Iruka’s ability to gauge the situation based solely on the intensity of Naruto’s enthusiasm bordered on preternatural, so he was out of his seat and ready to body-flicker within the next instance.
Then Naruto appeared in the doorway, and the source of his glee became obvious.
“Where did you get that?” Iruka demanded, trying to incinerate the photograph in Naruto’s hands with his eyes. He knew the picture far too well, and had actually entertained a fool’s hope that all copies had been destroyed. He was about twelve in it, with his hair loose and damp, glaring upwards at Kakashi when he had noticed the camera – too late to dodge out of the shot.
“I knew it! I knew you’d have passed for a girl. You looked like a girl!” Naruto exclaimed, before he noticed the raincloud forming over Iruka’s head. “Uh… but… a very pretty girl? I mean, not as pretty as H-haku…” He paused; something dark flickered in his eyes before he blinked it away and continued with the embarrassed reassurance: “But… pretty.”
“Naruto…” Iruka growled, but he left it at that. The boy wasn’t teasing him – in fact, Iruka had no clue to whom he had been compared (after he had dismissed the puppy as an option), but he had the idea that the comparison itself was a compliment. Naruto seemed just genuinely fascinated, and he had never been good at filtering what he should and should not say out loud. “Where did you get this?”
He was sure that he knew the answer, although there was a slight chance that the Sandaime might have been in possession of the picture too, probably for blackmail-related purposes.
Naruto’s face was an answer enough.
Iruka raised one hand to stave off the impending avalanche of dissembling babble and put the other one on his hip. “Now, let’s talk just retribution. You did notice that you were set up, right?”
Naruto shrugged. “I knew he was doing something, but I didn’t figure out what until you looked mad, and it seemed worth it at the time?”
Iruka smirked. “I think he was trying to manipulate us into starting a prank war-”
Probably to keep people’s attention on them so Kakashi could go behind the scenes and do something underhanded while remaining unnoticed. Well, if he wanted their help, he should have asked.
“-and forgot that he might be motivating two top notch pranksters to unite against him.”
Naruto squinted. “Err… Iruka-sensei, I know we’re good enough not to get caught, but he’ll still know it was us.”
Iruka shrugged. “Does it matter?”
The boy gaped. “Does it matter?! He’s not going to hurt you, sensei, but he’s my Team Lead! You know how much pain I’d be in?” He tilted his head. “Or, wait, is this what ‘masochism’ means?”
Iruka froze. “Now, Naruto, where did you learn that word?”
He was going to have a talk with Anko.
“Look, you’re barking up the wrong tree here,” Anko said, filing her nails. “Take a bit of unsolicited advice – the chibi’s not really the right outlet for your newly discovered mothering instinct.”
“Mot-thering…?” Iruka stuttered. He wasn’t mothering! He was acting like a responsible adult!
Anko looked at him skeptically. Since she had been freed of Orochimaru’s seal there was an odd lightness around her, and one of its (at the moment regrettable) side-effects was that she started occasionally coming out of her shell.
“Stop and think,” she said. “How old is Naruto? What were you like at his age?” ‘What was I like?’ she didn’t add, but Iruka could hear it in the expectant silence.
It was hard to admit, but at thirteen Naruto was grown up enough and knowledgeable enough to not only know the word ‘masochism’, but also have a fairly good idea of its meaning. And Iruka knew that Anko wasn’t the one to teach that to Naruto.
Iruka kept forgetting that Naruto wasn’t really a child anymore. And thirteen honestly was not that young (Iruka himself at thirteen had already begun falling in love). Thinking back, he suspected that Naruto had had a disturbingly good idea about the adult ongoings from a far too young age (the strategy behind the application of his Oiroke no Jutsu required at least rudimentary understanding of lust), but there was no telling what he might have been exposed to while living partially on the streets.
Iruka should have realised all this when Naruto matter-of-factly requisitioned a particular ANBU for a seduction assignment. And then again when he misled Tsunade-sama into assuming that there was an intimate relationship between the two male Sannin.
It was a well-observed fact that those gennin teammates who survived until later in their career tended to either pursue romantic relationships together, or feel like any such relationship would be incestuous and inherently wrong. It was a dynamic Naruto had observed, too, and capitalised on when he developed the strategy for their mission in Tanzaku Gai.
Iruka was impressed. A little regretful for the untimely death of innocence, but impressed. Besides, this was Naruto. He would probably retain that air of innocence for the rest of his life.
“Yeah…” Anko drawled, having watched the entire thought process on his face. “You owe me a Dango Deluxe Family Pack. And a sparring session. I’m getting rusty with the basics. You’re welcome.”
Iruka nodded in thanks. “Anko-san, by any chance, do you have any insights into what Naruto might like as a present for getting promoted?”
Anko blinked at him. Then her eyes darkened and unfocused-
-and Iruka beat a hasty retreat before he learnt another thing about his former student that he never wanted to know.
“…and crash-pow! It is just a Bunshin! I hit the wall, but I do much wall-bouncing during my youthful training, so now I merely bounce back! I run for the other Shikamaru-kun at the top of my speed!”
Hinata was having a very odd dream. Everything was dark and soft, and an excited voice was telling her about a ninja fight.
“I jump! I kick! But lo! Shikamaru-kun is faster than he looks! He twists and weaves, for he is secretly a master of the Drunken Fist!”
Hinata wanted to giggle. Everything felt pleasantly floaty, and the story was fun.
“I must stop and praise him! I had no idea there was a master of such a splendid technique among my fellow contestants! Alas! As I stand still for an instance, Shikamaru-kun’s shadow has me in its grasp! Kagemane no Jutsu – success!” The speaker loudly blew his nose. “Shikamaru-kun is so hip!”
Hinata realised that everything seemed so dark because her eyes were closed. Opening them took more energy than she usually needed for handstand push-ups, but she succeeded.
“Thus I lose!” exclaimed a black and green blob that Hinata identified as her cousin’s teammate. Lee-san thumped his fist against his chest as though he were declaiming to an invisible audience. “For the Drunken Fist master is also a Bunshin! And the true Shikamaru-kun has remained hidden from my sight until now!”
Hinata wasn’t used to not having perfect eyesight. She tried to mold chakra, but couldn’t get even the slightest bit of control. Her Byakugan was inactive, her tenketsu dormant. She was in a hospital room, though, so she did not panic… yet.
Surely someone would explain?
Just as she thought it, Lee-san heaved a heavy sigh, pirouetted-
And noticed Hinata looking at him.
For an instance he remained frozen in shock, and then a wide, bright smile stretched over his face. “Hinata-san! You are awake! Please, remain calm, I will get a medic right away!”
Long acquaintance with Kakashi taught Iruka to not only treat but also subconsciously regard ninken as people. He wasn’t sure if it was the result of being considered Pack, or if they considered him Pack because of this mindset. He had never been officially Presented, but he had also not been treated like an outsider in years by any of the few canine members to whom he had been introduced.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said to the couple that occupied a patch of grass next to him. He had chosen the park as a neutral and yet comfortable place for them to meet, and there were several food stalls nearby, so he could make good on his invitation to dinner. If they preferred their meat raw, he was sure he could make a deal with the proprietor of the grill.
“It is about time, sensei,” said Kana-san. “We should be catching up on years’ worth of parent-teacher conferences.”
Iruka chuckled. “That is part of why I kept asking Naruto for an introduction.” He met first Kana-san’s eye and then Ya-san’s. “I wanted to thank you. For taking care of him when we failed him so badly.”
“We didn’t do it for gratitude,” replied Kana-san.
“And far as I can tell, you were one of the few humans Naruto could count on,” Ya-san pointed out.
Iruka guessed it might have seemed so. He had done his best, in the end – he had been Naruto’s teacher, and he had always accepted the responsibility inherent in that position. He liked to believe that he had done well enough.
But that did not somehow erase the memory of hating Naruto for years. He would carry that stain on his soul for the rest of his life.
“Well,” Ya-san spoke after a while of reflection, sardonically amused, “now that the formalities are out of the way, how about you tell us what prompted this meeting, Iruka-sensei?”
Iruka sighed. Busted.
“I – it occurred to me that I have not properly congratulated Naruto on his promotion. I would like to give him a gift and… well… I am out of ideas.”
The two ninken shared a long look over their respective glasses – the kind of look through which old married couples could carry entire conversations. Iruka watched them with mounting jitters.
Eventually Ya-san chuffed a laugh.
Kana-san resignedly shook her head. “Humans…”
“Ooh, supplies?” Naruto inquired when Iruka presented a basket full of food and drinks.
There wasn’t nearly enough food there to truly sate the hunger of a growing boy with a demon in his belly, but it would have to suffice for a picnic.
“Wait, this doesn’t look like much of a prank…?”
“I’ve already misused the power of my office to set up the prank,” Iruka replied blithely.
“Which of your offices?”
Iruka ignored the sarcasm. “And let’s leave revenge on your sensei to a time when I’m not bogged down with paperwork. I just thought we could eat outside,” he dissembled. “The weather is nice.”
The truth was a little bleaker. He had wanted to invite Naruto to his home. Sadly, Naruto’s sense of smell meant that no amount of tidying up and careful scene arrangement would disguise the fact that there were two people living there, or what they were to each other.
He was already uncomfortable just with Naruto knowing that Iruka had someone.
“This is different,” Naruto remarked, but let himself be led to a grassy slope usually populated by families. “You know, not that long ago all these people would scream and pull their kids away if they saw me here. It’s like the hitai-ate is magic.”
Oh, Iruka thought. He hadn’t even thought of that. He was so used to seeing Naruto automatically accepted among ninja that he had momentarily forgotten how the civilians might react.
Despite the initial reprieve from any histrionics, Naruto still cast a minor Henge – hiding the marks on his cheeks, turning his hair brown and his t-shirt sky-blue, just enough of a change to make it unlikely that any civilian would recognise him and start a riot.
“I’m sorry about that,” Iruka professed. He was sorrier than he could explain without admitting to how much he used to despise the mere sight of Naruto – long ago, before he had even learnt Naruto’s name. Before Kakashi had looked at Iruka so coldly and nearly walked out of his life. “And I’m glad it’s getting better.”
“You’re making me nervous, sensei,” Naruto joked, except that it really wasn’t a joke.
Iruka didn’t mean to do that. This was supposed to be a happy occasion. “Naruto… there’s something I’ve been meaning to give to you for a while, but there just hasn’t been a good opportunity.” With how busy Iruka had been, and then the mission, and then preparations for the Inauguration, which also somehow turned out to be his responsibility – today was the first free afternoon he had had in more than six weeks.
He felt like if he let himself, he could close his eyes and instantly drop to sleep.
Naruto plopped down into the grass without waiting for Iruka to spread the blanket. He was right – the blanket was a childish cliché. Iruka resolved to keep it inside the storage seal where it belonged. Maybe he was trying too hard to play at a normal family – they weren’t normal. They were shinobi.
As Iruka sat down, the boy side-eyed him skeptically. “Uh… it’s not the Talk, right, sensei? ‘cause I’ve had that. Three times, from five different people, and by now it’s not even embarrassing anymore. And I ask questions. Like, personal questions. About the Talk-giver’s personal experience-”
Iruka snorted. “Alright, alright! You convinced me! Stop convincing. No, I know I’m years too late to give you the Talk, and I’m not really inclined to share my personal anecdotes on this subject. Except maybe the one about that one time… hm…” He thoughtfully rubbed his mouth.
He had more than one truly educational – and cautionary – tale that he could relay at least in very broad strokes. Kakashi had the unfortunate tendency to take Icha Icha as a series of dares, and Iruka had the even more unfortunate tendency to go along with it whenever the premise didn’t seem outright dangerous.
There was, for just a random example, that time with the Hokage’s desk. And the well-disguised ANBU guard.
Grr. Iruka-sensei knew exactly how to make people hunger for whatever information he had to impart. He was a born teacher.
“Another time!” announced the super-sensei, smirking at Naruto’s frustrated growling. “Today is the day for gift giving, not for sharing confidences.”
“Gift? Uh, Iruka-sensei, my birthday is in October-”
“And I am perfectly aware of that, thanks.” That gave Naruto a pause, but Iruka-sensei didn’t say it meanly, so he guessed it probably wasn’t an accusation.
There was a reason why Naruto didn’t celebrate his birthday. And why other people celebrated with food and games and fireworks, but made it clear that Naruto himself wasn’t invited. And, well, Naruto knew how Iruka-sensei’s parents died. So. The topic was kind of a taboo.
“But, I realised that we haven’t celebrated your promotion! I didn’t mean to let that pass without acknowledgement-”
“You were busy!” Naruto protested. His sight blurred; he was about to start bawling. Iruka-sensei was acknowledging him! Again!
“That is no excuse!” Iruka-sensei protested back. “So, here is something for you. I hope it will help you in your career.”
It was a book. This could have gone one of two ways – Iruka-sensei was a teacher, so it was likely something educational, but he was also the co-owner of Dog-sensei’s Icha Icha collection and friends with Anko, so it might have been something educational.
“Fuuinjutsu?” Naruto read, startled.
“This is…” Iruka-sensei rubbed the back of his head. “Well, Yondaime-sama was famous for his work with seals. A prodigy! And so was the whole Uzumaki Clan. I am almost certain that you have an as-of-yet undiscovered talent for this, and it would be a crime to not let it develop.”
Naruto’s eyes welled. “Thanks, sensei…”
“Yeah, it’s a fucking crime nobody thought to start you on seals earlier, but see my utter lack of surprise. The Toad Sage would actually have to do something that didn’t involve his dick-”
Appearing seemingly out of nowhere like the ANBU she was, Anko-nee-san rolled her eyes and fell upon the food basket like a swarm of locusts. “You forgot to invite me to this shindig, doggy treat, so I invited myself. Think I don’t wanna celebrate? Let’s get chuunin-chan good and proper drunk-”
“Let’s not,” Iruka hissed through clenched teeth.
Anko gulped down an onigiri and pouted. “Party pooper. Oh, fine. Naruto, put on a pretty face, and let’s go to town! I’m buying you some cool shit you can use to fuck up people while looking like-”
Knowing exactly where nee-san was going with this, Naruto oiroked into Naruko the trophy wife.
“Just figures,” Kiba-kun complained, walking through the doorway. “We spend every free moment at Hinata’s bedside, and she wakes up during Lee’s summertime of manly youthfulness monologue-”
“Can you imagine a better incentive to escape?” Shino-kun inquired a little unkindly.
In Hinata’s opinion Lee-san was friendly and enthusiastic, and if he sometimes required a little more energy to communicate with, it was hardly a great bother. She had never had the opportunity to befriend him, but he was nice enough to come visit his teammate’s cousin and speak to her regularly ever since Manami-sensei told him it helped people in coma wake up.
Hinata wished Lee-san had stayed long enough for her to thank him. There was a bouquet of wildflowers in a vase on the bedside, too, and Hinata was sure no one in her family had brought those. And – she glanced at her teammates – she doubted it had been either of them. Despite the fact that Shino-kun’s kikaichu had already found the flowers and were scouring them for nectar, even though they could only truly feed on raw chakra.
“It is good to know you are on the mend,” Shino-kun said simply, arms folded in front of his chest.
Kiba-kun stepped from foot to foot a few times and then huffed. “Whatever. Hey, Hinata, took your time waking up, huh? You can’t keep skipping team training like this…”
Hinata opened her mouth to apologise, and then realised that Kiba-kun didn’t mean it. He wasn’t admonishing her. He had been worried and, being a shinobi, he probably felt like he should not admit it. That was – nice.
Hinata smiled. Her teammates had been worried about her.
“We were going to avenge you, but it’s been impossible! We can’t get into the Hyuuga District, and your cousin barely shows his face in public except for team training-”
“He has become reticent after his verbal emasculation in the final stage of the examinations, courtesy of Naruto-san,” Shino-kun explained with a smirk.
Naruto-kun… well, Naruto-kun would not be the boy he was – the boy she admired so – if he did not stand up for his friends against those who hurt them…
But Hinata hadn’t wanted this. Hadn’t wanted anything like this. She thought if people saw how strong Neji-nii-san was (so much stronger than her!), and acknowledged his strength, maybe things would get a little better for him. She didn’t have any way of undoing the Caged Bird Seal, but short of that she wanted him to have the same chances as if he were her full brother.
“Don’t make that face! He deserved everything he got and more!”
Hinata shook her head so rapidly that her muscles began to hurt. She sank deeper into the pillows and breathed for a moment, until the effects of the drugs dulled the discomfort again. “Please don’t judge him, Kiba-kun, Shino-kun. Neji-nii-san’s life – it is not a happy one. There was so much injustice, and some of it because of me-”
“If he blames you,” exclaimed Kiba-kun, “he’s not just a butthole – he’s a stupid butthole!”
Hinata flinched. Her sight blurred with tears. “K-kiba-k-kun-”
“Sorry, sorry,” Kiba-kun waved his hands, as if he could just fan the tension out of the room. “I won’t yell. I’ll try not to yell. He just makes me so mad!”
“Neji-san is a stronger fighter than you,” Shino said evenly, “but your fight did not prove his strength. The only thing he displayed was lack of control.”
“Yeah,” Kiba-kun agreed, “he was emoting all over the place, monologuing like a crazy, didn’t even concentrate, and when Naruto kicked his arse he fell apart like a complete loon. He’s whacko, Hinata!” He noticed he had raised his voice again and scowled. “Crap, sorry! Crap. Can I just…?”
Hinata did not understand what Kiba-kun’s gesture meant, but it was obvious that he needed whatever it was he had asked for. So she nodded.
He startled her by sitting on the bed and slowly, carefully winding his arm in between Hinata’s shoulders and the pillow. She found herself pulled against the solid, warm body of her teammate, close enough to smell boy-sweat and dogs, but the smell was familiar rather than repellent. Still she couldn’t help tensing.
“Am I- am I hurting you?”
“N-no…” she admitted. No one had ever held her like this – at least not that she remembered. Perhaps Okaa-san might have, but that would have been a very long time ago.
“It’s…” Kiba-kun huffed and tried to hide his reddening face. “It’s a pack thing. A… comfort sort of thing. For dogs. And us. I mean the Clan – the Inuzuka Clan. We – we need physical contact.”
Hinata bit the inside of her cheek. It was quite enough that Shino-kun was laughing at Kiba-kun unabashedly. Besides, now that she was becoming accustomed to the idea, the closeness and warmth felt comforting to her, too.
“…yeah, makes sense,” Anko admitted. “You know I only ask for the pretty face ‘cause I’m wet for the-”
“Anko-san!” Iruka hissed, and glanced at the keeper of the store they just entered.
The man’s eyes zeroed in on the second customer that walked through the door, discovered the display of Anko’s plentiful assets and got stuck. He didn’t appear to even notice the third person entering after her.
“I’ll give you a private show later, if you’d like,” Naruto whispered into her ear (although he had to stand on his toes to get anywhere near, and Anko wasn’t very tall).
At times like these Iruka wished he could turn off his hearing.
“Yeah, we’re picking a weapon for you, not for Naruko-chan,” agreed Anko. “For her I’ve got a very nice switch-”
Luckily, Anko quickly got distracted with all the sharp implements in Kamakura’s shop, while Iruka made it a point to stay by Naruto’s side. He kept half an eye on the proprietor; so far Iruka hadn’t detected any animosity, what with the lust that seemed to have completely turned off the man’s higher cognitive functions.
A brief brainstorming session between the three of them proved that neither had any concrete idea about what kind of weapon Naruto might like to start learning, so eventually it was decided that they would just have a look around and maybe inspiration would strike.
Iruka personally suspected that Naruto would walk out with a chokuto or a kodachi, but he wasn’t going to try and influence the boy’s decision.
“Sensei…?” Naruto said wonderingly, waking Iruka from the reverie.
The boy was standing in front of the display counter in the most shadowed corner of the shop. There were weird bits and pieces scattered within the display, some of which Iruka couldn’t name. He couldn’t even imagine how some of them worked.
And in the middle of that heap of steel and obsidian and glass lay the thing.
Naruto picked it up and put it on his hand. It fit almost perfectly – he would grow out of it in a year, since it was designed for a woman’s hand, but perhaps the size could be adjusted as needed?
“Huh,” Iruka mused. Then he grinned. This was going to be good. “A cat paw, huh?”
Naruto’s horrified look made Iruka wish he had thought to take a camera with him. For a brief moment it seemed as though Naruto would rip off the neko-te and throw it as far away from himself as possible.
Then he proved that he could be rational even about his antipathies (not that Iruka truly doubted this, after Naruto managed to work mostly professionally with Sasuke, Sakura and Jiraiya-sama).
Naruto attempted to manipulate the neko-te, feeling how it handled, clicking the long claw-points together. Then he whined. “It’s perfect, Iruka-sensei! I would love that, but no self-respecting guy would use a cat-based weapon! How would I look my huntmates in the eye? Urgh!”
“So… it’s not a problem that it’s a kunoichi weapon?” inquired the shopkeeper, lured away from his Anko-inspired reverie by the vision of profit.
“Ehh? Why would it be?” Naruto blinked in perfect (and perfectly artificial) innocence. “It’s a weapon.” Then he narrowed his eyes, as though a suspicion just occurred to him. “Wait, are you one of those people?”
“Oh, boy. I think I need Anko-nee-san for this explanation-”
“Ah, no, that’s okay!” the shopkeeper assured him hastily, waving his hands, palms-out and smiling so widely his cheeks must have cramped. “I’ve changed my mind. You’ve convinced me – great, neko-te, sure, go for it, shinobi-san!”
“Wow,” Naruto muttered to Iruka, “a threat of Anko works even better than Rikku showing off his teeth…”
And how Iruka wished this peaceful, kind village hadn’t made it necessary for Naruto to use his ninken’s intimidating effect to be treated semi-fairly.
Naruto seemed to take it all with good humour, though. “He’s just scared ‘cause Anko-nee wouldn’t even need a big, manly sword to skewer him.” He paused and then added: “And make him like it.”
Iruka suppressed a groan. Anko was creating a monster. He momentarily regretted that his professional persona was so demure; then he recalled that usually he wasn’t in the middle of political work on an insanely stressful level. He loved working with children – when he actually had the chance to work with children – and the self-censorship was well worth it.
Besides, in those halcyon times when his stress was down at the usual ‘moderately high’ level of the Academy, he hadn’t felt the need to vent so much.
He clasped his favourite ex-student’s shoulder. “I think you should take it, Naruto. With your taijutsu, that would be a devastating supplement.” He could already see it: gushing blood and guts spewing all around. Not exactly a nice or clean fighting style, but terribly, terribly effective.
And it was an old, traditional kunoichi weapon, barely even used anymore – obscure and vicious to Anko’s tastes, and immensely practical for Naruto’s undercover (almost universally female) personas.
Naruto, encouraged by Iruka’s approval, nodded. “Yeah, I think this is it.”