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Paving Pathways

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The Iruka that came through their front door was not the same boy who left. Kakashi met him in the hall, his anger and killing intent tightly capped. The genin removed his sandals mechanically and lined them up against the wall. Kakashi reached out, hesitant, fingers brushing his shoulder lightly. “Iruka.”

Kakashi drew in a sharp breath when his friend looked up at him. His eyes were utterly empty. “Oh, Kakashi.” Iruka seemed to stare right through him, gaze hazy and unfocused. Too dark, too far gone. Iruka’s light, his unwavering resolve, flickered out. The listless darkness left behind sent a cold chill up Kakashi’s spine.  “We passed Inoichi-sensei’s test.”

Kakashi clenched his hands until the knuckles turned white. Rage simmered just beneath the surface, barely contained. He clamped down on his anger, pushing it deep inside. Iruka didn’t need his fury. “Are you hungry? I made curry and rice.” Kakashi slid a hand through Iruka’s unbound hair, fingers massaging his scalp.

Iruka flinched back from the touch, head lowered and eyes downcast. “N-No thank-you.”

Kakashi saw red. It took all his self-control to stop from charging over to the Yamanaka Compound in a blind rage. Inoichi was most likely ‘entertaining’ an equally furious tokubetsu jounin on Izumo and Kotetsu’s behalf. He was sure to get every detail on their next mission together.

Right now, Kakashi's primary concern was Iruka. The genin began to shake in front of him, arms crossed over his chest to hug himself tightly. Iruka was wound tighter than Hiruzen's pocket watch. "C-Can I have a hug...?"

The request surprised him, but Kakashi stepped forward and hoisted the genin up into his arms. Iruka clung to Kakashi, arms at his neck and legs around his waist. “Let it out, Iruka.” Kakashi shifted an arm beneath the genin’s thighs for extra support. Iruka sobbed into his shoulder, hot tears dampening his shirt. Kakashi pillowed his cheek against Iruka’s head. His free hand rubbed up and down the genin’s back.

They remained like that until Iruka's cries lessened.

Kakashi carried Iruka to his bedroom. Balancing the sniffling genin, he tugged Iruka’s medical pouch and weapon holster off and fished his pyjamas from the dresser. “You’ll feel more comfortable once you've changed.”

Iruka’s hold tightened briefly, but he nodded. Kakashi placed the genin on his feet and handed him the pyjamas. Iruka clutched the soft cotton in both hands, eyes fixed on the blue fabric. He sniffled, cheeks blotchy and wet with tears. The ANBU didn’t have a damn clue how to make the pain better. He barely coped with his own. “I’ll give you some privacy.”

Kakashi slid the door shut behind him, hand clenching around the doorknob. He sagged back against the wood and sighed. A dark, unpleasant sensation gnawed at his insides. All his talents as a diligent shinobi were useless in a situation like this. Kakashi hated feeling helpless, hated losing control. Especially when his precious people were in pain. This is why he kept people at arm's length.

But with Iruka…

Well, he was trying.

Kakashi changed into his own sleepwear; a black muscle shirt and worn shinobi pants. He was unbinding the wrapping from his legs when his bedroom door slid open. A red-eyed Iruka, wrapped in a quilt and carrying his pillow, crawled into Kakashi's bed.

He watched the genin get situated before swinging his legs up onto the bed. Kakashi settled against the headboard, reclining in a sitting position. Iruka would talk about it if he wanted to. Kakashi pulled a novel from his nightstand and flipped it open to the bookmark about half way in. He picked away at reading the chapters between missions as a way to decompress. Now seemed an opportune time to delve further into the story.

Iruka rolled onto his stomach hugging the pillow. He shifted closer until he pressed firmly along Kakashi's leg and rested his cheek on the older teen's thigh. The skin beneath his eyes was puffy from crying. "Why are you reading a book about kidnapping?"

"The Child Thief is a fictional fantasy." Kakashi glanced down at his friend. He seemed more grounded than when he first came home, though still shaken. "The story is interesting." He dog-tagged his page and flipped back to the front of the novel. "I could read it to you."

"O-oh, um…" Iruka's brows knitted together, unsure and hesitant. He looked so tired. "Okay."

Kakashi slid down the bed until his back hit the mattress. He got comfortable and stretched an arm out to Iruka. The genin resettled against his side with his head resting on Kakashi's shoulder.

Kakashi folded the cover back and cleared his throat. " In a small corner of Hakusan Park, in the borough of Kirigakure, a thief lay hidden in the trees. This thief wasn’t searching for an unattended purse, scroll or camera. This thief was looking for a child. In the dusk of that early-autumn day, the child thief peered out from the shadows and falling leaves to watch the children play. The children laughed, yelled, teased, and chased one another round and round. But the child thief wasn’t interested in these happy faces. He wasn’t looking to steal just any child. He was particular. He was looking for the sad face, the loner… a lost child…"

Iruka fell into a fitful slumber halfway through the second chapter. He rubbed Iruka's shoulder in small circles to soothe the genin into a more peaceful sleep. Kakashi sat the novel aside, his mind wandering back over the day.

Kakashi had returned to their apartment before Iruka realized he tailed the genin to his team meeting. The genjutsu wrecked all three boys mentally. The extent of mental trauma became painfully clear when none of them reacted to the heavy killing intent Kakashi was unable to suppress in his fury. It took every ounce of his self-control not to break the illusion with Obito’s sharingan. He wouldn’t be the reason Iruka failed the test after all he endured.

Inoichi used Magen: Hell Viewing jutsu to test his genin team.

A jutsu that subjected targets to experiencing their greatest fears. Kakashi knew neither Inoichi or Ibiki could accurately predict what illusions the jutsu would conjure for the genin. They didn’t know until the corpses appeared. That didn’t lessen his anger, only strengthened it.

“My genin test was conducted by Inoichi-taichou in a similar manner.” Ibiki offered only once Inoichi dropped down to personally check his genin for injury.

“They aren’t you.” He’d let his emotions fuel his response. “Iruka isn’t-”

“Umino-san is a soldier.” Ibiki countered in his usual firm, no-nonsense tone. “He chose the shinobi path. He will learn from his mistakes or end up another name on the Memorial Stone.”

“I won’t let that happen.”

“We walk a fine line in nurturing fledgling shinobi, Kakashi-san.” Ibiki stood from his crouching position so the pair were eye-to-eye. “Support the boy, do not coddle him. That will get him killed. If he truly desires to be a shinobi, Umino-san will endure.”

Iruka’s whimper brought Kakashi back from his thoughts. The genin’s brows furrowed in sleep, a few tears trickling into his hairline. “...Mom.” Iruka curled against his side, trembling softly. "No, no please…" His hands fisted into the shuriken printed quilt.

"You're dreaming, Iruka." Kakashi awkwardly patted his back. "It's just a bad dream-"

Iruka screamed suddenly, limbs flailing in every direction. Kakashi startled, barely catching the genin's fist before it struck his face. "Iruka!"

Iruka thrashed and screamed again. "Mom! Dad! Don't make me go!" His face contorted in fearful agony. He kicked out, shoving blankets to the ground. “Kashi… Kakashi!!”

"I’m right here." Kakashi rolled to his knees to avoid the genin's feet. "You’re dreaming." Iruka wailed, his elbow connected with the ANBU's stomach. Kakashi grunted and pinned the flailing genin beneath him. “Wake up.” At a loss for what to do, he grabbed Iruka by the shoulders and shook the younger boy awake. "Iruka!"

Iruka’s eyes flew open with a wail, his irises large and bleary. His eyes darted around fearfully before they focused on his friend’s face. “...K-Kakashi.” Iruka sobbed and threw his arms around Kakashi’s waist. A tear-stained face pressed to his nightshirt. “I-I’m sorry.”

Guilt, anger, regret; the emotional chasm twisted like a heavy knot in Kakashi’s stomach. He slipped an arm beneath Iruka and rolled them both to the side. “Stop apologizing, Iruka. I know you’re stronger than this.” Iruka’s head fit snugly beneath his chin. “You beat your sensei's test. Go to training tomorrow and show Inoichi Yamanaka what you’ve been working so hard for.” He felt Iruka’s stutter through a heavy breath and nod. “I’ll be here when you get home.”

“Pr-Promise?”

“Yes.” Kakashi’s hold on the genin tightened protectively. When he said the words this time, there was no hesitation. “I promise.”

 


 

Mid-morning found Iruka once again hand-in-hand with his new teammates. Kotetsu and Izumo flanked him on either side; a united front against Inoichi Yamanaka. The three genin eyed their jounin sensei warily and remained silent against his pleasantries.

They were getting nowhere fast.

Inoichi rubbed the back of his head with a sigh. Time to change up strategies. “Look, boys, I’m not a front-line shinobi. None of my jutsu are grandiose. I can’t teach you any flashy, heavy-hitting techniques.” The boys’ brows dipped into scowls, likely the most response he’d get at the moment. “I don’t believe that jutsu type is needed to be an effective shinobi.”

Kotetsu took the bait first. “What do you mean?”

"What did the genjutsu test show?"

The trio visibly flinched at the reminder. Izumo's face paled. "That I can't tell an illusion from what's real?"

Inoichi squatted down so they could speak at eye level. "Not all shinobi have the skill to see through genjutsu. That isn't a fault. Both of your teammates were eventually able to assess the anomalies in your surroundings and take appropriate measures."

Iruka squeezed Izumo's hand to reassure the older boy. "We're a team. We look out for each other."

"Exactly." Inoichi smiled. "I'm a member of a special formation: ino-shika-cho. For generations, members of the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi clans formed these squadrons. We remain on the same team for our entire shinobi career."

"And… you wanted to see if we could do that too?" Kotetsu guessed; though he sounded unsure of the assessment. "But we aren't ino-shika-cho. We aren't clan kids."

"Being clansmen doesn't guarantee a shinobi's skills. A bond of trust, one that overcomes limitations and makes your individual strengths into advantages for the unit, that is most important for a team." Inoichi tapped the leaf symbol on his hitai-ate. “I wanted to make sure my genin wouldn’t turn against each other if things escalated out of control.”

Kotetsu glanced over to Iruka, guilt contorting his features. “But I attacked Iruka. I hurt-”

“And I stabbed you with a kunai. We’re even.” Iruka squeezed the older boy’s hand. “You could’ve done a lot worse than punch me.”

Inoichi watched the exchange then interjected with a question. “If you percieved Iruka to be a threat, why didn’t you kill him?”

“Kill him?!” Kotetsu’s face paled. “Why would I-?! I could never-....!! He’s on my-” The genin blinked, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. Iruka could almost see the mental pieces fit together. “Iruka's my teammate. We survived the Kyuubi together. I trust him and Izumo.”

“That is why you passed my test. All three of you demonstrated flexible thinking, problem-solving and exceptional skill demonstration. You worked well together without prompting and covered each other’s faults.” Inoichi sat cross-legged on the grass and motioned for the genin to follow suit. “I am pleased with your intelligence and ingenuity. Those skills will be invaluable to Konohagakure’s Intelligence Division.”

“So...” Kotetsu began once the three genin were settled across from their sensei. “You want us to do recon and stuff?”

“Information is the village’s foremost of defence.” Inoichi folded his arms across his chest. “In the decade I have spent with both the Torture and Interrogation Force and Analysis Team, we’ve prevented a hostile take over, assassination and kidnapping attempts on the Hokage and Daimyo, and stopped an invasion from occurring.”

All three genin stared at Inoichi slack-jawed. That was impressive. It put some things into perspective, but still... Iruka chewed on his bottom lip and mulled over his thoughts before speaking up. “But that was my mother. Kotetsu’s mothers too. And Izumo...”

Izumo squeezed his eyes shut and looked away. “...He disappeared. All I could find was his dog tags.”  He offered no further explanation.

“The Hell Viewing technique shows a person their greatest fear. It is a simple D-rank jutsu. Enemies can kill with less. Shinobi endure. You are shinobi. Your trauma cannot become a liability. I will not train you just to send you to death. I stand by my test choice.” Inoichi sighed, shoulders slouching slightly. “However, I understand your faith in me is shaken. I will do what I can to earn your trust.” He withdrew several sheets of Chakra Induction Paper from the breast pocket of his flak vest. “Let’s start with the basics: chakra nature affinities. Hold the paper between two fingers and add a bit of chakra like so.” The paper dampened and went limp in his hold. “I have a water affinity.”

The genin shared a quick glance, but each took a litmus paper. Kotetsu grasped the paper between his forefinger and thumb and raised it to face level. The paper wavered slightly then darkened to a smokey grey colour. All three boys gaped in amazement. “What affinity is this?!”

“That:” Inoichi chuckled softly, putting an emphasis to the word. “Is a yin affinity. It’s associated with non-elemental techniques, like genjutsu and medical ninjutsu.”

Kotetsu grinned, his eyes fixed on the darkened litmus paper. “So I could learn that Hell Viewing technique?”

Inoichi nodded. “I don’t see why not.”

While Kotetsu pumped a fist in the air, Izumo followed his best friend's lead and held the paper between two fingers. Water dripped from the paper, leaving it soggy in Izumo’s grasp. "Oh, it's a water affinity like sensei's."

“I have water affinity too, Izumo.” Iruka pointed out.

“You already know your chakra nature affinity?” Inoichi raised a brow. The youngest genin caught the interest of his sensei and teammates with that tidbit of information.

Iruka flushed a bit, not used to the attention. “Uh yeah. I have water and fire affinity.”

“It’s rare to have an affinity for multiple chakra natures.” Inoichi motioned to the litmus paper in Iruka’s hand. “Please demonstrate.”

“Yes, sensei.” Iruka held the paper between two fingers, like Kakashi showed him a few months back, and trickled small wasps of chakra into it. As he knew it would, water seeped through the paper to make it limp, then it burst into flames. “Water and fire.”

“Very good. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to individualize your arsenal.” Inoichi turned to the large oak tree behind him. “But first, there are basic techniques all shinobi must know.” He raised his hands into a ram seal. “This is our first lesson in chakra control. The Land of Fire is made up of mostly forest. Tree climbing in second nature to her shinobi.”  Inoichi stepped onto the trunk and walked up fifteen feet with ease. “I want you to focus your chakra towards the soles of your feet. Use it to connect to the tree. Too little chakra and you’ll lose your footing. Too much and you'll splinter the tree. It’s your job to figure out the balance that works for you. We’ll practice until you reach my current height.”

The genin looked at each other and nodded. “Yes, Inoichi-sensei!”

 




Iruka stumbled back to their apartment shortly before dusk. Bruised and with his chakra running low, he kicked his sandals off at the door and slumped over the kotatsu where Kakashi was reading. “I’m home.”

“Welcome home.” The ANBU dog-tagged his page and set the novel aside. He simpered, a small quirk of the lip that left his smile crooked. Kakashi didn’t wear his mask around the apartment very often. “You look tired.”

Iruka groaned into the wooden tabletop. “I thought homework would stop once I graduated from the Academy.”

“Inoichi gave you homework?”

“Inoichi-sensei said we needed to sharpen our intellectual capabilities as well as our physical.” Iruka rummaged through his weapon holster and pulled out a scroll. “It’s a riddle. He wants it solved before training tomorrow.”

Kakashi moved over to make room for Iruka beside him. “Let’s have a look.”

Iruka settled next to Kakashi with the scroll in hand. “I don’t know if we’re allowed help.”

“Did Inoichi say to solve it alone?”

Iruka thought for a moment. “No, he didn’t.”

“An effective shinobi utilizes all resources at their disposal.” Kakashi grinned so wickedly his eyes curved with the smile. “Read the problem.”

Iruka opened the scroll. “As a wildfire rages through the grasslands, three lions and three deer flee for their lives. To escape the inferno, they must cross to the left bank of a crocodile-infested river using a raft. It can carry up to two animals at a time and needs at least one to row it back across the river. There’s just one problem. If the lions ever outnumber the deer on either side of the river, they will instinctively kill the deer. The count includes the animals in the boat when it’s on either side of the river. What’s the fastest way for all six animals to get across without any being eaten?”

Kakashi leaned over the kotatsu, his cheek propped up on one hand. “What do you think?”

“It’s a process of elimination right?” Iruka worried his bottom lip between his teeth. There’s a finite number of combinations to get the lions and deer across the river. There’s just a lot. So trial and error would be an ineffective strategy. So um…”

“How many possibilities are there?”

“...Would writing them all out in a chart help?”

“Let’s find out.” Kakashi rummaged for a notebook and pencils. He handed one to Iruka and opened the notebook on the table. Iruka scribbled a line graph, pie chart and tally before settling on a table. Kakashi directed the genin with little hints, but mostly let him figure it out for himself. In the end, he found writing down each possibility in a web and marking off the ones that didn’t work to be most effective.

“So we should send one of each first to keep the deer from being eaten. Then send a deer back so they aren’t outnumbered.” Iruka wrote FOOD across one of the options.

Kakashi doodled the Nara clan symbol in the top right corner of the page. It seemed appropriate, given the riddle. “Both lions need to go on the third crossing or it's venison for supper.”

“But that sends a lion back…” Iruka chewed on the end of his pencil. “Then two deer need to cross next.” He drew an arrow to emphasize the point. “But we have to send a lion and deer back to the right bank and gah!” Iruka tugged at his hair in irritation. This didn’t make any sense! “We’re just going in circles.”

Kakashi nudged the genin with his shoulder. “Try two deer next.”

“But that leaves two lions on one side. I can’t send one deer back to get the lions or they’ll eat it!”

Kakashi moved on to doodle a crude lion. “Then don’t send a deer back.”

“But he’s the one on the raft.” Iruka threw his pencil onto the notepad, frustration mounting. “I can’t switch them.”

Kakashi hummed and added teeth to his lion drawing. “Why not?”

“Because of that- Oh.” Iruka grabbed the scroll, rereading it quickly. “It doesn’t say we can’t switch animals on the raft.” He made a few corrections to the visuals they drew. “If we do that, we can send the lion back to bring the other two across and it’s done!” Iruka flopped back over the kotatsu with a relieved groan. “Thank the Shodai it’s done.”

Kakashi ruffled Iruka’s hair lightly. “I think Yakiniku Q for dinner would be a good way to unwind. Do you feel up to going?”

The invitation caught Iruka off guard. The only time he and Kakashi ever went out to eat together was the ramen for his birthday. As if on cue, his stomach grumbled. The last few days were taxing, both mentally and physically. Spending time with a friend would be nice. Iruka caught Kakashi’s hand atop his head and held it there to savour the contact. “That sounds great, Kakashi.”