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Hunger

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When he looked back on it later, Iruka’s prevailing memory of the first few years after the Kyuubi attack wasn’t even really a feeling, but rather a sensation: hunger.

 

Wherever he walked, all Iruka could see was damage, violence. Hardly a store remained without a broken window, entire blocks of buildings were flattened, and the only place that was busy was Yamanaka Flowers, selling wreaths and tokens for graves. The store was crowded but silent, eerie against the bright cheer of the blooms.

 

Iruka ghosted past the destruction, feeling separate from it. He’d always somewhat felt like an outsider, considering that his parents had come to Konoha as refugees from Mist. Iruka didn’t remember much of his birthplace, just the sound of waves and the perpetual salt on his lips. His parents had made the decision to leave Mist soon after Iruka was born and finally managed to escape with him when he was two. They didn’t want him raised where his only path towards being a ninja began and ended in blood. 

His parents had thrown themselves into serving the village that provided them refuge, mostly out of gratitude, but partly out of fear. Iruka’s mother was allowed to become a Leaf jounin and his father, who had never gotten higher than genin, served in administrative roles. He eventually ended up working in the office at the Academy. 

 

Iruka remembered his mother’s lips thinning whenever a mission she was on failed, how she would glance anxiously at Iruka out of the corner of her eye as his father wrapped her wounds. It was as if her son would be drowned in blood if she ever lost her balance. His father gained such a reputation for discretion and trustworthiness that he rarely said anything at all when he was home, but his hands were always gentle when they held Iruka close. 

 

The Uminos were as scrupulous in their daily lives as only the truly afraid could be. They paid their taxes, celebrated the village holidays and never, ever gave anyone a chance to suspect them of any infraction, no matter how slight. It was no surprise that they fought for their home when the fox came. It was the only way to show their loyalty to Konoha, to make sure that Iruka would be safe without them.

 

He didn’t feel safe. He felt hungry. 

 

Despite the damage, the attack actually left relatively few orphans. Many families were fractured, but few were utterly broken, like his. The Uminos had been so busy with their reputations that they had neglected to make friends, so no one realized that their son was left alone. 

 

The first weeks after the attack, Iruka had lived in the ruin of his house, getting wet from the rain as it seeped in through broken wood and torn screens. He didn’t mind that. It kept his face clean of salt. He ate the dry ration bars that he’d found in a smashed kitchen cupboard and then nothing when they ran out. He drank water from puddles and did his best to stay hidden.

 

One night Iruka was crouching under a heavy beam wrapped in his father’s worn blue yukata. He was wet, hungry, and trying so hard not to notice that he was shivering that he also didn’t notice when an Anbu appeared in front of him. He only looked up when a pair of sandaled feet entered his field of vision. The sandals hovered above the puddles, like Iruka’s mother’s used to. The Anbu wore the mask of a dog and his head was cocked like a dog as he stared down at Iruka silently.

 

When the silence became deafening despite the pouring rain, Iruka said, “Can I help you, Anbu-san?” His voice shook from both cold and fear, but his mother had always taught him to be wary around Anbu, respectful. 

 

The Anbu clenched his fist for a moment and Iruka winced, wondering what he had said wrong. Before he could apologize, the Anbu suddenly leaned down and put his hand on Iruka’s shoulder. Iruka tried not to cower; his mother wouldn’t like it. “When was the last time you ate?” the Anbu asked, surprising Iruka. His voice was young. 

 

Iruka answered honestly, because surely an Anbu would know if he lied. “I don’t know, Anbu-san.”

 

The fingers tightened, but they didn’t hurt. “When was the last time you slept?”

 

“I don’t know, Anbu-san.”

 

“How long have you been wet?”

 

“I don’t know, Anbu-san.” He wondered if he would be punished for stupidity. “It doesn’t matter,” Iruka hurried to say, feeling like he needed to placate the masked shinobi. 

 

The Anbu crouched down to Iruka’s level. “Why doesn’t it matter?” he asked quietly.

 

Iruka didn’t actually know why it didn’t, but he knew that compared to an Anbu, he was nothing. He couldn’t imagine why the Anbu was bothering with him in the first place. The only thing he could finally think to say was, “My parents are dead.”

 

The Anbu’s hand left his shoulder and was laid firmly across Iruka’s forehead. The shinobi’s fingers felt like ice. Iruka shivered even harder, biting back a whimper.



In a blur of motion, the Anbu suddenly scooped Iruka up into his arms, sodden yukata and all. He sprang away from the ruin of Iruka’s house, headed towards the light of the village. 

 

“What..what? Where are you taking me?” Iruka sputtered, gripping the Anbu’s vest until his fingers turned white. The Anbu was moving so very quickly and everything was fuzzy in the rain. 

 

“To the hospital. You’re sick and cold and malnourished.”

 

“But why? ” 

 

The answer came back so softly, Iruka wasn’t totally sure he’d even heard anything. “It matters. You matter.”

 

Iruka wanted to argue, wanted to close his eyes and huddle into the very ground to protect himself from the gentleness in the Anbu’s voice. He could stand being cold and wet and hungry. It left him numb. He didn’t think he could stand anyone treating him with kindness or he would break apart from misery. 

 

When he was finally able to open his eyes, the Anbu had stopped running and was striding into the village hospital. Iruka felt himself being handed over to gloved hands as the Anbu said to someone dressed in white, “I found him in a demolished house with no heat or food. He has a fever.”

 

The person in white nodded. “Thank you, Hound-san. We’ll take care of him.”

 

Iruka was placed on a gurney and an achingly warm blanket was draped over him. As he was wheeled down a bright hallway, he looked back at the Anbu. The Anbu stood and watched him until the gurney was pushed around a corner and Iruka couldn’t see him anymore.

……………………………………………...

 

Iruka wasn’t sure if he actually liked it now that the village realized he was alive and needed to be dealt with. While he was still in the hospital recovering from what turned out to be a roaring case of pneumonia, his home was cleared out by strangers and the few things that survived the Kyuubi attack were placed in a small apartment in a dormitory that housed genin.

 

He protested this fervently when Sandaime himself came to see him in the hospital. He still didn’t know how he’d gotten the nerve to say anything at all to the Hokage, let alone be angry at him. Perhaps it was the drugs. “Iruka,” the Sandaime said, “you can’t honestly believe that you can continue to live in a demolished house.”

 

Iruka looked up defiantly. “Why not? I have so far and nobody said anything. I wasn’t bothering anyone.”

 

The skin around Sandaime's eyes tightened as he frowned. “That’s only because nobody noticed. I am sorry about that, Iruka. You should never have been left alone. I have no excuse and I can only hope that one day you can forgive me.”

 

Not even drugs could make Iruka respond to that. The Sandaime, apologizing? To him?

 

“However,” the Hokage continued, “you are very intelligent and should therefore be able to understand why you cannot be allowed to return to your family’s home. There’s nothing left of it.” He patted Iruka’s hand. “The village is your family now and we will care for you as best we can. I’m going to keep an eye on you myself to be sure.”

 

Iruka wasn’t sure whether that was comforting or terrifying.

 

The next day, Iruka was released from the hospital, taken to the new apartment, and was told to show up at the Academy to begin school as a pre-genin. He was then left alone. He walked around the edges of the rooms like a cockroach, trying to make sense of things. The walls were white. The futon that he had been provided was thin, narrow, and had one blanket and one flat pillow on top. There was a miniature refrigerator with a small microwave and a bathroom that held a toilet, a sink, and a shower that he probably wouldn’t be able to stand up straight in for too much longer. His mother had been promising that he’d have a growth spurt soon.

 

He could live here. For all that it was dry, though, it wasn’t better than his home.

 

While Iruka now had shelter, he quickly learned that that wasn’t enough to survive. He was in school and had no money outside of whatever he could earn on the weekends. He thought about dropping out of the Academy and finding a job, but then he remembered his mother’s fond looks as she explained chakra to him and his father’s admiration when he mastered a jutsu and just couldn’t quit. He didn’t understand why, but he needed to be a shinobi. He had to have value. So he grimly found other ways to survive, pulling half rotten vegetables out of dumpsters and foraging in the fields for edible greens. Rice was cheap and he could generally afford to keep it in his cupboards. Meat, however, was a distant memory.

 

Once a week, he found himself being escorted by a masked Anbu to have tea with the Sandaime. He was always very careful to never eat the cookies provided too quickly and even when he was tempted, he never snuck any into his pockets for later. He did, however, grow fond of Sandaime, who was so patient and kind despite Iruka’s badly hidden rage. The hokage would ask him about school, about his interests, parental type things. He taught Iruka how to play shogi and go and to appreciate good tea. 

 

Occasionally the hokage’s son Asuma was there too, and Iruka grew to love him as well. Asuma would often meet him in the training fields between missions and would work with Iruka on his ninjutsu and taijutsu, even though he was a chunin and thus far above Iruka in rank and skill. Sometimes he’d even bring Iruka little treats of chocolate or ice cream. It was like having an older brother.

 

He was sad that of all the Anbu that came to take him to Hokage Tower, none of them wore a dog mask. He always looked for his Anbu, but he never saw him.

 

During lunch times at the Academy, Iruka always managed to slip away so that he didn’t have to watch his classmates eat the full meals that their families had carefully packed into bento boxes. Instead he would climb a tree and eat careful portions of mixed rice, which he grew to hate with an absorbing passion. 

 

Whenever it looked like someone was getting too close, examining him in a thinking sort of way, he pulled off a magnificent prank that drew that attention away from him again. He didn’t want anyone noticing that he couldn’t provide for himself, that he didn’t have value. He wanted to be safe, and to be safe, he needed to be invisible. Iruka was rarely caught after a prank, but he did sometimes catch Sandaime looking at him as he puffed on a pipe and examined the mayhem. Asuma and Iruka’s classmate, Anko, knew that Iruka was the jokester, but they kept his secret. Iruka returned the favor by passing notes to Kurenai for Asuma and by pranking Ibiki for Anko, who didn’t know how to show affection outside of violence and slime.

 

Even when things got better, after he became a genin and started to get paid for missions with his team, he made sure to never draw attention to himself. He trained as often and as hard as he could, but he never showed off the flashy seals, barriers and traps that he swiftly grew to love. Mizuki, his teammate, moaned that they were never going to have any interesting missions, just more weeding and cleaning, but Iruka didn’t mind. D-ranks paid, so it didn’t matter that they weren’t interesting. 

 

Mizuki was always trying to get Iruka to go to stores and restaurants with him, but Iruka held him off. He didn’t have the money to waste, but there was also something hard about Mizuki that he didn’t like. Anko, who he did actually like, screeched at him when he took yet another D-rank mission for pay instead of meeting her at the dango shop or training with her, but then, she had never been hungry. Plus, Anko actually wanted to be noticed, and look what happened to her? It was better to keep his distance.

 

Sometimes at night, when he was cold under his thin blanket and his stomach was growling too much to let him sleep, Iruka remembered his Anbu, and wondered if he was warm and full somewhere. He hoped so.

………………………………..

 

To say that he was irritated at having Uzumaki Naruto in his classroom was an understatement.

 

After years of careful effort, Iruka had a larger apartment in a chunin block. He was careful that he always had money saved for emergencies and that his clothes were neat. He took a hedonistic pleasure in making sure that his bed had fluffy pillows and at least two blankets on it. Most importantly, he ensured that his refrigerator was never, ever empty. His cupboards were always full of dry goods, he had a small garden on his balcony and his vest pockets always held emergency ration bars. The occasions when he could go to Ichiraku’s and splurge on a few bowls of ramen were a simple joy. Having food readily available made him feel safe like nothing else did.

 

His other release was politely terrorizing the jounin that came to his line in the mission room and tried to pull rank on him. He would be cordial for as long as possible, but he never allowed anyone to put so much as a toe or a comma out of place. Any shinobi that underestimated Iruka simply because he was a chunin got a solid kick in the ass for their troubles. Hatake Kakashi was his secret favorite to help during his shifts; he never failed to give Iruka an opportunity for a loud scolding. Kakashi’s eye twinkled whenever Iruka got going at a dull roar, so it didn't seem like he actually minded either. 

 

But to have spilt blood for the village on missions, to serve as a teacher and work in the mission room during most of his spare time and then to be assigned to teach the killer of his parents? It was disrespectful at the least and insulting at the worst. When he tried to complain to the Sandaime, though, all he had gotten was an extremely unimpressed look before he was unceremoniously booted out of the hokage’s office. Iruka got the message and settled in to try and beat some knowledge into the jinchuriki’s head with the air of a martyr. 

 

Then one day, he found himself watching Naruto in spite of himself. There was something achingly familiar about the boy’s posture as he sat on a swing in the school yard by himself. Iruka straightened up like an arrow pulled taut by the string of the bow when he noticed that something was missing.

 

Naruto wasn’t eating.

 

Somewhat against his will, Iruka found himself following the boy home that night and lurking on the roof of the building across the street where he could see through Naruto’s uncovered windows. His heart squeezed painfully while he watched Naruto eat two small bowls of instant ramen and nothing else. 

 

When Naruto left to go wander the village and presumably cause some sort of chaos on an unsuspecting populace, Iruka broke into his apartment. Actually, there wasn’t any breaking into it;  Naruto didn’t even have basic wards on his windows. Sitting on the windowsill, Iruka saw why. There was nothing of value for anyone to steal. Naruto had painted symbols and pictures on his white walls, but there were no knick-knacks, nothing to indicate that this place was a home. There was a single thin blanket on the narrow bed. He pulled open a cabinet door and looked at the rows and rows of instant ramen and dry cereal. Iruka put his hand on the refrigerator door and stood still for a moment, already sick because of what he knew he’d find. 

 

He drew in a slow breath between his teeth. All that was on the shelf was a spoiled half gallon of milk and a block of fuzzy cheese. 

 

As he walked slowly home, Iruka’s brain began to put things together. Naruto was living in a small apartment by himself. Naruto had no one to tell him to put on clean clothes, to help him with his reading, to teach him what the difference was between an outside voice and an inside voice. Naruto had no one to cook him meals and make sure that he was eating his vegetables. 

 

Naruto had no one at all. Just like Iruka. But what was worse was that he’d never had anyone to do those things for him. Iruka had had his parents, long enough to know what he was missing when they were gone. He’d had someone to tell him to brush his teeth and eat his vegetables. Naruto had to live every day knowing that something was missing but never really grasping what

 

No wonder the kid was loud. He was starved of everything: affection, attention, even food.

 

The next day, Iruka got up early and made a big meal to go into his bento box. He sat down to eat his lunch outside, carefully positioned next to the swing where Naruto would pass his lonely lunch hours. Naruto trudged forward, but stopped when he noticed Iruka.

 

“Hello, Naruto,” Iruka said calmly. 

 

Naruto visibly twitched. “Um, hi, Iruka-sensei. What are you doing here?”

 

Iruka actually found himself smiling at the bluntness for once. “I’m eating my lunch. I made too much, though. Want to help me with it?”

 

With the air of someone willingly stepping on a bomb, Naruto sat down a careful distance from Iruka. He didn’t make a move towards the bento box, though. Iruka put a piece of sushi in his mouth, then nonchalantly held out another one towards Naruto with his chopsticks. 

 

Naruto cautiously took the sushi with his bare fingers and popped the roll into his mouth. His eyes widened comically. “It’s good!” 

 

Iruka chuckled. “I would hope so. I made it myself just this morning.”

 

With his typical honesty, Naruto responded, “Most of the time when people offer me food, it’s old or terrible. You know, the stuff they don’t want.”

 

My heart , Iruka thought. People feed him scraps like a dog. “Well, I’m glad you like it. Here, have some vegetable tempura. I don’t want it to go to waste.” Hopefully, if it was fried, Naruto would actually eat some vegetables and get some nutrients.

 

Together they demolished Iruka’s lunch, Iruka being careful that Naruto didn’t notice that almost all of it went to the boy. While they ate, they talked about that day’s lesson and what Naruto liked about school. Iruka found himself smiling at Naruto’s enthusiasm for almost everything: pointy objects, cool ninjutsu and most of all, his aspirations to become hokage. How did a boy this neglected have such positivity?  Why would he want to be of service to this village in the first place?

 

That afternoon, Iruka noticed that Naruto was much more focused in class. It was easy to see now that a large part of his problem in school was simply that he had been hungry. Iruka was sick that he hadn’t figured it out before now. How hadn’t he seen that Naruto wasn’t a demon fox, wasn’t a terror or a monster, but was simply a boy that needed love and attention? 

 

That night after his shift on the mission desk, Iruka found himself stopping at the market. He bought fruits and vegetables, pre-cooked fish and chicken, rice, noodles, cheese and fresh milk. He even picked up a carton of chocolate ice cream, thinking fondly of Asuma. 

 

Stealthily he crept towards Naruto’s empty apartment. Where was he at this hour? He should be in bed , Iruka fretted. He easily broke into the apartment again and put away the groceries. He could hardly restrain himself from washing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom while he was there. He was being creepy enough as it was. The last thing he did was put a packed bento box into Naruto’s fridge for his lunch the next day.

 

As he stepped out of the apartment and carefully closed the door behind him, Iruka got the fright of his life when he turned around and Hatake Kakashi was standing right in front of him. Iruka hadn’t heard him approach but then, for a jounin as highly ranked as Kakashi, perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. 

 

“Hatake-san!” he gasped. 

 

“Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi said, eyeing him. “What were you doing in Naruto’s apartment?”

 

Iruka blushed and hated himself for it. There really wasn’t a good answer except the truth. “I was putting groceries in his fridge.” He looked defiantly at Kakashi. “I’ll have you know that that boy has been living on instant ramen, Kami only knows for how long. You can take me to the Hokage for breaking in if you want, but I’m not sorry and I’ll do it again if I need to.”

 

Instead of dragging Iruka off to T&I for doom and punishment, he was surprised when Kakashi laughed. “Maa, sensei, I wouldn’t do that. I just had to check because some people thought it was hilarious to leave traps or poisons in Naruto’s apartment.”

Iruka had to close his eyes to process the swift rush of rage that went through him. “He’s just a child!” he sputtered. “He’s all alone. It’s not his fault that he’s…well. You know.”

 

Kakashi leaned against the wall. “I know and I agree. I’m glad that you see it that way too.” He considered Iruka. “You know, I would have thought you wouldn’t like having Naruto in your class.”

 

“I didn’t,” Iruka shrugged. “Not at first. But I’ve come to realize the kind of neglect he’s been living in. Nobody deserves that. It’s not like he asked for any of this.” A remembered cold swept through him and he shivered. “I can’t stand by and let a child go hungry.”

 

His one visible eye curving up in an arch, Kakashi said, “Good. I’m glad I wasn’t wrong about you.” Then with a swirl of leaves, he disappeared. 

 

Iruka blinked. Wrong about him? What did that even mean?

 

Over the next few weeks, Iruka cautiously coaxed Naruto into living like a human being instead of a wild animal. It was somewhat akin to adopting a cat. He got more out of Naruto if he didn’t move too fast, didn’t spook him with caring that Naruto couldn’t comprehend. On shared visits to Ichiraku’s for endless bowls of ramen, Iruka taught Naruto table manners and how to hold a conversation. When Naruto started showing up at Iruka’s apartment looking carefully bored (and also a bit like he was expecting things to be thrown at him to make him go away), Iruka instead subtly helped his student with his reading and writing and then fed him dinner. Whenever he could manage it, he would keep Naruto busy until Iruka could claim that it was too late for him to go back to his lonely apartment and would chuck the boy into his spare room to sleep on the bed that appeared there. A bed that had a nice mattress, fluffy pillows, two blankets, and even a stuffed frog that Naruto ignored in public, but was clutched close to his chest whenever Iruka checked on him in the night.

 

Anko came through Iruka’s living room window one evening, as was her wont, and discovered Naruto sitting at the kotatsu. He was snacking on chips and doing a logic puzzle that Iruka had disguised as a game while he graded tests. “Hey, Iruka,” she said casually. “Who’s the rugrat?”

 

Iruka looked up and smiled at Anko. “Anko, this is Naruto, one of my students. Naruto, meet Anko. We were in the same class together at the Academy and she hasn’t given me a moment’s peace ever since.”

 

Naruto grinned. “She looks a lot more interesting than anybody in my class!”

 

“Kid, you don’t know the half of it.” Anko shoved her way into the kotatsu and leaned her head on Iruka’s shoulder mournfully. “Iruka, I just got off duty in the jounin room and I’m hungry .”

 

Iruka found himself heading towards the kitchen before his brain caught up to him enough to realize that Anko was mostly teasing him. As he heated up a bowl of soup for her anyway, he heard her whispering to Naruto, “He always has the best food and he has a thing for feeding his friends.”

 

“I know! Iruka-sensei’s cooking is awesome!” Naruto crowed. “He’s been teaching me how to cook like him!”

 

Iruka winced. Those lessons were full of cut fingers and blaring smoke alarms, but he was trying to make sure that Naruto had better life skills for the future. So if that meant suffering through rubbery eggs and soggy vegetables, so be it. He’d sure as hell eaten worse. And less.

 

The conversation around the kotatsu as Anko slurped on her soup went from food to jutsu to poisons. Iruka supposed he shouldn’t have expected anything less from the kunoichi. An unholy light entered Naruto’s eyes as he watched Anko waving around her senbons and Iruka groaned internally, wondering what fresh hell to expect once Naruto started trying to poison Sasuke. However, he wasn’t interested in stopping the clearly budding friendship between Anko and Naruto. Both were haunted by pasts beyond their control and were lonely. 

 

The next time Iruka went to have tea with the Sandaime, he was startled to see that neither the shogi nor the go boards were out. Instead the Sandaime was looking at him very seriously from behind his desk. “Iruka,” he began seriously, “I have been told by certain parties that you’ve taken to spending a great deal of time with Uzumaki Naruto. Is that correct?”

 

Iruka couldn’t have kept himself from bristling even if he’d wanted to. “If by certain parties you mean Anbu, then yes, that’s correct, Hokage-sama. I’d like to point out that this is the same Anbu guard that, as far as I can tell, has failed to report to you or to anyone else that a young boy was living alone in an apartment with only cereal and instant ramen to eat.”

 

Sandaime’s gaze became even more considered. “Be that as it may, I’d like to hear why you’ve taken him under your wing. I understood that you were less than happy to have him as a student.”

 

Huffing a little, Iruka responded, “Because I got my head out of my ass long enough to realize that he was suffering. It makes me wonder, Sandaime, if that Anbu hadn’t pulled me out of the wreckage of my house when I was a child, how long would I have been forgotten? Would I have died before somebody thought to look around? Naruto wasn’t cold and sick, that’s true, but he was neglected and hungry. This village has done a grave disservice to him. It’s not his fault what he carries.”

 

“Hmmm,” the hokage hummed. “Are you concerned at all that you could be seen by your other students or their parents as having favoritism towards Naruto?”

 

Iruka laughed hollowly. “Those children go home to families and homes, Sandaime. If anybody resents Naruto for finally getting some positive attention after years of indifference and cruelty, I’d be glad to meet them on the training field to discuss it. Anybody who can’t see the improvement in Naruto as a positive is less than a human in my opinion.”

 

The hokage was silent for a moment. “Very well. You may continue to work with Naruto. We’re not having to scrape paint off every flat surface in the village anymore, so whatever you’re doing is working.” He steepled his fingers and smiled. “I am very proud of you, Iruka. You’ve worked past a lot of things to reach this point, things that you probably shouldn’t have had to.” He pulled the shogi board out from under his desk and started setting it up. “Now, would you like some tea?”

 

……………………………………..

 

When Iruka awoke in a hospital bed, lying on his stomach with a crater from a fuuma shuriken in his back, his first coherent thought was for Naruto. The last thing he remembered was being in the forest with Mizuki and his former teammate was trying to hurt Naruto and...and… His heart beating fast from fear, he tried to turn over on his side, only to find himself biting back a scream as his back felt like it was being ripped open. 

 

“Iruka, stop! Lie still!” someone snapped at him. The note of command in the voice cut through the haze of agony and panic, and Iruka landed with his pillow in his face, panting. He tasted salt on his lips and for a delirious moment, thought that the voice was that of his father. When he managed to turn his face to the side and open his eyes, he saw Kakashi instead. 

 

“Kakashi,” Iruka gasped, “Naruto? Where’s Naruto?”

 

Kakashi gently took Iruka’s chin in one hand and pointed it down. Iruka saw a flash of yellow and orange and then realized that Naruto was passed out asleep in a chair at the foot of Iruka’s bed. “He’s fine, calm down. He kicked Mizuki’s ass with a shit load of shadow clones and then went and got help after you passed out. He found me at the training grounds and I brought you here.” Kakashi scrubbed his face, two of his slender fingers slipping underneath his hitai-ate to rub at the Sharingan. “I honestly didn’t think you were going to make it. That wound is less than an inch from your spine and one of your lungs was punctured. It took a while, but the medics were able to stabilize you. You’re in for a long recovery, though. There was a lot of damage. You used up a lot of chakra in the fight too.”

 

Iruka couldn’t have cared less about that. “But Naruto? Mizuki didn’t hurt him?”

 

“No,” Kakashi said kindly. “Mizuki certainly didn’t look very good when he got dragged away to Ibiki, but Naruto didn’t have a scratch on him. I think he burst a couple of eardrums on the medi-nins, though, when he felt that they weren’t fixing you fast enough.”

 

Iruka started to laugh but quickly thought better of it when it felt like roughly all of his body would explode from pain. “That sounds about right.” He looked closely at Kakashi. His one visible eye looked bruised, like he hadn’t slept. “Are you okay, Kakashi? You look tired. What are you doing here, anyway?”

 

Kakashi looked up as if he was supplicating the heavens. “Half dead and he asks if I’m okay. Typical.” Iruka saw his eye crinkle up in a smile as he looked back down. “Maa, sensei, I’m here because I want to be. Somebody should be looking out for you, after all.” 



Blinking sleepily as the drugs kicked in again, Iruka murmured indignantly, “Can take care of myself…”

 

“I know that better than anyone.” Kakashi’s voice floated over Iruka like a warm wave that he wanted to duck underneath. “But just because you can doesn’t mean you should always have to.” There was a light pressure on his fingers. “Go to sleep, Iruka.”

 

Kakashi was right, it was a long recovery. Iruka had to stay in the hospital for a week while medi-nins worked to regenerate the muscles and nerves in his back, as well as keep his spine stabilized. Anko, Asuma and Kakashi took turns staying with Iruka so that an adult was always with him. Naruto only left under (loud) protest when Anko blatantly told him that he stunk. The boy would run to Iruka’s apartment for a shower and to change clothes and would be back at Iruka’s bedside within half an hour. The medical staff gave up on trying to make him leave and instead treated Naruto like he was a piece of rather annoying furniture. 

 

Iruka privately thought that it was good for Naruto to be around the jounin so much. The boy could use more mature examples in his life. To their credit, the jounin were in turn kind and welcoming to Naruto. Asuma would casually demolish him in shogi and teach him about strategy, Anko brought Naruto dango and showed him her snake summons (which he was far too interested in, heaven forbid he ever meet Jiraiya) and Kakashi would read aloud from books (but only once they had been Iruka approved). He told the part of himself that wondered why his friends were staying with him when he was perfectly fine to be quiet and instead soaked in the affection. It was like having a family again.

 

By the time Iruka was finally released from the hospital and returned home, he only smiled and said nothing when he realized that all of Naruto’s possessions had been moved into his guest room. At Iruka’s smile, Naruto mumbled stubbornly that Iruka would need help cooking and then ran off to put the tea kettle on. 

 

Asuma helped Iruka into bed. He groaned at the feeling of his own mattress and sheets and Asuma laughed and tugged on his ponytail affectionately. “Need anything else, Iruka? I need to take off on a mission, but I think Anko is planning to stop in later to check on you. Kurenai will be around as well if you run into any problems.” He looked anxious about leaving Iruka to Naruto’s tender mercies. 

 

“No, thank you, Asuma. We’ll be just fine,” Iruka said with a smile. 

 

“Good deal,” Asuma said, his fingers twitching like he wanted to reach for a cigarette. He knew he’d be smacked if he lit one in Iruka’s apartment, though. “I’ll see you when I get back, then. Take care and don’t overdo it.”

 

“He won’t,” Naruto howled from the kitchen as the kettle screamed. “I’ll be watching him.”

 

However, Naruto didn’t get a chance to hang around the apartment and bully Iruka into resting for much longer. Thanks to the success of his shadow clones, he was placed on a genin team with Sasuke and Sakura with Kakashi as their jounin-sensei and was soon busy with D-ranks and harassing his teammates. Kakashi began dragging Naruto home from the training fields when he stayed too late and would inevitably be invited to stay for dinner by a grateful Iruka. Iruka delighted in watching Kakashi eat. Not only did he clearly relish everything Iruka made, he deliberately teased Naruto by never being seen taking down his mask, but his food would disappear from his plate like magic. 

 

One night Naruto was being particularly obnoxious and Iruka sent him to bed, whining all the way about not being tired and stupid baka sensei … The sound of snoring came floating out of his room not five minutes later. 

 

No longer needing to put on a show for Naruto so that his student wouldn’t worry, Iruka felt his shoulders slumping as he gave in to the pain in his back. He laid his head down on the kotatsu, his ponytail splayed out behind him like a fan. Kakashi looked at him shrewdly. “Tired?” he asked.

 

Iruka smiled ruefully. “Yes, a little. I started back in the classroom today and my new students are a little...a little too much of everything, honestly. I thought Naruto was loud, but then I met Konohamaru.” 

 

Laughing, Kakashi said, “I can sympathize with that now. When Naruto isn’t screaming, Sasuke is being snide or Sakura is being shrill.” He stood up from the kotatsu gracefully. “Come on, go lie down on the couch. It’ll be better for your back. Personally, I think it was probably too soon for you to go back to work, but you’re so goddamn stubborn.

 

Iruka grumbled, but moved to the couch anyway and flopped down gratefully. He heard Kakashi doing the dishes and thought about protesting, but ultimately decided against it. Kakashi wasn’t exactly a guest anymore, and Iruka had cooked. It was only fair.

 

He was dozing a little, trying to escape the ache, when Kakashi came back. “Do you mind pulling up your shirt in the back?” Kakashi asked. “I think this might help.” Iruka hated to expose the horrible scarring on his back, but did it without any arguments. It’s not like Kakashi hadn’t seen scarring before. He moaned long and low deep in his throat when a warm, moist towel was laid across his shoulders. Kakashi chuckled. “I thought you might like that.”

 

“I see now why they call you a genius,” Iruka groaned. “That’s amazing.” 

 

“You learn some tricks when you’ve been pounded into the ground as much as I have and you can’t stand the idea of going to the hospital,” Kakashi said as he sank cross legged to the floor beside the couch. “S-ranks aren’t exactly kind and welcoming.”

 

Iruka knew without saying, as everyone in the village knew, that Kakashi had been Anbu at some point. You weren’t as good as he was without being one. “What, Anbu never sent you to onsens on missions?” 

 

Kakashi chucked and didn’t bother to deny it. “Actually, I did get sent to an onsen once for an assassination. Strangely, it wasn’t relaxing in the least.” 

 

The towel, which had begun to cool, was removed from Iruka’s back and was replaced with Kakashi’s hands. They radiated green healing chakra and Iruka became a puddle as his muscles finally unwound. “Thank you,” he murmured. “You don’t have to do this, you know. I really am fine.”

 

“I know,” Kakashi said back. “But I want to anyway.”

 

Iruka cracked open an eye and looked at Kakashi. “But why?

 

Kakashi froze for a minute, and then chuckled. “You’ve asked me that before, you know, and I’ll tell you the same thing now that I told you then. Because you matter.” As Iruka stopped breathing for a moment, remembering a dark figure actually noticing him and reaching out with gentle hands, Kakashi slowly pulled his mask down. 

 

Pushing up on his elbow, Iruka breathed, “It was you that night? My Anbu?”

 

Kakashi rubbed the back of his head with his hand and Iruka was stunned to see that the copy-nin was blushing a little. “Yes. I kind of thought you knew. I haven’t exactly been subtle.”

 

Iruka found that he was the one blushing now. “No. I mean, it makes sense now. I’m a little ashamed of myself. You have dog summons and your name is Hound ? Really?”

 

Kakashi shook his head at him, running his fingers through Iruka’s ponytail. “You’d be surprised at who doesn’t notice things. I’m still angry that nobody noticed you for so long. You were living in that house for weeks, cold and hungry.” Kakashi’s fingers trembled a little as he stroked. “But then, you didn’t want to be noticed, did you? You never did. You wouldn’t let anybody help you, not then and not later when you were living by yourself and had nothing.”

 

Iruka would have jolted from surprise if it weren’t for Kakashi’s soothing hand on his back. “I...I didn't want to be a burden. I mean, what was I to this village but an unnecessary complication? Not even a Leaf-nin by blood and with no true talents to give back? I couldn’t let anybody see.”

 

“Just like I said. Stubborn,” Kakashi groaned. “And I was in Anbu and rarely around, so there really wasn’t anything I could do, either. I did arrange for some of your D-ranks, though. Sorry you had to weed so much.” His eyes sparkled. “I did like watching Mizuki be forced to muck out the old Hatake stables. Little shit deserved it.” 

 

Laughing breathlessly, Iruka sat up on the couch and drew Kakashi up to sit with him. “I had no idea. That was kind of you. I didn’t know that anyone saw what I was going through.”

 

“That’s the thing, Iruka,” Kakashi said as he tucked a loose piece of hair behind Iruka’s ear. “You notice everyone and never expect to be noticed in return. Do you remember what you said when you first saw me that day? You asked me if I needed any help. Me, an Anbu, while you were slowly dying in an old yukata. But that’s just your shinobi way. You saw when Anko was barely hanging on to her sanity and so you let her come in and out of your apartment, just to give her a semblance of normalcy. You noticed when Asuma was having problems with Sandaime and started smoking, so you introduced him to Kurenai. You noticed that I needed human interaction after missions and gave it to me, even if it was just yelling over my bad reports. Then, despite everything in your past, you noticed that Naruto was hungry.” He sighed. “I’m just sorry that no one noticed that you were, too.”

 

Tentatively, Iruka took Kakashi’s hand. “Thanks to you, I’m not hungry anymore.” He ducked his head and whispered, “My heart is too full.”

 

Kakashi’s hand raised Iruka’s head so he could look him full in the eye. “Thanks to you, so is mine,” he whispered back as he drew Iruka in for a kiss.