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The notification arrived at his apartment while he was away on a mission. He found it after he dragged himself to the hospital and got several rounds of antivenin injected and a bag of antibiotics to take for an infected gash. Upon his stilted walk home and pause at the mailroom of the jounin dorms, he found not one but three scrolls labeled with bright red ribbon signifying their importance. Iruka didn’t bother looking through them past the subjects written on the very tops. Intent of assignment, official announcement of assignment, and team background.

He had been supposed to return two weeks before, but the Land of Water was being the Land of Water, and he’d had to take a detour through the Land of Waves before returning to Konoha. There’d been multiple groups of shinobi and mercenaries on his tail who only left him alone when he made it to the border of the Land of Fire after killing nearly a dozen of them in Wave. If he wasn’t mistaken, the school year at the Academy ended the next day, which left him very little time to prepare, let alone recover before he would need to test his team.

His team. The thought made him groan as he threw himself onto the couch, wincing only slightly as the action jarred his leg and pulled at the cuts on his abdomen that he’d sewn up on the run. In the three years that he’d been a jounin--one of those years being spent as a tokubetsu jounin before his full instatement--the Hokage had made it abundantly clear that he required Iruka to do a combination of three things: missions, research into the fuinjutsu and Barrier Ninjutsu of Uzushiogakure, and work as Konoha’s residential expert on fuinjutsu. Nowhere had it been even considered that he would take a genin team, so the suddenness of the assignment had him wondering. But, really, trying to parse out the Hokage’s thought process would get him nowhere, so instead Iruka decided that food was a good idea.

-

The next morning was when he finally got around to opening the scrolls from the Hokage. As he read through all of them, the last tiny part of his being that was okay with being a jounin teacher slowly shriveled up and died.

A civilian, the last remaining Uchiha, and Uzumaki Naruto, host of the Kyuubi.

Iruka took a minute to talk himself down from breaking his kitchen table. Uchiha he could handle on his own (maybe), and Uzumaki he could handle on his own (definitely), but both? And with some civilian whose practical scores were stunning but field scores were dismal?

It was without thinking about the process at all that he put on fresh clothes and headed to the Hokage Tower. His main intent was to chew said Hokage out, but he also needed to return the paperwork for his last mission and, presumably, sign other paperwork for his new position as a teacher. The thought of his new job held him in such focus that he nearly missed Anko’s yell of “Iruka!” from the mission lounge on his way through the building.

Anko. Anko could distract him, however momentarily.

“Don’t you have work to do?” he asked, without preamble.

Anko cheerfully flipped him off, and he returned the gesture. “I’ll have you know I cleaned Minami-sensei’s grave,” she said as he neared. “You would not believe how surprised Hayate and Meisa were when I woke them up at five in the morning to do that.”

“Honestly, I’m more surprised that you survived waking them up at five in the morning,” Iruka dryly replied. His teammates were not morning people, and were moreover not Anko people.

“Years of practice,” she gave him a hearty smack on the shoulder. “Sit down, stay a while, I feel like it’s been months since I’ve seen you. Oh, wait, it has been.”

“Not my fault.” He tapped his fingers against his leg, considered making the Hokage wait, decided better. “Gotta talk to the man upstairs, I’ll try to be quick though.”

She pouted, but shrugged, “Leave something for Asuma to spit on, he got his first genin team and he’s furious about it. The Ino-Shika-Cho kids, I think.”

“Just the Ino-Shika-Cho kids?” he asked.

She raised an eyebrow. He decided he should probably go before he divulged too much information and burnt down the building through rekindled rage. “Pray for the Hokage,” he said instead, forcing his legs to take him back to the stairs.

-

The Tower was still standing when he left, but barely. The Hokage’s muttered, “Your complaint has been registered,” followed him out of the office, past Asuma who looked about as irritated as Iruka felt.

Anko was still sitting in the lounge when he passed, and she slithered off of her chair to follow him out of the building.

“You look steaming,” she said, “but I don’t care, I wanna catch up.”

Iruka sighed. “You can follow if it means you make lunch.”

“Deal.”

-

Anko listened to his bitching and had the grace to at least say “sorry” before laughing in his face. Well, asking for some sympathy really was too much for her.

She left him to go annoy the desk workers again, and he headed over to the Academy.

Being at that part of the building for the first time in years brought back memories, most of which he would rather forget. It was with fondness that he considered how he had planned on becoming a teacher, long before he had even graduated. Before he’d gone into fuinjutsu, before he’d become one of the Hokage’s most prized henchmen. Before he actually had become a teacher, in a way, with a genin team of his own.

The building was almost exactly the same, in any case, and if he was remembering the scroll right, the room to look for was on the third floor. It was tempting to flicker up there, but children were unpredictable with their projectiles, and he was tired, so he slowly slogged up the stairs.

He didn’t recognize the teacher at the head of the classroom, but she smiled at him. “Squad seven,” she called out.

His students stood. Pink and red, blue, and orange; at least he could tell them apart. They slowly filed down to the front of the classroom, and with one last look back at their classmates, they followed Iruka out of the classroom.

The three of them together looked a mess. Naruto was wearing the brightest orange that Iruka had ever had the misfortune of seeing, Sakura was staring at Sasuke hungrily, and Sasuke looked to be thinking hard enough that his head might explode. “Roof,” Iruka said, and they obediently followed him down the hall, and up the stairs.

-

Naruto wanted to be Hokage; probably not achievable. Sasuke wanted revenge on his brother; more likely to happen, but, really, Itachi ? He was not someone that Iruka would like to tangle with. Sakura wanted to...be with Sasuke? Given how the boy acted, that wasn’t going to happen, and he didn’t want her to have unrealistic hopes.

“I work with seals,” he had told them, “and I expect you all to train hard if you pass my test.” First impression tells him that they might not make it that far.

-

They met at dawn at one of the practice grounds, one that Iruka had reserved while at the Tower the day before. Despite how rushed a job it was, Iruka was quite proud of the test he’d put together for them. Going off of his own introduction, he’d centered it around seals--and not just for that reason. If the curriculum for the Academy was anything like it had been, they hadn’t had to do a lot of critical thinking on the fly or learn to fight shinobi with specialized skills.

As soon as the kids arrived, he erected a barrier around the part of the field they would be using, and slapped a seal on each of their backs.

“What is this?” Naruto screeched, trying to pull it off.

“If you take it off, you fail,” Iruka said. The boy immediately stopped, and looked at him with something akin to sad puppy eyes.

“Is this a seal?” Sakura asked, staring at her fingers in confusion as she flexed her hands.

“Yes. It may feel strange, but it has merely stopped you from being able to use your chakra,” Iruka explained. “Now, what you need to do is work as a team and make it to the other side of this barrier.”

All three looked when he pointed. The barrier was one of his more impressive, spanning half a kilometer wide and nearly three kilometers long. From the combined looks on their faces, they expected it to be easy.

“If anyone makes it to the other side without their teammates, you all fail,” Iruka said, holding up a finger, “be careful of the bog. You have until the day is over.”

They all chorused “What?” but he was gone, the clone that had been talking to them dispelled.

On the other end of the barrier, Iruka afforded himself a chuckle. He’d gotten up several hours early to prepare for their test. The preparation had included making a bog in the practice ground, sowing all manner of traps throughout the trees, and sending his summons all through the area.

Shimeri, the largest, laid on the ground under the tree Iruka sat in. “No badly injuring them, eh, sonny?” the massive salamander asked.

“No, they aren’t even genin yet,” Iruka replied, dropping down to the forest floor. Shimeri was the oldest of the salamanders, a roughskin large enough that Iruka could stand on her head without a problem. “I just want to see if they can get along,” he said honestly, sending a water jutsu over her so she would stay damp, “that’s the most important part of being in a genin team.”

Shimeri made a rumbling noise, coiling around the trunk of the tree. “Good luck to them.”

-

Twenty-three minutes before Iruka intended to call it quits, the hint of pink appeared through the trees.

He hopped up on Shimeri, scoured the wood until he could pick out Naruto and Sasuke as well. All three looked exhausted; he probably needed to buy them dinner after what he sent them through.

Sakura was the first to notice him, and she perked up substantially. She gestured to the boys, and they carefully picked through the last few meters to stop in front of Iruka, mouths agape at the size of Shimeri.

“Did we make it in time?” Sakura timidly asked, pushing her mud-streaked hair out of her eyes. Naruto flopped down on the ground, groaning, and Sasuke lost his uptight posture, scrubbed at the dirt on his face. All three looked at him, hope shining through the mud and twigs and one or two baby salamanders.

“You did,” Iruka said, small smile on his face. Maybe he could learn to like these kids. But first, “You are all probably hungry, yeah?”

Chapter Text

It turned out that Iruka had lied when he thought he could like his genin students. Sakura? Yes, Sakura was good and smart and wanted to learn (even if only to impress Sasuke). Naruto and Sasuke, however.

It wasn’t even that they were the Kyuubi’s container and the last Uchiha, respectively; it was that they were massive assholes who couldn’t go ten minutes without picking a fight with each other. At first glance it seemed as though Naruto was always the instigator, but Sasuke with his snide remarks was no better than the blond. Even when they were on missions--admittedly, D-ranks--the boys just wouldn’t stop fighting.

God, Iruka needed a drink.

-

Iruka’s reasoning for taking the escort mission to the Land of Waves was simple: if he actually ended up snapping and killing Naruto and Sasuke, the bodies would be easier to hide.

Ok, ok, it was not that, but it sort of was at the same time. Naruto and Sasuke needed to learn to get along, or else they would die on a mission. Trust was essential, and gods be damned if Iruka wasn’t going to beat that concept into their heads. In addition, it would probably do them good to actually see what other villages were like; Iruka knew that Wave didn’t have a shinobi village, but it would be informative for the kids to see how civilian-only villages worked.

That said, he did sort of regret taking the mission. Tazuna was a day-drinker and didn’t seem that trustworthy, plus they would be missing at least two weeks worth of training right before the chuunin exams. He still didn’t know if he would enter the kids, but depending on how the mission went, maybe.

Their departure from Konoha seemed to portend what the Land of Waves would be like: rain, patchy fog, and a seeping chill on the air. The kids matched in their lined and waterproofed ponchos, all grumbling at the cold as they stood with Iruka at the gate. Tazuna was supposed to be meeting them, but of course he was late, so Iruka took the opportunity to drill his team on their duties.

“Your objective?” he asked.

“Protect the client,” they chorused, in a lackluster tone.

“How are you supposed to do that?”

“As a team,” another chorus. Sasuke sneezed.

“And if you decide to play the hero?”

“You’ll skin us alive.” Sakura actually looked troubled at that, and when Sasuke and Naruto were distracted by some stupid argument she tugged on Iruka’s poncho.

“Yes, Sakura-chan?” he moved his attention fully to her. Tazuna looked to be coming up the road, but he could wait.

“Will you really skin us alive if we try to help you?” she asked.

“No, but I want to make sure that they,” he nodded his head toward the boys, who were refusing to look at each other, “don’t get injured trying to do that. If I need help and you all can help me, I will ask.”

That seemed to satisfy the girl, and she went to take her place between Sasuke and Naruto as Tazuna finally arrived.

-

It was nice, that Sasuke and Naruto hadn’t killed each other by the time they reached the border. It wasn’t that they got along or anything, but that they independently decided to ignore each other. While it was driving Sakura crazy, it meant that Iruka didn’t have to spend all his time chaperoning his genin, and instead could chaperone their client. Not that he particularly wanted to, if he was being honest.

He had been right in his initial assessment of the man. Tazuna was hiding something, but Iruka couldn’t figure out just what. At least he had run out of alcohol by the second evening, but even that wasn’t enough to mask the fact that the older man was not particularly kind, nor good for the kids in particular to be around. He’d already made fun of every single one of the kids, and had only refrained from insulting Iruka because Iruka had mastered Anko’s brand of killing stares. In fact, he actually tended to stay rather quiet after the first glare Iruka sent his way.

By the time they actually made it to the Land of Waves and boarded the small rowboat that Tazuna had contracted, everyone’s tempers were wearing thin. Iruka used everything he had learned from years meditating and dealing with his own short temper to keep it all together.

Finally, finally , they made it to the island that made up the majority of the Land of Wave, and Iruka sighed with relief to finally be on solid land again. It did feel off, but at least they weren’t on the open water.

-

They had about five kilometers of walking before they would make it to the village Tazuna lived in, and only a kilometer in the wrongness that Iruka had felt seemed to multiply by a thousand. A dense fog had enveloped them, and it felt heavy, bad. Mist-based techniques had been his mother’s speciality, and she had spent the first few years of his life teaching them to him. He sent up a prayer in her honor as, after a few minutes, he recognized the damp fog they stood in to be generated by a ninjutsu. Quietly, to his team, Iruka said, “Remember your objective.”

From the shuffling noises he could tell that the kids were in formation around Tazuna. Good. He didn’t have a lot of faith that they’d be able to really do anything, but that was why he was with them.

They kept walking and made it to a break in the trees. The fog thinned a little in the open, just enough for Iruka to get a better visual of their surroundings.

Not for long; what appeared to be a giant carving knife flew out of the north, where a river flowed, and embedded in one of the gnarled old trees near them.

With a speed that was alarming, a man appeared on the sword. Iruka scooted back, so the kids and Tazuna were directly behind him.

With entirely too much ceremony, the man dropped down, leaned on the wrapped hilt. He eyed Iruka, eyes narrowing, and Iruka suddenly realized that he recognized those eyes. Momochi Zabuza, Demon of Kirigakure. A shudder threatened to run down his spine, but he suppressed it. He needed to focus; there was more than just his life at the stake.

“Umino,” Zabuza growled, pulling the sword out of the tree with the ease of a master swordsman. Of course, he was; and of course, he would remember the Umino family. Iruka reviewed the options he had. Run, but the kids were slow and Tazuna even slower. Fight; well, Iruka might have been able to take Momochi Zabuza on his own, but with the kids unable to proficiently help and Tazuna to protect he didn’t want to risk it. Option three it was.

As fast as Zabuza was, Iruka did have speed on him and that could be advantageous. That and his own ability to manipulate the mist, but Zabuza seemed to have realized his own slight mistake.

“Sensei, does he know you?” asked Sakura, snapping him out of his thoughts, and he held a hand back toward them.

“No,” Iruka said, making the signs for “stay” and “protect” so that the enemy couldn’t see them. Then the sign for “ready”, and he held it until he had enough chakra built up on the soles of his feet. “Now” and he sped off, away from Tazuna and the kids, only casting a glance back to ensure that they were still in formation.

His speed was better than his opponent’s, and Iruka used that to his advantage. With Zabuza caught off guard by his family heritage, it gave him a few precious moments to turn the fight in his advantage.

A barrier on the ground protected his genin and Tazuna. A dozen kunai, all tagged with seal tokens littered the ground, enough of them in the right positions so that Iruka could slap the key seal against Zabuza’s sword. It was a proximity seal and barrier, which would trap everything inside it for a set time. Once Iruka blasted the key with chakra--a feat of flexibility and near-misses, Zabuza froze.

Iruka slapped the barrier he’d set to drop it, hefted Tazuna onto his back and said, “Fast as possible.”

They headed into the mist, followed only by the glare of Momochi Zabuza.

-

Despite the terms of the mission being to merely see Tazuna home, they remained in the Land of Waves. Iruka wanted to get to the bottom of whatever was going on, and after Tazuna felt it okay to finally share the truth with them, Iruka felt obligated that they stay. Konoha would benefit from being able to trade with Wave, and beyond that Iruka didn’t want to leave Tazuna to die.

Sakura, at least, understood, but the boys slowly came around to understand that they were needed. With Zabuza lurking like a threat in their thoughts, the kids applied themselves to their work and training. Iruka had them reviewing the basics--speed training, chakra control, defensive skills. They went as a squad to oversee the building of the bridge daily, training even there. The workers poked fun at them, but once it was known that Iruka had gotten them all away from almost certain death without a scratch, they did nothing but tip their hats in respect and get on with their work.

Word seemed to spread, in fact, and within days there was double the number of workers at the bridge. Despite how angry Tazuna’s grandson seemed about their presence, it did seem to be positive for the people living there, and Iruka counted that as a win. There seemed to be some hope, again.

-

After a full week, Iruka was beginning to chafe. He could tell that, at some point, Zabuza would return to finish what he had begun. It wasn’t the question of where; that would probably be at the bridge, given who the other shinobi’s target was.

At least he was right, in the end?

-

The kids were reviewing their basic formations a week and two days in. Tazuna and his crew were working; the man said that everything was coming together at a quicker pace than he expected. It made sense, in Iruka’s mind, what with the increased amount of workers who seemed to think their problems were over.

There was fog, but there was always fog, except for the few days that the sun was bright enough to burn it off. The difference was, Iruka had added his own touch to the fog; a ninjutsu that spread sensory chakra into the fog. So far, nothing had set the ninjutsu off, but around the time the workers stopped for a mid-morning break, something pinged in the fog a couple kilometers to the north.

Whatever it was moved quickly, and Iruka, through hand-signs, had the genin collect all the workers while he set up a barrier around them. It wouldn’t be effective against powerful ninjutsu, but against most physical attacks and basic ninjutsu it would hold.

He finished setting it just in time; the fog thickened, and without a sound Momochi Zabuza dropped onto the bridge opposite Iruka. Just as silent, a younger man appeared in front of Zabuza, his stance one of a protector.

The young man--he couldn’t have been more than sixteen--was wearing an outfit that was eerily familiar; the layered colors and textures reminiscent of the outfit his mother had kept locked away in a chest. What the hell was a Kiri hunter-nin doing in the company of a missing-nin? Iruka cursed their luck; of course Zabuza would somehow have a henchman of that caliber. Gods be damned.

“Formation C,” Iruka told his genin; they backed Tazuna and the workers that hadn’t escaped up against the side of the bridge, into the center of the barrier. Okay, first task would be to corral the hunter-nin; not knowing who he was would make that a problem, but Iruka had little choice if he wanted to deal with Zabuza on his own.

Hunter-nin were trained for speed and silence, as well as skill with senbon and poisons. It seemed realistic to think that Zabuza would either send the hunter-nin after the genin and Tazuna, or send him to Iruka and take on the genin and Tazuna himself.

“Haku,” Zabuza said, nodding at enough of an angle that Iruka could tell that he was sending him to the barrier.

There wasn’t a moment to think. Iruka sent a scroll toward Zabuza; weaponry of all kinds flew out at the man to keep him occupied.

The younger man, Haku perhaps, did have speed on Iruka. He made it to the barrier, and in a blast of frigid air destroyed it, shards of ice shattering. Fuck. Iruka knew what that was. One of the Yuki clan, a user of hyoton.

He began weaving signs, the fluid hand movements only confirming that he was a hyoton user, and the fog increased before solidifying into what looked to be mirrors of pure ice. One formed in full before the others; and as the hunter-nin slid himself into it--an intriguing technique--Iruka pulled more seals out of his secondary pouch, hoping and praying that they would be enough.

There were two dozen seals, and the mirrors numbered twenty one in the end. The advantage he had was that Haku appeared to be only able to move around inside the dome-like formation, which meant he could slap the seals on the backs of the mirrors and they would still work.

With Haku trapped, there was little Zabuza could do. Iruka had a reasonable amount of chakra, but he didn’t want to try anything particularly heavy-handed. Water techniques were pretty much out, because Zabuza knew more powerful ones, and most of the fire techniques required time to prepare that Iruka didn’t have.

Zabuza growled, a feral sound, and made hand-signs that resulted in the fog thickening further, until it was nearly solid. But it was still not thick enough to cover the arrival of at least three dozen others, though the sound they made was loud enough to tell everyone they were there. Iruka turned enough to see who it was; Zabuza did the same, and his entire posture screamed surprise

“Are they with you?” Iruka asked in a conversational tone.

Zabuza--ignored him. Huh. The man had fully whipped around and was staring at the crowd of mercenaries that had gathered on the other end of the bridge, the look on his face intense enough that many of them stepped back. Whether fury or just outright hatred, the feeling seemed to emanate off him in waves.

You ,” he growled.

As if he had achieved enlightenment, Iruka understood. He’d seen pictures of Gato in governmental correspondences, and the man standing in the middle of the mercenaries looked identical to those pictures. Gato had hired Zabuza, and it seemed that he didn’t want to pay him, from the way the small man was yelling at his mercenaries to get the other man.

“Ah, the answer to our problems,” Iruka said brightly. That was enough to make Zabuza look away from Gato, instead warily eyeing him. Iruka looked to Zabuza, and in that same tone said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll deal with this.”

That just earned confusion, but Iruka had already taken off, sliced his palm against the kunai he was holding so blood would ooze out as he weaved the signs for a summoning.

Shimeri took one look at the crowd in front of them, and began spitting. It wasn’t exactly saliva, but a thick poison that could be absorbed through the skin; with a reach of about ten meters, it was laughably easy to deal with the mercenaries. Not that they weren’t trying to escape the sudden appearance of a nine meter long newt spitting poison. The ones who made it off the bridge without getting hit by the poison Iruka left to the sea; the others would slowly die as their respiratory and circulatory systems failed.

He was about ready to let the summoning expire when Zabuza ran forward, a kunai gripped in the hand that wasn’t injured. God damn it, the man was getting poison all over himself, and while he was technically their enemy he also didn’t need to be. In any case, death by poison would be a lame way for the Demon of the Mist to go.

After Zabuza had lopped Gato’s head off (quite neatly, Iruka would admit), Iruka urged Shimeri forward, onto the mess of poison that she’d left.

“Let me go,” Zabuza said, when they approached, “Let me die.”

“And what about Haku?” Iruka leaned forward so he could see the man. Hell, he would likely be able to save the man’s arm, but if not he’d done emergency surgery in the field before, he’d be able to take it off it it was not saveable. And then if they got the antidote to Shimeri’s poison in him within a couple hours he would definitely survive.

The man’s head turned, looking at the boy trapped in the mirror of ice with a seal.

“I mean,” Iruka said, leaning back and tapping a finger to his lips, “you were just contracted by Gato, it wasn’t like you were targeting us specifically. I’d be willing to write that off.”

“Why?” Zabuza asked, turning to him.

“I want to know why this happened. And, anyway, you have someone depending on you; I would hate to destroy that,” Iruka said, shrugged.

-

Tsunami was more than a little wary to let two people into her house who, until that afternoon, had been their enemies. Particularly since one of them was badly wounded.

Iruka couldn’t blame her; he asked if he could just take over the empty woodshed in the back, and after Naruto and Sasuke cleaned it they moved Zabuza in there, Sakura apprehensively following him the entire time. Haku followed, too, but from a distance, as if he couldn’t believe that Iruka wasn’t going to hurt Zabuza.

Well, all told, Iruka would be hurting Zabuza. There were splinters of metal from the senbon embedded in his arm, and burns from the poison. Ah, the poison. Once they were back outside, Haku hovering over Zabuza, Iruka unwrapped the bandage he’d hastily thrown around his hand, pressed the cut so some blood would drip out.

The salamander that appeared from the summoning smoke was tiny compared to Shimeri, a young orange-belly who immediately scampered up onto one of Iruka’s hands.

“Jouki, I have a job for you,” Iruka said to the newt, who stared intently at him without blinking. “I need the you to simulate an antidote.”

Jouki blinked, and Iruka set him down next to Zabuza. “Shimeri?” the newt asked in a high, squeaking tone as he climbed onto the man’s face. Thankfully, Zabuza had passed out on their trip back to the house.

“Yes,” Iruka knelt, cast a reassuring look to Haku. “The poison is slow-moving, so we have time.”

At that moment, Sakura appeared with the bag Iruka had sent her to get; from it, he withdrew a scroll and released the seal on it.

A field medical kit appeared, and Iruka fished out the bottle of antiseptic and tweezers, and went to work pulling the metal shards out.

-

Two hours and a lot of amphibian slime later, Zabuza was patched up and fully dosed with the antidote for the poison. Haku had disappeared once he seemed sure that Iruka wasn’t going to hurt the other man, reappeared with two bags slung over his shoulder. He set about double-checking that Zabuza’s wounds were seen to properly while Iruka set up a pallet in the woodshed.

Sakura returned to help him, after putting his bag away, looking a little pale but otherwise fine. She’d been a big help, assisting him in dressing Zabuza’s wounds and clean the man up. Naruto and Sasuke had returned to help, but both had been too squeamish.

“Thank you for your assistance, Sakura-chan,” he said, ushering her to go and wash up in the house. “You did well.”

“How do medics do that all the time, sensei?” she asked as they returned to the house and paused to pull their sandals off.

“Practice,” he said, “experience in the field gets you used to it.”

She grimaced a little, nodded, heading slowly to the bathroom.

-

It seemed anticlimactic, how quickly the construction was finished after that. With Gato and his mercenaries dealt with, many more civilians joined the work; even Tazuna’s grandson took to visiting the bridge and helping if he could, annoying Iruka’s genin for information on Iruka.

Being idolized by a child was very strange.

Apart from that, Zabuza healed quickly. Jouki’s slime, while being an antidote, also worked to speed up healing.

On one afternoon, leaving the kids to watch over the progress on the bridge, Iruka returned to the house to check on Haku and Zabuza. They hadn’t had a chance to talk; for the most part, other than checking on Zabuza’s health and making sure they were both getting enough to eat, Iruka was too busy with his team and the construction.

Zabuza was alone when Iruka knocked on the door to the woodshed and let himself in.

“Doing alright?” Iruka asked.

Zabuza let out a hollow bark of a laugh. “You worry too much about someone not worth worrying over, Umino.”

Iruka couldn’t help it, the man reminded him of Anko. He crossed his arms and directed a glare at Zabuza. “That is for me to decide. As I said on the bridge, I would like to know how this all came about. Why were you working for Gato of all people?”

“Money is money,” Zabuza said. He was sitting, leaned against the wall, and he tipped his head back to stare at the roughly patched roof. “We were approached by Gato a year ago but refused him; he found us again last month and didn’t give us the choice of refusing.”

“I can’t imagine that threatening you would have worked.”

Zabuza’s eyes flickered to the door, and Iruka understood the implication. “I would not hesitate to forfeit my own life,” he said, fiercely. “I know my own past is unforgivable, but he has done nothing of his own volition worth being punished for.”

Iruka slowly nodded. Just from seeing their interactions, their relationship seemed one of parent and child. “Well, I afford you a second chance. I don’t know if anything can be put right, but at least for Haku’s sake you two can start over.”

“No,” Zabuza says, looking down at him with wide eyes. “My life is yours. You did not leave me for dead; I owe you my life.”

Hell. “Oh god,” Iruka muttered. The look on Zabuza’s face was one of stubbornness. “You wish to repay me?” The man inclined his head, a nod. “Then take your second chance; I don’t want anyone to die for me.”

The man stared at him, as if he couldn’t comprehend the words that Iruka was saying.

“For Haku, if nothing else,” Iruka said firmly.

-

The bridge was finished and dedicated (to the shinobi of Konoha, Tazuna said, and their willingness to help), the merchants living on the island already caravaning to the mainland. Zabuza was as well as he would ever be when they left Tsunami’s house; Iruka made sure to stop in town and get both him and Haku clothes and provisions for their journey, wherever that would lead.

The day they left, they already began making better time than their journey to Wave. Tazuna’s absence seemed to help the genin get along better, and let them go at a pace that Iruka set. The kids had a ridiculous amount of pent-up energy to expend, so Iruka sent them to running in the trees and counting the wildlife that wasn’t birds that they saw on the way.

They were only three days out from Konoha when they stopped for the night. Iruka set his team to preparing a camp and reporting the animals that they had seen.

“Three squirrels, uh, one of those things with the big teeth,” Naruto mimed the teeth of a beaver as Sakura said, “Beaver.”

“Close,” Iruka said, pointing to Sasuke.

“Five squirrels, two rabbits, one beaver,” Sasuke said.

“Closer,” Iruka said.

“There wasn’t a beaver, that was a muskrat,” interjected Sakura, “and there were three rabbits.”

“Closest, Sakura,” Iruka gave her a pat on the head, and she smiled at him. “One of those squirrels was a chipmunk, otherwise perfect.”

“Uh, sensei,” she added, in a softer voice so the boys wouldn’t hear her, “I also...well, I might have seen...it looked like Haku? But he and Zabuza were still in the village.”

Goddamnit, couldn’t anything ever be simple? “When was this?” Iruka asked, despairing just a little.

“An hour or so ago, after we passed the big river,” Sakura said. Iruka’s tone must have worried her, because her eyebrows were pinched and she looked a little upset.

“Thank you for telling me, Sakura. If you could have Sasuke start dinner for all of us, plus a couple,” he said. She looked confused for all of a moment, then grinned and nodded.

-

Finding Haku and Zabuza was easy, mostly because they wanted to be found, if Iruka wasn’t imagining things. They were to the south, camped underneath a mossy tree, and when Iruka appeared out of the woods they both looked at him with expectant looks on their faces.

“Oh, come on then,” Iruka groaned, turning around and heading back toward his own camp. He didn’t need to look back to know they were following.

The kids were intensely excited to see Zabuza and Haku again, enough so that Iruka could slip away without being noticed. He had expected that Zabuza and Haku would be going with them; something about the look in Zabuza’s eyes when they had last talked, and how Haku had actually said “See you later” to Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura. As such, he’d begun formulating a plan in the back of his mind, a plan to hopefully get both of them into Konoha without being figured out.

First, he summoned one of his salamanders; changing their appearances could wait a couple days.

-

To be back in Konoha, even with Zabuza and Haku in tow, was a blessing. Everything seemed much easier once they were back in Konoha, despite how soon the chuunin exam was and how badly unprepared Iruka was to get Zabuza and Haku into the village.

Anko appeared to have gotten his message; she met them a few kilometers out of the village walls, looking apprehensive. Iruka led all the people following him off the road, and left them to talk one-on-one with Anko. All he’d sent her was the basic story of what had happened; he took the chance to fill her in on the details as quickly as he could.

“So you rescued the Momochi Zabuza from the Land of Wave and you want me to keep him and his adopted child or whatever at my house?” she hissed, keeping her voice low. “Who the hell am I supposed to say they are?”

“Given that they’re from the Land of Water, I’ll just say we’re related.”

“You look nothing alike, though. He’s too. Big,” Anko said, in the voice that meant she was just a little horny. Iruka slapped a hand to his face. Goddamnit.

“Yes, he is. Okay, can you help me or not?” Iruka said, gripping her by the shoulders.

“Sure, I have plenty of room,” she shrugged, “You’re in charge of figuring out how to get them into the city. Good job on the hair, though.”

Iruka rolled his eyes, turned to the two separate clumps of people near them. “You’ll be staying with Anko, she has a house and I just live in a one-room. Zabuza, at least, will need go by another name; if I’m right, we should just have to deal with the Hokage.”

“You really think that we can fool everyone in Konoha? Even the Hokage?” Haku asked, his normally blank tone more disbelieving than anything.

“You will learn in time, but if there’s anything Iruka is good at, it’s making people do what he wants, kid,” Anko said in a long-suffering tone.

“That’s true,” muttered Naruto, as Haku and Zabuza exchanged a confused look.

Chapter Text

Anko spent two days after the summons with the note appeared cleaning out her house as she never had before. If Iruka said he was bringing someone to Konoha, he damn well meant it, though asking her if they could stay with her was strange. Iruka tended to take care of his own strays.

Considering his mission was in Wave, she couldn’t even think of who the person--people, two people the note had said--could be. Once the house was cleaner than it had ever been, she collapsed in the living room and hoped, rather desperately, that they would just be normal civilians.

-

All things considered, it wasn’t really a surprise that the people Iruka was smuggling into Konoha were missing-nin. That didn’t mean that it wasn’t irritating as hell , and fucking god how the hell was it going to work? How was she going to hide Momochi Zabuza , the demon of Kirigakure, in her own goddamn house?

She had a few hours to think about it while Iruka got them into the village itself; well, think about that and also scrub her mind of any dirty thoughts that she may have been harboring about Zabuza. Thing was, he was tall and big and that was her type to a T, and he was so good with Haku and Iruka’s kids, from what she had seen.

Anko, was, in a word, fucked . Not literally of course.

“Though that would be nice,” she muttered into the body pillow she was trying to smother herself with. She groaned, pressed the pillow harder against her face and considered finding Gai and challenging him to a sprinting race if only to make herself die of exhaustion.

The wallowing was interrupted by a tap on her window; not the light tapping of one of the Hokage’s notification birds, but the heavier tapping of a gloved hand.

She threw the pillow away, and straightened her clothes before following the dog-masked Anbu that was sitting on her windowsill.

-

Iruka deserved a fucking medal. Iruka deserved to be elevated to the status of a god . Iruka deserved a lifetime supply of ramen, all you can eat.

His genin team was waiting outside of the Hokage’s office when they got out, and when Haku sent them a smile (god, the kid was adorable), all three made noises of delight and crowded Haku and Zabuza for hugs, weirdly enough. Anko was still just staring at Iruka with awe on her face and couldn’t really fathom how he had managed to convince the Hokage of Konohagakure, a man well-versed in bullshit and lies, that the individuals he had dragged back with him were not wanted criminals throughout all the shinobi countries, but instead his relatives who had lived for years in the mountains of the Land of Waves after fleeing the Land of Water. It wasn’t just impressive; it was a work of goddamn art.

“Are you sure you’re okay with them staying at your place?” Iruka asked her quietly. Genuine concern, of course, but it was a little late for that with all the paperwork signed.

“It’ll be fine, just,” she waved a hand, “getting used to it will be weird. Haven’t lived with anyone since my ma died.”

Oh god, then his faced crinkled up in a smile and she would kill a man for Umino Iruka, Anko really would. She slung an arm around his shoulders, waved to the kids and her new houseguests, “Well then, anyone up for food?”

-

Anko began picking up on things when they were getting takeout from the barbecue place. Haku was vegetarian--he ordered for Zabuza and himself, communicated with the older man through subtle glances. Zabuza was mostly quiet, though he did crack a smile or two at the kids, visible even through the scarf tied around his face. Iruka actually digged at her ribs after she’d been staring at him a few minutes.

They went to her house with the food. It was big enough to hold all of them, she guessed, but having all the kids there was weird, and knowing that Zabuza and Haku would be staying even after everyone else left was even weirder.

-

Haku insisted on helping clean the dishes, as they’d had to break into her stoneware after Naruto had accidentally exploded his carton of rice. Dinner had been lively, familial even; of course, Iruka had the tendency to make anything feel familial, even when he was ripping the Hokage a new one.

“Are you related to Umino-san?” Haku asked while elbow-deep in soapy water. So damn polite.

“No,” she replied. Though, “we basically are, though; we’ve known each other for years. People do call him my little brother, around the village. Why do you ask?”

Haku was silent for a moment, and she could see him glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. The expression on his face was difficult to parse; perhaps anguish, or longing.

“My family is gone,” he carefully said, handing her a plate to dry, “Zabuza-san is all I have.”

“Well,” Anko shrugged, “now you’ve got me, I guess. And Iruka, definitely. Plus the kids, we’ll never get rid of them.”

She saw him mouth ‘we’, and turned to look fully at him. “You know, speaking of, since you guys are staying here for the foreseeable future, we should probably get you some clothes and stuff. Any plans for the afternoon that we’d be interrupting?”

There was a small smile on his face, a genuine smile, and he said, “I’d say we’re free.”

Chapter Text

It worked.

Iruka wanted to punch something or at least get very drunk in celebration, but that seemed like a bad idea considering the Hokage had only just okayed Zabuza and Haku’s conditional living permits. Hell, that didn’t stop him from going home and having a celebratory swig of sake, but that was as far as it went. He was tired from all the traveling, in need of a shower, and really needed to figure out when the meeting for the chuunin exams was happening.

Once he was sure Anko was okay and not liable to kill her new houseguests, he started with the second; once clean, it was a simple enough task to hunt down Asuma. As pretty much every other Tuesday the man spent in Konoha, he was composing poetry to send to Kurenai from atop his family home.

“You look like hell,” Asuma said after a cursory glance up. He resumed staring at the piece of paper sitting on his lap.

“Better than I looked yesterday,” Iruka returned. A groan accompanied his sitting down, and without even trying to hide it he peered at what Asuma had so far composed.

“You know, maybe you should stop trying to equate her eyes to lilies,” he said.

“What else am I supposed to equate them to? Anko suggested bugs and Hayate said fish,” the older man complained.

“Uh, roses?” The suggestion was met with a exclamation, and Asuma bent over to scribble on the paper. “Anyway, have notifications for exams been sent out? We just got back today and nothing was waiting for me in the post room.”

“Tomorrow,” Asuma didn’t look up from the paper. “Submitting your kids?”

“‘dunno.”

“I will if you will,” Asuma said.

“That’s the dumbest reason to do it,” Iruka muttered, punching him in the shoulder. But it was a little comforting, that their teams would then be taking it together.

-

True to Asuma’s word, the air the next morning was thick with messengers and messenger birds. They bore scrolls announcing team eligibility, official documents to the daimyo, and notifications to the other participating countries to send in their own team nominations in. Nominations would be due the next day at a meeting in the Tower; the exams themselves would start in two weeks, contingent on the timely arrival of the teams from the other countries.

As far as Iruka knew, only four other countries were submitting teams. He mulled over what he did know as he watched his genin go through taijutsu katas; Land of Grass was sending a couple teams, Suna was considered a co-host because of the financial support from the other village and the daimyo of the Land of Wind. Might Gai was going to be submitting his team; Kurenai also had mentioned her intent to submit her team when he’d seen her that morning. Would it be worth submitting his team? None of them would probably do well, but it would be a helpful learning experience.

“-sei? Is something wrong?” Sakura’s soft voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Uh,” he looked down at her. Naruto was collapsed on the ground glaring at Sasuke, and Sasuke was bent with his hand on his thighs, catching his breath.

“We finished a few minutes ago,” she said. “You’ve been staring at the ground.”

He blinked at her, and after a moment pushed off the tree he was leaning on. “Ah, sorry Sakura-chan. You all can go ahead and head home; we won’t be meeting tomorrow until later. Enjoy some free time.”

Her expression was one of confusion, but the boys let out noises of relief. Iruka could imagine the thoughts going through her mind as she walked back toward Sasuke and Naruto to pick up her water bottle and jacket. He kept a strict schedule and paid rather intense attention to the kids while training.

Once he was sure that they were all headed home (Naruto running after Sakura, though she was rather intensely considering the ground as she walked away), he considered the ground for a further moment, and then headed to the one place he knew Asuma would be.

-

The underground bar was, unlike most of the other bars in the village, clean, well-lit, and not smelling of over-fried food. It was more expensive, but there were lower rates for shinobi of age.

Asuma was sitting at a table with a jounin Iruka didn’t know, playing an extremely slow-moving game of hanafuda while Kurenai ate edamame.

The other jounin slipped away by the time Iruka got a beer and made over to Asuma and Kurenai’s table. Kurenai waved, Asuma shuffled the cards and offered them to Iruka.

“We aren’t going to have downtime for a while,” Kurenai said mournfully, gesturing to the bar for a new bottle of sake. “Too much chaperoning. I miss it already.”

“We’ve got a couple weeks,” Iruka replied, shuffling the cards and dealing a game of koi-koi to Asuma.

“Of training,” Asuma half-groaned, cracking his back. He picked up his hand and winced. “You doing it?”

“Yeah,” Iruka matched a hand. He and Asuma wore nearly-identical grimaces when he looked up. “It’ll be a good experience for them.”

“At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves,” Kurenai dryly added.

Iruka toasted her, downed half his beer as Asuma did the same. At least the stupid decisions they were making were made in tandem.

“Well, we might as well enjoy the time we have left,” Asuma said, as though they were all dying and not just having to deal with teenagers. This time, all three of them toasted, downed their drinks, and called for more.

-

Iruka was blessed with the ability to work through any hangover, no matter how horrible, with plenty of water and a glass of miracle elixir made up of things that he personally would never ingest individually.

It worked well enough that he even went on a run before the meeting at the Tower started. Kurenai and Asuma looked like hell, but they were alive and aware, giving him a nearly identical looks of desperation as they milled about, waiting for the Hokage to arrive.

“When are you going to get old enough to suffer for drinking like the rest of us?” Kurenai said miserably. She and Asuma were leaning on each other in mutual support, smelling sort of off.

“You say that as you always haven’t gotten horrible hangovers,” Iruka said cheerfully.

“Ungh, fuck off, youth,” Asuma groaned.

And as if the gods knew about their matching hangovers and wanted to punish them more, Gai arrived and announced his presence with an announcement of, “Greetings, my esteemed fellow teachers!”

Kurenai slumped, and Asuma groaned again. They were saved from further headache by the arrival of the Hokage himself walking into the meeting room. The assembled shinobi (a mix of chuunin and jounin) quieted, and Iruka found himself standing next to Gai as the Hokage called the meeting to order.

He focused on the Hokage and--fuck. Standing right at the Hokage’s right hand, one of his least favorite people in the entire village. Hatake Kakashi. He was all dolled up in his Anbu gear, but the shock of silver hair was a dead giveaway, and Iruka could see his entire posture go ramrod straight as his masked face turned to Iruka.

Iruka wouldn’t hesitate to describe their relationship up to that point as torrid, as much as he hated to use the word. Two adrenaline-driven makeout sessions in one of the Hokage Tower’s closets did not a relationship make, and had not made a relationship in their case. The annoying thing--Kakashi was actually attractive, and apparently he found Iruka attractive, but they got along like oil and water when actually thinking with their brains.

A damn pity, Iruka considered, as the Hokage called forward the teachers nominating teams. At least from the gossip and talk that circulated, Kakashi was a good shinobi and a good person to match. Hell, he’d even heard from Hayate that the man wasn’t even afraid of calling out the Hokage on some of his more questionable acts and decisions.

Iruka sighed, returned his attention solely to the Hokage as the man announced some important dates and dismissed them. Whatever. Except for the two occasions in the closet, Hatake didn’t have anything to do with him and he didn’t have anything to do with Hatake. They were both just fine with that.

-

The kids took the news with a surprising amount of seriousness, but maybe that was more because Iruka explained what was involved and told them each to consider carefully if they individually wanted to risk taking the exam. Never before had he seen the three of them so quiet and pensive, and all at the same time.

“If you all want to think that over, we can postpone training for a couple days.”

“But, sensei,” Sakura was the one to protest, despite the worried crease between her eyebrows, “We’ll still need to train for missions, won’t we?” Naruto nodded in agreement, Sasuke made a ‘hmm’ noise.

“True.” Iruka looked between them. Just looking at them he couldn’t get a grasp on what their decisions might be; they needed time. “But take tomorrow off. I have duties around the village that need to be seen to.”

-

Submitting the paperwork the next day was a tedious process, one that involved signing a lot of papers, making sure that the kids had up to date medical records.

That was when the first snag hit, ignoring the fact that one Hatake Kakashi had been hovering for the better part of the morning. After Naruto had been moved out of the orphanage, his medical records just. Stopped. At first it didn’t make sense, but then Iruka, in a moment of sheer rage, realized that once he was out of the orphanage the village had stopped caring about that. There might’ve been reminders sent to him through the post but--fuck’s sake, he wasn’t even a teenager , he shouldn’t have been expected to take care of adult responsibilities. Iruka had been in the same boat, but the Hokage himself had taken him in and he’d spent most of his pre-teen and teenage years in the Sarutobi compound.

Well, thinking about that was the wrong thing to do apparently because he spent an hour yelling at the Hokage about Naruto before going to hunt down the boy and take him for a check up at the hospital. God damn , what the hell had he gotten himself into?

-

“A lot” was apparently the answer to that question. Naruto was still in bed (despite it being almost noon), but he had a healthy enough amount of fear and respect for Iruka that, within 15 minutes, they were at the hospital.

“Why do I gotta go to the hospital?” the kid asked, as if Iruka hadn’t already told him that.

Whatever. He sighed and reiterated, “You haven’t had a physical in years, and though you appear healthy I want to make sure.”

Those sky-blue eyes stared at him, suspicious, as they pushed into the building and headed for the front desk. Iruka ignored him. “Uzumaki Naruto, here for a check-up,” he said to the woman at the desk.

The woman glanced at Naruto, nodded. “I’ll be right back.”

She returned in record time with a file folder in one hand. “It’s been some time since you were last in,” she says, and Iruka can’t figure out if she’s talking to him or Naruto. “There’s information that needs to be updated; fill out this form,” she handed one on a clipboard over the counter, “and when you’re done bring it back to the desk.”

“Thank you,” Iruka said, handing the clipboard to Naruto, and taking a pen from the counter.

Naruto accepted the pen and began filling the forms out; he didn't seem to have many questions, but those that he did mention Iruka found himself able to answer. Once the clipboard was back to the desk and the pen was back to the nurse, Iruka found himself being stared at by Naruto.

"Can I help you?" he asked, curiously, of the boy.

"Why did you do this?" Naruto said, and Iruka could understand that the emphasis was on the unspoken; why would an adult, who so far had ignored his very existence, choose to help him?

Iruka sighed heavily. How was he supposed to answer the boy's question, though? Say that he was angry with how the Hokage handled everything after the attack of the nine-tails? Say that he saw something of himself in the boy--missing parents and friends?

"How did you pass your exam to graduate from the Academy?" Iruka asks instead of offering an answer. He does know how the boy passed; but maybe sharing the story will allow a learning experience.

"Uh," Naruto looked taken aback for a moment, and then his brow furrowed in thought and he said, "Sumire-sensei gave me a book to read; she said she wanted me to graduate, and she hoped the book would help me because she couldn’t think of anything else."

"What was the book about?"

"It was about chakra," Naruto said, tugging at the hem of his jacket, not looking at Iruka, "It had everything so I could understand it. I couldn't understand it when she explained it in class."

"And you were able to make a bunshin?" Iruka gently prodded the boy.

"Yeah, I was," Naruto said, brow furrowed still. He finally looked up at Iruka, "Why?"

"Think of me like that book," Iruka said, "I'm here to help you and make things simpler for you. That's why I got you a doctor appointment; nobody else helped you with it before, but I'm going to help you now."

The boy's face went red, and he looked down at his knees, gripping his jacket tightly. It was only before a medic-nin appeared to call his name that Naruto said, "Thank you, Iruka-sensei."

-

With fully updated medical records and sporting bandages from where he had blood drawn and received shots, Naruto meekly let Iruka take him out to have ramen for lunch. Ramen turned out to be a good choice, because Naruto decided it okay to bond with Iruka over the ramen. Iruka couldn't blame him, ramen was his favorite food.

Iruka had paid for them and stood to leave, Naruto stood and followed him out of the stand, waving goodbye to the owner.

"Iruka-sensei?" he asked, in a quiet, unsure tone.

"Yes?" Iruka stopped and turned, so his attention was fully on the small blond.

"How are you gonna make things simpler for me?" he asked.

"Well," Iruka carefully said, thinking, "we could start at the library."

-

The shinobi library took up the top floor of the Academy building, and Iruka knew exactly what he was looking for to give to Naruto. There were a lot of simply written books outlining basic shinobi skills, and Iruka had a feeling that if he timed training lessons for Naruto around the books, Naruto would easily pick up more advanced techniques. Practical examples worked well, and having him try until he succeeded tended to work well also.

But there was a question in Iruka's mind while he got three books out for Naruto to look over before the chuunin exams. Was the boy aware of the bijuu sealed within him? There were ways for jinchuuriki to take advantage of the bijuu sealed in them--the beasts speeded up healing, aided in chakra recovery, and gave them more stamina--but there were also drawbacks. They hadn't had any problems during missions or training, but Iruka had a feeling that the seal used to seal the Kyuubi into Naruto was one that allowed for shared chakra usage.

It wasn't the time for that, yet, though; he'd ask Naruto about it on a day not so hectic, a day where he could focus on answering the boy's questions, if he had any.

Once Naruto was back in his apartment, already reading a book on ninjutsu and elemental chakra, Iruka headed back to the Tower. Whether or not the Hokage wished it, he was going to find out more about Naruto's seal, and make sure the boy knew about his own history.

-

The next day was a return to normal training; Iruka met his genin at their usual training field after breakfast. He didn't have any plans for the day, and instead wanted to use the day as an opportunity to check in with his team and ask what they wanted to do in the time leading up to the exam.

Sakura was at the training grounds when he arrived; she was looking through a scroll that seemed to be on chakra control. Naruto appeared next, face buried in his book, and when Sasuke showed up he looked surprised to find both his teammates there before him.

"Before we start," Iruka said, sitting on the grassy ground in front of them, "I wanted to know what you all need to or want to focus on. I don't know how prepared you each feel for the exams, but I want you all to feel prepared if you decide to do it."

Sakura immediately raised her hand, followed a second later by Naruto. Iruka pointed to her, first. "Would it be possible for us to learn more about genjutsu?" she asked. Sasuke, who had been ignoring them, whipped his head around and nodded in agreement.

"Certainly," Iruka said. "I'm not as skilled as some, but we can get the basics down." He nodded to Naruto.

The boy was nearly vibrating when he asked, "Can we learn any ninjutsu?"

Sasuke and Sakura didn't look so excited; they probably thought he would say no, Iruka considered. But he did take a moment to think it over. As long as they were basic ninjutsu that would definitely be helpful, "Sure. You will need to work on improving your chakra control before that; in fact, all three of you would benefit from working on your chakra control. Sasuke, do you want us to cover anything?"

The boy looked momentarily startled at being called on, but, with a considering look on his face, he asked, "Could you teach us the shinobi hand-signs?"

Iruka nodded. "Those will be helpful not just for the exam; in fact, I think we'll start with that."

-

They trained right through lunch, and finally stopped and headed home around three that afternoon. Iruka was tired, but he still had stuff to do. He stopped by the Tower and hunted down the chakra-paper stash that was kept in one of the storage cupboards. With papers enough to test the kids (and a couple if they resulted in any false positives), he also stopped by the jounin library to loan out some scrolls on the Kyuubi--the writings of the Senju were all in the jounin library, which meant that accounts of Uzumaki Mito and the transferal of the Kyuubi to Uzumaki Kushina were there.

Then to more mundane things. He started laundry and stopped by the shops to restock his kitchen with food that wasn't just instant ramen, then took the rare break before making dinner to clean up his apartment.

After eating, it was to the scrolls that he'd taken out from the jounin library. All the scrolls told him the same thing: the seal used for the Kyuubi was an Eight Trigrams in both cases. A strange choice, he considered as he looked through the pages of notes he had taken. The Eight Trigrams relied heavily on internal focus, and in cases of extreme stress such as major wounds or childbirth, the seal would weaken substantially. That--that did explain how the Kyuubi was released, actually, but it meant that Naruto would be at risk of releasing the fox if he was badly injured. Contingent on him having the same seal, however.

Iruka wandered over to his bookshelf, stared at the scrolls and books stored there. The Eight Trigrams was not commonly used, and there were better options for seals as far as the Bijuu were concerned.

That line of thought was interrupted. A knock sounded on the living room window, and Iruka, on auto-pilot, went and opened it and didn’t realize who he let into his apartment until he was staring Hatake Kakashi in the face.

“What do you want, Hatake.” It was too goddamn late in the evening for company and, yeah, maybe it was Iruka’s fault that he had all the lights in his rooms on but Hatake Kakashi was the one coming into his apartment.

“Why did you submit them to the exams?” Well, at least the man was blunt and to the point. Not that it was his business.

“You may not have noticed, Hatake-san, but they survived what should have been an A-rank mission out of the Land of Fire, worked together to defeat a shinobi equivalent in rank to a Kiri hunter-nin, and succeeded in protecting their client even though he lied to all of us,” he said, without so much as pausing to take a breath. “And, anyway, if you were any good at stalking me as you are the Hokage you would know that I gave them the option to not show up.”

Kakashi had the grace to look a little ashamed, his head going a color past red to something distinctly eggplant-ish. Ah, how satisfying.

“If I am recalling right, as well, don’t you have work for the Hokage you need to be doing?”

Without another word, Kakashi flickered off in an aggressive flurry of smoke. Iruka dropped onto his couch and managed a deep exhale before the laughter set in, and soon enough he couldn’t really breathe because he had a cushion pressed to his mouth to try and keep quiet.

-

Anko appeared at his apartment--at the front door--right before he went to bed. It was a miracle he was still wearing all his clothes, and he sent up a prayer of thanks that he was, because Zabuza and Haku were trailing her like ducklings.

“To what do I owe this visit?” he groggily asked. A nap might have unintentionally happened after he’d nearly asphyxiated himself while laughing at Kakashi; it hadn’t been nearly long enough.

“Showing ‘em around,” Anko said, hooking a thumb to gesture at the other two. They looked rather presentable, wearing clothes that appeared to be second-hand but new to them. Apparently Anko had found clothes that would fit Zabuza.

“This is not a defensible location,” Haku muttered as they filed in to Iruka’s apartment.

Iruka snapped his fingers, and the layers of barriers and trap seals he’d set up over the years crackled with his chakra. Haku started, moving so he was almost behind Zabuza.

“I don’t worry about my own safety in here,” Iruka said, “except maybe from people I know. Speaking of,” he turned to Anko, “Hatake stopped by.”

She snorted, gestured for Haku and Zabuza to enter the apartment proper and grab a seat on the couch. “Obviously he finds you irresistible; let me guess, yelling at you for submitting the kids?”

The contrast between those statements obviously confused Zabuza and Haku, though Zabuza was the only one who really showed it. “That would be right,” Iruka said, slipping into the kitchen to grab some tea. Anko produced a carton of dango from somewhere, flopped down on the couch next to Zabuza.

The large man was tense, but he slowly relaxed as Iruka divvied the tea and sat down in the only remaining seat, a nearly-destroyed, ratty armchair that he really needed to replace. It sank a further two inches, creaking as though it was giving its last breath. Iruka took the moment to consider his and Anko’s newest charges.

Through some trial and error, they’d managed to lighten Zabuza’s hair on the road; Sakura had been immensely helpful with that. Haku’s appearance hadn’t changed, on the other hand, other than the clothes, and with the clothes--well, if Iruka didn’t know who the two were, he’d think they were just a couple of civilians, Zabuza’s oversized scarf and all.

“How are you settling in?” he asked, directing the question more to Haku, because Haku was the talkative one.

“Konohagakure is,” the young man paused, took a delicate sip of tea, “different. Who is this ‘Hatake?’”

“Only the most annoying person in the entire village,” Iruka sighed somewhat dramatically, slumped into the chair.

“He has a personal vendetta against Iruka. It’s kinda cute,” Anko said, leaning forward to tweak his nose.

“It’s the worst , I like people not questioning everything I do all the time,” Iruka grumbled. Then he noticed Zabuza and Haku glancing at each other with a nebulous sort of intent on their faces. Backtracking a little, Iruka added, “He’s a decent person, he just meddles.” while also thinking, Please don’t attempt to kill Hatake Kakashi .

-

After another hour of talk and an open invitation for Haku and Zabuza to visit anytime (particularly, he whispered to them so Anko wouldn’t hear, if Anko was getting on their nerves), the three headed back to Anko’s house.

Iruka needed to go to bed, but after the visit and the food, he felt alert and ready to tackle some work. Well, it seemed as good a time as ever to prepare basic ninjutsu for his genin to learn.

Chapter Text

The next two days were rather calm, but Iruka had to deal with enough chuunin exams that he knew that the calm would not last. No, he was just trying to get the kids taught as well as he could while their attention spans were still on him and not turned to fretting about the exam.

Sakura, out of the three of them, was the most distracted by it. She picked up everything he taught them--genjutsu basics, dispelling, and for her and Sasuke, forming basic genjutsus--but she was distracted and more than once he called her name and she squeaked in surprise. On the one hand, all three of them seemed to have agreed that they would take the test together, but on the other, he did give them option to not show up to the Academy when the exam started; she seemed to be considering that still.

Naruto, on the other hand, was hungry to learn. Some sort of switch must have flipped for him, because once he knew that Iruka was on his side and would help him, he had no problem asking Iruka to use simpler words or get him more books. As much as he thought he wouldn't, Iruka kind of liked the kid; yeah he was outrageously loud and sometimes annoying (especially when needling Sasuke), but he was eager to learn whatever Iruka set in front of him.

Sasuke out of the three of them was the most normal, if Sasuke could be called normal. The focus both boys had on the exam and learning was almost enough to snap them out of the cycle of fighting, but Sasuke seemed to sometimes get bored and decide the best way to amuse himself was annoy Naruto.

-

The third day, Iruka ran into a problem of sorts. The third day he arrived at the training field with the stack of chakra paper tucked into his pouch, and once he explained what they needed to do, each of his genin took a piece and concentrated.

Nearly immediately, Sakura's piece of paper crumpled, blowing away into dust. A few moments later, Sasuke's blazed up like a newly-lit candle, and a full minute later (after intense concentration), Naruto's split evenly in half, straight down the middle.

Iruka did know some doton and a lot of katon, but he did not have an affinity for wind and therefore didn't know any futon. Asuma did, he knew, but Asuma would be training his own team for the exams. With three different elemental affinities, Iruka knew he needed to just teach general ninjutsu; ninjutsu that could have different elemental chakra applied no matter what.

They started with Naruto's least favorite: clones.

-

Day five Iruka called a break and told his team to practice what they had been covering and meet at the field the next morning. It was nice; taking a day off gave him time to visit Anko and make sure she and her guests hadn't killed someone, or each other, and it also gave him time to meet up with his teammates.

Hayate and Meisa were already at the barbecue place when he arrived for lunch. They were an odd team. Hayate was older than Iruka, Meisa younger, but the years they had spent together made age not matter much.

"Yo," Hayate said, scooting over so Iruka could sit. Meisa raised a hand in acknowledgement, but didn't lift her head or other arm from the table.

"You need to tell Anko to stop courting death," Meisa said, voice muffled by the table.

Hayate snorted a little. "I mean, she's great, but that early in the morning deserves murder."

"Do you think I can actually control what Anko does?" Iruka asked, laying some beef on the grill.

"Good point," Meisa said, pushing herself up. Under her eyes were dark bags, and she yawned, snatched a couple pieces of cooked meat off the grill.

"I hear you've entered your team for the exam," Hayate said, fending Meisa off before she could take more of his food.

"Ooh, I didn't even know you got a team," Meisa said, cracking an eye to fix on Iruka.

Iruka merely grimaced. They were good kids, but he didn't have high hopes.

"You've been gone for the past month and a half, though," Hayate interjected, "anyway, I got drawn to run prelims if there's enough teams after the second stage, and the finals."

"You got drawn?" Iruka asked.

"Laugh it up, I am a jounin, too."

"Tokubetsu jounin." Meisa looked much more awake as she poked Hayate with her chopsticks.

That earned a heavy sigh, and Hayate shrugged. He turned his attention back to Iruka, though, asked, "So do you think they're actually ready? I've seen the nomination lists and there's some heavy hitters this year."

"I have hopes that they won't die, at least," Iruka said, in between bites of food. "Anything more than that will be a pleasant surprise."

-

As the exam itself got closer, the more intense their training turned. Iruka spent time with each of them, one on one, to push them in the right directions and answer any questions they may have had. It was a particularly helpful experience for Naruto, who finally grasped how to properly mix his elemental chakra with his regular chakra--Iruka didn't even bring up the Kyuubi, the boy already had enough trouble as it was. And it seemed a bad time, in any case, because they had enough to worry about.

Sakura quickly learned everything she was taught, Sasuke behind her a ways but still ahead of Naruto. They'd gone over elemental clones, as well as substitution jutsu incorporating a simple twist that would sent whatever element they could use out to injure potential enemies. Sasuke, out of the three of them, had the most experience, but he hadn't learned the basics; in terms of skill, Sakura was probably edged just above him.

Not that the girl seemed to believe she was better than Sasuke, and that was a little confusing. Iruka had taken a couple minutes detour from the Tower to visit their old teacher, Kimura Sumire. He hadn't had the chance to talk to her before taking them on as his own genin team, but it seemed appropriate to get that background before the exams started.

"Ah, Umino-san," she smiled benevolently at him, obviously remembering the time she was an aide in his pre-genin class. He bestowed the most charming smile he could on her, then let his expression turn serious.

"I received a genin team this year," he said, and one of her eyebrows raised. "Uzumaki Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke, and Haruno Sakura."

"Oof, you have your hands full," she said, leaned back. "What do you need to know?"

"Haruno Sakura; did she always have low scores in practice tests and practicals?" he asked.

"Not really, her scores overall were slightly higher than average. It was only for the more important tests that her scores dropped; I would guess that she mostly suffered from bad anxiety about those tests."

"And any paper tests? Covering theory and the like?"

"High scores across the board; that girl is smart, Iruka. If her physical skills had some work, she would be on or past the Uchiha boy's level."

-

The day before the exam, Iruka sent his team home later than usual. They'd reviewed practically everything from the past couple weeks, and spent a good deal of time talking fighting scenarios and tactics to use. Not that Iruka wanted to spoil the exam for them, but he didn't want them to be unprepared when Anko threw them into the Forest of Death for five days.

Well, they wouldn't be prepared anyway.

-

The day of the exam dawned early, but Iruka spent more time than usual laying in bed before getting up. He didn't have to be at the Academy; he really didn't have to do anything at all, because notifications would be sent out as teams dropped out or were failed.

But, since he had free time, he'd agreed to meet Asuma and Kurenai for breakfast. He needed to get up, or he'd be late.

-

They spent the better part of the day agonizing over how their teams were doing. Kurenai, in particular, seemed to be worried about her genin. Iruka could understand why, once he knew that Hyuuga Hinata was on her team.

Iruka's history with the Hyuuga Clan was annoyingly long; he did seals work for them until he learned about the tradition to put seals on the members of the branch family. After that it had just been trading polite but rage-filled jabs with Hyuuga Hiashi whenever he happened to see the man. He did know about Hinata though--the girl had very little skill with the Byakugan, at least the types of skills that Hizashi wanted.

But that wasn't any of his business, apparently.

In any case, they made it through the day and all of their genin likewise did. Iruka wanted to thank whatever gods existed that Naruto actually successfully passed the test, and Sasuke as well, because those boys together were like a bag of bricks in terms of technical smarts and being able to apply what they knew to problems and tests.

Iruka did stop by the Academy to check on them, getting directions for the next part of the exam. None the worse for wear; he left them to it.

-

The second part of the exam was when the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan.

In a way, Iruka was lucky not to be present for most of it. He had a temporary assignment on watch circulations around the Forest of Death, along with many of the other jounin. They just had to watch for obvious signs of destruction; the teams who were beaten would be picked up by teams of medic-nin and taken out of the forest.

It was monotonous. By the time Iruka was off his second of five shifts, he wanted to just go back to his shitty little dorm and sleep forever. But that wasn't to be; a messenger intercepted him before he was even gone from the fenced perimeter, with a note from the Hokage.

-

The Tower was eerily quiet. Maybe it was because it was relatively late in the day, but Iruka didn't expect there to be so few people working. By contrast, the Hokage's office was full of people. Two squads of Anbu lined the walls (with a third hiding in the ceiling, no doubt), Ibiki and a couple of his people were talking quietly with Inoichi, and Anko was seated on the chair directly across from the Hokage, glaring at him.

"Uh," Iruka slipped through the gathered people to get to Anko, "What's going on?"

At least four people sighed at that, and, quailing under the intensity of Anko's stare, the Hokage spoke.

-

Surprisingly, the Tower was not burned down by the time Iruka and Anko left it two hours later. In fact, nothing was burning, which was all but a miracle, considering the fact that Orochimaru himself had shown up and attacked Anko. Nobody was sure if he'd gone after anyone else. After Anko, the focus had been trying to find Orochimaru, which had so far proven to be a fool's errand. Orochimaru was one of the legendary Sannin; if he didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be found.

Iruka was still not so quietly fuming as he walked Anko back to her house. She looked fine, but whatever Orochimaru had done to her had messed up her balance and chakra. Both her and Iruka had exchanged rather venomous words with the Hokage over it.

Haku met them at the doorway, and looked immediately concerned at Anko's appearance. She was hanging onto Iruka, and slumping down as if wilting.  "You need to eat," Iruka scolded Anko as Haku disappeared to get Zabuza.

"Ung, what I need is to murder the Hokage and frame Danzou," Anko muttered, nudging him to slide her into a chair in the kitchen.

"Not a bad idea." Iruka got her a glass of water, then began rummaging through the fridge to find something to feed to her.

Zabuza entered, following Haku. Even he gained a concerned crease between his eyebrows upon seeing Anko.

"'ey, don't worry," Anko waved a hand limply, "Iruka's gonna make sure I'm okay. D'you think he did something to the seal?"

Iruka looked back from the stove, where he was starting miso, to twin looks of worry from Haku and Zabuza. Anko looked not worried in the least as she slugged down the water he had given her. "In all likelihood," he said, "but I can't figure out why; why would he want to have some of his chakra lying dormant in you?"

"Fuck if I know," she shrugged, and when Zabuza and Haku turned their concerned expressions to her, she waved it off. "Long history. Orochimaru."

"Orochimaru?" Zabuza asked. Iruka turned around again at that; there was some tenseness in his voice that suggested knowledge of the man.

"He was my genin teacher," Anko said, shrugged, "doesn't everyone get a little scarred by their genin teacher?"

"Not literally, usually," Iruka muttered. To stop the other two men from continuing to do nothing but stare at Anko in worry, he set Haku to watching the miso and Zabuza to dicing up tofu and mushrooms. With leftover rice it made a meager meal, but one that didn't upset Anko's body, which was what counted.

-

After a bath on Anko's part, Iruka made good on making sure she was okay. She sat on the couch in her pyjamas, leaned forward so he could get to the small seal markings on her neck.

"We saw a man with markings like that," Haku quietly said, acting as Iruka's assistant and holding a brush pen if Iruka needed it.

"You did?" Anko and Iruka said it at the same time, looking around at the young man quick enough to give Iruka whiplash.

"Yes," Haku looked, if possible, more confused and worried than he had, "we were traveling and met a man; he had markings like that, but differently shaped."

"Shaped how?" Iruka asked, in his haste nearly running into Zabuza to get a piece of paper for Haku to draw the seal on.

"Like split leaves," Haku said, carefully drawing three curved lines in a circle, all pointing to the middle.

"He hailed from a village called 'Otogakure'," Zabuza supplied, his eyes straying to Anko as he sat across from her, in a chair. "He, too, mentioned Orochimaru."

They stared at Zabuza. "So he continued doing it," Anko said, voice numb, and then her entire demeanor turned frozen with rage, "how many has he done this to?"

"I doubt we'll ever know that," Iruka said, settling a hand on one of her shoulders. "In any case, the only thing that changed with your seal is the amount of chakra in it. Doing so slightly damaged the chakra channels in your neck, but it avoided any of your tenketsu. We'll have to look for any permanent changes or damage as it heals, but as for now, I'd say you're fine."

"Are you sure?" Haku asked, looking between Iruka and Anko.

"As sure as I can be," Iruka muttered, heading back to the entryway. Haku followed him, so Iruka said, "You can check on her every so often, just to make sure she's fine. There might be bruising on her neck, as well, but a medic already checked her over. If anything does happen, get me first, you know where my dorm is. Make sure she gets to bed!" Iruka said as he walked out of the house. Haku nodded at everything he had said, and waved in parting.

-

It stood to reason that everything would go downhill from there. When Iruka arrived at the tower in the middle of the forest once the preliminaries were called and he knew his team had so far passed, the kids looked like hell. Sakura's hair had been hacked off, Naruto was bruised over most of his body, and Sasuke--

Shit, Sasuke had a seal on his neck, too.

Chapter Text

Anko sluggishly flopped onto the couch. Iruka had left without much fanfare, talking to Haku as he did so. Anko was too focused on mulling, her thoughts jumping as she considered what Haku and Zabuza had told them, what she knew from the day, what she knew from her own past.

Thoughts of the past felt like a mire, sucking her back down and dirtying her. She only snapped out when footsteps neared her.

"I made you tea," Haku said, his tone quiet. Still there was an undercurrent of worry; she suddenly felt her throat tight as she looked at the boy. A trained killer, a missing-nin, but a boy she was growing to love.

"Thank you," she said, after clearing her throat. A wan smile seemed to encourage him, and he sat next to her. With her mind back in the present, in her living room, she realized that Zabuza was gone.

Haku, hesitating, settled down in his seat, asked, "You are from Konoha?"

-

Perhaps she should have anticipated the questions, what with their knowledge of Orochimaru being from out of the Land of Fire. But it still caught her off-guard, to explain that Orochimaru had defected after being her teacher for years, after shaping and grooming her into his apprentice.

In a way, like Haku. But Haku had someone to care for him; Orochimaru had not done so for Anko, had only looked to make himself more powerful even if it was at her expense.

"When did you meet Iruka-san?" Haku asked after a few minutes silence. He had an intense look on his face, as though he was considering what she had told him; already Anko knew him well enough to know that he was.

"When he graduated from the Academy," she said, sipping the slowly-cooling tea. "I knew Hayate, and eventually we ran into each other. I didn't like him at all."

Haku's look was one of surprise. Anko smiled.

"He was a little rogue. A week didn't go by that he didn't get caught pulling some prank on someone in the village; he was a practical joker, and a good one at that," she reminisced fondly. "I thought he was annoying and not well-fit for the life of a shinobi, but he turned out to be better at it than I am."

The surprise was replaced by a small, understanding smile. Anko could imagine that they had seen something of Iruka's trickster side while in the Land of Waves, and on the road to Konoha.

"And he wouldn't leave me alone," she said between sips of tea. With a sigh, she slouched back into the couch, "He seemed to think that, since neither of us had parents, we had to stick together. He was right, but I didn't want to admit it at the time. Not that I could have stopped him; Iruka's like a force of nature."

-

She was nearly asleep sitting up when the creaking of floorboards notified them that Zabuza had returned, apparently from the upper floor of the house where the bedrooms were.

Haku glanced over the back of the couch, presumably at the older man, and in an instant relieved Anko of her mug.

In another instant, Anko was hefted bodily off of the couch so suddenly that she could do no more than let out a squeak of surprise. Zabuza's arms, like all of him, were big and roped with muscle, and she stared up at his face once he had her in a princess carry.

"What?" she squeaked.

"Bed," Zabuza simply said, tucking her closer to his broad chest as he started up the stairs.

-

Despite the shock of being carried up the stairs by Zabuza, Anko fell asleep rather quickly. She was exhausted from the day and what had happened, too tired to process the maneuver that Zabuza and Haku had pulled. But the sleep she slipped into was far from good.

Images of Orochimaru haunted the dim landscapes of her dreams; her neck ached and throbbed even in sleep, and the hissing words of her former mentor seemed to taunt her.

-

It was midnight when she shot up in the bed, a hand fisted over her mouth to stop herself from screaming or crying. She thought she was free of Orochimaru, she thought he'd never come back to torment her and yet it had happened and the Hokage did nothing about it.

The tears she had attempted to hold back came; with her hand still over her mouth, she shook with the heaving sobs, hoping stupidly that nobody would hear.

She bit her tongue when the door gently slid open, the dim lights of another room shining in.

Zabuza's steps were quiet, but not silent, and he knelt on the ground next to the bed, quietly asked, "You are unharmed?"

She couldn't help it; she hiccuped another sob, and then couldn't stop them.

Though he was likely surprised and uncomfortable, Zabuza didn't move back. He heaved himself up to sitting on the wide bed. "Dreams?" he asked.

Anko nodded. Snot was streaming from her nose and her face just ached from crying; she tried to turn away, but a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder stopped her.

"It is a part of the life of shinobi, but that does not mean you must suffer alone." Some old pain could be heard there, in Zabuza's voice.

Another hiccuped sob, and in one quick motion she turned to him, buried her face in the front of his sleeping shirt, needing the comfort of protection and another person's nearness. A moment of stiffness, and he relaxed, wrapped one strong arm around her. The last Anko remembered of that night was Zabuza warm against her, his steady breathing like a lifeline.

Chapter Text

There was a list of things Iruka needed to do, but first on his mind was to get Sasuke away from everyone else and to the Hokage Tower. Since there were not officials at the Forest of Death other than Anko and Hayate (who looked very grossly sick), that was the first course of action.

Naruto and Sakura obviously had questions, but Iruka deflected them with a promise of, “Later,” and took their teammate with him as he left.

Sasuke was mostly quiet, and Iruka paused as they reached the perimeter of the forest, sending hand signs to the nearest shinobi on watch. Once he was sure that the other shinobi had left for the Tower, he turned to Sasuke. The boy was wan but steady, dark bags under his eyes.

“Did you encounter a man with long black hair?” Sasuke nodded, a question in his eyes.

“He’s the one who,” the boy gestured to his neck, the triple tomoe stained there. His eyebrows pinched together, ever so slightly, “What did he do to me?”

“That’s what we’re going to figure out,” Iruka said, trying to be as reassuring as he could. It seemed to work; Sasuke’s shoulders slumped in relief, and he followed Iruka back to the village.

-

The Hokage didn’t want to do anything, and very quickly he seemed to realize that was a bad idea. Being confronted by a furious, ice-cold Umino Iruka for the second time in as many days must have pushed him in that direction.

“Whatever the hell Orochimaru did to my student needs to be taken seriously; I don’t care that he’s the major draw for the other villages,” Iruka didn’t yell, but his tone was one of barely concealed rage. Sasuke sat on the chair in front of him, a medic checking him over.

“Iruka, you must understand--” the Hokage began.

“No.” Iruka actually slapped a hand onto the man’s desk, and two Anbu flickered down to stand next to the Hokage. Iruka paused to glare at them, turned the glare back to the Hokage, “If Sasuke feels okay with continuing in the exam, I would concede to that, but you will not make him participate. And he will not participate until after I look at the seal and see what I can do.”

“The people will protest if the remaining Uchiha does not participate,” the Hokage said, his voice holding a hint of desperation.

I am protesting that you are discarding what just happened to him,” Iruka growled, “and not only him, Orochimaru has attacked five people that we know of, what with Anko finding those bodies. I would call for the complete cancellation of the exams but you have already shown how little you regard your own people.”

Dead silence permeated the room. Nobody moved until Iruka did, turning away from the Hokage’s desk to Sasuke.

“Let’s get you to the hospital,” he said, gesturing to the paralyzed medic.

-

Once wearing an open-backed gown and an oversized pair of boxers, Sasuke was settled into a room. According to the medic, he was suffering from severe chakra exhaustion, as well as dehydration. So far they were unable to tell whether or not the seal on his neck was affecting his health; they were running up bloodwork and testing his chakra pathways.

Iruka let himself into the room after knocking, remained standing near the door as a medic took his temperature and heartrate.

“They likely told you, but you’ll be staying here for the next couple days,” Iruka said.

Sasuke nodded tiredly. “Will Naruto and Sakura be able to take the test without me?” he asked, reluctantly holding out an arm so the medic could take his blood pressure.

“Yes, they will be able to,” Iruka said, not just because it was true. Sasuke would be no use to his teammates if he was still recovering, and he’d likely just hurt himself further if he attempted the preliminaries and the third part of the exam. “The team parts are done; I believe the finals will be one on one fights.”

Sasuke nodded again. He barely looked himself, skin ashen and dark bags under his eyes. He seemed to have realized that he had reached his limit; as the medic gestured to him, he laid down on the bed.

“I’ll be back soon,” Iruka said as the medic gestured for him to leave the room after her, “I need to pick up some books.”

Sasuke didn’t even nod; he was deeply asleep.

-

The nurse divulged that Sasuke was running a fever and they’d be getting him on an IV. Iruka considered his options as he stayed outside of Sasuke’s room, looking through the large window set in the door. He couldn’t stay at the hospital, that was out of the question, but Sasuke needed a guard or several, in case Orochimaru returned. Nobody else he knew was free enough to stay at the hospital.

Distracted by his thoughts, Iruka didn’t notice the sudden appearance of another shinobi until he was pushed back into a supply closet that happened to be behind him.

The other shinobi relieved themself of their porcelain mask, and Iruka found himself face to face with Hatake Kakashi. Immediate indignation was Iruka’s response to being bodily pushed inside the closet, but he closed his mouth from protesting when he saw the man’s face. Complete, intense focus.

“The Hokage has set my team to looking for Orochimaru,” he said, tugged his mask down and inhaled deeply, “and he couldn’t or refused to spare anyone to watch Sasuke.”

“Great,” Iruka said, a mix of despairing and amused. Of course.

“I’ll see if I can spare anyone to assist,” Kakashi said, and Iruka stared at him with surprise. The man sighed, jumped when there was a bump somewhere outside the closet, “With an entire team I should be fine one less. Orochimaru might target him again, and I might need your assistance.”

He managed to blink, still working through surprise. “If I hear anything, I’ll tell you,” Iruka said.

Kakashi nodded, sighed. “I’m sorry about the Hokage; I’ll get Inoichi and Shikaku to work on him.”

“They won’t be able to do anything,” Iruka remarked sardonically. Kakashi sighed again, caught his right hand.

“They can try; please stay out of trouble,” Kakashi said, though from his expression and tone he knew that was a foolish thing to ask.

Gods be damned, he was just looking at Iruka with that sad grey eye. “Only if you promise the same,” Iruka said, trying to be cheeky but his tone falling flat.

Another sigh, and Kakashi grabbed Iruka, pushed him against the side wall and snogged the breath out of him. Iruka dug his fingers into Kakashi’s hips, ground him closer. Why was this their relationship? Not that he was complaining about the highs (this particular closet experience being one of them), but both of them were worth more than a snog in the hospital supply closet.

“Stay safe,” he says when Kakashi pulls away, “stay aware.” The traditional shinobi parting felt weirdly intimate.

“Stay safe,” Kakashi said in agreement, eye caught on Iruka’s reddened lips. He pressed a thumb there, looked up to meet Iruka’s eyes, “stay aware.”

And with no sound, Kakashi flickered away.

Despite the severity of the situation, Iruka couldn’t help taking a pause there in the closet, rubbing his hands down his face with a groan. Fucking Hatake Kakashi.

Well, a tiny part of his brain said in a cackling voice, maybe that would help.

-

Before heading back to the hospital, Iruka took a detour to Anko’s house, loaded down with a bag of books and scrolls on sealing. If it wasn’t enough to deal with having a jinchuuriki on his team, he also had to figure out what the hell Sasuke’s seal did and would do.

While in his dorm, he’d come upon a thought that might help him. Haku and Zabuza, while highly trained shinobi, were assumed to be civilians and related to him; it wouldn’t be too strange to have them stay at the hospital, at least when he couldn’t be there. He would ask everyone involved, but it seemed like a solid plan.

Haku was the one to open the door, and though his expression was first one of surprise and, maybe, delight, it quickly turned to one of concern. Damn, Iruka had seen that expression way too often over the past couple days.

“Do you need to talk to Anko-san?” the young man asked.

“All of you,” Iruka said, not bothering to take his shoes off in his hurry, “It’s nothing bad--well, I guess it is, but--”

His haphazard explanation to try and lessen the worry on Haku’s face was interrupted by Anko appearing, looking much better than she had the day before. In contrast, Zabuza looked tired, and yawned as he greeted Iruka.

“What’s happened?” Anko asked.

“Orochimaru, again,” Iruka grimly said, “but Sasuke this time; he received a seal as well.”

Anko cursed, “What do you need me to do?”

“Get on the Hokage, if you can, but more importantly,” he turned to Haku, who had moved to stand next to Zabuza, “I was wondering if you two would help me with something.”

-

Zabuza was in the hospital room with Iruka when Sasuke woke up. While they’d been gone the boy had awoken, and the medic in charge of him had taken the opportunity to get him on an IV before he passed out again. The sleep didn’t look to be doing him any good, though.

“Mn,” the boy sat up, rubbed his eyes with the hand not bearing the IV, “Iruka-sensei?”

“Yup,” Iruka scooted his chair forward.

“The seal?” Sasuke asked, trying to look awake despite the bags under his eyes.

“Still trying to figure it out,” Iruka said. It was different from the one Anko had, but he had yet to figure out how. Sasuke nodded weakly, looked around and, upon seeing Zabuza, made a half-hearted attempt at waving.

“Rest. Regain your strength,” Zabuza said. He was working with a block of wood and a small, sharp knife.

Sasuke blearily nodded, laid back down, and was out.

Chapter Text

Only three hours of sleep were sustaining Iruka; he’d made sure to drink plenty of water (some of it in tea), and eat (mostly at Haku’s quiet insistence). With Haku and Zabuza at the hospital, he could get to the other business he needed to see to.

The preliminaries were being held that day, moved from the Forest of Death to a small arena near the Hokage Monument that was usually used for sparring by jounin and chuunin. Iruka arrived early to catch Anko; she looked well-rested but anxious, in the angry sort of way that she did.

“Uchiha?” she asked. Her eyes were trained on a couple of chuunin who were sweeping over the floor of the arena, making sure it didn’t have any booby traps or leftover jutsu ready to be triggered.

“Same seal,” Iruka said, squatting on the floor next to her. “Feeling better, when I left. Any more problems?”

“None that I’ve found, yet,” Anko said, turning ever so slightly to eye him, “gonna check on your kids?”

“And stay for the matches,” Iruka said, sighed. He sat fully, rested his head on his hands, “How many?”

“Twelve teams, but two individuals have withdrawn, including your kid,” Anko signed to the chuunin, who had finished, to leave, “thirty-four, in all. Might have more withdrawals; in any case, the finals are gonna be fucked trying to schedule. Ah, Hayate!”

The man had appeared on the arena floor, looking through a bundle of papers. He blearily glanced up at them, waved. “Thirty minutes,” he called, had a coughing attack. Anko sighed, Iruka slumped in his seat.

-

Sakura and Naruto were very insistent when the arrived and saw him, immediately badgering after Sasuke and asking what had happened to him. Iruka promised to take them to hospital at the end of the day--the matches being timed so they would all be over within that time--and gave them the briefest overview he could without getting into who Orochimaru was.

It was enough, apparently. Naruto did well against the Inuzuka boy, and Sakura nearly won against Ino, the Yamanaka heir. That bout resulted in a double-knockout, but Sakura didn’t seem too upset about the outcome. Just having Naruto going into the finals was something of a relief for Iruka as well, though he did feel bad for thinking that. Sakura, out of all of them, would likely do the best in the finals simply due to her being the most well-rounded, but she had been the most anxious about it.

Iruka left after their matches, which were conveniently within the first five bouts (or by design, judging from the thumbs-up Anko gave Iruka). Both genin agreed to stay until Iruka returned, but he could feel their eyes following him out.

-

Sasuke was fine; Zabuza was still at his little block of wood, Haku actually drowsing in the other chair. Iruka was only stopping through. He informed the room in general that Sakura and Naruto would be visiting later, and took his leather notebook.

It had the notes he had taken on Sasuke’s seal in it, as well as some on Anko’s. The parameters of the seal, how it fed into the bearer’s chakra system, all the information that Iruka found that might help him identify the base of the seals. He had spent months, if not years, poring over Anko’s seal and trying to get access to the Hokage’s library so he could see the research taken from Orochimaru’s hideout. When the Sannin’s hideout had been raided, some of the papers had been destroyed--presumably most of the ones on human experimentation and the like. But Iruka knew that somewhere the Hokage still had the bulk of his former student’s work, and gods be damned if he didn’t get access to it.

-

The Tower was as eerily empty as it had been several days before. The bare minimum of chuunin were working the the mission room, and another handful were scurrying about, filing and organizing.

First, Iruka went down to the basement. Ibiki was down there, bouncing a ball made of rubber hair ties against a wall and talking to Inoichi. They looked up when Iruka entered.

“Do you have any of Orochimaru’s research hidden away down here?” Iruka asked, sans preamble.

Inoichi shook his head, Ibiki said, “Unfortunately, no. As far as I know the man upstairs has all of it locked away, assuming he hasn’t destroyed the rest of it yet.”

“As if,” Inoichi added. “If you need access to it, I’ll go with you; god knows this Orochimaru thing has gone on too long as it is.”

“Might as well tag along,” Ibiki said, stuffing the hair tie ball into one of his many pockets. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask the Hokage about the security for the third part of the exam. Anko still busy with the children?”

“Should be,” Iruka said. The three of them fell into step, heading up the stairs.

“Shit, how’d my girl do?” asked Inoichi, suddenly grabbing Iruka.

“Didn’t move on,” Iruka gently pried the older man’s hands off him. “She was up against Sakura, they ended up knocking each other out, and both declined to rematch.”

Inoichi sighed in a miserable way, and they continued up the stairs.

-

Being stared at by one exhausted Umino Iruka as well as two team leaders of his Intelligence Division did wonders to encourage the Hokage to finally, finally bow to Iruka’s request to view Orochimaru’s remaining files. Well, maybe it was that; maybe it was the three bodies that he was still attempting to identify from the Forest of Death, or the increases in security that were needed.

In any case, Iruka gratefully followed an Anbu up to the top floor of the Tower. He did owe the Hokage a lot, but the old man was very set in his ways. That was all but a death sentence for a shinobi village. The old ways were not always the best ways.

The Anbu shadowed him through the dusty, close archives. The shelves were stacked all the way to the ceiling, scrolls and books alike dangerously close to spilling onto the floor. Orochimaru’s remaining papers were, according to the Hokage, in a sealed chest on the back wall.

Sealed chests needed keys, and the Anbu handed the key for that particular chest over to Iruka when they made it to the back wall. The key was an actual key, with a seal affixed to it that matched the seal on the chest. With a little searching, Iruka found it on the bottom row of shelves, half-buried under a pile of disintegrating scrolls. There was little room in the small library to open it, but open it Iruka did. Scrolls, neatly labeled in thin script, made up more than half of the space. The other half was packed with files and loose papers, haphazardly put together by subject.

At least Orochimaru was organized, Iruka ironically considered, taking the scrolls out first. There were two on seals; perfunctory first looks inside them showed that they would likely be helpful.

It took the better part of half an hour to go through the papers, which were not well organized or labeled, and which were stained and yellowing. It had been over a decade since Orochimaru had been forced out of Konoha, Iruka considered, setting aside a couple papers that would be helpful. Research on chakra, anatomy, bloodlines and kekkai genkai--there was a little bit of everything in that chest, and Iruka resealed it once he had what he needed. The papers and scrolls he had went into a sealed scroll, one that would take three different keys to unlock, as well as his own chakra.

The Anbu saw him back to the Hokage’s office, where the key for the chest as well as the key to the private library were returned. A sad, tired nod from the Hokage served as a dismissal when he looked up from the maps of the village that he and Ibiki were poring over. Looking for any possible gaps in their security, no doubt.

Iruka stowed the scroll in his weapons pouch and, since the sun was beginning to go down, headed to the arena where the preliminaries were hopefully over.

-

Naruto and Sakura met him in the entryway, both looking tired and shaken. Anko was waiting with them, as well as with a couple of other teams that were still hanging around. She met his eyes, grimaced and signed for him to go to her house later.

“Will we go visit Sasuke-kun now?” Sakura asked. She was starting to get a hell of a shiner around her left eye.

“Yeah, let’s do that now,” Iruka said. “And then you two need some food and sleep.”

“But we have an entire month,” Naruto complained. He looked perfectly fine but for his clothes, which were sandy if Iruka’s eyes were not deceiving him.

“An entire month of training for you, Naruto,” Iruka said, and the boy looked excited, but groaned when he saw the serious look in Iruka’s eyes.

Sasuke was reading a scroll under Haku’s guidance when they made it into the hospital room. Sakura had gained a compress for her eye, and Haku immediately looked worried for her when she entered, flickered across the room (thankfully when nobody saw) to gently pry the compress away from her face.

Iruka left them to that. Sasuke was looking up from the scroll, his mouth a little agape at the number of people in the room. As if called by that, Zabuza and Anko appeared through the door as well.

There was silence for a few moments, and then Naruto started talking to Sasuke and Haku and Sakura started talking, and Iruka couldn’t help how he smiled a little sentimentally. All those people in that room--it felt a little like family.

-

The next morning Iruka broke into Naruto’s apartment at seven. The boy was asleep, at least until Iruka slammed the door back shut, and then he appeared wearing his pyjamas with a look of absolute fear on his face.

“We’re going to be training for the next three weeks,” Iruka said, removing his sandals and unceremoniously leaving Naruto to go into the kitchen. The offerings were meagre; he must’ve eaten through the food that Iruka bought. Well, Iruka was good at making meals out of few ingredients.

After eating what Iruka made for breakfast, they headed to the training grounds. Well, the best thing Iruka felt they could do for the day would be review, as much as Naruto hated it. Then there was the problem of teaching Naruto futon when he didn’t actually know futon and couldn’t know futon.

-

The first problem of the day occured a mere fifteen minutes after they began. After going through taijutsu katas, Iruka had Naruto go walking on the pond that took up the southern corner of the training field. The boy channeled chakra, or at least appeared to, and then took one step and sank right into the murky water.

That was confusing. While Naruto had definitely been behind Sakura and Sasuke in terms of chakra control, he was able to walk on water and up trees. There wasn’t any reason Iruka knew that would prevent the boy from still being able to do so, unless--

“Naruto, did someone mess with your chakra network?” Iruka asked. The boy probably wouldn’t be able to answer, but it was worth a try.

“Uh,” he frowned, scratched his nose, “I dunno. Maybe? The guy that attacked Sasuke knocked me out, so he might’ve done something.”

“Okay.” That was a start. “Where did he hit you when he knocked you out?”

“My stomach,” Naruto said, patting said area with one hand.

Oh, hell. “Uh.”

“What does that mean, Iruka-sensei?” Naruto asked, head cocked.

“Okay, sit down,” Iruka drops down himself, pats the ground. “This might take a while.”

-

It was a given that Naruto didn’t believe him at first. Who the hell would believe that they have a giant chakra demon sealed into them? Who the hell would believe it, especially since nobody told them until they were twelve?

But Iruka was as patient as he could be, answered the questions that he could answer, and finally had Naruto take his jacket off and channel chakra. It would allow Iruka to see if anything was wrong with the seal (as he thought), and it would also provide some proof to Naruto that he indeed had something sealed inside him.

“The seal that keeps the Kyuubi inside you is on your stomach,” Iruka explained when Naruto hesitated. “The guy that attacked you probably messed with it; if he did, I can fix it.” I hope, Iruka thought to himself.

With the explanation, Naruto threw his jacket and tee-shirt off, set his hands together and began to channel chakra.

The black-red of the seal slowly appeared like a stain, solidifying into neat strokes the longer he concentrated. Then, the problem was apparent. A five elements seal was blocking the Eight Trigrams seal that contained the Kyuubi. It also was blocking some of the tenketsu around his Gate of Limit, which explained why he wasn’t able to properly use his own chakra.

“Whoa!” Naruto released his hands, stared down his abdomen. He’d gathered enough chakra that the markings would remain for a few minutes.

“This might sting a little,” Iruka cautioned, letting chakra gather on his right hand, at the tips of his fingers.

“What?” Naruto asked, confused, completely unprepared when Iruka slammed the hand into his stomach, forcing the chakra into the five sealing signs. He grunted, all the air leaving his body.

Once Naruto had recovered, Iruka deflected any annoyance by saying, “Try again.”

Naruto sent a suspicious glare at his teacher, but did as told, focusing back on channelling chakra to his feet. A wince accompanied his first step onto the pond, but the chakra spread and held him. He let out a cheer and ran back on land, bulldozing Iruka into something like a hug.

“Thank you, Iruka-sensei!” he yelled.

Iruka rolled his eyes, but smiled. “We are supposed to be training, you know.”

“Ah! Yes!” Naruto ran back to the pond, and promptly fell in.

-

Given that they would be training for the entire month exclusively, Iruka didn’t want to exhaust Naruto in the first day. He sent the boy off with a ramen voucher well before dinner, headed home himself. Perhaps he could teach Naruto futon by explaining it; he needed to read up on that. It would certainly make things easier, in any case. He mused on that while walking home, enjoying the autumn colors and the gentle warmth of the setting sun.

There was someone inside his apartment, when he opened the door. They were moving around in the living room, from the sounds of it looking through his books and scrolls. Iruka assumed it wasn’t someone come to kill him, because that could have been accomplished much earlier and easier than appearing in his apartment. In all likelihood, Zabuza, Haku or Anko. Maybe Kakashi.

And--in fact, he was actually surprised to see who it was and find that it was nobody he was expecting. The Sannin Jiraiya was not known to visit Konoha often, and especially not know to visit the residential fuuinjutsu expert.

“Can I help you, Jiraiya-san?” Iruka asked once he got his shoes off and actually entered the dorm.

“Jeez, do you ever stop accumulating these?” The older man asked. His hair was longer than Iruka remembered, and he’d even had the grace to take his sandals off before walking all over the tatami. He gestured to the overflowing bookshelves, and Iruka rolled his eyes.

“Maybe you had guidance, but I’m self-taught,” Iruka replied, losing any decorum and flopping onto the couch.

“That is true,” Jiraiya said. His tone was a little bittersweet; ironic, considering he was the one who had declined to teach Iruka. “Anyway, I’m here about Minato’s kid.”

“Naruto?” Iruka hefted himself up to sitting. That was a surprise.

“Yeah, I was wondering if I could teach him while I’m here,” he sat down in the nearly dead armchair, and it let out a loud groan, “at least until the exams.”

“Why?” Iruka asked. Jiraiya winced. Well, might as well be blunt because the Sannin didn’t seem to learn, “He’s grown up his entire life without any family or friends, I find it strange that you would show interest in him now.”

The wince turned into a full-on grimace, and any facade of Jiraiya’s to keep the upper hand dropped. “I’ve been hearing a lot about people hunting down bijuu, and the jinchuuriki,” his tone was serious, “There haven’t been any threats to Naruto yet, but even if I’ve been the shittiest godfather imaginable, I don’t want that kid to be targeted. I know there are people like you who’ll protect him, but when push comes to shove he’ll need to be able to defend himself.”

“You know futon?” Iruka asked. Well, it would give him time to parse out Sasuke’s seal and reverse it, time that wasn’t in the middle of the night.

“Yeah?” Jiraiya looked at him curiously.

“You can have him; just make sure he eats vegetables and gets sleep,” Iruka said, standing up. “Now, if you please, I have work to be getting to.”

Jiraiya nodded, and once he had his shoes he flickered away.

Iruka sighed, took a minute to collect his thoughts, and headed into the kitchen where the scroll of Orochimaru’s research and his own notes waited.

-

Little progress had been made by the time Iruka went to bed. The base matrix of the seal on both Anko and Sasuke was irregular, which complicated things more than he had expected. He’d need to test one of the seals to see if he could get the layout of the matrix before he could start deconstructing it.

The thoughts wrapped up his mind so thoroughly he didn’t notice the hours pass by, even when he went to bed and stared out the crack in the curtains at the full moon.

He had a bad feeling, about the seals and about everything. They needed to do more to find Orochimaru and stop him; but even that felt wrong. It couldn’t just be Orochimaru, the man wouldn’t infiltrate Konoha solely to attack a handful of people--

The window next to his bed nearly cracked with the force of an impact. A hand slapped it thrice in quick succession--one of his teammates. He threw the covers off himself, yanked the curtains open. Meisa slammed his window open, her eyes wild. “Shit, Iruka, hospital! I need to find Yugao!” she all but screamed. Blood was on her hands, still bright and dripping. Fresh.

Iruka didn’t pause to ask; he threw on slippers and flickered across the village in his pyjamas, to the hospital. Blood and Yugao only meant bad things, and it was apparent that his thinking was correct when he reached the hospital. One of the medics recognized him, she grabbed him by the arm, “Surgery three; they just got him in there.”

Oh, shit. Him . Hayate; Iruka knew it. He ran through the serpentine hallways, sliding out of the way of others, until he was in the waiting room for surgery three. The Hokage was there, with no less than three Anbu.

He turned when Iruka slid in, and the expression on his face was genuinely sad, genuinely remorseful. “I apologize for not listening to you, Iruka,” he said as the Anbu disappeared. “Believe me when I say there are changes coming.”

Iruka felt ill as he stared at the door to the surgery; he damn well hoped he could believe that.

Chapter Text

The night was grueling, particularly once Yugao arrived with Meisa. Iruka knew Yugao well, and she immediately ignored the Hokage, went to him.

“Is he going to be alright? What happened?” she asked, grabbing onto his sleep shirt. Her face was pale, desperate.

“I would like to know that, too,” Iruka said, looking up at Meisa. Somewhere between Iruka’s house and the hospital she’d washed the blood off of her.

“I was on rounds when I found him already injured,” she said, turning to the Hokage. “What was he doing out there?”

The Hokage sighed; never a good sign. “He was picked to keep an eye on a suspicious shinobi suspected to be dealing with Orochimaru.”

Hayate ?” Meisa asked, disbelief and anger coloring her voice, “he isn’t even a full jounin! For god’s sake, he isn’t even trained in infiltration and surveillance! Why was he chosen?”

-

They received no more answers from the Hokage that night. Iruka sat, and when he did Yugao sat with him, and Meisa on his other side.

The thought of losing one of his teammates was one that he had considered many times. To live the life of a shinobi was to acknowledge that death was constantly likely; to think otherwise would be foolish. But losing their teacher the way they had, on a mission that was supposed to have ben low ranked, made the temporary lifestyle of the shinobi more difficult to accept.

“He might die,” Yugao said, sounding numb. She was slumped against Iruka, toying with the beaded bracelets on her right arm. Her voice was stronger when she said, “He might die and I will deal with that. We will deal with that. But--” her voice broke and she ducked her head against Iruka’s arm.

“We’ll deal with it if it happens,” Iruka replied, stressing the if .

“Thank you,” Yugao murmured, tucking her hand against Iruka’s. Meisa set her hand atop Yugao’s, and they waited.

-

He did not sleep; none of them did. When the first medic pushed through the doors of the surgery, already cleaned up, all three of them stood as one.

“He’ll be touch and go for a while,” the young man said, “he’s being moved to the intensive care unit; I don’t know how much you all were told, but he had many deep lacerations in his chest, through his vest, and also some sort of concussive force affected most of the organs in his chest. We were able to stop the internal bleeding and external bleeding, but he did lose a lot of blood. I can take you to his room, but he can’t have visitors until the risk of infection has passed; that’ll be a few days.”

The three of them nodded, and once the medic had stopped talking, he led them back through into the main wing of the hospital. The intensive care units were all in the very center of the building, separated from the general care units by glass interior walls.

Hayate did not look like Hayate. Yugao let out a soft cry when the medic led them to the outside of his room. Tubing ran from his mouth and nose, three different IV’s coming off of his arms while the two medics inside set up monitoring machines. Under the tubes and IV’s, his skin was ashen, his entire chest and both of his arms swathed in bandaging; Yugao pressed her hands and forehead to the glass separating her from the room, exhaled.

“He’s alive,” she said as if it was a mantra, “he’s alive.”

-

Iruka went home, but only to change into actual clothes and grab his sealing materials and notes. There was no point trying to sleep; he was too wired on worry and adrenaline to relax.

It was too early to do more than stop by Sasuke’s room. He could sense one of Kakashi’s Anbu hanging outside the window, and nobody but Sasuke was in the room itself. Sleeping; that was good. Iruka left him and headed to one of the free offices in the Tower, and set up to work on Anko and Sasuke’s seals.

A sweep of the office showed him that it was clean and nobody would be listening in; he set up a seal barrier to keep people out, locking it to his chakra, and then pulled out his scrolls and papers.

-

Five hours later, he was close to done, or at least as done as he could be. There were variables that Iruka couldn’t fully account for, ones that he hoped wouldn’t interfere with what he had planned. In any case, Iruka felt safe with actually using what he put together.

First, Anko.

-

She was advising Ibiki and the Hokage, when he finally managed to track her down. Convenient, Iruka thought. One less person to track down.

“Hokage-sama,” he bows neatly, and perhaps a little deeper than necessary, but a huge favor is about to be asked. “I was wondering if I could borrow Mitarashi-san, as well as ask a favor of you.”

The Hokage mostly just looked tired and nodded, as if to say, “Go ahead.”

“I was wondering if I might have the services of four of the main sealing team, just for around half an hour,” Iruka said. Anko was looking at him curiously.

“If you encounter any problems, notify me,” the Hokage nodded, gesturing for Anko to follow Iruka. At least he seemed to understand what Iruka was going to do. “And I believe the sealing chambers in the basement are free.”

Iruka nodded, relieved, and headed down the stairs.

By the time they made it to the sealing rooms in the basement, they’d picked up the necessary members of the sealing team. Anko seemed to understand what they were doing, and as they walked she and Iruka talked in low voices.

“Zabuza was checking the hospital when I left the house,” she said, “they know the Anbu is there but don’t particularly trust them.”

“That’s good,” Iruka exhaled. There was a lot of tension in his body, over Hayate and Naruto and Sasuke, but knowing that Zabuza was in the hospital released some of it.

“Hayate stable?” Anko asked, as Iruka opened the room they would be using.

“Was when I left,” Iruka said.

All five of his companions looked at him expectantly once they’d all made it in the room and closed the doors behind. Iruka badly hoped that he knew what he was doing as he unrolled the scroll he’d sealed his materials into.

“We’ll need a four-directions seal,” Iruka said, “permeable from the inside but not the outside.”

The four sealers nodded, took up positions at marked points in the room representing the cardinal directions. They sat, faced outward, and started building the seal as Iruka seated Anko in the exact center of the room.

“Rippin’ it outta me?” Anko asked.

“Not so crudely, I hope,” Iruka muttered. “Shirt off, please.”

Anko rolled her eyes, but did as asked. The puncture wounds had healed, leaving the seal itself standing out dramatically against the pale skin of her neck. “Paint me, little brother,” she said.

It was Iruka’s turn to roll his eyes. He took the thick, pre-inked seal brush and began scrawling a matrix around the seal, long lines of text swirling off it, down her body. Well, the breast-band she was wearing was done for.

It took ten minutes to get all of the parameters of the seal written on her and set up the one other thing he needed: a specially made iron box etched with three different seals.

“This should be quick and painless,” Iruka said in warning. “Well, relatively.”

“Get on with it,” Anko said. Her teeth were already gritted.

Iruka shrugged, and did so.

-

At least Anko didn’t fully pass out, that was what mattered. Extracting and bottling the chakra in a different container--his iron box--had hurt, though. Destroying a seal was by no means Iruka’s favorite things to do. There were always repercussions to it, and particularly when the seals were human-bonded those repercussions ended up bad.

Despite the pain and having to be taken to the hospital, Anko almost immediately showed improvement. Iruka made a note of that; in cases of foreign chakra being sealed into a person, it seemed to interfere with their chakra pathways.

What better time to visit Sasuke, as well? Iruka left Anko in the gentle care of a medic-nin named Hanako (who was glaring at her when he left) to head up to Sasuke’s room.

He arrived at perhaps the worst time; but, looking back, perhaps it was the best time.

-

Zabuza had a knife to the throat of a man that Iruka did not recognize. Dull grey hair, glasses--actually, maybe he did look familiar, but Iruka couldn’t place him. Iruka tentatively felt for the presence of the Anbu; gone. Sasuke was looking at Zabuza, impressed but also a little scared.

“I would recommend calling for someone,” Zabuza said, voice perfectly level.

Iruka did just that.

-

When the man named “Kabuto” was safely and securely ensconced within Ibiki’s secret- secret -basement, Iruka got back down to business. Getting rid of Anko’s seal had shown him that a barrier team was unnecessary and he didn’t want to use a barrier in Sasuke’s case. It was best to assume that Orochimaru was somehow watching, and if he was, removing the seal might lure him out.

But that left the question of Sasuke’s safety. Iruka didn’t want to keep taking up all of Zabuza and Haku’s time, but he also didn’t want to take away from Kakashi’s team. Perhaps it was best to remove the seal under a barrier; that way Sasuke could go back to relatively normal life and not have to worry as much. And maybe, just maybe, Anko would be willing to take another guest, at least until the exams were over.

-

The last place Iruka forced himself to go before collapsing in his bed was where he felt one Hatake Kakashi’s chakra signature. It was the Tower, but thankfully one of the floors that was mostly empty thanks to the exams. He looked up from some paperwork he was working on, saw that it was Iruka, and winced.

“I am sorry for pulling the Anbu at the hospital. We needed someone on surveillance somewhere else, and I don’t have many people left,” Kakashi said, steamrolling anything that Iruka might have said.

“It’s fine,” Iruka said, earning a look of surprise. “Really. Sasuke’s fine; he just got released from the hospital. He’s staying with Anko until the exams are over.”

Kakashi’s visible eyebrow raised in skepticism. Iruka could relate, but then again Kakashi didn’t know who else was living with Anko.

“Did you hear about the person that was caught at the hospital?” Iruka curiously asked.

“Ibiki just brought me the news,” Kakashi said, “and we’ve already been able to dig up some information on him. According to some of the files, his name is Yakushi Kabuto and Danzou recruited him years ago. Was listed as deceased, though.”

“Oh god,” Iruka groaned. Anything that included Danzou was infinitely more horrible. “Well, I’ll let you know if I hear anything else.”

Kakashi nodded, hesitated. Iruka turned to leave, and one of his arms was caught by Kakashi.

“When I’m free--can we talk?” the man said. He sounded more worried than anything. Nervous, too.

It was Iruka’s turn to look surprised, but he nodded regardless. “You can find me,” he said, offering Kakashi what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

Chapter Text

She was notified of the capture of Yakushi Kabuto immediately after it happened. Quite a coincidence, that he was found in the hospital, but Anko didn’t like to believe in coincidence. She didn’t even get the full story until arriving at her house, where Zabuza (under Haku’s hawk-like stare) was cooking. The sheer absurdity of the situation was not lost on her, but she ignored it for the time being, as Haku had turned expectantly to her.

“Are you feeling well, Anko-san?” he asked.

“Better and better, kid,” she set her bag down in the living room, went to change into more casual and comfortable clothes.

-

Dinner was a rather low-key affair. At least, it was at first. Zabuza had made something that he and Haku called soup curry which was very warm and filling. Anko was still thinking about a million things--the plans in place for security, her tasks for the third part of the exam, the things she needed to finish before the third part of the exam--and was jolted to attention when a knocking started on the front door.

“I suppose that is for me,” Zabuza said.

“What?” Anko said as he stood. Haku continued eating. She looked from Haku to Zabuza, back to Haku. “What?”

“I, uh, will leave the explanation to him,” Haku said after drinking his bowl empty. “Would you like some more?”

“Sure?” Anko said, disbelieving. While waiting for Haku, she snuck to the doorway to the living room, found Zabuza talking to two chuunin who, if she wasn’t imagining, were on the shinobi police force. Her first instinct was to run out and grab him, but that would’ve been suspicious, as would yelling “He’s not who you’re looking for!” But, once she calmed down and actually listened in on their conversation, she found them to be talking about Kabuto. More accurately, the capture of Kabuto, which, as Zabuza spoke, was apparently at his hands.

Sweet god above, what the hell had she gotten herself into.

-

The soup was just as good the second time around, but Anko couldn’t focus on it. Haku was already cleaning the dishes, and Zabuza was still talking to the chuunin. Then, the door was knocked again.

Anko groaned, chugged the last of her soup and flickered past the living room so as not to disturb the discussion occuring there. Somewhat to her relief, Iruka was standing outside.

But. With Sasuke. She looked curiously at Iruka, and his face was very, very sorry as he said, “Can I ask a favor?”

-

Sasuke had the rest of the soup curry while Haku and Anko cleaned out one of the spare rooms. Zabuza was still in the living room; they worked around it, and by the time Sasuke was done eating he looked ready to pass out.

And, free of his seal, which let Anko breathe a sigh of relief. At least some things were put to rights.

-

When Zabuza was finally done with the chuunin, and had shown them out, Anko was the only one awake. Haku had, in his endearing, adorable way, yawned and said that he’d been up since two in the morning, and was planning on sleeping until noon the next day. She couldn’t blame him; he had bags under his eyes that even put her to shame.

So Anko made tea and started a grocery list, hoping that someone would be able to pick up groceries the next day. Well, with Sasuke being picked up for training in the morning, that would leave at least Haku and Zabuza free, if they didn’t have plans of her own. And she would be messaged if needed, so she was at least in theory, free.

She was snapped out of her thoughts not by the door being knocked, but by Zabuza sitting down at the table. “I’m sorry for not telling you,” he said. Funny, how his voice had so much emotion when it used to be blank. “I couldn’t find a right moment.”

You caught Kabuto?” Anko couldn’t stop herself from asking. Perhaps a little awed, admiring.

And, if she wasn’t imagining things, Zabuza’s ears seemed to darken.

“He was not expecting someone to be there,” Zabuza said gruffly, looking down at the cup of tea Anko had pushed to him.

“Tell me how! He was trained by Danzou, apparently,” Anko said, leaning forward.

Zabuza looked at her, smiling slightly, and obliged.

-

They talked for hours. Anko only noticed when the clock tower atop the Academy rang out midnight, and even then she was loathe to stop. Zabuza’s life had been very different from hers, and he was very open about it. She didn’t rightly know what to think of that. At the same time, the knowledge that a person such as Zabuza did trust her enough to tell her--she felt warm, fond in a way that she’d never felt before.

They stood and moved around each other, cleaning up the rest of the dishes and things left behind from dinner and their talk. It felt completely natural, both of them used to each other’s presence. Funny, Anko thought. Two highly trained shinobi scarred by their pasts, cleaning up a kitchen.

Domestic , her mind supplied, and it seemed that her brain completely shorted out momentarily. Domestic, with Momochi Zabuza, the former Demon of the Mist. Had she been alone, she would’ve started into the hysterics, but as it was, she merely shook herself and finished putting the plates away. Doing so, she completely missed the slightly concerned look that Zabuza was giving her.

-

“Oh,” Anko was nearly at the bottom of the stairs when she stopped, Zabuza nearly running into her. “I meant to ask.”

“Hm?” She turned to look at him, and something about the way he looked at her made her stomach flip-flop.

“I, uh,” she stammered, tried to tell herself to stop that, “I was wondering if you, or, or Haku would be able to, uh. Pick up groceries?”

“Tomorrow?” he asked. Completely poleaxed, Anko nodded. A touch of concern lined his face. “Are you alright?”

“Uhhhh.” Focus , Anko told herself, answer the hot man’s question . “I think so.”

She began to turn back toward the stairs, her face feeling as if it was on fire.

“Anko,” Zabuza asked. She turned back to him, tomato-red, and squeaked in reply. Oh, his eyes were soft and despite the filed teeth, the smile pulling his lips was fond, soft. “May I kiss you?”

-

She could imagine that she tasted like the tea they’d drunk, the little fudge squares that she’d secreted out of a tall cupboard. Zabuza tasted like those things, like the curry soup.

Oh, Anko was fucked , she realized, as she smiled into the kiss. But she didn’t think that was a bad thing.

Chapter Text

Training with just Sasuke and Sakura was something of a relief. He didn’t have to constantly stop infighting, and Sakura seemed not particularly care about Sasuke. In fact, she seemed much more driven to learn than she had been; it was a welcome change, but somewhat strange.

Sasuke, on the other hand--well, if Iruka had to put a word to how he was acting, it would be ‘timid’. Understandably, though, Iruka could acknowledge that. He’d had the misfortune of meeting Orochimaru but once before the man left Konoha, and that had left quite the impression.

They spent the first few days, as always, reviewing. Working out the soreness. They were all somewhat out of practice, and it was good to get back into the routine. Keeping with that, Iruka kept their training just in the morning, so they would get afternoons to themselves.

Not that Iruka actually had afternoons to himself; it was a delicate balance of juggling Anko, Sasuke, and Haku and Zabuza. More often than not, those all collided. What with all of them living in Anko’s house, he ended up spending most of his free time there.

It was, despite all appearances, some of the best time he spent during the month leading up to the final of the exams. Of course, there still was the concern for Naruto, but by that point he was always concerned about Naruto.

-

Halfway through the month, everything had finally settled back to some semblance of normal. Well, whatever normal was, at that point. There seemed to be something going on between Anko and Zabuza, he’d noticed.

Just, the way they interacted seemed much more familiar, softer. It was heartening to see that. Maybe Iruka was sentimental, but seeing Zabuza and Haku settle into their lives as civilians made him feel like a mushy little ball of mud. Maybe that was a bad comparison, but knowing that they were happy made him happy. And knowing that Anko was happy? Out of everyone he knew, she deserved it.

-

He arrived at Anko’s house with lunch only to find nobody in the house. Confusing, considering he’d been there only an hour before. But, w hatever, he’d gotten yakisoba and that meant there was a whole hell of a lot more for him.

Not that he actually expected to eat all of it; no, as soon as he set the bags down in the kitchen, Sasuke slid in, socks on the hardwood. So quickly, too, that he nearly ran into a wall.

“Iruka-sensei, Haku found rabbits!” he said, eyes wide with excitement. “He said their mom is gone so he’s gonna raise them and he’s gonna let me help !”

Oh, my heart , Iruka thought. Sasuke looked, for the first time since Iruka had seen him, alive and absolutely delighted to be so. He actually felt tears prick his eyes, but he didn’t cry. “Out back?”

"Yeah! Haku said he found their mom out back and then he found them, but he said the mom was dead, they sent me to get a box and some towels!" Sasuke babbled, doing none of those things. He actually sounded like a kid, young and eager.

"Okay, a box; could you get some towels from the linen closet?" Iruka asked, unable to repress the wide smile on his face. "I'll get you a box and meet you out back." Sasuke nodded enthusiastically, took off for the linen closet on the second floor. Iruka scrounged a box from one of the storage cupboards, dumping out the contents of it into another box.

Sasuke was already outside when he left the back door, squatting next to Haku with the towels in his lap. Zabuza and Anko were standing side by side, arms brushing, both watching with nearly identical looks of fond amusement.

Iruka handed the box to Haku, stood next to Anko.

"I think I'm going to have an aneurysm," Anko muttered, just loud enough that Iruka and Zabuza could hear her, "they're too damn cute."

"The bunnies or...?" Iruka trailed off, grinning even though she elbowed him in the chest. "Yeah. I got lunch, whenever this wraps up."

"My hero," Anko elbowed him again, though it was in a familiar manner. "How's Sakura?"

“Intent and focused," Iruka said. It was the best way of putting how she'd been; focusing on training to the point of spending extra hours at the training field, finding books on her own time to study. "She's learning a lot."

"Because she felt like she was inferior," Anko said, "I get that."

Iruka glanced above Anko's head, caught Zabuza's eyes. In tandem, they each wrapped an arm around her and she yelped. He was glad Zabuza agreed to not let Anko wallow in her sometimes self-induced misery.

Sasuke shushed them. "You'll make them wake up," he said in a stage whisper, handing towels to Haku as the other boy burritoed the baby rabbits, set them like little rolls in the box.

"This is," Anko whispered, a wide smile on her face, "absolutely ridiculous."

Iruka knew she wasn't just talking about the bunnies; everything that had happened, everything that had changed to lead them to where they were. Iruka definitely agreed.

-

"Sensei," Sakura said, her tone considering.

"Mm? Yes, Sakura?" he looked at her. She'd been reading a scroll he didn't recognize, but had rolled it shut and was sitting, with her arms crossed, staring at the ground.

"Ninjutsu is just the application of chakra to movements, you could say, right?" she asked.

"In a way," Iruka conceded. "It depends on the type of ninjutsu; physical ones, yes, but non-physical ones require more focus and intent to be combined with the chakra before it will make a ninjutsu."

"So," she extrapolated, looking up at him, spreading her hands flat on the dusty ground, "if one performs an action--say, punching--but then adds their elemental chakra to that action, it would accentuate the power and ability of that action."

"Yeah," Iruka could feel his face wrinkling in thought, "what are you thinking of?"

"Well, you said I have an affinity with doton," Sakura said, her own brow wrinkling in thought, "so, say, if I punch the ground and send my elemental chakra out..."

Iruka nodded, understanding the connection she was making. "It takes an extreme amount of chakra control to be able to do that; with just a little training, you'd be able to combine the two. A lot of ninjutsu relies on visualization of chakra flow, so depending on what you visualize, you could do a lot with that--directional attacks, and the like."

"So, really, ninjutsu mostly just relies on ability to focus and skill with visualization and control," Sakura said, mostly to herself. She turned her attention back to Iruka, "Sensei?"

"Yes?" it was always a tossup of where her thoughts were going; Iruka didn't want to assume, and felt like he couldn't. Sakura was nothing if not wildly creative now that she knew she could be.

"Can anyone create their own ninjutsu by doing that? I mean to say, if one just applies control and chakra to their thoughts and actions, they'll be able to make a ninjutsu?"

"Like I said," Iruka couldn't help but smile at her, "it depends. There are a lot of books on the creation of ninjutsu--they could probably explain it better than me."

"Okay," Sakura said, apparently all of her boldness used up. Her voice was a little meek as she said, "Thank you, Iruka-sensei."

"No problem!" Iruka smiled broadly to her. "I feel that, if you put your mind to it, you will be able to succeed, Sakura."

She blushed, ducked her head so her choppy bangs fell over her face. "Oh, uh," she looked back up, still blushing, "Iruka-sensei?"

"Yes, Sakura?" he said again.

"Where is Sasuke?" she asked.

He didn't know if she would believe him, but regardless he said, "He's at Anko's house helping Haku take care of some uh. Some baby rabbits that Haku found without their mother."

"What," Sakura said. He couldn't blame her.

-

Jiraiya appeared in Iruka's apartment for the second time, and had the audacity to actually steal the bottle of good sake that Iruka kept under the sink in the kitchen, sat drinking it in the living room.

"Why are you in my house?" Iruka irritably asked. He'd just spent the morning coaching Sakura through exercises that would help her refine her chakra control. It had been a somewhat painful process, especially because Sasuke had again not shown in favor of taking care of the rabbits and Sakura didn't have the largest chakra reserves, so she got exhausted quickly.

"Don't be so angry, Iruka-kun," the seal master said, his words slurring slightly. "Sit down and take a load off."

Iruka swiped the sake from his hands, built a seal out of pure chakra around the bottle as he put it back under the sink.

"Heyyy," Jiraiya said, complaining. He followed Iruka into the kitchen, and was on the receiving end of a spray bottle of water. Iruka found the tactic worked well enough on Anko; why not try it on the Sannin Jiraiya? "What the--"

"Stop breaking into my house," Iruka said sternly, in what Anko had taken to calling his teacher voice. "Don't you have a student to be teaching, anyway?"

"Ugh," Jiraiya actually seemed to sober up a little. "I actually came to talk to you about Naruto."

"And steal my sake?" Iruka waspishly asked. Jiraiya looked a little red and ashamed.

"Sorry about that; that kid, though," Jiraiya sighed, remained standing because somehow he actually knew what was good for him. "I came to ask if it would be okay if I taught him how to summon."

"Why are you asking me?" The question wasn't out of spite; Iruka just couldn't comprehend why Jiraiya would ask him.

"You know best what he's capable of; I've helped him get some chakra refinement skills down, and he's already picked up a couple of ninjutsu I've taught him," Jiraiya said, looking up at the ceiling, "but if you don't think it would be good for him, I won't do it. Kid is awfully dense."

"Don't call him that," Iruka said, giving the older man a glare, "he's good at learning things if they're properly explained to him. I don't see a problem with teaching him to summon; frogs, I presume?"

Jiraiya nodded warily, "Unless you have any better ideas. The techniques the frogs know mix well with what I've been teaching him."

"Go for it," Iruka said, deciding that if he ignored Jiraiya the man would leave, "and if you break into my dorm again I'm getting the Hokage."

The wince that gripped Jiraiya's face was palpable, but he did flicker off, leaving Iruka alone.

-

The next day, Sasuke did come to the training grounds. He and Sakura silently went through their katas, in perfect sync with each other. It was sort of amazing to watch, them getting along together.

After the taijutsu, Sakura explained what she'd been doing to her teammate; he did seem interested, but as Iruka watched them talking and debating concepts, Sasuke didn't seem as into the discussion as he would have been at one time. His face was alight, that was true; it was more emotion than he regularly showed during their training sessions.

As Iruka watched the two of them, Sakura standing up to do a demonstration (thankfully, her punches had a relatively limited area of affect), he thought about the day with the rabbits; it had been nearly a week since then. But, it seemed that that event had elicited permanent effects for Sasuke. He didn't seem so absorbed with being a shinobi, with finding revenge on his brother. Iruka knew, from talking to Anko and Zabuza, that Sasuke helped a lot in the house, spent a lot of time with Haku taking care of the rabbits (named Shiro, Shio, Shiori, and Shinobu) and cleaning up the garden--a practice that he had hated when it came to low-ranked missions.

An idea was forming in Iruka's mind about that, about Sasuke, but it wasn't fully complete yet. He watched Sakura create a crater five meters in diameter, and thought that maybe his idea had to do with choices.

-

It was two days before the exams, and Iruka just wanted everything to be over. As far as he knew, Kakashi and his squad hadn't had any luck finding Orochimaru, and the Hokage intended to go forward with the exams. The thoughts swirling through his mind--what ifs, might haves--made him jittery, which was why he was up at three in the morning, making himself some herbal tea with the hope it would knock him out.

The gentle tapping on the window alerted him far more than it probably should have; he nearly threw the honey pot into the ceiling.  Unsurprisingly, it was Kakashi. He threw open the window, and Kakashi slipped in, looking exhausted. He was in almost complete Anbu armor, his mask the only thing not on.

“This will have to be brief,” Kakashi said. His tone was--grim, which didn’t make much sense. “We found Orochimaru.”

“What?” Okay, it wasn’t really surprising but Iruka hadn’t slept for almost a full day at that point. “You--when? Where?”

“Can’t,” Kakashi said, making an abortive movement with his head. “I just. Wanted to stop by. In case.”

It took a few moments for that to sink in, and then Iruka just felt confused--confused and like his stomach was eating itself, or maybe spawning butterflies. “ What? ” he asked, squeakily. The kettle was boiling.

“I’ve made some bad decisions, particularly in regards to how I’ve interacted with and treated you,” Kakashi said, pausing to breathe. Iruka didn’t breathe, couldn't. “I just wanted you to know that my intent was not that; I don’t really have an excuse. I was stupid and I thought acting like that would keep you away from me.

“So I just,” oh, Kakashi’s entire face was nearly maroon, but he kept talking steadily, “I wanted to clear the air. Iruka, I’m sorry, and if I don’t come back I just want you to know you are important to me, and I don’t want to jeopardize that.”

“What?” Iruka said. He felt much more awake and panicked, and the word came out breathless.

He could tell--he could damn well tell that Kakashi was smiling under his mask, even as the man said, “Sorry I’m so late. Goodbye, Iruka.”

And Iruka was alone in his dorm, honey pot in his hands. Funny, his throat felt thick and his eyes burned; he didn’t touch his face, and he moved the kettle off the element.

Chapter Text

It turned out that having a good sob-fest was exactly what Iruka needed. It didn’t exactly let him come to grips with what Kakashi had told him, but it had made him extremely tired, and he ended up sleeping for a good six hours. Sleep and getting rid of all that excess emotion made the outlook seem brighter, even if he felt nearly sick with worry.

Orochimaru, found. In Konoha, too, in all likelihood, and that caused Iruka pause. He threw on fresh clothes, did his best to wipe the redness away from his eyes with a cool towel.

It was an instant to flicker over to Anko’s house, knock on the door. “It’s open!” came a yell from inside, and Iruka entered, took off his shoes without thinking. It felt like his brain was just automatically doing habitual things without real input; he entered the living room, and sighed when Anko came into view, wearing an oversized set of pyjamas and an apron.

“Shit, ‘ruka,” Anko said, rushing over to him, “you look like hell . Have you eaten? Did you sleep?”

It was something of a relief that everyone else in the house was busy elsewhere, because Iruka had no qualms about sinking into Anko’s warm embrace. “Kakashi,” he said, and was relieved when the only emotion that rose was the worry, and a kernel of warmth in his stomach.

“What?” she looked at his face, patted her hands on his cheeks, “what did he do?”

Iruka opened his mouth, thought better of it, and snapped it shut, teeth clicking together. It didn’t seem like there was a way to communicate gracefully that Kakashi had left to confront Orochimaru after appearing in his dorm and telling him that he was extremely important to him. Did that--was that a love confession ? Iruka realized, not noticing the worry that was very apparent on Anko’s face.

“Come on, let’s get you some food,” she said, gently taking his hands and tugging him toward the kitchen. Food. Iruka could comprehend that.

-

Zabuza was sitting at the kitchen table, a pot of tea in front of him weighing down a stack of papers, a pencil limp in his hand. He wasn’t surprised to see Iruka, but he was surprised by Iruka’s state.

“Iruka-san,” the man said, and when Iruka finally got the energy to look at him, a mug of tea was pushed over. Iruka wrapped his hands around it, the warmth and clean smell of the high grade green tea calming him, grounding him.

He looked up at Zabuza again, managed to muster up a small, somewhat pained smile, “Thank you.”

“I do not know what pains you,” the man said, quietly enough that Anko couldn’t hear from the stove, where she was making something that smelled awfully good, “but it might help to talk about it.”

As much as Iruka was intensely private, Anko had confided in him how kind Zabuza was, how he listened and cared. “Hatake,” Iruka said, and Zabuza’s brow furrowed. Yeah--Iruka expected that reaction; he’d only ever really talked about the bad sides of his relationship in front of Zabuza. “It’s not--anything bad. Actually,” Iruka looked down at the tea, “it is?” How much did he feel safe sharing with Zabuza? The man, while having calmed down immensely over the past few months, was still very gung-ho when it came to Iruka’s bodily safety and mental sanity.

Zabuza didn’t say anything, but looked at him expectantly.

“Orochimaru was found,” Iruka said.

If Zabuza understood the full implications of that, his face didn’t show that. However, he did nod slowly. “Impressive,” he said, “I assume the explosions early this morning from the south-eastern part of the city had something to do with that.”

Iruka looked up from his tea in a quick, neck-hurting motion. He winced, tried to keep his voice quiet, “What?”

Zabuza’s eyes flickered to Anko; she hadn’t heard. “I. Might have gone to investigate when I heard it; Haku was also alerted, but he remained here.”

“And…?” Iruka asked. Anko started cracking eggs, humming to herself.

“There were many Konohagakure shinobi there; I did not remain long. It was well-contained,” Zabuza said, gesturing for Iruka to drink his tea. It was the perfect temperature, warm and soothing. “They were removing bodies, if my eyes were not deceived. I left before confirming the identities.”

While Iruka’s stomach was knotted with worry for Kakashi and his team, he also felt exasperated at the risks Zabuza had ignored. “You shouldn’t have been out there,” Iruka scolded.

The other man took a sip of tea, rolled his eyes. But his mouth stretched in a grin of sorts. “I was in no danger from them. You worry for nothing; I would not be so foolish to endanger myself.”

Iruka rolled his eyes, drank his tea. He rested his head on his arms, reminded himself that Kakashi was one of the best-trained shinobi in the village--if not the best, considering the Hokage’s age. And if there had been no village-wide panic, that meant that the problem had been dealt with for the time being. He sighed. It wouldn’t do to panic.

“Oi, Zabuza, get some plates,” Anko said, breaking the heavy silence of the room, “breakfast is ready!”

-

Iruka couldn’t stay down in the dumps for long, not when Anko and her gradually expanding household surrounded him. He watched Haku and Sasuke feed the rabbits their first of two eyedropper-meals, Sasuke narrating the entire thing as well as telling Iruka about how the animals had been developing. Zabuza sat on the armchair across from him the entire time, whittling tiny animal-shaped toys out of wood with a variety of chisels and knives; Anko curled up next to Iruka, reading a book on gardening.

“Those two are insisting we start a proper garden,” she whispered to Iruka, flipping through folded and marked pages. She settled on a chapter on fruit trees, worried her head against Iruka’s shoulder and fuzzed her hair up with the friction.

Iruka let himself relax, let himself doze off there, safe with the people he had learned to consider his family.

-

Sasuke and Haku were also passed out on the couch, half-laying on him when he woke up. Iruka felt centered, as he hadn’t earlier. He looked around the room; Anko was tucked next to Zabuza, who had moved to the loveseat. She still had her book, was flicking through it slowly as Zabuza read from over her shoulder.

Iruka eased out from under the boys, left them on the couch to nap. The clock on the mantle of the fireplace told him it was past noon, which meant he’d slept for a couple hours.

It had done him good; as well as feeling centered, he felt awake and ready to tackle some things that, despite how good he felt, did make his stomach twist.

“I’ll be back,” he said quietly. Anko looked up from the book, her eyebrows twisting. Zabuza nodded. “I need to go get some information.”

He didn’t wait for either of them to say anything; he went and collected his shoes, set his feet toward the Hokage Tower.

-

Unlike his past visits since the exams started, the Tower was packed with activity. Most of it was Anbu; their porcelain masks seemed to blend together, and Iruka didn’t even try to pick out masks that he knew. He was going down to the basement. Even if Ibiki was busy, there were other people on his team and in the Intelligence Division that would give him information.

Ibiki was in his office, to Iruka’s surprise. He had a pile of paperwork in front of him, but he was there .

Surprise and confusion were on Ibiki’s face when he noticed Iruka. “What brings you to the pit on this fine day?”

“Orochimaru,” Iruka said sans preamble. He dumped the papers sitting on one of the scattered chairs onto the desk, sat.

Ibiki winced, and the look on his face was one of actual pain. “Everything is classified for now, you should know that Iruka.” Iruka raised an eyebrow. Ibiki furtively looked toward the closed door, at all of the listening holes and the like drilled into the room. “You should also know,” he scribbled down something on a slip of paper, folded it and handed it across the desk and the piles of paper, “that Hatake did ask to see you when the backup teams got there.”

Iruka glanced at the paper. Room 219 in the hospital. He crushed it, let fire chakra surge down his hand and incinerate the scrap. He didn’t say thanks, just nodded, and disappeared off to the hospital, leaving behind the crowds in the Tower.

-

He didn’t check at the desk, but used his knowledge of visiting and being in the hospital over the years previous to break into a window on the second floor next to Kakashi’s room. There was someone floating around in the trees outside the window, but Iruka ignored them, slipped into Kakashi’s room without knocking.

Oh, thank hell. He was alone, and actually awake. Despite being on painkillers--his pupils were tiny and the opiates in the IV explained that--he immediately noticed Iruka entering. He blinked several times, as if trying to dispel a hallucination or something.

“God, you dumbass,” Iruka breathed. His left arm was enclosed in a cast, and from the bulk of the blankets there were bandages wrapped around most of his body. “You’re full of shit, you know that, Hatake?” Iruka said louder, so Kakashi could hear him.

“Sorry I was late, ‘ruka,” the other man’s face, though bruised and covered in bandages, seemed to light up as he smiled. It was lopsided, a mix of both the bruises and the pain medication.

“Ugh,” Iruka rubbed his hands down his face. Kakashi’s smile was still as bright when he looked back down. “You owe me an explanation.”

He nodded, head wobbling somewhat dangerously. The smile didn’t dim at all; in fact, it seemed to grow brighter. “Can I ask you?” the words jumbled, but Iruka got the message. He nodded. “Come here.”

And while Iruka wasn’t exactly trusting of Kakashi--particularly one injured, high as a kite Kakashi--he walked closer to the bed, sat down on it when Kakashi patted the blanked with his free hand. That same arm slid around his shoulders, tugged him close. Iruka sighed, closed his eyes. “Sorry,” Kakashi said, “but not.”

“Full of shit,” Iruka repeated, but gingerly wrapped his arms around Kakashi in return, “but important to me."

Kakashi passed out like that, smiling into Iruka's shoulder, but Iruka didn't mind.

Chapter Text

Iruka managed to sneak back out of Kakashi’s room before anyone noticed him. There was too much to get done; he’d visit later, once he knew what was happening.

Just in time, too. As soon as he stepped into the Tower Ibiki grabbed him, dragged him up the stairs. “Just who I was going to look for,” the T&I head said, “debriefing, courtesy of the Hokage himself, considering your position as Uchiha Sasuke’s jounin teacher.”

Huh, an actual perk stemming from his unwanted assignment that wasn’t just seeing his students flourish and learn.

“Anko, also,” Ibiki said, as they made it up to the floor the Hokage’s office occupied. “There’s some others--an official announcement is being prepared.”

Further conversation was cut short. There were a couple people milling around the Hokage’s office, and more entered after they did. The Hokage looked very old and tired behind his desk, flanked by the everpresent Anbu, and he cleared his throat when the last person entered.

“If I could have your attention,” the Hokage said. Without any introduction, he began.

-

The squad had been expanded by a further twelve shinobi; they had already debriefed and split into four-person teams before heading out. With twenty-four Anbu the task seemed easier, but from his past experience, Kakashi didn’t hold onto too much hope.

Strike team one was his lead; once the scouts had confirmed the target, they’d be the first in. He’d spent the past days coming to terms with what they were going to do, with what he was going to finish. Building that resolve--

He put what he had done before assembling the team out of his mind. What he had needed to do had been done; if he survived, the repercussions would come.

With short hand movements, he sent the two scouting teams off. The building was actually the old hospital complex, before it had been rebuilt nearer the Tower and main part of the city. It was occasionally used to house overflow in times of need, but for the most part it was run-down and in disrepair. It seemed a predictable place for a missing-nin to hide, but there was another reason that Orochimaru used it for his base.

Underneath the complex, mostly caved-in from the time that had passed, were extension tunnels from the man’s former base. The main labs and offices had been destroyed, but many of the tunnels had survived. They fed into the emergency tunnels, and were blocked off, but the tunnels system was still, for the most part, intact.

The first squad came back; their leader signed that there was movement in the northernmost tunnel entrances. The second team reported the same in the south.

Diversionary squads went to the south, with backup--Kakashi and his team flickered to the northern entrance. Once there, he knew they were at the right place; it was cold, and had the peculiar dry smell that occurred alongside the presence of snakes.

He held up a hand, counted down.

Five. Four. Three. Two….

-

“Excuse me, Hokage-sama,” Iruka didn’t recognize the person who spoke, and bit back a sigh. Really? Even the Academy teachers taught their students to wait until the person talking was finished before asking questions.

Even the Hokage himself sighed, “Yes?”

“How long was a team searching for Orochimaru? This was not communicated to anyone else; how were we supposed to know?” Oh, good god. It was Gorou from the cryptography unit. Iruka had to stop himself from throttling the man.

“Since the second part of the exams,” the Hokage said, “it was not shared knowledge because we couldn’t be sure that nobody was working with him until the capture of Yakushi Kabuto. And in any case, we didn’t want knowledge of this plan to leak before Orochimaru was found.” Gorou’s face reddened at the pointed statement. “If I may continue…?”

-

An explosion signaled that the diversion teams had started; Kakashi didn’t pay attention to them, his focus was on his task.

The other squads ran in after his own. They split off down the branching tunnels to intercept any enemies. Strike team one headed as a unit down the main tunnel. An instant of silence in the aftermath of the explosion; the air felt heavy.

Snakes whirled around a curving corner like a torrent. Ox and Rat set up a mixed wind and fire technique, blasting the reptiles back and incinerating most of them. They kept moving and the snakes kept coming like a never ending river. Together, they turned the corner.

Orochimaru was glaringly white against the dirty grey-brown of the walls. Wouldn’t hurt to try and get the first blow in. Kakashi summoned lightning, blasted it in an arc to reveal the handful of other people waiting in the shadows.

Another instant, another breath. All of them moved as one.

The battle was almost too quick to make sense of. To fight a Sannin--well, Kakashi was thankful his teammates were able to keep up. Four to one had been the best choice, as well. Ox and Rat kept the snakes and henchmen at bay, which meant that Kakashi and Crow could fight Orochimaru without too much interference.

Within minutes, the two of them were riddled with shallow wounds and bruises. They’d managed to hit Orochimaru with a tandem katon, and it looked like the right side of his face was melting off. Under the skin that almost appeared to be molting, his actual skin was blistering, bleeding.

They were at least ten meters away from Ox and Rat. Another second of lull, and--

--more snakes; Orochimaru began weaving seals. Crow deflected the snakes so Kakashi could identify the jutsu.

Shit. A summoning. Kakashi knew how big Orochimaru’s summonings could get; even at the distance they were from Konoha, the village would take damage if he was able to call one of the big snakes. He signed what he knew, lightning quick, to Crow. She nodded while rushing the Sannin, summoning three clones to attack him directly.

It seemed he anticipated that. Orochimaru flickered away, past the clones, continuing his seals uninterrupted.

Five left.

Kakashi pulled one of the tanto strapped to his back free, lunged forward. The clone he’d replaced himself with near Crow disappeared as he buried the tanto into Orochimaru’s right arm, dragged it down to nearly remove the man’s arm. There was enough time for him to send the blade straight through Orochimaru’s left shoulder before the man was on him.

With his arms injured, the Sannin resorted to using his legs, winding one whip-fast around Kakashi’s left arm. Pulling it while kicking him in the ribs--the bones cracked audibly. Kakashi was used to pain, but the sheer amount of it overwhelmed him. His vision was beginning to fade with the pain when he was released.

Through force of will, he remained standing. Though his vision was wavering, there was no way he missed the scream that echoed down the hall. With his right hand, he pinched himself, shook his head to get better circulation.

Crow, battered and bloody, had bodily driven one of the throwing knives she used into Orochimaru’s back.

It was long enough that the tip protruded from his abdomen, under his ribs; blood stained the kimono he was wearing, dripped down to the ground. She twisted the blade, breathing strained with effort.

Another scream; Orochimaru’s face was gaping, unnaturally elongated to the point of grotesqueness. Equal parts pain and rage flashed across his face.

The Sannin’s next movements were desperate, sloppy. He whirled on Crow, ripped into her mask with his teeth. Bloodied the white porcelain; left her to drop on the floor.

Then he did something that made no sense, at least in Kakashi’s barely-present mind. Orochimaru turned, nd in one pained motion raised his left arm and blasted a hole through the rounded ceiling of the tunnel.

Dust flew, obscuring the arrival of Ox and Rat and, in front of them, two strangely similar-looking enemy shinobi. In the confusion that followed, it became apparent that the two shinobi had arrived to aid Orochimaru’s escape. One of them fended off attempts by Rat and Ox to prevent them from leaving, while the other pulled Orochimaru onto his back.

Shit. He couldn’t escape; he was going to escape.

Kakashi didn’t think about how his arm was screaming in pain, he forced his hands to weave the proper seals for a summoning. Before the smoke even cleared, he rasped out the order for Pakkun.

“Track.”

Orochimaru fled into the early morning light, and Pakkun silently followed.

-

The room itself seemed to exhale as the Hokage stopped speaking. In the silence, Iruka felt something touch his hand--Anko had pushed her way up to him. The look on her face was solemn but fierce, and she squeezed his hand tight, addressed the Hokage directly.

“Current target status?”

The Hokage almost looked surprised to see her. “Still being tracked; a squad consisting of three Anbu and the Sannin Jiraiya are following his trail. Once they intercept him, their order are to dispatch him.” At least his voice was firm as he said it; the old man’s expression was wanting for that same firmness. Anko squeezed Iruka’s hand again, something like triumph on her face.

“Casualties?” asked Ibiki.

“One Anbu was killed in the line of duty,” the Hokage said, bowing his head. Silence permeated the room for several moments as they mourned their lost comrade. The Hokage looked up, inspected a sheet of paper in front of him, “Eighteen enemies confirmed dead; we are still looking through the rubble. More were captured. We do not know the full extent of Orochimaru’s intentions at this time; as such, after conferring with my advisors and the Council, the final part of the exam has been cancelled.” At least two of the jounin teachers groaned, and Iruka knew Asuma was one of them. “Participants will still be considered for elevation based on their performances during the first two stages of the exam,” the Hokage said. It was obvious from his tone that the meeting was being adjourned, “Further inquiries will be answered as information allows; the rest of the village is being notified of last night’s events as we speak.”

-

Iruka left with Anko still grasping his hand. Outside the Hokage’s office waited the delegation from Sunagakure, though strangely without the Kazekage. Glances of curiosity and suspicion were traded, and the Konoha shinobi all remained silent.

Being pulled in the direction of the hospital didn’t raise any questions in Iruka’s mind. The day was sunny and bright, and he let Anko drag him along.

“Finally!” Anko said as the passed out of the wall encircling the Academy and Tower, “Something’s being done!” She released his hand stretched her arms as if she was trying to grab the sun itself in her happiness.

Iruka could only murmur in dazed agreement. His mind felt like it was a million places at once, trying to digest all of the information that the Hokage had given them.

“That reminded me, though,” Anko added, “about Naruto.”

It took a couple moments of walking for those words to sink in. “Shit! Naruto!” Iruka exclaimed, stopping in his tracks, “Jiraiya’s gone! Where did he leave Naruto?”

Anko actually laughed, a full, joyous sound. “A messenger came by after you left,” she said, tugging his sleeve so he would start walking again, “Jiraiya dropped him off at the hospital before he left this morning; just a minor case of chakra exhaustion, apparently.”

Knowing that Naruto was safe--well, that was enough to release any remaining tension in Iruka's body.

"Also," Anko singsonged, taking his arm again to drag him into the hospital, "while I was in the hospital checking on Naruto, I happened to stumble upon someone who wanted to see you. Again."

"Uh," Iruka could feel himself blushing. There was only two other people he knew in the hospital, and one of them was still in a coma.

"But first, I think Naruto's gonna get checked out," Anko said, waving to the man behind the front counter. "Does he need a babysitter until this all is over, too?"

"Are you volunteering?" Iruka asked, poking her in the side. "Because he is definitely yours, if you are."

Anko rolled her eyes, but smiled.

-

Naruto was in fine form. Of course, the chakra of the Kyuubi did allow his body to replenish itself at a higher rate.

"Iruka-sensei!" he yelled as soon as Iruka stepped into the room, right behind Anko. The flying leap was probably not hospital-approved, but Iruka did feel a little delighted as the boy hugged him. "Please tell me you're not gonna make me train with that old pervy-sage again," the boy complained, "he's not as good at teaching as you are and he wouldn't help me and he kept peeping in the onsen."

Fucking hell, if Jiraiya did make it back, even if he killed Orochimaru himself, Iruka was going to murder him. "Nah, he just wanted to train you for the exams. Uh, speaking of the exams," knowing the disappointment that would momentarily be taking over Naruto's entire being, he put it gingerly, "some bad stuff happened and they won't be continuing. There won't be a third part of the exam."

Naruto's face did fall, as expected, but then he grinned (quite like a fox) and crowed, "That means I can train with you and Sakura-chan and Sasuke-kun!"

Anko snorted, Iruka couldn't hold back a laugh. "Yeah, you can," he fondly said, ruffling the boy's hair. "But first let's get you out of the hospital and swing by your apartment. You're going to be staying with Anko for a few days."

If anything, that made the boy look more excited.

-

They made it to Anko's house without any problem. There, Anko notified everyone else (including a very apathetic Sasuke) that the exams were not continuing. Iruka left to go back to the hospital, if only because Anko threatened to castrate him if he didn't go visit Kakashi; but first, he went to check on the neglected member of his team.

Sakura was, confusingly, at the Yamanaka flower shop with Inoichi’s heir. Ino--yeah, her name was Ino, she was Asuma’s kid.

“Iruka-sensei!” Sakura called, waving madly to him as he entered the building, feeling a little lost. “Why are you here?”

“Are you here for flowers?” Ino asked, smiling sweetly.

“No, not today,” Iruka said, “Sakura, did you receive notification that the rest of the exam is cancelled?”

“Yeah, Asuma-sensei stopped by five minutes ago,” his student flopped across the counter, stretching her back and arms. “Does this mean we’re back to normal training?”

Iruka nodded. “For now; Naruto will be at the training field with us tomorrow. I’ll see you then.”

She nodded, and both girls waved as he left.

-

The hospital was definitely more quiet without Naruto in the building, Iruka considered as he actually walked to Kakashi's room. No point in being sneaky if the man had asked for him twice. Oh, gods, what would the medics think? That did cause some worry, if only because he knew from experience that the people in the hospital were the biggest gossips in Konoha.

He didn't need to worry, though. The hall leading to Kakashi's room was empty except for one Might Gai, and Gai seemed to expect him.

"Gai-san," Iruka nodded to him. He liked Gai, despite the man's sometimes inappropriate loudness; something about the sheer enthusiasm he had toward life, maybe.

"Ah, Umino-san," the man nodded in reply, raised on magnificently thick eyebrow, "visiting my dear rival?"

"Uh," Iruka did manage to keep the blush off his face, but his neck was burning, "yes. He asked for me, apparently."

"Yes, of dear Mitarashi-san!" Oh, Iruka had thought he'd dropped the poetic extravagance but he was wrong. "I would say it was more of a desperate begging, though I don't like making my esteemed rival seem weak; it seems that he's finally found some youthful vigor in his heart!"

"Ah, yes," Iruka sidled to the door, "Thank you for sharing, Gai-san. Have you told your team that the exams are cancelled?" He had seen Gai in the Hokage's office.

That made the man perk up, "You are right, Umino-san! I have neglected my most youthful charges! I will do fifty laps around Konoha to atone for this grievous mistake!"

Iruka managed to slip fully into Kakashi's room and close the door behind him before all but collapsing into laughter. Fucking Gai.

"You're energetic," Kakashi said from the bed. Oh, good, he sounded like himself and not a very, very high version of Hatake Kakashi.

Iruka glanced up, taking deep breaths to try and calm himself. "Your, ahem, "rival" is quite a man."

"I thought he'd left already," Kakashi said, squinting. Someone had gotten him a proper eye patch for the Sharingan; he looked almost a pirate, if not for the cast and the battered state of his face. His lip almost looked as if it was going to open up.

"He just did," Iruka said, finally under enough control of himself that he could manage sitting down in a chair.

"Ah," the other man looked as if he was contemplating something.

"Anko said you were asking for me?" Iruka prompted.

Kakashi started, looked at him in a sideways manner, ears going red. "Ah, yes. I realize that you probably came to visit me earlier hoping I would tell you something."

"That was what Ibiki said," Iruka couldn't help it; he fluttered his eyelashes, just a little. "It's fine, though. The Hokage had a debriefing for all the jounin teachers and the Information Division; he told us what happened."

Kakashi's entire face slowly made the change from pale to red, and try as he might he wasn't able to look away from Iruka's face. "Er. Yes. Did he tell you that I'm still tracking Orochimaru?"

"Yes." That had been an interesting point; obviously he was low in chakra, but somehow he was maintaining the summoning.

"I was actually wondering, uh," he looked nervous of all things, and it was like someone had poured feelings right into Iruka's brain so it would stop working, "my ninken--Pakkun is still tracking him, but my other ninken live with me. In my home. I uh. I was wondering if you might go and feed them? I've been informed I can't leave for a few days."

"Sure!" Iruka said, before really realizing what he was agreeing to. "Wait, why can't Gai do it? Why are you asking me?"

Kakashi's face was nearly glowing. "I. They. Um. They don't really like Gai because he doesn't feed them well. They know who you are, and I don't know anyone else. Also," he hesitated, and Iruka held his gaze so he would finish, "they know about us and basically refused to eat unless you took care of them while I'm here."

Hell. What had Iruka got himself into; he didn't really care. The blush over all of Kakashi's visible skin made the trouble very worth it.

-

Anko's house was busier than usual, but with more people living there than usual it made sense. Iruka left his shoes by the door, haphazardly wandered through the rooms, past Haku and Naruto who were deep in conversation, past Sasuke who was laying on his back reading Anko's book on gardening, and to where Zabuza and Anko were in the kitchen, planning out the meals for the next week.

It was sickeningly domestic. He sat and listened in. He’d missed the first half of the week, but as he listened they decided on yakisoba for Thursday, miso with potatoes and salmon on Friday, and hotpot on Saturday. Iruka invited himself over on Saturday.

"'ruka, how was he?" Anko asked, tidily writing down the meals on the calendar that normally hung on the fridge. It seemed that Zabuza had also produced that change in her; she seemed cleaner, more neat in a way.

Zabuza glanced curiously at Iruka.

"Hatake," Iruka clarified, then to Anko, "I'm taking care of his dogs. Does he still live in his family compound? He fell asleep before he told me."

Anko snorted, and Zabuza just looked confused. "Yeah, he still lives there. Though it's half-abandoned. Doesn't he have eight of them?"

Iruka nodded.

"Lucky you," Anko said. She got the okonomiyaki pan out, pointed a spatula at him, "Like I have said, you have a bad habit of picking up strays, Umino Iruka."

"Ugh," Iruka let his head drop onto his folded arms, "I know."

"Ah, Zabuza, could you help me with the ingredients?" she began digging them out of the fridge and cupboards; Zabuza immediately went to help.

Using sign language, when he knew Anko was looking, he signed, "Domestic."

She blushed, flipped him off, but didn't deny it.

Chapter Text

Iruka got the meat as Kakashi had specified; nearly a half a cow from the butcher, who had looked overly gleeful. He knew where the Hatake compound was, but that didn't mean he knew what exactly he was doing as he walked up to it. The key to the front gate was, as Kakashi had said, stuck behind one of the nearby streetlight-posts so that it was practically invisible to passerby.

Iruka kept the bags of meat on his arms, carefully opened the door.

He didn't know what he expected, but being attacked by seven ninken ranging from a foot tall to nearly five foot tall was not it. Luckily, he was a trained jounin and could deal with some dogs; he slapped a seal down, which trapped them in a barrier that looked like a bubble.

"What the fuck!" one of the medium-sized dogs screeched, it's tail furiously slapping against the barrier as it scrabbled with all it's blunted claws to try and get out.

"Shiba," chided a red sighthound, "not in front of the kids."

The largest dog, a very oversized bull-dog, actually bowed. "You must be Iruka-san. We were told you would be here, if the boss made it."

Iruka sighed. "If I let the barrier down, do you all promise not to attack me again?"

Six heads nodded; the red sighthound hit the one named Shiba, and he nodded as well. Hoping he could trust their word as much as he trusted their contract-holder's, Iruka pulled the seal off the ground, and with a surge of chakra destroyed it.

-

Uuhei was the red sighthound, and she seemed like the unofficial leader in Pakkun's absence. It was a little comical, the way they all bowed to him once he let the barrier down, and followed him single-file like a line of ducklings as he went into the house.

Anko had been right, the house was half-destroyed. Of course, it wasn't the part that Kakashi seemed to actually live in, but the mere thought of living in a half-destroyed house was depressing. The dogs didn't seem affected by his line of reasoning.

"Right," Uuhei barked once they were all in the kitchen, and Iruka had dropped the bags on the counter. "Introductions; oldest to youngest."

The large bulldog was first; he introduced himself as Bull. Then Akino, Shiba, Urushi, Guruko, and--

"BISUKE!" the smallest dog all but shouted. He was half the size of the next largest, Guruko, and the vest he wore kept sliding around because it was too big.

-

Let it be said, Iruka was not a dog person. Admittedly, he wasn't really an animal person in general; most of his experiences with them were on the battlefield or in the wild, neither of which lead to very good opinions.

But.

Kakashi's ninken?

They were impeccably well-behaved. They waited for him to sear steaks for each of them, and with a chorus of "Itadakimasu!" they ate. He washed the plates; Guruko and Akino wiped the floor with towels, while Bull directed him to the right cupboards.

Iruka had intended to leave after feeding the dogs, but they all looked at him with such hopeful eyes--

-

Bisuke had fallen asleep on his lap and was snoring gently. Uuhei sat next to him on the back porch, occasionally barking at the other dogs, who were running around after the squirrels that lived in the oak trees behind the house. According to Uuhei, it was their regular after-dinner routine. He wasn't sure if he believed her.

"Did Kakashi really tell you guys about me?" Iruka asked, his hands unconsciously petting the dog on his lap.

Uuhei's expression was sly, if a dog's expression could be called such. "He's told us plenty about you, pup. And often."

What does that mean? he wanted to ask her, but he refrained. God, how desperate were the both of them?

"But," she continued, and settled down with her head between her front legs, "he doesn't talk about people often. You're special. Even if it gets real damn annoying, I’m glad he’s okay but he can stay in the hospital.”

Iruka snorted, but was frozen with shock. What the fuck. What the fuck .

-

He managed to get back home before it was too late, through some miracle. The dogs seemed desperate for attention, and even though he’d only met them hours before, Iruka was loathe to leave them. It was a depressing place to live, the Hatake compound, and without Kakashi or anyone there it seemed more depressing. He left a couple of the lights on, and promised to visit the next day.

Even then, once he made it back to his dorm, Anko appeared. And he groaned, guessed he wasn’t going to get much sleep.

“Anything from the Hokage?” he asked, going to change his clothes. There was a lot of dog hair everywhere.

She shook her head. “Kids are asleep and fine, just wanted to stop by and make sure you were still alive. Dogs?”

“Fed,” he emerged from his bedroom wearing pyjamas, threw himself onto the couch and groaned. “I’ll be by tomorrow morning. Zabuza and Haku?”

Anko blushed a little, shook her head, “Fine. Seem to think they need to protect all of us.”

“Especially you,” Iruka said.

She blushed more, flopped down onto the couch atop his legs. “Okay, so I haven’t...ugh I haven’t told you but,” she chewed her lip, face turning maroon as her tone turned shy.

“You’re together,” he said.

“How did you…?” she smacked him lightly with one hand, “What the hell.”

“You guys are adorable,” he said without meaning to say it, “Anyway, can we pick this up tomorrow? I’m exhausted.”

Anko rolled her eyes, “Sure, sure. Come for breakfast if you want.”

“Mm,” he waved as she stood and put on her shoes. “Stay safe.”

“Stay aware,” Anko said, waving as she left through the front door.

-

Something felt wrong when he awoke. It wasn’t the overarching feeling of impending doom, but a creeping feeling of insecurity that dogged him as he got dressed. It was early, before dawn, and it gave Iruka enough time to feed the dogs before going to Anko’s house.

The ninken also seemed on edge, though they couldn’t explain it either. It was like the calm before a thunderstorm, but nobody knew what the thunder was.

Iruka watched the dogs for a while, sitting again on the back porch with Uuhei. “Will you visit the boss today?” she asked in between chewing on her feet.

“I’ll,” Iruka felt a little mortified even as he said it, “try to?”

She made a content sort of sound in her throat and resumed trying to rip off her toes.

The change was sudden; one minute most of the dogs were moseying around the overgrown yard, the next all of them were pointing to the south-west, ears erect, tails down.

“What,” Iruka started as Uuhei started growling deep in her chest.

“Iruka!” the yell was familiar; Anko appeared on the roof of the house, panicked.

“It’s fine,” Iruka said to Uuhei and the other dogs. They stopped growling, but remained alert, “she’s a friend. What is it, Anko?”

“Meet me at the house!” she yelled, taking off in the direction of the hospital.

Iruka left the dogs, after reassuring them. Something had happened; from Anko’s demeanor he didn’t know if it was good or bad.

-

Nobody appeared to be at the house when he arrived. At least, nobody answered the door, and as he peeked around he couldn’t find Zabuza or any of the kids. Concerning.

Anko arrived like a whirlwind, her face pale and her breathing ragged.

“Kids,” she said, pausing to catch her breath, “Sasuke. Some of Orochimaru’s people were still in Konoha, or near, they took Sasuke , they were out catching fireflies, I was visiting Ibiki to try and get more information,” Anko chewed on her thumb, “Shit, if I’d been here it wouldn’t have happened! I just needed to get back here--”

“--Anko,” Iruka interrupted, holding her by her shoulders, “there wasn’t anything you could have done. Knowing Orochimaru, there would have been more than one shinobi.”

“Iruka is right,” Zabuza stepped into the room, and it was like he had stepped right out of the past. He wore the clothes of a shinobi, the clothes he had wore when fighting Iruka. They were patched, and any sign of his being a former shinobi of Kirigakure were removed. The colors and textures hinted at that, of course, but he looked a mercenary, a katana tucked into one side of his belt. “You would not have been able to do anything; Haku, as it was, was unable to hold them off.”

“You’re,” Iruka began, at the same time that Anko said, “No.”

They looked at each other, then looked at Zabuza as the man wrapped his scarf around his face, tugged it down so his mouth was visible. “I take this task upon myself,” he said, placing a gentle hand on Anko’s shoulder, nodding to Iruka, “to repay you. But also to save a boy who is innocent of this life.”

“But,” Anko began, clear worry lining her face.

“I promise to you,” Zabuza said, “I will return. I must ask you to take care of Haku while I am gone.”

Anko nodded, and Iruka stepped back to give them some space. Zabuza’s hands moved down to intertwine behind her back and they talked quietly for a few moments. Anko leaned up, Zabuza leaned down, and Iruka stepped out of the room.

Anko found him in the kitchen, sitting at the table. “The Hokage’s probably also sending a team after them,” she said, sitting, “He’ll be fine.” The way she said it sounded more like she was reassuring herself than anything else.

-

With no other real options, they went to the hospital. Haku and Naruto had attempted to fight and had both been hospitalized, and in the same room. Naruto was unconscious when they arrived, but not badly hurt. Haku was awake, and had thick bandages wrapped around his hands and arms.

“News?” he asked as soon as they stepped into the room. Anko immediately went to him, clucking as she pushed him back down into his bed.

“Zabuza, er, Koji has gone to track them,” Iruka said. While they were alone for the time being, it wouldn’t do to have someone listen in and hear something they weren’t meant to. Especially in a public place.

“He will find them and bring Sasuke back,” Haku said, nodded. He had more conviction that Iruka and Anko felt about the whole thing.

“What happened?” Iruka asked, because he still didn’t have the full story.

“We had gone to the woods, behind the house; still in sight, however, I made sure of that,” Haku winced as he pushed himself to sitting against his pillow. “There were fireflies, and Naruto-kun wanted to catch some; he never had the chance before. Sasuke wandered away to look at some plants, and then the shinobi came.

“Four, I believe, but maybe only three; I tried to hold them off but Naruto-kun was knocked unconscious, and I couldn’t defend both of them,” his hands fisted in his blanket, though the action again made him wince and relax his hold, “One of them burned me, and while I was distracted they took Sasuke. I was unable to--”

Before he could finish that thought, Iruka held up his hands, “You did your best, and you prevented them from hurting Naruto or yourself too badly, and that is what I care about right now. The Hokage is going to send people to find Sasuke, and Koji is going to look for him as well. Plus, Jiraiya and some others are finding Orochimaru; Sasuke will be fine.” And as Iruka said it, he hoped it was true.

-

He agreed to meet Anko at her home, but before that he had a detour to make. Haku and Naruto were a floor below Kakashi, almost literally, so instead of walking up the stairs Iruka threw himself out the window and climbed up the wall.

His mistake, though, was not checking the room before he climbed in. Kakashi was not alone. Gai and a man wearing Anbu gear were standing next to the bed, and from the looks of it he’d interrupted their conversation.

However, Gai looked thrilled to see Iruka, and Kakashi’s face immediately went the color of fresh pickled plums.

The man in the Anbu gear immediately let out something that sounded like a relieved sigh. “You must be Umino Iruka-san,” he said, walking forward and shaking Iruka’s hand once Iruka had slipped awkwardly into the room. “Tenzou; it’s an honor to meet you. Unfortunately, though, I must be off. Gai?”

Gai nodded, pausing to shake Iruka’s hand as well (and very energetically), and the two of them went out the window that Iruka had entered.

“What,” Iruka turned to Kakashi, “was that?”

Kakashi grimaced a little. “Stuff for the Hokage. What brings you here?”

“Your ninken,” Iruka said, heavily sitting on one of the horribly uncomfortable hospital chairs, “asked if I was going to visit. Um.”

Kakashi looked expectantly at him. The blush had receded, but his ears were still a delightful pink.

“You’ve...talked about me with them?” he asked.

Kakashi sighs, a small sound. “They--ninken are smart, they smelled you on me several times and wouldn’t let it go. So. I explained how I knew you.”

“Closets?” Iruka asked a little weakly. Kakashi nodded.

“They might have their own interpretations. Did I hear right that Naruto and your cousin are in the hospital? What happened?” Iruka knew a deflection when he heard it, but couldn’t complain. The topic was a little too near. But then his mind shorted; his cousin?

Shit, that was Haku. “They’re, uh,” he tried to find a concise way to state it, “they and Sasuke were attacked last night; Sasuke was kidnapped.”

“Shit,” Kakashi said.

“Shit,” Iruka echoed, faintly.

Chapter Text

Naruto could have left the hospital, but Anko felt better about him staying with Haku. At the house she would just stress about Sasuke and Zabuza, and neither of the boys needed that. There were things that needed to be done, in any case, and knowing they were safe in the hospital would make everything easier.

First, she cornered Ibiki after leaving the hospital. Iruka had agreed to meet her at her house, but she didn’t know how long he would be.

“No messages from Jiraiya,” Ibiki immediately said as soon as he saw her face peeking around the doorframe.

“Sasuke?” she asked, quiet.

Ibiki frowned. “No news there, either. Two squads; Cat and Moose are leading them.”

-

It was...somewhat disheartening. Zabuza had a head start on them, of course, but she knew him. Tracking was Haku’s forte, not his, and two squads of Anbu were likely to have at least one tracker between them.

Oh, gods, let him completely avoid them and not have to deal with that. He wasn’t disguised well, and if the Anbu noticed a shinobi wearing Kiri fatigues they would likely engage. But--it was Zabuza. She knew his history from the bingo book and from what little he felt comfortable sharing, he was extremely powerful and had spent his entire life as an S-rank missing-nin. He could take on some of Orochimaru’s henchmen.

But--it was Orochimaru.

She made it back to her house, forced herself to catch her breath. Iruka would help; Iruka always helped.

-

But Iruka wasn’t back, and she spent a few minutes panicking. No, no, panic was bad and would just make the wait worse.

Anko channeled the nervous energy into cleaning up and making food. She’d take some in to the hospital later--the cafeteria did make nutritious food, but that didn’t mean it was good . Plus, her mother’s old recipe for okayu was a fool-proof way to make anyone feel better.

It even helped her. The cleaning was exhausting--more perhaps for the speed at which she did it than anything else. Sitting and eating was relaxing, even if the entire time her mind was focused on Sasuke, on Zabuza--

God what the hell was going on, not only was she worried about them and about everyone, she also had to worry about her relationship with Momochi Zabuza of the Mist who she was pretty damn convinced would get caught by Anbu and then she would be fucked, Iruka would be fucked, the kids would be fucked and they’d have to break out of prison and live as exiles.

“Shut the hell up, brain,” she sternly said aloud as she washed the dishes.

-

Iruka finally arrived a couple hours after she had expected him, looking weatherbeaten and much like a soaked cat.

“What did you get waylaid by?” she propped herself up from where she was laying on her back on the couch. “Storm? Hatake?”

“No, Ibiki sent me a message. He had one for you, too,” Iruka threw his coat off, held the slip of paper out for her to take.

Sasuke retrieved--Jiraiya and co. heading back

“Oh,” Anko said, her shoulders slumping with relief, “they’re all right. But--”

“He did also mention,” Iruka added, “that they found the shinobi who had taken him already dead. In fact, Ibiki said the notification said that Sasuke’s injuries had been seen to and he was waiting for the teams when they found him.”

Anko pressed the note to her chest, thankful nearly to bursting.

-

Iruka went with her to deliver the food to Haku and Naruto. Though they’d stopped by earlier, it seemed that all of them were relieved to see each other again. The nurse in charge of them just raised an eyebrow at the containers before leaving them to eat. Anko and Iruka stayed well after visiting hours were over, and only left because the nurse pointedly stared at the clock.

The rollercoaster that was her day and the fact that she hadn’t slept in nearly thirty-six hours meant that she was exhausted. As soon as she took her shoes off, she slumped and nearly passed out in the entryway. Iruka clucked and herded her into the living room, where she collapsed on the couch.

He moved around--likely making himself tea from the sounds. It was soothing to have someone else in the house, let her feel safe somehow. She was only marginally aware of a blanket being tucked over her and the creak of one of the armchairs, and then she slept.

-

It was dark when she woke, but not because of the time. Rain drizzled down over the village as she went to find another blanket; it was six, and though it was likely time for them to be up, she wasn’t ready to face the day.

On her way back from her bedroom, thick, soft quilt in her arms, she noticed the light on in the bathroom next to Haku’s room. Well, there was only a certain number of people that could be, and one of them was passed out in her armchair on the floor below. Careful to make noise, she pushed the cracked door open.

Zabuza sat on a chair taken from the kitchen, his gear scattered around the room. The weapons were clean, laying on towels to dry. His shirt was gone; cuts broke the tanned expanse of his skin, and in combination with sweat gave his entire body a pinkish sheen.

“You’re okay,” Anko blankly said. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“I didn’t want,” he carefully said, winding the soiled bandages off of his arms, “you to see me in this state.”

Anko sighed, set the blanket down carefully next to the door. “You forget, I am a trained shinobi,” she said, holding a hand out for the sutures. He hesitated, but handed the needle over. Anko ran a hand over the cuts needing to be stitched, the chakra on her hand numbing before she began stitching the skin together.

Neither of them spoke as she carefully pinched and stitched his wounds closed. With light fingers she cleaned off the stitched wounds, and when done she stepped back. He looked exhausted, slumped forward slightly.

“Hey,” deliberately she touched his shoulder, ready to jump back if he suddenly reacted. He didn’t, but leaned into her touch, “you need to clean up. I’ll get you clothes and some food.”

“Anko,” he said as she turned to go.

“Hm?” she turned, leaned her head close to his.

“Thank you,” he said, pressing a hand to her cheek, “for everything. If I had not been able to find Sasuke--”

“Don’t,” Anko smiled, “you did, and that’s what matters. Thank you .”

She let him lead her down into a kiss. “Clean up,” she said, squeezing the hand on her cheek, “I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Chapter Text

Iruka was the first person there when Sasuke was brought to the hospital. By no means was he the only one; the Hokage himself came, Anko and Zabuza (fully patched up and disguised as a civilian again) were visiting Haku and Naruto to share the news. But Iruka was the first one in Sasuke’s room, and was on the receiving end of a tackling hug the likes of which Naruto regularly gave.

“Let’s sit down, hm?” Iruka asked, carefully prying Sasuke’s arms off him. The boy didn’t look especially worse for wear, at least physically. There were some scabs on his face, and bandaging around his forearms, but that was all that was apparent at first glance.

Of course, Iruka reminded himself as he guided the boy back to the bed, that didn’t mean he was mentally sound. Especially since he kept a deathgrip on Iruka’s left arm even when back on the bed, and his eyes flickered around the room with a nervous energy.

“Don’t wanna talk about it,” Sasuke mumbled, sounding very much like the child he was.

“Don’t have to,” Iruka gently ruffled his hair, “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

As if called by that, the Hokage knocked on the door and walked into the room. Not even the venomous glare that Iruka sent toward him prevented him from advancing into the room, and speaking. “Sasuke, I am glad to see you back safely. I was wondering if you might talk to me.”

Sasuke’s body language screamed “no”; he scooted ever so slightly behind Iruka, clenched his hands tighter.

“I think,” Iruka said carefully, more for Sasuke’s benefit than anything else, “Sasuke would prefer to wait a few days.” He glanced back to the boy; Sasuke nodded vigorously.

-

“You do know you are not the boy’s guardian,” the Hokage said as they walked down the hallway of the hospital. Anko was with Sasuke, Zabuza having taken the other two home after visiting Sasuke.

“That may be the case,” Iruka allowed, “but he is a child. Age of majority is sixteen; he needs a guardian, especially after what he’s gone through.”

“The council is in charge of that decision, as you should know.”

“The council may be in charge, but it is up to Sasuke himself if he wants a guardian appointed. Have you asked Sasuke what he wants?” Iruka asked.

The Hokage stopped. The expression on his face was unreadable but maybe it was sadness. “That is out of my hands, Iruka,” the old man said, clasping his hands behind his back. He turned to Iruka, “the official announcement will be coming when she returns, but I am stepping down from the position of Hokage.”

Iruka didn’t know what to say. It seemed like Sarutobi Hiruzen was eternal, and would only pass on his title with death. But, of course--she. There was only one person Iruka could think of being chosen by the current Hokage to take his place.

“Senju Tsunade?” Iruka hesitantly asked.

Something like a proud smile came onto the Hokage’s face. “The very one. With all that has happened she agreed to return at least for a short time.”

That was even more surprising than him stepping down, and for the second time Iruka felt himself at a loss for words. Tsunade taking over as Hokage still did not change Sasuke’s problem. “But, Sasuke,” Iruka said, bringing their conversation back to the subject at hand.

The Hokage nodded, sighed again if Iruka wasn’t imagining things. “Bring him in in three days to the Council chambers; we will discuss further then. I imagine he will be staying with Mitarashi Anko?”

Iruka nodded.

“I would ask you to keep an eye on him, or to tell her to do so,” Iruka didn’t say it, but the reminder was very much unnecessary, “It would not do for him to be put at risk again. I will be assigning him a guard, as well.”

Iruka bowed, knowing a dismissal when he heard one.

“Two days, Iruka,” the Hokage repeated, remaining in the hall as Iruka nodded, and walked off.

-

Iruka was going to insist Anko let him stay over, but he didn’t need to. Sasuke had been released with a clean bill of health and an appointment to come back a few days later to ensure the cuts that Zabuza had cleaned and sewed (thought the medics didn’t know that) were healing properly. As soon as he saw Iruka, he again grabbed onto him and refused to let go.

“Sent the boys to make up a room for you,” Anko said, letting Sasuke take one of her arms as well.

Iruka felt gratefulness welling up in his chest. His family, which he had at one time just considered himself and Anko, was so much larger than that.

-

He woke up in the middle of the night with the sudden realization that he’d forgotten to feed the ninken. Fuck. He’d all but forgotten about Kakashi and the dogs with Zabuza’s return and Sasuke being found safely and it was in a panic that he created a shadow clone to leave at the house before throwing himself out of the window, wearing a jacket over his pyjamas.

The light in the kitchen of the Hatake house was on. Iruka honestly couldn’t remember if he had left it on; as it was, a few of the dogs appeared when he stepped into the courtyard.

Bisuke immediately trotted up to him, Uuhei after the puppy.

“Didn’t expect you to be back here,” Uuhei said, holding her head up to be scratched.

“What do you mean?” Iruka asked. Maybe the light meant that Kakashi had found someone else to look after the dogs, since Iruka had given him the news about Sasuke being kidnapped.

Uuhei looked blankly at him for a second, then growled, “I’m going to bite the boss right in the ass. He didn’t tell you he got out of the hospital today, did he.”

It wasn’t a question, but Iruka replied nonetheless. “No, he didn’t.” Shit, that was mortifying, he should’ve checked when he was at the hospital.

“Not your fault,” Uuhei said, walking behind him and nudging him toward the house, “he owes you.”

Iruka felt very confused as he was herded into the house. They picked up more of the ninken on the way, and he had to pick Bisuke up to rescue the pup from being trampled under the older, bigger dogs.

Kakashi was in the kitchen, along with the one dog Iruka had yet to meet. Pakkun was a tiny pug, smaller even than Bisuke, and he looked at Iruka and the rest of the ninken with something like tired amusement. Kakashi looked better than he had, but maybe that was because he was out of the harsh hospital lighting.

It was Kakashi’s turn to look mortified, as he turned to find all of his ninken surrounding Iruka. “Hello,” he said lamely.

“Boss!” Uuhei barked. “You didn’t tell him!”

“Uh,” Iruka interjected, “really, it’s fine. I should’ve checked while I was at the hospital.”

They seemed to reach an impasse of sheer awkwardness after Iruka fell silent. It was in no way helped by the dogs, who coughed and fidgeted, and finally Kakashi herded them all forcibly out of the kitchen, plucked Bisuke from Iruka’s arms and tossed him onto Bull’s retreating form. The silence someone made the tension lessen.

“I’m sorry. It completely slipped my mind,” Kakashi said, puttering back around Iruka to click the stove on and fill the kettle, “I was released this morning and immediately was called to the tower to have Pakkun debrief the Hokage, and then I had to wait for Jiraiya’s return. It took most of the day.”

Iruka had completely forgotten about Jiraiya, but it did make sense. Once the Hokage had dismissed him, he and the Anbu other than Sasuke’s guard had gone back to the Tower. In fact, if he hadn’t been imagining things, the lights in the Tower had still been on when he had rushed to Kakashi’s house.

“It’s classified knowledge as of now, but I don’t care,” Kakashi said in a conversational tone, “they got Orochimaru and the Hokage intends to step down; Tsunade’s en route to the village to take his place.”

“Oh, I knew about Tsunade,” Iruka dropped into one of the two chairs at the table.

Despite only having one functional arm--the other pinned in a sling--Kakashi got the kettle filled and two mugs. “He likely decided on that course of action after the first...incidences, during the exams. I’m sure there’ll be an announcement at some point, the old man loves those.  Anyway, to more important business--how’s Sasuke doing?”

Iruka snorted. “Anxious, overwhelmed.”

“Staying with Anko? And your, uh, cousins?” Oh, Iruka had nearly forgotten that Haku and Zabuza were in that role.

“Yes,” he accepted the mug of what appeared to be a flower tea. “The Hokage is allowing him an Anbu guard.”

Kakashi frowned. “I’ll make sure it’s someone good. You should probably head back.”

“What, and no goodnight kiss?” Iruka jokingly asked, drinking the tea as quickly as its temperature would allow.

“Of course,” Kakashi said, setting down his own tea to tug his mask down. He still looked a little ashen, but there was more color in his cheeks. “Come here,”

Iruka let himself be tugged into a hug, and Kakashi pressed a kiss first to his left cheek, then his right. “I’ll see what else I can figure out for you,” he said, releasing Iruka. “Stay safe--all of you.”

“We’ll try,” Iruka said, with a wan smile. He left through the window so the dogs wouldn’t be alerted.

The village was peaceful in the midnight hour, and Iruka returned to Anko’s house, though not at the speed he had left with. Still, he hurried; likely someone had sensed his leaving and his clone had explained, but he still didn’t want any of the others to worry.

His clone disappeared as he opened the window and slipped into the house. Yes--Anko had come because Zabuza had sensed him. The boys were fine; Sasuke and Naruto were sharing Haku’s room for the night, and the Anbu guard had changed at eleven o’clock.

Iruka let himself relax, laying there on his borrowed bed. It would work out; he believed that much.

Chapter Text

It was abruptly that Iruka realized, early the next morning, that he had completely forgotten about Sakura. She had likely learned about Sasuke’s kidnapping, but not from him--that had been a mistake, he owed it to her to give her news like that. First thing he needed to do, after making sure everyone had slept well, was visit her.

The Haruno house was near the other civilian houses. Iruka knew both of them had been shinobi at one point; Kizashi had quit when Sakura had been born, and Mebuki had just retired a couple years before. He had done some digging, it was normal.

Kizashi opened the door after he knocked, something like a relieved expression on his face. “Please, come in, Umino-sensei,” Kizashi said, stepping back, “We had hoped you would stop by--Sakura has been...well, it’s best if you talk with her.”

That was ominous, but Iruka felt confident enough that she would be fine. He needed to take her over to Anko’s, that was definite.

“Iruka-sensei!” came the shrill yell as soon as Kizashi had gestured for him to enter the living room and started up the stairs. A pink and yellow blur all but torpedoed into into the room, and as suddenly as Sakura entered the room she slid to a stop, grabbed onto Iruka’s sweater (worn in place of his flak jacket). “What is happening? Inoichi said something about Sasuke but then he refused to tell me and nobody’s been over at Anko-san’s house when I’ve visited and nobody will tell me what’s going on!”

“Sakura,” Iruka calmly said, settling his hands on her shoulders. She looked nearly as neon as Naruto in her pink and yellow, and he smiled down at her, “that’s why I’m here.”

-

Anko’s house was overfilled with people, but it didn't feel like it as Iruka sat in the kitchen with Anko and Zabuza. The kids were sprawled in the living room, talking about whatever they were talking about, while Iruka just enjoyed the calm. It was strange, that the chaos of the chuunin exams and the aftermath of the exams was finally over. Or, at least, seemed to be.

He could hope.

“Maybe this is over, now,” Anko said. It was easy to catch her meaning. This--Orochimaru.

“Maybe,” Iruka agreed.

Zabuza wasn’t even subtle as he slid an arm around Anko’s waist, tugged her and the chair she was sitting on a little closer. “What will happen to Sasuke?” he asked.

The big question. “I’m leaving that up to him,” Iruka said, fiddling with a pen he’d picked up somewhere, “it should be his decision, in any case.”

That seemed to satisfy Zabuza, and the man nodded, looked into the living room at the kids, fondness on his face.

-

His dorm felt empty. Staying at Anko’s for days on end made him forget he lived alone, and returning to his apartment was a harsh reminder of that. There was no food at all in the kitchen, other than uncooked rice and tea. Everything was dusty from his days of absence, and there were more chores needing to be done.

Iruka was exhausted. Despite most of his day just being spent with the kids at Anko’s house, the past few days and weeks had caught up to him, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

He managed new sheets for the bed before he collapsed and slept.

-

For the first time in what had to be years, Iruka slept late. It was almost luxurious, to sleep in and take his time eating breakfast, even if breakfast was pretty anemic thanks to the state of his kitchen. The kids had the day to themselves, which meant he had the day to himself as well. He didn’t have to go into the Tower, he didn’t have to do any paperwork. Freedom, even if it was only for one day.

First he did chores, cleaned up his dorm and restocked the kitchen. Having a clean environment around him did wonders for his motivation and peace of mind.

The next day, he considered, he’d sit down the kids and they would talk. The signs were pretty clear that all of them were reconsidering what they wanted in the future, and if they even wanted to continue to become shinobi. Then, of course, the question would be whether or not he would be able to train them in the ways they needed or wanted to be trained. Sasuke, at least, he wouldn’t be able to continue to train. He was proficient in the most basic of genjutsu, but he wouldn’t be much help to someone with a dojutsu such as the sharingan. Sakura he could help develop genjutsu skills, but she also would need a different teacher once she got the basics.

There was no point speculating; he had no idea what would happen. If the past months had taught him anything, it was that his first ever genin team was extremely unpredictable. Iruka abandoned what he had been doing--scrubbing out the tub--and considered the picture that had been taken of them, a week into being a team.

Naruto, grinning widely, his hands flashing twin V’s. Sasuke, a scowl on his lips that was cut by the rest of his face not being twisted into the expression. Sakura, smiling, adorable. The smile on his own face was a little weary, but there.

They were all still there, he told himself. They would figure it out together.

-

Tsunade arrived, and the entire village knew. It was hard to miss her intercepting Jiraiya at the gates, sparking off a yelling match that ended with her dragging him to the Tower by one ear. Of course, Iruka wasn’t present for that, but it was hard not to hear her from the dorms.

Then the next day they got summons. Iruka didn’t know what to expect, meeting the only member of Konoha’s Legendary Sannin he had not met beforehand. From stories told by the Hokage and Asuma, she was a person to be feared.

Iruka, Anko and Sasuke’s initial impression lined up with that pretty well.

-

She slammed a hand down on the desk and the wood cracked. “I do not care what sort of oversight you two claim to have, this all could’ve been avoided,” their new Hokage yelled at the council members as Iruka stood with Anko and Sasuke outside the open doors of her office. Her assistant didn’t even look perturbed, just continued looking through file inventories.

“Ts--”

“No! Get out! I’ll deal with the two of you later!” an almost palpable wave of anger exploded out of the room, and the council members fled without so much as a glance back.

“Ah,” the assistant looked up, called, “Uchiha Sasuke, Umino Iruka and Mitarashi Anko here at your summons, Tsunade.” And to the three of them, “Go in.”

Tsunade was short and as they entered the office the lines of displeasure on her face smoothed. “I’m sorry the three of you had to hear that,” she said earnestly. “When I heard about the situation here with Orochimaru all during the chuunin exams I got a little heated.”

“That’s an understatement,” Anko muttered under her breath. Louder, she asked, “You already heard of what happened? Did the Hokage inform you?”

“Oh, no, I heard about it,” Tsunade said, leaning against the desk, flipping through a file. Presumably Sasuke’s. She snapped it closed, leveled an even gaze at the three of them, “I might not have quite the network Jiraiya boasts of, but I do know what’s happening in Konoha. Some quick work on those seals, Umino.”

Iruka flushed, just a little. Coming from Tsunade, who had known Jiraiya all her life, it seemed to be high praise.

“Back to the topic at hand,” she sat behind the desk and fingered the hat Hiruzen had left. “I do feel it important to assign you a guardian, Sasuke. After all that has happened, even with Orochimaru’s death, there is the possibility that other shinobi from Otogakure might come after you. It’s in your best interest, as well as that of the village. Of course, we will need to assess who is the best choice--”

“I’ll do it,” Anko said without hesitating, her voice a little loud. All of them looked at her in surprise. “I mean, he’s living with me right now.”

Tsunade shrugged, grabbed a pen and scribbled something down. “I’ll start the paperwork and get it to you,” she said, pointing the pen at Sasuke and Anko, “get it filed as soon as possible. There will definitely be some push-back but don’t worry about that. You are active status, Mitarashi?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I have, um, some cousins of Iruka’s living with me. There is always someone at the house.”

“Right, I think I saw that in your file,” Tsunade scribbled something else down. “Well, we’ll likely be talking again, but for now, dismissed.”

They bowed, Sasuke a beat late, and walked out.

“This does not mean,” Anko said as they left the building, “that you get to call me ‘mom’.”

Sasuke eyed her critically, and something like a smile tugged at his face. “What about ‘baa-san’?”

Chapter Text

Sometime during the night, Iruka had acquired a very strange bedfellow that flopped on his legs and refused to move. Judging from the size, it was his favorite of Kakashi’s ninken, so in lieu of kicking the dog off him, he went back to sleep.

True to what he thought, when he woke in the morning Bisuke was draped over his legs, all four paws splayed out as he slept. But it wasn’t just Bisuke, Uuhei was curled on the floor on his sweater, similarly asleep. The big question was why Kakashi’s dogs were in his dorm, but he ignored it for the time being; likely there wasn’t any reason. He didn’t care, the company was nice.

Breakfast was basic okayu, and Iruka added some sliced pork belly to two bowls as Uuhei wandered out, nosing Bisuke in front of her.

“Hey pup,” the sighthound said. She left Bisuke to the food, sat in front of Iruka and put her head on his lap.

“Hey,” Iruka quietly replied, rubbing his hands against her face. “What brings you two around?”

“This one,” Uuhei nosed Bisuke in the rump, “ran away and got lost. He was too tired when I found him, but you were close.”

Iruka couldn’t help a smile. “Well, then, I guess I’ll see you two home.”

-

Kakashi was sitting on the front porch, a distinctly worried air about him that softened when he saw Uuhei trotting beside Iruka, and Bisuke in his arms.

“Need to keep a closer eye on this one,” Iruka said, offering Bisuke to his owner.

“That is true,” Kakashi’s tone was rueful as he spoke to the dog, “do you remember what I taught you? If you get lost, stay in one place so we can find you.”

“I know,” Bisuke hung his tiny head, “but I got scared.”

“That’s okay,” Kakashi set the small dog down. “Go see your siblings, they were worried about you.”

Uuhei herded Bisuke into the house, leaving Kakashi and Iruka alone.

“Sorry about that. Bisuke hasn’t really gotten used to Konoha yet, and he’s not good with loud noises as it is, and the village streets tend to be much noisier than the house,” Kakashi sighed, “I need to take him out more.”

Iruka smiled a little at that. Kakashi sounded how he tended to sound when talking about his genin. “It wasn’t a problem, I enjoy spending time with your ninken.”

Kakashi glanced at him, a soft expression on his face. “Thank you for doing so. Busy today?”

“Later,” Iruka replied, curiously.

“Breakfast?” Kakashi asked, and while Iruka had eaten, it hadn’t been a lot and had been nearly an hour before.

“Sure.”

-

The house seemed different in the daylight, more somber despite the dogs and Kakashi being there. Kakashi deftly worked around the dogs to make food, his arm out of the sling but still in a cast.

“Can I help?” Iruka inquired.

“Only if you can do eggs,” Kakashi said, gesturing to the tamagoyaki pan.

Could Iruka do eggs? Could birds fly? The tamago was perfect in every sense of the word, and even Kakashi looked impressed as they plated the food.

The meal was quiet, but in no ways awkward. Iruka wondered when that had happened, when the awkwardness between them had died down and they’d grown comfortable with each other. Ah, well, best to just enjoy it, enjoy the time between them.

He washed the dishes, and refused to let Kakashi dry them. Knowing the other man, he didn’t much care about his cast, but Iruka did. Then, well, he needed to meet his team, but the day was so nice and Kakashi was so open with talking about his past that he lingered at the Hatake house, surrounded by the dogs.

Their conversation was cut off when the dogs, almost as one, went stock-still and then began barking. A bird fluttered down, one of the larger ones that took written messages for the Hokage, and dropped a scroll directly on Iruka’s lap. The bird zipped off right before the dogs could surround it, circling once overhead before soaring back to aviary.

“Hm?” what did Tsunade want with him? As far as Iruka knew, she was still hammering out the basics to keep the village going, and dealing with the aftermath of the exams. He opened the scroll, Kakashi peering over his shoulder.

No information, just a request for him to go to the Tower as soon as convenient. “Our new Hokage works fast,” Kakashi said.

“That’s true,” Iruka snapped the scroll closed, stood. “See you later?”

“I’ll find you,” Kakashi said, visible eye curved in a smile. With one last lingering look, Iruka headed toward the training field to inform his team.

-

Unsurprisingly, they were all there, and all looking distinctly annoyed that he wasn’t. Haku had escorted Naruto and Sasuke, it seemed--he was back in the woods, hunting for herbs, and he acknowledged Iruka with a wave as the man ran past.

“You’re late,” Naruto half-wailed when Iruka stopped in front of them. Dramatic, even for him.

“In the words of someone I know, I got caught on the path of life,” Iruka distractedly replied, “and, as a matter of fact, I have to go. Tsunade-sama has requested my presence.”

“What should we do, sensei?” Sakura asked.

Iruka considered that. “Talk,” he said, “the three of you haven’t been together much for the past month or so. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Leaving the three of them there, with Haku tucked back in the trees, Iruka took off toward the Tower. It was a quick trip and in only a couple minutes he was standing in front of Shizune’s desk, panting just a little as she checked if Tsunade was free.

“You may go in, Umino-san,” the dark-haired woman said. She looked exhausted, as did Tsunade when Iruka entered her office.

“Ah, Umino, good,” she shuffled through the multitude of papers on her desk, fished out what Iruka knew was a personnel file on his team. “This is definitely an out-of-the-blue question, but I started thinking about it last night. Very few shinobi the past few years have trained to become medic-nin, and that is something I wish to change. I am calling on you as well as the other jounin teachers to submit one or more of your genin students to be trained by me as a medic.”

Iruka’s mind was working a mile a minute. Tsunade never took students when she was still in Konoha--the only one he knew of was Shizune. There must have been a massive disparity in the number of medics if she saw fit to do that. “Submit them?” Iruka curiously asked.

Tsunade nodded, “I would consider any of your genin team fit for it; all of them have the basic control necessary. I’ll need the name within the next couple days.”

“I’ll ask them if they want to,” Iruka said, a little guarded. “When would they begin?”

“Within the next couple weeks,” Tsunade slugged back her cup of tea, “I’ll need to get the official business taken care of, and there’s the ceremony to install me, but after that I’ll make time. As I said, the other teachers have been told to submit genin as well, and once I have a roster of students I’ll start preparing lessons.”

“I will do so, Hokage-sama,” Iruka said, bowing. When he looked up again, Tsunade had a glimmer of a smile on her lips.

“Tsunade is fine, Umino. I will be in contact with you, as well, as I apparently can’t trust Jiraiya to do any seals work for me. You will be compensated for any work that you do,” well, that was a fair bargain, “and I would ask you to consider taking on a student or two to teach. We could use more knowledge of seals in this village.”

He nodded again, feeling almost electrified in her trust, and left the office.

-

The kids were still at the training field, but then again his meeting had only lasted fifteen or so minutes. Sakura was animatedly telling Naruto about ninjutsu, but they quieted when Iruka appeared.

“I met with Tsunade-sama,” Iruka said, sitting in front of the kids, “and she asked a favor of me.”

“The Hokage did?” Naruto asked, “Wow, Iruka-sensei, you’re the coolest!”

As much as Iruka appreciated the compliment, he doubted it was true. “She asked it of me and the other jounin teachers,” he amended, and Naruto grumbled under his breath, something about “Iruka-sensei is the best, though.” “She was wondering if any of you want to train to become medic-nin.”

That was met with wide eyes. Doubtless they’d heard of Tsunade, and her legendary healing skills.

“Under Tsunade?” Sakura asked, a little incredulous.

“Yes, she wishes to train you herselves.”

“No,” Sasuke said, at the same time that Naruto crowed, “yes!”

Both boys looked at Sakura, who seemed to be thinking rather hard about it. Finally, after a few minutes of quiet consideration, she slowly said, “No. I’ve got basic training in first aid, and I’d prefer not to.”

Iruka nodded. She had helped him with Zabuza, and while she’d done fine she hadn’t seemed to like it very much. “I will notify the Hokage. She’ll be training you once she is installed officially; for now, we’ll remain a team.”

All three nodded, Sasuke notably less enthusiastic than the other two. Well, it did seem like the time was right, after all that had happened.

“And, since all of the events that occured recently, I wanted to ask you all a question,” Iruka felt a little nervous even as he spoke. “I want you all to consider, now that you have more experience, whether or not you truly want to become shinobi. There is no harm in stepping down, especially if it is what you truly want, and it won’t negatively affect your teammates now or in the future.”

All of them looked surprised, and he understood. Most genin teams ended up losing members through a variety of means, and if he was right--

“Iruka-sensei,” Sasuke said, “you aren’t tricking us?”

Iruka shook his head firmly. “I wouldn’t. It happens fairly frequently, as it is; Asuma’s two teammates decided to return to being civilians after a few months as genin, and one of Anko’s teammates resigned to work at the hospital.”

Sasuke considered that information carefully, and Iruka could almost see the thoughts floating through his head. Sakura and Naruto were staring at Sasuke as well, looks of concern on their faces.

“I think,” Sasuke said, voice quiet as he looked up to Iruka again, “I would like to quit. I’ve done nothing but put Sakura and Naruto in danger, and I don’t like fighting.”

Iruka nodded, encouraging. Naruto looked a little disappointed, Sakura confused.

The disappointment turned to determination, and loudly Naruto announced, “Well, I’ll never stop being your friend, Sasuke.” Sakura made a noise of agreement, and Sasuke flushed.

-

It had been a hell of a day. Iruka laid on his couch, hoped there wouldn’t be any more messengers or anything so he could rest and digest his dinner. It was strange how he thought the day would be relaxed, when in reality he had spent the entire afternoon filing paperwork for Naruto and Sasuke and considering who he might train in seals and barrier jutsu.

Sakura was an obvious choice, but only if she wanted to. She had the fine chakra control needed, as well as the ingenuity to come up with her own seals and techniques. Iruka didn’t know Gai’s team that well, but Tenten also seemed a good choice. She’d had high marks with weaponry and sealwork throughout her time at the Academy--he’d checked her file. Maybe also one of the Hyuuga. But three was a lot, and if he was still training Sakura normally as well, he wanted to have enough time to cover all her bases.

Weak scratching on the window alerted him, and he had a freshly sharpened kunai in hand before he realized that, standing on his windowsill, was Bisuke.

Again.

“Did you get lost again?” Iruka asked the pup as he slipped through the window and shook himself, splattering rain everywhere.

“No,” he sounded a little indignant, then his tone turned sly, “I ran away.”

“You shouldn’t do that!” Iruka picked up the dog with one arm and took him to the bathroom for a thorough towelling, “Kakashi will worry, and so will your other packmates.”

“But I missed you, and you’re part of the pack anyway,” the dog said, as if that solved everything.

Iruka froze mid-motion, heart in his throat. Pack. From reading up on ninken like Kakashi’s and Inuzuka, he knew that being accepted into the pack of a ninken was a big deal.

“Still,” he said, after clearing his throat and resuming cleaning the dog, “I’m going to take you back to Kakashi. He is you boss, you should listen to him.”

Bisuke whined, but didn’t complain further as Iruka slid shoes on and got an umbrella so they wouldn’t get too wet on the walk.

He should’ve put on a jacket, because it was chilly, but it was fine. He figured he’d drop Bisuke off and go back home, but that didn’t happen.

No, he found himself bundled under the kotatsu while Kakashi scrounged up another sake cup and chewed out Bisuke. Uuhei curled up with her head on his lap and Bull behind him. It felt--

It felt like Anko’s house, full of people. It felt like taking care of his kids and Haku and Zabuza.

Sitting there, amid all the dogs with Kakashi in the other room, it felt like home.

He couldn’t explain it when Kakashi returned, a very cowed Bisuke tucked against his chest.

“Sorry, again,” Kakashi said, seating himself and pouring sake for Iruka and himself. The cups steamed slightly, and Iruka gladly cradled his. “I was gone, and I guess he saw an opportunity.”

“I don’t mind,” Iruka reminded him. They were quiet for a few moments, sipping.

“Once you’re warmed up, you can--” Kakashi was cut off as the room plunged into darkness. “Goddamn it.”

As if on cue, thunder boomed and lightning crackled somewhere nearby. Maybe the entire village had lost electricity.

“Stay right here,” Kakashi said, and Iruka wasn’t sure if he meant him or the dogs, “the lanterns should still be ready for use.”

It took a few minutes, but Kakashi returned with an oil lantern glowing dimly in one hand, an unlit one held in the other. “Looks like the whole village lost power,” he said, setting the lanterns down on the table.

“Hell,” Iruka muttered. That meant by the time he got back to his apartment it would be cold; he’d left the window cracked.

“You are free to stay the night,” Kakashi said casually, as if his ears weren’t pink. “It’s probably just going to get worse.”

Again, as if on cue, thunder rolled. Staying over at the house of someone who had confessed love to him probably wasn’t the best snap decision to make, but--

“As long as I don’t have to go back outside,” Iruka said, sipping his sake. On his lap, Uuhei yawned.

-

Kakashi’s futon was really way too big for one person, but considering that it seemed like all of his ninken slept with him from the hair he shook out of the quilt, it did make sense. They’d managed to play it so only Pakkun was on the bed with them, down beside Kakashi’s feet, while the other dogs slept under and around the kotatsu.

“Maybe if I stayed around the house more Bisuke would behave better,” Iruka said once they were tucked in, the big spoon to Kakashi’s little spoon.

“No, he would become insufferable.” Iruka rolled his eyes. “Actually, maybe. He’s a little obsessed with you.”

That earned a chuckle, and Iruka worried his nose into Kakashi’s hair as their breathing matched up and began to slow toward sleep. To think that he’d be in bed with a person he had grown to love. The thought warmed him, and he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sakura pressed her hands to the ground atop a large square of seal paper, and pushed her chakra into the seal on it. Stored chakra flared out, and the jutsu she had sealed formed a dike of solid earth in the middle of the river, splitting the flow perfectly in half.

With another push of chakra, she drew the jutsu back into the paper, and resealed the chakra. It took some effort, but she did succeed after a few moments, and cut the flow of her chakra to finish the seal.

She sat back, rubbed a hand across her forehead and her sweat-soaked bangs.

“Too slow of a pull back,” Iruka said, walking up next to her, “but you did well, you fully returned the chakra from the ninjutsu to the scroll. With more practice, you won’t have to focus so fully on it, and you’ll be able to channel the chakra simply by feel.”

Sakura nodded, a thoughtful look on her face. “So, it’s possible not just to seal ninjutsu, but also chakra alone.”

“Yes,” Iruka helped her roll up the seal paper and stow it in her rucksack. “If needed, you can carry chakra tags with you to set off other seals.”

Her eyes gleamed with some idea that she probably wouldn’t share until she tested it thoroughly. “Are there any more books on those types of tags?” she asked as they walked back to the village through the woods. He found the woods better than the training fields, because mistakes could be made without harming the fields that other teams used.

“Maybe,” Iruka thought, but he couldn’t immediately picture any in his mind, “ask Shio-san at the primary desk, she’d know.”

Sakura nodded, already deep in thought, and waved goodbye as they hit the main road.

For a moment, Iruka paused, and thanked whatever gods there might be that he had such good students. Sakura was as much of a sponge as Naruto was, and Tenten, who had readily agreed to be taught further in fuuinjutsu in addition to her training with Gai, was likewise eager to learn. He couldn’t have asked for better.

-

He was waylaid from returning to his dorm by a familiar dog. With six more months of growth, Bisuke looked more a dog than a puppy, but looks belied his puppy-like personality.

“Iruka!” the dog yipped, running in circles around his legs, effectively immobilizing him. “Are you done for the day? Can we play?”

“Hey!” Iruka knew that voice. He looked up with a smile to see Kakashi walking toward them, Pakkun in tow. “What have I told you about running away?”

Bisuke hid behind Iruka, yipped, “Not to!”

Kakashi and Iruka rolled their eyes in tandem. Pakkun loped over to nip Bisuke into shape, and Kakashi approached Iruka. He glanced around, and once he confirmed they were alone, he slid his mask down to kiss Iruka.

“Good day to you,” Iruka said with a smile.

Kakashi rolled his eyes again, tugged his mask back up as they walked. “If you say so. How goes the training?”

“Quickly,” Iruka replied. Consciously or not, they were heading toward the Hatake house. Iruka couldn’t find it in himself to complain. He’d become used to spending a decent amount of his time, when not training or visiting Anko, with Kakashi and at his house. It beat being in his dorm, alone. “Don’t you have work?”

“Still suspended,” Kakashi tapped his head ever so gently. A concussion, of all things, had laid the Hound of Konoha low on his last mission. “But,” he conceded, “I’ve been working with the dogs. Trying to, at least.”

Iruka raised an eyebrow at that.

Kakashi directed a long-suffering expression toward Bisuke. “Lunch? Or were you visiting the hospital?” he asked Iruka.

Iruka shook his head. Hayate would likely just be doing physical therapy, and Iruka knew Yugao wanted to spend as much time with him as possible while she was in the village. Three weeks after Tsunade arrived, she was finally notified about Hayate and had immediately gone to the hospital to ensure he had been given the proper care, and two days after, he had awoken from his coma. “I don’t want Tsunade or any of her students finding me, they always pester me about experimenting with healing seals.”

Kakashi muttered something under his breath that had something to do with students having too much free time, as if he hadn’t been doing anything for the past week.

The rest of the ninken were lounging in the courtyard, soaking up the sun. The house had changed a little since Iruka had begun spending time there--less dark colors, more books and scrolls cluttering it up. Kakashi already had lunch on the stove, kitsune udon, and Iruka went to wash his hands while Kakashi dished them up bowls.

Where he had once poked Anko about how domestic she and Zabuza were, Iruka couldn’t deny that he’d gone down the same path with Kakashi, and quickly. It felt right.

-

Iruka was, in theory, free for the afternoon. Tenten was training with Gai, and Sakura was in all likelihood at the library, busy studying. Naruto pretty much exclusively trained with Tsunade, except when she was busy, and Iruka knew for a fact that Tsunade was at the hospital that day. As such, he found no problem being talked into lazing away the afternoon with Kakashi at the house.

Well, maybe there was more to it than just lazing , but it was cut off at that when a messenger bird appeared for Iruka and Kakashi, with a dramatic sigh, let go of him so he could present himself at the Tower.

“Stay safe and aware,” Kakashi said with a half-hearted wave as Iruka left.

He really hoped it was not a mission, but a mission it was. Tsunade, alone in her office, had an annoyed look on her face that smoothed into something like commiseration as Iruka entered. The seal in her hands marked the mission as an S-rank, and she fidgeted with it as she spoke.

“I know you have students to train,” Tsunade grimaced a little, “and I’d prefer not to send you, but the mission in question requires something be sealed, and the Daimyo is paying top dollar as he considers it an emergency.”

“Details?” Iruka asked. Tsunade’s tone and general demeanor very obviously meant trouble in his future.

She wordlessly handed over the mission scroll, which he cracked and scanned. The Daimyo was hiring a shinobi to seal some sensitive documents...that he didn’t want his wife finding? “His wife?” Iruka clarified, because he felt like his eyes were falling out of his head.

Tsunade grimaced fully, rubbed her forehead with one hand, “I didn’t ask. Apparently the documents in question are at his summer house, where his wife is right now. He’s currently returning from the Land of Iron, and will not be back for a further week and a half. It should be quick; he will have a messenger stop through the village when they pass by to pick it up. Umino Iruka, will you take this mission on behalf of the village of Konohagakure?”

“I will,” Iruka answered, a little faint.

“Good luck and fortune to you,” Tsunade say. “Stay safe, stay aware.”

-

Tsunade had been right, the mission was quick. The mission , not the trip there or the trip back, because apparently Iruka was a magnet for mercenaries and missing-nin no matter what he did. He fought off two from the Land of Wind on the way to the Daimyo’s summer house, narrowly missed having to defeat a company of a couple dozen mercenaries from the coast of the Land of Fire. Then, on the way back.

On the fucking way back, he encountered the same mercenaries, only they had picked up some missing-nin from Konoha.

Well, Konoha missing-nin meant he needed to subdue them or kill them. All of them. It was with a groan that he pulled out his seals, counted the men, and tossed some smoke bombs down to confuse them. Poisoned senbon were a blessing, and he had around a dozen of the mercenaries down from just that. Exploding seals accounted for another half dozen, and he managed to slap chakra-draining seals on a handful more before having to resort to hand to hand. Thank god he’d sharpened all of his kunai before leaving Konoha, because they were being put through wringer as he alternated between guarding one of the missing-nin, who had two swords, and chucking the knives into whatever soft body parts he could. It was a rather effective strategy, though he did accumulate an uneven row of cuts to his left arm and was beginning to feel sluggish by the time he had downed all of the mercenaries and missing-nin.

Sealing the bodies of the missing nin took an agonizing amount of time, both because he had no sealing scrolls leftover, and also because the cuts he had taken were more than likely poisoned.

A minute to catch his breath, and he tugged out the tiny poisons kit that was standard issue, dug around for test strips and hoped to god that it was a common poison.

It wasn’t, predictably. It was as if the entire world had just decided that Iruka was going to have the worst day he’d had in years.

The strip did indicate that it would be safe for him to use a general antidote, so he injected it and hoped it would see him back to Konoha. It wasn’t that far, really. He hoped.

-

Staggering into Konoha was better than crawling, he considered as he did just that. The guard at the desk looked concerned, but Iruka shrugged off any assistance. He wasn’t a damn child, it was just probably nearly-fatal poisoning. Tsunade would know what to do.

And that was yell at him, while dragging him out of the Tower to the hospital, flanked by all of her fledgling medic-nin students. Never before had he seen so many concerned teenagers, and Naruto was trying to ask him questions that he really didn’t understand because he was almost hallucinating.

He blinked, and he was laying in a hospital bed with an IV running from his left arm and Tsunade glaring down at him. The glare softened as he blinked owlishly up at her, and she raised the two scrolls that had been tucked into his weapons pouch. “Had I known you were going to get in this much trouble, I would’ve sent a team.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Iruka replied, very mulishly.

“Iruka,” Tsunade looked amused if not exasperated, “they were all A-rank missing-nin, and you defeated them as well as a band of mercenaries while nearly fatally poisoned. I’ll make sure you get the proper pay for that. Now, rest, or I’ll tie you to the bed.”

“Report?” Iruka asked, because trying to remember back to the mission scroll wasn’t really working.

“Under the table,” Tsunade sighed, “when you’re better--which is something I will decide, thank you--I will need a report on the missing-nin. Rest.”

He didn’t have much of a choice, as he was already falling into sleep before Tsunade finished talking, warm and safe.

-

Recovering from being poisoned always sucked ass, but it sucked even more when Hayate wheeled in to rub it in. Maybe that wasn’t his intention, but it sure was what he did while Iruka was vomiting up the contents of his mostly empty stomach.

“I don’t care how well-trained you are, if you don’t shut up and let me die in peace I’m killing you,” croaked Iruka after one such vomiting session.

Hayate grinned from where he was parked next to Iruka’s bed, eating pudding as if Iruka hadn’t just barfed into a tub right next to him. “And miss all this fun? Are you kidding me?”

“No,” Iruka ducked his head down again in a gagging fit.

Salvation came in the form of a medic, who slid the door open and in a pleasant but threatening tone said, “Ah, Gekko-san, here’s where you were. You must have forgotten that we need to check your wound and drain it this afternoon.”

Any protests on Hayate’s part were ignored, and the medic returned to check on Iruka after wheeling him out.

“You’re fever’s gone down,” she swiped a hand across his forehead, “but the vomiting will likely continue sporadically for the next few hours; it should begin tapering off soon as it is. Someone will make sure to bring you food, and if you feel it necessary we can get you on another IV to ensure you keep enough fluids.”

Iruka nodded, feeling miserable.

“Also, you have a guest--do you feel up to actual company?” The consideration was nice. Iruka nodded again. “I’ll go let him know. You think about that IV, and ring us up if you think you can stomach some food.”

Another nod that she didn’t see. He estimated that he’d been in the hospital only overnight after arriving back in Konoha, so everyone must have learned that he was in the hospital. Iruka set the bin he’d been vomiting into on the side table and tried to get his hair out of his face. What he wouldn’t give for a shower and the ability to actually sleep for more than an hour at a time.

There was a knock, and the door slid open.

“You look like hell,” Kakashi said.

“Thanks,” Iruka croaked in reply, looking up through his loose hair to direct a very half-hearted glare at the other man. He dropped the pretense when he saw how worried Kakashi looked. “Poison,” Iruka helpfully supplied.

“Working out of your system, I’d guess,” Kakashi observed, walking over to the bed and sitting in the chair next to it. “Someone did mention missing-nin.”

Iruka nodded. “Poison swords,” Iruka said, feeling the bile once again rise. He grabbed the tub just in time, threw up small globs of bile and all of the water that he’d managed to get down. Eventually, nothing came out, and he just gagged on saliva. Dimly, as his throat relaxed and he was able to breath again, he was aware that Kakashi’s hand was splayed on his back, rubbing comforting circles there. He kept doing that until Iruka straightened again, forcing himself to swallow despite the dryness of his mouth. “Need some company for the rest of the day?” Kakashi quietly asked.

“Don’t you have work?” Iruka asked in return. God, his voice sounded awful.

Kakashi just tapped his head--still concussed. “Still suspended,” he said with a crooked smile.

-

The next day he was released from the hospital, and all Iruka wanted to do was crawl under a pile of blankets and sleep, preferably for the next year or so. He was no longer vomiting, but he was slightly dehydrated, and that combined with the aftereffects of the poison had given him a migraine that no amount of painkillers could manage. He had intended to return to his dorm and suffer alone, but Kakashi had arrived and swept him back to the Hatake house.

So, there he was. Laying in an extra futon, half-asleep, while Kakashi sat near him and alternated reading one of his smut books and making sure Iruka was comfortable. It was like they actually were in a relationship, instead of just sneaking around so no one knew, Iruka deliriously thought, and for a while his mind was preoccupied with thoughts of his relationship with Kakashi, until he managed to fall asleep.

-

Three days in the Hatake house, and he was back to relative normal. He gave Tsunade a verbal report of encountering the missing-nin so she could send out a retrieval team to deal with the bodies, met with Sakura and Tenten to postpone training for another few days, and stopped by Anko’s house.

Her house was very different than it had been, most notably in that the majority of the yard had been converted into gardens that Sasuke ruled over with an iron fist, and a rabbit hutch had been installed in the back that Haku took care of. The boys had bonded quickly over their shared love for nature, and had become nearly as close as brothers during their time living together.

Zabuza answered the door, an eyebrow raised at Iruka’s appearance.

“I look better than I did three days ago,” Iruka said in reply to that gesture, toeing his shoes off.

“What happened to you?” the man asked, leading Iruka back into the house.

“Poison,” Iruka shrugged.

Anko barely looked up from the scroll she was poring over as they entered the living room. “You survived,” she said, scrawling something in the margin of the scroll. “Tsunade said it was missing-nin while you were on a mission; those bastards have learned some tricks. Did Hatake help you?”

Grudgingly, Iruka said, “Yes.” Anko had visited him, in between Kakashi being there, and she had just known. He’d spilled everything at that point, that they’d worked things out during the chuunin exams and had been in a relationship of some sort since then.

Anko smiled, threw herself out of her chair and hugged Iruka tightly. “I’m glad you’re okay. Just your luck, to run into missing-nin while on a mission.”

He stayed for nearly an hour, then, somewhat exhausted, excused himself. It wasn’t that late, but he was tired and hungry, and Kakashi found him wandering away from Anko’s house.

“Dinner?” the other asked. He’d finally, finally gotten back to active status the day before, but Tsunade didn’t have any missions for him.

“‘s long as I don’t have to do anything,” Iruka said.

-

Dinner was simple--hotpot eaten at the kotatsu. Autumn was finally beginning to settle, and a chill had started creeping into the house. It was perfect, to sit under the kotatsu with a dog pressed on either side of him, and eat one of his favorite meals with Kakashi.

They ate in relative silence, but it was comfortable. Iruka insisted on helping clean up, and while they were in the kitchen--alone--Kakashi spoke.

“I wanted to ask you a question,” he said, in a rather diplomatic tone.

“If it’s about role-playing Icha Icha, the answer is still no,” Iruka returned.

“No,” Kakashi said, a smile on his face, “I was wondering if you wanted to move in. You barely spend any time in your dorm as is.”

Sheer fondness seemed to fill Iruka’s being as he looked at Kakashi, smiling. “Yeah,” he said, just that. It was enough.

-

The dogs already knew because they tended to know everything. Bisuke spent the entire rest of the evening practically glued to Iruka’s side, chattering in excitement until he exhausted himself and fell asleep. Iruka was also nearly asleep, trying and rather failing to read a scroll on jinchuuriki seals that he’d dug out of the library.

Finally, unable to really keep his eyes open, Iruka slid the scroll closed and lifted the sleeping dog off him. Kakashi moved to stand a moment after him, and they went to bed together, Iruka the little spoon to Kakashi’s big spoon.

If they were moving in together, Iruka considered, nearly completely covering himself in the quilt, he would probably need to introduce Kakashi to Zabuza and Haku. The thought caused him amusement, but also sheer terror that one or all of them would do something stupid.

Well, he’d think about it the next day. He had time.

Chapter Text

It was time, in Anko’s mind. After all, Zabuza and Haku had been living in Konoha for over half a year, and as far as she knew Iruka and Kakashi had been an item for a majority of that. Well, six months that Iruka had at least admitted to.

It was time, but at the same time she was deathly afraid that Zabuza and Haku would try to hurt Kakashi, considering most of the stories they had heard were Iruka complaining about the other man. Plus, Zabuza had never lost the protectiveness he had displayed toward Iruka from the first time Anko had met him. Okay, at least on that Anko understood, because she also was protective about Iruka. But the point was, she was afraid they were all going into a battle royale when meeting Kakashi.

It was a reasonable fear, what with two missing-nin and probably the most powerful shinobi in Konoha other than the Hokage meeting.

-

Through some coincidence, the day they agreed to meet coincided with a firework matsuri . It was nice enough out that yukata could be worn. Sasuke had agreed to meet up with Naruto and Sakura for the evening, which left Anko with Zabuza and Haku.

Haku was absolutely delighted about everything to do with the festival. Anko had bought him not one, but three new yukata--he’d grown taller and more slender--which probably was an overindulgence, but he was basically her son. Zabuza categorically refused to wear a yukata but was slowly whittled down into submitting to their wishes over the week leading up to the festival. He relented, which meant that Anko also bought a yukata for him, and then decided to treat herself and buy a new one because she’d put on some weight and the old one she had was worn down from years of use.

The look on Zabuza’s face was worth the effort of getting all dressed up and doing her hair; his expression softened, and he didn’t look nearly as annoyed with the yukata when she left her bedroom.

“We’re meeting them at the temple,” Anko said, dusting off her yukata, straightening Zabuza’s. Haku looked perfect and absolutely beautiful, and Anko melted just looking at him.

“What are we waiting for?” Haku asked.

-

The streets were alive with people. Civilians and shinobi alike had turned out, and there were food stalls and games set up in the streets around the temple.

Their first stop was the temple, which until a few months prior had been empty and derelict. Tsunade had invited some distant relatives of her to maintain it, as it had traditionally been used primarily by the Senju. Anko hadn’t been to it since they had restored it, and to her surprise it looked completely different from the dilapidated building and grounds she had grown used to seeing.

Iruka and Kakashi were waiting in the courtyard, talking to Might Gai and a couple of other jounin that Anko didn’t recognize. The two of them wore yukata in dark colors, with almost matching happi of a dark indigo, each marked with their respective family mon . Checkered boxes for Kakashi, an encircled wave for Iruka.

“You do actually clean up,” Iruka said in a dry tone as they approached. Anko cast him a withering look, trying to hold back amusement, and failed.

“You muddy shit ,” she caught him around the neck, worried her knuckles against his forehead. “Good to see you, too. How are the kids?”

“Aggressive,” Iruka straightened when she released him, looking somewhat pleased as he looked over Zabuza and Haku. “Good to see you two,” he said, and as always his voice was perfectly genuine. “Kakashi, these are my cousins, Koji and Haku,” they bowed in turn, and Anko was a little in awe of how smoothly Iruka was able to use Zabuza’s fake name, “Koji, Haku, this is Hatake Kakashi.”

Anko’s hands itched to grab the backs of Zabuza and Haku’s yukata because she knew that both of them didn’t hold the highest opinions of Hatake, but they surprised her. Haku bowed, said, “An honor to meet you, Hatake-san. We’ve heard a bit about you,” and Zabuza slightly inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“An honor to meet you both, as well,” Kakashi bowed in return, and Anko was a little impressed, “Iruka has told me much about the both of you.”

-

The first thing Anko did once they were done with introductions and were wandering the festival was find some alcohol. A stand with takoyaki had bottles of sake for sale, so she bought one and some of the food; they hadn’t had dinner, and she’d taken enough missions over the past month to splurge a little.

After that, it was get Kakashi alone. That was an easy enough task, because Iruka was very easily distracted by Haku--but then again, it seemed like everyone was--and Anko found herself looking at painted wooden masks next to him.

“Are you going to warn me not to break Iruka’s heart,” Kakashi lightly asked, reaching out to finger a mask shaped to look like a wolf’s head.

“No,” Anko sipped her sake, “he can take care of himself, but of course you know that, Hatake. I just wanted to take this opportunity to tell you that if you do anything bad to my son or my boyfriend I’ll rip your throat out with my teeth and Iruka will cheer me on.”

To his credit, Hatake just blinked at her, his eyebrow creasing. Damn, he looked like a pirate with the eyepatch. “I wouldn’t, Mitarashi-san,” he finally said, almost sounding exasperated as Iruka usually did. “I don’t know what’s happening here, but I do know when I’m over my head. Though,” he abruptly changed the topic, “how’s Sasuke?”

Damn, her next weakness after Zabuza and Haku. “He’s growing tomatoes,” Anko said, “apparently, for science.”

“Tomatoes for science,” Kakashi nodded as if he knew anything about that. “Don’t tell me; he’s trying to breed the ultimate tomato.”

“How did you know?” Anko said, failing to hold back a laugh. “I guess he decided that since he’s not going to become a shinobi he’s going to revolutionize the agricultural industry.”

Kakashi laughed as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound, and Anko couldn’t help a thoughtful smile.

-

In the end, they talked for nearly an hour while Haku dragged Iruka and Zabuza around the matsuri , until the fireworks were slated to begin. By the end of it, Anko had at least an inkling of why, of all people, Iruka had chosen Hatake Kakashi. He was thoughtful and funny (even if that humour tended to involve dirty topics) and actually interested in the kids, which was a surprise. Kakashi had always struck her as the type of person to absolutely hate children.

But it was also something more than that, something she couldn’t quite place. Kakashi and Iruka fit together in a way that made sense, like they completed each other, or some cliche’d bullshit like that.

Nevermind that she knew she and Zabuza fit together in the same way; it was balance, and maybe, just maybe--

Love.

-

Iruka sidled up next to her as the fireworks started, in the middle of the crowd of people but only a foot or so away from Kakashi, Zabuza and Haku.

“This went well,” he said, draping an arm around her shoulders. She wrapped an arm around him in return, and they were quiet for a moment, staring up at the glittering lights.

“Better than I thought it would,” she said in a break between explosions. “This was fun.”

“We should do it again, huh?” he bumped his hip against hers, and she smiled, devilishly.

“Of course.”

-

It was late when they wandered through the near-black streets to the house. Anko and Zabuza were exhausted, holding hands as they walked while Haku talked for a mile a minute about the matsuri . He did quiet when they got to the house, stole a hug each from Haku and Zabuza before disappearing into his bedroom.

Anko was almost too tired to take her yukata off, and it was only thanks to Zabuza’s steady hands on her shoulders that she even made it up the stairs to her bedroom. He entered her bedroom with her, helped her get her yukata off and folded properly before Anko asked, “So, Hatake.”

“He wasn’t too bad,” Zabuza said, and Anko could hear the smile in his voice. “Iruka-san could certainly do worse.”

Anko couldn’t help but smile in return, though Zabuza couldn’t see her. “Hey,” she said, turning to look at him in the dim lamp light.

“Hey,” he returned, meeting her eyes. So soft and fond was his look that Anko felt a lump in her throat for a moment. Except for Iruka, nobody had ever looked at her like that.

“Stay with me?” she asked.

“Tonight?” he asked in return, eyeing the bed.

“I was thinking more,” she paused, feeling altogether way too embarrassed about the sentimental factor of what she was going to say, “forever.”

He paused for a moment and she was getting ready for rejection when an arm wrapped around her chest, pulled her against him. “If that is what you want, then of course.”

Chapter Text

The air was muggy, and yet Iruka was spraying a suiton across Shimeri, sloughing off dirt and plant waste, as well as showering Sakura, who was on the other side of the massive salamander. She was fixing holes in the practice ground, refilling them with basic doton. Tenten was further away from them, collecting all of the kunai and shuriken she had released.

They’d spent the morning sparring, both Sakura and Tenten using seal and barrier techniques that he’d taught them. It had been constructive for them, but rather destructive to the practice field; over the past months of their training, both kunoichi had grown in both power and skill.

Tenten, in particular. Her ninjutsu was unique and unrefined, an interesting mix of doton and katon that she typically used to set up explosions. Her mind was nearly as razor-sharp as Shikamaru’s, always thinking a dozen steps ahead. She’d always been overshadowed by Neji and Lee, so it was gratifying to learn from Gai that she’d been winning team spars.

Whereas Tenten was almost as sharp as Shikamaru, Sakura blew Shikamaru out of the water. She wasn’t as powerful a shinobi as Tenten, but what she lacked in power she more than made up for in sheer skill and ingenuity. The two of them together were a tough fight, and Iruka had been glad to end their spar in a draw.

With Shimeri cleaned, his clean-up task was done. Sakura was nearly done with the craters she had made, and Tenten was resealing her weapon scrolls. Shimeri belched and shook her head, launching some slime off to splatter on the ground, Iruka, and Sakura. “I’ll be off,” she said, licking the side of his face with her purple-blue tongue.

“Thank you for helping out,” he said, trying to scrub the slime off his face and failing.

“Thank you for your help, Shimeri-sama!” Sakura said, standing to bow deeply.

“Yes, thank you for working with us!” Tenten called.

The salamander swiped her tongue across her eyes in a satisfied way, and disappeared in smoke.

“Iruka-sensei, is this good?” Sakura gestured to the ground. It was obvious where dirt had been moved, but otherwise the ground was even.

“Very,” Iruka nodded. “If the two of you don’t mind, we can be done for the day; I think we’re in good shape for the exams.”

Sakura nodded, ever enthusiastic. Tenten gave Iruka the signature Might-Gai-thumbs-up. They took off together, chatting about something, and Iruka felt a glow of pride in his chest. A month until the chuunin exams. They were definitely going to pass.

-

“You know, you might need to trim your hair,” Kakashi said as he tried to wash the last of the slime, dirt, and twigs out of Iruka’s hair. The thought sounded like it really pained him.

“Was planning on that,” Iruka tugged the hair out of Kakashi’s hands. It was long enough he could easily pull it over his shoulder and pick the mess out himself. Kakashi tended to be too delicate. “Anko offered to do it.”

He managed to get the worst of the tangles and dirt out, then let Kakashi take his hair again to lather it. The other man’s fingers massaged his scalp, releasing all the tension that had built up there over the course of the day.

“You work too hard,” Kakashi said, pausing in his ministrations to cock Iruka’s head up and plant a kiss on his wet forehead.

“Says the man who was gone for the past month on a mission,” Iruka said wryly.

Kakashi sighed. That was a point of contention with Tsunade, but she had been hinting at retirement--Anbu operatives usually didn’t stay as long as Kakashi had, and he was beginning to show the wear and tear of it. “She’s giving me this week off at least,” Kakashi reminded Iruka as he rinsed out Iruka’s hair and stood to get him a towel.

“I wish it wasn’t so hectic,” Iruka said, voice muffled as he dried his hair.

“Hey,” Kakashi stopped in front of him, between his legs, lifted Iruka’s face with both of his slender, scarred hands. “This week won’t be. Let’s get in the bath before it goes cold.”

-

Tempura, cold soba, and fresh vegetables were the perfect dinner for such a hot, humid day. A thunderstorm was building as Iruka and Kakashi sat on the porch and ate, both in loose yukata. The dogs, having been fed, were sleeping in the darkest, coolest rooms of the house.

They ate in comfortable, warm silence, and when finished remained on the porch, watching the clouds roll in. It was definitely a change of pace from the training and missions.

“Dinner tomorrow at Anko’s?” Kakashi asked, stretching like a cat and laying down on the dark wood. “Haku stopped by earlier. In his words, ‘Sasuke is getting somewhere with the tomatoes’.”

“Sure,” Iruka remained sitting, but slid a hand toward Kakashi’s; they intertwined their pinky fingers. “Hey,” he said, after a few minutes of silence, as the first booms of thunder rolled toward them.

“Hm?” Kakashi squeezed his finger.

“I love you,” Iruka said. The expression on Kakashi’s face was beatific.

-

It wasn’t as humid the next evening as they walked through the village to Anko’s house, but it was still hot. The whole of Konoha was feeling the heatwave; windows were thrown open, fans were audible from the streets, and a couple of fire hydrants had been opened for the enjoyment of kids and adults alike.

Anko’s house was no different; Naruto and Sasuke were hanging out of one of the front windows, trying to catch a breeze, and all the doors were open. They each weakly waved at Kakashi and Iruka.

“We’re here,” Iruka called as he and Kakashi entered the house. Haku looked to be melting in the living room, laying in front of a rotating fan.

“Come in, come in!” Anko yelled from the kitchen. Kakashi went to ask Sasuke about his tomato experimentation while Iruka headed in to see Anko. She was watching Zabuza as he cooked noodles.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” she said, lunging up for a hug. It was true; they’d all been so busy with work it had been a few weeks. “How goes the training?”

“Pretty much done,” Iruka pushed her off him and they both sat at the table. “They seem ready for the exam.”

“Unlike the other of your team,” Anko said, “Naruto has just been goofing off with Tsunade gone; you should make him train with you.”

“Maybe next week.”

That earned a raised eyebrow, but then Sasuke appeared with Kakashi in tow and understanding crossed her face. They watched Sasuke drag the man out through the back door before Anko remarked, “He just got back a couple days ago, didn’t he?”

Iruka nodded. Naruto wandered through after them, slumped in a chair at the table.

“Oi,” Anko poked the boy in the forehead, “there’s soda in the fridge.”

He got up and got one of the glass bottles, had chugged half of it by the time Sasuke and Kakashi returned, loaded down with tomatoes.

“This one,” Sasuke thrust a particularly large heirloom at Zabuza, who had moved on to slicing up vegetables. He picked a couple more from the ones Kakashi was holding, and in a similar manner gave them to Zabuza, “These as well. We gave some to the rabbits.”

That seemed to summon Haku, who looked miserable. “They’re going to get fat,” he complained, sitting at the table next to Naruto.

Sasuke rolled his eyes, unloaded the tomatoes from Kakashi to put in a basket on the counter. “We just gave them one to share,” he chided the other boy, “they won’t die.”

“Thank you, Sasuke,” Zabuza said loudly. “If everyone is ready, we can eat.”

Somehow he’d gotten plates of cold ramen ready for all of them during that time. But, then again, for someone who had begun to consider himself a stay-at-home parent to the three boys, it was no big deal.

-

It was finally cool by the time they went to leave, the sun almost fully down and a healthy breeze helping to lower the temperature. The freak heat wave they’d been experiencing seemed to be slowly fading.

“Don’t forget, we’ll meet at the training field if I don’t have a mission,” Iruka was saying to Naruto, who looked excited at the prospect of finally being able to train with him and Sakura again.

“We’ll need to practice your futon, though,” Zabuza added, “you’ve been slacking.”

Naruto turned to whine at Zabuza, and Anko slipped through the throng of people in the doorway to say goodbye to Iruka.

“You know,” Anko said as she pulled him into a tight hug, “I’m happy.”

Iruka squeezed her back, caught Kakashi’s eye over her shoulder and couldn’t help a somewhat shy smile. All the changes, whether for good or bad--they were worth it. “Me, too,” he said, kissed her on the cheek and, taking Kakashi’s hand, they headed home.