting insects, and it had built up to a point where he wasn't acting as rationally as he might have liked. He looked over at her with exasperation and snapped, "What?"
She ambled over, perching one hip on his desk, and looked at him with consideration for a moment longer. He raised his eyebrows at her, and finally she asked, "So, who is it?"
Iruka looked at her with exasperation, blew out an annoyed huff and went back to his writing. He considered that there was a real possibility he was going to have to just leave early in order to get away from her. "Who is what?" he asked irritably.
"The person you have a crush on."
Iruka's hand twitched a little, and ink dropped and settled into an unreadable blob. "What?"
He could feel colour coming to his cheeks as his heartbeat sped up. Assiduously he kept looking down at his paperwork, so all she could really see was the top of his head.
"You have a thing for someone. I can tell. I just haven't worked out who."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Iruka lied.
"You have a very expressive face, Iruka, I can tell something is going on."
"Anko," he said through gritted teeth, trying to stay calm, "I'm trying to get work done here. The Academy will be open in the morning. I'm sure you can find some other twelve year olds to gossip with."
"The thing that is puzzling me even more," she persisted breezily, "is that you seem more relaxed than you did awhile back. You had been looking like someone anticipating a firecracker going off behind them at any moment, but you don't any more. So I was thinking that you'd confessed, only, you're the only one behaving differently."
Iruka calmly took a breath and then looked up at her. "You need to find something more interesting to occupy yourself with. Unless it's you with the crush."
Anko flashed a grin at him. "You wish," she said. "I'll figure it out, don't you worry."
"I'll try not to let it keep me up at night," Iruka replied as she retreated back to her spot on the wall.
He felt the urge to throw something at her head again. He might look calm, and was quietly satisfied that he had managed to stay benign, but he didn't need this. How was it that Anko or all people had picked something up? Sure she'd been around more recently, generally conversing with Kurenai, but he hadn't done anything differently when she was present to when she wasn't. It worried him. Anko was like a ninken on a scent; she wasn't going to just let it go.
The trouble was that she was right. He did have an expressive face and when they'd been at the Academy she'd always been good at getting him to rise to bait. Now he knew why she was paying him so much attention he began to fret. Of the reports slowly drifting in as the evening drew to a close, he was anticipating one from Kakashi. If she continued lurking, and watching him, he wasn't sure if he'd give the game away no matter how hard he tried not to. Not reacting could be just as telling as reacting. It was going to be a difficult line to walk.
His knee started to jiggle under the desk nervously, and he forcibly made it stop. He snuck a look up at her and she narrowed her eyes at him. He glared back at her and of course at that precise moment, Genma wandered into the room. He stopped in his tracks, looking between the two of them. Iruka went back to ignoring Anko, but out of the corner of his eye he could see Genma head over to join her.
"What are you doing to make Iruka look so nervous?" Genma asked, not bothering to lower his voice.
"Trying to work out who he has a crush on," she replied.
"Oh?" Iruka could hear the grin in Genma's voice. "What makes you think he has a crush?" Iruka ground his teeth together. Genma was as much a twelve year old girl as Anko was.
"Oh, please. There's no 'think' here. He's been besotted by someone for a while now. He's far too easily distracted, blushes for no good reason and I swear I've seen him daydreaming."
Iruka could feel Genma's eyes on him. His hand tightened around his brush and he could feel colour rising to his cheeks again.
"Certainly sounds like a crush," Genma said mildly. "Any idea who it is?"
"No, that's why I'm watching."
Iruka looked over at the pair of them. Now they were both watching him intently. He felt like a mouse being watched by a pair of cats. It was disconcerting. He glared at them. Genma grinned around his senbon. Iruka felt a throbbing in his temple.
Iruka reasoned that he should have predicted that someone else would choose that moment to enter, and just as Genma had, Guy caught the mood of the room immediately, looked between the three of them before joining Anko and Genma.
"Anko, Genma, something is troubling you?"
"You could say that," Anko replied.
"We were just trying to work out who Iruka has a crush on," Genma said.
"Iruka has a crush? How wonderful! Blossoming love is an important part of youth!" Guy enthused. "Do you have any idea who it is?"
Iruka closed his eyes and made himself take a breath. His jaw was beginning to hurt.
"Not yet," Genma said, grin still evident in his voice.
Iruka opened his eyes and stared intently at his paperwork. He kept breathing and tried to release the death grip his hand was making on the brush. This time he felt no surprise as the door slid open once again, instead he felt preternaturally calm. He didn't look up and there was a moment of silence before he heard Kurenai say softly, "Leave Iruka alone."
"Aha!" Anko crowed gleefully, "You know!"
"I don't know anything, except you're causing Iruka some kind of trouble, Anko."
"More like he's causing me trouble. I could always figure Iruka out, back at the Academy, but he's gotten better at being enigmatic. I think he's been taking lessons from Kakashi." She paused. Iruka resisted looking up at her. "Kakashi..." she said thoughtfully, "we should ask Kakashi who it is."
"Anko..." Kurenai began with a note of warning in her voice.
"Oh come on, I've never seen him interested in anyone. Have you? Aren't you curious who he has a crush on?"
"Uh, is this a bad time?" Kakashi asked, as he opened the door. Iruka froze.
"Kakashi! Tell us who it is!" Anko said with delight, rounding on him.
"Anko!" Kurenai hissed.
There was silence for a moment before Kakashi replied, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
With Kakashi's professed ignorance, an unpleasant feeling shot through Iruka and settled like a ball of ice in his belly. He suddenly felt uncomfortably certain that Kakashi knew.
"You have to know," Anko persisted. "You always seem to know everything."
"I don't even know who you're talking about," Kakashi said, sounding bored.
It was enough for Iruka. He'd had enough. He knew Anko had no ill-intent, that she was just amusing herself, same as Genma. Ridiculous things could provide a much needed stress release, but he didn't want to be their stress release, not with this. They might not mean it with ill-intent, but it was just transferring the stress to him. He didn't want to be here any longer, didn't want to listen to another word said, didn't want to be under Kakashi's scrutiny as Anko made herself clear. If Kakashi didn't already know, he would put it together as quickly as it took for Anko to put her observations into words. And of course he knew. Anko was right. He always knew everything. He didn't miss anything. Iruka was insane for thinking he had managed to keep it to himself. Kakashi knew. Iruka was grateful the man hadn't let it come between them, that he'd let their friendship develop nevertheless. But he couldn't deal with this right now.
Iruka pushed himself to his feet. Anticipating his usual outburst of temper, Anko and Genma winced, but there was no anger inside him. He just felt resolved to leave before his life fell apart before his eyes. The ice in his belly had spread and taken over his body. Calmly he gathered what paperwork he had left, and then let his gaze travel across them all. "Enough," he said softly, and walked out.
The strange calmness stayed over him. His thoughts didn't race - he didn't have any thoughts. He just started walking home.
"Iruka..." he heard Kakashi's voice from behind. He paused, mid step, and slowly lowered the foot to the ground. He didn't turn.
"Can't you just leave it alone?"
"Iruka..." Kakashi's voice came from right behind him.
"No. It doesn't matter. Clearly, it doesn't matter."
He felt Kakashi's hand on his upper arm. He turned, but he couldn't look directly at him, instead he looked through the other man, smiling without humour.
"Iruka, you know I..." Kakashi began, but the rest of the sentence trailed off and his hand fell away from Iruka's arm. Iruka wondered what Kakashi was seeing in his face.
He focussed on Kakashi's face then, looked into his eye, which always said so much and so little at the same time, and for a moment everything fell away. It felt like time stopped and for in that brief moment, he forgot everything. There was nothing but the two of them, wrapped in a dark, silent cocoon of night.
He raised himself up on his toes just enough to be able to tilt forward and press his lips against Kakashi's cloth covered ones.
And just like that the moment broke. Kakashi took several steps back, and Iruka covered his mouth with his hand. What was he thinking?
"I'd... better go," Kakashi said awkwardly. "I'll... see you tomorrow." He disappeared into the shadows and was gone.
Iruka stood in the poorly lit night before turning back around and starting out for home again.
Kintsukuroi (golden repair) is the art of fixing broken pottery with kintsugi (a lacquer resin containing powdered gold), highlighting and appreciating the damage and subsequent repair.
Iruka was, unsurprisingly, somewhat distracted the following day. He awoke feeling empty and had to force himself through the motions of heading to the Academy to take his classes. Also unsurprisingly, his state of distraction was noted by certain members of the class, and taken advantage of. At least Iruka was assuming that was what was happening, since he wasn't really keeping track of where he was up to, but if Konohamaru had an innocent expression on his face, he was clearly up to no good. Iruka let it slide and resolved to have his head back together by Monday, no matter what.
It was also unsurprising that Kakashi didn't turn up during Iruka's lunch hour. Whether he was just avoiding him, or was genuinely busy made little difference. Iruka had anticipated his absence and spent the hour by himself trying to focus on tasks for his class. Unfortunately, in reality he spent it brooding about how to go about repairing his relationship with the jounin.
Or wondering if he even needed to.
He figured, since Kakashi had almost certainly known how he felt, and had let them become friends regardless, that they should be able to continue on as friends. They just had to get through the awkward period where they renegotiated their relationship and level of comfort with each other. At least he hoped so. Of course he couldn't help but be fearful that Kakashi would have re-erected his barriers, and that Iruka had already lost himself that which he had only just gained.
When the end of the day came, Iruka headed home. He could have assisted at the mission desk, tried to keep himself busy, but his heart just wasn't in it. He didn't really want to deal with people. He didn't want to need to pretend that everything was fine – the school day had been hard enough. He certainly didn't want to be around Anko or any of the other jounin who had been present the evening before.
The whole experience was made just that little bit worse because he missed having someone who he could talk to. He missed his ANBU, silent, but who talking to had always helped him sort his thoughts. He missed the Third and his pot of tea and kindness.
But most of all he missed Kakashi, the irreverant but strangely wise man who had eased into Iruka's life, and filled it up with his presence.
There just wasn't anyone else he had ever really let into his thoughts, no one he felt comfortable talking to, especially not about what he was worrying about, so he stayed inside his own head, and nothing becoming any clearer to him.
His morose train of thoughts took him all the way to his doorstep. He had just put his keys into the door lock when he registered a presence. His heartbeat took off like that of a startled deer. Now he was surprised. He had expected Kakashi to stay away for several days, to let Iruka muddle through his erratic thoughts before returning and more than likely pretending that nothing untoward had occurred.
He took a moment. His hand released the key, leaving it in the lock, and his eyes dropped to his feet. He allowed himself several steadying breaths, composing himself before he finally turned. He took a final calming breath before he raised his eyes to meet Kakashi's.
He couldn't read the expression on the other man's face, hidden as it was beneath a layer of cloth, but there was something in his eye that made Iruka glad he had taken that careful breath, as he lost the ability to take any more and left him wanting to kiss Kakashi so hard that he'd stop breathing.
Kakashi just stood, silent, his gaze locked on Iruka. Iruka felt pinned in place, not moving, not breathing, just his heart beating automatically, because that's all it knew to do.
They stayed as if in suspended animation for a moment, and then Iruka's breath reclaimed his body and he acted without further thought. He took two long steps, closing the space between them, reached up with both hands, pulled down Kakashi's mask and kissed him.
Whatever had been holding Kakashi motionless broke. Warmth cascaded through Iruka as Kakashi's arms wrapped around him and he found himself being kissed in return.
Iruka did his best to take Kakashi's breath away. He did a good job in taking his own away.
"Iruka," Kakashi squeezed out into the space between kisses, "are you sure?"
"Are you crazy?" Iruka responded. He took Kakashi's head between his hands and kissed him even more thoroughly. He needed Kakashi to know how much he wanted him, how much he needed him. Given that Kakashi was responding to his kisses, he had the impression that Kakashi felt similarly.
Kakashi pulled himself back enough to be able to speak, leaning their foreheads together as he caught his breath. "Are you really sure, Iruka? I'm... broken."
Iruka blinked a couple of times. He could hear the doubt in Kakashi's voice, see it in his face. In all his consideration, his racing thoughts, it had never occurred to him that Kakashi's reticence had been because he had doubts about himself. This strong, incredible man needed reassurance, and Iruka had no reluctance to give it to him.
Iruka straightened, breaking the contact between their foreheads so he could look Kakashi square in the eye. He cupped the other man's cheek with one hand and ran the thumb over his cheekbone. "We're all broken, Kakashi," he said. "That's one of the consequences of living in our world. It's not about the breaks, it's about how you choose to live with them. Some people break, and shatter. But you, you have been living in pain trying to spare anyone else from having to feel any. You've been trying to hide your cracks, but what you don't understand is that you are like kintsukuroi – what you are now is all the more beautiful for the damage you've sustained and survived."
Kakashi just looked at him wordlessly. Iruka leaned in and kissed him again gently.
Then Kakashi was in motion, taking Iruka by the wrist. He dragged him back to the door and used the keys still dangling from the lock. He threw open the door and pulled Iruka inside. The door closed behind them with a sudden finality.
"Last chance," Kakashi said, releasing Iruka's wrist.
"I made my decision before I even knew I had," Iruka replied without hesitation, chin tipping up fractionally. "I'm certain."
Kakashi reached behind him and pulled Iruka's hair tie away. For a moment his hair fell loosely around his face before Kakashi's fingers tangled firmly into it and and he turned his full force onto Iruka. Kakashi kissed him, hard, teeth colliding as if he wanted to eat him on the spot. Iruka's stomach flipped and he lost any doubt that Kakashi wanted him as much as he wanted Kakashi.
He worried that he wouldn't be able to keep himself upright as his legs went to jelly, but it soon became irrelevant as he found himself with the cool wall pressed up against his back, and a hot Kakashi pressed up against his front.
He stopped worrying about anything for quite a while.
It wasn't until dawn that Iruka started to worry again. He'd fallen asleep for a short time, before waking as a soft light entered his room. He wasn't used to having another person snuggled up to him as he slept. It wasn't unpleasant, just unfamiliar, and enough of a disturbance to his usual sleep pattern that the early morning light brought him awake.
As he roused slowly, Kakashi's pale arm was draped across his chest, a pale contrast to his own tan skin colour. The rest of the man was pressed up against him, face resting against the curve of his neck. Kakashi's hair fell, unrestrained by his hitae-ate, across his forehead and Iruka couldn't see anything of his face behind the curtain of silver.
Although that didn't matter. Kakashi's face was burned into his brain. He'd looked... like Iruka would have expected him to. Despite having never seen most of his face for the entire time he'd known him, Iruka had never even paused to comprehend that he was seeing it for the first time. His face had seemed so familiar and looked... like Kakashi.
But now Iruka was starting to fret. Kakashi was Kakashi, and he was just Iruka. What on earth had he been thinking? What had either of them been thinking? Clearly neither of them had been and when Kakashi came to his senses he was going to realise that Iruka was so completely ordinary, and he deserved so much better.
"No," Kakashi murmured drowsily, lips moving softly against Iruka's skin. Iruka started. He'd thought Kakashi was still asleep. "I can hear you thinking," Kakashi continued, flattening his hand against Iruka's ribs, "and the answer is no. I gave you your chances. There's no running any more – for either of us."
A smile tugged up the corners of Iruka's lips. He could feel Kakashi's lips doing the same against his skin. Tension dropped from his shoulders and he wriggled fractionally to get more comfortable. Kakashi moved his arm to accommodate the slight change and then let out a sigh as he fell back asleep. Iruka grinned to himself. It was such a small thing, but he loved that Kakashi could sleep in his presence. And now he knew that not only could he sleep with him in the same room, but sleep with almost his entire body in contact with Iruka's.
Iruka's doubts disappeared along with his conscious thought and he too fell back asleep.
It wasn't quite as easy as that, but it wasn't much more difficult either. Eventually they were in a position where they were able to have a conversation without one or the other interrupting it with kisses or more distracting activities.
As Iruka had gleaned from Kakashi's simple question of, " Are you sure, Iruka? I'm... broken, " Kakashi hadn't run the night Iruka kissed him because he didn't think Iruka was good enough. His first impulse had been to back away before he caused Iruka any more pain. He didn't think anyone deserved to be inflicted with a person as broken as he felt himself to be, which, of course Iruka thought to be completely ridiculous.
While Iruka had spent the following day fretting, Kakashi had spent it thinking back over their relationship, thinking about all the ways he had become used to having Iruka around, all the ways Iruka had shown himself to be accepting and understanding of who Kakashi was as a person. And in the end he had decided that maybe the chance was worth it, that maybe Iruka was strong enough to take him as he was. More importantly, he realised that having Iruka in his life had made him better .
If Kakashi was kintsukuroi, then Iruka was the golden kintsugi that sealed his damaged pieces together, and together was how they could be found, more often than not, when their responsibilities to Konoha allowed.
Anko eventually had her curiosity satisfied, although it wasn't what she had anticipated, nor did it come from the anticipated source.
Now that the situation between himself and Kakashi had been resolved, Iruka wasn't troubled by Anko, or her partner in crime, Genma. Trying to rile Iruka up and get a response out of him became some kind of game to them. Unfortunately for them, however, Iruka didn't really care, although eventually Kakashi did. One evening, when the usual group were sharing a late meal and Anko failed to get a rise out of Iruka, she redoubled her efforts, possibly fuelled in part by the sake she had been consuming. Kakashi had leaned forward, just a tiny amount, but enough that her attention was drawn to him. He had fixed a steely eye upon her, and Anko had blinked under the force of a Kakashi glare. Iruka had ducked his head to hide his smile and there was a pause as everyone around the table fell silent. Finally the silence was broken when Anko simply said, "Oh."
"Oh!" Iruka heard Genma say a beat later, and that was it. Nothing further was said. Nothing needed to be said, not even by the normally ebullient Guy. When Iruka had looked back up the conversation had restarted and moved on, but he noted that Kurenai's gentle smile looked nothing if not satisfied.
It was Spring, with Iruka's twenty-fourth birthday drawing closer. He didn't know it yet, but his little brother was going to shortly set out into the world, and he wasn't going to see him again for a few years. For the time being, he was a little preoccupied by the new relationship he found himself in.
He'd always considered himself a fairly happy person, easily kept content living his life, as long as tragic events weren't afoot; but he discovered a whole new kind of happy. Both he and Kakashi shared a willingness to not hesitate any further in regards to their relationship. Iruka had spent too long pining, and Kakashi denying, so that now that they had acknowledged their mutual appreciation for each other, they were making the most of it.
Their lives being what they were, Kakashi still needed to head out on missions with regularity, keeping them apart for what could be large periods of time. There was always a feeling of unease lurking under Iruka's general sense of contentedness whenever Kakashi was out on a mission. The unease was always worse when he vanished without a word, since it usually meant he'd been sent on a high level, undoubtedly dangerous, mission above Iruka's clearance.
There was a positive to the negative, however. Sometimes when Kakashi returned, what he needed was to glue himself to Iruka's side, and sometimes he needed to be left alone. Iruka would take each instance as it was. The one thing he could count on, however, was that no matter what, no matter where Iruka was or what he was doing, when the jounin returned to Konoha, he'd make sure that Iruka at the very least caught sight of him, so that he'd stop worrying. He loved that Kakashi knew that he'd be worrying, even though he tried not to, and he loved that the jounin considered it important to put him at ease as soon as he could. The little burst of pleasure he got whenever he saw that Kakashi had come home safe just about made up for missing and worrying about him in the first place.
Kakashi had vanished on a mission a week ago without a word, so Iruka was dealing with his undercurrent of unease. Unfortunately, it came at a time when Iruka himself was, once again, being kept unusually busy. Burying himself in work did keep him distracted, so he was happy with that, but it also distracted him from other things – like getting enough rest, and eating regularly.
When Kakashi eventually came home, Iruka was many hours through what was shaping up to be an exceptionally long day. He was feeling run down, and had a headache threatening to turn into something much nastier at any moment, but he was powering on. The moment he made eye contact with Kakashi, however, he felt somewhat revived and the headache eased with his tension. Kakashi looked as exhausted as Iruka felt, more so actually, but he smiled, and the smile Iruka returned was genuine. Kakashi disappeared without the two exchanging more than the smile, but Iruka felt lighter, and the smile stayed on his face long after the jounin had gone.
It was late when Iruka finally managed to go home. He didn't know if Kakashi would be there, but he hoped that he would be. As he walked in to his apartment, it was evident that Kakashi had been there at some point. There was a note on the table telling him that he needed to take better care of himself, that dinner was waiting for him and to make sure he ate. The note was pinned under a jar of fireflies. For a moment Iruka just stared at the bright insects in wonder. It was still only Spring and the fireflies around Konoha were still in their larval forms. It was months until they turned into adults and became a natural light show. Wherever Kakashi had been, he had seen a different species of firefly, one that became the glowing adults sooner. And he'd brought some home. For Iruka.
A delighted smile had broken out on Iruka's face. He loved that Kakashi had evidently been thinking of him, and had taken the time to bring the insects home. He loved that despite being clearly exhausted himself, Kakashi had noticed Iruka's state and had been concerned enough to make sure he had a meal waiting. His smile didn't fade for an instant. Not when he checked the bedroom and found the jounin fast asleep in his bed. Not when he ate his meal, watching the fireflies. Not when he set the fireflies free into the evening air, and hoped they might find a new home here in Konoha. Not as he showered and crawled into bed with Kakashi. Kakashi stirred enough to snuggle him into his arms before falling back asleep. Iruka pillowed his head on Kakashi's chest and listened to the steady beat of his heart. He was still smiling as he fell asleep.
There was a knock on the door.
"Can you get that?" Iruka called from the kitchen.
Kakashi opened it to find Naruto on the doorstep.
"Oh, hi, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said.
"Who is it?" Iruka said sticking his head out from the kitchen. "Oh, Naruto. Good timing. I was making some tea."
"You really like your tea, huh, Iruka-sensei?" Naruto replied, taking off his sandals and coming in.
"Yes, I do," Iruka replied coming in with the pot and three cups. "But more than tea, I like spending time with people I care about," he said smiling at Naruto.
The three of them sat themselves down at the table and took a moment to appreciate the tea. Well, Kakashi and Iruka appreciated the tea. Naruto took a sip and stayed silent for a moment because he knew better than to talk too soon when Iruka was in tea-mode.
"You know," Naruto said, after he had judged sufficient time had passed, "I see you two together an awful lot lately."
Iruka paused for just a moment. "Well," he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose and looking at Kakashi. Kakashi shrugged, leaving the decision to Iruka. Iruka had wondered what to do with Naruto. There was no need for anyone in Konoha to make a big deal about relationships, in some ways in fact it was better to keep them quiet – relationships could be used against shinobi, but Naruto was family to Iruka. He didn't want to hide it from him, and he certainly didn't want to lie about it. There really wasn't a decision to be made. "That's because we're seeing each other," Iruka said.
"Huh?" Naruto said, looking confused.
"As in... the romantic sense of 'seeing'."
"Ehhhhh?" Naruto exclaimed with an incredulous expression. Kakashi beamed at him. Naruto managed to close his mouth and looked between the two of them suspiciously. "How long has this been going on?"
Iruka was going to reply, but Kakashi spoke first, "Since he was six." He took a sip of his tea.
"What?" Iruka and Naruto both said.
"Well, not exactly. I mean I didn't feel like THIS about him when he was six, but that's pretty much when it started."
"Wait," Iruka said, distracted for the moment from how Naruto was dealing with his new found knowledge, "you knew who I was when I was six? We didn't even meet until we ran that mission together when I was seventeen! I knew who you were, since you're infamous, but..."
Kakashi shrugged. Iruka frowned at him. Why hadn't Kakashi ever mentioned this before? He took being enigmatic far too seriously.
"AHHH!" Iruka suddenly exclaimed, pointing at Kakashi. "You were my firefly chuunin!"
"Hokage-sama," Kakashi replied, inclining his head.
Iruka stared at Kakashi, his mouth hanging open a little.
"Whatever," Naruto said impatiently, reminding Iruka that he was there. "One of you is about to buy me ramen. To help me get over the shock."
Kakashi laughed. "I'll buy you both ramen. Come on then."
"You don't really mind do you?" Iruka asked later when the three of them were seated at Ichiraku's.
"Huh?" Naruto said. "Of course not." He ate more of his ramen. "I know what he sees in you," he said around a mouthful of noodle, "although I have no idea what you see in Kakashi-sensei. He's a lazy pervert."
"Actually," Iruka replied smiling fondly, "he's very sweet and kind. Once you get past the lazy pervert."
"If you say so," Naruto said, slurping more ramen. "I'm not convinced he's good enough for you."
Iruka laughed. "I'm still not convinced I'm good enough for him!"
Naruto levelled a look at him, noodles dangling from his lips. He slurped them up and remarked, "Hardly," before chewing and swallowing. Iruka ruffled his hair affectionately and then noticed Kakashi screwing his face up comically.
"You have something to add?" Iruka asked him, raising an eyebrow and inserting a note of challenge into his voice. Naruto turned to look at the jounin.
"Actually," Kakashi said, using one finger to scratch his head, "I'm wondering if this is the first time Naruto and I have ever agreed on anything."
"So what was this about a firefly chuunin?" Naruto asked before filling his mouth with more noodles.
Iruka grinned at him. "When I was little," he glanced at Kakashi, "apparently when I was six, I met a boy sitting on a rock who told me he was a chuunin. I remember telling him I thought he was funny but he insisted. So I told him that if he was a chuunin, then I was the Hokage. No way I thought someone as young as him could be a chuunin. But apparently he really was, and he was Kakashi."
"You were a chuunin when Iruka-sensei was six?" Naruto said turning to Kakashi with surprise. He squinted at him. "Just how old are you, Kakashi-sensei?"
"Hey now," Kakashi said, spreading his hands in protest. "I was only nine myself. I was a very young chuunin."
"You became a chuunin at NINE?" Naruto exclaimed disbelievingly.
"No," Kakashi said. Naruto squinted at him again. "I became a chuunin at six," Kakashi corrected, beaming at Naruto.
Naruto stared flatly at him, then looked at Iruka for confirmation. Iruka nodded.
"Old man!" Naruto said turning to Teuchi the shopkeeper, and holding forth his empty bowl, "Seconds!"
It was fortuitous timing, in many ways, that Iruka had the chance to talk to Naruto. The next time they sat together at Ichiraku ramen, it was to say goodbye. Jiraiya who had returned again to Konoha, was heading back out once more almost immediately and was taking Naruto with him to train. Iruka knew that it would be a long time before he saw the boy again, which made him a little melancholy. He couldn't help but be happy for Naruto, however, as he ran off, full of excitement and joy, to join Jiraiya and they made their way to the gates. Even if the little wretch stuck him with the ramen bill.
For the rest of the day, he couldn't help himself reminiscing. He found himself thinking about the times he'd shared with Naruto. How much Naruto had grown. How much he'd grown himself. Thinking about the troublesome boy that Naruto had been made him think about the troublesome boy he'd once been. Naruto was going to do so much more growing as a person by the time he came back if Iruka's own progress was anything to go by. He couldn't even imagine how much stronger a shinobi he was going to be after lengthy training under one of the sannin.
Iruka was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, leaning on the doorjamb, holding another cup of tea in his hand, and staring into middle distance while he thought about what he'd experienced at Naruto's age. He brought his eyes into focus and looked at the tea cup as he raised it to his lips. He let his eyes wander, as he often did, over the pattern with its hints of fireflies in the rushes. It reminded him of the boy on the rock whom he had given his jar of fireflies to as a child. The boy he now knew was Kakashi.
His eyes rose to regard the boy, long grown into a man.
Kakashi was lazing on the sofa, inevitably reading. It was a warm evening, and he was only wearing his sleeveless shirt, mask gathered around his neck. The red ANBU tattoo on his shoulder stood out starkly against his pale flesh.
Iruka's ANBU had saved his life when he'd been around Naruto's age. He'd gotten more serious about his training as a consequence, although nothing like what Naruto was capable of.
Iruka let his eyes wander over the curves of the ANBU tattoo as his thoughts drifted on to his ANBU. The ANBU who had quietly but determinedly entered his life. The ANBU who made him feel safe, just being nearby. The ANBU he had fallen in love with.
Iruka paused for a moment, frowning, and all the memories he was indulging in rearranged themselves in his mind. And just like that, it all fell into place.
He'd made himself stop trying to see the ANBU in people, but... he'd always been aware that the ANBU and Kakashi had similar hair, similar builds. He'd noticed it at the start, but he'd been determined to stop trying to find the ANBU. He'd disappeared for a reason, yet... Kakashi had entered his life when the ANBU had left it. Kakashi made Iruka feel safe, just by being nearby.
And Kakashi carried secrets, not because he wanted to, but because he had to.
Iruka stifled a chuckle and looked at Kakashi fondly, shaking his head just a fraction. The jounin continued to read, completely oblivious to his lover's epiphany.
Iruka set his cup of tea down on the table, and let his feet carry him the rest of the way across the room to where Kakashi lay. The jounin looked up at him, puzzled, and held his book aside as Iruka carefully lay down on top of him, aligning their two bodies. Kakashi dropped the book and smiled as he wrapped his arms around his chuunin.
"What's all this then?" he asked.
Iruka kissed him slowly, pouring everything he felt into that one kiss. He lifted his head, to look into the other man's eyes. Kakashi looked back at him, both eyes open, with a soft expression on his face. Even the baleful sharingan looked soft, but there was still puzzlement causing a tiny crease between his brows. Kakashi looked at him a moment longer, and then Iruka watched his expression clear.
Kakashi laughed happily. "And there it is. What do you have to say for yourself, Sensei?"
Iruka smiled. "I love you, ANBU-san," he replied simply.