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Paving Pathways

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Iruka adjusted his hitai-ate once more and grinned at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He turned to Kakashi, grin widening until his cheeks dimpled. “How do I look?”

“Mah...” Kakashi leaned against the door frame, legs crossed lazily at the ankles. “Same as last time you asked, Iruka.” He ruffled the genin’s hair, mussing his bangs loose from the carefully tied ponytail. Iruka needed more self-confidence. Kakashi didn’t once doubt his ability. He said he’d pass and he did. He kept his promise. The ANBU pushed that little voice deep into his thoughts and held up a scroll. “You’ve got mail.”

“For me? Isn’t that a mission scroll?” Iruka took the scroll and unbound it.

Kakashi cocked his head to the side, curious but professional enough not to ask. Iruka shifted closer though, leaning in so they could read together. Kakashi made a mental note to have a little talk with his friend about classification and confidentiality. A shinobi didn’t actively share his missions. He let it slide for now as Iruka was a genin. D-rank and C-rank missions were within the scope of public knowledge. Besides, he hadn’t undergone the final test from his jounin sensei yet. Iruka shouldn’t be given an official mission without a genin team. It raised Kakashi hackles; enough motivation to read the scroll.

Iruka frowned, glancing from the scroll to Kakashi. “What do you make of this?” He caught the abnormality of the situation. Good.

Kakashi reread the scroll a second time. The paranoid part of his mind ran through several code sequences, attempting to find a hidden meaning in the message. When that proved a false endeavour, he pushed his hitai-ate up. Obito’s sharingan found nothing out of the ordinary. “It seems to be a summons.”

“To the Memorial Stone?” Iruka’s frown deepened, leaving creases in his temple. Kakashi felt a bit of the tension leave his shoulders. Every shinobi needed a healthy level of caution. Seeing his young friend develop that so early in his career was reassuring. Iruka was kind, but not naive. “Why would my jounin sensei want us to meet there instead of the Academy like the other teams?”

Kakashi shrugged and recovered Obito's sharingan. “You’ll have to go to find out.” Iruka was a shinobi now. All he could do was keep helping him train.

And maybe tail him.

Just this once.

 


 

Iruka carried the bouquet of carnations with the utmost care. Meet his new team at the Memorial Stone. Not such a simple task for someone actively avoiding it. The last time he stood in front of the stone, his parents’ names were still newly etched into the smooth marble. Back then he told Hokage-sama he wasn’t sad. He was a child of heroes proud to serve Konoha. He still believed that, but over half a year passed since then. He was shinobi now, like his parents before him.

Like Kakashi was now.

He wasn't going to live in the past any longer.

Iruka stopped short of the obelisk, surprised to find two others standing before the memorial. He approached slowly, caught between not wanting to disturb the mourners and his own curiosity. He came early with the intention of visiting his parents. Early, but not too early. These were boys around his own age, both with new hitai-ate tied to their foreheads.

“Please excuse the interruption.” Iruka bowed to the pair, mindful of his manners. Those grieving deserved nothing but empathy and respect.

The boys turned to him, eyes round and mouths open in astonishment. One jabbed a finger a few inches from his face. “It’s you! Bunker Boy. Are you our third teammate?!”

“I-I guess so? Did you get a summons scroll too?” Iruka stammered over his response, thrown off by the nickname. Bunker Boy? Wait a minute-! He drew in a sharp breath, giddy excitement bubbling up inside him. Memories flashed in his mind’s eye: shaking hands clutching him close in the dark, shared tears, careful planning, and kind gestures while the world fell apart outside. “You’re the two from the shelter!” They helped him get out to look for Kakashi.

And their parents.

Iruka’s face paled. Harsh realization slammed down on him, pressing unwelcomed guilt heavily onto his shoulders. I told them I'd come back with their parents. He never did. Before he could apologize, the genin found himself sandwiched between the two boys in a squishy hug.

“Holy cow, Zumo, he’s alive. We thought you were fox food!”

Iruka's eyes began to burn and he scrunched up his face to stave off the tears. “I’m sorry I never came back. I never found your parents. There was so much destruction and bodies everywhere, I-I...” He sobbed, hot tears slipping down his cheeks. Instead, Kakashi found him screaming over his mother's dead body.

Kakashi always found him.

The arms around Iruka tightened, clutching him in the same desperate manner as that night; when the very earth shook around them. “It doesn’t matter now. We’re okay and you’re okay. That’s the best news we’ve got in a while.”

“Yeah, don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

They sat before the Memorial Stone pressed hip-to-hip and hands tightly clasped. The bouquet lay at their backs, a silent gift to those passed on.

For a while, no one spoke. A camaraderie forged in tragedy and loss didn’t need words.

When Iruka finally ended the silence, it was with the realization they never properly introduced themselves to each other. “My name’s Iruka, by the way. Iruka Umino.”

“Kotetsu Hagane.” The boy on his right grinned, then motioned to their companion with a nod. “That’s my best friend Izumo Kamizuki.”

Izumo squeezed Iruka’s hand lightly. “...Did you find your parents?” The hesitance in the question was hard to miss. The probability of a positive response was low.

Sharp pain tightened his chest on the next inhale. Iruka squeezed his eyes shut against the unpleasant memories rushing in to overwhelm him. Talking about his parents was still difficult. Kakashi never pushed. Kakashi never asked. “They died.” His tongue felt like led trying to force the words out.

“We’re the same then.” Izumo flashed a smile so forced, Iruka internally winced. "Orphans."

“It’s fine.” Kotetsu reached around Iruka to hit Izumo playfully on the shoulder. “We’ve got the most badass, super cool jounin looking after us now. He’s awesome! Helps us train, cooks delicious meals and everything.”

Izumo tapped his hitai-ate, smile a little less strained. “We made genin because of him.”

"I'm glad." Iruka sighed, relieved they weren’t alone. “He sounds great.” They weren’t the only orphans in the wake of the Kyuubi Attack. He knew first hand how easy it was to fall through the cracks of a broken system.

“What about your ANBU?” Kotetsu leaned forward a bit to see both their faces. “You ever find him?”

Iruka felt his face flush softly. “Mhmm.” He nodded, breaking into a grin when both companions leaned in eagerly for more details. “It took a while, but we’re friends now. He’s been a huge support the last few months...”

 


 

Inoichi Yamanaka balanced on a branch, eyes trained on the three genin below. He suppressed his chakra and took the extra time to observe their interactions. His new team got along quite well. Good. A natural bond made teamwork more cohesive. As part of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation, he knew the importance of genuine, trusting bonds. His genin would never accomplish what was needed of them without a strong foundation.

For a moment, Inoichi could see three women in their place. Their mannerisms and speech patterns, the very energy each boy emanated reminded him so much of their mothers. Kohari. Oyone. Taji. His comrades, his friends. The jounin rubbed his chest to ease a pang of sorrow. He took a minute to mourn the loss, then set it aside. Iruka, Izumo and Kotetsu were his responsibility. He owned it to their mothers to see they learned to survive.

“Inoichi-taichou.” Ibiki Moreno stood at the ready, hands poised in a monkey seal. The newly-minted chunin came under his tutelage, as a genin, after showing immense mental fortitude and a knack for genjutsu. Five years passed since then.

The jounin followed his apprentice's line of sight to the row of trees just left of them and quirked a brow. Well, this was an interesting development. “You'll have a better view over here, Hatake-san.” Inoichi stepped to the side, making room on the branch for the younger shinobi. “A reminder your interference will result in their immediate failure.”

“Noted.” The new addition pushed his hitai-ate up to reveal his sharingan, gaze fixed solely on the happily chattering genin below. Kakashi Hatake didn’t look at all repentant for butting his nose in where it didn’t belong. The teen had a bad reputation for doing just that.

Kakashi of the Sharingan and a member of the Hokage Guard Platoon. Inoichi massaged his temple to ward off a building migraine. His new team attached themselves to some interesting companions. Being a jounin sensei just became much more complicated. “Start the test, Ibiki.”

Ibiki nodded, fingers moving swiftly through the hand seals.

 


 

Iruka was doubled over laughing at Kotetsu’s joke when rumbling shook the very ground beneath him and his new teammates.

“The Hokage Rock!”

Iruka’s head snapped up at Izumo’s cry. Panic gripped his chest, digging sharp claws into his lungs until he gasped for breath. No, please no. No, no no! Not again. Kakashi!! Smoke billowed from Nidaime’s head plate. Explosions blasted rocks from Saidaime’s ears and sent them plummeting towards the village. All three genin sprang to their feet. Iruka’s arms spread out before his teammates, hands pressed to heaving chests. He felt their hearts pounding beneath his palms, fast and frantic.

A large shadow blanketed the concrete around them. “Jump!” Izumo ducked beneath his arm and grabbed their shirts. He shoved hard, forcing Kotetsu and Iruka to leap back as a massive boulder smashed onto the memorial stone. The impact sent them sprawling amongst the graves in a tangled heap.

Iruka cried out sharply, gasping for breath. His back collided with a headstone. Thick dust hazed the air, clogging their lungs with heavy debris. Massive chunks of Hokage Rock slammed into the ground around them. Shodai’s nose almost squashed Izumo. The older boys hauled Iruka to his feet.

The ground rumbled beneath them with each impact. The earth seemed to groan in protest, then broken. Massive cracks split haphazardly through the grass, swallowing graves and trees hole. The genin leapt and weaved the debris, calling warnings to each other. The ground before them collapsed under pressure, leaving a massive pit where the Memorial Stone stood minutes before.

“I-It’s gone.” Izumo stammered in terrified awe.

“We have to move.” Kotetsu glances around and motioned to the western gate. “Over there.” He nudged his teammates to get them moving, seemingly unaware of the knuckle-whitening grip he had on Izumo’s shirt.

Another rumble shook the boys right off their feet. Iruka fell atop Kotetsu. Izumo’s knee caught his ribs. The ground beneath them opened like a gaping maw, shattering and plunging them down, down, down.

Into endless blackness.

Iruka screamed, terror overtaking the carefully honed shinobi instincts he trained to make second nature. He plummeted in circles, limbs flailing as he spun at a disorienting speed. Vertigo blurred his vision and flipped his gut. Iruka swallowed hard against the growing nausea and forced his limbs to uncurl. He stretched out, the added surface area jarring his rotation. He pushed chakra into his palms, building the pressure before releasing it in a reversed burst. It was enough to bring him into a downward-facing freefall.

The wind whipped by, blowing his hair free of the ponytail. “Iruka!” His heartbeat hammered in his ears, muscles locking to keep him from spinning. “Iruka!!” He forced his eyes open at the cry, unsure exactly when he closed them. Endless shadowy blackness stretched on for miles. “Iruka!!!” The genin turned his head slowly towards the call, trying to stop his stomach from lurching.

His teammates already clung to each other. Izumo shifted his hold to hug Kotetsu’s waist. He trusts a hand out to Iruka, straining for contact. “Grab my hand!” Kotetsu yelled over the rushing wind.

Iruka fingers barely brush the other boy's. He swallowed bile with his panic. Think Iruka, think! He couldn’t see anything in the shadowy darkness, but there had to be a wall close by. His fingers trembled as he forced them through the familiar seals: tiger, ox, tiger, rat. “Suiton: Water Bullet jutsu!” He twisted, firing a massive water blast at what he hoped was the wall. The impact should give enough momentum to bring his closer to his teammates.

The water blast fizzled into the darkness. Fear locked his muscles. They couldn’t be that far from the edge! Iruka ran through the hand seals more desperately the second time. “Suiton: Water Bullet jutsu!” Once more the water fizzled into nothing.

A gasp came from behind him. “Genjutsu!” Kotetsu yelled. “We’re in a genjutsu! Zumo, use your chakra wire.”

“That’ll hack our hands to bits.” Izumo fished the silver glinted wire from his holster regardless.

“We don’t have many options here.”

Working together, Kotetsu and Izumo tied the wire to a kunai hilt. The sharp wire dug into their skin, leaving fingers bloody. “Iruka, catch!” Kotetsu wound the wire around his free hand while Izumo lobbed the kunai to the youngest genin.

It took several attempts for Iruka to grab the weapon. The sharp edges sliced through his fingers and palm. Iruka stubbornly held tight through the pain. Reeling him to them was slow going, but Iruka finally grabbed Kotetsu’s outstretched hand. The chakra wire bit into his arm and had to be pulled out. “Grab hands!” Kotetsu’s sleeve quickly soaked with blood. “I dunno if I’m strong enough to do it alone, so we’re gonna release the genjutsu together!”

The boys grabbed arms, untangling from each other into a circular freefall. “We need to make the Release seal carefully.” Kotetsu directed. They slid their grips along each other’s arms until they clasped hands. Iruka held Izumo with his right and Kotetsu with his left. “Okay, just bring your index and middle fingers together.” Kotetsu prodded Izumo to get the aforementioned fingers pressed together correctly. The rest of their hands remained curled tightly together.

Kotetsu slowly manipulated Iruka’s fingers into position, then directed him and Izumo do to the same. “We need to disrupt the caster’s chakra with our own. Release on three, ready?” Iruka swallowed hard. He and Izumo both nodded. “Okay: one, two, three-”

“Kai!” The genin shouted together. Iruka felt his chakra get pulled in separate directions, rushing to the tenketsu in his fingers and palms. The chakra pull left his head pounding. The darkness around them distorted and curled in on itself. The trio landed with a thud in front of the memorial stone.

Iruka groaned and squeezed his eyes shut against the throbbing in his temple. An elbow pressed into his sternum. He landed on someone again. Great. “Izumo, move your arm plea-”

Kotetsu’s desperate scream startled him to attention. Iruka scrambled onto his hands and knees, forcing his eyes open against the splitting headache. The genin froze and broke into a cold sweat. His muscles tensed, each breath constricting his chest. Iruka swallowed down the bile and vomit rushing up his throat. Tears dripped onto the unmoving face beneath him. Not Izumo. “...M-Mom.”

Dead eyes stared right through him into nothing. With trembling fingers, Iruka brushed her eyes closed. His touched lingered on her bloody cheek. Guilt slammed into him, hot tears running down his cheeks. “I-I’m sorry, Mom.” He forced himself up, only for his legs to buckle beneath his weight. He knees hit dirty and blood where there should’ve been thighs. Both hands clamped over his mouth, physically holding back his screams. She was cut completely in half.

Iruka fell to the side in a daze. Corpses littered the ground in pieces. Like that night. That night… The demon killed them all. He caught himself on his hands, blurred vision blackened at the edges.

Kakashi.

He had to find Kakashi.

A hazy figure was hunched over a few feet away. Oh, Izumo. He blinked slowly, brows knitting together in confusion as one of the corpses stood, kunai in hand. That’s not right. Thoughts came together slowly. Dead people don’t move. He rubbed his head when the pounding worsened and squinted. They were definitely dead. No one lived without a head.

He slid back from his mother's corpse, trying to wrap his addled brain around what was happening. This wasn't right. The corpse walked over to Izumo, stopped behind him, and raised the kunai high. Pain seared through his scalp, snapping him to his senses. Iruka's blood ran cold. It's going to kill him!

"Izumo!" He screamed, scrambling to his feet. Iruka lunged at the dead shinobi, tackling it to the ground. "Izumo, snap out of it!" His teammate looked over his shoulder, blinking at the scuffle slowly. Iruka grabbed the corpse's wrist and slammed it into the ground. "Izumo!"

"...Iruka?" He turned enough for Iruka to see the dog tags dangling loosely from his open hand. Izumo's eyes were unfocused and red-rimmed from crying. "What're you…?"

"Help me!" He kicked the older genin in the leg. "This thing's trying to kill you!" The corpse threw Iruka to the side, rising to its feet.

Izumo’s eyes brightened with recognition, dark irises blown wide in panic. His hands shot to his holster and withdrew a senbon. With a flick of the wrist, Izumo sent the senbon flying. A kunai stuck it off course. “W-what!?”

Iruka scrambled to his feet, hands flying through the seals for a Water Bullet. He drew in a breath, the chakra pooled in his stomach. “Suiton-”

“Don’t touch my mother!” Kotetsu’s cry startled both boys. He crashed into Iruka from above, kunai pressed to his neck. They both fell to the ground.

Iruka grabbed the kunai’s hilt, nails digging into his teammate’s hand. “K-Kotetsu.” He could hear Izumo screaming behind them, struggling with the animated corpse. Wild, unfocused eyes bore into Iruka, all Kotetsu's weight pushed the kunai into his jugular. The tip sliced through his skin, leaving an unpleasant sting behind.

For a split second, the cemetery flashed before his eyes. No smoke, no bodies. Just the normal cemetery with his bouquet resting before the Memorial Stone. The pain in Iruka's skull worsened. He gritted his teeth, this dark reality closing around him again. Something wasn’t right. This wasn’t real-

“You won’t hurt her!” Kotetsu bared his teeth, hauled back a fist and punched Iruka in the face. Copper hit his tongue, his jaw bloomed in pain. The world around him flickered again. Serene, normal. Then the bodies were back, the destruction. The piece clicked into place.

Another genjutsu!

Kotetsu reared back for a second punch.

Iruka pulled a kunai from his holster and stabbed it into Kotetsu’s thigh. “S-sorry, Ko.” He coughed, blood trickling down his mouth as he spoke. Kotetsu wailed and fell to the side clutching his leg.

Iruka brought his hands together into a shaky release seal. “K-Kai.” He spit out some blood, chakra burning through his tenketsu. His chakra reserves were running low.  He gritted his teeth and pushed deep. “Kai!”

Kotetsu pulled the kunai from his thigh, eyes squinted against the pain but clear. “Iruka, you-!” He cut himself off, looking around in confusion. “W-where did she go? Where's my Mom?”

“Genjutsu.” Iruka rasped and swallowed more blood. Kotetsu had a mean left hook. His jaw was stiff from the swelling.

“N-No. The chasm! We already broke the genjutsu." He shook his head, tears spilling down his cheeks. "My mothers were here. I saw them! They were here. Th-they were…"

"Not… real. S-sorry, Ko." Iruka struggled to sit up.

"Your face..." Kotetsu paled in realization. "Shodai's balls, I punched you!"

And I stabbed you with a kunai, so we're even! Iruka grabbed his teammate's shoulder. "I...zumo." The third companion still fought against the illusionary assailant. Izumo ducked and weaved, wielding a kunai in what would be quite the impressive display if his opponent actually existed. Iruka stretched his jaw, wincing a bit at the sharp throb. His headache dulled at least. "Help." His words felt rubbery like someone injected him with anesthesia.

Kotetsu cursed and scrambled to his feet despite the blood soaking through his pants. He formed a release seal and slammed his hand between Izumo's shoulder blades. “Kai!!”

Izumo visibly shuddered and looked around with the same confused look Kotetsu had. "What-? Ko? Iruka?" He drew in a sharp breath when realization donned. "Ah damn! Not another genjutsu!" He and Kotetsu flopped onto the grass beside Iruka. "Are we out now?!"

Kotetsu clutched his bleeding thigh. "I-I think so. Enough pain will jar the mind out of a genjutsu."

The genin visibly sagged with relief.

Iruka motioned to Kotetsu’s wound and unclipped his medical kit. He opened it up, pulling out some gauze pads and wrapping. Kakashi made sure his supplies were always well stocked. Kotetsu shifted a bit and stretched his leg out for Iruka to bandage without complaint. “Sorry I hit you, Iruka. I really thought…” He trailed off and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. A few tears seeped through.

By this point, his cheek was swelled too much to talk, so Iruka shook his head. He motioned to Kotetsu’s thigh where he’d stabbed him with the kunai. He pressed a few gauze pads over the wound and wrapped the bandages around his teammate’s thigh. Izumo shifted closer to help, holding the gauze in place and helping secure the bandages.

Izumo held a hand out palm up. Iruka noticed the shaking. His new friend barely kept himself steady. Izumo's chakra rippled, a bit of water pooling in his hand. He drew in a deep breath, blowing onto the water. Iruka watched in amazement as the water froze into an ice chunk.

“Here. This’ll help the swelling.” Izumo pressed the ice to Iruka’s swollen cheek and held it there for the younger boy.

For a while, the genin huddled together in silence. Iruka reached for his teammates’ hands and squeezed. Kotetsu’s head fell to Iruka’s shoulder. His shirt quickly dampened. Izumo curse and wiped his eyes with his free hand. Iruka didn’t bother holding his tears back. They should get help, report the genjutsu attack to someone. That was their duty as shinobi.

They didn’t move.

Iruka held his teammates tighter.

Three pairs of red-rimmed eyes looked up when Inoichi Yamanaka shunshined onto the Memorial Stone steps. The jounin rubbed his nape, lips pressed in a taut line. He opened his mouth to speak, only to clamp it shut again. Inoichi shook his head, hands glowing green as he knelt before the genin. “Here, let me heal you.” One hand hovered over Iruka’s jaw, the other Kotetsu’s thigh.

The warm healing chakra left Iruka’s cheek tingling. The swelling receded enough for him to form words through the persistent ache. “Are you our new sensei, Inoichi-san?” Yoshino-sensei taught her class all the major clans, their sigils, current heads and heirs.

“I am.” The jounin moved his hand to Kotetsu's wrist.

Izumo scowled through glassy eyes and tear-stained cheeks. “You caused the genjutsu.”

Iruka’s eyes widened. Kotetsu yanked his arm away from Inoichi like his touch suddenly burned. No way! Why would their new sensei do something like that before meeting them? What did he gain from making them see their dead families?

“...I did.” Inoichi withdrew his hands from the genin and shifted back to a less threatening distance.

Mom… Iruka clenched his teeth so hard pain shot through his newly healed jaw. “Why? What did we do to deserve that?” 

“It’s a jounin sensei’s duty to test their team. Of all the candidates who pass the graduation exam, only a third are accepted as active genin. The rest are either sent back to the Academy or completely dropped from the program.” Inoichi shifted, a bit uneasy but not regretful. “How I evaluate you is my choice.”

“The genjutsu inside the genjutsu was our test.” Kotetsu raised his head from Iruka’s shoulder, eyes hard and focused. Barely restrained anger brimmed inside the three genin.

“It was. My goal was to evaluate your problem solving, mental fortitude, and teamwork.”

Iruka let go a shaky, tired breath. His fatigue was starting to catch up with him. Kotetsu and Izumo shift a bit closer to him. His brothers-in-arms forged through shared trauma and grief.  Iruka twined their fingers together and held fast. Their stance was obvious. Pass or fail, they did it together. “Did we make it?”

Inoichi leaned back on his haunches, blue eyes searching each young face. With a resigned sigh, the jounin smiled softly. “You did, congratulations.”

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

The sweltering sun beat down on Iruka’s head, even in the wee hours of the morning. Kakashi left on a mission over a week ago. The genin kept busy training and doing D-rank missions with his new team. It didn’t fill the loneliness Kakashi’s absence always left him feeling. That was why, on mornings like this, he was very grateful for supportive friends.

“Hurry, Iruka-san! We must make haste.” Maito Gai did a backflip off the ramparts and landed gracefully on a slanted rooftop about ten feet away. “I’ll see you arrive at training on time or I will do one thousand push-ups!”

“I’m coming, Gai-san!” Iruka broke into a hard run and leapt to the roof. He needed the extra momentum to make the jump. The genin landed awkwardly, sandals skidding across the shingles.

Gai caught his elbow to steady the younger boy. “Well done, my most Determined Companion! The fury of your determination shines brightly in the dawn!” He shot Iruka a thumbs up. “Your previous attempts weren't so victorious."

Iruka ducked his head, ears burning with embarrassment. “I-I remember.” He scratched at the corner of his scar. He didn’t need Gai to remind him of the many times he missed the roof and plunged straight to the ground. The spandex wearing chunin grabbing him via shirt back saved more than one early morning trip to the hospital.

Gai thumped him on the back. “Follow me.” The chunin backflipped effortlessly to the adjoining roof and took off running. Iruka followed on Gai’s heels, avoiding the majority of the older shinobi’s impressive acrobatics. He was still mastering a normal cartwheel and walking hand-stand.

The other members of Team Inoichi were already assembled in Training Ground 12 when Gai and Iruka leapt from the trees. Izumo and Kotetsu openly gaped at the unlikely pair. A strange mixture of alarm and confusion passed between his teammates. Inoichi quirked an eyebrow. “We made it!” Gai proclaimed and stuck a nice guy pose, teeth gleaming in the late summer heat.

With his face beet-red and breathing laboured, Iruka dropped into an exhausted squat. He braced his arms on his knees, drawing in slow, deep breaths to calm his pounding heart. “Y-Yeah.” He accepted the water bottle Gai handed to him. Slow sips. He learned the hard way how sick guzzling water after a hard workout could make people. “Thanks, Gai-san.” He took another drink. “Are we good for Friday morning too?”

“Of course, Iruka-san. Until next time.” The spandex-clad chunin bowed respectfully to Iruka’s team. “I leave the most Dedicated and Hard Working Iruka Umino in your Capable Hands. Please continue to support him.”

“Uh, we will. Thank-you?” Inoichi dismissed the formal bow with an uncomfortable hand wave. Gai simply bowed again and leapt into the trees.

Kotetsu pounced before Iruka fully caught his breath. “What was that?” He asked in a hushed whisper.

Izumo joined in, momentarily forgetting their jounin sensei’s keen ears. “Why’re you so tired?”

Iruka swallowed another mouthful of water. “That’s my friend Maito Gai. He’s a taijutsu specialist. We do endurance training together some mornings.

Whoa…” Izumo shook his head.

Kotetsu’s jaw dropped, eyes widening in disbelief. “You’re nuts, Iruka.”

Iruka finished the bottle of water and stretched out his legs so the muscles wouldn’t stiffen. “I’m very grateful Gai-san takes the time to help me train. He’s a very kind person.”

Inoichi clapped his hands to get his team’s attention. “If you’re done talking, we should begin.” The jounin stepped to the side and motioned to a new arrival. “This is my apprentice, Ibiki Moreno. He will join our team for training from time to time.”

Iruka and Izumo yanked a floundering Kotetsu into a respectful bow. “We look forward to working with you.” Izumo greeted the chunin politely.

"Indeed." Ibiki inclined his head to them in return.

Iruka studied Inoichi’s apprentice through the fringe of his bangs. The stoic, broad-shouldered teen appeared to be around Kakashi’s age. Maybe a little older? Iruka swallowed down a rising sense of dread. He’d tower over Kakashi by several inches if the two stood side-by-side. Ibiki Moreno was intimidating.

The small group headed into the forests of  Konohagakure. They walked along the Naka River in relative silence until Inoichi stopped by a widening bend. A massive waterfall rushed down the cliff-face, crashing into a large lake the Naka River flowed from. The water from the falls rippled and settled into relative calm closer to shore.

“You’ve done well to master tree climbing so far. Your chakra control has improved over the last few weeks.” Their sensei turned to face the three genin with Ibiki at his side. “Today, you'll learn how to water walk.” Inoichi raised his hands into a slow, deliberate ram seal and stepped out onto the water. “Just like with tree climbing, you need to emit a constant chakra stream from your feet. There is a difference, however.” He held a hand up to his apprentice. “Ibiki, please demonstrate as if you were tree climbing.”

The chunin made a ram seal and walked out onto the water as Inoichi had done. Unlike their jounin-sensei, who glided effortlessly atop the river, Ibiki’s feet bobbed and dipped beneath the surface. When he turned to face the younger boys, he was ankle deep in water.

The genin turned into a huddle. “That was weird.” Kotetsu pointed out. Not exactly helpful information, but a genuine observation.

Izumo nodded in agreement. “Ibiki-san clearly knows what he’s doing.”

Iruka’s brows knitted together in thought.”Then what's the difference between Inoichi-sensei and Ibiki-san’s demonstration?”

"Well..." Kotetsu brought a hand to his mouth, taking a moment to consider the possibilities. “What’s the difference between using chakra to walk up a tree versus to walk across the water?”

Izumo’s eyes drifted over to their instructor and his apprentice waiting silently atop the water. He banged a closed fist to his open palm. “It’s the terrain they walked across! Think about it.” Izumo rolled his eyes when his teammates just stared at him blankly. “Trees are solid. Their surface area doesn’t change. So we practiced keeping an even amount of chakra in our feet while climbing trees, like Ibiki-san did during his demonstration.”

Iruka’s eyes brightened as he caught onto Izumo’s thought process. “Water is a liquid. It ebbs and flows. So we need to constantly change the amount of chakra we’re using to stay on top of it.”

Kotetsu sighed and pouted. “How exactly do we know how much chakra we need to use at a given time?”

Izumo shrugged. “Practice.”

Kotetsu grinned, despite his sulking. “How’d I know you would say that, Zumo?”

The genin broke their huddle. Turning to the riverbank, their hands raised to make the ram seal. Iruka felt chakra pool in his heels, comfortable and familiar. Kotetsu nudged his wrist. The genin took ahold of his teammates’ hands. Altogether, they took a tentative step out onto the water.

Iruka immediately felt the difference between water and tree walking. The river dipped and flowed beneath his feet, leaving him unsteady. His hold tightened on the older boys. It was like stepping on finicky jello. "You need to move your chakra with the water’s flow.” Inoichi called out to them.

The genin took several steps forward before Kotetsu stumbled. He yelped as his entire left foot sunk into the water. The Iruka squeezed Kotetsu’s hand to help support him. They slowly inched out to the ten-foot mark where Inoichi and Ibiki awaited them. Once the genin got themselves steady, Iruka released their hands. Inoichi chuckled softly and pulled a pocket watch from his flak jacket. “I want you to see how long you can stay above water.”

“Y-Yes Sensei.” Iruka barely got out before he dipped forward and splashed head first into the river.

All three genin were soaked to the bone by the time break came forty-five minutes later. Kotetsu’s gravity-defying spikes lay plastered across his temple and drooped into his eyes. He brushed the bangs aside with a frustrated swat. “Well, that sucked.” His teammates just nodded in agreement and focused on wringing out their clothes.

Inoichi drew in a deep breath and ran through a quick series of hand seals: rat, rabbit, dog. “Fuuton: Vacuum Sphere.” A powerful blast of air almost blew the genin off their feet. Iruka toppled onto his behind. The jutsu mostly dried their clothes and hair though, so no one complained.

“They have a long way to go.” Ibiki commented dryly.

Iruka felt his hackles raise when Inoichi quirked a brow. Their sensei looked way too amused by his apprentice’s observation. “Why not have a friendly spar then?”

Izumo pulled Iruka to his feet. Surprise flickered across both his teammates faces before they nodded, resolve hardened and determined. Sparring with Ibiki was a rare opportunity to bolster their growth and get a better feel for their limitations. “We would be honoured, Ibiki-san.”

Ibiki looked from his master to the genin. “As you wish, Taichou.”


 

Iruka picked himself up from the dirt with a groan. The exposed skin between his arm guard and sleeve was scraped raw from skidding along the ground. The last tendrils of steam dissipated into the air. Iruka hugged his injured arm to his side. His shoulder throbbed where Ibiki landed a solid kick right at the joint. A nasty, foot-shaped bruise was already forming beneath his cotton shirt.

Inoichi-sensei called off the spar after his Katon Dan jutsu collided with Izumo’s Suiton: Bubble jutsu. Steam cut off all their vision and now was just clearing a good five minutes later. Iruka stumbled over to his team and dropped down next to Izumo and Kotetsu. The trio set back-to-back, breathing laboured from the spar’s exertion.

“You’re lucky, Kotetsu-kun, an inch to the left and you’d be brain dead.” Inoichi withdrew his hands from Kotetsu’s head, the green glow of healing chakra slowly retracting. Guilt curled Iruka’s stomach into tight knots. It was their fault Kotetsu got hurt so badly. His and Izumo’s jutsu collision hindered everyone’s vision. Kotetsu hadn’t seen the stay shuriken. It struck him in the back of the skull.

Ibiki had beaten them badly, but their lack of communication and spatial awareness hadn't helped. The chunin in question sustained nothing more from the spar than a bit of dust on his flak jacket. “My shift will begin soon, Taichou.”

“Thank you for your participation.” Inochi patted the teen’s shoulder to dismiss him. Ibiki raised his left hand into a tiger seal and shunshined away in a pull of smoke. Once he was gone, their sensei turned to the three exhausted genin slumped on the ground. “That’s enough for today. Take the afternoon to rest. We’ll regroup tomorrow at the usual time.”

“Sorry sensei.” Iruka mumbled quietly. Shame joined the twisting guilt to eat at his insides. He got along great with Izumo and Kotetsu, but after a full month of training, it felt like they made very little progress as a team. What would Kakashi think if he knew? Teamwork was so important to him and Inoichi-sensei. He was failing them both.

“Your teamwork does still need practice.” Inoichi smiled softly and held out three bento boxes tied together by a small blanket. “These are for you.” He set the bundle in Kotetsu’s lap. “I find problems often seem less daunting after a meal with good friends.”

The genin stared at the bento boxes in disbelief. A few stomachs grumbled. “Thank-you, Inoichi-sensei.” Izumo untied the blanket and smoothed it out on the grass.

Inoichi just chuckled and raised a hand in farewell. “We have a mission tomorrow after training boys, so rest up. I’ll see you then.”

Once left on their own, the preteens arranged themselves around the little blanket. Iruka bandaged up their less serious wounds, mostly scrapes and grazing cuts from stray weapons. There was little to be done about the bruises. They’d heal on their own after a few days. A silence fell over the team as Izumo handed out the bento boxes. Grilled chicken with teriyaki sauce, white rice, gyoza and steamed vegetables were arranged neatly inside. “Wow, sensei can cook.”

Iruka stifled a giggle. “Kotetsu, don’t be mean. It was really nice of him to make these for us. The bento looks really good.”

Izumo’s stomach growled. “Let’s eat before it gets cold.”

The boys all clasped their hands together. “Thank you for the food!”

It was as delicious as Iruka assumed it would be. Maybe the exhaustion and hunger made it taste better than it normally would. Surviving in the ruins of his childhood home, after the Kyuubi Attack, taught Iruka a hard lesson. He knew what true hunger felt like. Iruka shovelled some rice into his mouth, grateful for the meal after training so hard. His chakra reserves and energy were both low.

“We got our butts handed to us.” Kotetsu bit down hard on a piece of chicken. “Ibiki is scary. We couldn’t land a hit on him.”

Izumo lowered his chopsticks with a resigned sigh. “We defeated ourselves as much as he did.”

“We didn’t know what each other was planning to do and it got Kotetsu hurt.” Iruka poked at steamed broccoli with a chopstick. “We could've killed him. If that happened on a mission, he would be dead.”

An uncomfortable silence settled between them as each genin mulled over their thoughts. It was difficult to contend with, but a very real part of their profession. They were shinobi and shinobi endured. They swore their lives to protect Konoha. Many died in the line of duty doing just that. Heroes to the few, faceless names on the Memorial Stone to the many.

Kotetsu was the first to break the silence. “Too bad we can’t communicate telepathically.”

Izumo considered that for a moment. “We aren’t Yamanaka, so that’s not an option. But we could try radio communicators?”

“We can’t be talking into a hidden mic all the time. It’d give away our position.” Kotetsu shoved another piece of chicken into his mouth. “We’d be as dead as not communicating at all.”

Iruka nibbled on the end of his chopstick. The communicators weren’t a bad idea, especially if they had to split up on a mission. If talking made too much noise then… Oh. That might work. “What about Morse Code?”

“That's... actually not a bad idea.” Izumo finished his bento and replaced the cover.

“We could make our own!” Kotetsu grinned and pumped a fist in the air. “Then no one else can decipher it.”

Iruka smiled, a giddy excitement rising through the earlier tension twisted up inside him. “We could look up some examples in the library. It could give us a structure to follow?”

Kotetsu quickly gathered the empty bento boxes up and tied them back into the blanket. “What’re we waiting for? We’ve got all afternoon. Let’s get to work!”


 

Izumo stared pale-faced up at the senbon in his best friend’s hand. He pressed the chunk of ice more firmly to his ear lobe. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Kotetsu studied the senbon with one eye closed. “Yeah, no problem. Gen uses these all the time. How hard can it be? Get one of the studs ready, Iruka.”

Iruka bit his bottom lip to keep his nerves at bay. He pulled the back off and unscrewed one of the studs from the packaging. They’d just blown the entire paycheck from their last D-rank mission on three-way communication devices disguised as studded earrings. The old chunin at the shinobi specialty shop guaranteed their durability. The dark grey studs were simple but elegant. “I got it.”

“Great! Don’t move, Zumo.” Kotetsu placed a hand on Izumo’s temple to hold him still and shoved the senbon unceremoniously through his best friend’s ear lobe.

"Youch!" Izumo yelped in pain. Blood trickled on to the towel beneath his cheek. Kotetsu held his hand out for the earring and pushed it through the newly made hole. Izumo hissed, teeth clenched tightly.

"All done.”

Izumo sat up and scooted away from Kotetsu. “You’re too rough.” He pressed the ice back to his bleeding ear.

“Can’t handle a bit of pain, Zumo?” Kotetsu teased his best friend with an eyebrow wiggle and fished a clean senbon from his weapon’s holster. “Come here, Iruka.”

A shiver ran down his spine. Iruka swallowed hard and crawled over to his teammates. It’ll be worth it in the end. This would benefit the team. The code they were making was so absurd, no one would ever figure it out. That didn’t stop the genin from yelling when Kotetsu shoved the senbon through his ear. He was too rough!

Izumo got revenge for them both when Kotetsu’s turn came. Iruka hadn’t known a person could make a sound that high-pitched.

The genin pressed a gauze pad to his newly pierced ear. It burned with a pain that throbbed through the left side of his face. “It feels kind of weird.”

Izumo tossed the younger boy a chunk of ice to help dull the pain. “It will until you get used to it.”

Kotetsu flipped the instruction manual open. “So to use these, we just turn the earring backs. Right turns it on and left turns it off.”

“Kotetsu, you’re still bleeding.” Iruka passed his embarrassed teammate a towel to clean up the red smeared around his stud. Iruka poked at the earring back, twisting it right and left to get used to the slight scnft that sounded in his ear each time he turned it on and off. His fingers came away bloody. That's not good.

“Uh, guys.” Izumo pulled the gauze pad from his ear. That was the third one he'd used so far. “I can’t get the bleeding to stop.”

 


 

“What in Shodai’s name were you three thinking?” Glowing green hands cupped Iruka and Izumo’s ears. The healing chakra felt anything but welcoming beneath Yoshino-sensei’s fury. “Oh wait, there’s the problem. You weren’t! Senbon are weapons, not piercing tools. I know I certainly didn’t show you how to use them properly. I doubt Inoichi did either. He barely uses kunai. You could’ve punctured an artery playing around with those.”

Iruka winched from both the guilt and lingering pain. “We’re sorry, Yoshino-sensei.” Her chakra flickered with her growing anger, making the healing sting. Iruka clenched his jaw and ground his teeth together. Yoshino-sensei did so much for him. He hated to make her worry, but she did say to come to her if he needed anything. His team needed their ears healed.

“Sorry isn’t going to cut it this time, Young Man.” She moved from Izumo to Kotetsu, continuing to heal her former students. Shikamaru-chan remained nestled in the sling at her back, sleeping soundly. “Graduated or not, you’re my students. I’ll reprimand you for doing stupid things. And this,” She poked Kotetsu’s earring and got a pained hiss in return. “was very stupid. You don’t need to pierce your ears to look cool.”

“We didn’t do it to look cool, Yoshino-sensei.” Kotetsu puffed out his cheeks. “They’re radio comms for communicating on missions.”

Yoshino-sensei paused, her anger dimming in surprise. “I can’t imagine where you got that idea from.” She glanced pointedly at Izumo. The preteen flushed darkly beneath the knowing look. Yoshino lowered her hands, having finished healing the tender skin. “If you ever pull a stunt like this again, I’ll punt all three of you over Hokage Rock.”

Team Inoichi paled and shuffled their feet. Yoshino-sensei never made empty threats. “We’ll think things through better next time.” Izumo's promise sounded like an empty platitude to Iruka.

Yoshino-sensei just sighed, shook her head, and pulled all three of them into her arms.

 


 

“Focus on the dang mission, Ko!” Izumo snapped at his best friend for the seventh time that hour.

“Come on, Zumo.” Kotetsu grinned and flicked his paintbrush at Izumo. White paint splattered onto the genin’s hair and sleeve. “This improves your good looks.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!”

“Don’t worry, Izumo! I’ll avenge you!” Iruka dunked his brush in the paint can and swiped a line right down Kotetsu’s back, between his shoulder blades. Kotetsu’s wail was met with laughter.

“Mah… isn’t the paint supposed to go on the fence?”

Iruka dropped his brush, happiness swelling to chase away the distinct loneliness that wrapped around his heart every time his friend left on a mission. “Kakashi! Welcome home.” He looked up to see the ANBU reclined amongst the branches above. Iruka didn’t often see him in standard shinobi blues, but they suited him as well as the ANBU uniform. “You’re back early. Did your mission go well?”

"Well enough." Kakashi stretched and dropped down from the tree. “Here.” He held out a bag dangled from two fingers.

Iruka took the offered bag and opened it up to find a bento box inside. “What’s this?” Iruka’s brows raised in surprise.

“I made too much lunch.” Kakashi shrugged a shoulder. “No sense letting it go to waste.”

Iruka opened it out of curiosity. Neatly packed inside was one of the fanciest boxed lunches he’d ever seen. White rice and carefully de-crusted sandwiches, steamed vegetables, grilled mackerel with wontons and perfectly sliced boiled eggs. His stomach grumbled at the delicious smell. Iruka stared up at his friend in awe. “You made all this yourself?” Kakashi hadn’t yet to get home when he left that morning. Surely he was tired after such a long mission.

Kakashi face flushed slightly above his mask. “Mah…” He scratched his cheek. “I was bored.”

That’s an excuse . Iruka blushed so hard, his ears began to burn. His stomach did a weird flip. Kakashi made this for him. He shoved the lid back on the bento, eyes glassy with unshed tears. “Thanks, Kakashi. It looks delicious.” He grinned and motioned to his comrades. “These are my teammates, Kotetsu and Izumo.”

“Yo.” Kakashi raised a hand in greeting when the older two genin bowed to him.

“Kakashi and I are roommates.” As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t tell Izumo and Kotetsu this was his ANBU from the night of the Kyuubi Attack. Iruka tucked Kakashi’s bento box into the base of a tree until he got a chance to eat it. The shade would help keep it fresh.

“I was starting to wonder if anyone supervised you, Iruka.” Kotetsu joked and swirled his paintbrush around in the can.

Iruka ignored Izumo’s snicker in favour of shooting Kotetsu a blank stare. “Not all of us can be taken in by a jounin.”

“Mah… I am a jounin, Iruka.” Kakashi pointed out in his normal lazy drawl. “Strange way to show team cohesion. Matching earrings are more of an Ino-Shika-Cho thing.” He motioned to his ear with a vague hand wave. "I suppose, Inoichi is your sensei."

All three genin blushed bright red. Of course, Kakashi wouldn’t know about the piercings yet. The ANBU was gone on a mission the entire week they had them so far. “A-Ah well… You see…” Iruka self-consciously fingered the stud.

“It makes us look cool!” Kotetsu thrust his paint-coated brush in Kakashi’s direction.

“Oh?” Kakashi’s visible brow raised. His grey eye shifted from one embarrassed face to the next, then curved into a smile. “Well, it makes Iruka look cool at least.”

“Wh-Wh-” Iruka hadn’t thought it possible for his face to redden further. His heart pounded loudly in his ear and his stomach clenched in a way not entirely unpleasant. Kakashi… thinks I look cool? His cheeks and ears burned.

“What?!” Kotetsu spluttered and threw his paintbrush at Kakashi. Izumo turned away from Kotetsu to hide his poorly stifled laughter.

"Keep up the hard work." The ANBU sidestepped the brush with ease. “I’ll see you at home, Iruka.” He shot the genin a two-fingered salute, made a tiger seal, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Chapter Text

Iruka slammed the fuinjutsu textbook shut with a frustrated groan. This wasn’t working! He added the textbook to the pile he deemed unhelpful. Try as he might, Iruka couldn’t find a single reference to seals resembling the one on his mother’s scroll. Flipping his notebook open, he turned the diagram around. Maybe it’s upside down? No! That didn’t make any sense. Who put a seal on upside-down? He was grasping at metaphorical straws now.

The genin flopped face first onto the desk. Every fuinjutsu book the library held came up blank. Even the more advanced one’s he had trouble understanding held no similarities to the seal he was trying to unlock. The composition was completely different than the examples he’d combed over.

Two weeks of searching through textbooks yielded no results. Iruka didn’t know where else to look. Yoshino-sensei knew nothing about seals. His mother wasn’t here to ask. As for Inoichi-sensei… well, he didn’t want his jounin instructor to know about the scroll yet. Whatever it held belonged to the Umino family and Iruka didn’t know what Inoichi Yamanaka would do with the information inside. Whatever it was, his gut told him it was important. Why else would his mother have kept and inherited scroll with such a complex seal? Who exactly made the seal?

His stomach twisted with guilt. Inoichi was a great instructor, but an underlying mistrust still lingered between him and the genin. Something like his mother’s scroll was too personal to risk. Iruka pulled the diagram close, looking it over one last time.

The design curved in fluid motioned with each brush stroke, much more so than the Konoha based seals in the book. It lacked that distinctive triangular edge and bold calligraphy too. The seal on his mother’s scroll was minute in detail, each brush of finely made ink intricate, yet deceivingly simple. In a strange way, it reminded Iruka of his mother.

A grumbling belly brought Iruka out of his thoughts. A glance out the window told him how long he’d spent pouring over books. He'd missed lunch. Rubbing a kink out of his neck, he straightened up the used textbooks and tucked his notepad into his weapons holster.

As he headed back home, Iruka’s mind drifted back to his mother’s scroll. If the seal wasn’t based on those used in Konoha (at this point, he was pretty sure it wasn't), where did it come from? The library didn’t have much in their international section, and as such, information on the techniques of non-allied nations was difficult to come across. Maybe Kakashi could give him a few clues? As an ANBU, he travelled the Five Great Shinobi Villages and beyond. He could’ve seen seals closer to this elsewhere in the world.

Iruka leapt onto the closest roof and made a mental note to ask Kakashi about the scroll when he got a chance. But first, it was time for supper.

 


 

“Uh, where do I find dice in a grocery store?”

An exasperated sigh sounded over the comm in his ear. Iruka stifled a snort. Laughing wouldn't help develop their teamwork. “Not dice, Ko. Listen.” Izumo repeated the three tap sequence in quick succession.

“Ah, rice. That makes more sense. I didn’t think Hokage-sama was big on gambling.” A paper crinkle. “Here’s yours, Ru.” Tap. Pause. Tap. The nickname was new, but not unwelcome.

Iruka’s brows knitted together in confusion. Seaweed? Why would the Hokage put seaweed on his grocery list? He turned the corner for the seafood aisle and paused. “Oh, hijiki.” He stepped over an aisle to grab a package of the brown sea vegetable. Hijiki was Hiruzen Sarutobi’s favourite food. He checked the list in his hand and tapped out the next item to Izumo.

"Fish!" His reply came quickly. "Does the list say what kind?"

They continued on like that, slowly working down the grocery list they split between them. After almost a month of fine-tuning their Morse Code, a simple D-rank mission, like grocery shopping seemed like an opportune time to test it out. They still needed to work out the kinks, but the code let them communicate.

The genin slowly worked out how to decipher the taps and finger snaps mentally. Writing code and recalling it by memory took different skills. In order for this to work the way they intended it to, all three had to memorize the sequences.

Iruka took dictation in his notepad every so often: things to improve on, what worked, what didn’t, what was hard to understand, what needed to be simplified. By the time they regrouped at the cash register, he had four double-sided pages of notes.

The trio walked side-by-side, groceries in hand, while Iruka went over the errors he picked up. They made suggestions and slight tweaks to the sequences when needed. By the time they dropped the groceries off at the Sarutobi compound, the genin attempted to string short sentences together.

“I think we’re making progress.” Iruka closed his notepad with a grin. Happiness welled up inside him and maybe a little bit of pride too. They were accomplishing something all on their own as a team.

“Of course we are.” Kotetsu folded his arms across his chest and shot his teammates a wink. “We’re just that awesome.”

“We should celebrate.” Izumo clapped his hands together. “Who wants dango?”

A pang stung through Iruka’s heart. He stopped and rubbed a hand over the dull ache. Eating dango in the summers with his parents seemed like a small loss after all the destruction in the wake of the Kyuubi's Attack. That didn't lessen the pain, though. “I haven’t had dango in a long time.”

“All the more reason to get some now.” Kotetsu spun around and grabbed Izumo and Iruka by their wrists. “Come on, the last one to the dango shop has to spar with Ibiki!”

 


 

Iruka removed his shoes and leg bindings, carefully folding them before placing his discarded items neatly next to Kakashi’s. The genin rolled his pant legs up over his knees and waded into the Naka river. “I don’t think we have to actually be in the water for me to learn water clones, Kakashi.”

“Think of it as training immersion.” The ANBU raised his hand into a tiger seal. “Mizu Bushin no jutsu.” The water to his right raised and curled into an exact copy of the silver-haired shinobi. “Make a normal clone for me.”

Iruka nodded, his hands moving easily through the seals: ram, snake, tiger. An afterimage of the genin phased into existence beside him.

“What did your chakra feel like while you performed the jutsu?”

Iruka released the normal clone. He chewed on his bottom lip, trying to consider how to best describe the sensation. “I don’t know…” A shinobi’s chakra was a part of their very nature, like a second bloodstream pumping just beneath the skin. “Kind of slippery? Like it slid.”

“Good enough.” Kakashi motioned to the water with a tip of his head. “You’ll need to recreate that sensation in the water. That will allow you to manipulate it enough to make the clone.”

Ah, so that’s why they were standing in the water. Iruka nodded and forced down the anxious jitters twisting in his stomach. Water clones were a more advanced technique. He'd struggle, even with his affinity. “I’ll do my best.”

Iruka had no clue how to replicate the jutsu's sensation outside of his body. How did a person control an element that could literally slip right through their fingers? Iruka brought his hand into a tiger seal. “Mizu Bushin no Jutsu.” He focused on the slide of his chakra and tried to push it towards the water. About a litre lifted above the surface, then splashed back into the river.

Kakashi released his own clone with a thoughtful hum and crossed his arms. “Try again.”

“Mizu Bushin no Jutsu!” Iruka made the tiger seal again and tried pushing more chakra into the water. This time it lifted a bit higher before sloshing back into the river. Kakashi raised a brow. Iruka flushed red and puffed out his cheeks. He knew that look. It was the ‘you’re doing something wrong but I’m going to make you figure it out on your own’ look. His fingers folded into another tiger seal. “Mizu Bushin no Jutsu.” He coiled chakra around his tenketsu and pushed it into the river. Water exploded between him and Kakashi, like a small bomb detonating beneath the surface. Iruka balked, ears burning with embarrassment.

“Mah…” Kakashi scratched the back of his head and shifted his weight again. “Consider the element you’re working with, Iruka.”

Iruka stared down at the Naka river with his jaw tightly clenched. The water waxed and waned around his ankles. What was there to think about? He had an affinity for water, but that didn't make this any easier. Iruka drew in a deep breath to calm his rising frustration. Getting irritated at a liquid wouldn’t help anything. Consider the water… He wiggled his bare toes and slid his feet along stones smoothed by the current. He crouched down and dipped a hand into the water, feeling how it flowed freely around his fingers. When he closed his hand, the water ebbed away so he was left holding nothing. “I can’t force water.” He looked up at Kakashi. “It’s working against me.”

Kakashi pulled the genin to his feet and took a step back. “Try what you’re thinking.”

Iruka closed his eyes and slid his feet through the water, really concentrating on how it flowed around his ankles. He let the chakra build up in his feet, slowly releasing bits of it into the river, allowing it to mingle with the water around him. “Mizu Bushin no Jutsu.” The water swirled and raised slowly. Iruka’s brows furrowed, sweat beading against his brow as he worked the water into a humanoid shape. A rough outline of Iruka appeared in the water before his chakra quivered and it sloshed back into the river. 

Kakashi’s head tilted to the side. “Better.”

Iruka let out a shaky breath and rubbed the back of his hand across his temple. “That takes a lot of chakra control.”

“It’ll become easier as your control improves. Give it another go.”

Iruka managed to partly form the clone three more times before dropping from exhaustion. Each attempt got a little clearer and looked a little more like him. There was still a way to go, but he was making progress. More importantly, his friend seemed pleased.

Kakashi placed a hand on Iruka’s shoulder. “That’s good for now. Let’s take a break.”

The pair settled on the riverbank to have a light lunch. Swallowing the last bite of his sandwich, Iruka flopped backwards onto the grass. He watched quietly as Kakashi nibbled on a rice ball, seemingly lost in thought. “You’re awfully quiet.”

“Just thinking.” Kakashi popped the rest of his rice ball into his mouth. He pulled the mask down to his chin to eat, taking his time when it was just the two of them. It was natural now, but Iruka couldn’t recall exactly when his friend grew comfortable enough to go maskless around him. Kakashi is so handsome. The genin's eyes widened in alarm. Wait, where did that come from?! Kakashi's voice snapped him from his thoughts before they could spiral. "Some introductions are a little overdue.”

Iruka's brows shot up almost to his hitai-ate. "Introductions to who?"

“Mah…” Kakashi brought his hand to his mouth, hesitating one last minute. “My summons.” He bit down on his thumb.

The genin sat up quickly, eyes wide in surprise. “You have a summon?!”

“I have five.” Kakashi’s eye curved into a smile as his hands ran through the necessary seals: boar, dog, bird, monkey, ram. “Kuchiyose no Jutsu.” He slammed his palm into the grass.

"Five?!" Iruka's exclamation was swallowed by the billow of smoke that wafted into the air. He coughed, fanning some of it away with his hand. Five shapes slowly came into view. Iruka drew in a sharp breath. Ninken. Kakashi’s summons were dogs! There was something so fitting about that, it was almost poetic.

“What’s up, Kakashi? There doesn’t seem to be any trouble.” A melancholic-looking pug wiggled atop the head of a bulldog so big, he engulfed Iruka.

Iruka covered his mouth with both hands to suppress an excited squeal. They talk! They actually talk! This is awesome! The five dogs were all different sizes, colours and breeds. They made a motley crew, as mismatched and as oddly fitting as their summoner. Iruka resisted the urge to reach out for the tiny one with the prominent whiskers.

“Mah, I thought it was time to introduce you to the new pack member.” Kakashi reached out to scratch under the chin of a scraggly, russet-furred mutt. The dog nosed his wrist.

The genin felt his face heat up, embarrassment burning right to his ears. He pointed to himself. “New pack member? You mean me ?!” Five sets of ears perked. Five noses twitched and scented the air. Five furred head turned right to Iruka and stared. He scrambled to his feet and dipped into a low bow. “It’s an honour to meet you all!”

Furry bodies slammed into him, knocking the genin to the ground. The ninken swarmed him, damp noses pressing into his exposed neck and collar. “Ack! That’s cold.” He squirmed and flailed beneath the sniffs and roaming paws. “Wait- ah! It tickles.” He scratched behind ears and pet the wiggling bodies he could reach. Iruka could feel a tail thumping against his thigh as it wagged.

A white muzzle lifted from Iruka’s shoulder. “Oi, Kakashi! This is the brat you reeked of on the last mission.”

The ANBU rested his chin in an upturned palm. “We’re roommates. That’s natural.”

“He’s too scrawny.” The pug growled in a deceptively deep voice.

The scruffy mutt waved a paw at the pug. “You’re too harsh, Pakkun. He’ll grow.”

“Well, I like him!” The smallest one yipped and pawed at Iruka’s thigh. “I approve of the new addition.” The massive bulldog barked once in agreement. The ground seemed to quiver beneath him as the dog flopped onto the grass and stretched out at Kakashi’s side.

Warmth flooded through the genin’s chest. A shinobi’s summons were as close as family. To know they approved of him was both a relief and touching. “Thank-you.” Tears pricked in the corners of his eyes and he wiped them away quickly with the back of his hand. “What’re your names?”

Three of the ninken started to yip and bark over each other in an eager flurry, tails wagging happily. Iruka couldn’t make out a word they said. “That’s enough.” The pug leaped down from atop the bulldog and set himself before the other ninken. “He asked for your names, not your life stories.”

Kakashi turned his face away from the ninken, the slight tremble in his shoulders gave away his silent laughter. Iruka pulled himself into a sitting position and held his hand out to the littlest dog, the one with the prominent whiskers. “I’m Iruka Umino.”

The little dog tilted his head curiously, floppy ears sliding along his fur with the movement. He placed a paw in Iruka’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Guruko.”

The Iruka bowed his head to Guruko, then turned to the next ninken. He continued down the row until each dog was given the opportunity to introduce themselves. Akino, Urushi, Bull (whose name was happily provided by Guruko as Bull was the ‘strong, silent type’) and Pakkun, the leader.

The pug climbed onto Iruka’s leg and bopped his forehead with a paw. The pads were surprisingly soft. “Well, Pup. Welcome to the hunt. Train hard. Get stronger. We don’t work with just anyone, you know.”

Iruka scratched behind Pakkun’s hitai-ate. “I will do my best, Pakkun-san.”

The pug’s head lolled to the side, his hind leg thumped happily. He snapped back to himself after a minute and jumped off Iruka’s leg with an embarrassed grunt. “You picked a half decent one this time, Brat.” Pakkun shot a sideways glance to Kakashi. “You must trust him if you have your mask down.”

Kakashi’s flushed lightly. He cleared his throat and scratched his cheek, just beside the vertical scar bisecting his eye. “Iruka’s a good friend.”

Pakkun studied his summoner momentarily but said nothing more on the matter. “Next time, make sure you have steak for us.”

“Mah, Pakkun. You’ll get what you earn.”

“Slave driver.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Iruka.”

The genin turned at the sound of his name and grinned when he spotted who called to him. “Genma-sempai!” He raised a hand in greeting as the tokubetsu jounin twisted his way through the crowd to his side. “It’s been a while. How are you doing?”

“Still sticking with the senpai thing, huh?” Genma Shiranui shook his head with a light chuckle. “I’m not bad, Kid. You made genin, congrats.” He poked his hitai-ate playfully and ruffled the younger shinobi’s hair. “Looks like you’re going my way. Want to walk together?” He motioned towards the western district over his shoulder.

“Sure.” Iruka smoothed back his hair and fell into step with Genma. “I haven’t seen you around the library lately.”

“Not by choice.” The senbon clicked between Genma’s teeth as his mouth set in a grim line. “The Hokage's been loading on the missions lately. I’ve got some downtime now due to medical leave.” He lifted the edge of his standard-issued shinobi shirt to reveal bandages wrapped snugly around his waist.

“Shodai’s balls, that looks painful.” Iruka winched, subconsciously touching his own side.

Genma's brows raised almost to his bandana. “Broken ribs are a bitch,” he agreed slowly. “Never thought I’d hear something like that coming from you, Kid.”

Iruka’s face flushed in horror. He just cursed in front of a ranked superior. “I-I meant no disrespect, Genma-sempai.”

“Chill, Iruka, I’m not a rank snob. It’s not a big deal.” The tokubetsu jounin chuckled and shifted the bag dangling from one hand.

“If you say so, sempai.” The genin scratched the scar running across his nose, awkward and embarrassed. “Oh, that reminds me.” Iruka brightened after a moment and fished his notepad from his weapon’s holster. “You helped me with a seal before.” He flipped through the pages until he came to a diagram of the seal from his mother’s scroll. “Have you ever seen a seal like this before?” He turned the notepad around and handed it to Genma. “I’ve looked through all the fuinjutsu textbooks at the library. It doesn’t seem to originate from Konoha.”

Genma let out a low whistle. “Now that’s an impressive seal design. You're right, it’s definitely not from the village. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, though it reminds me of a few seals the Yondaime used to use. It definitely isn’t Kiri’s style either.” He handed the notepad back to Iruka.

“The Yondaime?” The genin stared wide-eyed at the diagram in his hands. “How do you know what his seals looked like?”

“Ah…” Sorrow flickered briefly through Genma’s eyes, darkening the umber irises. “I was part of his Guard Platoon while he was Hokage,” he admitted quietly.

Iruka grasped the older shinobi’s sleeve, just below his elbow. “I’m sorry, Genma-sempai.” The genin knew the look of grief all too well. This was yet another friend mourning a loss from the Kyuubi's Attack.

“None of that now.” Genma forced a grin and waved off the apology. “The Yondaime had a passion for seals. He taught me the basics before he died. My girlfriend showed me more since then.”

Iruka tilted his head to the side in surprise. “I didn’t know you had a girlfriend.”

“She’s a real beauty, Kid. Smart too and deadly with poisons.” The tokubetsu jounin grinned like an idiot. “Best medic that’s ever healed me. I got sliced up with a sword pretty bad about a year back, there wasn’t even a scar left when she was done. She saved my life and stole my heart.” He patted his chest to emphasize where the sword injured him. “I can ask her about your seal if you want. She’s travelled to most countries.”

“That would be great. Thank you so much, Genma-sempai.” He ripped the diagram from his notepad and handed the page over. Genma folded it up and tucked the paper in his breast pocket. “Where are you heading by the way?” They’d cleared the area of Konoha mostly populated by the regular forces and civilians. Only clan compounds laid on the road ahead.

Genma raised the bag he had slung around his arm. “Bringing my gremlins lunch. They have a mission at the Yamanaka Compound.”

“Gremlins?” Iruka remembered Genma mentioning something similar at the library the first time they met.

“Oh, my kids.”

“You’re a father?!”

“What? No!” Genma stopped short with a strangled sound and almost swallowed his senbon. “I’ve got custody of Izumo and Kotetsu. They never told you?”

Iruka stared up at the tokubetsu jounin slack-jawed. His brain struggled to incorporate the information as he tried to process what he just learned. “N-No they…” An image of Kotetsu holding the piercing senbon popped into his mind. ‘Gen uses these all the time. How hard can it be?’ Oh. That explained a lot. “I guess they did in a roundabout way?”

Genma shook his head with a sigh. “What am I going to do with those two?”

“Yo, Gen! Iruka!!” The pair turned to find Kotetsu jogging down the road towards them with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. A terrified Izumo followed a bit behind with a very unhappy baby held gingerly in his arms.

Genma grinned around his senbon. "You finally got stuck with a babysitting mission, I see."

"Ino-chan is our sensei's daughter!" Izumo's octave raised in a steadily increasing panic with each word. Iruka never saw his level-headed teammate so close to freaking out before.

"Inoichi-sensei is the one who hired us for this mission?" Iruka tickled the little girl's belly trying to get her to smile. Her bottom lip quivered a bit.

Kotetsu shrugged. "Something about him and Ibiki getting an emergency summons? We'll have her for the day. No big deal. Sensei said to do some light training while we watch her. He'll find us by sundown."

Genma snickered and continued to poke fun at his frazzled ward. "You're holding her wrong, Zumo."

“How do you know how to hold a baby?!”

“I helped my girlfriend deliver one on a mission-”

“Sure you did, Gen.” Kotetsu cut him off with an eye roll. Ino-chan puffed her cheeks out, little brows crinkling as she let out a fussy whimper. Izumo’s face paled, both of his teammates balked at the sound. “Oh no, not again. Where’d her binky go?”

“Make sure you guys return your sensei’s only child to him in one piece, Gremlins,” Genma deposited the lunch bag rather smugly into Kotetsu’s hands. “She is the Yamanaka Clan’s heiress.” Any colour left in Izumo and Kotetsu’s faces completely drain at that tidbit of information. “But like you said, ‘no big deal’.”

“W-Wait, Gen. We didn’t mean it like that!”

Genma shot the panicking pair a shit-eating grin. “Good luck, Gremlins.” He made a tiger seal and shunshined away in a flurry of leaves.

Two sets of pleading, dark eyes landed on Iruka as Ino-chan began to wail. “Ru, help us!”

“I-I don’t know what to do with a baby!” Iruka took a step back and bit his bottom lip. Ino-chan’s face was red from crying, her chubby cheeks tear stained. Guilt twisted in Iruka’s stomach. He couldn’t leave her crying. She was their responsibility and she looked so miserable. “I-I guess I can try…” He tentatively reached for the baby.

Izumo practically shoved the infant into Iruka’s arms and stepped back several feet. “She’s all yours, Ru.”

Iruka hugged the little girl to his chest and bounced her awkwardly. “H-Hey, it’s okay.” The baby’s cries slowly quieted as she stared up at the genin, sniffling and mouthing her fist. “There’s no reason to cry, Ino-chan.” He kissed both damp cheeks and rubbed her tiny back. “What’s a pretty girl like you got to cry over?” She truly was a beautiful baby, all big azure eyes and blonde hair that curled at her nape. Iruka grinned when Ino-chan cooed at him and bounced her again. “That’s better. What a good girl you are.”

“...No way.”

“Iruka’s a baby whisperer.”

The genin shot his friends a stern look and mouth ‘help me’ to them. Kotetsu dropped the duffle bag he was carrying. He and Izumo rummaged through it. Izumo uncovered a binky and popped it in their charge's mouth. The baby frowned for a minute then began to suck contently. Kotetsu brought over a teddy bear and cotton blanket. Ino squealed around her binky and grabbed for the bear.

The trio blinked at the infant. “...Wow,” Iruka interjected after a brief pause.

“Shodai’s balls, she’s strong for an ungodly terror.”

“Kotetsu, language! There’s a baby present.” Izumo covered Ino-chan’s ear with his hands.

“What? No baby of Inoichi-sensei’s can be completely normal.”

Ino-chan giggled and clapped her hands together. Iruka rolled his eyes at this teammates’ antics and bounced the baby again. “Help me get her in the carrier.” Yoshino-sensei carried Shikamaru-chan on her back while teaching. If Yoshino-sensei did it, then that had to be the most practical way to carry a baby.

Shinobi needed their hands free after all.

The boys fussed and struggled with the sling and baby. Keeping Ino-chan content was difficult. Shikamaru-chan misled what infants were actually like. Iruka had to talk and bounce her to keep the baby happy. She fussed and cried in protest until they had her settled snugly against Iruka’s back. The sling crisscrossed over his chest and wrapped around his stomach, the added weight awkward on his back and difficult to adjust to, especially when Ino-chan moved. Despite the hassle, Iruka grinned like an idiot when she cooed and snuggled into his back. So cute! “Okay, we’re ready! Let’s do some training.”

Kotetsu grabbed the duffle bag and leaned into his best friend. Iruka just barely heard him mutter, “See? He's a baby whisperer,” into Izumo’s ear.

The trio opted to stay close to the more populated areas of Konoha for training. No one wanted something to go wrong with an infant in their care. Being isolated in the woods seemed counterproductive to their mission. They made a pit stop at the library and picked up a book accurately named ‘ Babycare for Beginners’. The boys took turns skimming it while in search of an unoccupied training area.

They eventually settled on Training Ground 02, one of the few designated for Academy students. It was mostly unoccupied on the weekends. The boys practiced water walking on the shallow pond there. It only went knee-high in the deepest spots, which seemed safe enough with a baby. Ino-chan proved to be delightful, but a bit demanding at times. She wanted a lot of attention.

Her little giggles and gurgles followed the boys as the practiced.

Lunch break was an entirely new adventure with a baby in tow. The genin found out quickly how messy feeding an independent, overly-eager eleven-month-old infant could be. And changing Ino’s diaper...? Iruka, Kotetsu and Izumo took a solemn vow not to speak of that horror ever again.

After lunch, Izumo spread a blanket out on the grass and arranged several soft toys on it. Iruka laid Ino on her belly for some ‘tummy time’. The library book stated it was important for growing babies. If it gave the genin a chance for some one-on-one sparring without an infant hanging from Iruka’s back, that was just a bonus. None of them expected Ino to crawl off the blanket... Not until Kotetsu almost fell in the pond trying to grab her. Ino-chan: deceptively strong and fast.

Inoichi-sensei must be so proud.

The sun just started to dip the horizon, bathing the sky in shades of fuschia, gold and violet, when Inoichi-sensei located his genin team at Training Ground 02. The three boys stood atop the shallow pond chatting quietly between themselves. Ino-chan rested in Iruka’s arms, sleeping soundly, her small head of blonde curls pillowed on the genin’s shoulder.

The Yamanaka Clan head smiled and stepped out onto the water with his team. “Seems the mission was a success.” He slung the duffle bag over his shoulder and gently lifted Ino-chan from Iruka’s arms. “Thank you for your hard work boys. I know this was last minute. The summons was one I couldn’t postpone.”

Watching Inoichi cradle the infant against his chest, speak to her softly and press kisses to her tiny face was surreal to Iruka. He experienced first hand the hardened, merciless shinobi his sensei could be. Iruka still had nightmares about the genjutsu test over two months ago. That image didn’t correlate with the patient man who made them bento boxes and doted on his infant daughter. Inoichi Yamanaka was an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

“No problem, sensei.” Kotetsu gave the jounin a thumbs-up. “It was easy.”

Izumo cuffed his best friend on the back of the head before Iruka got the chance to. “Open mouth, insert foot.” He hissed quietly to Kotetsu.

Inoichi raised a brow but said nothing about the exchange. “Let’s stop by the Mission Desk before calling it a day. I’ll show you how to fill out a mission report.” 

 


 

Iruka awoke to the sound of water running in the bathroom again. He waited, muscles tense with anxiety-induced anticipation, hoping against all hope the tap would be shut off and footsteps would lead back to Kakashi's room.

His hopes went unfounded.

Iruka was out of bed so fast his feet tangled in his blanket. He caught himself mid-trip and stumbled to the bedroom door. Light filtered into the hall from their tiny bathroom. Kakashi hunched over the sink, his hands scrubbing furiously in a pattern Iruka was becoming too familiar with. How many times had he caught Kakashi doing this over the last year?

Too many.

Far too many.

“Kakashi.”

Iruka stepped closer when no response came. It gave him a side-view of his friend’s face. Kakashi’s too-pale skin was stark white, like fresh snow after the first blizzard of winter. Perspiration beaded his brow, his muscles strained from the tension; another nightmare he wouldn’t talk about. Iruka tried hard not to press Kakashi for answers, but this wasn’t getting better.

It was worse.

Worry churned his gut tight and made his stomach clench painfully. Kakashi wasn’t talking. He always said something like this. The only sound resonating in the small space was the running water and Kakashi’s laboured breathing. “Kakashi, it’s Iruka.” The genin bit his bottom lip, slowly leaning to the side to get a better look at the ANBU’s face.

Iruka drew in a sharp breath and forced his chakra to keep even. A sudden spike might cause a violent reaction. Both of Kakashi’s eyes were open wide, pupils dilated. The sharingan appeared to almost glow in the low light. The black tomoe bled into a pinwheel-esque shape in, the edges hooked and ooze in on themselves.

Iruka diverted his eyes quickly and swallowed down the panic rising up his throat. What was that? The sharingan looked so wrong. Kakashi’s muscles clenched, wound so tight it looked like they’d snap right through his skin. Was it the sharingan causing him to react differently this time?

Something dripped onto the sink’s marble rim. Iruka’s eyes drew to the sound, then flickered to Kakashi’s face. He bit down on his bottom lip to keep from cursing. That was the last straw, the sharingan was bleeding. Without thinking the action fully through, Iruka pressed his hand quickly over the dojutsu.

Kakashi’s reacted instantaneously. There a sudden crack as something sharp pressed dangerously to Iruka's carotid artery. Kakashi’s killing intent spiked and the genin froze. Every muscle in his body went taut, coiled tight and stiff with fear. There was no recognition in the ANBU’s unfocused eyes. “Kashi...” Iruka croaked uncertain, scared.

Terrified.

A flick of the wrist and he’d be dead.

Kakashi blinked, recognition slowly returning to his visible eye. “...Iruka?” The object dropped from Iruka’s throat with a clank into the sink as Kakashi’s killing intent receded. He kept his hand in place to cover the sharingan. Iruka felt his friend’s lashes fluttering against his palm. The ANBU's shoulders slouched in relief without the constant chakra drain of an exposed sharingan. “What are you doing?”

Iruka’s eyes flickered down to the sink briefly. The toothbrush. Kakashi broke the toothbrush in half and used it as a weapon. The sheer impracticality of that had giddy laughter bubble up Iruka’s throat. He was almost killed by a broken toothbrush . “...Helping a friend.” He reached back to turn off the water, his own voice sounding foreign to his ears. "I'm helping my friend." Steam fogged up the mirror from the water’s heat.

Kakashi’s hand raised to cover Iruka’s over his sharingan. “...Thank you.” The genin’s eyes burned, tears pricked at the corners and threatened to spill over. Kakashi never thanked him for anything before. And this.

This needed to stop.

Kakashi's hands were red and raw with forming blisters.

Not trusting his voice further, Iruka slipped his hand from beneath Kakashi’s and pushed the older boy out of the bathroom. He grabbed Kakashi’s pillow and shuriken quilt. With the items in hand, he padded back across the hall to his own room. Iruka found the ANBU already leaning back against the headboard. The genin tossed the second pillow to Kakashi and crawled in next to him.

The pair settled under the blankets together without a word. Sharing a bed became second nature at times like this. The nightmares threatened to consume both their minds some nights. Having each other close eased the anxiety some. Soft tremors quivered down Kakashi's frame, Iruka felt them when he nestled into his friend's side. "I'm sorry I startled you earlier," Iruka mumbled quietly. "There was something weird going on with your sharingan."

Kakashi stiffened against him and took a few minutes to respond. "Mah… It happens sometimes."

"Did…" Iruka licked his lips, still hesitant to push even after what happened. "Did a nightmare cause it?"

"Something like that."

"Oh."

Kakashi pressed his face into Iruka's hair.  "Did I hurt you?"

"No, I'm okay.'' Iruka shook his head and pulled the quilt up over them both a bit more. He'd assumed spiking his chakra might spook Kakashi in that half-aware state. How had reaching for his face not registered the same danger level? Iruka mulled it over for a minute. Had he'd been that desperate to help his precious person? That didn't make Kakashi's reaction any less terrifying. More to think about. Iruka's head felt overly stuffed with concerns and contemplations. "...Hey, Kakashi."

"Yes, Iruka?"

"...Can you teach me the toothbrush thing?"

Kakashi let out an airy, tired chuckle. "Sure, Ruka. I can do that for you."

Chapter Text

Iruka watched the sunrise through his bedroom window. Sleep eluded him most of the night. His muscles felt tense and jittery, his stomach twisted into unpleasant knots, and his mind kept running over what happened. There were so many things he wanted to ask Kakashi, answers he wished his friend would provide. Keeping an understanding distance became more difficult each time he stumbled across the ANBU in the bathroom.

Sunlight slowly filtered through the open window, casting a shadow over Kakashi’s exhausted face. This wasn’t like him. Kakashi was always up before the sun, even when injured. Iruka couldn’t recall a time he looked so tired. Dark circles ringed the ANBU’s eyes, the contrast stark against his too-pale face.

The true extent of Kakashi’s fatigue became clear when Iruka made it from the bed to the door without waking him up. The genin’s jaw clenched, teeth grinding together. He knew the type of lethargy mental trauma caused. Those few, nightmarish weeks following the Kyuubi’s Attack were fuelled with survival instincts and misplaced hope. Iruka almost suffocated on the very will needed to live, like falling into an endless void with no reprieve or being stuck in an inescapable pool and constantly slipping just below the surface. A struggle to breathe, to find the strength to push up and keep going.

Iruka wondered if that's how Kakashi felt on the nights he found him in the bathroom. It's how he felt when he dreamed of his mother laid out amongst Konoha's desolation. Looking back at his friend once more, the genin tiptoed to the kitchen. It would do Kakashi good to sleep a little longer.

Iruka busied himself in the kitchen by making a light breakfast. Having something to do with his hands kept his mind off the anxiety buzzing just beneath his skin. Rice balls and boiled eggs were staples he fell back on when he was too preoccupied to concentrate. After his disastrous first attempt at cooking, Iruka was much more cautious.

He was just putting some leftover miso soup on to reheat when Kakashi padded down the hall. The ANBU yawned, half flopping onto a stool at the island. He leaned over the counter and rested his head on folded arms. "...Morning." The greeting got muffled by his shirt sleeve.

Iruka pulled two bowls and plates down from the cupboard. "Good morning, Kakashi." He served up breakfast and slid his friend's dishes across the counter to him.

Kakashi stretched slowly and scrubbed a hand through his unruly hair. “Thanks for the food.” He picked up a rice ball.

Iruka remained standing on the other side of the island. He thought about the list he made back before graduation of all the things he knew about Kakashi Hatake. His gaze flickered to the raw blisters littering his friend’s hands. His emotional wounds weren’t just festering any longer, they were corrosive. Iruka fiddled with his chopsticks, trying to quell the nerves churning inside him. “...Kakashi.”

The ANBU swallowed the bite he was chewing and glanced up at the younger boy. “Yes?”

Iruka’s hands fisted into his pyjama pants to stop them from shaking. He spent the morning mulling over what to do, not wanting to cause Kakashi any more emotional pain. But things weren’t getting better. The genin worried his bottom lip between his teeth until his jaw ached from the tension. Finally, he took a deep breath to steady his resolve. “Will you tell me how you got the sharingan?” he asked quietly.

Kakashi stiffened and placed the half eaten rice ball back on his plate. “That’s… a long story,” he responded quietly. His tone made it clear this was very personal and not something he would readily discuss, one of those secrets Kakashi wrapped up and buried deep to keep close to his heart.

The genin swallowed hard around the growing lump in his throat. He knew he was treading on thin ice with this conversation. “I-I know, I’m sorry for asking so suddenly.” He clasped his hands together tightly to keep from wringing his wrists. “I’m getting really worried, Kakashi.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” The ANBU crossed his arms over his chest, putting a physical and emotional barrier between them. His grey eye hardened in a way that sent cold chills up Iruka’s spine. "You're overreacting."

Iruka slammed his hands down onto the countertop hard enough to rattle the dishes. “You’re hands are blistered!”

Kakashi scowled and lowered his hands beneath the island. “I’m fine.”

“I want to help!” Tears pricked at the corners of Iruka's eyes and slowly trickled down his cheeks.

“I don’t need it.” The ANBU stood abruptly, one hand raised in a tiger seal.

“No…” Iruka drew in a sharp breath, his heart almost jumping into his throat. He was going to shunshin. “Don’t go, please!” An irrational fear clenched his muscles tight, rooting him to the spot when every fibre of his being screamed for him to grab his friend before he disappeared again. “I’m sorry! I won’t ask ever again, I promise.” The genin squeezed his eyes shut, head lowering in shame. His shoulders trembled, tears dripping hot and shameful off his chin. “Please don’t leave me alone!!”

This was a bad idea. No, a horrible idea. In a reckless attempt to help, Iruka put an unnecessary strain on their friendship. His father always lectured about the importance of bonds and he just damaged his most precious one. The genin could feel his friend pulling away from him, sinking into that dark place deep inside where Kakashi locked up his pain and pushed it down. Iruka couldn’t reach him there. I never should have asked . Kakashi would never trust him again.

“...My… teammate…”

Iruka blinked his eyes open in confusion and looked up at the ANBU. “...What?” The only response he expected to get was a puff of smoke from Kakashi’s departure.

“My teammate.” Tears slipped slowly from Kakashi’s tightly shut sharingan and tricked down his pale cheek. His rubbed them away, covering his scarred eye with a hand. “Our mission went sideways. He gave me his sharingan before he died.” The ANBU sighed heavily, his shoulders sagging. “My fault.” His fingernails dug into the skin around his scarred eye. “It was all my fault…”

Very slowly, Iruka rounded the island and reached for the hand Kakashi had over his sharingan and squeezed it lightly in both his own. “The night…” The genin licked his lips and pressed them together firmly. “The night we first met. My parents told me to go to the shelter. I argued with them to let me stay. Mom was hurt really badly protecting me.” Iruka couldn’t tell if the shaking in his hands came from Kakashi or himself. These were the darkest thoughts harboured in his subconscious, a self-admittance only. “Sometimes, I think she might have lived if I listened. My fault.”

Iruka could feel Kakashi’s eye on him, but he kept his gaze fixed squarely on their hands. A coward’s reaction, but he’d already used up all his courage. “I’m sorry, Kakashi.” He ran a thumb lightly over the ANBU’s knuckles, not wanting to aggravate the painful looking blisters. “I-I don’t want you to go anywhere I can’t follow.” The genin squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the continuous flow of tears. “...I’m so scared.”

Kakashi sighed -a resolute, capitulated sound- and dropped to one knee. He slung his free arm around Iruka, drawing him closer until their foreheads pressed together. “...We’ll deal with this together, Iruka.”

The genin chewed on his bottom lip but nodded after a moment. He rubbed the tears off his cheeks. “Okay, Kakashi.”

 


 

 

Iruka raised a hand in greeting. “Genma-sempai, over here.”

The tokubetsu jounin shot the genin a two-fingered salute and worked his way through the crowded tables to where Iruka was sitting. Genma flipped one of the available chairs around, propping his arms on the back of it as he sat down. “How’s it going, Kid? You look exhausted.”

“It’s been a long day,” Iruka admitted with an anxious chuckle. It was Wednesday, one of his scheduled days for early morning endurance training with Gai. Ibiki-san had joined the genin for team training, and their afternoon D-rank mission was to catch Tora the Cat for the Daimyo’s wife. Inoichi-sensei mentioned chasing Tora as a genin. It made Iruka wonder exactly how old the car was. “Tora was hard to find-”

Genma almost choked on his senbon. “That damn demon is still around?!”

Iruka covered his mouth to muffle his laughter. They were in a library. “Yes.”

He let out a low, impressed whistle. “I’m amazed you aren’t all scratched up, Kid.”

“I’m okay, but Kotetsu grabbed Tora by the tail.”

“Of course he did.” Genma shorted with a shake of his head. He didn’t seem too surprised to hear about Kotetsu's misadventure with their feline target.

“Izumo said he’d patch him up.”

“They’re pros at looking out for each other.” Genma smiled fondly around his senbon. “So, I got a hawk from my girlfriend this morning.” He pulled a neatly folded paper from his flak jacket and smoothed it open on the table. “Shizune said it looks like a Uzushiogakure based seal.”

“That’s amazing!!” Iruka leaned over the paper to see very dainty-looking, feminine writing. There were a few small seals doodled in the margins. The designs held the same curved, delicate calligraphy as the one on his mother’s scroll. “Wait, where’s Uzushiogakure? I’ve never heard of a village with that name.”

“I’m not surprised. The village was destroyed almost twenty years ago.” Genma propped his chin on an upturned palm. “Uzushio was a small shinobi village, from the Land of Whirlpools, known for their fuinjutsu. They were a close ally of Konoha.” He tugged on his sleeve to emphasize the red spiral there. Standard issue shinobi blues and flak jackets all carried the symbol. Iruka never questioned why. “This was their sigil, we wear it in remembrance.”

A spiral sigil and uniquely curved fuinjutsu. It was almost poetic in the correlation. “May I?” When Genma nodded, Iruka reached out to brush his fingers across the red design. Something nagged at the back of his mind and set unsettled in his gut. “Why didn’t I learn about Uzushiogakure at the Academy?” Yoshino-sensei was overly diligent at teaching Konoha’s history. If the two hidden village held such strong ties, shouldn’t there at least be a mention in one of the textbooks?

The senbon clinked between Genma’s teeth when he clenched them. “Because Konoha royally fucked up and that’s a nasty smudge on our history some people want to be forgotten.”

Iruka’s face paled, a cold shiver creeping up his spine. “...Genma-sempai?”

He sighed, regretful, yet resolved. “Maybe I’m not the best one to tell you this, Kid.” His gaze shifted to the library window when a bird called from a close-by tree. “Look, I’ve got to go. Try pulling some books on Uzushio. I’m sure there’ll be some with references to their fuinjutsu in there.”

“Ah…” Iruka opened his mouth to protest Genma’s sudden departure but clamped it shut again as pieces clicked into place. The bird must be a summon. He was most likely just called for a mission. The genin nodded and saw the tokubetsu jounin to the library entrance. “Thank you for helping me again, Genma-sempai.”

“No problem, Kid.” He waved to Iruka over his shoulder. “Anytime you need it, just ask.”

The rest of the afternoon passed with Iruka’s nose buried in several ageing textbooks about Uzushiogakure. The village’s history was quite interesting. The alliance between Konoha and Uzushio stemmed from blood ties between two founding clans: The Senju and Uzumaki. Those ties formed the foundation of an alliance that lasted until the village’s downfall.

Iruka found mentions of Uzushio’s fuinjutsu without any concrete information to help with his search. The entire village produced such high-quality, effective seals, they became feared by other villages. It was this unease that lead to Uzushio being attacked and ultimately destroyed. Any survivors scattered across the other nations seeking asylum.

With the library closing for the evening, Iruka signed out one of the older history texts. The book was leather bound, with the edges worn and spine damaged in places. The familiar red spiral stood out prominently on the cover, even with the colours faded from age. With the Uzushio book in hand, the genin leapt to the roof and headed for home. 

 


 

 

The mission scroll was delivered by his ANBU partner while Kakashi was cooking dinner. Putting the yakitori on simmer, he opened the kitchen window to let Kitsune in. The older shinobi was already clad in full ANBU gear. Deployment would be swift. “A-rank escort mission to the border.” Kitsune dropped the scroll into his outstretched hand.

Kakashi broke the seal, both eyes skimming the available details. “Why is a diplomat from Kumogakure in Konoha?”

“The Raikage made a bid to host the chunin exams next year. He wants Hokage-sama to support his claim at the next Five Kage Summit.”

Kakashi lit the mission scroll on fire to destroy any evidence of its existence, as was done with most ANBU missives. Village safety came first. “The peace treaty between Kumo and Konoha has remained fragile since the end of the war. Hokage-sama would be a fool to offer support with the lingering tension.”

Kitsune’s head tilted to the side in thought. “That maybe the very reason he agreed to support the Raikage’s bid. Hiruzen Sarutobi wants peace. I believe he thinks this will strengthen relations between the villages.”

Kakashi turned back to the yakitori. “Let’s hope you’re right.”

Kitsune placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. “I’ll meet you at the gate in an hour. The library just closed. That should give you enough time to say goodbye.”

Kakashi glanced sideways at his masked partner. “You as well.”

Kitsune chuckled and leapt to the open window. “The Gremlins have each other to preoccupy themselves. Maybe I’ll drop a hit for them to have a sleepover while we’re gone. It would do Iruka good to get out of his own head for a while. See you in an hour.” With a playful salute, he was gone.

Kakashi set the yakitori on a rack to cool and headed to his bedroom to get ready. He went through his pre-mission ritual, checking his supplies -weapons holster, extra supply pack and the medical pouch from Rin. He neatly sewed up a seam that was worn thin. Replacing the pouch wasn’t an option, but having it fall apart on a mission wasn’t either. Kakashi took meticulous care of the small satchel. Shinobi replaced supply holsters every six months. This one he’d used for well over two years.

A dull ache throbbed in his chest. Kakashi ignored it in favour of changing the bandages on his hands. The blisters were nothing new. He dealt with them before, he’d do it again. That didn’t justify risking an infection. Blisters would be rubbed raw against the leather of his ANBU gloves. He dressed himself slowly, rewrapping the binding around his legs and thigh.

By the time he reached for his mask, the hour was almost up. Kakashi silently trailed his fingers along the repaired crack stretching from the left eye socket. He never replaced the mask after the damage incurred during the Kyuubi Attack. Iruka recovered it for him. (Of all the things to hang onto during a life and death situation.) With the cracked mask, sharingan and medical pouch, he carried pieces of the three people he loved the most. Keeping it just felt right, even with the cobalt-tinted kunai Iruka gifted him later.

Kakashi slid the hound mask into place and activated the wards around his bedroom. Iruka’s chakra signature was added to them months ago. Only he had access to Kakashi most personal space, the only one he trusted enough to enter when he was gone.

The front door clicked open just as he’s headed for the window. “I’m home!” Iruka kicked his sandals off and straightened them up neatly against the wall. His smile faltered when his eyes land on the ANBU. “You have a mission.” A moment of disappointment and uncertainty, then he recomposed himself with that steady determination Kakashi grew accustomed to. “I hope it goes well.”

The genin clutched a textbook to his chest, drawing his eyes to the red spiral on the cover. The ANBU sucks in a sharp, quiet breath. The mask was off and clipped to his belt in an instant, as if the porcelain obstructed his view. For a moment, all he saw was a flash of red hair and a too bright smile. The apparition was gone as quickly as it came and Kakashi’s left staring at the sigil. “That’s the Uzumaki clan symbol.”

Iruka looked down at the book, eyes wide in surprise. “How’d you know that?”

A deep, persistent ache settled into Obito’s sharingan. A part of him screamed to brush off the question and just leave. Nothing good came from disturbing old wounds. But this was Iruka and he promised he would try for him . “My sensei…” He crossed his arms, an unconscious attempt to brace himself, and dug his fingers into his arm guards. “His wife-” He drew a deep breath, eyes sliding closed. “His wife was an Uzumaki.”

“Really?! Did you learn any fuinjutsu from her?” The enthusiastic cry caught the ANBU off guard.

The ache inside Kakashi twisted painfully. He needed to move, the mission. Don’t think about Kushina-san right now - “Mah, I did.” Wait, what ?

“There’s a scroll I inherited from Mom. It has a seal from Uzushiogakure on it. I’ve been looking through the library for information, but there’s not much to go on.” Iruka held out the textbook to emphasize the point. That explained why he signed the book out. “Can you take a look at it?”

A bird crowed from the branch outside their apartment window. Damn, he was late. “I will, but right now I have to go now.”

A strange look came over Iruka’s face. “That’s the same as right before Genma-sempai…” He trailed off, one hand covering his mouth in thought. The genin glanced up to him. “Do you still have the kunai I gave you?”

“Of course.” Kakashi pulled the cobalt-tinted kunai from his holster and spun it lightly around his index finger. “I wouldn’t go on a mission without my good luck charm.” The ANBU chuckled when Iruka’s entire face flushed red. Embarrassing the genin was too easy lately. He seemed to blush every time Kakashi teased him.

“W-Well, good.” Iruka pulled out his cheeks and threw his arms around the ANBU’s waist. “Come back safe, Kakashi.”

“I’ll do my best.” Kakashi smoothed a hand down his friend’s back before stepping away. “I made yakitori for supper, see you soon.” He slid his hound mask into place, nodded a silent farewell to Iruka, and leapt out the kitchen window.

Chapter Text

It was another glorious morning on the precipice of their youth! The most determined, diligent Iruka-san always brightened up his pre-dawn routine. Such resolve was to be celebrated! Watching his dear friend’s growth was most rewarding indeed! The genin landed beside him, chakra successfully anchoring his feet to the steeply slanted roof. “Remarkable!” A splendid performance on Iruka-san’s behalf. “You’re truly blossoming into a magnificent shinobi, Iruka-san!”

The genin rubbed his nape sheepishly, tanned cheeks flushing lightly. “Thank you for saying so, Gai-san.” Always such a humble, amiable bud his dear friend was. “It’s because of your guidance.”

“Nonsense! We are kindred spirits persistently navigating the hardships of life together! Your resolve is most commendable. I am grateful for your companionship.” The chunin shot his young friend a thumbs-up and encouraging smile so bright it seemed to sparkle.

Iruka-san grinned and scratched the edge of his scar in embarrassment. “I’m glad we’re friends too, Gai-san.”

“My Eternal Rival must harbour such excitement to commemorate his upcoming birthday with you!”

Iruka-san’s eyes widened, his mouth opening and closing several times. “Kakashi’s birthday is coming up? When?!”

“September fifteenth!”

“That’s less than a week away!’ Iruka-san clasped both hands to his face in horror. Dear Iruka-san always showed such youthful vigour! “What am I supposed to get him?”

“Fear not, My Astute Compatriot! I have the perfect gift for our mutual precious one!” Gai pulled a roll of green from his weapon holster and shook it out. “Behold!” Long had he attempted to explain the benefits of wearing unitards to his rival. With Iruka’s keen support, they were all but guaranteed to succeed! Kakashi was sure to marvel at their valiant teamwork.

“Th-that’s a wonderful suggestion, but I don’t think green suits Kakashi’s skin tone.”

“I have indigo and periwinkle as well!” Gai reached to pull the aforementioned, coloured unitards from his medical holster.

Iruka grabbed his hands with an anxious chuckle. “...I-I don’t think spandex suits him either, Gai-san.”

 


 

Choza’s former student brought his physically exhausted genin to morning training for the third time that week. Red-faced and panting, Iruka politely accepting a water bottle from Maito Gai as he often did upon arrival at Training Ground 12. The boy sipped the water slowly, then pressed the cool container to his forehead and nape.

Inoichi Yamanaka watched from the corner of his eye as the unlikely pair exchanged farewells. As always, Gai bowed before him. “I place the growing bud of my hard-working compatriot in your nurturing hands, Yamanaka-san! May his youth continue to blossom under your diligent tutelage.”

Having grown semi-accustomed to the departing declaration, Inoichi acquiesced with a slight head dip to Gai. “Of course, Maito-kun.” The chunin was peculiar but had a kind nature. Choza spoke fondly of him. As Gai’s jounin sensei, he trusted his best friend’s assessment of the aspiring taijutsu specialist.

Inoichi clapped his hands to bring his genin to attention. The three boys gathered around, conversation halting as they waited for his instruction. “Since your chakra control has improved, we’re going to practice chakra suppression today.” Inoichi settled onto the grass in a meditative pose. His students followed the example, with Izumo opting to tuck his legs beneath him instead of crossing them. "I want you to concentrate on the natural flow of your chakra." The jounin fisted his hands and pressed the knuckles together. "Breathe deep, and exhale through your nose…" A thick brow quirked when he picked up only two airy exhales. "Kotetsu, I know you dislike meditation, but please concentrate. We just started."

"Aww man, how'd you know, Sensei?"

Inoichi cracked an eye open. "Training is not a game, Shinobi."

The genin puffed out his cheeks. "I know, I know, meditation’s just so boring."

"Remember what Gen said about the importance of a solid foundation, Ko?" Izumo shifted a bit and settled back onto his knees.

Kotetsu's mouth turned down in a pout. "Yeah, yeah, I'm focusing." He wiggled to get comfortable and pressed his clenched fists together. A few deep breaths brought him to the same level of concentration as Izumo and Iruka. Kotetsu was quite remarkable when kept on task.

"Slowly pull the chakra towards your core." When learning to suppress chakra, it was often easiest to keep concentration on a focal point, then working to push it down. The drawback with this method was the brief chakra burst that came from drawing so much to one spot before it was repressed. The flare was quick, but it gave away the user's location. Luckily, the chakra flare was minimized with practice and experience.  “Remain aware of your breathing.” Teachings this to rookie genin was a gamble, but one he thought beneficial to his team in the long term.

Inoichi flared his chakra a bit for the genin to pick up on it and demonstrated how to draw it down the limbs towards the stomach. He held his chakra in a neat ball, eyes sliding open to watch his students practice.

Izumo, the most practical of the three, concentrated on one limb at a time. He drew his chakra down his arms with a little effort, aura fluctuating and curling each time it passed one of his tenketsu. His control had improved immensely over the last three months, Inoichi noted with a bit of pride. Izumo struggled more with the chakra in his legs. By the time he manipulated his chakra up past the first knee, he was perspiring and beginning to breathe heavier.

Kotetsu, as always, leaped before he looked. The genin clapped his hands together and attempted to yank his chakra down all for limbs simultaneously. Inoichi had to find a way to curb that impulsive nature before the team started taking missions outside the village. The chakra flared like a beacon wavering inside his pathways. It was through sheer stubborn force of will that Kotetsu yanked his chakra from his hands and feet through breathless puffs. Inoichi watched in silent awe as his genin managed to manipulate his chakra up to his knees and elbows. Well, that was unexpected

Always observant, Iruka watched Inoichi, then studied both older genin in their approaches. He played with his chakra for a few minutes, adjusting his control as he drew small amounts of chakra down his fingers and then his toes. Next, he manipulated the chakra to his wrists and ankles. That’s when Inoichi realized Iruka was drawing his chakra, muscle by muscle, through all four limbs. Sweat beaded on his brow as he held his chakra at his elbows and knees. “I-Inoichi-sensei?” He enquired with a noticeable quiver in his voice.

“Yes, Iruka?”

“W-What do you… get an ANBU f-for their birthday?” He fumbled with the words, chakra flickering at the edge of control with his attention split between speaking and the training exercise.

A slight fluctuation in his chakra was the only thing that gave away Inoichi’s shock. “Something practical they’ll get the most use of, I would surmise. Perhaps kunai or seal scrolls?”

Iruka worried his bottom lip between his teeth and nodded. “Th-Thank you, sensei. I will... consider that.” His control slipped a bit, some chakra trickling down towards his wrist. The genin frowned, attention returning to the task at hand.

Inoichi’s eyes turned to the heavens in silent prayer. Kohari, who has your son gotten himself involved with? 

 


 

“A big surprise party, Ruka! That’s what you’ve got to do for someone’s birthday.” Izumo ducked the weed Kotetsu tossed towards the metal bucket. It hit the rim and flopped to the ground. Their current D-rank mission found them pulling weeds in the south-western farming district. This was the first crop since the Kyuubi Attack. The village needed to refill the coffers to make it through another winter. All their emergency provisions were used up last year.

Izumo pulled a clump of nutgrass from beneath a potato plant. “Not everyone likes being surprised, Ko.” His best friend has such a big heart. Kotetsu hated to see anyone alone, especially on a special occasion like their birthday. It was one of the qualities he loved about his childhood friend the most.

Kotetsu puffed out his cheeks and dug some chickweed from the tomatoes. “Who doesn’t like parties?”

“Kakashi,” Iruka interjected from where he was emptying a bucket full of weeds. “He’s a very private person. I don’t think he has more than a few close friends I could invite to a party.”

“You know we’d come, Ruka.” Kotetsu tossed a dandelion at the younger genin’s ponytail.

Iruka looked back at his teammates over his shoulder, not having noticed the dandelion now stuck in his hair. “I know, thanks, guys."

Izumo patted his best friend’s shoulder. “As fun as a surprise party would be, it’s better to plan something that suits the person. We want Kakashi-san to enjoy himself.” That didn’t help Iruka decide on a present though.

“Of course we do, Zumo.” Kotetsu stretched after being bent over the rows of vegetables for the last few hours. He rubbed a hand sheepishly through his hair and shrugged. “I guess I’m just bad at planning presents for introverts.

Izumo stood with the second bucket in hand once it was full. “You do fine with me.”

“You’re not an isolated hermit, Zumo.” Kotetsu deadpanned, and ended up with Iruka’s empty bucket over his head. Izumo winched but wisely kept his distance. I am not getting involved with this one. Iruka’s scary when he’s angry.

“Don’t poke fun at my friend!” Iruka shoved the bucket down on Kotetsu until the older boy fell onto his back. Izumo pressed a hand to his mouth to stifle a snort when Iruka yelled a bit too loudly. “Kakashi is amazing!”

Kotetsu let out a low whistle from beneath the bucket. “Oi Zumo! Ruka’s got a crush on Kakashi-san~

Their youngest teammate spluttered incoherently, his entire face going red. “I-I do not! He’s just a really good friend. My best friend actually! A-And I want him to have a good birthday cause things have been hard the last year and he’s been really nice and supportive so I want him to know that I appreciate everything he’s done and-”

Izumo placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Ruka, you’re rambling.” Iruka seemed to do that when he was flustered, nervous or a weird combination of both.

Iruka dropped to the ground with his hands over his face and groaned. Kotetsu tipped the bucket up so he could see beneath the rim. He and Izumo shared a knowing look and patted their friend on the back. “You’ll find the right thing for Kakashi-san’s birthday.” Izumo coaxed gently. “That’s just the kind of person you are, Iruka.”

 


 

“Well, isn’t this a sight for sore ears.” Yoshino pretended not to see the way her former student flushed and fingered the stud in his ear. She adjusted her work satchel and diaper bag more comfortably on her shoulder. “What did you get up to this time, Iruka?”

The genin shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a sign something was on his mind he didn’t know how to address. She’d have to drag it out of him most likely. Shikamaru cooed softly in his sleep and cuddled more into her back. With a sigh, she brushed past the tween. “Walk me home, it’s getting late.”

There was a scuffle of feet as Iruka hurried to catch up with her. The pair walked in silence, towards the Nara Compound, for several minutes as the genin gathered his courage together. “Yoshino-sensei, what do you get an ANBU for their birthday?

The Academy sensei glanced sideways at her former student. She previously concluded a higher ranking shinobi was helping Iruka with his training. An ANBU, however, was beyond even her boldest assumptions. By Iruka’s vocal tone and the way he held himself, he cared deeply for his companion. “Why don’t you stay for supper?” She asked as the gates to the Nara Compound came into view.

Iruka stopped short of the compound’s entrance, is mouth opened and closed a few times in surprise. He often did that when trying to find the right thing to say. Yoshino thought it made him resemble a goldfish. “I-I wouldn’t want to impose….”

Yoshino huffed with fond exasperation and pushed the genin inside the compound. “If you were imposing, I wouldn’t ask you to stay.” They walked the rest of the way in silence, with the Academy teacher pretending not to notice Iruka’s hand slipped tentatively into her own.

The front light came on above the porch as Shikaku Nara leaned against the doorframe. Dressed in a dark green yukata, his thick hair hung over his shoulders, damp from a bath. Seems he got home himself not too long ago. “Welcome home.”

Shikamaru sturred on her back, cooing softly at the sound of his father’s voice. “We’re home.” Yoshino pulled the satchel and diaper bag from her shoulder and slung them into her husband’s arms. “Entertain Iruka while I cook. He’s staying for supper.” She pressed a chaste kiss to Shikaku’s lips and kicked her shoes off at the door.

She could just pick up Iruka’s flurried greeting and Shikaku’s drawled response. Yoshino grinned at Shikamaru over her shoulder. Her son blinked at her and let out another coo. She tutted affectionately and poked his nose. “Of course, I carry you for nine months and you want the other parent, Little Traitor.”

With that, she unceremoniously dumped Shikamaru into her husband’s arms. “Your turn."

Shikaku folded their son into his lap with a resolute sigh and settled back more comfortably on the zabuton. “Why don’t you freshen up first, Yoshi? You look tired.” He’d already transitioned Iruka and himself to a game of shogi. The genin sat nervously, his back ramrod straight. How adorable the scene was. Maybe a second child wouldn’t be so bad after all?

Yoshino smiled coyly around the door frame. “Don’t mind if I do.” Sent went to shower with the image of Shikaku walking Iruka through a simple shogi strategy in her head. Affection twisted deep and warm inside her chest for both her husband and former student. She pondered it while she bathed, dressed in a light summer kimono and brushed her hair. She loved all her students but Iruka was a little different, a little more.

A swell of emotion threatened to overcome her when she finally ventured into the kitchen, only to find Shikaku and Iruka making rice balls. A hearty venison stew simmered away atop the stove. Yoshino stopped in the doorway, hanging back to watch her husband interact with the young genin.

“You have to wet your hands in the saltwater, Shikaku-sama, or the rice will stick to you,” Iruka explained with gentle patience and slid a small mixing bowl over to him.

“Ah, what comes next, Umino-kun?” Yoshino caught the underlying affection in her husband’s normal, lazy drawl and pressed a hand to her chest.

“Poke a hole in the top with your thumb so the umeboshi can be put in, like this.”

Yoshino couldn’t exactly see what they were doing with their backs to her, but that blossoming warmth spread all through her when Shikaku leaned down to Iruka’s level. “Like this?” This was why she fell in love with such an irritatingly lazy, vacillating man.

“Yes! Great job, Shikaku-sama. Will you cut the nori while I add the umeboshi, please?”

Shikamaru cooed curiously over his father’s shoulder from where he was strapped to the man’s back. “Do you often delegate roles like this, Umino-kun?”

Yoshino saw Iruka’s ears and nape turn red from twelve feet away. “N-No! It’s not like that!” She watched his shoulders raise in embarrassment. That boy needed a few lessons in masking his emotions before he got himself killed on a mission. “It’s just that things go better when people share the duties. We can use both our strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses. Inoichi-sensei and Kakashi always stress how important teamwork is. I think they’re right.”

Her husband was quiet as he carefully considering the information presented to him. Shikaku was a thinker, first and foremost. He never acted or spoke without a solid plan. “Inoichi will be pleased to hear you’ve taken his lessons seriously.”

“I-I hope so. Inoichi-sensei has been a great teacher so far. I’ve learned a lot from him.” Yoshino watched her former student reach for a bit of umeboshi with pride. He’d taught himself how to cook the basics. That was more than enough for a kid his age. “Thank you for helping, Shikaku-sama.” He took the little pieces of nari when her husband handed them over and carefully wrapped each around a rice ball.

“You’re cooking for my family so the thanks go to you, Umino-kun.” Shikaku stirred the stew and drew some bowls and a plate down from the cupboard. “For the onigiri.”

Iruka took the plate and neatly arranged his rice balls onto it. He turned, smiling when he spotted her in the doorway. “Yoshino-sensei! We made dinner for you.” The genin held up the plate of rice balls, only for his face to fall in concern. “Wait, why are you crying?”

Yoshino raised a hand quickly to her face, surprised to find her cheeks damp. “Oh, it’s nothing. Sometimes people get a little teary when they’re happy.” She waved off her former student’s question and ignored the knowing look her husband shot her way. “It smells delicious! Let’s dig in.”

The three set the kotatsu’s tabletop and settled down for supper with Shikamaru in his father’s lap. Rice balls and stew wasn’t a typical supper, but Yoshino thought it tasted delectable simply because Shikaku and Iruka prepared it for her. They fell into light conversation as they ate, mostly discussing Iruka’s training with his genin team and the new classes at the Academy. Yoshino was half way through her bowl of stew when Iruka brought up his earlier query. “So so you have any idea what to get an ANBU for his birthday?”

Shikaku’s brows raised in surprise before he schooled his expression back to its normal passiveness. Yoshino caught her husband’s questioning, side-eyed glance. The jounin cleared his throat and leaned back on his arms. “Would you say you know him well?”

“Of course,” Iruka answered without any hesitation. That garnered another look between the Naras.

Shikaku took a bite of his rice ball. “Well, then take his interests and personality into consideration when deciding upon a gift.”

Yoshino nodded in agreement and reached across the table to cover Iruka’s hand with her own. “As long as it comes from the heart, I’m sure your friend will like it.” 

Iruka smiled softly. “I will, thank you both.”

 


 

Yoshino and Shikaku waved good-bye to Iruka from the front step. The sun was starting to set by then, stretching shadows thin across the ground. The Academy sensei sighed softly, eyes fixed on the young genin until he disappeared around the corner. Iruka insisted on helping with the dishes before heading to his own home.

“You’re quite attached to him.” Shikaku mused and shifted their son. Shikamaru slept soundly on his shoulder.

Yoshino looked up at her husband in surprise. After three years of marriage, his observant, deductive mind shouldn’t catch her off-guard. It was both comforting and unnerving to have someone know her so well. “Of course I am. It’s only natural for a teacher to care about the children they teach. Iruka was my student for three years-”

“Yoshi,” Shikaku slipped his free arm around her shoulders. “He’s a fine boy.”

A shuddering breath left her shoulders quivering when she turned into her husband’s grasp. “He lost his parents in the attack, but he persevered. I don’t know how, but he has. He works so hard, puts his heart and soul into everything he does...” She trained off, one hand going to Shikamaru’s little back. “I hate the thought of him out there all alone, Shikaku.” She pressed her face into his chest.

She felt her husband’s hand run in slow circles between her shoulder blades and a light kiss get pressed to her forehead. “You want to take him in.”

Not a question, but an observation. Once more Shikaku knew her own desires better than she did. “It’s not that easy, nothing ever is. We have Shikamaru to think about, I'm working full time at the Academy and you have so much on your plate with the Jounin Commander promotion and clan duties.”

Shikaku’s brows quirked together as they often did when he considered a particularly troublesome quandary. “Give me a while, let me see what I can come up with.” 

 


 

With nighttime fast approaching, Iruka opted to take the streets as opposed to the rooftops. His mind ran over all the advice his precious people gave him on what to do for Kakashi’s birthday. Of all the different suggestions, Yoshino’s and Shikaku’s words stuck with him the most. Consider Kakashi’s personality and interests huh?

He chewed on his bottom lip as he walked, silently going over what he knew about his roommate. Kakashi worked a lot, maybe too much. Sometimes his missions were so back-to-back he didn’t get a full day off in between. He always came back hurt, chakra-depleted, exhausted or some weird combination of all the three.

Iruka huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. Kakashi really needs to take better care of himself.

The problem was Kakashi just didn’t get the time. When he did get a bit of downtime, what did he do? He trained or helped Iruka train. Sometimes he had those weird rival competitions with Gai, or he read books. Actually, Iruka caught him with his nose in a book a lot. Kakashi liked a quiet, isolated place where no one would bother him.

Somewhere he could just be.

Iruka’s pace slowed when he passed by the library. The public bulletin board was situated off to the side of the steps with all the advertisements encased in plexiglass. He read over a few of the posters, stopping at one close to the bottom right. Iruka broke out in a wide grin. "Oh, that might work.”

Chapter Text

By the time he made it home, his thigh throbbed painfully. Still clad in full ANBU gear, Kakashi swung himself up to the unlocked living room window. He eased it open and slid inside to the sight of two fully stocked travel packs, complete with camping gear, propped neatly against the genkan’s wall. This is unexpected.

Had Iruka been given his first C-rank mission while he was gone?

The scrape of a stool being dragged across the floor sounded from the kitchen. Bare feet padded across the linoleum to pause in the doorway. “Kakashi!!” Iruka smiled so wide his cheeks dimpled. The post-mission tightness in Kakashi’s chest loosened. He pulled his hound mask off and clipped it to his belt.

Where he would’ve hesitated in the past, Kakashi wasted no time holding a hand out to the genin. “I’m back.”

Iruka threw himself into the ANBU and pressed his face into the grey flak jacket. “Welcome home.” The envelope in his hand crinkled slightly as he wrapped his arms around Kakashi’s waist. “Are you hurt? How did the mission go?”

“Mah, I’m fine.” Kakashi ignored the ache in his thigh where a kunai sliced through the thick muscle. Kitsune already stitched the wound closed and covered it meticulously with a field dressing. Dating a medic-nin was rubbing off on him too damn much. Kakashi had to admit the bandages remained securely in place for the rest of the mission, even if it did hurt like a bitch. Instead of dwelling on the wound, however, Kakashi pulled the genin closer and buried his face in Iruka’s hair. “The mission was a success.” Any assignment that brought him back relatively in one piece and not wrung half out of his mind from chakra-depletion was a win for him.

Iruka grinned up at him and that, right there, was the only reason he needed to come home. “Here.” The genin pulled back enough to hold the envelope out to Kakashi. “I know it’s a day early, but Happy Birthday!”

Kakashi stiffened at the declaration. His birthday? Was it really tomorrow? “Mah…” The ANBU gingerly took the envelope and slowly opened it up. “Thank you.” He hadn't bother keeping track of the date. It seemed rather hollow without Minato-sensei and Kushina- Kakashi grit his teeth and swallowed hard. Don’t go there, Iruka’s trying to be nice. Don’t ruin this like you do everything else.

He pulled the homemade card out with gentle fingers. His visible eye curved into a smile at the unskilled, but neatly drawn dog on the card's front. Was that supposed to be Pakkun?  Iruka clearly put a lot of effort into making it. He even tried to get the little details of his ninken’s jacket right. How cute. Iruka squirmed nervously as Kakashi flipped the card open. He wasn’t expecting anything inside, but when a receipt fluttered out, he caught it on instinct.

Glancing over at the genin in question, Kakashi flipped the thin paper around to read the fine print. Silver eyebrows raised almost to his hairline. It was a booking receipt for a private cabin. His eyes scanned the address, immediately recognizing the location. Sugi no Sato was a small village several miles outside of Konoha. It was built on a massive lake which made it a popular tourist destination during the summer. With mid-September bringing cooler weather, it would be much quieter now. This was a four day booking for Cabin 12 over Kakashi’s birthday.

The ANBU read over the receipt several times, as if that would change the contents. His hand clenched around the receipt and card, trembling softly. As he always seemed to do, Iruka threw Kakashi a curveball. He really didn’t know what this amazing kid would think up next. His visible grey eye shifted from the genin to the card and back again, unintentionally creating an awkward silence between them.

Iruka really booked this for his birthday?

His young friend scratched the end of his nose scar nervously. “Y-You don’t get much time to relax, so I thought you might enjoy something like this for your birthday!” He blurted out, anxiety making his voice rise an octave. “I sent a messenger hawk to the owner. She said the cabins are right on the water so it should be really quiet and peaceful. The owner promised no one would bug you while you’re there. I thought it would be nice to get away for a bit after all the missions you’ve been taking lately and… and…” Iruka clasped his hands together so hard his knuckles started turning white. “D-Do you like it?”

Kakashi’s gaze shifted beyond Iruka to the two fully geared backs propped up against the wall. Ah, that explains those. “Mah, Iruka.” He carefully closed the card and tucked it back into the envelope. “Why did you pack two of them?” He motioned to the packs over Iruka’s shoulder.

“I’m coming too!” The genin declared, then blushed so hard, so fast, he turned red right up to his ears. He buried his face in his hands with a groan. Kakashi pushed down a laugh, teasing Iruka was getting too easy. “Wh-What I mean is… Uh… I-I thought we could celebrate your birthday together… I-If you don’t mind?”

His chest suddenly felt tight and achy. For once, Kakashi couldn’t tell if it was a positive or negative response. Not wanting to concern his young friend, Kakashi ruffled Iruka’s hair and curved his eye into a smile. “Of course.” Did the genin really think he’d purposefully leave him behind? Never again. He was trying to do better for Iruka.

He’d promised after all.

“I’ll be right back.” Kakashi grabbed his standardized shinobi travel cloak from the back of the sofa and pulled it on over his ANBU uniform. By the time he snapped it shut, he’d already made it back to the open window.

He leaped onto the windowsill, braced to jump out when Iruka yelped behind him. “Wait, Kakashi! Where are you going?”

He looked back at the genin and quirked his visible brow. “To inform Hokage-sama of our pending departure. We can’t leave the village without authorization and I need to make sure we’re both kept off the active duty roster for the next few days. I’ve accumulated a lot of vacation. It’s time to use some up.”

Kakashi left Iruka absolutely beaming when he slipped out the window.

 


 

The road from Konohagakure to Sugi no Sato was draped in a canopy of maple and spruce trees. Kakashi summoned Akino and Urushi to walk with them. After some much needed belly rubs, ear scratches and face licking, the four were on their way. They took the road instead of the trees, meandering closer to a civilian’s pace than that of a shinobi. Moving at a much slower pace took most of the day to get to their destination. Kakashi and Iruka walked side-by-side with a ninken flanking each of them and their packs secured on their backs.

They spoke quietly and easily to each other on the journey, talking about whatever trivial things came to mind. Urushi piped up every so often with his own opinion. The ninken bumping against Iruka’s thigh, head pressing into his hand for pets. The genin was more than happy to comply. He wished Kakashi summoned them more often, but he understood why that wasn’t the case. These were highly intelligent shinobi animals, not pets. Besides, their apartment was too small to hold eight dogs. Bull filled the tiny genkan himself.

Iruka never expected his first time outside Konoha to be on vacation with Kakashi. Some C-rank courier or escort mission with his team seemed more likely. Yet here he was, walking along with Urushi chattering to his left and Kakashi’s reassuring presence on his right. It was nice. They hardly got to spend time together outside of training lately. With both of them on missions, they either passed by each other in the apartment or were too tired for much besides food and bed. Iruka face planted into the kotatsu trying to stay up with Kakashi once. The jounin wouldn’t let him live it down.

The lake came into view before the village. The water sparkled a clear, brilliant azure from reflecting the cloudless sky. He tugged at Kakashi’s sleeve, the ninken running ahead of them as they made their way down the winding path marked for tourists. A few patrons mulled about the reception desk as Iruka paid for their stay, got the key and directions to Cabin 12. It was out of the way, on a semi-isolated bend in the lake. Exactly the kind of retreat he wanted for Kakashi’s birthday.

After a ten minute stroll down the boardwalk, they found Cabin 12 tucked back off the beach, nestled quaintly amongst a thicket. Iruka gave Kakashi one of the keys and opened the door. Urushi and Akino wiggling between his legs to be the first ones inside, the genin just laughed and followed behind. The entire cabin was made of wood from the inside out. It was about the size of their apartment with two bedrooms, a full bathroom with a tub (an actual tub!) and kitchenette with adjoining living room. Iruka thought it rather quaint and cozy. Kakashi seemed impartial but claimed the larger of the two bedrooms. It was his birthday, that seemed only fair.

“I’m going to change, Kakashi, you should too!” Iruka pulled the pack off his back and carried it into his new bedroom for the next few nights. He unpacked the clothes and shinobi supplies he brought. Among them was his mother’s scroll. He wouldn’t bring it up right away, but now that they had some time, maybe Kakashi would take a look.

Iruka slowly stripped off his gear and folded it neatly atop the dresser. The probability of being ambushed at a civilian tourist retreat was low, but he kept his mesh under armour on just in case. Iruka fished one of the high-collared blue t-shirts Kakashi gave him and a pair of matching shorts from the dresser and pulled them on. The air was much warmer in Sugi no Sato than Konoha. He lined his sandals up neatly by the door, opting to go barefoot.

“Kakashi! Let’s check out the beach!” He found his friend stretched out on the double bed with all five ninken curled up with him. Bull took up one side by himself and sagged the mattress. “The whole pack’s here, that’s great.”

Pakkun poked his head up over Kakashi’s thigh. “Well, well, Pup, you’re here too?”

“Iruka!” Guruko leapt off the bed and into the genin’s arms. Iruka laughed as his face got slobbered in wet dog kisses. Bull let out a low-baritone woof and flopped his massive head onto Kakashi’s thigh.

“Great idea summoning everyone.” Iruka shifted Guruko onto his shoulder and scratched behind Pakkun’s ear where his hitai-ate usually covered. The pug lolled his head to the side, panting happily from Iruka’s scratches. The ninken were gearless, lacking forehead protectors and jackets, looking every bit as ready to relax as their human packmates. “I think we all deserve a vacation.”

“The beach sounds nice, let’s go.” Kakashi snapped the fantasy book he was reading closed and nimbly untangled himself from the mass of fur. He’d taken Iruka’s advice and changed into one of the sleeveless ANBU undershirts with attached mask. His blue shinobi pants came down a few inches below his knees without the bandages. While his thigh holster was carefully placed on the bedside table, his bindings, forehead protector and grey vest were thrown haphazardly across the room.

The genin took in the sudden mess with barely hidden astonishment. Sure, Kakashi’s bedroom at home was never really clean. Iruka assumed that was from how quickly he had to leave on missions and the duration for which he was often gone. Now, however, he second-guessed that assumption. “Are you always this messy with your clothes?”

“We’re on vacation.” Kakashi waved off the question. He snagged Iruka by the back of his shirt and gave a slight yank. “Let your hair down a bit.” He tugged at the genin’s pony-tail playfully.

“But we just got here.” Iruka protested but went with the pull and yanked the chakra-infused tie from his hair to appease the older teen. He shook his hair out, grunting in frustration at the bangs in his eyes. “There, happy?”

“Mah, I didn’t mean literally.”  He hung back long enough to hold the door open for the mass of ninken that bound from the bed and out into the rocky sand. Urushi went right for a twig sticking out of the sand.

The genin stopped short of the door and crossed his arms over his chest. He could feel the familiar tug of wards sliding across his chakra. When had Kakashi erected those? They were here less than half an hour so far! “We came to celebrate your birthday, relax, enjoy the water, not be slobs. We have to pay more if we leave a big mess behind, you know.”

“Good thing it’s my birthday present~”

“Don’t even think about it Kakashi Hatake!!” 

 


 

The rest of the afternoon went by quickly. Iruka and Kakashi splashed through the water with the ninken and tossed sticks Guruko kept finding for the other dogs. Once, Bull brought a whole stump back. It caused a massive splash when he dropped it in the water. Kakashi had to infuse his arms with chakra to throw it for him. It was kind of surreal to play fetch with such highly intelligent canines.

Ninken were dogs though.

Who was he to deny simple pleasures?

After a while, Kakashi stretched out on the sand with a book while Iruka waded knee-deep through the water with Pakkun at his side. The little pug trotted at the sand’s edge, leaving a trail of pawprints behind him. “Make some noise.”

“Uh, yes sir?” Iruka kicked out with his feet to make his steps splash and slosh water into ripples around him.

“You’ve done good so far, Pup.”

“Thank you, Pakkun-san, I’ve trained as much as I can to become stronger.” He looked down at the ninken.

“Not that, I meant with Kakashi.” Pakkun elaborated but kept trudging along the warm sand. “I haven’t seen him this content for years.”

The genin stumbled a bit, his face growing hot. He was not expecting that. “I-I haven’t really done anything special.” He squatted down so he and the pug were eye-to-eye. Iruka scratched the edge of his facial scar. “I just know I’m happy when Kakashi’s happy.”

Pakkun eyed him for a minute, then bumped his forehead with a paw pad. “Well, whatever you’re doing, keep at it. You're a pack pup now, remember that we look after our own.”

Iruka frown in thought. “So, were you and the other ninken already a hunt before signing the summoning contract with Kakashi?”

“More or less.” The pug mulled over his answer before speaking. “Hunts are formed from larger coalitions and then assigned to humans once contracts are signed. Most ninken contracts are hereditary though, so we remain apart of a bigger family pack.”

“So Kakashi signed your contract because it was already in his family?”

“There’s more to it than that, but in simple terms, yes.”

Iruka’s mind slowly fit a few puzzle pieces together, though it offered more questions than answers. He scratched Pakkun’s chin to keep his hands busy. It helped when he got anxious. Sometimes he wished his brain didn’t formulate the conclusions it did. “Kakashi’s an orphan. What happens to the larger ninken pack when the summoner has no more family?”

Pakkun’s eyes lowered to the sand between his paws. Without a word, he crawled into Iruka’s arms. The genin held his friend’s ninken against his shoulder, gently stroking a hand through his fur. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into something painful.”

“You’ve got a good heart, Pup.” The pug snuffled against his shoulder. “Make me steak tonight and we’ll call it even.”

Iruka pressed his nose into the summon’s fur and hugged him close. “Sure thing, Pakkun-san.”

With a heavy heart, Iruka let Pakkun down with the other ninken and walked up the beach to where Kakashi was stretched out across the warm sand. His fantasy book laid open across his face, his chest rising and falling steadily. Oh, he’s asleep. As quietly as he could, the genin stretched out next to his friend and closed his eyes.

Kakashi’s ninken carried just as much sorrow as their summoner. His friend had a jumbled past full of heartache and loss. Iruka only knew the tiniest details of what Kakashi endured. Small hints and dropped fragments of a much larger picture he couldn’t piece together yet. Kakashi was an enigma wrapped up tight inside a mystery. Just thinking about it made Iruka’s heart ache.  I want to keep supporting him, but I don’t know how to do that. There has to be something more I can do. This is my precious person, the one I love the most-

Iruka’s cheeks burned, he cut off that line of thought with a headshake. Nope, no way. Not going there.

A tap to his shoulder brought Iruka from his jumbled thoughts. He turned his head towards Kakashi and cracked an eye open. “What is it?”

The ANBU motioned to the water. “Look, Iruka.” Both eyes were open, the sharingan recording whatever caught his attention.

The genin puffed out his cheeks and sat up to see what Kakashi pointed at. He drew in a sudden, sharp breath. Amazing! The sun had set down to the waterline, a brilliant array of blues, pinks, oranges and violets stretched across the sky and reflected in the lake like an oil painting. “What an incredible view…” Iruka murmured in awe, eyes fixed on the encroaching dusk.

“...Yes… Incredible...”

If Iruka had looked, he would’ve found Kakashi’s mismatched eyes focused solely on him.

Chapter Text

Iruka awoke on their third day at the cabin to find Kakashi doing an unknown kata on the beach. After watching for several minutes, his friend motioned him over. Kakashi slid nimbly into a ready stance, waiting patiently until Iruka did the same. He shifted the angle of the genin’s foot so it turned inward more sharply. “Start with a quarter turn to the left, then a double forearm block, right uppercut and left side punch. We’ll take it slow.”

Kakashi moved through the turn with practiced ease and rounded his arms into a circular formation that protected his face. When he paused, Iruka followed the motions. As soon as he brought his arms up, the ANBU blended fluidly into the punches. The genin followed Kakashi’s lead, shifting into the punches as they were demonstrated. Kakashi inched Iruka’s elbow up an inch. “Don’t overextend your arm.”

Kakashi lowered into a crane stance, pausing as the younger boy mimicked his movements. He brought his right foot through for a frontal kick, then two middle guarding blocks, one with each hand. Iruka followed behind with a few second’s delay. Kakashi watched him from the corner of his eye. “Good.”

They worked through the kata slowly with Kakashi making subtle adjustments to Iruka’s stance and guard as they went. The Shotokan Heian Nidan kata was more advanced than any Kakashi or Inoichi-sensei showed him before. By the time they reached the end, Iruka was covered in sweat and his cheeks were flushed. He dropped onto the sand and stuck his feet in the water lapping up the beach. “I can’t believe you do that for fun.”

“The Heian Nidan was the first kata my sensei taught our team.” Kakashi sat down next to him, eyes fixed on the gently rippling lake. “I guess using it became a habit at some point.”

“Inoichi-sensei uses Taigyoku Godan with my team.” Iruka leaned into his friend until their shoulders pressed together. “Let’s get some natto for breakfast. We can finish the rice and miso soup from supper last night with it.”

“Sounds good.”

They both stretched to keep their muscles from aching, then headed inside for some breakfast. Kakashi shooed Iruka off to take a shower. By the time he finished, his friend had the food ready. The pair got breakfast for Kakashi’s ninken, then sat down to enjoy their meal. Their time together the last few days was spent in content ease. The pressure, the responsibilities, they carried back home washed away with the gentle current of the lake.

For the first time in too long, they were able to just be.

“Hey, Kashi,” Iruka mumbled around a mouthful of rice. “Can you look at my scroll today?”

Kakashi sat his chopsticks aside and pulled his face mask back into place. As comfortable as he was being bare-faced around Iruka, they weren’t home. “You brought it with you?”

“Mh-hm!” Iruka tipped his bowl up to gobble down the rest of his rice.

Kakashi hummed to cover his surprise. He propped his chin in an upturned palm, watching the younger boy finish his food. “Sure, I’ll take a look.”

Iruka slammed his bowl onto the table. “Thank you for the food! I’ll go get it now!” He stood, almost bolting to his temporary bedroom in haste to get the scroll. He returned with it soon after Kakashi cleared the table and handed it to the ANBU. “Here.”

It was a relatively small scroll, the parchment browned slightly with age. Nothing particularly noteworthy about it stood out until Kakashi flipped it over to get a better look at the seal holding it closed. “...No way.” His almost dropped the scroll, his face completely draining of colour. “It can’t be.”

“What is it, Kakashi?” Iruka touched his friend’s elbow lightly. “Is something wrong with my scroll?”

The ANBU placed the scroll on the table with shaky hands. “This… It’s an Uzumaki clan seal.”

“Really?!” Iruka leaned over the table to study the seal he’d spent countless hours researching. He couldn’t see what gave it away as an Uzumaki creation. “Genma-sempai helped me determine the seal was from Uzushiogakure, but we couldn’t find out anything more specific.” After the countless months he spent looking for the slightest clue to opening it, he should’ve started with Kakashi. “How can you tell the Uzumaki clan made it?”

Kakashi pressed his hand over his bare sharingan. His fingernails dug into the sink around his eye deep enough to leave half-moon crescents behind. “My sensei…” He drew in several deep breaths before elaborating.  “His wife was an Uzumaki.” Kakashi’s hand came away wet when he wiped it across his scarred eye. The sharingan was crying on its own again. “Both were interested in fuinjutsu. They taught me a lot when I was a chunin. I recognize the seal style. It’s similar to the ones they used.”

Iruka’s hold slipped from his friend’s elbow to his hand and squeezed lightly. Kakashi didn’t often share voluntarily about his past. The genin committed every word to memory. Every little thing he learned about Kakashi gave him more insight into what made him the person he currently was. “Will you show me what they taught you sometime?”

“Mah… ask me again when you have more experience.”

“Sure.” That wasn’t a no. Iruka chalked that up to a small victory on his part and some growth on Kakashi’s. He promised to be more open about himself and he really was trying.

The ANBU rubbed his thumb over Iruka’s knuckles before releasing his hand. “Let me try something.” Kakashi ran through several hand seals in quick succession: rat, ox, dog, snake. He clapped his hands together and slammed his palm down onto the Uzumaki seal. A flash of bright light left Iruka’s vision swimming with blotchy spots. The seal glowed an eerie, ominous red. Kakashi yanked his hand back with a pained grunt. The smell of burnt flesh made the genin cringe.

“It’s a blood seal.” His friend’s palm bled raw, swelled and blistered. An exact duplicate of the seal burned deep into Kakashi’s palm.

“Kakashi, you’re hand!” Iruka grabbed the ANBU’s arm and shoved his hand under the tap. He turned the cold water on, dousing the angry-looking burn. “What do you mean by ‘blood seal’? Like with a summoning contract?”

“No, blood as in kin, not a contract.” Kakashi flexed his fingers beneath the water, gritting his teeth against the pain. “Only a direct descendant of the caster can open the seal.”

Iruka leaned over the sink enough to see the damage done to Kakashi’s hand. “That looks like a second-degree burn.” He plugged the sink so it filled up with cold water. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve had worse.” Kakashi tugged his worn medical kit from his belt and passed it to Iruka. “You’ll have to be the one to open that seal.” He submerged his hand in the water.

Iruka chewed on his bottom lip, eyes darting between Kakashi’s burnt hand and the scroll on the table. “...Is that a good idea?” He opened the medical pouch to pull out what he needed to bandage his friend’s hand.

“We know the worst that could happen.” The ANBU drew his hand from the water, after a few minutes, and held it out for Iruka.

“I didn’t want anyone to get hurt trying to open it.” The genin patted the skin dry as gently as he could and lathered burn cream across Kakashi’s palm. It was a chakra-infused ointment made specifically for shinobi use. Iruka gritted his teeth, his jaw tensing from the nervous habit. He laid non-stick gauze pads over the burn, wound the gauze wrap around his friend’s hand and up to his wrist, then secured it with medical tape. “I never would’ve asked if I knew…”

“You didn’t know and there’s no sense dwelling on it now.” Kakashi wiggled his fingers, testing the bandage and how restricted his movements were. “I’ll show you what to do.”

Iruka's eyes strayed to the scroll again. This was likely the best chance to discover exactly what his mother left behind. Her legacy was locked up tight behind an Uzumaki seal. If he wanted to get the damn thing open, he needed to take this risk. “Okay, tell me what to do.” He already trusted Kakashi, but he needed to trust his own abilities too.

Kakashi picked the scroll up with his uninjured hand. He studied the seal, turned it this way and that, then hummed in fascination. “You need to reverse your chakra. I used a similar tweak on your birthday present's seal, but it’s the same idea. Watch carefully.” He walked Iruka through the hand seals he used previously: rat, ox, dog, snake. “Then clap to stabilize the chakra buildup in your palms. You lack the chakra control I have, so for this to work you’ll need to equally distribute your chakra between both hands.”

“I’ll do my best.” Iruka sat the scroll back on the table. He slowly drew chakra into his hands, focusing it around his palms’ tenketsu. Holding his chakra as steady as he could, the genin worked through the hand seals: rat, ox, dog, snake. His chakra fluctuated as he clapped his hands together and pressed them onto the scroll. The seal flickered red, then green briefly, before returning to the normal black ink.

“Keep going.”

Iruka attempted to balance his chakra three more times, each with mounting frustration. Balancing one’s chakra between two points at an equal distribution was infuriatingly difficult for a genin. He didn’t have enough control to keep his chakra stable while weaving hand seals. Inoichi-sensei always gave exercises to improve the team’s chakra control, but this showed just how far they still had to go.

“Let me help.” Kakashi stepped behind him and cupped the genin’s hands with his larger ones.

Iruka’s eyes widened. “Kakashi, no!” He pulled his hands into his chest to deter his friend. “I can do it on my own. I don’t want you getting hurt worse than you already are.”

“I won’t touch the scroll.” He pulled Iruka’s hands back into position. “I’ll just help stabilize your chakra during the distribution. Try again.”

Iruka hesitated, but slowly drew his chakra back to the tenketsu in his palms. He ran through the seals -ratoxdogsnake- and clapped. Kakashi’s hands cupped lightly around Iruka’s. The ANBU’s chakra glowed a pale tint of azure, similar to ice floes when the sun caught them just right. The colour mesmerized Iruka, brought a deep-buried memory vividly to the front of his mind. His mother on the porch, a hand on her stomach, and a half-knitted blanket draped across her legs. Her words seemed to echo in his head. “It’s called alice blue, Iruka. Isn’t it beautiful for a baby blanket? Though I’m not much of a knitter…”

An uncomfortable heaviness settled in the pit of his stomach, tight and achy. Oh, Kakashi’s chakra is alice blue. Like the baby blanket, his mother knit on the porch that early October day hell descended upon Konoha. Iruka’s visible swam. Hs chakra cut off, hands raised to cover his face as the tears came. I was gonna be a big brother. How could he have forgotten?

Kakashi wrapped his arms around Iruka and held him tight.

Iruka wailed -a broken sound that had his friend cursing quietly. Kakashi’s hold tightened and pulled him closer. That’s the only thing that kept the genin on his feet. Don’t think about it. He pushed that day down deep into the carefully patched recesses of his heart and mind, buried the memories, the reminders, and paved them over with promises and goals. Anything to move forward from the empty shadows cast by nine tails. Don’t think about it and it won’t hurt.

But it did.

Iruka turned into Kakashi, buried his face in his chest and fisted his hands into his friend’s shirt. They remained like that long after the genin’s cries subsided. “Why is your chakra alice blue?” Iruka finally asked.

“Nature affinities influence chakra colour, though the hues are only visible to the naked eye under certain circumstances.” Kakashi pressed his fingers to the Gate of Life tenketsu point at the top of Iruka’s spine. The genin groaned as some of the tension eased from his neck and shoulders. “Do you want to try opening the scroll again?”

Iruka rubbed the heel of his palm into his eyes, furiously scrubbing the remaining tears away. He felt bone-weary, exhausted far worse than running laps around Konoha with Gai. “I need to know what’s in there,” He rasped, voice hoarse from sobbing.

“Okay, stay focused.”

The genin inhaled slowly several times to calm himself down enough to gather his chakra again. He worked through the hand seals, mentally preparing himself as he clapped. Kakashi’s chakra gathered in the same alice blue when he cupped his hands around Iruka’s. The genin bit down on his lip and used the slight sting to keep his mind clear. His chakra formed around his hands, much darker than Kakashi’s with an almost indigo hue. The pressure built along the tenketsu in his hands. Iruka tensed the muscles in the lower parts of his fingers. His chakra quivered and dipped into a familiar counter-clockwise rotation. The genin slammed both chakra-infused hands onto the seal as Kakashi pulled his back.

The seal hissed and glowed green beneath his hands. Long, tendrils the colour of malachite shot up Iruka’s arms, wrapped around his elbows and shoulders. Foreign chakra pulsed through his pathways, burning at each tenketsu it passed. Iruka gritted his teeth, hissing through the pain. The entire scroll pulsed as it was encompassed by the bright glowing and lifted from the table. A loud bang sent the ninken running from where they slept in the bedrooms. Kakashi held them off with a hand. Smoke billowed from the scroll, quickly filling the cabin until it was too thick to breathe.

As quickly as the glowing came, it stopped. The tendrils receded from Iruka’s arms. The scroll clattered back to the tabletop and rolled open. Both ninken and shinobi alike stared at the scroll through the smoggy haze.

"Well, that was overly dramatic." Pakkun pointed out from atop Bull's head.

Iruka coughed, fanning the smoke with his hands. "Maybe a bit," he admitted. Kakashi threw open the windows and doors and sent the ninken outside. They went only once it was clear there was no threat to their human packmates.

The ANBU slipped his hands into his pockets as he walked back over to the table. “It looks like a family tree.”

Iruka lifted one end of the scroll, examining the aged, femininely swirled diagrams and writing on the old parchment. “Oh look, Kakashi! Here I am.” He motioned to the very bottom of the scroll where a line was drawn down from his parents’ names and his own added. When his friend didn’t respond, the genin looked over his shoulder. “...Kakashi?” The ANBU’s pale face completely drained of colour, his mismatched eyes fixed farther up the scroll. “What is it?” Iruka leaned closer, trying to figure out what caused such a reaction. It wasn’t like Kakashi, but nothing seemed off. It was just his mother’s family tree.

“That’s the Senju’s crest, Iruka.” Kakashi tapped the large clan symbol at the top of the scroll.

“Senju?” Iruka shuffled closer to get a better look for himself. “Like Hashirama Senju, the Shodai Hokage…?” Iruka’s jaw dropped in utter shock. No, there was no way. This had to be some kind of mistake. “That Senju clan?!” The vajra-like insignia was drawn in the same curvy, feminine handwriting as the rest of the scroll. It reminded the genin a bit of his mother’s handwriting.

“Iruka, let's trace your ancestry.”

Iruka swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. Both young shinobi put a finger on Iruka’s name and traced it back. First to his parents, Ikkaku Umino and his wife Kohari. The genin felt his stomach lurch as he read his mother was Kohari Tatami before she married his father. Iruka hadn’t known that simple fact about his own mother. They followed the line from her name to her parents, his maternal grandparents, Iruka Tatami and Ashina Senju. Iruka drew in a sharp, shaky breath. His grandmother was a Senju and he was named after his grandfather.

Iruka never questioned why there were no other relatives around. His father always said he was orphaned at a young age, but his mother usually avoided the question. She would always give him a soft, sad smile when he asked and say, I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“...Iruka.” Kakashi grabbed his wrist and drew his hand back one more generation to Ashina Senji’s parents.

Iruka’s eyes widened. He stared in shock at the name his hand rested on top of -Hashirama Senju. The genin stared at the name in utter disbelief, as if the words would jump off the page and summon Konohagakure’s founder into their cabin. This was too surreal to be true. “I-I’m the Shodai Hokage’s great-grandson?!”

Kakashi traced the descent down to Iruka’s name, then back through his ancestry again to Hashirama’s name. His eyes hardened and narrowed with each pass of his finger along the aged parchment. “...You do resemble Shodai-sama.” The ANBU murmured more to himself than the genin. His shoulders tensed, body drew rigid like he was readying himself for an attack. “You can’t tell anyone about this, Iruka.”

Iruka looked up from the scroll, brows slowly knitting together. “What? Why not?” He wasn’t planning to shout it from Hokage Rock or something silly like that, but it would be so awesome to see the looks on Izumo and Kotetsu’s faces when he showed them the scroll. Genma would probably get a kick out of it too.

Kakashi placed a hand on the genin’s shoulder. “There are powerful, cruel people within our village that would use this knowledge to their advantage.”  When the ANBU squeezed his shoulder, Iruka felt a slight tremble in his grip. “...I don’t want anything to happen to you, Iruka,” he added quietly.

Something cold crawled up Iruka’s spine. He shuddered, but the unsettling feeling clung. “Wh-Who would-?”

Kakashi cut off the question with a headshake. Iruka felt the unease inside him twist into fear. His face paled, teeth grinding together. That knowledge was above the head of an ANBU who worked directly under the Hokage? This wasn't good at all. Iruka chewed on his bottom lip. The Senju clan would be extinct with the death of the legendary sannin Tsunade. The need for secrecy must be related to that somehow. Exactly how though, he could only imagine. “Okay, I won’t tell anyone.”

“Good.” Kakashi exhaled slowly, some of the tension easing from his shoulders. He ruffled Iruka’s hair affectionately. “...It’s for your own safety. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

“I know, Kashi.” Iruka reached for the scroll to roll it back up. He stopped when he noticed the name of Hashirama’s wife for the first time. “Oh! My great-grandmother was an Uzumaki! Do you think she made the seal?”

“Mito-sama was a fuinjutsu master, it’s probable this is her work.”

“This is all so weird, I never thought...” It was a lot to process. Iruka couldn’t help the tiny, cynical voice in the back of his head that wondered if it was all true. There was no way of confirming it outside of tracking Tsunade Senju down and performing a DNA test, a next to impossible feat. That would mean exposing the family secret and putting both Kakashi and himself at risk.

Iruka looked back over the family tree one last time. It only went one generation beyond Hashirama and his brothers to their father and mother. Butsuma Senju married a lady from the Hatake clan. No name or other information on her was recorded, but that didn’t stop the grin that spread across Iruka's face. A silver lining to this whole fiasco of a morning. The Hatake clan, Kakashi’s clan. It was a small, obscure connection, but a connection nonetheless. “Kakashi! Kakashi, look at Hashirama-sama’s mother!” He tugged at the older boy’s shirt to get his attention. “She was from the Hatake clan. That means I’m part Hatake too! We could be family.”

“Mah, Iruka,” Kakashi rolled the scroll up. The seal flash red with a light sizzle as it locked shut again. His mismatched eyes shifted to the genin and soften when he smiled. “We already are.”

The Matrilineal Family Tree Sealed Within Iruka's Scroll.

 

Chapter Text

They returned to the village late on the fourth day. An ANBU, in an eagle mask, awaited them at the gates. Kakashi’s visible eye hardened. He placed a hand on Iruka’s shoulder, halting the genin a few feet away. “Directive from the Hokage.” The ANBU handed Kakashi a mission scroll. “You’re to meet your partner at sunset.” That gave them less than an hour.

Kakashi broke the seal and scanned the scroll’s contents quickly. “I need a copy of Form 39-B immediately.” He lit the scroll on fire with a small katon jutsu. “It has to be updated before I can leave.”

Eagle’s mask tilted to the side slightly. “I’ll see what I can do, taichou.” She made a tiger seal and disappeared in a whirl of leaves. Once she was gone, Iruka caught the hem of Kakashi's shirt in his hand and held tight.

“Sorry to vacation and dash on you.” The ANBU’s visible eye curved into a forced smile. “It seems duty calls.”

Iruka’s hand clenched tighter into Kakashi's shirt hem. “...I’ve been practicing my shunshin jutsu. I can make it home from the gate in three leaps now. You want to see?”

Some of the tension eased from his friend’s mostly covered face. “Of course.”

Both shinobi formed a tiger seal and shunshined in matching puffs of smoke. They landed atop the hospital, then the Academy and Ichiraku Ramen before finally appearing in their living room. The consecutive jutsu put a strain on Iruka’s chakra, but the genin grinned. “Ta-da~”

“Your endurance training with Gai is paying off. Make sure you keep working hard while I’m gone.” Kakashi ruffled Iruka’s hair, his hand sliding down to cup the genin’s nape.

Iruka leaned into the touch. “I will.”

“I have to get ready.” Kakashi squeezed his shoulder, then headed for his bedroom to get changed.

Iruka set their travel packs against the wall. The last few days felt like a dream the harsh reality of their world wouldn’t let linger. No matter, they were shinobi. Duty came first. With a determined nod, the genin headed for the fridge. He had just enough time to make two containers of rice balls. He carried the containers into the living room to find Kakashi clad in full ANBU gear. Iruka sat the containers aside and helped his friend double-checking his medical pouch and weapon holster. “Hey Kashi, what’s Form 39-B?”

A light rap sounded on the window before Kakashi could answer. ANBU Kitsune waved through the glass and pushed the windowpane up. He held a paper out to Kakashi. “It’s about damn time you updated this, Hound.” He shot Iruka a two-fingered salute. “Umino-san, you’re looking well.”

Kakashi shot his partner an unimpressed glance. He grabbed a pen and began filling the form out on Kitsune’s back without any regard for the older ANBU’s disgruntled protests.

“Thank you, ANBU-san.” Iruka pressed his lips together to keep from laughing at Kitsune’s expense. “You’ll miss supper, so I made rice balls for you to eat while you’re travelling.”

“That’s much appreciated, ration bars taste like sh-”

“What’s your Shinobi Registration Number, Iruka?” Kakashi cut his partner’s curse off.

“011850.” The genin looked from Kakashi to Kitsune, hoping for some answers. Both seemed to know what important document his friend was filling out. Kakashi held the completed sheet up and motioned Iruka closer. The genin squinted to make out his friend’s chicken scratch. He inhaled sharply in surprise, eyes wide and glassy with welling tears. “Next of Kin Applicant Form? Kakashi, why?”

A crow cawed on a branch outside the window. Kitsune cursed under his breath and sighed. “We’re out of time, Kakashi.” He leaped onto the windowsill. “I’ll take your form to the Commander, say a quick goodbye and meet me at tango-bravo.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.” Kakashi handed Kitsune the form. “...Thank-you.”

“I keep telling you that’s what friends are for, maybe one of these days you’ll believe me.” With a farewell wave to Iruka, Kitsune grabbed the containers of onigiri and slipped away like a shadow in the dusk.

“Kakashi, I-”

Before the genin could get another word out, Kakashi wrapped his arms around him in a quick, too-tight hug. “We’re pack Iruka, family.” He pressed his face into the russet pony-tail.

We’re family.

Iruka heart ached in his chest, even as a deep-seated coil seemed to loosen from where it took root inside him. Family. After his parents’ deaths, he never thought he’d have that again. He clung to Kakashi, hands fisting into the back of his grey flak jacket. “How long will you be gone?”

Kakashi traced a number into Iruka’s palm and closed his fingers around it. “I have to go.”

“I’ll be waiting for you, Kashi,” Iruka whispered quietly, his voice cracking with a flood of emotion. I don’t want you to go. Please don’t leave me alone again. He squeezed his eyes shut as the ANBU pressed their foreheads together and cupped his face with both hands. Iruka felt the windy whirl against his tear-damp cheeks when Kakashi shunshined away. 

 


 

As the days started to blend into weeks, Iruka caught himself staring at his palm more and more. Four, the number Kakashi traced into his skin. His first assumption was four weeks, the average length of his friend’s missions. So Iruka settled into his normal routine. He trained with Gai three mornings a week, running laps on the parapets, doing suicides, push-ups, crunches, pull-ups, and hurdles. The exercise was good. It kept his mind focused on things other than Kakashi and the crushing loneliness he felt every time he came home to their empty apartment.

About two weeks into Kakashi’s absence, Gai took him rock climbing for the first time. He fell three times on his first attempt. Only Gai’s quick reflexes stopped Iruka from plummeting to his death. That didn’t deter the genin from continuing to try. Three weeks to the day since Kakashi left, Iruka successfully scaled Hokage Rock without Gai’s help. The two shinobi sat atop the Yondaime’s spiky hair watching the sunrise together. The accomplishment gave Iruka the extra boost he needed to power through the rest of the week.

The first anniversary of the Kyuubi’s Attack fast approached and with it nightmares of frightening frequency. As September rolled into October, and Kakashi mission dragged on, Iruka’s sleep became plagued with replays of that hellish night -Kakashi, injured and buried beneath a landslide, the Kyuubi smashing buildings full of civilians with massive tails and paws, bodies lined neatly along the Market District’s devastated streets.

And his mother.

The stifling silence suffocated more than the dust-filled air. Abandoned, that’s the only way to describe the empty streets. No screams, no people. Just silence and destruction. Collapsed vendor booths, homes and businesses lined the cracked streets filthy with rubble and downed trees.

He walked, squinting into the hazy darkness for a glimpse of who he sought. Searching, always searching. She waited for him. He just had to find her. That was his job, to find her. To protect her as he claimed he could. He called to her, the sound deaf to his own ears. But he knew he called. He called and yelled, pleaded and searched in that silent, murky darkness.

He turned this way and that, straining for a glance, a glimpse, anything. She had to be somewhere, anywhere but here.

And there she was.

Always ahead of him, always just out of reach, a turned back walking the wrong way. “Mom!” He called into the silence, reached for her, ran to her until fatigue wracked his body and left his knees close to buckling. “Mommy!!” Only then did she hear him. Only then did she stop to wait.

Relief welled up inside him until he thought he’d burst. Like a balloon inflated too round with helium. The giddiness would make him float away, past the silent darkness into a bright, sunny sky. She was coming with him to somewhere better than here, brighter than here, where the broken remnants of a once peaceful life laid broken around their feet. 

He always grabbed her hand, grasped it tightly between both his small ones, held on and promised to never let go again. Not after the searching. But she was so cold- his light in this bleak world.

She turned to him, a glance over her shoulder, eye sockets empty black holes. “Iruka.” Blood seeped from the abyssal depths, trailing twin rivers down pale cheeks. She coughed, crimson dotting her chin, lips twisted into a sweet, sinister smile. “My sweet boy.”

Feat hit him hard, burned up his spine and seeped into his very core. He stepped back, tried to pull away, but his hand sank into her melting flesh as it wrapped and slithered up his wrist in a caged amalgamation. He screamed into the silence, begged and pleaded. "Mom, let me go. Please, I'm scared." Scared, scared, scared, so scared.

She leaned down to him, lovely umber hair drying brittle to fall from her scalp to the blackened streets below. "Iruka, Honey, what's wrong?" Her voice warped and rasped, smoke billowing from between blood-wet lips.

She reached for his cheek with her free hand, flesh rotting from the bone so skeletal remains brushed against his skin. Tears clung frozen to his cheeks, wiped away with the loving touch of a decaying corpse. She broke then, body bowed and severed right through. The weight of a disconnected torso hung from him, pulling him down, down, down into the emptiness that opened beneath them.

"I love you, Iruka. Don't cry, my boy." The words echoed through his mind, stuck on an endless loop the deeper he sank. "Mommy loves you." He shoved and pulled, yanked and pleaded, anything to get away. The darkness swallowed his light, sank him deep into the coldness. It pressed and possessed, seized his limbs and sank into his lungs.

"Mommy loves her boy."

He woke with a scream as silent as the nightmare world. Fear clawed at his insides, locking his limbs to the mattress. His chest clenched tightly, restricting his lungs to short, shallow breaths. Perspiration glistened across his skin, tears clung to his cheeks in the brief instant before slipping into his hairline. And then the shaking begins.

He forced himself to focus on breathing. In through the nose, make sure to fill your lungs, then exhale from the mouth. Kakashi’s instructions rang through his frazzled mind, a painful reminder his friend wasn’t here. Over the months they lived together, the ANBU talked him down from many nightmare-induced panic attacks. His swimming vision fixed on the ceiling fan. He silently compelled his lungs to slow down and take in more air. The heartbeat pounding frantically in his ears became a silent comfort, a reminder that he was alive. It was a bad dream.

Just a dream.

Iruka rolled onto his side when his limbs finally began to cooperate again and curled into a fetal position around his pillow. Hugging the fluffy cushion to his chest, Iruka buried his face into it and let himself cry.

Iruka lost track of how many nights he woke up silently screaming, limbs locked, and trapped in his own head with the image of his mother’s melting corpse proclaiming her love.

The isolation and nightmares built his anxiety, left Iruka jittery and tense. His muscles ached, a bone-deep weariness settled inside him. The genin feels fatigued on the laziest of days. Izumo and Kotetsu seem to have similar troubles. Sullen and quiet fit Kotetsu no more than the meek way Izumo held his head low, eyes downcast and watery. When Inoichi-sensei spoke, all three looked at him with hollow, black-ringed eyes and moved with wordless obedience during training.

Inoichi-sensei didn’t comment on the changes, but Iruka knows he’s worried. The bento boxes he made them every day for lunch gave away his concern. He dismissed them the day before the anniversary with orders to rest and not training. Iruka didn’t know if he should be grateful or angry. Kotetsu just nodded and Izumo didn’t seem to notice the order.

Iruka stared at the turtle clock on his wall while the minute hand ticked time down. Each minute dragged a little slower, constructed his chest a little tighter. The genin’s eyes remained transfixed on the clock long after midnight ticked by. All the while, tears dampened his pillow. Fitful sleep came hours later, his body too tired to stay awake, even with his mind running in circles.

He was back in that suffocating silence, searching with heightened distress through the abandoned, decimated Market District. His precious person was wanting for him. He knew where to look, it was always the same location. Why did he keep coming up empty-handed? He screamed into the quiet darkness, calling, begging for an answer. Nothing, nothing, nothing!

He turned, this way and that, anguish mounting to near suffocating levels. That’s when he realized it wasn’t the desperation stifling the air from his lungs, it was the rocks. The landslide swallowed him whole, drowning him beneath the pressure, pushing him down, down, down. His back hit the ground hard, knocking what little breath remained from his lungs.

His precious person leaned over him, a dark figure in the dim light. A hand stretched out, an olive branch in that nightmarish hellscape. “Iruka.” He reached for the extended hand without thinking. The strong grip pulled him up until they were face-to-face. “Iruka.”

“Kakashi?!!”

It was his friend’s bleeding, hollowed-out eyes that sent him screaming from the apartment in a blind panic.

The streets were empty, the village still dark with only lamplight to illuminate the roads. Cold rain and wind hit his feverish face, soaked through his pyjamas and loose hair. He ran with no concept of direction or time. Everything seemed to blend together into that lifeless desolation, his nightmares warping the very reality around him.

Iruka’s lungs screamed with pain, constricting through the panic and physical exertion. His legs gave out, finally skidding him to a halt when he collapsed to his hands and knees. The rain beat down on his back and shoulders. His laboured breathing billowed around him in icy puffs. He felt neither the cold nor the ache from his skinned knees and palms. The genin’s vision blurred, tears trailing hot down his cheeks to mix with the torrented waters.

The Memorial Stone loomed before him, water bouncing off the smooth surface in a cascade. He choked on a sob and crawled to it on his hands and knees. The marble was cold and slick beneath his trembling fingers. He traced the names, working backwards until he hit his parents’. Iruka bit down on his bottom lip, forcing down the screams crawling up his throat. His fingertips brushed across the letters, memorizing each dip and curve. A whimper breached the dam, slipped through his lips and brought all the heartache he pushed deep and covered with stubborn determination and resolve to crash to the surface.

Iruka screamed.

His hand dug into the shirt over his heart, clutching the material. He screamed and wailed until his throat grew raw and sore. His parents, his home, his life. Everything he lost ripped apart the fragments of heart he so carefully stacked back together. Precarious as a house of card and just as fragile. The grief, the loneliness, crawled deep into the hole he so desperately tried to fill with his team, Yoshino-sensei, Genma, Gai, and Kakashi.

Kakashi, please come back...

But none of them were here.

Kakashi wasn’t here.

Kakashi...

He didn’t register someone beside him until a flak jacket draped over his shoulders and large hands gathered him up. “Yoshi! I found him.” He was pressed to a strong, wide chest, fingers gently pushing soaked hair from his eyes.

Iruka blinked through his blurred vision and confusion. “Sh-Shikaku-san?” He stuttered through chattering teeth. His voice sounded far away and hollow to his own ears. He tried to grab the jounin’s wrist in protest. A shinobi didn’t need to be carried. He couldn’t get his numb fingers to move. The cold hit him all at once, startling and deeper than the fatigue he carried the last few weeks. “W-Why are you…?”

“Iruka!”

Bewilderment mounting when Yoshino-sensei’s worried face appeared in Iruka’s unfocused vision. Oh no, he made her worry again. He opened his mouth to apologize but no words came out- just a croak. He shivered, the exhaustion washing over him in waves. Any protests died as Shikaku stood with him in his arms.

“You little fool.” Yoshino-sensei zipped the flak jacket, tucking it securely around him. She cradled his head in her hands and pressed her cheek to his forehead. “Shikaku, he’s burning up. Take him home, I’ll let Inoichi and Choza know we found him.”

Iruka leaned into Yoshino’s touch. They were searching for him, Inoichi-sensei too. He owned a lot of very important shinobi some apologies. Hokage-sama would be so disappointed he was causing trouble again. Dad would scold him. Mom would be sad, so sad. “ Mom… ” He rasped, teeth chattering worse. It was getting hard to hold his eyes open.

The gentle kiss to his forehead eased the tension from his shaking form. Mom always gave the best kisses. “It’s okay, Iruka. You can go to sleep, we’ll take good care of you.” Something warm splattered against his cheek. Yes, that’s right, his tried brain offered as the blissful darkness began to pull him under.

Mom always knows what to do...

 


 

It felt like he rested on a warm cushion. He wondered if this was how floating inside a cloud felt, just drifting along without a care in the world. The darkness didn’t suffocate this time, just offered a blissful rest Iruka readily gave into.

Comfort. Safety.

He drifted like that for some time, unaware of exactly how much time passed.

It was the press of warm bodies on either side of him that finally pulled his heavy eyelids open. Izumo and Kotetsu cuddled into him, one arm each thrown protectively across his chest. Both were sound asleep with Kotetsu snoring lightly on his right. Iruka blinked, slowly coming back to himself. Where am I?

It took all his energy to turn his head enough to look around. The massive bed had to be queen-sized, the room unfamiliar. His entire body felt heavy. Keeping his eyes open felt like more of a workout than training with Maito Gai. His teammates looked as exhausted as he felt. Iruka licked his dry lips, his throat scratchy and raw when he swallowed. “...Ko.” He rasped barely above a whisper. How long was he unconscious?

The older genin sprung away with a snort. “Wha?” He pushed up onto an elbow and scrubbed the sleep from his eyes with a palm. “Iruka! You’re awake!” Kotetsu half threw himself across Iruka in an awkward hug and shook Izumo at the same time. “Zumo!! He’s awake!”

Their teammate sat up quickly, kunai in hand. Izumo stabbed the weapon into the bedside table with a cry when he saw Iruka conscious and threw himself into the pile of limbs. “You’re okay! Oh, Ruka, we were so worried.”

Iruka found himself squished between his crying teammates. He grabbed their pyjama shirts and pressed his face into their arms. “Sorry…”

“We were starting to think you’d never wake up.” Kotetsu wrapped his arms around his teammates, keeping them both physically close. “You were out of it for three days!”

Iruka paled in shock. “Th-three…?!” He was asleep for three whole days?! “Wh-what-?”

Shattering glass and a startled gasp drew their attention to the door. A teary-eyed Yoshino-sensei stood in the doorway with a hand covering her mouth. A broken pitcher lay in pieces on the floor. “Shikaku…” She called, her voice barely above a whisper, then suddenly exploded. “Shikaku, get Inoichi! He’s awake!!” The Academy teacher made the bed in a few quick strides and pulled all three genin into a crushing embrace.

“Yoshino-sensei, I can’t breathe….” Kotetsu wheezed and patted her back to get her to let them go.

Yoshino pulled back enough to cup Iruka’s face in her hands. She turned his head this way and that, checking him over. “Your pupils are responsive, good.” She pressed her wrist to his forehead. “Fever is down.” She sighed and poked his nose, brows knitting together. “Do you know how worried you had us all, Young Man?”

“What happened?”

Yoshino-sensei huffed and moved to sit on the bed’s edge. “Inoichi was worried about you three during the anniversary. He went to bring you over for the night, but your apartment was empty and the door was wide open.” She urged Iruka to lay back down before continuing. “We finally found you in front of the Memorial Stone, but it took hours of searching. You were soaked to the bone and barely responsive. The hypothermia could’ve killed you, Iruka.”

His eyes widened. Hypothermia?! “...Storm?” He thought back, tried to wrack his brain on exactly how he ended up at the Memorial Stone. His memories were hazily at best. A nightmare, the anniversary. Oh, Kakashi. A cold chill crawled up his spine, making him shudder. Kakashi wasn’t back from his mission yet or he’d be here. He knew his friend would be here. “..Sorry.” The weariness dragged at his body and mind again.

“We’ll talk about it later. Just sleep for now.”

Kotetsu, Izumo and Yoshino-sensei’s faces hovered above him as the exhaustion pulled at his eyelids. He fought to stay conscious a little longer. His precious people were worried about him. Shikaku and Inoichi came in view then, his sensei looked so tired, but a relieved smile curved his lips. A large hand brushed through his hair, soothing chakra buzzed across his skull. With a sigh, Iruka relaxed enough for sleep to take him again.


 

It took almost two weeks for Iruka to fully recover from his sickness at the Nara Compound. His team and the Naras remained a constant vigil at his bedside during his recuperation. Even Maito Gai visited every few days. Yoshino-sensei would hear nothing of him returning to his apartment until he was fully healed. Izumo and Kotetsu swung by to get him clean clothes and left a note for Kakashi, just in case.

But his friend didn’t return.

Iruka traced the four across his palm in moments of solitude. Not four weeks. Then four months? The thought alone made his heart twist painfully. He was surrounded by people who cared about him but he still felt so empty. Was Kakashi eating well? Did he get enough sleep? Was he okay? The questions gnawed at him.

Even once his team returned to active duty, the genin seemed off. Izumo and Kotetsu were as restless and unfocused as Iruka. They missed directions, made simple mistakes and seemed tired all the time. Iruka arrived at Training Ground 03 early one day to find Izumo crying on Kotetsu’s shoulder. They welcomed him into the huddle without a word and the three clung to each other- lost, broken souls set adrift in a vast ocean.

Inoichi took one look at his three red-eyed, puffy-cheeked genin and called off training. “When was the last time you slept?” He knelt before them, blue eyes searching each young face. “Have you eaten today?” When no answers came, he sighed and scratched his head. “Come on, let’s get some food, my treat.”

With a light push and some gentle coaxing, the three genin found themselves sitting across from their jounin sensei at Yakiniku Q. Yakitori sizzled on the little grill in the middle of their table.

Iruka felt Inoichi's eyes on them. Izumo and Kotetsu shifted uncomfortably on either side of him. Their sensei said nothing for quite a while, simply waited silently, expectantly. Iruka reached for his teammates’ hands and squeezed. None of the genin said a word.

Iruka wasn't sure what Inoich-sensei waited for, not until he finally spoke. "Talk to me, please. I’m your teacher, I want to help. I can’t do that if you don't tell me what's bothering you."

Three sets of eyes went downcast. Iruka felt Izumo and Kotetsu grip his hands tighter.

Kotetsu was the first to break their silence. "Our guardian…" He began, only to trail off and look to Izumo for permission to spare. It was with an approving nod from.his best friend that Kotetsu continued. "Genma's been gone on a mission for two months. There's been no word from him. We don't know if he's alive or dead."

Iruka forced his face to remain neutral against his surprise. Genma had been gone as long as Kakashi? That couldn't be a coincidence, could it? Kakashi always told him to look underneath the underneath. Something about that nagged at the overly curious part of his mind. He pushed the thought down to be mulled over more if Genma returned around the same time Kakashi and his partner did. "Kakashi too." He found himself adding to the conversation. "He said four weeks but…" Iruka didn't know for sure. Just the number four. But four months seemed almost cruel. What kind of mission kept someone from home that long?

"I see, so that's what's bothering you." Inoichi flipped the yakitori with a pair of chopsticks. When he looked at them again, his eyes were soft with pride. "Nothing is more important than our comrades. I’m pleased you learned that lesson so well. However, what your doing right now is a detriment to them and to yourselves. You’re letting your emotions control you. It’s affecting our training and missions. If I took you outside the village as you are right now, you’d all be dead within the day.”

The three genin visibly winched at their sensei’s words. He was right, this wasn’t how shinobi behaved. They were genin of Konohagakure, but they hadn’t been acting like it. “Sorry, sensei.”

Inoichi watched his genin closely. “Do you want to be shinobi?”

The question startled all three of them. They looked at each other, then their jounin sensei. “Damn right we do!” Kotetsu proclaimed a little too loudly.

“Then show me your resolve. I chose you to be on my genin team for your tenancy as much as your intellect and physical skills. You have a duty to your village and yourselves, just Genma and Kakashi do. Is that understood, soldiers?”

“Yes, Sensei!”

“Good, now dig in.” Inoichi motioned to the yakitori sizzling away on the burner before them. “We’re buckling down on training starting tomorrow. Show me what my team can do.” 

 



As the fall passed with Kakashi still away, Inoichi-sensei went good on his word. Their training sessions lengthened into early mornings and late into the evening. Inoichi focused on helping the genin to fully manipulate their chakra. He taught them how to suppress chakra and keep it under control while moving, and then while firing projectile weapons and using simple jutsu. They ached from head to toe from pulled muscles, bruises, cuts and chakra exhaustion. Iruka crashed each night and slept a mercifully dreamless sleep.

Inoichi-sensei’s exercises to learn chakra control became more creative as well. With tree climbing and water walking mastered, their jounin sensei got the team to walk across sharp chakra wire. First with their sandals, then in sock feet and finally barefoot. Iruka limbed home with deep cuts on his feet, legs and palms every time he stumbled or fell.

Ibiki began joining the genin much more frequently for training- first once a week, then twice and finally three times a week. His appearances were sporadic, alternating between morning and evening sessions. Iruka assumed it was because of his work schedule. As Inoichi’s apprentice, the sixteen-year-old chunin held many important responsibilities. By the end of November, Izumo, Iruka, and Kotetsu could hold their own against Ibiki in a spar. With the earring communicators and code they developed, their teamwork grew much more cohesive.

It was during the training sessions with Ibiki when the focus shifted to learning and mastering new jutsu. They broke up into teams based on their natural affinity. Inoichi with Izumo and Iruka and Ibiki with Kotetsu. Inoichi-sensei gave Iruka pointers on perfecting his control of the Hiding in Mist Jutsu and finished his training with Water Clones that Kakashi started. Izumo perfected his Suiton: Wild Bubble Wave Jutsu and the pair learned how to combine the Suiton: Wild Water Wave to increase the jutsu’s range and power.

After some initial apprehension on Kotetsu’s part, he and Ibiki slowly warmed up to each other. The chunin was a surprisingly patient coach who quickly devised the best methods for instructing someone with a short attention span. Kotetsu quickly mastered the Mist Servant and Sly Mind Affect jutsus. Inoichi’s apprentice showed his young kohais the best places to hide weapons in their clothes. A shuriken in the heel of a sandal and senbon in the hem of his shirt were a few of his favourites.

Outside of structured training, Inoichi gave his genin blocks of time to develop their own specialties. Iruka focused on his katon jutsu, Izumo on further combining his water release with the bit of wind release he knew to make ice and Kotetsu practiced kenjutsu.

Watching Kotetsu practice with a sword fascinated Iruka. His normally playfully, energetic friend focused seriously in a way he never saw before. The simple, traditional kenjutsu kata he worked through were honed to near perfection. Kotetsu’s staunch dedication tickled that overly curious side of his mind, so he waited until they were alone and asked Izumo about it.

The older genin took a swig of his water, gaze drifting to where Kotetsu worked through one of the more complex katas he knew. “Hagane-san started teaching him before… well, you know.” Iruka knew Izumo spoke of the Kyuubi Attack. It didn’t have to be said out loud. “Ko told me Iaijutsu’s been traditionally taught in his family for generations.” Izumo’s expression softened as he watched Kotetsu practice, a slight blush filling his cheeks. “It’s all he has left of his mothers. I just want to support him.”

A deep longing twisted in Iruka’s chest. He knew that feeling, of wanting to carry on a parent’s legacy. It’s why he studied fuinjutsu as his own mother had. “I want to support him too.”

Izumo smiled and nodded determinedly. “Let’s do it then!”

With his teammates’ encouragement, Kotetsu began wearing a traditional kenjutsu uniform to their independent practices. Iruka thought his friend looked quite handsome in the dogi, hakama and obi. The way Izumo’s face flushed gave the impression he did as well. Kotetsu even showed Izumo and Iruka a few basic katas with his bokken.

The new training regimen kept the genin busy. Time passed quickly until snow covered Konoha in a white blanket and the holiday season was upon them. Things slowed down some, missions came few and far between because of the weather. Inoichi-sensei moved their training to the Yamanaka Clan’s private dojo, limiting what they could focus on. Futon jutsu inside a traditional, wooden dojo was a no-no. Taijutsu, weapon practice and chakra control dominated into the new year.

Yoshino-sensei continued to pester Iruka, Izumo and Kotetsu to join her family for dinner. Sometimes just Iruka got an invite, sometimes it was the whole team. Before he realized it, he attended a dinner with the Nara family every Sunday night.

It was nice.

Shikaku taught him how to play shogi, Yoshino-sensei showed him new recipes and Shikamaru-chan started crawling after him, cooing to be picked up. He quickly discovered the baby liked curling into his shoulder to sleep. When they sat around the kotatsu together with delicious food to eat and gentle conversations to have, Iruka’s loneliness eased for a while.

It was nice, but his heart ached and longed for something he would never have when he was with the Naras- two loving parents and a baby brother.

“It’s called alice blue, Iruka. Isn’t it beautiful for a baby blanket?”

“-for the holidays. What do you think, Iruka?” Yoshino-sensei’s voice cut through his memories.

“What?” The genin looked up in surprise, earning a soft gurgle from Shikamaru-chan in his lap. His face flushed with embarrassment. Both Yoshino and Shikaku were looked at him expectantly. “I-I’m sorry, I zoned out for a minute.”

“Yoshi asked if you’d like to join our family for the holidays. We usually celebrate with Choza and Inoichi’s families.” Shikaku set his empty bowl down and place the chopsticks neatly across the top. “I’d like to extend the invitation to both of their genin teams as well.”

Which included him either way, but that’s not what the Naras asked. They wanted him here with their family, not as a member of Inoichi-sensei’s genin team. That achy warmth folded through him again. Last year he spent the holidays in the orphanage, all alone. But that wasn’t the case anymore. “My roommate’s on a mission. If he comes back before then-”

“He is more than welcome to join us,” Yoshino-sensei interjected quickly in that teacher’s tone of hers that left no room for argument. “No one should be alone for the holidays.”

“...I-I would be honoured, thank-you.” He bowed his head to Shikaku and Yoshino respectfully. It wouldn’t hurt to indulge in that warm feeling for a little bit, right?


 

The winter holidays came and went in a flurry of activity. Iruka spent the festive season with the Ino-Shika-Cho families and their teams. Inoichi-sensei introduced Iruka, Izumo and Kotetsu to Choza, his wife and their infant son Chouji. Along with the three genin, Gai spent the holidays with them all at the Akimichi household.

Yoshino explained the three families always spent the holidays together. They rotated between the different households every year. The Akimichi’s home was more than large enough to accommodate the slew of extra guests. A dozen people made for a week of the loudest, most fun holiday celebration Iruka ever attended.

Ino-chan squealed and toddled after him on wobbly legs every time he passed by. She’d just learned to walk and Inoichi-sensei couldn’t be prouder. Iruka wasn’t quite sure what to do when she puffed out her little cheeks and started crying whenever she spotted him holding Shikamaru-chan or Chouji-kun, though. Izumo and Kotetsu hazed him with ‘Baby Whisperer’ jokes for days, at least until Ino-chan finally warmed up to Kotetsu and refused to leave him alone. She was fast when she really tried.

Gai happily helped with the babies, especially his sensei’s son. If Chouji wasn’t balanced on the chunin’s hip or shoulder, Gai was holding his chubby hands to help him walk. Watching Gai and Chouji’s parents boisterously celebrate every step the little guy took was adorable. Gai encouraged and cheered Chouji on in the same supportive manner he did Iruka. More than once the genin looked down at Shikamaru in his lap and asked, “When are you going to start trying that?”

Shikamaru-chan just stared back at him blankly and yawned.

Could babies be lazy?

Having Gai under the same roof proved advantageous for their endurance training as well. Iruka raised at the crack of dawn each morning to join the chunin in the Akimichis’ dojo. By New Years’ Eve, Iruka could make seven laps of the large dojo on his hands and do fifty-eight chin-ups without faltering. Besides the training, they got a chance to talk one-on-one. Iruka learned Gai’s father died protecting his genin team three years ago, his favourite food was super spicy curry rice, and he liked hitting focus mitts.

Iruka and Gai swung by his apartment during their early morning endurance training to see if Kakashi returned yet. The empty apartment left him and Gai a little downtrodden each time. They always changed the note Iruka left for the ANBU and dated it, though. Neither of them wanted an injured Kakashi burning a trail across Konoha because Iruka wasn’t home when he returned. There was no doubt Kakashi would come back injured in some capacity. He always did. It was just a question of how badly.

Gai liked talking about his old genin team and how close they tried to stay. Genma mentioned Gai several times when they met at the library, and seeing the chunin with Choza’s family made that apparent. He learned how Choza always treated them to Yakiniku Q for their birthdays and that a boy named Ebisu was the other member of their ol tdeam. Genma usually spent the holidays with them, but Ebisu had a family.

What surprised Iruka the most was the gifts. The Ino-Shika-Cho trio bought each genin a set of neko-te and Gai a nunchaku. Iruka stared in awe at the small weapon. It resembled a set of brass knuckles with sharp, curved spikes atop each finger hole. Traditionally a kunoichi weapon, it would work just as well for young genin learning hand-to-hand combat.

Kotetsu’s sniffle broke Iruka from his trance. “My mom used neko-te, b-before...” He clutched the weapon so tightly, his knuckles turned white. He pressed it to his face, eyes screwed shut against the tears trickling from behind his thick lashes.

Inoichi-sensei placed a hand gently on the genin’s shoulder. “Oyone would be proud of how much you’ve grown, Kotetsu.”

Kotetsu hid his face in his arm but nodded. “Thanks.”

The other presents were less eventful. Mrs. Akimichi knit them all mittens in different colours, red for Iruka, blue for Izumo, yellow for Kotetsu, and green for Gai to match his unitard. Lastly came presents from Yoshino-sensei. “These should help with your training.” She presented them each with a book. Izumo received one on water affinity and Kotetsu on Konoha-style kenjutsu. Gai’s ‘book’ was more akin to an instructional manual on advanced katas, complete with pictures and diagrams.

The book Yoshino-sensei handed Iruka was faded, the binding worn at the edges. It was small, but thick, the pages yellow with age. There was no title on the front, just an unknown seal. Curiously, Iruka flipped it open and skimmed a few pages. “Fuinjutsu.” He gaped at the book, each line was handwritten in tight, cursive letters. “It’s all fuinjutsu!”

“Told you he’d like it!” Grinning, Yoshino-sensei thumped Shikaku on the back. “I was cleaning out some of my grandma’s old things and found that collecting dust in the attic. I figured with your interest in fuinjutsu, you’d get some use out of it.”

“This is amazing!! Thank you so much!” The genin returned the grin, almost vibrating with excitement. He settled down to read the moment he and his teammates hit their futons that night. He laid out his stomach with Kotetsu on one side and Izumo on the other. Izumo flipped through his own novel while Kotetsu turned his neko-te over and over in his hands.

Their last night at the Akimichi’s home passed with the same comfortable peace he last experienced with Kakashi at Cabin 12 over three months ago. Those few, blissful days felt like another lifetime now.

They roused to the smell of bacon, eggs, sausages and pancakes drifting from the kitchen, a last big hurrah before returning to their normal lives.

With packs on their backs and new mittens on hand, the group parted ways with Gai and the Akimichis. After setting up a date and time for their next group training session, Inoichi-sensei headed home with Ino-chan swaddled in his arms. Kotetsu and Izumo were the next to go once they hit the forked path that split the newer shinobi barracks from the traditional clan lands. The genin suffered departing hugs from Yoshino-sensei and the promise to come for Sunday supper in two weeks time. Iruka watched his teammates’ backs, waving good-bye as they rounded the corner hand-in-hand.

He really needed to get home before Kakashi. With the new year come and gone, the next possible 'four date' drew ever presently closer: four months. Iruka covered his stomach with both hands, trying to stave off the ache that twisted there painfully every time he thought of Kakashi. He prayed to Shodai-sama each night for his friend’s safe return. It was fifteen weeks to the day since he left. Worry, apprehension, it all balled together in his gut. He missed Kakashi horribly. “I should be getting home.” He turned to face the Naras and bowed to them respectfully. “Thank you for everything.”

Shikaku and Yoshino shared a brief look Iruka almost missed. “It’s Sunday, why do you join us for supper? We were thinking ramen would be nice.”

“Oh, umm…” The invitation confused him. Yes, it was Sunday, but they just spent almost two weeks under the same roof. Wouldn’t they want some time to themselves? But then Shikamaru-chan gurgled and reached for him and it’s his favourite food. Yoshino-sensei made the best ramen. Any protest he might have gathered flew out the metaphorical window. “Okay, thank you very much for the invitation.” He happily lifted the baby from Yoshino-sensei’s arms and cradled him against his shoulder.

They turned towards the Nara Compound together, Shikaku on his left and Yoshino his right. The hands placed upon his back were two warm points of comfort and acceptance. That warmth spread through him, and for a little while, Iruka indulged in the fantasy. It felt so natural to be with them. Like Shikaku and Yoshino could be his parents and Shikamaru-chan his little brother. The thought coiled a strange mix of longing and pain inside him. It wasn’t right for him to think of them that way.

Yoshino-sensei’s ramen didn’t taste as good after that.

His mind remained a jumble of conflicting, confusing thoughts through the rest of the meal and clean-up. Yoshino put Shikamaru-chan to bed while Shikaku and Iruka washed the dishes. He knew Shikaku figured out something was on his mind, the clan head was a genius. Iruka was thankful the jounin didn’t question his silence.

When Shikaku finally spoke, it was a little stiff and awkward. “I find a mug of hot cocoa helps when I have something on my mind.” Shikaku placed a gentle hand between Iruka’s shoulder blades. “Would you care to join me?”

“Please, Shikaku-san.” Iruka clutched the dishtowel tightly. “That sounds great.” 

 


 

Yoshino-sensei returned from putting Shikamaru down to find her husband and former student curled up side-by-side beneath the kotatsu. Both cradled a steaming mug of hot cocoa in their hands. She moved to join them, squishing Iruka comfortably between the two adults. For a while they remained like that, chatting idly and enjoying each other’s company. Iruka missed the looks Yoshino and her husband shared over his head, the silent conversation they seemed to be having.

“Iruka,” Shikaku began slowly. “There’s something important we’ve been wanting to discuss with you.”

The genin almost dropped his mug, dread slowly creeping up his spine. He placed it quickly on the kotatsu top before he could break it. “What is it?”

“Come now, don’t you go jumping to conclusions, Young Man. I know how that mind of yours works.” She leaned forward, one elbow propped on the kotatsu with her chin resting on an upturned palm. In pure Yoshino-sensei fashion, she said, tactlessly, exactly what was on her mind. “We want to adopt you.”

If he hadn’t set the mug down, he surely would’ve broken it then. The genin paled, mouth falling open softly in shock. Everything around Iruka seemed to stutter to a standstill. “W-What?” He gasped breathlessly, barely registering he spoke at all. They… wanted to adopt him? No, that couldn’t be right. Surely he heard Yoshino-sensei wrong. He stared at his former sensei, eyes darting from her smiling face to Shikaku’s flabbergasted expression.

“Yoshino...” Shikaku grunted and covered his face with a hand. He shook his head, scrubbing apprehensive his hair. “What my wife meant to say was, ah... We’ve been considering this decision for a while now… and, uh…” The jounin trailed off and looked to his wife for help, his face flushed slightly.

“Iruka, we’ve spent a lot of time together these last few months. You've become a very special boy to us and Shikamaru. He adores you. I can't picture our home without you in it." Yoshino covered the stunned genin's hands tenderly with her own. "We want you here with us. Our family isn't complete without you."

Iruka's vision blurred. He sobbed, shoulders hunched and tears streaming down bronze cheeks to drip off his chin. Someone wants me. His chest tightened, making him draw in quick, shallow breaths. All the pain, all the loneliness he'd been shoving down and paving over flared anew, raw and aching, but not all-consuming. There was a warm flicker at the center, a light that soothed like a balm over the fragments of his fragile, cracked heart.

Yoshino-sensei pulled him into her arms and cradled his head over her heart. Iruka clung to her, the steady beating slowly calming his cries. He felt a large hand run through his hair and smooth down his back. “We love you so much, Iruka.”

Iruka knew those words were true. At some point, he’d started loving them too, Yoshino-sensei, Shikaku and Shikamaru-chan. They filled some of that gaping hole in his heart, eased the pain he tried so hard not to think about, yet never seemed to quite forget. He could have a family, a home, here with the Naras.

Saying yes would be so easy.

But he had a home in a small, two-bedroom, sparsely furnished apartment that smells a bit too much like dogs. He had a family in a silver-haired ANBU who hurt and regret just as much as he did, who gave too-tight hugs and came back hurt from every mission. But still came back, became he promised to try.

Saying yes suddenly wasn’t so easy.

Iruka made his decision the minute he grabbed the back of ANBU Hound’s grey flak jacket outside that shelter and told him to come to find him when it was all over.

He waited and Kakashi found him.

Kakashi always found him.

Iruka buried his face in Yoshino-sensei’s shirt and let Shikaku’s hand linger on his back for a final moment. The genin inhaled deep, hardened his resolve, and drew back from the embrace. “Th-thank you Yoshino-sensei, Shikaku-san, this means so much. I never thought anyone would love me again after my parents died. But...” He stood up abruptly and looked away from their confused, concerned expressions. Kakashi was coming back from this mission alive and he needed to be home when he did. “But I can’t leave Kakashi all alone! He’s my family, that’s where I belong!”

“Thank you for everything.” The words spilled from his mouth in a panicked flurry, tears threatening to fall once more. “Thank you for loving me.” Iruka bowed to the two stunned adults, his resolve wavering at the sorrow in Yoshino-sensei’s eyes.

Kakashi.

“Pl-Please excuse me!” Iruka turned heel and bolted from the house with Yoshino’s cries echoing behind him.

Chapter Text

The sharp rap to his bedroom window startled Iruka from a fitful sleep. He sprung from his bed on adrenaline and instincts, kunai in hand. Still groggy, the genin readied himself to attack whoever dared disturb his and Kakashi’s apartment. He’d spent the last five months waiting for Kakashi to come home, Shodai be damned if he would give in now without a fight-

The rap sounded again, followed by a muffled shout. It broke Iruka from his sleepy state. He knew that voice. The genin shoved the curtains open and came face-to-face with Kitsune’s porcelain mask. The ANBU gave a little wave and hoisted Kakashi up when his knees buckled. Iruka gave an elated cry and threw the window up. “Kakashi!”

“Hey, Kid...” Kitsune feet slipped on the branch, making him stumble slightly when he pushed Kakashi forward. Iruka never heard Kitsune sound so weary. “Help me get him in, will ya?”

Iruka grabbed Kakashi’s arm guard and pulled. The two ANBU fell through the window in a graceless heap. Kitsune caught Kakashi’s head before he hit the floor. A muffled groan vibrated from behind the hound mask. That mess of silver hair raised slowly.

Iruka dropped the kunai he was holding. “...Kakashi!!”

He was alive!

The massive ball of tension and anxiety Iruka pushed down for months snapped like a dry twig. “Kakashi! Genma-sempai!” The genin threw himself at the ANBU in a fierce hug. One arm wrapped around each of their shoulders, earning pained hisses in return. “You’re alive!”

"How did you-?" Inhaling sharply, Kitsune stiffened against him. “Awe, fuck it.” He pulled his mask off and let it clatter to the floor. “You’re too smart for your own good, Iruka.” Genma forced a strained grin, teeth gritted in pain.

Iruka gently touched the tokubetsu jounin’s cheek. The skin was heavily burned and scaped like he’d been dragged across concrete. “You look horrible.”

“Good to see you too.” Genma laughed airily, the sound sliding into a wheeze. Kakashi slumped against him, his breathing shallow. Genma pulled his partner’s mask off, tossing it onto the floor with his own.

The colour drained from Iruka’s face. “Oh, Kashi.” If Genma looked horrible, then Kakashi was death warmed over. Thick, blood-spotted bandaged circled his head and scarred eye. A seal was inked right into the bandages over the sharingan. The same bruising and scapes as on Genma covered most of his face.

“Ruka…?” Kakashi blinked at the genin slowly, his voice an uncertain quiver. His one visible eye was glassy and unfocused when he reached for the younger boy. “...Real dead.” He slurred his words through blue-tinted lips, his normally pale skin ashy. “Gen, we dead yeah?”

“Naw, we made it home.” Genma leaned back against the wall, his shoulders sagging like a giant weight lifted from his shoulders. He pinched Kakashi’s bare shoulder hard, giving Iruka a clear view of the bandages swathed along his arm. “This one’s real Kakashi, objective complete: Ro, Delta, Omega.”

Kakashi’s brows scrunched together. “Ro, Delta, Omega…” He mulled over his partner’s words, tears slowly gathering in his visible eye. “‘Real…?” He hit Iruka square in the chest, hand splayed wide over the genin's heart. “Ru?” Kakashi’s voice hitched on his name, the tears brimming over.

Iruka opened his mouth to reply, but all that came out was a broken sob. He nodded fiercely, dark eyes squeezed shut against the flood of tears. They felt hot on his cheek, like tracks burning down his skin. The genin covered Kakashi’s hand with his own and held it firmly to his pyjama shirt. He was real, they were both here. This was home.

Whatever happened to Kakashi was over.

Kakashi’s hand fisted into Iruka’s shirt and yanked the genin forward with startling strength. They crashed together in a heap of limbs. Kakashi’s arms closed around the genin in that too-tight way of his. Iruka threw himself into the hug and wailed against Kakashi’s shoulder. They curled around each other, clutching and clinging like two lost puppies.

"What am I going to do with you two?" Genma sighed and drew them both against his side. His uninjured arm slipped around Kakashi's shoulders, his free hand carted through Iruka's hair. The touch was comforting, but nothing soothed like hearing Kakashi's heartbeat beneath his ear, steady and strong.

Small tremours cascaded through Kakashi’s body. Iruka rubbed his arms and back to claim his friend. The muscles seemed to jitter and jump beneath his touch. Kakashi squeezed his visible eye shut, his head tumbling onto Iruka’s shoulder.

“What happened, Genma-sempai?”

“Worst case of charka exhaustion and the strongest fucking genjutsu I’ve ever seen. Didn’t think a genjutsu was capable of overpowering a sharingan until I saw it happen with my own eye.” With a grunt, Genma swayed to his feet, hauling a half-conscious Kakashi with him. “Help me get him on the bed.”

Iruka ducked beneath Kakashi’s other arm, pushing with his shoulder to bring Kakashi onto his feet. His friend sagged between them, his face set in a grimace. “I’ve never seen him this chakra drained before.”

Kakashi was dead weight against Iruka’s shoulder. Working together, he and Genma half dragged him over to Iruka’s bed and dropped him face-first sideways on the bedroom. “Make sure you keep an eye on him, Iruka. Chakra exhaustion can kill the best shinobi.” Genma rubbed his bandaged arm, red spots slowly seeping through the white bindings. “Kakashi isn’t all there mentally at the minute. He’s got a bad concussion, on top of the genjutsu bullshit, and the medics doped him up on some pretty strong painkillers.”

Kakashi shifted on his stomach, favouring his left side. Was his right injured? Iruka couldn’t tell through the grey flak jacket and black gloves. “Rin…” The ANBU’s fingers curled into his shuriken quilt.

Iruka flushed a bit. He’d swiped the shuriken quilt from Kakashi’s bed to sleep with after the anniversary of the Kyuubi Attack. His friend’s scent clung to the blanket. That helped with the nightmares a bit. “Why aren’t you both in the hospital?”

Shrugging, Genma yanked Kakashi’s shinobi sandals off, then used a kunai to slice the weapon holster from his thigh. The silver-haired ANBU barely lifted his head in response, definitely not a good sign. “Kakashi broke out twice looking for you and put a couple of nurses out of commission. He was a real pain in the ass to look after.” With Iruka’s help, Genma rolled Kakashi onto his back and tugged his arm guards off. “When he tried escaping a third time, the medics didn’t bother to stop him. So I brought him home.”

Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Iruka pulled the zipper of Kakashi’s grey flak jacket down. “I’m amazed you got here from the hospital in one piece.”

Genma scrubbed a hand through his hair. It was strange to see him without his bandana-style hitai-ate on. “Yeah well, I’ve got as much incentive as Kakashi does to make it home now.”

“Ru…” Kakashi leaned onto an elbow and reached for Iruka. “Missed you…”

Sitting down on the bed, Iruka shifted close enough for Kakashi to bury his face in his stomach. “I missed you so much.” After all these months, he was finally home! The nightmare of waiting and worrying was finally over. Iruka rubbed his hands through Kakashi’s unruly hair and down his back. The ANBU groaned weakly, his taut muscles shaking beneath the gentle touch.

Genma pulled a few pill bottles from his weapon’s holster. He held up a translucent bottle with yellow capsules inside. “These’re from our medic, Kito, so listen carefully. The antibiotic is for Kakashi’s shoulder and back wounds. He needs to take them twice a day.” Next came a deep blue bottle with a screw cap. “An acetaminophen for fever and pain, he can take them up to six times a day as needed.” The last was a green bottle with a leaf on the front. “Supplements to assist with chakra regeneration. Take with each meal and before bed.” He set the three bottles onto the bedside table. “You got all that, Kid?”

“I’ll make sure he takes them.” The genin nodded, his fingers curling around his friend’s nape and threaded through the silverish locks.
“I promise, I’ll take good care of him, Genma-sempai.”

Kakashi mumbled feverish and airy against his pyjama shirt, his lips moving in hurried, incoherent whispers through his facial mask. Iruka curled around him a bit tighter, hugging Kakashi closer. The ANBU’s fingers flexed against his lower back in response.

“I’m sure you will.” Genma slid his kitsune mask back into place. “Good luck, he can be a handful like this. The idiot gets talkative when he’s so chakra-depleted, it’s almost impossible to shut him up.” He formed a tiger seal with his uninjured hand. “I’ll come to check on you in a few days.”

“Thank you, for bringing him home safe. Izumo and Kotetsu are really worried about you.”

“I don’t plan on leaving my Gremlins again any time soon. I’ll see you around, Kid.” Genma shot Iruka a two-fingered salute and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Sniffling softly, Iruka rubbed a few tears from his eyes. Kakashi was home, but he was broken and battered in ways the genin never saw before. He looked down at the ANBU sprawled across his lap. Kakashi’s breathing evened out while he and Genma spoke. If not for the tight grip on Iruka’s shirt he maintained, the genin would’ve thought him asleep. “...Kakashi?”

A grey eye cracked open as Kakashi hummed in response. “Hmm?”

“Welcome home.”

“Mmm, pr’mised.” Rolling onto his back, Kakashi worked his face mask down to his chin and held an arm out to Iruka. “Sleep over…?”

The genin bit back a chuckle and settled against his friend’s side. “You’re already laying in my bed.” He pillowed his head on Kakashi’s shoulder, very aware he didn’t know where his friend’s injuries were all located.

“Mah… tired.” He grunted, cheek falling atop Iruka’s loose hair. The genin felt a shudder run through his friend along each point of contact, then he slowly relaxed. “Hard to sleep… when you ain't there.”

Iruka blushed so hard his ears began to tingle. He could feel the heat in his face, spreading through his cheeks and across the deep scar on the bridge of his nose. “I-Is that so?”

“Mhmm…Real hard.” Kakashi’s visible eye slid shut. He nodded, the motion a bit exaggerated in his compromised state. “Try n’ sleep n’all I see is Obito under th’rocks...” His words slurred the more he spoke, as if each syllable was an effort. “I can’t get’im out..." Kakashi pressed his hand over the covered sharingan, his nails digging into the bandages ever so slightly. "...'m never strong enough…"

“...Kashi…” Iruka bit the inside of his cheek to keep the shock from showing on his face. Obito? Whomever that was seemed important to Kakashi, very important. He hid his face in Kakashi's side, one hand fisting into the ANBU's black muscle-shirt.

Genma-sempai said Kakashi maybe loose-lipped, but he never thought it would be about his past. His friend was always so careful, so private. The few things he shared were done reluctantly and usually at times of high tension, where some sort of explanation was necessary. The genin opened and closed his mouth several times, trying to think of how to respond without making the older shinobi shut him out again. “We’ll be strong enough together, I promise.”

Kakashi hummed again and stared up at the ceiling, his visible grey an unfocused, black depth that appeared almost eternal to the genin curled against his side. “...Pr’mised Obito too, ya know?”

Iruka shook his head. “No, you-” You never mentioned that name before.

“Pr’mised Obito I’d protect Rin n’ I didn’t... I’m a lyin’ pr’mise-breaker, I killed ‘em both.” Kakashi blinked slowly, a single tear trickled down his heavily bruised cheek. He flung his injured arm across his eyes. “I kill ev’ryone I love. Scared ‘m gonna do that t’you too, Ruka…”

Every word made Iruka’s chest clench a little tighter. A few more tears slipped down his cheeks as the genin bit his bottom lip. “No! Don’t say that.” He sat up quickly, turning to face his most precious person. “You’re my family.” Iruka’s voice cracked on the last word. Family. Yes, he chose this broken, yet wonderful little family all on his own. He’d be there for Kakashi just like he tried to always be there for him. “You’ve supported me all these months, so I can get stronger!”

Kakashi peered up at the genin from beneath his arm, visible eye half-lidded and ringed black from the lack of sleep. With a weary sigh, he lightly brushed his fingers along Iruka’s tear-damp cheek. “...Please don’t die…”

“I-I’ll try, Kashi.” Iruka’s face scrunched up, his breath hitching on a sob. It was an ugly cry, but he was so relieved and tired and achy all over the genin just didn’t have the energy to care. Kakashi was home and alive. Nothing else mattered beyond that right now. Iruka pulled the shuriken quiet over the ANBU gently. “I’ll keep training hard and getting stronger, I promise.”

Kakashi managed a small, lop-sided smile before the exhaustion finally dragged him into a heavy slumber.

 


 

The rest of the week passed with Kakashi mostly asleep. He woke up long enough to eat and take his medication, then promptly passed out wherever seemed conveniently comfortable. Iruka returned from missions or training to find his friend sleeping in both of their beds, under the kotatsu and on the sofa. Surprisingly, no matter where he crashed, Iruka always found him wrapped in his green shuriken quilt with Maito Gai close by most times.

Having the chunin around when he couldn’t be helped ease some of Iruka’s anxiety. He didn’t want to leave Kakashi alone while he recovered, but his shinobi duties to his team and his village couldn’t be compromised. Gai was a far too kind and devoted friend. He helped Iruka keep Kakashi fed, his bandages changed and medication taken on time. In return, the genin cooked for Gai to eat meals with them and made sure the spandex-clad shinobi knew he was always welcome and for him to stay as long as he liked.

This mounted to night-long visits in less than forty-eight hours.

Having Gai spend the night was amazing!

Especially when a very exhausted Genma stopped by on the fourth day to check on Kakashi. Izumo and Kotetsu filed into the tiny apartment behind their guardian, every bit as unwilling to leave him on his own as Iruka was Kakashi.

Genma’s quick ‘ check-in’ ended up including take-out from Ichiraku Ramen and lively tales from Gai and Genma’s days on the same genin team. Kakashi fell asleep halfway through an animated recount of Ebisu getting food poisoning after skipping their sensei’s lesson on edible wild plants (Who in their right mind skipped a food lesson with an Akimichi?). He curled up on his uninjured side, wedged protectively between Iruka and Genma.

The tokubetsu jounin stretched out, back-to-back with Kakashi, and drifted off himself not long after. Gai promptly declared a ‘ Youthful Slumber Excursion’, and Iruka found himself the impromptu host of his very first sleepover.

Izumo and Kotetsu both agreed they could’ve gone without seeing the periwinkle unitard Gai used as make-shift pyjamas.

 


 

Iruka clutched the bouquet of lilacs to his chest with trembling fingers. Freshly fallen snow crunched beneath his knees as he knelt before the Memorial Stone.

“Hi Mom, I Dad. Sorry I haven’t come to see you much. It’s just been… really hard the last year.” Memories from Inoichi-sensei's genin test and the one year anniversary associated fear with the Memorial Stone Iruka didn't know how to process. It crawled up his spine and dug a deep foothold every time he attempted a visit to pay his respects.

“I’m doing good though, I’m a genin now.” Iruka rubbed his nape with a mitten-covered hand. Mrs. Akimichi knitted really warm mittens. “My teammates and sensei are incredible, I think you’d really like them…” Biting his bottom lip, the genin trailed off. His stomach clenched and flipped uncomfortably. “...I don’t blame you for leaving me behind anymore. I’m proud to be your son.” Cradling the flowers in one arm, he reached up to clear some snow away from the smooth stone with his mitten.

“I have some new friends that look out for me, so you don’t have to worry either.” Iruka blinked back a few tears, his red mitten slowly trailing along the rows of names. Every shinobi who died in the line of duty was memorialized on this monument.

That meant...

“Rin and Obito…” They weren’t the most common names, surely he’d be able too…? Only one way to find out.

Iruka slowly traced back through the fallen shinobi from his parents, chocolate-brown eyes skimming through the rows. He hit Rin Nohara three rows above the names added after the Kyuubi Attack. His fingers lingered against her name as his eyes skimmed higher.

Now, where was the other one?

Obito…

Iruka drew in a sharp breath, eyes rounding slightly in surprise. “...Obito Uchiha ?”

With that one connection, the pieces all slotted into place. The fire-proof aprons with the uchiwa symbol. Kakashi’s friend from his genin team he created his first jutsu with.

This was that Uchiha!

Try n’ sleep n’all I see is Obito under th’rocks… I can’t get’im out…

The sharingan!

A cold shiver crawled up his spine. Kakashi got the sharingan from his genin teammate, Obito Uchiha. No, Kakashi got the sharingan from a dear friend he lost in a horrible way. Did that make Rin their other teammate?

His genin team, his sensei and his parents, Kakashi lost everyone closest to him. No wonder his friend never wanted to talk about his past!

Iruka chewed on the inside of his cheek, his eyes slowly lowering back to his parents’ names. “Mom, Dad, you know I have a lot of people who’re dear to me now, but Kakashi’s my most precious person.” Iruka shifted on his knees and laid the bouquet in the soft snow. “Kakashi hurts a lot and he doesn’t like talking about it. But I still love him.” He packed some snow around the flowers to stop them from blowing away. “I brought these lilacs for you, but I hope you won’t mind sharing them with Kakashi’s precious people too.”

“So, uh, Obito-san and Rin-san,” Iruka stood and brushed the snow from his pants. “I don’t know much about you, and you don’t know me, uh… oh! I-I wanted to tell you not to worry. I will look after Kakashi for you. He misses you both a lot, but I’ll make sure he’s not alone anymore.” Iruka bowed to the Memorial Stone respectfully. “Obito-san and Rin-san, please keep watching over Kakashi from the afterlife and I’ll watch over him from Konoha!”

Iruka held the bow stiffly for several minutes until his cheeks slowly flushed with embarrassment. The dead couldn’t respond, but they still deserved respect and recognition. The shinobi named on the Memorial Stone gave their lives in service to the village. Because of their sacrifices, he lived in relative peace today. “Thank you both!”

Iruka bowed to the stone once more, then turned to leave. Kakashi would be waking up soon. He wanted to be home when he did. The snow crunched beneath his closed-toed shinobi sandals, leaving small footprints behind.

The eyes watching his retreating back when unnoticed.

Chapter Text

Leaping from the trees surrounding Training Ground 12, Iruka landed hard on the soft grass. Red-faced and panting, he sank into a squat -elbows balanced on his arms, his head hung as he tried to catch his breath. Gai and Kakashi hit the grass on either side of him. Out of breath, Kakashi dropped beside him and leaned back on his hands.

"Such youthful dedication!” Gai produced two water bottles, handing one to each panting companion. “I expect nothing less from my Esteemed Rival and most Determined of Young Compatriot.”

“Mah,” Kakashi held the cold water bottle to the back of his neck. “It’s a good way to regain my stamina.” It was almost three weeks since he returned home and Kakashi was still weak from the extreme chakra-exhaustion of his last mission. His injuries were mostly healed with just the deep puncture wound to his shoulder still needing to be bandaged.

"Th-thanks for taking us with you, Gai-san." Iruka bowed his head to the spandex-clad chunin.

“Anytime! The power of our friendship shines brightly in your youthful pursuits!” Gai shot the genin a thumbs-up and sparkling smile.

“Good morning boys!” Inoichi-sensei waved to the trio from where he stood on top of Training Ground 12’s man-made pond. Izumo and Kotetsu were in the middle of a taijutsu spar while attempting to keep themselves atop the water. “Take a ten-minute break, then come join us, Iruka.”

“Yes sensei!” Easing into a sitting position, Iruka leaned back-to-back with Kakashi. He finished his bottle of water, content just to be close to his friend after their long time apart. “Don’t forget to take your medication at lunchtime, I won’t be home to remind you today.”

“Mah, mah, Iruka. You’re starting to sound like a mother hen.”

The genin’s face went scarlet. “I-I am not!”

“Never fret, my youth companion! I’ll make sure Kakashi takes his medication or run a thousand laps around Konoha-!”

“On your hands.”

“-on my hands! Rival, is that a challenge?” Gai leaned over Kakashi, their faces mere inches apart.

“Mah…” Shrugging, the ANBU held his friend’s gaze with ease. Gai’s intensity never seemed to phase Kakashi. As much as Iruka liked the taijutsu specialist, his personality did overwhelm at times. “Why not?”

“Yosh! We shall rendezvous at the gate in twenty minutes, my Rival!!” With a hearty thumb to Iruka’s back and a respectful bow to Inoichi-sensei, Gai cartwheeled out of Training Ground 12.

Waving goodbye to Gai, Iruka let his weight fully slouch onto Kakashi’s back. “Please don’t over-do it with Gai-san. You’re not a hundred per-cent yet and I don’t want you to reinjure your shoulder. Your competitions get out of hand sometimes. ”

Kakashi leaned his head back against Iruka’s. “I’ll be careful.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, Iruka.”

Finishing his water with a sigh, Iruka reluctantly clambered to his feet. “I’ve got to get to my team. They’re training without me…” He hesitated a minute, anxiety curling in his stomach. Kakashi was getting better, but he wasn’t healed enough to be sent out on another mission yet, was he? “...I’ll see you at home tonight, right?”

Kakashi’s visible eye curved into a smile. “How do nikujaga and omelet rice sound for dinner?”

“Delicious! I missed your cooking.”

With a final farewell, the genin jogged over to join his teammates. Chakra gathered into his soles as he hit the water. After eight months of training, water walking and tree climbing were second nature. He ducked beneath Izumo’s arm and blocked a punch from Kotetsu. His hand closed around the thrown fist and yanked. Kotetsu stumbled forward but caught himself by bracing his stance with his foot angled outward. Iruka recognized the stance from his Ianjutsu katas.

“Nice recovery, Kotetsu, fix your stand.” Inoichi rolled his shoulder to show where the problem was, a move Kotetsu copied.

Iruka released Kotetsu’s hand and spun a kick towards his friend’s head. Kotetsu blocked the foot with his arm and dropped to try sweeping Iruka’s feet from beneath him. The youngest genin jumped back, then ducked into a roll to avoid the punch Izumo aimed for his exposed side. Using the distraction, Kotetsu jumped onto Izumo’s back. With a surprised squawk from Izumo, they both tumbled into the water with a splash. Izumo’s form dissolved beneath Kotetsu: a water clone.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Inoichi-sensei chuckled. “Good, Izumo. That was some quick thinking.”

Iruka scrambled to his feet, quickly running through a few seals: ox, snake, ram and raised a hand. “Hiding in Mist jutsu.” The genin’s chakra buzzed through the air, thickening it into a hazy smog. He crouched down, eyes closed and ears straining to pick up his teammates’ movements. When he concentrated, sound seemed to make mental images behind his eyes.

There -a splash to the left.

Iruka pulled out a kunai and flung it with a flick of his wrist. A muffled impacted and a slight hiss told the genin he hit his mark.

“Excellent counter, Iruka.” Inoichi-sensei clapped his hands twice to bring the spar to and end. “Let’s take a quick break. You’ve all done well.” Iruka dropped the mist, revealing he’d hit Kotetsu in the shoulder with his kunai. Izumo seemed to ebb from the water at Kotetsu’s side. The two worked together to remove the kunai and keep pressure on the wound until their sensei got it healed.

Kotetsu winced as Inoichi slid his healing chakra over the shoulder wound. The muscle and skin knit back together, leaving a sensitive, reddened patch behind. “You’re getting too good with throwing weapons, Iruka.”

Iruka rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sink it that deep.”

Kotetsu shrugged as the team settled onto the grass together. “Naw, it’s fine. I just gotta learn to move faster.”

Rummaging through his holster, Izumo pulled out a storage scroll and summoned a container, Thermus and four mugs from it. “Gen made us brown rice tea and botchan dango for break time today.”

The neatly skewered red, white and green dumplings made Iruka's mouth water. "They look great! Gemma-senpai is such a good cook."

"Please give Genma-kun my thanks. He doesn't have to keep making food for the entire team." Nonetheless, Inoichi-sensei accepted a mug of tea when Izumo handed it to him.

"Gen's a mother hen and he's bored. Being off active duty doesn't suit him." Kotetsu explained around a mouthful of dango. "Hokage-sama usually lets him do shifts at the mission desk while he's on medical leave, but not this time."

"He was gone for months on his last mission, some rest will do him good." Inoichi passed a mug to Iruka. "Speaking of rest, Hatake-san doesn't seem to be following the same advice."

Iruka's face scrunched up in thought. "...He slept for most of the week after he came home. I trust Gai-san to keep him from overdoing it."

Inoichi cradled his mug in both hands. "You often arrive with Maito Gai to morning practice. Are you training with him as well?"

"Yeah! Gai-san's been helping me with endurance training and taijutsu practice since before I made genin. We go out together three or four mornings a week, depending upon our mission schedules." Iruka grinned, a fond warmth spreading through him at the mention of his dear friend. I'm very grateful he takes the time to help me. I've learned a lot. He's a great person."

"Really? Gen says the same thing." Kotetsu chugged back his remaining tea. "Sure, he's nice, but he's so… loud and over-the-top."

Izumo nodded in agreement. "It seems so counterproductive to our shinobi training."

"Maito Gai certainly isn't assigned stealth missions," Inoichi-sensei admitted with a hum. "Each shinobi has their strengths and weaknesses. That is why Konoha adopted team and partnership formations and why teamwork is so important." He held his mug out to Izumo for a refill. "When are you scheduled for endurance training with Gai again, Iruka?"

"Tomorrow morning at sunrise."

"Very good." Arching a brow, the Yamanaka brought a hand to his mouth as he often did when weighing the pros and cons of an important decision. “Izumo, Kotetsu, you’ll join Iruka and Gai tomorrow morning."

Izumo almost choked on his tea. Kotetsu's mouth fell open in shock.

"WHAT?!" 

 


 

Iruka threw up the living room window when a familiar knock came from the outside windowsill. "Good morning, Gai-san!"

"Greetings on this most beautiful of spring mornings, Iruka-san!" Gai somersaulted gracefully through the window into a nice-guy pose. "Rival! Are you joining our youthful excursion today?"

Glancing up from where he was tucked beneath the kotatsu, Kakashi shrugged and dog tagged the book page he was reading. "Mah, why not?"

"Excellent!"

"Do you mind if my teammates join us this morning?" Stretching slowly, Iruka warmed up his muscles so he wouldn't pull anything during the workout. "Inoichi-sensei advised them to, but I thought it would be best to ask first. I don't think Izumo and Kotetsu are used to the kind of endurance training you do, Gai-san."

"No need to fret, Iruka-san! We shall encourage their youthful vigour with our perseverance and dedication!!"

"Well," Kakashi let out a snort that sounded too much like a laugh to Iruka. “This’ll be entertaining.”

"Don't make fun of my teammates. We're all working really hard." The genin puffed out his cheeks. "Not everyone's as gifted as you are."

"Iruka-san's correct, Rival! Dedication and perseverance will make Izumo-san and Kotetsu-san into fine shinobi!" Gai pumped his fist into the air. "Onward! We shall guide our young juniors in the springtime of their youths!" Gai declared and swung back out the living room window.

"Mah, it'll still be entertaining." Shrugged, Kakashi climbed out the window behind him with Iruka on his heels.

Making their way across the rooftops, the trio swung by Training Ground 12 to pick up the group's new additions. Never much of a morning person, Kotetsu was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes when they arrived. "Morning," he yawned loudly.

Izumo bowed to Gai and Kakashi. "Thank you for letting us train with you, I apologize for the short notice."

"Nonsense!" The spandex-clad chunin thumped Izumo on the back hard enough to knock the wind out of him. "Your youthful energies can only benefit our training, right Kakashi?"

"It'll be an… enlightening experience to see what Iruka's team can do." The ANBU shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. His attention shifted to the treeline. "Are you joining us as well, Ibiki?”

“I am.” Ibiki Morino stepped from the shadows to join their ever growing group. Gone was his normal duster to be replaced with a muscle shirt and standard navy shinobi pants. His holster was strapped to his thigh, shinobi sandals in place of the normal combat boots he wore. Dress down as he was, the chunin looked almost like another person. “Inoichi-shishou thought the exercise would be beneficial for me as well.”

“Excellent! We shall blaze a trail of determination through our fair village!” Gai vaulted over the fence separating Training Grounds 11 and 12. “Come my youthful compatriots!”

“Let’s go guys.” Iruka squeezed his teammates' shoulders reassuringly. Breaking into a run, he leapt over the fence after Gai with Ibiki and Kakashi close behind. Kotetsu and Izumo were left to bring up the rear.

 


 

Izumo lost his footing for the second time in five minutes. Grabbing the genin by the back of his shirt, Ibiki hauled Izumo away from the rampart’s edge to more solid footing. With shoulders and chest heaving from his heavy breathing, he bowed his head to the older chunin. “Th-thank you.” Without complaint, Izumo broke into a light jog and jumped to the adjoining rooftop where Gai and Kakashi already waited.

“Such devoted determination! We’re halfway done!” Gai shot both Izumo and Kotetsu a double thumbs-up when they landed without stumbling.

“H-Half way?!” Kotetsu wailed between gasps of air.

“You’re doing better than I did my first time.” Iruka pointed out gently in hopes of giving his teammates a confidence boost. His cheeks were flushed from the exertion, but he was just starting to sweat.

“Mah, best not to push it.” Kakashi pulled a water bottle from his holster and tossed it to Izumo. Staying hydrated was important during heavy exercise. “Losing footing this high up could kill you.”

“W-We wanted to finish the circuit.” Izumo chugged half the bottle before handing the rest to Kotetsu. The spikey-haired genin dropped to the rooftop without a word of protest. That told Iruka just how exhausted his teammates truly were. Izumo hated leaving anything half done and Kotetsu was very competitive.

“Fear not, your youthful passion may now be but a simmer but it shall one day ignite into a lively inferno!” Bringing a hand to his brow, Gai peered out over the village. They were close to Hokage Rock, the large stone heads just a few leaps away. "Rival!" Gai turned to Kakashi with a gleam in his eye. "This is divine intervention! Our young charges halted here in order to rekindle the fiery passion of our rivalry once again! We must partake in this hot-blooded battle! Come, My Rival!”

“Oh for the love of…”The ANBU balked, a hand raising to his face in exasperation. “What are you thinking this time, Gai?”

With a smug grin plastered to his face, the spandex-clad chunin pointed dramatically to the Hokages’ massive stone heads. “Well, Kakashi?”

Something dangerous sharpened in Kakashi’s usually impassive gaze. “You’re on.”

And just like that, the pair were gone before Iruka could point out the circuit was incomplete. Gai and Kakashi surged off the roof, dropping side-by-side before launching up the steep cliffside leading to the great stone faces. “Please don’t over-do it,” Iruka mumbled quietly to himself.

Neither Izumo or Kotetsu showed any signs of moving.

So much for endurance training.

“Where do we go from here, Umino-san?”

Ibiki’s question caught the genin off-guard. The chunin was so quiet, he’d almost forgotten he was there. “Normally, Gai-san and I run the ramparts to the hospital, then take the rooftops towards the Academy.” Turning towards the rising sun, Iruka pointed out the course they usually took. Training Ground 12 was only a five-minute walk from the institution.

With a silent nod, Ibiki leaped to the next rooftop and then up to the parapets. Iruka’s mouth opened and closed in surprise. He looked back at his teammates briefly. “Uh, guys?” Both laid out flat on the roof tiles.

Kotetsu waved his hand dismissively. “Go finish if you want to, we’re done.”

Brown brows knitted together, his resolve hardening. He promised Kakashi he would work hard and get stronger. This training was important for that. “Ibiki-san!” Stepping back a drew feet, Iruka took a running jump after the older chunin. “Wait for me!”

Ibiki slowed to a jog, not completely stopping, but giving the genin the opportunity he needed to catch up. The unlikely pair jogged in silence as the sun rose to their right in a lovely array of pinks, reds and violets. Ibiki remained a solid, steadfast companion at his side. Though not as fast as his friends, the massive chunin towered over both Kakashi and Gai. His body held a daunting power Iruka never experienced before. Where most shinobi were limber or wiry, Ibiki Morino was solid, bulking muscle that radiated unsettling intimidation.

But that didn’t bother Iruka, not compared to the calm, always polite elder senpai he’d gotten to know these last few months. Ibiki trained with his genin team and guided their development with the same patience Inoichi-sensei did. He has senbon sewn into the hem of his shirts because of Ibiki. While Kakashi taught him to look underneath the underneath , Ibiki coached be prepared to surprise. Somewhere along the way, the genin drew to care for and respect Ibiki immensely.

They came to a stop outside the Academy with the sun high in the sky. It took longer to finish the circuit with Ibiki than Gai, but Iruka found himself with more energy. His breathing remained laboured, perspiration clinging to his skin and face red, but he didn’t feel like his legs would buckle beneath him any moment.

Iruka counted that as a win.

“Aniki!”

The excited yell of a young child caught both their attention. Brother…? For a split second, he caught Ibiki’s face soften. A ghost of a smile curved his lips as he raised a hand in greeting. A small boy, no older than five, was headed their way with an older man following close behind him. The child ran with both hands in the air, straight into Ibiki’s arms.

Ibiki hoisted the brown-haired boy into a hug. “You’re supposed to wait for Raidou.”

Pouting, the boy puffed out his cheeks. “You promised you’d walk me to school, Aniki.”

“I’m sorry, Idate. The training ran longer than expected, but I’m here now.” Balancing the boy on his hip, Ibiki stepped comfortably into the arms of the man accompanying his little brother.

Iruka felt his face flush bright red as the pair shared a tender kiss. Covering his eyes with his hands, Iruka turned quickly to give the pair a bit of privacy. He felt like a third wheel spying on someone else's family, especially since little Idate didn't seem phased at all about his brother's romantic display for the other man.

"Who's this, Aniki?" He heard Idate ask from behind him. Little hands closed around his wrist and gave an impatient tug. Ibiki must have set him back down.

Peeking from between his fingers, Iruka found the chunin smiling softly. "Iruka Umino, a colleague of mine." Ibiki motioned to his brother and then the older man. "My brother Idate and my partner, Raidou Namiashi."

Placing his hands on Idate's shoulders, Raidou brought Idate and himself into a formal bow. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Umino-kun."

"Yeah, what Rai-nii said."

Iruka blushed right up to his ears and quickly returned the bow. "L-Likewise, I am honoured." This was his family! Ibiki was a guarded, private person, but he trusted Iruka enough to introduce his family to him. The realization stunned the genin more than seeing Ibiki kiss someone in public.

Idate rocked back on his heels, head tilting to the side in curiosity. "Are you a shinobi too?"

The innocent question made Iruka smile. He pointed to his hitai-ate. "I'm a genin. I graduated from the Academy last June."

"Aniki is a chunin and Rai-nii is a tokubetsu jounin. That makes them stronger than you, ya know?"

Ibiki's brows furrowed at the comment as Raidou's face contorted in anger. "Idate Morino!"

"I'm sure they are." Iruka just chucked and scratched the edge of his scar. "That's why I train hard every day to become a better shinobi. Ibiki-san's helped me a lot."

"Aniki is the best! He helps me too. I got to start the Academy a whole year early." The little boy patted his chest proudly.

"That's amazing Idate-kun! You must be really talented. Who's your teacher?"

"Mebuki-sensei!"

"R-really?" The genin felt a shiver crawl up his back, memories of his graduation exam making him shudder. Mebuki Haruno was scarier than Yoshino-sensei. "Well, Mebuki-sensei is really strong. I'm sure you'll learn a lot from her."

Idate's face scrunched up as he stared at Iruka intently. "How'd you get that scar?"

Iruka's hand flew to his face, covering the old wound across the bridge of his nose. "I-"

"Idate, you're going to be late," Ibiki interjected in his normally calm voice.

"Oh no!" The little boy hugged Raidou around the waist quickly and then his brother. "Bye Rai, bye Aniki! Nice to meet you Ruka, I gotta go!" In an energetic flurry, Idate scrambled up the Academy walkway where the other students were disappearing inside.

"That kid…" With a fond chuckle and a shake of his head, Raidou pressed a light kiss to Ibiki's scarred cheek. "I have to get going too. My shift at the Hokage Tower starts in ten minutes. See you at home tonight?"

"Until then." He squeezed Raidou's hand, the touch lingering for a moment.

The tokubetsu jounin raised his hands in a ram seal. "Genma talks about you and his gremlins a lot. It's nice to finally put a face to the name. Take care, Iruka-san." He disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"...You as well?" Iruka was still reeling from the expected encounter with Ibiki's little brother and partner when the pair were once again left alone.

"Thank you for humouring Idate. My brother has not fully grasped the notion of tact yet." Ibiki's eyes remained on his little brother until the boy disappeared inside the Academy with Mebuki-sensei and his classmates. It was easy to tell how much he loved Idate. “It is appreciated.”

Iruka did his best to ignore the pang of sorrow in his chest. Seeing Ibiki with Idate reminded the genin he'd never get to be a big brother, not to his little sibling or Shikamaru-chan… The genin kneaded his palm over his heart to ward off the ache. He’d made the choice to stay with Kakashi and he’d never regret that. They were a family, a pack , as Kakashi said. But the Naras -a mother, a father, a little brother- it tempted him, made him long for things he lost beneath nine tails.

“You know, Ibiki-san,” Iruka looked up at the older shinobi, “you’re actually a very kind person.”

Ibiki raised a brow, the rest of his expression remaining neutral. “Don’t reveal my secrets,” he stated dryly.

“I won’t if you teach me the Magen: Hell Viewing Jutsu like you did Kotetsu.”

“I never took you for the blackmailing type, Umino.”

“No!” Face paling, Iruka held his hands up in denial. “Th-that wasn’t my intention! I’d… I’d never do something like that… I-”

Ibiki’s guffaw cut off the genin’s protests. “A shinobi must use every advantage presented to them, remember that.” He glanced at the watch strapped to his wrist, then turned towards the training grounds. “Come, I have some time before my shift begins. I will show you the jutsu.”

“Yes, sir!” The genin ran to catch up to the chunin.

Ibiki once more slowed his gait until Iruka fell into step at his side. “Tell me, do you know which part of the brain controls fear...?”

Chapter Text

A particularly warm spring morning found Iruka seated hand-in-hand with his teammates. Izumo and Kotetsu flanked him on either side in a protective formation they'd adopted since officially becoming a team. The trio presented as a united front -supportive, familiar, comfortable.

Three pairs of eyes watched their jounin sensei with barely contained excitement. Inoichi crossed his legs, settling onto the grass across from his genin. “Hokage-sama has presented the team with our first C-rank mission.”

Iruka’s mouth dropped open. His face flushed, a giddy sort of heat rising up inside him. Our first C-rank! Kotetsu let out a loud whoop at is side and pumped his fists in the air. Izumo’s mouth opened and closed repeatedly, resembling a floundering fish. “R-Really?”

Smiling so wide his cheeks dimpled, Inoichi-sensei drew a mission scroll from his breast pocket. “You’ve worked extremely hard these last eight months. I’ve very proud of you all.” He unrolled the scroll and turned it around for the genin to see. “Our mission is to escort Lady Susuki to the Daimyo’s palace before their wedding in three weeks time. She’s been on a tour of the fire country to promote the union. The estimated mission length is two weeks. I want you to pack for a month, though. Make sure to bring your best formal wear. We’ll meet at the front gates in two hours. Until then, team dismissed.”

Iruka parted ways with Izumo and Kotetsu by the library. He took to the rooftops from there, his mind running a mental checklist over everything he needed to pack. The storage scrolls Kakashi gave him for his Birthday last year would come in handy. If his pack was too heavy or bulky, it could become a liability should a fight break out on the road. Packing wasn’t really the problem. It was the formal wear. He didn’t have anything fancy. Money was tight for him and Kakashi, even with them both on active duty. Even if he could afford some formal clothes, he had no real use for them.

At least, not until now.

He swung into their living room through the open window. “I’m home!”

Kakashi looked up from the kotatsu where he was reading the fuinjutsu book Yoshino-sensei gave Iruka for the holidays. “You’re back early.”

“Our team was assigned our first C-rank!” Iruka pulled his travel pack from the hallway closet. “We have to escort the Daimyo’s bride back to his palace.”

Kakashi snapped the book closed, is visible eye hardening in a way that made Iruka’s stomach clench. “When do you leave?”

“In about an hour.”

“Right, let’s get you packed then.” Working together, the pair double-checked Iruka weapons, picked out some extra uniforms to take, and stored camping supplies and enough rations for a month in his storage scrolls.

Wiping some sweat from his brow, Iruka let out a sigh. “Thanks, Kakashi. I got everything ready with time to spare thanks to you.”

Kakashi placed the loaded travel pack in the genkan. “So that’s everything you need?”

“Umm…” Iruka chewed on his bottom lip. “Inoichi-sensei said to pack formal wear, but I don’t have any.”

Kakashi humming in response, then motioned for the genin to follow him. Iruka found himself perched on the edge of the ANBU's bed while he rummaged through his closet. “Ah, here it is.” Pulling down a hanger, Kakashi turned to show Iruka a navy kimono set. “I wore this to the Yondaime Hokage’s inauguration, it should be about your size.”

Iruka stared at the delicate fabric in awe. The indigo kimono peeked from beneath a black haori trimmed with silver. A matching obi and hakama pants finished the ensemble. Kakashi held up a pair of dark zori sandals to go with it. “I can borrow this?” He touched the delicate satin, letting it slide between his fingers.

“Mah, you can have it. I outgrew it years ago.” Kakashi spun the outfit around to give the genin a good look of the formal set overall. A silver symbol in the shape of a diamond was emblazoned on the back. “I wish there was enough time to do something about my clan's crest though."

Iruka's eyes rounded in surprise. "You're letting me wear the Hatake Clan's symbol?"

"You're my family," the ANBU responded simply. He sealed the outfit into a scroll so it wouldn’t wrinkle in Iruka’s pack. "As long as you're aware of the risks and remain vigilant while wearing it, everything should be fine."

"...Risks?"

"Wearing my haori will publicly announce your affiliation with the Hatake Clan. There are people who would like to see my clan extinct. " Kakashi held the scroll out to the genin. “People scheme, especially at the Daimyo’s court. Just be careful.”

"Don't worry, Kakashi, I will be." The genin threw his arms around Kakashi waist, hugging him gently "Thank you so much."

"Don't thank me." Kakashi smoothed a hand down Iruka's back. "How long will you be gone?"

Iruka slipped the scroll containing the formal wear into his medical holster. "Inoichi-sensei guessed two or three weeks."

"Ah." The ANBU nodded, but his arms only tightened around Iruka's shoulders in that too-tight way of his. The top of his head came up just beneath Kakashi's chin now. Most adolescents went through a growth spurt around his age, Iruka was no exception. "You better get going before you're late," Kakashi relented and slowly released the genin from his hold.

“I’ll be going then.” Iruka felt just a little too cold without Kakashi’s arms around him. The realization sat heavily in the pit of his stomach. Slinging his travel pack onto his back, Iruka headed for the front door. A glance over his shoulder revealed Kakashi once more sitting beneath the kotatsu. Their eyes locked for the briefest of moments and something shuddered deep inside Iruka. He turned, feet carrying him to the kotatsu before he fully realized what he was doing. Leaning down, he planted a deliberate kiss on Kakashi’s bare cheek.

When Iruka pulled back, Kakashi was staring at him with a look of awe in his visible eye. The ANBU cleared his throat and managed to ground out in a tight voice, “mah, Iruka?”

The genin’s face flushed, mortified by his own actions. Where in the heck did that come from?! His hands raised on their own accord, forming a tiger seal. Iruka shunshined out of their apartment as fast as his chakra could pull him. 

 


 

 

With his mind still running a mile a minute, Iruka stepped into line between Izumo and Kotetsu. Kotetsu took one look at the flush still clinging to his cheeks and snickered. Izumo reached around Iruka and cuffed his best friend on the back of the head.

“Ow, meanie.” Pouting, Kotetsu dramatically rubbed the back of his head.

“They’re coming.” Izumo hisses between clenched teeth. All three genin stood at attention by a lavish carriage as Inoichi-sensei escorted their client to the village gates.

Lady Susuki wasn’t quite a traditional beauty, even wrapped in expensive silks of pink and purple. With sandy hair pulled up in a bun and a fan obscuring the lower hand of her face, Iruka could feel the disappointment rolling off her like killing intent. Her brown eyes might be pretty if not for the ugly look she shot their way. “These children are all the famed Konohagakure can spare for my guard detail? How insulting.”

It took all of Iruka’s will-power to keep from scowling. It seems our client is delightfully rude.

"If she wanted a different team, she should have paid to make the escort a B-rank," Kotetsu muttered under his breath.

Inoichi-sensei’s hands clenched behind his back as he responded with cool politeness, “I’m sorry you feel that way, My Lady. I assure you, your safety is our primary concern. I have complete confidence in my students’ skills.”

Lady Susuki’s fan dipped enough for Iruka to see her nose wrinkle. “I’ll take your word for it.” She held a gloved hand out to Inoichi expectantly.

Bowing his head to the Daimyo’s bride, the jounin helped her up into the carriage and closed the door behind her. Inoichi-sensei’s free hand folded so his index finger curled over his thumb and dipped in a quick hook. The message was clear: Take point.

The four fell into formation around the carriage, each one taking up a defensive position by the wheels. Iruka fell into a light run by the rear, right wheel as the carriage pulled out of the gates with Inoichi-sensei across from him and Izumo just in front. It was a simple, yet efficient formation for their team. With Genma’s guidance, Izumo and Kotetsu were mid and close-range fighters that worked flawlessly together. Inoichi-sensei was a long-distance, support type and Iruka was kind of a wild card. Taijutsu training with Gai gave him good skills for close combat, but the jutsu training he did with Kakashi set him up as both long-distant support and a mid-range attacker. His Hiding in Mist jutsu  was an effective cover for his team, should the need present itself. Being paired with their team captain was the best place for him until the formation was tested in actual combat.

Iruka wasn’t in a hurry for such a chance to present itself.

 


 

 

Lady Susuki turned out to be the most demanding, entitled person Iruka ever had the misfortune of meeting. But she was their client, and their Daimyo's bride-to-be, so he bit his tongue and did his job. Travel was slow going with the carriage. They were forced to stick to the most public roads and to stop for several breaks a day.

All upon Lady Susuki’s insistence.

At night, they took turns keeping watch. With four of them, shifts lasted two-three hours each. The short time-frame did little to alleviate Iruka’s nerves during his first shift. He spent the entire two hours up a tree with a kunai clutched tightly in hand. Kotetsu teased him relentlessly when he came to relieve him.

It took a week to reach Tanzaku Gai, the largest town outside of the Daimyo's city. Lady Susuki received an invitation from Tanzaku Gai’s Governor to a lavish dinner in her honour. Team Inoichi's guard and escort detail were extended by a week to cover the stop.

Iruka spent the afternoon of his twelfth birthday helping his teammates into their formal wear. He and Izumo struggled with their kimono and black hakama with matching obi. Two pairs of tiny zori set next to Inoichi’s sandals at the hotel room door, awaiting their departure. Where Iruka’s kimono was deep indigo, Izumo’s maroon one seemed to highlight his dark eyes.

Inoichi-sensei gave them both an approving nod when he emerged from the bathroom in his own amethyst coloured kimono and palatinate hakama. Iruka caught himself staring at the intricate bush clover stitched into the trimming. Seeing his sensei dressed in purple from head to toe was surreal, but not as much as his blond hair being down. Iruka only ever saw it in a ponytail.

“Lay your coats out so they don’t wrinkle.” Inoichi smoothed a deep palatinate montsuki out on one of the double beds. Iruka laid Kakashi’s black haori across the pillows, with Izumo’s own rossa corsa red montsuki resting beside it.

Inoichi-sensei pulled several small bottles and an aerosol spray from his bag. He arranged them on the vanity, then paused for a moment, frowning. “Where’s Kotetsu?”

“Oh,” Izumo looked up from where he was rubbing a small crease from his montsuki. “He’s polishing his armour outside. The wax he uses is silver-based. It doesn’t have the best smell.”

Inoichi almost dropped the aerosol spray he was holding. “His armour?” Their sensei’s face contorted between confusion and disbelief. “Why did he bring armour?”

Izumo’s brows knitted together, mimicking Inoichi’s confusion. “You told us to bring our formal wear.”

“Yes I did-” Inoichi cut himself off, a hand raising to his mouth quickly. “...Of course, Oyone’s wife was from The Land of Iron.”

Iruka looked from his teammate to his sensei and back again. “Umm…” What were they talking about? It felt like he was intruding on a private conversation.

“Oh, right. You don’t really know, do you, Ruka?” Izumo patted the younger genin on the shoulder, his attention shifting to the door when the knob turned. “Hey Ko, you feel up to telling Iruka about your armour?”

Kicking the door shut with his foot, Kotetsu cocked his head to the side. “Yeah, sure.” He set the pieces of his armour out on the second bed with care. A metallic smell clung to the shining pieces. “Mother was an onna-bugeisha who immigrated to Konoha from the Land of Iron. She and Mom maintained a lot of her traditions and passed them onto me. She had civilian status in the village, but she was wicked strong. Mother had me wearing dogi before I could walk, and armour by the time I entered the Academy. She taught me iaido and some other non-combative traditions from her homeland.” He rapped a knuckle against the cuirass. “Mother was a samurai and Mom was a shinobi. I am their legacy.”

Iruka bumped fists with Kotetsu. "My great-grandmother immigrated from Uzushiogakure."

Inoichi ruffled both their hair. "Regardless of where your families are from, you are soldiers of Konoha now, never forget that."

"Yes, sir."

Pulling the stool from beneath the vanity, Inoichi-sensei patted the plush seat. "Sit down, Izumo. Let’s see if I can make your guys’ unruly hair presentable.”

Getting his hair done up fancy was the most unpleasant experience of Iruka’s life. Inoichi-sensei pulled and the hair oil smelled in a way that made his nose crinkle. No product ever went in his hair besides shampoo. The oils and wax Inoichi-sensei used to smooth back his bangs and tame the flyaways left his head feeling stiff. “All done, don’t move too much until the wax sets,” Inoichi-sensei advised.

“Thank you, sensei.”

“Holy cow, Ruka! You look awesome!” Fishing a small mirror from his weapon holster, Izumo handed it to the younger genin. “See for yourself.”

When Iruka flipped the small mirror around, he barely recognized himself. The oil darkened his brown hair and left it with a delicate, glossy sheen. The thick mass was combed straight back, braided into a fishtail plait at the base of his skull and left to drape over his shoulder. The genin’s eyes widened in surprise, a hand raising to touch the braid lightly. “...I look like Mom.”

“Yes, you do.” Inoichi-sensei’s hands rested heavily on Iruka’s shoulders. “Kohari would be proud of how much you’ve grown.” His blue eyes were glassy as they shifted from Izumo to Kotetsu, “Oyone and Taji as well.”

Kotetsu bit his bottom lip to keep from crying. Izumo rubbed a few tears away. “Thank you sensei.” Inoichi had already pulled Izumo’s hair half back into a neat bun and left the rest down to frame his face. Kotetsu’s spikes proved too difficult to tame, even with the oil and wax, so Inoichi made a small feather plait along his crown The extra weight at the roots flattened his hair enough to not resemble a cactus.

Kotetsu complained it made him look like he was wearing a headband.

With their hair done, the boys helped each other gingerly into the haori, montsuki and armour. While the boys struggled with the uncomfortably fancy clothes, Inoichi used the wax to twist his hair into a neat dutch plait, complete with a stylish bump in the front. With his pale lavender montsuki added, the entire ensemble gave Inoichi a rather androgynous, youthful appearance.

"Strap your hitai-ate around the upper arm like so." Inoichi demonstrated with his own, looping it around his bicep just above the elbow. He smiled when the genin followed the example. "Good, now turn around. Let me get a good look at you three."

The boys did as told, letting their sensei fuss with the lines of their formal wear. Inoichi rubbed a handprint from Kotetsu's shoulder plate and helped Iruka pull his hakama up higher as they were a bit too big. "Iruka," Inoichi began slowly. The genin could feel his fingers against his back where the silver diamond was stitched into his haori. "Where did you get this haori?"

"My roommate, sensei." Iruka felt his cheeks flush softly. "I didn't have any formal clothes so Kakashi gave me these."

Inoichi-sensei hummed to himself as he straightened the haori out. "Wearing the Hatake Clan symbol is a bold statement to make."

Looking back at his sensei, Iruka forced down the uncertainty that statement sent crawling up his spine. “I wear the Hatake crest with pride. Kakashi and I are a family.”

Inoichi studied the genin’s face for a moment before relenting. “Never doubt your choices, Iruka.” He patted Iruka’s shoulder lightly. “Lady Susuki will be ready soon, let’s get going.” 

 


 

 

Iruka felt eyes on his back throughout the dinner service. He and Izumo flanked the main entrance, attention turned outward so as not to disturb Lady Susuki and her hosts. He picked up bits and pieces of the conversations -most surrounding court life or the impending nuptials. Once in awhile, words like shinobi, Hatake, incompetent, were picked up on, often followed by a shrill of laughter. Iruka’s hands clenched tightly against the anger curling inside him.

Izumo had a senbon between his teeth, gnawing on it like Genma did when he was upset. The whispers were getting to him too and he was the most level headed of the three genin on their team. This mission couldn’t be over fast enough.

Thankfully, the dinner service passed uneventfully. Izumo and Iruka regrouped with Kotetsu and Inoichi-sensei spoke with Lady Susuki. The genin watched with confounding confusion as their jounin sensei said something that made their client laugh behind her fan. She offered her arm to him, which Inoichi-sensei too with a respectful bow of his head. He turned, his free hand moving in shinobi signals behind his back. Spread out. Mingle.

The boys shared a quick look and turned their three-way comms on before blending in with the aristocrats present. Entertainment consisted mostly of piano music, drinks and dancing. Whispers followed Iruka across the massive study everyone was gathered in. He turned towards the hushed murmurs a few times, only for the conversations to abruptly stop,

A chill settled over the genin. The Hatake diamond on his back suddenly felt like a target. Kakashi was right, people did plot at court. Stubbornly, Iruka entertained a sudden urge to stitch the damn Hatake crest onto all his clothes for a few minutes. It left a dark satisfaction in the pit of his stomach.

A girlish giggle in his ear, followed by several frantic taps snapped Iruka from his thoughts. Maday. Help needed. The genin’s back straightened, a kunai slipping into his hand from where he hid it up his sleeve.

Another giggle followed by, “Oh Samurai-kun, you must live such a dangerous lifestyle,” came over the earring comm. Urgent. The taps sounded out. Scanning the crowd for signs of trouble, Iruka snorted back a laugh when he finally located Kotetsu. His friend was boxed in by three teenage girls in fancy kimonos trying to sweet-talk him.

False Alarm, tapped in quick succession in Iruka’s ear, followed a few seconds later by, pervert. The genin blinked in surprise. Oh, that was Izumo and he sounded angry if the furiousity to his code taps were any indication. Iruka searched the crowd for his other teammate, laughing silently to himself over the squawk Kotetsu let out. He’d never seen the older genin so flushed. Izumo always came to Kotetsu's aid, so this was new...

Oh no.

Working his way through the crowd, Iruka reached Izumo’s side and squeezed his hand tightly. The older genin’s face was flushed red, his mouth drawn down into a scowl. His dark eyes fixed on Kotetsu, glassy with unshed tears. He’s jealous. The realization was daunting, but not all that surprising when he took a moment to really think about it. Kotetsu and Izumo survived hardships together the same way he and Kakashi did. It’s okay, Zumo.” Iruka pressed his shoulder into his friend’s to offer some comfort.

“Thanks, but I’m fine, really. I know how dense Ko can be.” Izumo grinned at the younger boy. “You want to get some snacks? There are these little tarts that look really delicious.”

“Let’s eat them all and save none for Kotetsu.”

“Now you’re talking my language, Ruka" Izumo laughed.

As evening slid into nighttime, weariness started to weigh Iruka down. The social niceties of the aristocracy were more exhausting than a full day of training with Gai-san. Lady Susuki’s attitude remained dismissive, even as the team escorted her and her female attendants back to her hotel room for the night.

“Thank the Sage that is over.” Kotetsu dropped face-first onto the bed as soon as the door was shut behind them. His armour clinked together. With a groan, he started unlacing his spaulders and cuirass. “I dunno how you do it, Inoichi-sensei.”

“Years of practice.” Their jounin sensei slid the montsuki from his shoulders. “You all did well.”

“Thank you sensei.” Kicking off his zori, Iruka slipped his haori off. He carefully folded the silken garment atop the vanity. With it off, he started to feel more like himself. The Haori was restricting, the zori awkward to do any more than a light jog in.

“How long until Lady Susuki is home?” Izumo pulled Kotetsu’s tassets off, not having bothered to remove any of his own formal wear.

Inoichi skillfully folded his montsuki. “Two or three day-”

A massive bang reverberated from the hotel suite across the hall, followed by several women screaming loudly.

Iruka's heart jumped into this throat.

"Repress your chakra, weapons only." Inoichi-sensei was at the door in a flash. "Cover me."

The genin fell into formation with practiced ease, their chakra signatures lowering with an initial tiny burst that showed they were still learning. If the enemy was a sensor-type, their location would already be compromised. If not, that split second of chakra elevation would do no harm. Izumo shucked his montsuki and pulled on his neko-te. Kotetsu scrambled for his kodachi with half his armour still on. Iruka drew a kunai as he settled into place at Izumo's side.

Inoichi slipped silently across the hall. The door to Lady Susuki's hotel suite was wide open. Iruka saw the brief flash of a small mirror as their sensei checked inside. Slowly, he raised three fingers and motioned to the door. A nervous jolt went up Iruka's spine. Three fingers, that was Kotetsu's signal to move first. 

Falling into a ready stance, Kotetsu drew his kodachi above his head and eased through the open door without a sound. A heartbeat later and Izumo slipped in behind him. Iruka inhaled deeply through his nose and followed on Izumo's heels.

The sitting area was dark, a cold breeze drifting through massive windows that were shattered from the outside in. An attendant laid slumped by the kotatsu. Biting his lip, Iruka inched over to her and felt for a pulse. Fear clawed at his insides before he got a better grip on himself. The attendant's head was twisted at an unnatural angle, her skin already cooling.

Saying a silent prayer in his mind for the young woman, Iruka tapped dead into his earring comm and shook his head. She was gone.

Slowly, they cleared the kitchenette and bathroom. Three more dead attendants were uncovered. No sign of Lady Susuki with jus the bedroom left to check.

As they crept towards the bedroom, muffled voices permeated from the wood door. Inoichi held up a hand to halt their advance. Iruka crouched by Izumo using the wardrobe as cover. Three different voices, all masculine, spoke in hushed tones. A three-man squad was most likely.

Inoichi caught Iruka's gaze, his fingers curling into the shinobi hand sign for mist . The genin's heart pounded in his ears, hands trembling slightly as he ran through the seals for his Hiding in Mist Jutsu: ox, snake, ram. Iruka drew in a deep breath, his chakra churning through his stomach and lungs as he exhaled the mist.

The air grew thick and moist as the mist built. Izumo tied an explosive tag to a kunai and tossed it at the door. Everyone ducked back. The kunai hit its mark, the door exploding on impact. Iruka held the ram seal through the impingement, his knuckles turning white from the force of his own grip. The mist blew back, then bellowed through the doorway, into the vacuum the explosion left behind.

From the corner of his eye, Iruka caught Kotetsu shift into a nuki uchi stance and charge into the bedroom. A wuick flash of uncertainty tightened Iruka's muscles. He forced down his jittering nerves. Lady Susuki was in danger, his teammates were counting on him. What were all those months of training for?! A small voice screamed in the back of his mind. Iruka inhaled through his nose, forcing more chakra to churn and shift the mist. It grew thick, the clingy moisture dense enough to clog lungs.

The clang of clashing blades and Kotetsu’s pained yelp filtered through the mist. The air beside Iruka chilled several degrees, a soft snarl rumbling through Izumo’s chest. “Ko, you idiot,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

Inoichi fell back between his remaining two genin and tapped both their shoulders. Permission to engage. Iruka pulled a kunai to ready himself. Ducking low, he and Izumo hugged the hall and slipped into the room. Izumo disappeared to his right as Iruka dropped into a crouch by the door. His eyes slipped shut to concentrate on his hearing, to pick up on the sounds of battle as he’d been training himself to do. The movements were frantic, permeated by weapons clashing, pained panting and crisscrossing footsteps. The sound images jumbled behind his eyelids, conjugating into an amalgamated mess.

Gritting his teeth in frustration, Iruka pushed his chakra towards his ears. Pain split through his head, something wet tricked out of his ears, but the images sharpened. Each noise flashed a silhouette in sparks of illuminated silver. There! Kotetsu favouring his left side, back to back with Izumo. Inoichi approaching from behind. Three unknown shinobi, all fully grown men. He tapped the information into his comm using their code - Three shinobi. Adult male.

Inoichi-sensei’s hand squeezed Iruka’s shoulder. The genin felt a strange prickling at the base of his nape. Goosebumps spread along his arms, a shudder making him lose focus on the sound images. “Iruka,” His jounin sensei’s voice echoed through his head. “ Drop the mist.”

Iruka breathed deep and cut the flow of chakra buzzing around the room. The mist cleared within seconds. Izumo and Kotetsu came into view, both locked weapon-to-weapon with one of the enemy shinobi. Four lines stood out clearly on their hitai-ate: Kiri-nin.

Inoichi-sensei’s hands came together, forefingers pressed to thumbs to make a square. “Mind-Body Disturbance Jutsu.”

The Kiri-nin facing Izumo broke from their deadlock with a backwards leap. He drew a kunai from his weapon's holster and swung it to slit Izumo's throat. The weapon's point stopped just short of cutting his jugular. A thin trail of blood trickled down Izumo's throat. “W-what?" The Kiri-nin stepped back with a look of pure terror on his face and charged Kotetsu’s opponent. “I can’t control my body!”

To the genins’ utter shock, the enemy shinobi ran his ally through with a tanto, then plunged his sword through his own chest. The bodies dropped to the floor in a  pool of blood. Kotetsu, with blood dying his upper sleeve red, held an arm out before Izumo and shuffled them both away from the bodies. “Holy shit.”

Iruka stared at Inoichi-sensei wide-eyed, his face pale. That had to be a Yamanaka Clan technique. A terrifying technique.

“Formation Five.” Inoichi-sensei sent the command and the three genin sprang into action like a well-oiled machine. Their sensei drilled formations and hand seals into them as relentlessly as he did chakra control and chakra suppression. The four Konoha-nin went back-to-back, each facing one direction. “Show yourself,” Their sensei ordered.

The third man!

The shinobi seemed to dissolve from the very shadows. He stood tall and muscular, his face hidden behind a porcelain mask similar to those of Konoha’s ANBU. A jet of blue hair seemed to defy gravity in a way similar to Kakashi’s. Slung over his shoulder, like a sack of potatoes, was Lady Susuki, unconscious but breathing.

“Let her go!” Kotetsu yelled.

Inoichi-sensei’s hands flashed through a series of seals so quickly, Iruka couldn’t determine which ones he used. “Suiton: Water Pistol.” Drawing in a deep breath, the jounin shot several lightning-fast bullets of water at the masked shinobi. He dodged each one with Lazy Susuki still slung over his shoulder. The powerful water jets blasted holes into whatever sold surface they connected with, chasing the masked shinobi along the floor. He jumped into the air to avoid one aimed at his legs.

Inoichi’s hands tented into a triangle. “Mind Transfer Jutsu.” Kotetsu and Izumo caught their sensei’s body as he began to crumpled.

The shinobi landed in a crouch, his body taut and shaking. “Let… go…” His free hand slowly raised towards his face, his hold on Lady Susuki slacking slightly. “Get… out… of… my… head…”

Inoichi coughed wetly, blood running from his mouth, eyes and ears. Kotetsu’s grip tightened on their sensei’s lavender kimono. Izumo’s face paled. “Sensei!”

Iruka stepped in front of his teammates, hands running through the snake, monkey, horse seals to ready a Katon Dan to fight with. This man would have to get through him if he wanted to hurt Inoichi-sensei, Izumo or Kotetsu.

“You… will… listen…” The man’s hand smacked over his mask, fingers splayed wide like he was having trouble controlling his motor skills. His entire frame shook, fingers slowly closing around the edges. “I said… get… OUT!” There was a surge of raw chakra and a sickening crack. Inoichi-sensei suddenly gasped, his eyes flying open.

The shinobi’s mask cracked from the edges inward. It shattered, the pieces clattering to the floor in broken fragments. Scowling, mismatched eyes too reminiscent of Kakashi’s flickered from face to face. Izumo drew in a sharp breath. “That’s a byakugan.”

The man stood on shaky legs, breathing laboured from exertion. “F-Fucking Yamanakas.” He readjusted his hold on Lady Susuki. “Tell you’re Daimyo, if he wants his precious bride back, he’ll be ready to pay a hefty price.” Pulling a smoke bomb from his jacket, the enemy shinobi threw it onto the floor. Thick, black smoke billowed into the wrecked hotel room, obstructing sight, smell and sound. Wood began to corrode and curl on contact.

"Fall back, it's poisonous!" Inoichi-sensei struggled to his feet and pushed his team roughly towards the door. The genin scrambled into the hall with their jounin sensei close behind. “Izumo, Iruka, I need as much water as you two can produce. Kotetsu, cut the water pipes in the ceiling.”

“Yes, Sensei!.”

Building chakra in the bottom of his feet, Kotetsu ran up the wall and started hacking through plaster and wood with his kodachi. Pieces fell to the floor in chunks, metal hit metal with loud clangs. The pipes groaned, then burst with a dull sching . Water fell upon their shoulders like heavy rain. Izumo, Iruka and Inoichi ran through their own series of hand seals. Three distinct chakra signatures buzzed through the air.

“Suiton: Wild Water Wave!”

“Suiton: Water Bullet Jutsu!”

“Suiton: Great Waterfall Jutsu.”

Inhaling deeply, Iruka forced his chakra to knead quickly in his stomach and expelled as much water out of his mouth as he could. It combined with Izumo’s, creating a powerful torrent Inoichi-sensei took control of and forged with his own water jet. The water from the broken pipes bolstered the deluge’s power. Inoichi’s hands trembled from the force it took to manlpulate that much water.

The powerful current whipped around them like a snake, then blasted into Lady Susuki’s hotel suite. The surging water, shattered windows and walls still intact from the earlier brawl. The torrent swept the dark smoke away, dissolving the poison with sheer, chakra-enhanced power.

Iruka’s chakra pathways burned from the effort to maintain his water bullet. Sweat beaded across his forehead, his vision blackened at the corners, chakra reserves dipping. Izumo dropped beside him in a panting, sweaty mess. Just a little more. The genin reached deep, pulled at the last of his chakra. The burning seemed to buzz through his very veins. Just a little more!! Squeezing his eyes shut, Iruka pushed, pushed, pushed-

Pain erupted from his throat, raw and burning across his tongue and lips in agonizing heat. Steam wafted from his mouth, the water bubbling as it blended with the torrent his instructor controlled. Inoichi-sensei grunted in pain, his knees buckling. Through his swimming vision, Iruka saw the skin along his sensei’s hands and arms redden and blister wherever he came into contact with the water jet.

Steam billowed off the speeding water torrent as it bulked and smashed the remainder of the door off its hinges. Iruka's chakra dipped alarmingly low. All his strength rushed from inside him with the last remnants of his chakra. Iruka’s head swam as his legs gave out. The pain throbbing from his mouth and throat was pure agony.

“Ruka!” Kotetsu grabbed his kimono so he dropped against the older boy’s chest. “Shit! Zumo, he’s blistering bad.” Izumo and Kotetsu hovered over him, their forms shifting in and out of focus. Whatever he’d done to himself, it hurt so damn bad.

“That’s second-degree burns, holy hell.” Iruka grasped Izumo’s wrist, his nails digging into skin hard. Grabbing his hand, Izumo squeezed tightly. “Don’t worry, Ru. I’ve got you. Inoichi-sensei, help!!”

A glowing, green hand closed around his throat. Foreign chakra pushed haphazardly through his skin without any finesse or care. Iruka’s muscles tensed and locked against the intrusive chakra. The pain increased so suddenly, his back buckled off the floor.

Iruka’s vision went white, and then mercifully, black.

Chapter Text

Iruka awoke to a searing pain in his mouth and throat. He swallowed around a broken whine, his lips unnaturally dry and cracked. Every movement made the skin pull taut and ache. Something warm pressed to either side of him. He knew it was his teammates even before Kotetsu cried, “Sensei, he’s awake!” They never left each other alone when sick or injured. Reaching for their hands, Iruka whimpered as healing chakra encompassed his throat. The ache numbed to a dull throb.

“Easy, Iruka. Try to stay relaxed.” Inoichi-sensei’s voice soothed quietly. His hands brushed healing chakra across Iruka’s jugular. “Open your mouth for me.”

The muscles tugged as he struggled to obey the command. His palate and tongue tingled when his sensei's chakra dipped inside his mouth. Iruka cracked an eye open, his vision swimming for a moment. Izumo, Kotetsu and Inoichi-sensei’s faces slowly came into focus. They all looked so exhausted, peakish, but in one piece. Guilt churned in his stomach. Izumo and Kotetsu were close to tears, he must've caused so much worry.

“No extensive scarring, good.” Inoichi-sensei sighed in relief and drew his hands back. “Try to say something.”

Bringing a hand to his throat, Iruka swallowed dry and rubbed the raw flesh. “...I… I’m… sorry,” the response came out broken and hoarse. Fresh pain throbbed in his throat. The genin coughed wetly into his palm., his hand coming away bloody.

Inoichi-sensei’s glowing hands returned to his throat. The healing chakra numbed the pain enough for Iruka to sip some water. His mouth and throat were unbearably dry. The jounin made him repeat the process of talking and healing until Iruka could string together a five-word sentence without damaging his throat worse.

“That will have to do, for now, I’m running too low on chakra to heal more.” Their sensei popped two soldier pills into his mouth and held the package out to his genin. “Take one only. These aren’t meant for genin consumption, but considering our team’s current condition, this is our only viable course of action.”

“Right.” Kotetsu grabbed one of the black pills. His face screwed up as he swallowed it whole. Izumo and Iruka followed their friend’s lead and bit into the hard pill. The boost was almost instantaneous. A full-body shudder ran through Iruka, chakra buzzing back to capacity just beneath his skin. It felt foreign, not quite his own. His stomach flipped violently in a struggle to adjust.

“W-what… happened?” Iruka motioned to his throat, then vaguely in the direction he thought Lady Susuki’s ruined hotel suite was. “The Kiri-nin...”

“His name is Ao.” Inoichi-sensei covered the raw skin around Iruka’s mouth with white field bandages. “He’s a Hunter-nin from Kirigakure, a highly-skilled sensor-type with a water affinity. I’ve faced him in battle before. What I can’t figure out is why he’s after Lady Susuki. And to ransom her for money? Something strange is going on.”

“The reason why doesn’t matter, sensei! We gotta get her back,” Kotetsu interjected. “Pain in the butt or not, she’s our client and she’s in danger.” 

“As your jounin sensei, I cannot condone sending three unprepared genin up against an ANBU level opponent.” Inoichi-sensei scowled, anger tightening his facial features. “We’re returning to the village.”

“I ain’t leaving someone to die, not again!” Kotetsu slammed his fist into the wall, making Iruka and Izumo jump. “We can do it! I know we can.”

“This mission is officially over your skill level.” The Yamanaka folded his arms over his chest, his mouth turned down in displeasure. “Choosing to continue could get all three of you killed.”

“Choosing not to will get Lady Susuki killed,” Izumo pointed out gently. “It’s our duty to carry out the missions assigned to us by Hokage-sama.”

Iruka squeezed Izumo’s hand, nodding in agreement. Lady Susuki would be dead by the time a relief team arrived. “...Please, sensei.” It hurt to speak, but he managed the quiet plead in a raspy voice.

“No, Iruka. That little stunt with your fire affinity almost burned your throat closed.” The jounin smoothed a cooling bandage over Iruka’s throat.

The guilt inside him only grew. Iruka chewed on his bottom lip. Inoichi-sensei’s hands were heavily bandaged. Was that from manipulating the boiling water he added to their combined suiton? Would he have burned Izumo or Kotetsu like that if they’d been in contact with the jutsu? “Sensei, we… we’re shinobi too.”

The room went deadly silent, the air thick with tension. Finally, their sensei cursed. “Oh, bloody hell, I’m going to regret this...” Inoichi-sensei scrubbed a hand over his face with a groan. “We need intel before we can make a move.”

“How do we get that?” Kotetsu helped Iruka into a sitting position, he and Izumo moving to flank the younger genin once again.

We don’t. I’m too well known around Tanzaku Gai. You’ll have to do this yourselves.” Inoichi pulled a scroll from his pack. Rolling it open, he summoned smudging charcoal, a make-up kit and ratty-looking clothes. “Get changed into something simple, no shinobi gear. The hitai-ates stay with me.”

The genin scrambled to their feet. Packs came out, formal wear folded and left on the bed, and basic gear pulled on. Dressed in knee-length, navy shinobi pants and plain shirts, the three settled onto the floor with their jounin sensei. Inoichi handed each genin a dirty, ripped shirt. “Put those on.”

Kotetsu wrinkled his nose a bit at the dirty shirt. Rolling his eyes, Izumo shoved the garment over his head. “It’s our mission, do as your instructed.” He turned to help Iruka with his own.

Kotetsu shoved his hands through the armholes, pouting at his best friend. “Yes, Sir.”

Smudging some charcoal onto his fingers, Inoichi started rubbing the dark substance into Iruka’s cheeks. “Rub some into your arms and legs.” He handed the charcoal to Iruka. “How are you doing?”

“I...I’m okay.” Iruka smudged the charcoal into his bare legs. His throat felt tight and achy, the muscles tugging strangely when he spoke.

Inoichi-sensei used the make-up kit to grey his skin and yellow the bandages around his mouth and face. “I want you to refrain from using any oral-based jutsu until you’re healed better.” He pulled Iruka’s hair down, mussing the wax-coated locks to give him a haggard, dirty appearance.

Nodding, Iruka rubbed his hands across his pants to get some of the excess charcoal off. Inoichi-sensei was right. Using more suiton or fire jutsu through his mouth would damage his throat worse. He couldn’t take the risk of getting pulled from the mission. Izumo and Kotetsu needed his support.

While their jounin sensei smudged make-up and charcoal onto his teammates’ faces, Iruka discreetly hid some shuriken and senbon in the hem of his shirt and the waistband of his pants as Ibiki showed him to. By the time he finished, Izumo and Kotetsu were almost unrecognizable. They both looked younger than their thirteen years, with sunken cheeks and too-large eyes. The make-up did a spectacular job of making the three genin look like dirty street urchins.

Iruka settled at Kotetsu’s side as Inoichi-sensei drew a map of Tanzaku Gai from his weapon’s holster. “The easiest way for children your age to move around unnoticed is as street kids.” He rolled the map out between them. “From past experience, there are three places in this city to most likely to gather pertinent information from.” Inoichi pointed out three different spots on the map. “The red-light district, the warehouses, or this poorer area where many homeless citizens reside. Split up to cover more ground.” Inoichi rolled the map up and tucked it into his lavender hakama. “Find out what you can and report back. Keep out of sight and your chakra suppressed. Do not take unnecessary risks. I’m giving you three hours.”

“Yes, Sensei.” 

 


 

The trio parted ways a few blocks from the hotel with Izumo heading to where the homeless gathered and Kotetsu going to check the warehouses. This left Iruka to skulk out the red-light district. Fighting down an awkward blush, the genin crept his way through the mostly deserted streets.

The district itself wasn’t difficult to find. Red lamps illuminated the streets leading up to it. Several women in thick make-up and yukata accompanied men to and from the brothel buildings. The air smelled heavily of smoke and booze. One worker had her hands down a client’s pants right in the middle of the street. Ducking his head in embarrassment, Iruka scurried by and slipped into the shadows.

Crouching down, he pushed the tiniest bit of chakra into his ears to increase his hearing. Several conversations came into focus, like turning up the dial on a radio. Iruka’s eyes slid shut, letting him better concentrate on those talking around him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just conversations he picked up on. The boy’s face reddened several shades, his ears burning up to the top. Someone was having sex very close by.

Shifting away from the… extracurricular activities to his left, Iruka tried to concentrate on those passing boy. The courtesans whispered to each other about prices and unsavoury things clients asked them to do. Some complained about patrons trying to sample the merchandise before paying, others about customers being too drunk. The men boasted about the girls they fucked, which ones were the best and about a frigid bitch named Momiji.

None of it was information he could use. Not until- "they have the best selection anyway." An older man was saying.

His companion clicked his tongue after a pause. "They're discreet, right?"

"Most definitely." The first man agreed, voices growing faint as the pair moved away from Iruka's hiding spot. " Oiroke Haven specializes in shinobi and aristocratic clientele after all."

Bingo.

Cutting the excess chakra flow to his ears, Iruka waited until the men were out of earshot, then slipped from his hiding spot. Oiroke Haven wasn't hard to find. Glowing, neon signs pointed the way to a rather large brothel draped in tapestries of red velvet.

Bringing a hand to his ear comm, Iruka tapped a brief message to his teammates: Possible lead by Dolphin.

Affirmative. Moon has nothing to note.

No leads by Steele.

Iruka ducked behind a dumpster as a large caravan circled around to the back of Oiroke Haven. The genin crawled under the dumpster, watching silently as several muscular, non-shinobi men began unloading crates from the back. Ah, they must be delivering supplies to the brothel.

That could be a way inside.

Crawling from beneath the dumpster, Iruka tugged on the hem of a man's shirt. "Hey Mister," he rasped in a weak voice. The lingering damage to his throat made him sound sickly and small. "I can help."

The man glanced over his shoulder, dark brows furrowing into a scowl. "Beat it, Kid. We don't need the help of a scrawny urchin.”

Biting his bottom lip, Iruka made his chin tremble like he was about to cry. His hands clenched into his shirt, kneading his stomach through the dirty material. “But I’m hungry,” he whimpered brokenly. This wasn’t something he had to fake. The weeks preceding the Kyuubi attack left him intimately familiar with the empty ache of starvation.

Something behind the man’s dark eyes softened slightly. Grimacing, he rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “Look, Kid, I’d like to help ya, but my ass’ll get in trouble if I let-”

“Yo Waraji, what’s with the throwaway?” A grey-haired teen around Genma’s age hauled a tote up onto his shoulder. “You collecting strays now?”

“Aw shove it, Zori. The brat’s just hurt and hungry.”

“Let him work for his supper then.”

“We aren’t running a charity here. If Gato finds out, it’ll be our heads on a fucking pike,” Waraji grumbled.

“You want the extra set of hands or not?” Zori sauntered over to the pair and unceremoniously dumped the tote into Iruka’s arms. The heavy weight almost buckled his knees. What in the world was in this thing?! Zori guffawed and smacked Iruka on the back. “Unload those boxes from the truck and carry them to the kitchen. The Madam usually gives us a meal when the job's done. Just keep your head down and don’t fuck up or you’ll get fucked up, got it?”

Iruka swallowed hard, his face paling. “Got it.” Clutching the box tightly, he hurried inside through the loading bay with Zori and Waraji’s laughter echoing behind him. The genin carried the box to the kitchen like instructed. He passed a few other workers on the way but kept his distance. He made several trips from the caravan to the kitchen, eyes and ears alert for anything of use.

Sex, crying, screams, the noise was muffled by the walls, but not enough for Iruka to ignore. Men came and went from rooms. Some were locked behind them, once in a while, a half-dressed woman, high or drunk, sometimes both, stumbled out behind their patrons.

The pretty one with violet hair wasn’t much older than him. More a girl than the woman her heavy make-up and fancy dressed tried to make her appear. They almost collided in the hall. Iruka caught sight of several bite marks along the top of her breast as she pulled her kimono more firmly around herself. Glassy, russet eyes bore into him, scrutinizing in a way that made his blood run cold. “Well, you’re in way over your head, Newbie.”

Iruka’s breath caught in his aching throat. “W-what?” He couldn’t take his eyes off her. The whole situation screamed wrong, wrong wrong.

Her petite mouth turned down in a pout. She banged on the door opposite them so hard, it creaked open a few inches. “Will ya all just shut up in there? You’re gonna lose all your value.” She flicked Iruka’s nose as she sauntered past. “Sometimes I think it’d just be better if they disappeared , ya know?”

And with that, she rounded a corner and was gone.

The hallway went eerily quiet. No crying, no sex, nothing but the sound of his own heartbeat pounding loudly in his ears. What… what was that?

A tiny whimper broke Iruka from his dazed thoughts. Was that a baby? With his heart in his throat, the genin pushed the door open a bit farther. Iruka froze, goosebumps broke out along his arms. A shiver crawled down his spine and seemed to root his feet to the floor. Not a baby but-

Children.

All his age and younger. Bound and shackled, to the wall. To the floor. To each other.

They stared at him through sunken, rounded eyes, dirty and shivering. The older girls shielded the younger children, hiding the smallest behind their backs.

Iruka saw red.

He was across the room before he realized what he was doing. With kunai in hand, he hacked through the binding ropes and broke the weaker links in their shackles. The metal cuffs hung limp at their ankles. There was nothing he could do about that now. "Go." He didn't recognize the growl as his own, didn't register he'd broken a window latch until it clattered to the concrete at his feet. Iruka thrust the window open. Fresh air wafted into the stale room. "Run."

For what felt like an eternity, no one moved. The children and Iruka stared each other down. Breathing hard, he hit the windowsill with an open palm. “Go!”

That one word broke the stalemate. The children bolted for the window. One-by-one, over a dozen children, clambered into the dark night. Iruka helped hoist several of the little ones out into the waiting arms of the older children. “Stick to the shadows.” Iruka leaned out the window far enough to point along the adjacent wall. “Stay low.” A few heads nodded and ducked down as the small group slipped into the darkness.

The sound of approaching footsteps echoed through the empty room as Iruka slid down from the window. Using as little chakra as he could, the genin scrambled up the wall. He crouched in the shadows above the door and tried to keep his breathing stable.

“-don’t care if you need to send a message to the Daimyo! I don’t associate with Kirigakure any longer. It’s… bad for business.” A heavy-set woman trudged by the half-opened door with a foreign shinobi on her heels. Iruka felt his stomach do a somersault. That was the shinobi that kidnapped Lady Susuki!

“It would be in your best interests to provide further aid to our cause.”

“Fuck your cause, Ao. Kirigakure’s internal struggles have nothing to do with Tanzaku Gai.” The large woman, wrapped in silks of bright pink and orange, rounded on the shinobi. “Now, if you aren’t going to sample the goods, get out of my establishment.”

A series of coded taps sounded in Iruka’s ear. Blood found in warehouse. Steele searching further. That was Kotetsu! The genin forced himself to remain perfectly still while the pair in the hall bickered back and forth. There was no way to tell if the blood was connected to their current search yet. A small part of Iruka couldn’t help the hope that burned in his chest. It might not be too late to rescue Lady Susuki. Surely Ao wouldn’t kill her if he meant to ransom the Daimyo’s bride back to him?

Iruka remained tense and still until the woman and Ao continued down the hall. Only then did the genin breathe a sigh of relief. Shimmying across the ceiling, Iruka crawled out the open window and up the side of the brothel. Laying out flat on the tiled roof, he kept a tight cap on his chakra and sent a quick, coded message over their three-way communicators: target spotted.

Several minutes passed before that shock of blue hair emerged from Oiroke Haven’s back entrance. He watched Ao wind his way through the streets towards the poorer district Izumo was checking out. Iruka scrambled to his feet and took a running jump to the adjacent rooftop. He followed Ao from several rooftops back, keeping that distinctive hair just in view. If he could tail the man, he might be able to find where Lady Susuki was being held.

Dolphin in pursuit. Iruka tapped into his earring comm between jumps.

He didn’t wait for a response, not when Ao rounds a corner and out of sight. Iruka’s stomach twisted in panic. Oh no! No, no no! He jumped to the ground, breaking his fall with a roll to keep up his momentum. His footsteps remained silent, even through his hurried panic. He rounded a building, halting at the last place he’d spotted the blue-haired shinobi.

Nothing. He was gone.

“Damn it!” Iruka tugged at his shirt in frustration. His time was up. With a final glance around, Iruka took to the shadows for cover. Dolphin lost Target. He sent the message over their three-way communicator with a heavy heart. This could’ve been their only chance to find Lady Susuki and he blew it.

No leads. Moon regrouping. Came one reply. Ah, so Izumo had no luck. Damn it. Iruka broke into a jog, heading back towards their hotel. Inoichi-sensei would know what their next steps could be. Maybe Kotetsu found something at the warehouses-

Wait, why hadn’t Kotetsu responded to their messages?

Steele, respond. Izumo tapped over the comm.

Iruka added his own prompt to the messages when there was still no response from Kotetsu. That wasn't like him. Had his earring gotten damaged somehow? Worry settled in the pit of the genin's stomach. Something wasn't right. He sped into a full-on run, taking the steps two at a time when he made it back to the hotel.

There was still no word from Kotetsu by the time Iruka made it to their hotel room. A frantic Izumo had already arrived. His friend paced back and forth before Inoichi-sensei, wringing his wrists. "Kotetsu isn't responding." When he looked to Iruka, his eyes were brimming with tears. "He won't answer, Ruka!"

The genin hugged Izumo tightly to keep his friend from entirely freaking out. "I know. What do we do, Inoichi-sensei?"

The jounin was already reaching for his weapon's holster. "We debrief and we go find him."

 


 

A knock at the front door pulled Kakashi from his book. That was strange. Missions were always delivered via window ANBU or an avian summons, not his door. While he'd returned to active duty, Hokage-sama had yet to assign him anything over an easy B-rank. Placing his book aside, Kakashi pulled his mask up over his nose and answered the door.

Shikaku Nara’s dark eyes met his visible one. ANBU’s muscles tensed, his hackles raised. Why was the new Jounin Commander at his apartment? Forcing himself to keep a neutral face, Kakashi bowed his head to the high ranking shinobi standing before him. “Nara-sama.”

Shikaku returned the polite gesture. “Kakashi-san, I apologize for showing up unannounced, but I was wondering if you were free to join me for dinner.”

Kakashi’s brows dipped into a frown, his grey eye sharpening beneath the half-lidded facade. Warning bells went off in his head. He and Shikaku rarely associated on a professional level, let alone personal.  For the highest-ranking jounin in the village to pay him a private visit, something major had to be happening. “Do you have commands for me, sir?”

“Ah, no.” The jounin rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “This is of a personal nature.”

Kakashi’s grip tightened on the doorknob until his knuckles turned white. What personal business could Hiruzen’s commander have with him? The ANBU mentally ran over his last few interactions with Shikaku. All brief and professional, nothing out of the ordinary came to mind. As a member of the ANBU Black Ops, he rarely dealt with the man. That didn’t mean Kakashi disrespected Shikaku, nor that he’d disobey him. He was, technically, still a jounin himself. “...Very well.”

The tension drained from Shikaku’s face, his shoulders visibly relaxing some. “Please follow me then.”

Kakashi slipped on his sandals, locked the apartment door and threw up his wards. The walk to Yakiniku Q was silent and tense. He kept several strides behind Shikaku, even when the man slowed for him. Thankfully, the Nara was smart enough to pick up on the distance being deliberate on Kakashi's behalf. He shoved his hands into his pockets, letting Kakashi do as he pleased.

Yoshino Nara looked up at the pair when they arrived. Her lips curved into a smile. “I hope you’re hungry.” She motioned for Kakashi to take a seat as Shikaku made himself comfortable on the zabuton beside her.

Settling stiffly across from the Naras, Kakashi silently studied the couple and their son. Shikaku slouched, feigning indifference. The hand placed lightly on his wife’s knee gave away his affection. Her lean into his shoulder presented the couple as a powerful, united front. The tight grip Yoshino had on their toddler son showed her overprotectiveness of the boy. Shikamaru, for his part, simply relaxed in his mother’s arms, dark eyes lazily fixed on him.

That didn’t fool Kakashi for a minute. The kid held the same sharp glint to his eyes Shikaku did. There was a brilliant mind at work under that lethargy. He made a mental note to keep tabs on the kid, then shifted his attention back to the couple seated across from him. “What is this about, Nara-sama?”

The Naras shared a brief look. Yoshino reached for Shikaku’s hand and laced their fingers together. “We wanted to discuss Iruka-”

“He's none of your concern.” Kakashi sat up straighter, his visible eye narrowing.

Yoshino's face flushed red with rage. The woman was known for her quick temper. "How dare you interrupt-"

"It's okay, Yoshi. Getting upset will only hinder at this point." Shikaku squeezed her arm gently. Kakashi’s eye visibly rounded as Konoha’s jounin commander shifted onto his knees, braced his hands against his upper legs and bowed low. “Kakashi-san, all three of us care deeply for Iruka-kun. Please listen to what we have to say, that’s all we’re asking.”

"That and to dampen your killing intent before it draws a damn ANBU platoon,” Yoshino interjected with a furious hiss.

A quick chakra flare clamped down Kakashi’s killing intent and his rising rage. His hands fisted against his thighs as he drew in several steady breaths. He hadn’t realized killing intent had leaked through his anger. How egregious for a shinobi of his rank to act like a petulant child in front of the damn Jounin Commander and his wife. “Fine.” He’d accepted their invitation of his own volition after all.

Yoshino studied him for a moment, sharp eyes searching his mostly-covered face. Whatever she found must have satisfied her. With a soft sigh, she laid two sets of half-filled paperwork on the table and turned them around for the teen to read. Kakashi's blood ran cold.

There, placed so simply before him, was Adoption papers for one Iruka Umino and a Legal Guardianship form for Kakashi Hatake. "...What?" He heard himself say over the sound of his own heart pounding loudly in his ears. Why in the hell was the head family of the Nara Clan suddenly approaching him with this? It made no damn sense!

“We approached Iruka-kun to adopt him a few months ago.” Shikaku tapped the adoption papers just over the date that read for the middle of February. He'd been on that blasted mission then. “He refused.”

Reached for her husband’s hand, Yoshino held it tightly in both her own. “Iruka told us you are his family. He wouldn’t consider leaving you alone. We didn’t know the extent of your bond when he first asked, but we do now. You're the reason he didn't starve to death after the Kyuubi Attack. Stubborn boy..." Tears brimmed in Yoshino's eyes. She quickly wiped them away. "We understand you’re a packaged deal and we’d love to have you both.”

Kakashi’s mouth opened and closed quickly beneath his mask. No words came. Absentmindedly, he scrubbed a hand through his wild hair. Emotions rolled in a conflicted pastiche through his gut, shock, anger, confusion, bitterness. The urge to stubbornly refused was right on the tip of his tongue. Things were fine the way they were. He was an ANBU captain, the best of his generation, he could look after one genin perfectly fine.

Kakashi squeezed his mismatched eyes tightly shut. Why the heck would someone want him now? The Naras had to have an ulterior motive. They couldn’t want Iruka badly enough to bring him into the mix. Who’d want cold-blooded, friend-killer Kakashi Hatake hanging around, influencing the Nara Clan’s heir?

He ignored the dull ache in his chest. It was fine, none of that mattered in the long run.

He didn’t want the hassle anyway.

“I am aware of your history, Kakashi-san.” Shikaku gentle drawl cut through the ANBU's jumbled thoughts.

“We aren’t trying to replace who you’ve lost.” Yoshino reached across the table until her fingertips brushed lightly across Kakashi’s. The contact raised goosebumps all along his arm. “I know you and Iruka are considered adults as long as you wear Konoha’s hitai-ate," she continued gently, "but family is important. You're both so young. You need someone to look out for you. We want to be that for you and him."

Pulling his hand away from Yoshino’s, Kakashi clasped them together in his lap. A tense silence stretched between them, giving the ANBU time to gather his shattered thoughts. Of course, Shikaku would know of his past. His rank as Jounin Commander made him pertinent to the personal information of every damn jounin in the village. Active ANBU agent or not, he was still a ranked jounin.

Kakashi caught Yoshino sending her husband a lost look. “Will you at least consider our proposal?” she asked quietly.

It took all his self-control not to flat out refuse the simple request. He and Iruka had each other. They didn’t need anyone else disturbing the fragile home they'd built together. Almost two years spent leaning on each other, supporting and caring for each other seemingly meant nothing to the Naras. Kakashi's teeth clenched together. Unlike Shikaku and Yoshino, he'd do anything to make Iruka happy.

Anything.

In the end, that was why he reached for the papers. Iruka's happiness. He folded the forms and shoved them in his worn medical pouch. Schooling his expression, Kakashi shot Yoshino and Shikaku a final glance as he stood to leave. "I make no promises."

The knowing smile that curves Yoshino's lips raised his hackles again. "Shinobi don't promise, Kakashi-san."

It wasn't until he was almost home that Kakashi figured out the cryptic meaning behind those parting words.

Even with the urge to, he hadn't told them 'no'.

Chapter Text

"Let me get this straight." Inoichi-sensei tented his fingers and brought his hands to his mouth in contemplation. "You bought three-way communication devices, disguised as earrings, without telling me." His thick brows dipped into a scowl. "Then pierced your ears with senbon."

"Yoshino-sensei healed us afterwards." Once the words were out, Iruka realized that information tidbit probably didn't help the team’s situation. They'd had the earrings for almost a year. For the genin, the comms were just another part of their teamwork. Instead of pointing that out, Iruka pulled his hair back into a ponytail and stepped into his sandals.

Burying his face in his hands, their sensei shook his head. "I don't know if I should be impressed or angry you've kept this from me for so long."

"We intended to tell you, the best opportunity just never came." Izumo looked up from where he was strapping his weapon's holster to his thigh. "You always tell us teamwork is important. We were trying to make ours more cohesive.”

"We'll discuss this later." Inoichi-sensei tossed their hitai-ate back to them and tied his own around his forehead. "Finding Kotetsu and Susuki is our top priority. Are you ready?"

Both boys nodded. “Yes, sensei.”

“Good, suppress your chakra and follow me.”

They traversed the city in silence, chakra tightly capped and senses heightened. Inoichi-sensei took them through the shadows, past shops, motels and restaurants, towards the southernmost tip of the walled city. The warehouses loomed large and dark by the southern gate. A shiver crawled up Iruka’s spine. Unlike the red-light district with its bright lights and lively patrons, the warehouse district was empty, abandoned under the darkness of night.

Inoichi called the boys to a halt on the roof of a large warehouse. “Cover me.” Taking a seat, the jounin made a ram seal and closed his eyes. "Mind Transmission Jutsu!"

Iruka and Izumo shifted into position against their sensei’s back with kunai drawn. For a few long minutes, the dark night was eerily quiet. Cold sweat trickled down the back of Iruka's neck, his muscles tense and ready to strike.

Inoichi-sensei came back to them with a sigh and lowered his hands. "I can't reach Kotetsu. He's either unconscious or-"

"He's not dead!" Izumo's grip on his kunai tightened. "There's no way he'd die on us like that."

Iruka pressed his shoulder into the older genin's. "We'll find him, Zumo."

“Let’s go.” Standing, Inoichi-sensei walked to the edge of the roof and dropped silently off the side. The genin followed close behind, rolling to absorb the shock of their descent. They landed in an alleyway between two of the larger warehouses. Straightening from his crouch, Iruka stilled when their sensei held up a hand. “Someone’s coming, get ready.”

Iruka and Izumo slipped back into the shadows, suppressing their chakra with that initial, unmastered burst. Both genin held their kunai at the ready, eyes focused on the mouth of the alley.

"Help!!" A feminine voice screamed so loudly it was almost a shrill. "Somebody help me, please!"

The genin shared a quick, surprised glance. 'Lady Susuki?' Izumo mouth, his brows dipped in confusion Iruka mirrored. How in the heck was she here of all places? Was it a trick of the enemy to draw them out? Was that what happened to Kotetsu?

Inoichi’s hand dipped in a circular motion behind his back, the shinobi hand sign for them to stay hidden. Iruka watched as his sensei silently slid along the warehouse wall, reaching the entrance to the alleyway just as Lady Susuki stumbled by. Her clothes were ripped and dirty, her hair thrown from the fancy up-do and make-up streaked from tears. Inoichi caught her with one hand around her waist and the other over her mouth.

The resulting scream was muffled by Inoichi-sensei's hand. "Lady Susuki, please take a deep breath through your nose. It's Inoichi Yamanaka of your guard platoon. You're safe, but I cannot have you drawing more attention to our location if we want to keep you that way. Please nod if you can comply."

Iruka watched the top of her head bob in a nod over Inoichi-sensei's shoulder. Slowly, their sensei released his hold on her. Combing a hand through her mussed hair, Lady Susuki brought a sleeve up to cover her lower face like she previously did with her fan. "Where are those children? Y-You were supposed to protect me."

"They're searching for you, My Lady. If you recall, it was at your request we retained separate hotel suits while in town." Inoichi bowed his head to her respectfully.

The Daimyo's bride bristled, slender brows knitting into a scowl. "You would do well to remember your place, shinobi. Call those children back immediately, we need to leave."

"They will reconvene with us shortly." Inoichi-sensei placed a hand between her shoulder blades. "Please tell me, My Lady, how did you come to be here?"

She rolled her eyes behind her sleeve. "What are you blathering about? I was captured because your incompetent Hokage assigned little children to play guard."

"And yet here you are, free of your binds and seemingly unpursued." The hand at her back closed into a loose fist and shifted down to her lower back. The gesture clicked in Iruka's mind. Another shinobi hand sign: attack.

Adrenaline shot up Iruka' spine. Attack Lady Susuki? But why? Despite the confusion, he trusted Inoichi-sensei’s command, so he jumped into action. By the time he formed the hand seals for a suiton jutsu, Izumo had three senbon grasped firmly between his fingers and was letting them fly.

"I was lucky," Lady Susuki was saying as she rounded on the jounin, closing the distance between them with a blinding speed a civilian couldn't possess. "You won't have the same fortune!" The sleeve pulled back from her mouth as a mass of orange flames struck Inoichi's chest at point-blank range.

Civilians could definitely not do that!!

Susuki was a kunoichi!

Inoichi-sensei fell to the ground with an agonizing cry. The front of his shirt lit aflame, searing the skin beneath. The smell of burnt flesh churned Iruka's stomach.

Lady Susuki blocked Izumo's senbon with a flick of her arm. The satin of her pretty kimono ripped, metal clanging dully beneath the fabric. A flash of steel had Iruka cursing. Arm guards, she was wearing shinobi armour! "You fucking Leaf shinobi can't leave well enough alone!" She roared, pretty face contorting with anger. "That high and mighty act pisses me off." She struck Inoichi in the ribs with a chakra-enhanced kick. The force sent their sensei into a nearby wall. A five-foot crater bent the metal around his body on impact. Inoichi hit the ground in a heap.

"Sensei!" Rage had Iruka's hand moving quickly to finish the seals: boar, dog, ram and clap hands together. "Suiton: Rippling Torrent." How dare that woman hurt his Inoichi-sensei!! A sewer grate to the left of them rumbled. Water shot through the gaps in the grate, swirling and circling around Iruka's hands. Pushing chakra into the tenketsu at his fingertips, water sloshing clumsily as he struggled to redirect the powerful stream towards Lady Susuki.

Her fingers flashed through hand signs so rapidly, Iruka couldn't follow them. "Katon: Fireball Jutsu." Orange flames hit his torrent head-on. Steam billowed up between them, thickening the air with a dense haze.

Using the steam as cover, Iruka and Izumo ran up the side of the warehouse to get to their sensei. Each genin grabbed an arm and pulled Inoichi into the shadows for cover. The jounin's hands shook as he pressed healing chakra into his own chest.

"You little brats!" Susuki screamed when she found Inoichi gone. "You ruined everything! This was supposed to be a cushiony mission!"

Izumo held up four fingers and inclined his head silently towards their raging opponent. Formation Four was perfect! Taking position in front of the injured jounin, Iruka slowly trickled bits of chakra into the water his Ripping Torrent jutsu left in puddles. The water rippled, then slowly spread over the concrete towards Susuki's angry monologue.

"Why couldn't you just notify the damn Daimyo about the ransom?!"

Several shuriken cut through the slowly evaporating steam. Iruka ducked to the right to avoid taking one to the eye. A stinging pain blossomed along his cheek where the star-shaped weapon grazed his skin before embedding into the wall behind him.

Izumo grunted at his side, one of the shuriken having sliced through his side. Gritting his teeth, Izumo squatted low, hands held steady in a dog hand seal. The air around them dropped several degrees, sending a chill up Iruka's spine.

"Where the hell are you hiding?" Susuki sent kunai flying through the steam in random directions. Iruka stepped in front of Izumo and Inoichi, deflecting several with a kunai of his own. He could feel Izumo's chakra tingling beneath his feet as it skittered along the water, converging on Susuki.

Sweat broke out across Izumo's forehead as his jaw clenched tightly. His hands shook from the effort to retain the dog seal. Gritting his teeth, the older genin screwed his eyes shut and released a massive burst of wind-laced chakra with a forceful yell.

"What the-?" Susuki cursed, the profanity quickly escalating into a furious screaming fit. "You little shits! What the hell did you do to my feet?!"

Iruka tackled his friend to the ground just as a massive, orange fireball went soaring over their heads. Izumo dropped to the concrete hard, his breathing laboured and skin ashy. "S-sorry, Ruka. I think I overdid it."

"No," Iruka's face paled. "Oh no, Izumo." Chakra-exhaustion, this wasn't good. Izumo used everything he had for the second time that night and Iruka was close to his limit as well. He couldn't manage any more jutsu beyond the foundational basics -one or two if he was lucky. The genin drew another kunai from his weapon's holster. Kunai and taijutsu it was.

" You," Susuki snarled furiously. The air grew thick with her killing intent.

Ice-cold fear shot up Iruka's spine, crawled at his insides and tensed his muscles. He inhaled shakily, her killing intent seeming to clog his lungs. It was overwhelming, overpowering in the raw intensity of-

The steam dissipated completely, giving Iruka his first good look at his opponent.

-Susuki's feet were frozen to the concrete.

Izumo was a genius!

Ice shot up from the pool of water Iruka created, twisted and thickly coated Susuki's feet like a pair of frigid boots. Ice spikes reached almost to her knees in places. Susuki spluttered like a wet cat and used a katon jutsu in an attempt to melt Izumo's icy hold. Her feet remained frozen solid. It was such a foolish sight, she lost all her intimidation. Iruka shook off the tension Susuki's killing intent left in his muscles and mind. "You aren't getting away with this. I'm not scared of you."

Susuki's pretty features contorting into an ugly mess of rage. "You should be, you little brat!" Her hands came together in a fluid blend of hand seals: snake, ram, monkey, boar, horse, tiger. "Katon: Fire Bullet!" Susuki's chest expanded with a quick build-up of chakra. She shot bullet-like, flaming projectiles at Inoichi-sensei and Izumo.

"Suiton: Water Formation Wall." Iruka had just enough time to see Inoichi yank Izumo back and throw up a short wall of water to protect them from the fire.

No! He had to get her attention off his injured teammates! The genin threw himself to the side, ducking into a roll. He weaved and jumped to avoid the fire bullets. Building some of his limited remaining chakra into his feet, Iruka ran up the warehouse wall to draw her fire away from Izumo and Inoichi-sensei. Bits of brick exploded mere inches from him, the compact fireballs leaving fist-sized, smoking holes behind wherever they connect with the warehouse. One fire bullet held enough power to blow a limb off if it made contact with any part of Iruka's body.

Out of the corner of his eye, Iruka caught several puddles scattered around Susuki begin to ripple. A thick, black miasma lifted from the water, contorting and solidifying into humanoid forms.

"What the hell?" Susuki turned her fire bullet jutsu onto the dark figures as they slowly slunk forward with inhuman flexibility. The fireballs passed right through them, causing small plink sounds when they splashed into the water and wafted little trails of steam into the air. "Illusions? You think you can fool me with a pathetic D-rank jutsu?"

The figures seemed to reach into themselves in response. A flicker of metal caught the light, sending a shudder through Iruka. Kunai. They had kunai. How unnerving.

Tapping from his earring comm broke Iruka from his thoughts. Steele requesting Formation Eight. Iruka nearly jumped off the wall. Kotetsu!! He was alive!! Those eery figures must be from his Mist Servant Jutsu. Wow, he'd improved since they last practice Formation Eight.

Seeing Izumo struggle to his feet with renewed determination, Iruka pulled two kunai from his holster and threw them at Susuki. At the same time, two if the illusions did the same. "How gullible do you think I am-!" Her words cut off in a pained grunt as one of Iruka's kunai grazed her hip. "Impossible!!" Kotetsu's dark figures drew more kunai and 'threw' them at Susuki. "They're just illusions!!" Izumo flicked a kunai at her, lining it up perfectly with one of the illusions. The weapon cut her cheek and Susuki screeched.

Pulling a kunai from up her sleeve, Susuki frantically swiped at every projectile weapon that came her way, illusion and carefully hidden real ones alike. Her skillfully aimed deflections past through most of the kunai but struck the odd one Izumo and Iruka wove in with the illusions to make her paranoid. The projectiles increased in number, overwhelming her until she couldn't keep up. That's when they started landing solid hits. Slices through shoulders, stomach, and limbs. A kunai embedded to the hilt in her ribs, another near her knee.

Panting, her fancy hair and clothes in disarray, Susuki suddenly went far too still for a kunoichi being attacked. "W-What's going on?" She stiffly bent forward and dropped her kunai. Her hands shifting behind her back like a hog-tied captive. "I can't move my body!!"

"Bind her quickly," Inoichi-sensei instructed curtly. He'd gotten his feet beneath him, but leaned heavily against the warehouse behind him. With arms extended before him and fingers clasped in the Yamanaka's unique hand seal, their sensei shook from the strain of maintaining his jutsu so heavily wounded. "I can't hold it long like this."

"Iruka!' Izumo threw his chakra wire to the younger genin.

"Got it!" Dropping down from the side of the warehouse, Iruka used the sharp wire to bind Susuki's wrists and arms. He could tell from the slight tremble in her shoulders she’d used too much chakra.

As soon as Inoichi-sensei dropped his jutsu, Susuki started to curse at them again. The shinobi paid her no heed, not when Kotetsu dropped from a nearby rooftop mostly in one piece. Dark bruises littered the left side of his face, the skin along his mouth and eye swelled from being beaten. He favoured his right side, heavy bandages peeked from beneath his street urchin disguise.

"Kotetsu!!" Izumo flung his arms around his best friend's shoulders with the last of his strength. "You're okay...!" He buried his face in the crook of Kotetsu's neck, slouching against him from relief and exhaustion. Izumo's shoulders stiffened and shook, a sure sign he was crying. “What happened?”

“I got jumped! Someone beat me pretty bad and knocked me out cold.” Wrapping one arm around his best friend, Kotetsu held the other one opened for Iruka. That was all the invitation the youngest genin needed. Iruka threw his arms around his teammates, hugging them both tightly. Tears brimmed in his eyes. “I was trapped inside a locker when I woke up.”

“You’re lucky to be alive.” Inoichi ruffled Kotetsu’s spiky hair, quickly checking him over for any serious injuries. “How did you get out of-”

“Ao, you son of a bitch!” Susuki’s furious yell interrupted the reunion. “Finish your fucking job. Extract me like you’re supposed to.”

The blue-haired shinobi seemed to appear from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. “Killing genin isn’t a part of my mission.” He lingered above them all, teetering on the roof’s edge over thirty feet above them. Iruka hit his earring comm almost immediately. Izumo and Kotetsu flanked him, with kunai and kodachi drawn, so they were situated between Ao, their injured sensei and bound captive.

“He the one who got me free.” Kotetsu bit his bottom lip, brows set in a frown. "...He dressed my wounds."

Iruka startled, the surprising jolting through his entire system. “He...what?” Why would their enemy, the one who kidnapped their (not really) client, help Kotetsu? Inoichi-sensei was right, something was really off with this whole situation.

“They’re fucking expendable!” Susuki yelled as her frustration mounted. She pulled at the chakra wire, each tug cutting the sharp twine deeper into her wrists. “Hiring kids was supposed to make this easy. You can’t even get a simple kidnapping right, Ao!”

Ignoring her screams, Ao dropped down to the concrete less than two feet away from the genin. “I mean no harm.” With his hands raised above his head, the blue-haired shinobi sank onto one knee. “In the left pocket of my flak jacket is a scroll containing directives from my leader for my immediate withdrawal. Take a look for yourself.”

The genin stiffened, eyes darting between each other and then back to their sensei, looking for orders on how to proceed. This could be another trap. Releasing Kotetsu didn’t make a shinobi from Kirigakure their ally. They were all too exhausted to fight another battle.

With his jaw clenched tightly, Inoichi slowly nodded.

Izumo stepped forward, movements deliberate and slow as he opened Ao’s pocket flap and pulled a thin, blue scroll from inside. Making sure to remain facing the enemy, Izumo backed up to his team and held the scroll up to Inoich-sensei. A flash of chakra from the jounin engulfed the scroll. After a few seconds, he seemed satisfied enough to roll it open. Blue eyes flitted back and forth as he read. “...He appears to be telling the truth.” Inoichi snapped the scroll shut and tossed it back to Ao.

Susuki was still cursing and struggling in vain behind them when Izumo suddenly spoke directly to Ao. “I don’t understand. Your actions up until now have been conflicting. What’re you planning? Why’re you helping us?”

A particularly profane string of curse words from Susuki drew an annoyed growl from Ao. “Shut her up and I might give you an answer.”

“Allow me.” Pulling his dirty ascott off, Kotetsu balled it up and shoved the material into Susuki’s mouth. “There, problem solved.” Iruka hid a grin behind his hand. Now that was satisfying.

With an amused snort, the blue-haired shinobi began, “Susuki is one of Kirigakure’s subterfuge operatives. She’s been assigned to your Daimyo’s court for the last year with the goal of influencing his political decisions ” Ao’s blatant honesty caught all four members of Team Inoichi off-guard. His unconcealed eye flickered to Inoichi. “You know the drill, take over from the inside, make the Fire Daimyo a puppet leader. Something she failed spectacularly at. Your lord is such a bumbling buffoon, he thought she was just flirting with him. His sheltered narcissism actually saved him, as unbelievable as that is.” Ao barked out a sharp, imposing laugh. “When he decided he wanted to marry her and produce a few heirs, Susuki panicked, called for extraction, and I was sent to retrieve her. That’s what the kidnapping was, her extraction.” His shook his head, though his expression remained carefully neutral. “A year of careful planning down the drain. All that money wasted when it could’ve gone to better causes. She couldn’t even pull off a successful ransom. At least that would’ve cut our losses.”

Inoichi pulled his genin close, arms protectively encircling all three boys. “You can’t honestly expect us to believe that.”

“Take her then and consider it a gift of compensation from my esteemed leader.” Susuki’s protests were muffled by Kotetsu’s ascott. Ao ignored her as he continued, “I’m sure you’ll get some helpful information out of her, Yamanaka, you’re good at that.” He motioned to the squirming kunoichi with a tilt of his head. “Getting Konoha involved was never part of the plan. Expecting me to clean up her mess was the law straw. Susuki screwed up, I’m not covering her ass a second time.”

Inoichi scowled, his hold tightening on his genin. “The Mizukage would never willingly hand over an operative holding classified information to an enemy village.”

Ao simply smirked, “who said anything about the Mizukage?”

All three genin gasped. Facing paling, Iruka reached for Izumo and Kotetsu's hands. To his awe, Inoichi-sensei’s tone remained carefully neutral. “You’re planning a coup.”

“My beloved leader is young and idealistic, but I find myself compelled to believe in her. She desires more for our village than a legacy of blood. If anyone can succeed in such a lofty goal, she can.” The blue-haired shinobi’s smirk turned sinister and prideful. Pushing a bit of chakra into the blue scroll, he gave it a shake. A soft hiss, like a burning fuse resonated from the scroll as it slowly bled red.

“You won’t get Konoha to assist with a civil war.”

“We don’t want assistance, just a guarantee to you'll keep your noses out of our business.” He tossed the newly altered scroll to Inoichi. “Give that to your Hokage, it’s for his eyes alone.” With a mocking salute, Ao's form rippled and splashed to the concrete.

Iruka murmured in breathless, absolutely stunned disbelief, “a water clone...”

"Come on boys, let's go home."

Chapter Text

Staring down at the half full skillet of curry, Kakashi sighed. He’d made too much again. This was the third time in a week. When had making a meal for two become such an ingrained habit? Reaching for a tupperware container, he scooped the leftovers into it. What a waste. Iruka wasn’t here to help eat what he made. There was no reason to double recipes-

Iruka.

The ANBU paused, hands lingering over the container’s lid. Iruka was the reason he doubled the recipes, but he wasn’t home yet. Kakashi pressed the lid down tight. Iruka’s team was five days past their expected return date. Normally missions were classified, but D and C-ranks were available to jounin with the right clearance. As an ANBU, he just happened to have that authority.

It was a simple escort mission. Get the Daimyo’s pampered bride back to the capital and come home. Easy, even for a rookie genin team. C-ranks rarely went longer than intended and rarely hit complications. So why? Why wasn’t he home yet?

Scrubbing a hand through his unruly hair, Kakashi's shoulders slouched. His stomach did an uncomfortable flop and twisted painfully every time he tried to predict what might be holding up his precious person's mission. He hadn’t felt this jittery since the last time he and Kitsune went undercover.

You're worried. A tiny voice nagged at the back of his head.

What a ridiculous notion that was! He was ANBU. He ran S-rank missions, much more threatening than what Iruka was doing, on the daily. There was no reason to think the worst. Inoichi Yamanaka was a capable leader. Kakashi trained Iruka himself, knew how seriously the kid took being a shinobi. Iruka worked harder than Gai sometimes. If anyone knew what the genin could do, he did.

Yup, absolutely no reason to worry.

The knot in his stomach twisted tighter. Kakashi blinked down at the container of leftovers, silently surprised to find he'd just tried to put the lid on it for the second time. Okay, maybe he was a bit worried.

Shoving the leftovers none too gently into the fridge, Kakashi slammed the door shut. He’d never been on this side before, waiting for a loved one to come back from a mission. How the heck did Iruka do it? Every time he pulled on his hound mask, his friend saw him off with a hug and a smile. Waiting like this was harder than an A-rank.

Kakashi wasn’t a fan.

Maybe he should’ve sent Pakkun to tail Iruka’s mission. the ninken could’ve reported back if anything went sideways, or at least let him know if there was likely to be a delay like this. Kakashi wouldn’t be distracted by pointless fretting at least. Blowing some bangs from his eyes, he piled the dirty dishes into the sink. Iruka wouldn't be happy about him butting into his first C-rank mission. The thought of upsetting the genin (and getting on Inoichi Yanamaka's bad side if discovered) ultimately had him set the Plan Pakkun aside.

Five days late…

His precious person was out there, possibly in danger, hurt, or dead and he could do nothing for them.

Again.

Kakashi slammed his hands down on the countertop, shoulders shaking from the effort to rein in his emotions. Iruka always threw him off-kilter, left him struggling to comprehend his own responses.

Useless .

He couldn't protect anyone, not Obito or Rin, not Minato-sensei, Kushina or-

"...Dad."

They were all dead. He failed everyone he’d ever loved, no matter how many times he promised himself never again. After Minato-sensei and Kushina, he’d vowed to never let anyone get close enough to love. He’d put walls around his heart strong enough to withstand Tsunade’s legendary strength.

Only, there was a kid who planted himself squarely on the interior before Kakashi even had the walls erected. Iruka had a way of doing that, of getting past defences before they were raised. With Iruka already on the inside, others found the weakness and wormed in as well. Genma and Gai.

His stubborn, impossible friends.

Little by little, the hole inside him was starting to fill and with it came the fear, the doubt, the uncertainty he'd felt far too often in his fifteen years of life. Kakashi couldn’t save his precious people. Everyone he loved died no matter what he did or how he struggled to change things. He stayed awake at night, planning and posing every hypothetical he could to give Iruka the best chance at survival.

How do you keep one stubborn genin alive?

Kakashi barely noticed the slight tremble to his limbs when he sat down at the kitchen island. Iruka was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, the one person he couldn’t get a read on, the one person still alive he couldn’t fail.

Not like he had Obito or Rin.

No matter how much he loved them, and Kakashi loved his teammates as much as he was able to at eleven and twelve, loving them was never enough. Covering Obito’s sharingan with one hand, Kakashi slouched over the Island’s counter. Ghosts flickered at the edges of his memories.

Obito, loud, brash and leaning in mere inches from his face, cheeks flushed with anger, brows knitted behind his goggles as they fought. A common occurence, like any other day. A hand fisted into the front of his shirt. Then a sudden yank had a pair of lips pressed firm and demanding against his masked mouth. It was deliberate, sudden, took his breath away and left him angry, embarrassed, stunned.

Kakashi’s other hand went to the medical poach at his hip, fingers brushing along the worn material.

Rin’s warm hand clasped firmly in his own, her cheek on his shoulder, a reliable presence settled comfortably at his side. She curled against him, her warm voice rolling over him like gentle waves. Then she kissed his cheek, just above his mask and he drowned in the confusion, embarrassment, surprise once again.

Tears trickle from Obito’s sharingan when his hands clasped together tightly enough to turn his knuckles white.

They had him trapped in the middle again. Obito a heavy weight on his back and Rin pillowed against his chest. Grudgingly, and with much verbal protest, he allowed it. They always sandwich him between them, as if scared he’d get away without both holding him down. He never tried, though he wasn’t sure when humouring them like this became a habit. Obito stretched out his legs out to frame his hips and laced his fingers with Rin’s as they snuggled closer.

Kakashi never quite got used to their embraces, their mouths firm on his, on each others’ or the words of affection they showered him with. Obito tasted like ash and Rin like peppermint. Even while he fought against them both, he'd loved them. He was grounded by their touch. Being in their arms felt like coming home.

Just like Iruka's did-

Wait, what?

Blinking rapidly, Kakashi shook his head in disbelief and forced down the sudden heat filling his cheeks. Where had his mind just gone? No, there was no way he looked at Iruka the same way he did Obito and Rin. Yes, Iruka was important to him, arguably his most precious person after the last two years. But he was barely twelve, just a kid. Kakashi…

Kakashi cared about Iruka deeply, but he didn't love him, he certainly wasn't in love with him. That was ridiculous. All this fretting was starting to get to him.

Heading back to the sink, Kakashi occupied himself with the dishes. His mind didn't wander to such absurd places when he had something productive to focus on. Perhaps it was time to see what ridiculous challenge Gai was cooking up for them, or see if Genma was at the library. He practically lived there during their downtime with Izumo and Kotetsu out of the village.

The wards shifted suddenly. Kakashi had a kunai in hand before the doorknob even turned. He rounded the corner to the genkan just as Iruka kicked the door shut behind him. "Oh, you're here!" Dropping his bag against the wall, the genin kicked his sandals off. "I was worried you'd be gone on a mission when I got back." He straightened up his discarded sandals next to Kakashi's. "Sorry I'm late, we ran into some trouble in Tanzaku Gai and had to wait for Inoichi-sensei to recover enough before travelling back to Konoha…" Iruka trailed off, shifting from foot to foot in a way that told Kakashi he was trying not to fidget. "Uh Kashi, are you okay?"

Kakashi blinked, his face flushing a bit when he suddenly realized he was standing in the hallway, just staring at the younger boy. "You're hurt," he blurted out quickly to cover up the lack of finesse.

"Oh, this?" Iruka rubbed a hand over the fresh bandages covering his throat. "I used a katon and suiton jutsu together and it burned my throat. I'm mostly healed now. Inoichi-sensei was just worried so I promised to keep the bandages on a few more days."

Relief flooded through him so quickly, it left the ANBU feeling momentarily light-headed. Iruka was safe, he was home. Instead of responding, Kakashi quickly closed the distance between them and lifted the genin right off the floor. Iruka's arms immediately closed around his neck and his legs wrapped snugly around Kakashi hips. The solid weight in his arms left Kakashi trembling slightly. He's alive, he's alive, he's alive. Words stuck in his throat as he buried his face in Iruka's ponytail.

"I missed you too," Iruka mumbled into his shoulder, vocalizing what Kakashi couldn't quite say. "I'm home."

Kakashi sank to the floor with the genin grasped firmly to his chest. "Welcome home." His back hit the wall and for a long time, neither of them moved. The urge to check Iruka's wounds himself finally compelled the ANBU to put just enough space between them to look over the bandages.

Iruka opened his mouth as soon as Kakashi started prodding tiny bits of chakra along his neck. Cradling the genin's face in both hands, Kakashi gently moved his head from side-to-side. He hummed in satisfaction once he deemed the burns sufficiently healed. "Was the mission a success?"

The genin’s face scrunched up in thought, his mouth opening and closing several times before finally answering, “kind of? I’m honestly not sure.”

Well, that certainly wasn’t the response he’d been expecting. Missions, especially the lower-ranked ones, usually had a yes or no outcome when finished. “Mah, how about we get some Ichiraku’s and you can tell me what happened?” Basic details could be shared with higher ranking shinobi if a mission wasn’t classified. C-ranks rarely were. Besides, they hadn’t celebrated Iruka’s twelfth birthday together yet.

Iruka looked up at him with wide, sparkling eyes that reminded Kakashi too much of the looks Guruko used to give him as a puppy. “Please, I’m starving! I don’t think I’ll ever get use to the taste of ration bars.” Puppy eyes, his young friend was giving him puppy eyes.

“Mah, the leftovers will keep for tomorrow,” Kakashi acquiesced.

The late spring evening was surprisingly warm as the pair made their way across the rooftops to avoid the crowded streets below. With the dinner rush long over, the ramen stand was empty when they settled beneath the awning.

“Hey boys,” Teuchi turned to greet them with his usual, bright smile. “It’s been a while since you’ve come in together, hope life’s been treating you well. What can I get for you tonight?”

Smiling at the ramen chef, Iruka pointed over his shoulder to the menu on the wall. “Could I try some of your takayama ramen please?”

“Sure thing, Iruka-kun,” Teuchi called the order over his shoulder to his wife before turning his attention to Kakashi. “Let me guess, miso ramen with an egg on top and extra saury, hold the chicken?”

Resting his chin in one hand, Kakashi eye smiled at the ramen chef. “You know me too well, Teuchi-san.” He really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise Teuchi had his order memorized. He and Genma had been eating here a lot over the last few weeks.

“Anything for my regular customers. Two ramen coming right up.”

The suspicious look Iruka sent him had Kakashi chuckling beneath his mask. “When did you become a regular Ichiraku's Ramen customer, Kakashi?”

“Mah, Genma was lonely with you all gone.” The ANBU shrugged dismissively. Iruka didn’t need to know how empty the apartment felt without him, even the night Gai had strong-armed his way into a sleep-over of all things. Like they were still five!. Gai’s heart was in the right place, so he tolerated the boisterous intrusion for what it was, a friend’s worry. “So, the mission?”

“Oh right,” Iruka clapped his hands together, swivelling on his stool to better face Kakashi. “You’ll never believe what happened…”

Kakashi spent the next two hours in complete contentment listening to Iruka talk. The genin’s animated recounting of his first C-rank mission even drew Teuchi’s attention when he brought their ramen over. The more Iruka revealed, the more something heavy and uncomfortable settled in Kakashi’s gut. What the genin described bumped the mission up from a standard C-rank. A kidnapped member or the daimyo’s family? That was a high B-rank at least. The whole team could’ve been killed!

“We found Kotetsu and Lady Susuki in the warehouse district and-” The sudden pause made Kakashi’s visible eyebrow dip in a frown. “I-I don’t think I can tell you anything else? The mission isn’t officially classified yet, but what happened at the warehouse district might change that? I’m not sure. Inoichi-sensei went to report to Hokage-sama and told us to go home.”

“It’s best not to say anything else then, just in case.” Kakashi very carefully hid his growing anger behind a neutral face. What in the hell did Inoichi drag you into? He was sure the Yamanaka clan head would have a certain fox-masked ANBU knocking on his window once Izumo and Kotetsu regaled their guardian with mission details. Genma always took a more hands-on approach when it came to the people he loved.

“Ah well, I’m just glad to be back in Konoha.” Iruka swirled the last few ramen noodles around his chopsticks and funnelled them into his mouth. “Inoichi-sensei gave us the next few days off. Can we do some training together tomorrow if you don’t get called on a mission?”

“It has been a while, hasn’t it?” Kakashi placed his chopsticks across the bowl to show he was finished. “Eager to show off how much you’ve improved?”

Iruka’s cheeks flushed softly. “I promised I’d keep working hard while you were gone on that long mission, I think I've improved a lot!”

Teuchi slid the bill onto the counter between them. “Sorry to cut your conversation short, but I’ll be closing up in about ten minutes.”

“No problem, Teuchi-san.” Iruka drank the broth remaining in his bowl and fished some money from his medical pouch. “My treat tonight!” He proclaimed loudly when Kakashi tried to interject. “C-ranks pay a lot better than D-ranks! I can finally afford to treat you like you do me, Kakashi.”

“Ah,” The ANBU rubbed the back of his neck. That was unexpected but nice. When was the last time someone was that excited to treat him to a meal? Who was he to ruin Iruka’s post-mission happiness? “Thank you.”

The genin counted out the cost and tip before easing off the stool with a yawn. “I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

“Let’s head home then, wouldn’t want you passing out at the ramen stand.”

“Hey!” Iruka fell into step next to the older boy. “Wouldn’t you carry me home if I did?”

Kakashi pretended to seriously consider the question. “Not likely.”

“I’d carry you home if I had to,” The genin pouted at his side.

Reach out, Kakashi ruffled Iruka’s hair playfully. “Mah, you’ll never have to worry about that.” He’d never put his friend in a situation that left them so exposed to an attack. He made a mental note to start teaching Iruka how to fight while carrying an incapacitated comrade. If this C-rank was any indication, he’d need those skills sooner than later.

A comfortable silence settled between them as they walked. With the sun having set, the streets cleared as most people headed home after a busy day. The streetlights came on above them, highlighting the younger shinobi enough for Kakashi to noticing him fidgeting at his side. Remaining silent, the ANBU simply looked ahead and kept walking. Iruka only squirmed like that when he was working up the courage to say something. If it was important, he’d speak before too long.

They were about half way home when Kakashi felt a smaller hand grab his own. He stopped, brow raised questioningly in Iruka’s direction. Well, this wasn’t what he expected. The genin’s face was steadily going redder by the second. His feet shuffled, eyes flickered to Kakashi’s face before darting to his sandals.

“It’s cold!” Iruka blurted out suddenly.

Kakashi blinked, then blinked again. Was that all? There were only three blocks from home, surely he’d be fine that far. The night had cooled considerably, but it wasn’t that cold. “Mah, Iruka-” Kakashi cut himself off when Iruka’s face brightened several more shades of crimson. The genin resembled a tomato more than a twelve-year-old. Since when did being cold turn someone red-

Oh.

Oh, Sage.

That was an excuse, wasn’t it? Kakashi felt his own cheeks begin to tingle. His normal deductive abilities failed him, almost like his brain was short-circuiting. Iruka wanted to hold his hand? But, but why? The genin shifted from one foot to the other, as his bottom lip began to quiver. Kakashi’s mind blanked in silent panic. Oh no, whatever this was, he was blowing it. Iruka was getting upset.

“Mah,” Kakashi quickly side-stepped close enough for their shoulders to press. Squeezing Iruka’s hand, he laced their fingers together in a deliberately slow fashion. “Stay close to me if you’re cold.”

Several emotions passed over Iruka’s face quickly -surprise, confusion, embarrassment, happiness- and more Kakashi objectively couldn’t bring himself to identify. “Yeah, sure.” His precious person always knocked him off balance. He never knew what Iruka was going to do or how he’d respond.

With his free hand, Kakashi pushed his hitai-ate up. Obito’s sharingan started recording as soon as he opened his scarred eye. Who could blame him? Iruka’s smile was brighter than the sun.

And it was all for Kakashi.

Chapter Text

He never quite got used to the silent nods of acknowledgement sent his way whenever he traversed the compound to Inoichi Yamanaka’s house. The clan head’s apprentice. The title put him in an unearned position of respect That didn't sit well with him. Due diligence, hard work, a person reaped only the benefits they sowed with their own two hands.

Respect, stability, success, those needed to be earned, not given freely through association.

He rapped lightly on the door, highly aware Ino-chan was likely to be napping. The toddler took unkindly to being woken up. His taichou should be using the time to rest. Recuperation from a severe injury didn’t correlate well with rearing a high-energy child like Ino-chan. Knowing Inoichi Yamanaka, he was more likely pouring over Intelligence reports than taking it easy.

The door opened a few minutes later. "Ah, Ibiki, I wondered if you'd stop by." Smiling wearily, Inoichi took a step back, opening up the genkan for him. "Please join me for a cup of tea."

Bowing his head to his superior in respect, Ibiki Morino slid the door shut behind him and toed his sandals off next to Ino-chan's tiny shoes.

Inoichi’s home was a sprawling, traditional structure made by the Shodaime Hokage himself when the village was founded. Every time he was lead through the hall to Inoichi’s study, Ibiki silently marvelled at the intricate, old woodwork. Growing up in relative poverty gave him an appreciation for the beauty of such old architecture.

“How are you doing?” The question slipped easily from his lips as he settled across the chabudai from the man he looked up to the most in the world.

The smile that curved Inoichi’s lips gave away his heavy fatigue. “I’ll be fine with time.” He rubbed a hand over his chest where Ibiki knew a deep, half heal burn was concealed by bandages. He’d read the mission report and interrogated Susuki of Kirigakure himself.

The kettle whistled from the kitchen. Ibiki raised a hand to stop the older man from standing. “Allow me.”

It took only a moment to gather the tea set and Uji Sencha tea leaves onto a yohobon. Placing it on the chabudai between them, Ibiki’s automatically began preparing the tea like his mother so painstakingly taught him to as a small child.

Using a chashaku, Ibiki measured out loose tea leaves into the kyusu. He poured the boiling water to the brim of each yunomi, then meticulously trickled the water around the kyusu’s rim. He could almost hear his mother lecturing him not to pour water directly onto the tea leaves. It brought a wry smile to his lips. Ibiki placed the lid on the kyusu and flipped the egg timer around. “How did the mission go?” An exact minute to steep, not a second more or less, made the perfect cup of sencha tea.

“I’m sure you’re already aware of how disastrously off rank the mission went.” Inoichi’s eyes fixed on the sand slowly skitting to the bottom of the egg timer. He sighed softly before continuing, “they purchased three-way communicators disguised as earrings and developed their own morse code simply to improve their teamwork.

Ibiki’s brows raised almost to his hitai-ate. Without a word, he placed one hand atop the kyusu’s lid and tipped the pot to pour their tea. He shifted between yunomi to mix the flavour as he waited for his master to continue.

“We were compromised, but they didn’t hesitate. All three had excellent execution of developing skills and followed my commands like they’d been doing it for years. Not out of the blind faith expected of most genin, they trusted me as their commander with more battle experience to make the right decisions.” The jounin pulled his hair loose from its ponytail and ran a hand through the thick, blond mass. “I had to send them undercover, alone, with no training and very little prep time. It was a long shot, but the only one we had. They actually produced results.”

Ibiki took a sip of his tea. “You sound proud, Taichou.”

Inoichi patted his chest lightly. “These are third-degree burns in places. My lungs are damaged. I’m going to be off active duty for a while, but they’re ready for more C-rank missions.” He cradled his yunomi between both hands, fingers tapping on the ceramic -a nervous tick Ibiki knew all too well from the six years he spent under the Yamanaka’s tutelage.

The chunin sighed softly and took another swig of his tea. He should’ve seen this coming the moment he read the mission report. “You want me to run some missions with them until you’re cleared.”

“As perceptive as always I see.” Inoichi’s smile faltered, eyes darkening with sorrow. “I never wanted to be a jounin sensei.”

“Yet here you are, with an apprentice and a genin team.”

“You know why I took the team I did.” Blue eyes lowered to the steaming tea before he took a sip.

Sitting his empty yonomi aside, Ibiki nodded, “They’ve exceeded your expectations, Taichou.” It wasn’t a question, they both knew it to be true. Iruka, Izumo and Kotetsu's performance on their first C-rank only further confirmed previous conclusions made on their skill levels.

“I pray their mothers can forgive me.” Inoichi finished his tea with a sigh. “They’re still a long ways off from where the Intelligence Division needs them to be, but they’re young and improving steadily.”

Ibiki cleared the chabudai. “They’ll likely be ready for the chunin exams by this time next year.”

“We can only hope.” Inoichi pulled Ino-chan’s baby monitor closer. His daughter’s tiny coos came through the speaker as she shifted and resettled in her sleep. “The sad reality is, the Intelligence Division’s gone two years without our specialized Hunter-nin. The Kyuubi wiped out our entire team and the department is still feeling the loss.”

“They were exceptional kunoichi.” Ibiki was fortunate enough to pick up several tricks from Intelligence’s onini butai before their untimely deaths. A third-generation legacy team, Kohari Umino, Taji Kamizuki and Oyone Hagane worked flawlessly together. Seeing them in action was like watching a well-oiled machine. Together since early childhood, the three jounin ran covert missions doing everything from undercover work, and intelligence gathering, to hunting missing-nin, and recovering MIA shinobi. They were invaluable to the Intelligence Division and Konoha as a whole. No team was able to perform as efficiently as they had.

That was the sole reason the head of Intelligence hand picked the fourth generation to be on his genin team. Iruka, Izumo and Kotetsu were the best candidates to fill the massive vacancies their mothers left behind. Even still, he could see Inoichi’s hesitance. His master was a kind man, felt responsible for the boys, loved them like he had their mothers.

Ibiki had loved them too, especially Kohari.

Silently, he placed a hand on Inoichi’s shoulder. “We are shinobi, Taichou, we endure,” he reminded the jounin in a calm, steady voice. “They will fulfill their duty to Konoha.”

“Intelligence’s hunter-nin team exists in the shadows, even more than ANBU operatives. The things we ask them to do...” The blond scrubbed a hand over his face and massaged his temples. The firm set of his jaw gave away the encroaching migraine he attempted to ward off. “Those boys shine so brightly, they’re so full of life. I fear what will become of that light.”

“It will continue to burn or it will be swallowed by the dark.” Ibiki wasn’t one to wax such poetics, but Inoichi usually wasn’t one to show self-doubt either. He truly did love Iruka, Izumo and Kotetsu. “Our convictions cannot waver now. I have faith they will make their own path, you should as well.”

The jounin patted Ibiki’s hand on his shoulder. “You’re assistance is irreplaceable, Ibiki.”

“Thank you, Taichou.” Ino-chan’s little whimpers cut the conversation short. Ibiki retrieved her from the nursery without a second thought. The petite toddler cuddled into his shoulder, blearily rubbing small hands into her eyes. Puffing her cheeks out with an unhappy whine, Ino-chan turned her face into his neck.

It took her a while to fully wake up.

Inoichi watched them both, his eyes and smile gentle. “You’re really good with children.”

The chunin raised a brow and rubbed Ino-chan’s little back. “You’ll ruin my gruff image with such acclamations.”

“Ha!” Inoichi laughed sharply, only to wince and rub his chest again. He must have jarred the wound.

“If that is all, I must be going.” Ibiki gently shifted a cranky Ino-chan into her father’s arms. “I promised Idate I would pick him up after classes today.”

“With Raidou-san?”

“Naturally.” With a respectful incline of his head, Ibiki headed for the genkan. Pulling his sandals back on, he formed a tiger seal and shunshined to the Academy.

He found Raidou leaning against the school’s wooden fence around the corner. The tokubetsu jounin squeezed Ibiki’s shoulder affectionately when he approached. “You look tired, Koi.” The squeeze slowly loosened into a light massage along Ibiki’s shoulders and back where he carried the most tension. “I’ll cook supper tonight.”

Ibiki reclined his head back onto his boyfriend’s shoulder. “That’s bribery, Namiashi.” He pressed a feather-light kiss to Raidou’s jaw.

"I love you too." Raidou tilted his head just enough to capture Ibiki’s mouth with his own. “How does grilled chicken with an enokitake salad sound?"

"Definitely like bribery."

"You can wrangle Idate’s into the tub tonight.” Raidou pressed several chaste kisses to the chunin’s lips. “That should be a fair exchange."

Oh yes, as fair as assigning ANBU operatives D-rank missions. Idate loathed bath time. “I suppose so,” Ibiki rolled his eyes as Raidou’s arms came around him from behind. “Feeling sentimental are we?” He asked, even as he leaned back into the older shinobi’s chest.

“We’ve been working opposite shifts. I haven’t seen much of you lately, Koi.” Raidou rested his scarred cheek against Ibiki’s just as the Academy let out for the day. “And there goes our childless cuddle time.”

Ibiki untangled himself from the tokubetsu jounin’s arms. “You’ve been spending too much time with Genma-san.”

“He is my best friend, you can't expect us not to rub off on each other over the years.”

“Indeed.” The chunin’s lips quirked at the corner, a shadow of a smile on an otherwise serious face. Children, ranging in ages from five to early adolescence, flocked from the school solo and in small groups. Several other guardians shunshin in to pick up younger children as they waited, though most were still older than his brother.

Idate started the Academy a year earlier than his agemates, not entirely to his or Raidou’s approval. With the gap in their village’s forces from the Kyuubi's attack, promotions and the academy were both being streamlined. Idate showed high skill in agility and bukijutsu for his young age.

Sandaime-sama strongly encouraged his talents not be wasted waiting the extra year.

“Aniki! Rai-nii!” Idate rounded the corner from the Academy entrance, stopping just long enough to wave goodbye to a few other children. Ibiki noted the telltale red Inuzuka triangles on a girl's cheeks, the dark features and pale skin most notable from the Uchiha clan on another, and purple hair far too similar to Anko-san’s to be anyone besides one of her little sisters.

“Seems Idate’s become quite the little lady’s man,” Raidou commented lightly as Ibiki dropped to one knee to scoop his little brother up when the boy came barreling straight into his arms.

“You're here, Aniki,” Idate grinned brightly, giving Raidou a high five over his brother’s shoulder.

The boy settled easily against his chest, as he had since the first time Ibiki cradled him in his arms as a wailing newborn -small and helpless with only him for protection. He could still see Idate’s mother laying dead on her childbed, their father months out on a mission. Through the blood and loss, he’d felt nothing but love for his resilient little brother. “I did promise.”

“I know, but you get awful busy sometimes.” Idate patted his brother’s silvery hair like one would to appease a small child. Ibiki vaguely remembered doing the same thing to him several times in the past.

Cheeky brat. 

“How was school?” Raidou leaned an arm on Ibiki’s shoulder, even though they were almost the same height and he knew how much that irritated him. Unlike his boyfriend, who tapered at a solid six feet, Ibiki still had two or three years of growth ahead of him.

“We did target practice today,” boasted the youngest member of their triad. “I hit the moving target with every one of the kunai you gave me, Rai!”

Ibiki’s hold tightened on his little brother as his boyfriend showered Idate with praise. Moving target practice was part of the third-year curriculum. He worried Idate didn’t grasp the true meaning of being a shinobi beyond the flash and fanfare. Raidou kept telling him they had plenty of time to teach him about what really mattered. That supposed time felt more restricted, more limited, by the day.

Ruffling Idate’s hair playfully, Raidou hoisted the boy up over his head, spun him around until he was laughing. “Think you can help with the enokitake tonight?”

“Yeah! I’m the best cook in my class, you know.”

Ibiki didn’t quite hear Raidou’s response, but it didn’t matter. His master and three kohai returned from their mission alive. The two people he loved the most were here with him, happy and safe. Ibiki allowed himself the rare opportunity to watch them laugh together and treasured those easy smiles. Tomorrow always brought uncertainty, but they had this moment, right now.

When his loved ones reached for them, Ibiki stepped into their arms.

Maybe right now could be enough.