The end of Hazuki (葉月, "Month of Leaves"; August), six years before Naruto’s graduation
Iruka first meets Naruto when he is sixteen.
It’s barely been a year since they told him that his jōnin-sensei was killed, just a year since he’s been trying to put himself back together, piece by piece. It’s been a new sort of hell, but through gritted teeth and an iron-clad resolve, he has become a freshly minted chūnin and an afternoon sensei at the Academy. He hadn’t expected it, but he finds himself ready to teach with every fiber of his being: in fact, he prepares with all his might for his last exam of the specialized sewa rank that would allow him to teach as a morning sensei. Life is getting slowly better, getting liveable again, less hellish with each passing day.
Then they tell him that the Nine-tails will be under his care, and he feels like it’s all falling apart.
He barely sleeps the night before classes start, keeps seeing those eyes full of hate, keeps feeling his mother’s rattling breaths under his palms, keeps hearing his father’s voice… keeps struggling, again and again, against that unknown shinobi taking him away from those people he should have died with.
Would have been so much better to die with.
He tries to imagine what the child-fox could even look like, this great horrendous creature he hasn’t seen since that horrible night. He’s only ever heard the half-whispers of the other villagers, but he is sure that it must be like one of those manga characters; a humanized fox, or maybe like a normal boy but with fox-tails that it tries to hide. Either way, he thinks, it has to have very evil eyes. (He has little understanding of how the seal works, to be honest.)
The next morning, Iruka enters the classroom with a heavy heart and a grim determination to face the monster incarnate, to take revenge if he can for his parents, for ruining his life, to punish and rage and - and… he finds that Uchikawa-sensei's introductions to the class fade into a background noise... because instead of anything he had imagined, there is only a blond little boy sitting there. He is small, so small, younger and skinnier than the others, and he can’t help but notice how he tries to be loud enough to be seen.
His thoughts falter as his heart begins to yell in rebellion.
Naruto has the sweetest blue eyes.
The end of Satsuki (皐月, "Early-rice-planting Month"; May), four years before Naruto’s graduation
Two years in, when he is just about to be eighteen, the morning sensei - Uchikawa-sensei -, under whom Iruka has been steadily amassing experience retires, and he is booted up into her place as the youngest in the history of the Academy. (Mostly due to budget and staff reasons, honestly.) His afternoon sensei becomes Mizuki, a soft-spoken older man who refused the promotion. He seems kind enough towards Naruto, kinder than anything Iruka would have expected, if a little lax in his teaching.
Having Naruto in his life has changed so many things. It had made Iruka realize how very little he understands the seal by which the fox is contained; so he had dusted off his parents’ books a year ago and now spends his free time in the library, sometimes pestering Sandaime with his questions about fuinjutsu theory at their biweekly meetings where he reports on the boy’s progress. Luckily, the old man humors him, pointing Iruka to more and more scrolls to consult. It makes him think of his father and the scroll he carried on his back, and when he reads, soft memories of brush on paper come back; he cries the first time he recognises the ward against fire as the one his mother used to paint on their door every full moon. It’s sometimes enough to make him never want to look at a seal again.
But he wants to understand how such a small child, with his hay-blond hair and sky-blue eyes, can even live containing in his body such a tremendous evil, so he keeps going.
Not that Naruto is lacking in... vitality. Iruka is also certain that his understanding of karma has by this point surpassed that of any abbot, because Naruto gives him back all the trouble he caused as a student at least twice fold, if not thrice. (But at least he doesn’t have time to think of his jōnin-sensei, or his now dead genin teammates, when he is running around the village yelling at the top of his lungs. So.) Chasing the boy around town becomes a weekly event, a well-rehearsed play filled with yelling, capturing, dragging, punishing, and always, always a meal. This is the most important part; not that the village supplied fare that’s handed out thrice daily in the Academy mess hall is bad, - it’s just, Naruto is so small.
And he just doesn't want his student to die of malnutrition. That’s all.
The middle of Shiwasu (師走, "Priests Running"; December), three years before Naruto’s graduation
Once, he tracks Naruto to his home, and immediately feels sick to his stomach; what he sees is everything he remembers of Konoha's failing orphanage program, and it brings back vivid memories of pain and loneliness and neglect.
He tells himself (again and again and again) that as his teacher, he absolutely cannot get involved. It would be the end of any semblance of professionalism that Iruka may have, and he’d rather not risk having Naruto taken away into another class, to another teacher who won’t care about why he is so loud, why he keeps misbehaving, or why he is so small.
(He fills up Naruto’s fridge weekly after that, in an operation so covert that ANBU would be proud.)
The end of Satsuki (皐月, "Early-rice-planting Month"; May), two years before Naruto’s graduation
The first time Naruto flunks, Iruka is twenty years old and he panics hard. He knows his colleagues, and none of them can handle the sheer energy the boy gives or their own inhibitions towards him. He knows some of them would even be downright cruel, or would simply graduate him unfit and allow him to come to danger out there, in the bloody sadistic real world Naruto knows nothing about. When Iruka shuts his eyes, his mind shows him images of the boy’s wrecked little body, so he gets another tattoo on his arm, because concentrating on patterns and seals is about the only thing keeping him marginally sane at this point.
Then later that summer, as though by the will of the gods, Natsume-sensei announces her pregnancy, and it's decided that as one of the teachers at the end of their four-year terms, Iruka would take over her class for the remaining two years. They also decide to stick Naruto with the new class, because it is composed of mostly his peers, (and no one outside of Iruka wants to teach him), and allow him another shot at graduation at the end of the year.
He flunks again, but this time, Iruka knows he has one more year, and at least he’ll graduate with children his own age. He has to.
(He begins to pray regularly.)
The end of Satsuki (皐月, "Early-rice-planting Month"; May), the year Naruto graduates
On a not completely unrelated note to Naruto's turbulent graduation, Konoha’s medi-nins do not get enough recognition. They really, honestly don’t, and he isn’t saying this because he knows trace amounts of healing jutsu. No, he is saying this because the amount of small fingers he has seen them reattach over the years to wailing children with absolute finesse is astounding, not to mention the job they did on his back. (Naturally, he got scolded for running about after yanking the shuriken out of himself, especially because someone of his training should really know better on both accounts. He doesn’t mention the strange feeling that had enveloped him after the metal left him, cold and hot and heavy underneath his skin.) Iruka is saying this because he thinks it’s pretty damn amazing that he is discharged two days after the incident, walking and all.
Of course, they were unable to operate the orange ball of worry off his hip, so there is that.
“Iruka-sensei”, Naruto grabs his hand as he whines, forcing him to stop, “the medic said you cannot be walking around. Don’t be a dumbass!”
Iruka sighs, and adjusts his grip on Naruto's hand as he locks his door and puts up his wards. They’ve just dropped his stuff off from the hospital and there is absolutely nothing easily edible in his fridge or his cupboards, so at the very least they need to make a stop at the corner store, if not eat at the yakiniku a block away, because he does not feel like cooking. “Naruto, I can take care of myself-”
“No you can’t!”
Iruka shoots the boy a dirty look for a) interrupting, b) so rude. The boy stares back with a stubborn pouty squint that is quintessentially Naruto.
“I can, but thank you for worrying about me. That's very sweet of you.”, he says, and the loud little child who is no longer his student ducks his head to hide a smile, “But we need to head out to find something to eat, because I’m absolutely famished! Hey, do you have any idea what we should eat…?”
Naruto grins at him, shouting 'ramen!’ with such enthusiasm (and decibels) that one of his neighbors on the upper floors begins to yell about house rules over the railing of the inner courtyard, and Iruka has to apologise repeatedly as he pulls the boy towards the stairwell as quickly as he can with his injury. When they are finally out of sight, Naruto chirping happily about his favorite and second favorite ramen toppings and still holding tightly onto his hand, a strange sensation comes over him.
“Iruka-sensei?”, his little companion says, squinting up at him against the sun.
Iruka blinks around, unsure if he zoned out or not, until his eyes settle on Naruto again.
“Iridofu. I really want to eat iridofu. Is that okay?”
This is actually an understatement. He feels like he’ll die if he doesn’t eat iridofu today; like he needs to cook it to be able to breathe. Like the world will collapse in on itself if he doesn’t do this; like there is no other purpose to life than for him to cook iridofu right now. It’s a rather disconcerting feeling to have, and Naruto seems to sense something of this strange phenomenon, because he looks at him thoughtfully for a moment before sullenly saying, “Eh… but I can’t cook, Iruka-sensei.”
Iruka smiles fondly, squeezing the little hand in his. “That’s okay, I’ll do it! Will you help me bring the groceries home?”
Please, he adds in his thoughts.
“Fine…”, Naruto whines, as though this is a huge chore and as though he is not actually smiling at the thought of a home-cooked meal. As though he hasn't noticed something isn't quite right.
Iruka chews on his bottom lip as he watches Naruto sleep in his parents’ old futon, comically small. It’s been four days since the Mizuki incident, two since he has been discharged from the hospital, and the boy has not left his side since, fussing over him every time he tries to stand or walk. It's really sweet, if a little annoying, seeing as Iruka is a battle-hardened shinobi who was deployed in war and experienced shit you would not believe, thank you. Anyway, they are obviously no longer teacher and student. They are…
He scratches his facial scar as he heads into his kitchen slowly, quietly.
The events with Mizuki have at least made it clear to him that despite years of desperate professionalism, he has come to really care for Naruto. Maybe because he is the last true war orphan in Konoha, with no family to call his own, only the stupid system there to furnish and feed him. Just like Iruka was. And Iruka knows the orphanage system; it never worked well, and he can only imagine how well it worked for Naruto. His other students couldn’t even begin to comprehend what he and Naruto know as a reality: the endless stream of second hand things, the subpar food supply and the school lunches, the broken heating and the badly insulating windows; the dreams of a family, of buying something new, of being whole and home. Not even Sasuke, who inherited not only vast wealth but a personal accountant to see to his worldly needs. (He knows for a fact that the boy lives in a better apartment with better things than he does.)
He unscrews his coffee maker, fills the bottom with water.
What exactly are they then with Naruto? What can Iruka even be? What can he give to him that he needs?
He begins to pack the coffee into the filter, pushing it down with every spoonful.
Clothes are always good. Food… well, he’s been doing that for a very long time, honestly, but maybe he could squeeze in a bit more. He could take him to the weapons shop too - they were set to meet their new jōnin sensei a couple of weeks later, and he should be well prepared…
He screws the coffee maker together tightly, and sets it on the stove.
Cooking was also nice. Not that Iruka is anything but a moderate cook, but listening to the boy ramble on while chopping vegetables, boiling tofu or scrambling the eggs was a wholesome experience, and Naruto's face at a home cooked meal, made for him specifically, was utterly priceless. It was a good idea to make iridofu. He should cook for them more often.
Iruka turns the rice-cooker on, heating up yesterday's rice. He fishes some umeboshi out of the fridge, and a couple of eggs to make into a tamagoyaki - and some miso soup to reheat in the microwave.
“Iruka-sensei, what are you doing bending?”
He turns around to find Naruto rubbing his eyes, looking quite put upon to find his former sensei misbehaving.
“What?! You're cooking again...?!”
He could get used to Naruto being underfoot all the time. He could.
He sends Naruto out for groceries on the sixth day, having made his decision. While the boy is away, he empties the single cabinet in his bedroom, moving the few clothes he has into the large built-in closet in the living room. He does the same with the small nightstand, and strips the bed.
He bought Naruto a new set of duvet and pillow covers for his birthday last month. It has ninja frogs on it, so it's fantastically cute, but is also of a great durable quality, and it's easy to wash. He puts them to use on his old bed.
Iruka is just closing the door to the bedroom behind himself when the keys rattle in his lock. Naruto grumbles with his two huge bags of groceries, pushing the door closed behind himself with his bum. He shouts ‘I’m home’, obviously unaware that Iruka is standing right across from him at the end of the hall. They are going to have to work on this awareness thing.
“Welcome home.”, Iruka says with a smirk, watching Naruto jump and almost fall over.
“Iruka-sensei! What are you doing there?”, he shouts back at him, then points an accusing finger suddenly, “Were you bending again?!”
Iruka grins mischievously at the boy, heading towards the forgotten groceries on the floor. “Of course not, is that how you know me? As someone who disobeys rules?”, he says slyly, reaching for one of the bags on the floor.
“You are doing it right now!!!”, Naruto shrieks, gathering up the bags and running into Iruka's tiny-ass kitchen with them as if his life depended on it. Iruka laughs, following him in a more sedate pace.
“Did you get everything on the list?”, he asks. Naruto shoots him a dark look, a sort of 'I’m onto you’ glare.
“Yeah, even though I had to go all the way to the other end of town. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
Iruka grins again. He likes how there is an easy mischief between them now that they aren't teacher and student, that he can let go of the sternness he has to bring to the classroom. Naruto putters around in the kitchen, slamming cupboards as he puts the food away (from his tiptoes on a chair). He looks comfortable here, but Iruka senses a distress beneath - the boy is probably anxious about his getting better and sending him home. Iruka understands this from the depths of his soul, - and no one ever did for him what he is about to do for Naruto.
“Naruto”, he says quietly, “could you come with me please?”
Naruto hops off the chair and walks behind him with a somber expression, probably expecting some kind of rejection. He looks up in surprise when Iruka stops in front of the bedroom.
“I admit, I did send you on long errand, but I had a good reason.”, Iruka says softly, and opens the bedroom door. The boy peeks in, then stares up at him with furrowed brows and a pouting lip, the picture of confusion. Iruka huffs a laugh. “This room is yours now.”
Naruto's eyes widen.
“You can stay here as much as you like. If you-UPH!”, his monologue is cut short by the boy slamming into him, a ferocious hug around his midriff. Iruka kneels carefully, puts his arms around Naruto, and squeezes him tightly.
“If you want”, he continues softly into the very blond hair, “you can stay here all the time. If you don’t want, then don’t. All I want is for you to know that you will always have a place here.”
Iruka doesn’t mind that his shoulder is becoming wet.
The middle of Minazuki (水無月, "Month of Water"; June), the year Naruto graduates
Iruka is quite shocked to learn that the jōnin Sandaime had picked for Team Seven had never passed a team before. Sure, sometimes teams didn't make the cut, either because of teamwork or abilities, but to never pass anyone? Did the man even want this position?
(... knowing his Hokage… there was a chance he didn't…)
So he is surprised to find out from Naruto - still tied to a stump on the training ground - that they made it. Delighted, he takes the boy out for ramen, and Naruto even beams when Iruka drags him back to the notorious stump after to practice escaping from ropes. (He gets it all down in an hour, so it’s painfully clear to him that if Naruto would have had this type of guidance during his academy days, he never would have flunked even once. He suppress the feeling of guilt that rears its ugly head.)
Iruka waits patiently on one of the tree branches near Team Seven’s meeting point, favorite murder mystery in hand. He promised Naruto he'd meet him here after their first ever successful D-rank, but he made sure to be concealed enough just in case his presence would disrupt Kakashi-sensei's pedagogy. Lord Buddha knows he hates it when worrywart parents hang about his lessons.
Not that he is Naruto's parent… or guardian… He thinks about the dull ache in his chest for a full minute before arriving at the conclusion that Sandaime would never let him, because Naruto is the vessel after all, and they simply don’t get adopted. Naruto most likely has to be an Uzumaki.
So Iruka is not really here in a pseudo-parental capacity at all. Except that he is, actually. Oh, his professionalism is in tatters, he knows. He just… he just hopes the jōnin will prove to be a better teacher to Naruto than he was, especially when it comes to things like... stealth. And staying alive. And not getting betrayed by comrades. Because Iruka is really bad at that last one.
“So that was our first mission? Man, I thought we would get to do something a little more awesome than help old man Takashi fish!”
(Iruka cringes. That was some ANBU level mission right there, stealth, with the way Naruto’s default volume was set at loud.)
He closes his book to observe Team Seven approaching from the woods. Naruto is, as expected, complaining loudly with his arms crossed behind his head, Sakura is yelling at him angrily, and Sasuke looks bored. Kakashi-sensei… Kakashi-sensei is an epitome of jōnin-ness, he decides, with his aloof manner and slouched posture, strange hair and questionable choice of reading material. Iruka pegs him for a future hokage from his service record. (Being a sweet-talking mission desk worker had its perks.) The jounin glances at him briefly as they arrive, and he bows his chakra back politely.
“Man, Iruka-sensei is still not here? I hope he is okay…”
Iruka twitches. Will Naruto ever accept his chuunin status? He doubts Naruto even knows what that means. Will he have to beat him at a spar to shut up about the shuriken in his back? Probably. Is it worth the effort? Not yet.
Once they are dismissed and the other team members are out of visual range, Naruto busies himself playing tic tac toe with the tip of his kunai, crouching with his back to the tree. Iruka drops down behind him silently, intent on getting some revenge for that earlier comment.
“I bought those for you so you’d have nice sharp ones.”, he says, taking pleasure in the huge scream of surprise that follows, catching the knife the boy throws away easily and twirling it around his finger.
“Iruka-sensei, don’t scare me like that!”, Naruto turns to him, hand clutching his chest. Iruka throws the whiner his kunai back.
“Idiot! You're a ninja, you’re supposed to be aware of your surroundings!”, he mock-berates as Naruto tries to step on his game of tic tac toe in the dust, and Iruka lets him. He ruffles the blond hair, enjoying the way the boy tries to swat away his hand while not really. They begin their slow walk back to town, the late summer sun warm on their skin.
“I’m proud of you.”, Iruka says simply after a while, and grins at Naruto as the boy stares at him with those big blue eyes, “Good job on your first mission! What would you-”
It happens again, that weird chill running down his spine, ice cold and he feels almost outside his own body. He realizes Naruto is shaking his hand with a worried look on his face.
“Hey, Iruka-sensei. What's going on?”
“I… I need to make donburi.”, Iruka whispers, a little frightened at this returning sensation of a consuming need to cook, but Naruto just smiles at him kindly after a moment of scrutinizing Iruka’s face.
“Okay.”, he declares as he pulls him along the road, “That sounds pretty great! I’ll tell you all about my first mission while we shop, okay Iruka-sensei?”
Naruto is so brave, Iruka thinks, and holds the little hand tighter.
The end of Minazuki (水無月, "Month of Water"; June), the year Naruto graduates
Iruka is walking home with that huge, no-good folder under his arm when he runs into Team Seven. Naruto tackles his side so forcefully he almost drops the paperwork of doom, but he can’t stay mad at the orange phenomenon of glee that jumps up and down, tugging on his hand with shouts of ‘food, food, food!’.
“Ah, you must be the famous Iruka-sensei.”, Kakashi-sensei says, and Iruka can’t help a small blush. He’s never been on this side of the parent-teacher meeting before.
“Infamous, maybe.”, he replies as he shakes the jōnin’s extended hand, managing to disentangle himself for a moment. Naruto scrunches his face up at them.
“You don’t know each other?”, he says slowly, and Sasuke scoffs next to him. “But you know everyone, Iruka-sensei.”
“Idiot”, Sakura cuts in with a punch to his arm, “Konoha is huge. How could he?”
Naruto throws his arms into the air, volume doubled as they descend into a squabble, and Iruka shares a look with Kakashi-sensei; they need no words to feel their camaraderie. Silently, they turn on their heels and begin walking down the street. The kids will eventually notice.
“Thank you for taking such good care of them.”, he says to the other man with a tilt of his head. “I know they are a handful.”
Kakashi-sensei chuckles darkly, his hands slipping into his pockets.
“I can’t imagine how you teach an entire class. Were any of us ever so inattentive...”, the jōnin mumbles, that one dark eye examining the folder under Iruka’s arm with faked causality before moving on to the other parts of the street; rooftops, corners, trees, Iruka notices, a lookout for anything at all.
“Well, being deployed straight into war had that effect on us.”, he replies softly, glancing behind himself to see the three children running after them, “I’m glad that’s not how they start their careers. They’ll pull through later, once they get their first serious assignment. They have the will of fire.”
Kakashi-sensei’s eye is back on him, and there is something warm in his gaze; Iruka has no time to decipher its meaning, as Naruto crashes into him again, this time hopping onto his back for an illegal piggy-back ride. He hisses in pain as it justles something that should probably not have been justled, and Naruto is off him in an instant, looking tearful and afraid. They both stop to look at him, as do Sakura and Sasuke behind him.
“I’m so sorry! I forgot what the nurse said!”, Naruto shouts almost hysterically, clutching his face, but what worries Iruka more is his genuine concern behind it, “Oh no, please Iruka-sensei, I don’t want you to not be able to walk again, we need to get you to the hospital-”
“What.”, he realizes his tone is flat, flat like it used to be, but he does not like where that morsel of information is leading, and disregards the strange looks the children give him. Kakashi-sensei takes one step closer to him. “Which nurse told you what now?”
Is this where this has been coming from? Did someone seriously try to play a trick on an orphan child when he was by the bedside of someone he cared about? Did someone think making Naruto needlessly worry was funny? His rage is ice in his veins.
“The-the blond one with the glasses. She-she said if I’m not careful you’ll break your back and won’t be able to walk or teach or be a ninja at all, and I-”
Surprisingly, it's Sakura who puts a calming hand on Naruto’s shoulder. “I-It’s okay Naruto. Iruka-sensei is fine, see…”
Well, he isn’t. He is barely keeping his murderous intent in check, and is a hair’s width away from hunting down this nurse and killing her with his bare hands; Kakashi-sensei has probably picked up on it anyway, because he turns to Naruto and simply says, “She lied to you.”
Iruka is gone by the time Naruto shouts ‘what’ and ‘why’, leaving the jōnin to deal with his mess. He’ll apologise later, when he cut that bitch.
Kakashi blinks slowly at Genma from his seat next to Asuma and Kurenai as the man rambles on about the latest juicy gossip in their booth at the Blind Bear, an establishment strictly for adults. (Buddhas know he needs a little time with no children, especially after having dealt with the consequences of someone telling cruel lies about Iruka-sensei to Naruto. Frowning, he drinks some more beer.)
“So, okay, I’ve got another great story.”, Genma begins. Anko snorts loudly next to him, grabbing a handful of peanuts away from Gai, who’s sitting at the end of the table on a poor rickety chair, but that’s what you get for being late to the usual Thursday night drinking session. (Kakashi is always early, because he absolutely will not sit with his back not against the wall and with no view of the exit.) “You’ve heard of Umino Iruka of the Academy, right?”
Oh great. He did murder someone.
“See, at the end of graduation, the jinchuuriki steals a forbidden scroll from the Hokage, right? Except, as it turns out, he got tricked by one of the teachers. Mijuku or something.”, Anko tries to interject that the correct name is Mizuki, but Genma just shakes his hand that it really doesn’t matter, and soldiers on, “So our fellow Iruka finds the kid in the woods before anyone else, takes a fuckin’ fūma shuriken in the back that almost severs his spine, and still leads the traitor on a merry goose chase until the ANBU get there.”
(It’s not Genma’s fault he doesn’t know about Naruto’s surprising victory, as the Hokage immediately classified it; Kakashi is only privy to it on account of being the boy’s teacher.)
“Okay, what’s the point Genma?”, Asuma says between drags, “This is old stuff.”
Kurenai lifts her arm to order another round from the retired shinobi behind the bar, as well as something else to eat. Kakashi isn’t sure that eating at the dinghy Blind Bear is a good choice for their health, as he is certain the place would never pass a health inspection without a copious amount of money placed in an envelope and slid across the table quietly. But the beer is cheap, and the owner doesn’t mind Gai’s loud bursts, so it’s where they always come.
“Yes, but I had to make sure all parties present are up to date.”, Genma says as he shoots Gai a pointed look, who is notorious for never knowing anything yet always possessing some new form of juicy gossip, as though to spite Genma, “The real good part starts today, when my man Raido here got a gloriously stupid head injury and we were waiting at the hospital.”
Across Kakashi, Raido sighs, adjusting the bandages covering his face and looking somewhat embarrassed. “You promised not to talk about that.”
“I’m not. I’m talking about fucking Umino Iruka strolling in there with killing intent dialed so high, even chūnin were pissing themselves. It was great people, I thought it was going to be a massacre, but no, he goes up to the head nurse, and starts demanding loud enough for every shinobi on the whole floor to hear that”, their beers arrive, and the narrative is broken by huge gulps, “Yeah, to make an official complaint or some shit against this nurse who was needlessly frightening and misleading a student or some shit. Fuck knows, that’s not the interesting part. See, it turns out this bitch was on thin ice anyway, on account of being a freakin’ Suna spy people.”
“Eh? And how do you know that?”, Anko says around her mouthful of peanuts. Kakashi wishes she would stop talking like that.
“I asked some people who know some people, Anko. So, like, ANBU has been circling her for weeks! That’s the point, okay? And get this, when my man Iruka comes in ready to murder someone, she flips, and tries to off him right there in the middle of ER. I mean, it was a quiet day, but it was still full of shinobi. Totally crazy. So she tries to senbon him, but he not only elbows her in the face, but takes the senbon, shoves it most beautifully in her upper arm point, so she has no function of the right arm. And! And before I even get up from my pretty little tush, he lightwrote her, people.”
The table erupts into cries of denial and disbelief, glasses clinking and beer spilling, and Kakashi tries to picture the kindly smiling Iruka-sensei as he draws a minimal part of the seal directly with his fingers onto the Suna spy, pushing not only his chakra, but the rest of the seal out as well - as far as he remembers, it’s sort of like what happens with summoning, except not one part of it is pre-scripted or pushed through by the summons, and that high level of intent and concentration along with the close combat factor makes it mostly unusable in battle today. But it is an old-school high-level seal technique... the last person he knows of that could do it was Kushina-san, actually.
(But he knows now why Sandaime kept Naruto under Iruka-sensei’s watchful eye.)
“You forgot to mention how the ANBU had to make Iruka-sensei put his katana away.”, Raido quips in. “He was really about to cut her head off.”
“You’re lying!”, Kurenai says in disbelief, “I’ve met Iruka-sensei. He’s sweet.”
Anko snorts, but Kakashi can’t help but think that he does seem like a genuinely kind man, even if it is a bit at odds with being a shinobi; but he supposes it’s a prerequisite for teaching small children well.
“Yeah, well, I think they took him for a cooler in T&I after that.”, Genma laughs, and they move on to other topics.
It’s two, possibly three hours after Iruka had left Naruto on the verge of tears with his cell when he finally gets out of T&I. Normally, they'd put someone like him in an all-nighter, but Iruka knows everyone and they know him, so he gets out after having a brief heart to heart with Ibiki about disregarding ANBU instructions when they are trying to apprehend a spy, and the stupidity thereof. All Iruka can think about during all this is the hurt in Naruto’s eyes.
He shouldn't have left him there.
That was a dreadful mistake, a horrible mistake. That Suna spy wasn't worth it, not by a long shot, but he was so furious… Iruka clenches his teeth as he runs as fast as he can to the boy’s shoddy apartment complex within the limits of allowed speed. It was selfish, that’s what it was. That violence hadn’t made things better, it just made Iruka feel better while Naruto was left all alone again with the betrayal and the hurt - he has no doubts that he’d put on a brave face in front of his new cell, flashing that toothy grin he’s gotten down to perfection that doesn’t reach his eyes at all.
He’s absolutely disgusted with himself.
When he arrives, he opens the window with practiced ease, barely making a sound as he slips in out of habit; Naruto is curled in on himself on the bed, unaware and facing the wall.
What an idiot he is. What an irresponsible, childish thing to have done that.
“Hey.”, he says gently, taking the few steps between them and sitting down on the edge of the bed. The boy turns his head in surprise, pain so evident on his small face it makes Iruka want to burn the world. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you there.”
Naruto blinks at him, turning wholly around. His bed creaks, and his sheets look like they haven't been washed in a long while; now that he has graduated, the system treats him like an adult, and there is no more caretaker coming by every week. (It’s a moronic system, Naruto is still twelve, but Iruka has learned on his own skin that the system doesn’t care. The expectation is always that orphans get adopted out before graduation.)
“I was so angry.”, he hesitates, unsure if his touch would be welcome, before placing a hand on Naruto’s shoulder, “I wanted to hurt the person who said that to you so much that I left when I shouldn't have. I'm sorry Naruto.”
Naruto sniffs loudly, nose obviously stuffy, and sits up, scrubbing at his eyes. “I don’t want it.”, his voice is small and cracking, “I hate the fox. They hate me so much because I’m the fox. I don’t - I don’t wanna -”, he begins to cry again, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks; this time, Iruka doesn’t hesitate, puts his arms around him and pulls him close, feels little fingers clutch at the back of his vest with all the force they have, smooths down unruly blonde hair over and over again as sobs wreck the small body.
It’s just not fair, that a little boy would have to suffer this much for a peace that barely exists.
“Come on.”, Iruka whispers after a while, not letting go until Naruto raises his head, eyes red and puffy, “Let’s go home and eat something delicious.”
And that’s what they do; Iruka stuffs the boy with the leftover mapo tofu he has before bringing out the big guns (high quality chocolate bars), watching stupid late night competitions and making shadow figures on the wall from under the cover of his futon (table put aside), until Naruto smiles again, until he laughs again, until he falls asleep, snuggled into his side, so small and precious.
Iruka wants to kill everyone who has ever hurt him. (Starting with the Yondaime.)
The beginning of Fumizuki (文月, "Month of Books"; July), the year Naruto graduates
Kakashi ambles along behind his little team, tuning out their usual bickering - this time over who was supposed to pick which row of carrots - almost pulling out his book in boredom when his eye lands on one Umino Iruka turning onto their street, again with that huge dossier under his arm. Naruto notices him at the same time he does, like some sort of fine-tuned radar set to his favorite person, running forward with loud cries of 'Iruka-sensei’, tackling the man with an enthusiastic hug. Iruka-sensei laughs, ruffling the blond hair, and Kakashi can very well imagine him fucking up that nurse in the hospital for hurting his sensei's son. It's pretty sweet.
“It’s so nice to see you all again!”, Iruka-sensei says to them, “Are you coming back from a mission?”
Sakura and Sasuke also seem fond of him, though not in the way Naruto is. They discuss their harvesting thrill-ride of a mission, - he is tuning out again -, before Naruto interjects that he is hungry and that they all should have dinner now, together.
Iruka-sensei opens his mouth to reply and freezes.
It makes Kakashi switch into field-mode immediately, but nothing happens: the man just stands there, eyes glazed over, lips slightly parted. Like a computer that's shut down.
“I-Iruka-sensei…?”, Sakura stammers, but Naruto shakes his head at her, and his reaction surprises Kakashi even more.
“It's okay.”, the blond says, “It’s been happening ever since he had the shuriken in the back. He just really wants to cook something after.”
Kakashi narrows his eye. That… is far from okay, if probably harmless. Iruka-sensei is still standing there, staring off into the distance.
“How long does it take?”, Sasuke asks, and Naruto shrugs, taking the sensei's hand into his.
He has a good eye for seeing connections and noticing details, he knows, but over the course of his career, Kakashi has learned to trust his gut over almost anything. And right now, his gut is telling him that he should investigate. He frowns, leaning forward to his genin, “New mission. We accompany Iruka-sensei tonight.”
“You just want free food.”, Naruto says with a pout, just as Iruka-sensei comes out of it with a small shudder. The boy looks up at him with a grin. “What are we having?”
“... su-sukiyaki.”, Iruka-sensei whispers with a small blush, avoiding Kakashi's gaze.
“Eh, never had that before!”, Naruto laughs, and his genin begin to loudly discuss the merits and variations of sukiyaki as they begin their journey towards the market, no doubt to lift the unease apparent on Iruka-sensei's face. They are cute little gremlins like that, and they naturally drift forward, leaving him to follow with the chūnin by his side. He tries to smile reassuringly, but he is neither very good at it nor is the other man looking at him, so his efforts are ultimately a failure.
“I apologize for leaving so suddenly last time. My temper got the better of me.”, Iruka-sensei says after a while, and Kakashi can’t help a chuckle.
“Oh, I’ve heard.”, the other man’s head whips around so quickly, his ponytail smashes into his face, “Genma was there in the ER. I don't know if you know him, but he is the biggest gossip Konoha has ever known.”
He surmises from the quiet groan that Iruka-sensei knows exactly what kind of man Shiranui Genma is, and just how fast and in how many circles the retelling of the events have probably occurred.
“He was wildly impressed with you!”, Kakashi tries to reassure him, but all he gets is a flat disbelieving look as they enter the market.
It’s a cooling evening by the time they arrive at Iruka-sensei’s apartment, a couple of blocks from the Academy where the civilian and the shinobi residences intermingle. It’s not a bad neighborhood, like Naruto’s apartment, but it’s not very great either, like Sasuke’s - or Kakashi’s, though he chose his living accommodations to suit his very particular set of needs that had little to do with the class of the neighborhood. (The realtor thought he was an avid feng shui follower, but nothing could be further from the truth.) There are still many people outside, and Iruka-sensei waves to a remarkable number of them. They climb the stairs - the inner courtyard around which the homes are arranged halved into a tiny training ground and a more domestic area, with a carpet beater and a clothes dryer -, and the other man undoes a sufficient number of wards for Kakashi’s liking before unlocking the three separate locks on the door. Truly, a man after his own heart.
Inside, there is barely a genkan for them to take their shoes off (it looks impossibly cluttered with all their sandals - Iruka-sensei yells at Naruto for not putting his down properly), which continues on into a small corridor with doors to the bathroom on the left. It smells clean - he can detect a faint citrusy smell of some cleaning product. His nose appreciates the smell, along with the faint hint of incense. As soon as his shoes are off, Naruto runs forward, throwing open the door at the end of the hall: he can see a bed with shuriken patterned covers, and a mess that’s very Naruto-ish.
“This is mine!”, the boy beams proudly, like the bedroom is his greatest treasure and he wants all the world to know, “Iruka-sensei lets me stay whenever I want! Look, look, I even have some awesome scrolls on ninjutsu! And a very cool bean bag.”
Kakashi hears Iruka-sensei mutter behind him ‘how did he get that back in here again’ under his breath as he reaches the corridor’s end; to his right there is a large room with tatami, and what seems to be a balcony looking out into the garden encircled by the continuous block of the neighbouring complexes. It’s as quiet and private as it gets in this part of the village.
Iruka-sensei turns left, and disappears around the corner to what Kakashi assumes to be the kitchen. He enters the washitsu instead, curious. There is an old tv set tucked into the corner next to the balcony door with a bookshelf that has seen better days housing various books. The titles range from technical to murder mysteries (and can Iruka-sensei’s ratings in Kakashi’s book go any higher, because they are alphabetized), all second hand by the looks of it; interestingly, there are no pictures save for the small ancestral shrine under the balcony window.
A shinobi couple stare back at him happily from the photo. The incense has burned away, but Kakashi can see the small altar is particularly well-cared for, even if it's very simple. He offers a small prayer to them, before letting his gaze wonder further.
Above the altar, plants line the windowsill, small orbs of water hovering over them; a curious little jutsu. The sunshine dances in delightful patterns on the floor as it breaks through them. A bit back, in front of him and in viewing distance of the television set is a worn low table, the only other furniture in the room, with zabuton pillows on the floor - one a newer in blinding orange. There is a single piece of calligraphy that hangs on the wall in an old frame, but he has always been very bad at cursive script and can't really read it. He notices that in the back of the room is an oshiire, probably housing the futons and whatnot.
Very nice, Kakashi thinks, an absolutely stellar apartment that passes all tests. He could even sleep here.
He heads towards the kitchen, taking a peek at the genin huddled around a scroll or something in what is ostensibly Naruto's room. “Hey, aren't you going to watch Great Mecha Samurai?”
(Sasuke’s embarrassed flush gives him life, it really does.) A moment later the three troublemakers storm into the living room, and he hears the opening theme of the show play. It's good that they can be kids still, unlike they were.
Iruka-sensei is busy preparing the vegetables when he enters the narrow kitchen. He likes the little bar under the window opposite the workstation, allowing for a view of the street below.
“You have a lovely home.”, Kakashi says, and Iruka-sensei blinks at him rapidly in surprise, before deciding that Kakashi really does mean it, and smiles back sincerely.
“Thank you.”, he says quietly, “I’m sorry for ruining your plans this evening.”
Kakashi takes the bowls that are set out.
“Nonsense, I’m the one getting a good meal here… but, I have to ask. Have you consulted a medic, Iruka-sensei?”
The other man’s hand stills, holding the knife for a moment in the air before resuming chopping.
“I’ve always known my brain has faulty wiring.”, he replies almost inaudibly, “And as it poses no danger, there is really nothing to consult about.”
Naruto begins shouting insults at Sasuke, and Kakashi drags himself away from the conversation in order to end the squabble before something is on fire.
A little while later, the sukiyaki is ready: Kakashi is surprised by how much he looks forward to it, his mouth watering at the smell as Iruka-sensei brings the pot into the living room. After a short introduction to Naruto about the merits of dipping the vegetables into the egg, they are all enjoying an absolutely delicious meal. Whatever is making Iruka-sensei cook, it has great ideas.
“So, Sakura, have you started on your medical training yet?”, Iruka-sensei asks conversationally between bites, but seeing the girl look at him, then at Kakashi in confusion adds hurriedly, “Oh, sorry. I just thought since you have the best chakra control, you’d be the designated healer.”
“Designated healer?”, Naruto says with his mouth full. Kakashi will never know if he actually listened to anything Iruka-sensei ever thought him in school, but the answer is probably not. Sasuke sighs dramatically.
“Dumbass.”, the Uchiha grumbles, “every cell is required to have someone with at least some medical knowledge. In case someone gets hurt.”
Sakura blushes sweetly. “I would like to, I guess…”
“I haven't decided yet who should be the designated healer.”, Kakashi says as he puts his sake cup down, “The kunoichi isn’t always the best choice, if the boys are not of matching range and elemental disposition.”
Iruka-sensei nods as he pours him another round.
“That’s true. It was the case for my genin team too, so I ended up spending my hours in the field hospitals. Not that I was anything but moderate, but it came in handy when I applied for the sewa specialization.”, the other man replies with a chuckle, putting some udon into the sukiyaki pot.
“Eh, the what now Iruka-sensei?”, Naruto says - thankfully between the two bites, instead of in the middle of one.
Iruka-sensei looks like he is reevaluating his vocation for a moment, before putting down his bowl to point at himself in exasperation. “Me. I’m a chūnin with sewa specialization. You know, shinobi who work in the nursery, orphanage, academy and parts of the pediatrics? ...You never listened to me at all, did you?”
Kakashi tries not to laugh at Naruto's sheepish reply of 'sorry’ and Iruka-sensei’s following exclamations of 'how are you ever going to be a hokage if you don't know who does what’ and 'Sakura please give me back my faith that someone listened to me talking for two years, because I’ve been yelling at this dumbass for six and Tenjin help me I’m losing all faith in my teaching abilities’ (dramatic sob), or Naruto indignantly shooting back 'you shouldn't make everything so hard to understand then’.
Having sukiyaki was quite fun in the end. Iruka was slightly apprehensive about what Kakashi-sensei would think, especially given the way the idea came up, but he was nothing but charming. He finds that talking with the jōnin is easy and effortless, and not talking even more so; they seem to be quite similar in their habits and thoughts, and being with Kakashi-sensei is like holding a pebble washed smooth by the river, intricate veins on the surface that catches the eye so you take it home with you.
Interestingly, this 'sukiyaki incident’ starts a habit of weekly dinner parties - without the aid of his new found something suggesting food, thankfully. He invites Team Seven come every Friday, and he always cooks something else. It's… pleasant.
Thank you to everyone who read the first chapter and left comments or kudos! You are all lovely! <3
I started writing this fic more than a year ago on two premises: a) what would have felt to me like a logical conclusion to Naruto instead of what we got (and what if the story was forced to go that way), and b) what if Iruka was for once not the psychologically better adjusted one, as compared to Kakashi? (Also, the person we actually see in the series having friends... is not Iruka. For all we know, his closest adult acquintance was Sandaime.)
I really hesitated on posting this, because honestly, I wrote this for me, and wasn't sure if anyone else would like it. But then I saw a tag on tumblr, 'i wrote this for me but you are welcome to read it', and despite its humorous circumstance, it gave me courage to go ahead and begin posting it. Unfortunately, because of fan/life balance, I think I'll only be able to manage monthly updates - sorry about that.
Also, this chapter talks about past abuse, rape, and torture, with the consequences thereof. If that is not your cup of tea, please skip from The end of Hazuki (One week, he invites Team Seven...) to the section beginning 'Iruka is so tired after his classes'.
The middle of Fumizuki (文月, "Month of Books"; July), the year Naruto graduates
A most mundane truth of their bloodthirsty world is that missions, filled often with gore and death and torture, are only about 50% field work. The rest, well, is administration and accounting. Not the most glorious of tasks for a shinobi, but a hidden village is a business of sorts, and good administration is essential at their size. (In fact, Iruka himself has saved many a paycheck when clients tried to skim or skip on the fees, no doubt thinking that contract killers couldn’t count. They are wrong.) However, that good administration all depends on an up-to-date and correctly indexed database, - and since the current head of admin is ancient and doesn't trust computers, Iruka and the rest of the mission control bureau are stuck with a yearly overhaul: they affectionately call it ‘The Month of Inky Hells’.
Hence, the chaos and suffering around him.
Iruka watches Naruto scribble in his notebook, form 55-C permanently seared into his brain and floating about when he closes his eyes like a bad apparition, relieved to just stare at the boy for a minute or two. He's a little island at Iruka’s low desk among the scattered paperwork he had brought home, blond brows furrowed in adorable concentration. (The kanji look atrocious of course.) He'd always known he liked to draw, because returned worksheets and essays with doodles were a general occurrence, but to see him so immersed in his own little manga was sweet. Almost half of the notebook is already filled with the story he has thought out.
Naruto sighs in frustration, erasing whatever he has done on the recent panel.
“What is it?”, Iruka smiles, wanting to look and think about anything other than the piles of form 55-B awaiting him that jōnin mess up all the time, “Hard pose?”
“No.”, Naruto mumbles, searching about for his other pencil, lifting some of Iruka's paper mess, “I'm stuck in the story.”
“Can I help?”, he feels a little foolish for asking, because the last time he'd read a manga was when he was... eleven, maybe, but he is so happy that the boy had even come to keep him company today that he has to. (And maybe he doesn't want to work.) Naruto stares at him in surprise.
“It's… it's stupid, Iruka-sensei.”, he scratches his messy hair, gaze dropping back down, “I'll just not draw the mom. I mean, in the show she is always there for Yoshiyoshi, you know, the Great Mecha Samurai? But I don't even know who my mom was, so it's really hard for me to imagine what a mom would do…”, he trails off so softly, it wrenches Iruka's heart.
Wait wait wait, his mind begins to shout, pulling on the brakes sharply and wrestling back control from his bleeding heart. Naruto doesn't know who his mother was?
(Does…does he know who his father was…?)
He had assumed… foolishly, that one of the caretakers would have told him. Oh, oh, he should have known better, known that people barely making an effort to keep the boy alive wouldn't bother with answering questions about parents. This is horrible, this is-
“Iruka-sensei?”, Naruto squints at him in confusion, “You aren't doing the cooking thing again, are you?”
This needs to be remedied right now.
“Naruto, please come with-”, he begins, only to cut himself off; he is rushing ahead again, he realizes, doing what would satisfy him again, instead of thinking of what Naruto needs, and that won't do. He won't make the same mistake as last time, no. He shakes his head, scratching his facial scar. “Would you… would you like to know who your mother was, Naruto?”
Those blue eyes stare back in wonder.
“Yes! Yes, please Iruka-sensei!”
That settles it. He leaves the paperwork behind, damned be any deadline he is supposed to meet, and takes the boy to the archives in the Plum building, first floor, to the left. He helps him fill out his forms to request the files on his parents, - manages to convince the clerk to let Naruto's lack of seal slide, he is a new genin see, still being carved (adds getting a seal for Naruto to his mental to do list), - takes the two hefty boxes they are given and marches them over to the reading alcoves. He almost opens the boxes, but stops himself at the last minute - after all, this isn’t his family. Naruto… Naruto isn’t his son, he’s just…. Naruto might not want him here at all.
His hand hovers about lamely before he squares his shoulders, turning towards the door.
“I'm a little scared.” Naruto’s voice is almost panicked, piping up suddenly as Iruka steps away; he looks comically small at the large table, behind the two gigantic boxes they've received, glancing in apprehension at the task ahead.
Oh. He turns back.
“That's okay.”, Iruka smiles as he pulls up a chair and slides the heftier box of Yondaime's unclassified documents to the side. He hates the man anyway. “Let's just take a peek at your mom. We can come back anytime, as many times as you'd like.”
Naruto lifts the top of the box with some trepidation, taking out the first batch of papers - the datasheet. He mouths, 'Uzumaki’, face falling when he can't make heads or tails of the kanji following. Iruka points to the row below, where it's spelled out phonetically, and tries not to be too emotional as Naruto reads out loud, for the first time in his life, his mother's name.
“Kushina.”, he whispers with wonder, “Her name was Kushina, Iruka-sensei! That's such a pretty name. Oh, are there pictures in here? I bet she was beautiful!”
“There should be an official headshot in there somewhere. You know, like the one you had taken after graduation.”, he gestures for him to flip the page, and winces at the vehemence that almost tears the pages apart.
“Here it is! Oh, she is so cute! And she has red hair, that is so cool!”, Naruto bounces about in his chair, flipping the document back and forth as though trying to memorize both the photo and the kanji at the same time. “What does this say, Iruka-sensei?”
“Jōnin rank, special qualifications.”, that latter part should probably be discussed at a later time. Maybe by someone more appropriate and qualified then him, like Sandaime.
(Why hadn't Sandaime told him who his parents were? Just… why?)
“So cool!”, Naruto yells, ignoring Iruka's shush and looking at the photo again, “Mom, you kicked a lot of butt, right? I bet you were super strong, like Yoshiyoshi's mom.”
“Here, you can see how many missions she's completed. There should be a summary of her abilities on page three... Yes, see? She was very skilled with seals, and excellent in ninjutsu, so you bet she kicked a lot of butt.”
Naruto laughs in delight, staring at the picture of his mother in complete adoration, and Iruka can't help but smile at him. He wishes he could show Naruto more, tell Naruto more, but he never knew either of his parents; wonders if he could track down someone that could tell a little tale about Kushina at least. Yes, Naruto would absolutely enjoy that, and maybe if that someone is uncooperative, he can ask Ibiki to do a little intimidation for him - the man still owes Iruka a favor from last time, after all. He's so lost in his list of potential narrators and possible bribes and bones to break, that he is unprepared for the sudden ferocious hug, a blond head smushing itself into his vest. He stares down quizzically, smiling back at the ear to ear grin.
Maybe he did well today.
He pats the soft hair again as the little arms let go, watching Naruto practically vibrate in his chair while scrambling to kneel on it instead so he has a better view of the table. “What about the next page? Is that a summary of her jutsus?”, he jabbers like Iruka had given him a superb present and he can't contain his absolute joy in his tiny body.
“No, that's family status. The wider ability summary should be in the -”, but Naruto has already turned the page, little finger running along the names he can't make out, grandparents, parents, until it comes to a halt at husband.
After all, every Academy student knows how to read that name.
“What?”, he breathes, jumping back to the beginning and reading again in silent confusion. The blue eyes look at him, like this is a prank, suddenly very still and not at all grinning.
“I… I always thought you knew. I thought when you were painting the Hokage monument…”
“That I was mad at my dad…”, Naruto mumbles, his attention shifting to the box Iruka had pushed away earlier. His voice is very quiet now, vulnerable and confused, and it makes him want to rage against the past, “But… if I'm his son…why... why did he do that to me, Iruka-sensei?”
He wishes he knew. He could never understand, not for the life of him, but people often make incomprehensible decisions when on death's door. Slowly, he puts an arm around the little shoulders, relieved when he leans into his touch instead of pulling away. “I don't get it either, to be honest.”, he whispers back. Pauses, before asking, “Want to get out of here?”
The silence that follows is tense, and he watches Naruto trace Kushina's photograph with an ink-smudged finger for a long while. “No, I want to read more about my mom.”, he leans against him, a little awkward but honest, “Will you help me just a bit more?”
“Of course I will.”, Iruka says, pulling Kushina's box closer to them. They stay until the office closes.
The end of Hazuki (葉月, "Month of Leaves"; August), the year Naruto graduates
One week, he invites Team Seven again for dinner on a Tuesday, mostly because Naruto suggests it, bouncing in place from ill-concealed excitement, and he can’t refuse. (Kakashi-sensei gives him an amused look at being such a sap, but doesn’t say anything. Iruka thinks it’s the prospect of free food; as it is, his makeshift recipe book has a section titled 'favored by the shameless freeloader’ in it.)
He broils some fish, makes some rice, nothing too fancy; his young guests don’t seem to mind though, recounting and complaining about their last string of training exercises. Next to him, Kakashi-sensei eats silently and quickly, but not without comment in the form of looks he shoots at Iruka during the grand narrative of their latest adventures. Iruka has a splendid time, and he pours the other man and himself some sake, giving the genins store-bought dango as dessert. Even Sasuke seems to be mildly enjoying himself.
“Is there any more dango, Iruka-sensei?”, Naruto asks with a sly grin, and Iruka sighs dramatically, mumbling 'fiiine’ as he gets up with a show. They both know he could never refuse Naruto's requests for food, and he swears it's going to be his undoing. He might as well refill the sake while he is at it.
When he comes back, scant a minute later, the children are all curiously peeking at something in Naruto’s hand; a photograph. Kakashi-sensei is reaching over with a frown - as far as Iruka can tell with the quarter of a face showing -, and he plucks it from their hand.
“That’s rude, dunce. Don’t go rifling through other people's stuff.”, he says, or at least that’s what Iruka seems to hear somewhere.
It's his genin team picture. That man stares at him from it.
Kakashi never could have imagined being a jōnin sensei was so boring and fun at the same time. Sure, D ranks were never exciting, but seeing his genin fall on their faces, get chased around by geese, or be covered in algae was hilarious. (Especially when it happened to Sasuke, because that was also somewhat like laughing at his own former self.)
They are heading to the mission desk after completing the latest thrilling saga of weeding someone's disaster of a backyard when they run into Iruka-sensei. Naruto launches himself at the man with an energy he didn't seem to have two seconds ago, and the chūnin laughs at him happily, apparently not minding the dirt that comes with the orange ball of joy.
“Iruka-sensei! You know, we should all have dinner again like last time… that was fun… “, by the sage, how is his sensei’s son vibrating? Not that the other kids seem any less hopeful... Iruka-sensei sighs as though he is very put upon, but the corner of his mouth is turning up, and Kakashi can’t help but smile at him for being so typically kind.
He doesn't quite know how to put it… but where others usually grate on his nerves or bore him to tears - even Gai, bless his spandex-covered heart -, Iruka-sensei is a balm to soothe a deep ache, pleasant and comfortable; he always seems to understand what Kakashi wants to say without him having to say it, and his laughter and humor never fail to bring a smile to his face.
(Anyway, free fare is never a bad thing, even if he will stop to buy some sake.)
“Fine.”, the other man says, shushing Naruto’s huge hoorays, “I’ll go get some groceries while you finish up in the mission room. We’ll meet up at home, okay?”
Like all those times before, the evening passes by pleasantly - Iruka-sensei probably doesn't know, but salt-broiled saury is one of his favorites -, and he enjoys sipping some sake and discussing sealing techniques with the chūnin, who has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, as the kids devour their dango watching something on the old tv. He lets himself enjoy the moment, savors and treasures it.
“Is there any more dango, Iruka-sensei?”, Naruto turns around as the credits roll, and there is something in his eyes that makes Kakashi instantly wary.
For all his experience with children, Iruka-sensei doesn't seem to notice, taking the almost empty sake flask with him for a much appreciated refill. As soon as he is gone, Naruto pulls something from his pocket to show to Sakura and Sasuke. He whispers conspiratorially, “Look what I found! I almost forgot to show you!”
Kakashi blinks once in annoyance - has his team forgotten he was sitting right here - before reaching over to pluck the photograph out of the boy’s hand.
“That’s rude, dunce. Don’t go rifling through other people's stuff.”, he spares a glance at the image: Unabara Shachi stands with arms crossed behind three serious children in full genin tactical gear, one of them obviously a small Umino Iruka.
Shit, Kakashi thinks just as Iruka-sensei drops the tray and sake spills everywhere. Shit.
Iruka-sensei is hyperventilating and shaking, and the thought crosses his mind that he might disassociate hard enough to attack them all, so he scrambles to his feet as quickly as he can while trying to remain non-threatening, and steps in front of his genin.
“What’s g-” Sakura is about to ask, but Kakashi field signs them to stay still and silent; he doesn’t want to call ANBU in, make this official and all. No, he just needs to get Iruka-sensei to stop making fists and be preferably immobilized. He steps closer, softly, shoulders hunched and hands stretched out before quickly sweeping in and wrapping his arms around the other; it’s not the most prudent method, but he doesn’t want to humiliate the man by tackling him to the ground. He isn’t surprised when Iruka-sensei begins to struggle in his arms, flailing wildly and pushing against him, but it’s an incoherent, panicked reaction, no real strength or technique behind it. He doesn't know what else to say or do but hold on as tight as he can and say in a voice as gentle and firm as he can (while getting pummeled); “He is dead, Iruka!”
For once in his life, Kakashi seems to have found the right thing to say, because Iruka-sensei goes absolutely still.
His breath is still far too quick and his hands are gripping Kakashi’s biceps painfully, but he does turn his head to look at him; it’s like he is trying his hardest to focus instead of his gaze flitting around, so Kakashi repeats ‘he is dead’ again and again to him, watches his breathing slow to a more moderate pace, and finally, after a long minute, sees and feels his head drop to his shoulder, a heavy weight. He barely hears him whisper back, “He is dead.”
By the sage, yes. He glances heavenward, thankful they’ve been given one more day without a killing spree.
Kakashi nods against the auburn head, taking a quick look at his genin. Naruto's eyes seem impossibly wide and tear-filled, and both Sakura and Sasuke have tight grips on his jacket as though to hold him back. Sakura looks confused and scared, like a child should when torn between wanting to help and not knowing how, her gaze flicking between her teammates and him with Iruka-sensei in his arms. Sasuke is the only one not looking at them but at the floor, mouth an unmoving sad frown - he is the only one of the three who knows exactly what this is.
“You’re safe.”, he says to Iruka-sensei, who has almost stopped shaking.
“He’s dead.”, Iruka-sensei says again so, so quietly, but they can hear him even though the TV is still playing. “He’s dead. I’m here, I’m safe, he can't hurt me.”
Kakashi sighs slightly, relieved, and lets the other man go when he heads with hurried but calm steps to the bathroom; they can hear him heaving. He steps back to his kids, pats Sakura's and Naruto's heads before putting a hand on Sasuke's shoulder.
“It's not your fault.”, he says with as much sincerity as he can, “It’s that man’s.”
He glances at the photograph abandoned on the edge of the table, and pockets it quickly.
“Wh-what does that mean, Kakashi-sensei?”
Naruto's eyes are wide and impossibly blue. The heaving has stopped in the bathroom, and he can hear the sound of running water.
“Iruka-sensei’s jōnin-sensei was…”, Kakashi licks his lips. Mad. An abusive monster. A fanatic follower of Danzō, “... cruel. Torture and rape weren't beneath him.”
That water has been running too long, he thinks.
“Could you clean the table up, please? I’ll be right back.”
Sure enough, he finds Iruka-sensei standing there with his hands under the water and a thousand-yard stare, and he turns the faucet off before he scalds himself. He doesn’t look up, and Kakashi wishes he was better at this.
“Hey…. uhm. What... What do you need?”
“I… a bath…”, Iruka-sensei croaks. He doesn’t move, barely breathes, like he is stuck in his own body, and Kakashi vehemently begins to hate the man who could do this to him. “Then it’ll be okay. I was just… off guard. So stupid.”
“There is nothing stupid about you.”, he says firmly, but he gets no reply, no movement, no acknowledgment. There is only this hollow shell, standing in front of the basin, hands wet on the cold porcelain, so he steps around him to rinse out the bathtub before filling it with appropriately warm water.
“Can you…”, Iruka-sensei begins, hesitates before trying again, “Can you give me the photo? And… ask them to stay? I…”
“Sure.”, he says, fishing out the slightly damp image from his pocket. The other takes it gingerly, smoothing out the crumpled edges, and a strange part of Kakashi is relieved to see him moving, as though there was ever a chance that he’d become a statue, a monument to human cruelty and evil.
He heads quietly towards the kitchen, watches Naruto put away dishes atop a stool, Sasuke dry the dishes and Sakura wash up, unnoticed. They are still so foolish, unalarmed and trusting - anyone could have attacked them easily, the way they are unalert. The thought makes him ill, even if he knows it’s always a possibility, that torn bleeding bodies, dead bodies have been in their future ever since they’ve signed up for the Academy. He sighs, watches them jump, and for the first time he doesn’t find it cute.
He scratches his eye under the hitae-itae. “Look… when we were your age… things were different.”
Kakashi has no idea how to continue, doesn't know what is in the academy curriculum about the wars, doesn't know what he should and shouldn't say in order to help Iruka-sensei out. He drums with his fingers once on the kitchen counter while his genin wait silently and earnestly for him to continue.
“We grew up in a war.”, he hesitates; can they even comprehend the meaning of this word, the blood and the pain and the death?, “War is chaos. If you're lucky, well-managed chaos. If you aren't… then you are always at someone else's mercy.”
His eye isn’t focused on them at all now, but on the dimming scenery outside, on the blood-red color of the clouds. How can he as their jōnin instructor tell them of the gross abuse others before him have committed? How can he possibly say, Iruka-sensei's sensei tortured and raped his genin without anyone noticing because it was war? That the only reason he was found out was an accident? How could he say that everything was reformed after that, that jōnin aren't allowed to hand-pick members of their team, that genin are regularly evaluated and checked up on, that jōnin are screened because of what happened to Iruka-sensei? How could he paint to them even a morsel of the gut wrenching sick he felt when he read the report that Unabara Shachi had placed a jutsu on his genin that wouldn't allow them to speak about any of this? It was not the seal they used in Anbu, the one placed on your tongue that wouldn't allow you to form the words. No, his genin could talk, but they would go into cardiac arrest, the rest of their organs slowly shutting down. How can he tell them how utterly enraged he felt, nineteen years old and behind a porcelain mask?
How can he tell them that Iruka-sensei is a fucking miracle in his eyes?
“As you grow older, you’ll find…”, he begins again, softly, “That… that people have different things that remind them of what they want to forget. You might not understand why it is… but…”
The bathroom door opens, and Kakashi barely hears the sounds of the tatami and the closet as Iruka-sensei returns to the main room for something to wear. He stands between the children and the corridor, not wanting to let them go yet. They haven’t heard a thing anyway.
“I hope you’ll never know war.” Kakashi whispers to them. When he hears the groan of the balcony door opening, he turns to go back to the living room; his genin follow him with steps still too loud, so loud they would have been killed instantly back then. He tries not to think about it.
Iruka-sensei is sitting in front of the open balcony door in a worn pair of uniform blacks, legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, smoking a cigarette. His hair is damp and loose around his shoulders, and the photograph is in his lap. He smiles kindly at the kids behind Kakashi.
He looks exhausted.
“Come here.”, he says to them, patting the ground next to himself. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
He hears Naruto sniffing, so he turns around and heads back to the kitchen to make some tea.
Haltingly, Iruka removes his black uniform, his mesh armor, his underwear, and gets in. He sits, legs pulled up to his chest and arms around his knees, and he stares at the photograph. He feels empty, like someone took time and hung it on a hook, like there is nothing outside of his bathtub in this whole universe.
He washes his hair with choppy movements, scrubs at his skin until he feels a little cleaner; gets out of the tub and towels himself mostly dry without really paying attention. He puts on his worn yukata, clutching his pack of cigarettes in its pocket, and heads for his closet, sensing and hearing Team Seven still in his kitchen.
Nothing feels real at all, neither the clothes he puts on nor this thing that is somehow his body.
He sits down in front of the open balcony door, watches the lights from all the windows instead of the stars as he lights a cigarette, that fucking photo in his lap. Sometimes, he wants to burn it, but he never does. Just tucks it into the hidden compartment in the bed frame; so stupid to have forgotten that. He was just a little bit too happy to have Naruto there... just dumb from caring, says a voice that sounds a lot like his sensei.
What an idiot Iruka is.
He barely hears Kakashi move, but the kids are noisy, too noisy, one arrow shot and they’d all be dead, one move and he could cut their throats, they’d be slow and loud, they would cry and scream. Iruka tries to tell himself that’s normal, they are what children are supposed to be, more or less, and this is good, good that they are loud, that it’s bad enough that there will be blood in their future because their world is a war machine that churns incessantly, but his heart is not in it. He stares at Shachi-sensei as he takes a drag of his cigarette, before gathering enough energy to look at the three in the doorway.
“Come here.”, he says to them, patting the ground next to himself. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
Kakashi turns around and heads back to the kitchen, ignoring Naruto’s loud sniffles and Sakura’s trembling lips. They settle down in front of him, and for once, Iruka is glad for Sasuke’s stoic facade. He cuts Naruto off before he can speak.
“My parents died around the time you were all born. I had no family when I graduated.”, he picks up the photograph, holding it in front of their faces. “This man knew. He knew all three of us had no one to talk to about what he was going to do to us. Back then, jōnin hand-picked their team, and no one questioned it, no one supervised it, no one asked the genin if things were fine.”
He takes another drag to steady himself, still holding the photo up.
“He knew he could get away with it. And he did, for a very, very long time. He… he did many things.”, his hand twitches, and he puts the picture down to turn to them completely, “Listen to me. This world… it’s full of bastards like him. You will meet them, and they will try to use you for their own ends. They will make you believe their actions are your fault. It isn't. Don't give them the satisfaction of following the path they want to set for you. Monsters don't deserve to dictate our lives.”
He stares at them, so small and precious, and almost misses the twitch on Sasuke's face; he doesn't have time to dwell on it though, because Naruto takes his silence to mean the end of his explanation, and launches himself into Iruka's arms with vehemence. Iruka hugs him tightly, listens to the loud cries of apology and watches Sakura's eyes brim with tears.
“Don't worry.”, he says to them, “Life goes on.”
Naruto stays the night, but so does Kakashi-sensei. (He asks, softly, when Naruto is taking his bath; ‘May I keep you company?’, and Iruka looks at him, at that tired eye, and thinks about how a talent of his caliber was undoubtedly thrown into the depths of the war as soon as they were able, and replies ‘Yes please’ honestly.) He does make Sasuke accompany Sakura home, and hopes Haruno-san will make the boy stay for the night. (She’s incredibly perceptive for a civilian.)
He had hoped the comfort of Naruto’s and Kakashi-sensei’s chakra would lull him to sleep… But as he lies in his parents’ futon (a single, large one, fit for two, because his parents were strangely affectionate people), curled up on his side away from his guest to give him some privacy, he can’t help but mentally compare Shachi-sensei’s abilities to that of the man next to him. He tries to imagine their fight, compares what he knows about Kakashi-sensei's style and data to his memories of Shachi-sensei destroying their enemies, runs calculations and changes settings, trying to see who would win. Would Kakashi-sensei be able to kill him? Or would Shachi-sensei break through, leaving everything and everyone broken and unrepairable, his huge hands reaching for Iruka's throat?
The thought is driving him crazy.
“Kakashi-sensei…”, Iruka breathes, hoping he’s quiet enough not to wake the jōnin if he is sleeping.
“I think we can drop the honorifics after today, don't you?”, the other man murmurs behind him, and Iruka huffs in surprise. He has a point… no one outside of T&I has ever handled him when he was like this, and that is their job. The jōnin could have easily bailed, let him run and freak, alerted ANBU to his hysterics… but he stayed.
He held him.
Iruka blinks against the dark slowly.
“Thank you for what you did today… Kakashi.”, he says softly, the name strange on his tongue like this. A moment passes in silence, before Iruka asks, “May I turn around?”
He hears the other shift, the rustle of cloth, then an affirming hum. Iruka rolls over slowly, carefully, before settling on his other side. Kakashi stares at him with that single grey eye, head turned towards him as he lays on his back.
As there is no good way to ease into the topic, Iruka decides to be blunt.
“How did you know he was dead? Have you fought him?”
A slow blink and an inaudible sigh; he is silent for so long, Iruka is convinced he won't answer.
“I was there when the Hunters took him.”, he says finally, very softly, “I was made aware of his crimes… how it was the accidental discovery of a forbidden technique placed on his genin that led to the unraveling of his sinister actions. I had, however, not known until tonight that you were one of the three.”
Iruka lets out a shaky breath.
“So you saw it… You know he is really dead?”
“Yes.”, is all Kakashi says, and Iruka has to wipe at his eyes against the sudden tears welling up.
“That makes me so happy.”, he whispers, and allows himself some of that hard black anger to spill through when he says, “I hope he was in a lot of pain.”
The tears keep coming, and Iruka draws up his legs to his chest as though his sensei would appear again, make that terrible seal so he couldn't move at all on his stomach, and beat the soles of his feet until he wept. He begins to whisper, even quieter than he was before.
“You know he used to break our arms for the heck of it? If we didn't do well enough… He had so many ways... None of us had parents to talk to…”, he rambles as he is willing himself to stop crying, but the back of his hand is so wet already. “I still feel it… the… how he beat us… He wanted us to be berserkers. Wanted to break us down completely.”
He shouldn't be telling him any of this. Kakashi doesn't want to know this, but Iruka is damned now because he has grown to like the man, their easy conversations and silent companionships, and is ruining everything for the sake of the stupid momentary satisfaction of telling someone. He forces himself to get a grip and rubs at his face angrily.
“I know what he tried to do.”, Kakashi says softly, “And I think you are incredibly brave… Iruka.”
“M-Me? Don’t be absurd.”
There is nothing brave about him. The only brave thing he has ever done was trying to protect Naruto from Mizuki in the forest, and even that was too little too late. And he might have escaped Shachi-sensei's clutches through dumb luck, but he never got his sense of equilibrium back, and Tako-chan and Azarashi ended up dead, with only a photo left of them, a photo that makes Iruka ill every time he looks at it.
Iruka has only one friend, because he is fucking crazy, and no one else but another crazy understands.
“There are so many people who should have been there for Naruto, you know. Like me. But I…”, a pregnant pause, and Iruka’s eyes are drawn back to his covered face, “But you… you are so gentle to him. You took all that pain, and you give compassion and guidance. You care Iruka, and that's incredibly brave.”
His heart rattles in his ribcage, and he looks away, embarrassed. Kakashi is such a kind man.
“The mind is a strange thing.”, Kakashi continues, a soft monologue in the dark night, and Iruka's eyes are stuck on following the rise and fall of his chest, “Sometimes you understand why you make an association; a photograph, a name… a child who looks like his father… and then… there are those you can't prepare for…”
Kakashi lifts his arm, his hand laying across his eyes. They breathe for what feels like an eternity, but is probably only a minute.
“Cigars.”, Iruka whispers to him, almost like a confession, “That stupid drinking song about the plum trees.”
Kakashi lets out a sigh, and his hand falls down to his chest. He turns his head towards Iruka again.
“Chocolate.”, he whispers back, “The sound of a shoji door.”
They smile at each other, (this Iruka knows, even with the mask), small and broken but honest. They fall asleep in the following silence.
Iruka is so tired after his classes the next day, he decides to head straight home instead of T&I; he can do that tomorrow, even if Ibiki will yell at him again. Everything feels off-balance still, and he stares at his home from his genkan. It doesn't even feel like his.
“Shit.”, is all Iruka says to himself and his empty apartment, taking off his sandals. His home doesn't answer, and it feels so lonely.
He decides to scrub himself down as the first order of business, seeing as his new genin have discovered all the muddy places on the academy grounds during pursuit practice. Of fucking course. Once he is clean, he pads into the main room in his old green yukata for a clean pair of uniform blacks. His thoughts are already mostly centered on dinner and that quiz show he likes to watch on TV, so he stops in surprise when he sees the futon still laid out - he absolutely forgot in the morning, in his hurry for class. He’s such a ditz. He notices Kakashi had folded his borrowed uniform neatly, placing it on the pillow he used, his side nice and ordered, in contrast to the other side from where Iruka literally jumped out in surprise when his biological clock reminded him that it was pretty much time to wake up.
Iruka scratches his scar in mild embarrassment. Stupid airhead.
Thankfully he gave Naruto his spare keyring, so he didn’t need to kick his houseguest out. With a small sigh, he continues on to the oshiire, and puts on his usual at home pair of blacks, after which he dissembles the futon bed, letting it air out on the railing of the balcony. He watches Mrs. Doi’s cat run around in the garden a bit, leaning on the railing, before he decides to put in a load of laundry. He forces himself back in from the warm sun, and makes his usual round in Naruto's chaos of a room, then heads back for the uniform Kakashi used.
He lifts it to his nose to smell it automatically, like he usually does with his uniforms, before he realizes what he is doing.
Iruka has always been bad with smells, and he can't really tell what Kakashi smells like other than Kakashi. It's a nice smell though, comforting. He closes his eyes, smells again. Wonders for a split second about how nice it would be to kiss him, before throwing the thought away with the uniform into the basket.
He washes the uniform along with the rest of the clothes.
Iruka thought that the unfortunate scene last time would bring about the end of the Friday night dinners, yet here is Team Seven again on his doorstep, with a huge basket of fresh strawberries and wide smiles, and Kakashi with some fucking good booze, and the world seems just a little better for a couple of hours.
The beginning of Nagatsuki (長月, "The Long Month"; September), the year Naruto graduates
It's a Monday afternoon when there is a loud knock on Iruka's front door. He stands up from his grading at the table, radio playing quietly, and huffs in surprise when he finds a very dirty Naruto on his doorstep.
“Have you lost the keys?”, he asks with a frown, already thinking about how much a complete lock change is going to cost him, but the boy shakes his head.
“I know you like things clean, Iruka-sensei. So I wasn't sure if I could come in, but… the warm water broke again at my place…”
Iruka watches the boy shuffle nervously for about two seconds before he yanks him in by that very muddy jacket of his.
“Don't be an idiot.”, he says sternly as he closes the door. “I told you you have a place here. That means it's your home.”
Naruto beams at him at the words. It melts his heart a little, although that smile quickly turns to loud complaints when Iruka strips him right there in the doorway, and outright yells when he gets the scrub down of his life. Iruka swears it's like Naruto had had a bath in a mud pit and then rolled around in the rotting leaves, taking a skip through a bog on the way home.
(He doesn't miss Naruto's little smile as he blow dries the blond hair though.)
As compensation for the traumatic experience of bathing like a decent human being, he makes the boy some omurice - he even tries to make the rice into a sleeping bear, with questionable success. Naruto still laughs in delight, scarfing down his hard work in no time, and rolls around watching TV until Iruka is done grading.
He wants to adopt him more than anything.
The middle of Nagatsuki (長月, "The Long Month"; September), the year Naruto graduates
Naruto keeps looking at his sake, sneaking peeks at Kakashi and him intermittently throughout dinner. It's adorable, the way he tries to be covert, but it reaches a point that Iruka has to sigh loudly because honestly, would he just say it and pin the boy down with a well-practiced 'fess up look’. Sakura giggles next to the blond when he flinches at having been caught. He probably wants a sip.
“What is it, Naruto?”, Kakashi drawls next to Iruka, wiggling the flask in the air. Naruto looks at his teammates anxiously, and Iruka wonders if they set him up for something or Naruto is just naturally the one to voice the group’s collective stupidity. He takes a sip of his sake while the boy stews under his glare and Kakashi’s chaff.
“Are you and Kakashi-sensei married now?!”, fuck, Iruka almost chokes on his goddamn drink, “Because they say you have to drink sake at weddings and you guys are always drinking sake when we have dinner.”
Sasuke slaps his forehead with a whispered 'dumbass’.
“Sasuke says no, but he doesn't know anything about weddings, and Sakura keeps daydreaming instead of answering me.”, Naruto continues, crossing his arms and shooting his teammates glares.
What the sweet ever-loving fuck, Iruka thinks as he wipes his face with his hand in distress. He hears Kakashi begin to wheeze next to him in what is probably a valiant attempt at concealing a fit of laughter, and sees from the corner of his eye him hiding his quarter of face behind his hand. His shoulders shake slightly. Sakura looks perturbed by the idea.
Iruka blinks a couple of times, takes a deep breath, and says simply, “No, we aren't married.”
He can’t fucking believe he had to say that.
“That’s not how it works Naruto.”, Sakura chides him, snapping out of whatever trance she was in at his words, her face a little red, “First of all, it’s one ceremony in a shrine. Secondly, it’s between a man and a woman, not two men.”
Naruto makes a round ‘o’ with his mouth, until his attention is drawn by Kakashi’s undignified snort. “That’s not quite true.”, the jōnin squeaks, and Iruka can see a tear in his visible eye as he tries to get his breathing under control, “For shinobi.”
That’s just great, now they are all blinking in confusion at them, and he belatedly realizes that none of them have shinobi relatives to guide them into the confusing hell of a mess that is the paperwork of interpersonal relations in Konoha. He scratches his scar in alarm, hoping the other man will finish what he started, but he is still struggling for air, so Iruka the chūnin is left picking up the slack. Fucking typical jōnin behavior, really.
“You are going to get an aneurysm or something.”, Iruka says to him dryly, before turning towards the genin, “Shinobi are exempt from the laws of the Land of Fire, and can marry anyone outside of their immediate family. It’s a compensation for the possibility of death on any mission. And… well, there is more purpose to a shinobi marriage than to a civilian.”
Why Team Seven is so enraptured by this topic of paperwork is beyond him. He shrugs in annoyance, but continues.
“There is a lot about family heirloom weaponry, secret techniques and alliances, but the gist of the matter is that a shinobi marriage is about more than a man and a woman having children. Often it’s only spouses who get notified by the hospital in case of injury, so some marry their best friends just for this benefit. And depending on the circumstances… well, only the spouse may know if an operative dies on a mission, until a public funeral may be held.”
His words hang in the air, and Iruka watches the genin process this reality grimly. He absently wonders if they have their bereavement forms filled out, or if no one told them about Form 4 'Persons to notify of MIA or deceased status of operative’.
Should he put Naruto down on his own? The thought chills him.
“So I should marry Iruka-sensei.”, Naruto declares with a nod suddenly, instantly followed by both Sakura’s and Sasuke’s loud yells of ‘are you an idiot’. Iruka groans quietly at his not-really-adopted son’s twist of logic.
“Oi.”, Kakashi shakes his hand dismissively, glaring at the blond, “I was here first. Go get adopted instead.”
Iruka smacks him, ranks be damned.
Thank you to everyone who commented and left kudos! It always brings a smile to my face, and makes me keep going!
As you'll probably notice, the story will start to deviate from the manga rather slowly. In fact, during some later conversations, I did try to follow what was said (switching between the official and unofficial ones) in this story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The middle of Nagatsuki (長月, "The Long Month"; September), the year Naruto graduates
Iruka keeps trying to tell himself it's ridiculous. He is not Naruto's father, or brother, or guardian, or anything at all, for fuck’s sake. And alright, the brat talked his team into a C-rank (much to Kakashi's apparent disappointment, which Iruka really can't blame him for): he’ll see a little countryside, meet some new people, nothing dangerous. Maybe fend off some rogue bandits, it's the Wave country after all, not exactly flowing with riches.
It's absolutely ridiculous that he is this worried, as though they are heading into a life or death battle or something.
The end of Nagatsuki (長月, "The Long Month"; September), the year Naruto graduates
Iruka blinks rapidly at the four figures approaching Konoha's gates. It's them, it's finally them! He could jump for joy, yell ‘fucking shit thank the fucking sage’ at the top of his lungs, but that would be totally unprofessional, so he settles for picking at the bandage on his thigh. They are back, and they are all walking, and their chakra signatures are fine! Fucking shit thank the fucking sage!
These last two weeks were hell for him, to put it mildly.
“Iruka-senseiiiii!”, Naruto begins to scream, running full throttle towards him and jumping in his arms. Iruka laughs, so, so relieved, and lifts the boy up into a hug. Fuck yes. “How did you know we were coming?”
“Oh, just a lucky guess.”, he puts the boy down after a long, tight squeeze, ignoring the looks the guards are giving him because lucky guess their asses, he's been here every morning from sunrise until work and from work until sunset for the past week. (But what Naruto doesn’t know won’t hurt him.)
The rest of the team catches up too. It doesn't escape him that all three children are more somber somehow; he guesses they’d seen or had their first kill, not wildly uncommon with the first C-rank, if a little unexpected. He greets Sakura and Sasuke with big smiles. They return exhausted ones - Sakura especially looks like she is ready to sleep for a couple of days.
When Kakashi too finally steps over the threshold, the guards chorus the customary greeting; the jōnin nods to them in return, before turning to Iruka with what is probably a tired smile under the mask. He still finds it hard to tell.
“Next time I plan to take them on a trip longer than two days”, he says with casual air, “just kill me.”
The kids immediately all yell that the only people with something to complain about are them, and Iruka laughs despite himself. Shit, he missed the noise. He falls into step with Kakashi, Naruto holding on to his hand tightly; Sasuke is on the other side of the man, with Sakura shuffling slowly next to him.
“Welcome back.”, he wants to add, ‘I hope you had a safe mission.’ or something like that, but they were overdue and clearly exhausted, so he is more than sure that things got fucked along the line. (After the first week, Iruka kept sneaking a look at Kakashi’s profile, in hopes the statistics would give him comfort. They didn’t. After the second week, he began to plan how he could sneak off to the Wave country for a possible rescue without effectively becoming a missing nin. Gods, Sandaime had been giving him such looks.)
They amble along in silence, which speaks volumes to Naruto's exhaustion, until the street Sakura has to turn off on; they bid her goodnight, and then a couple of blocks later, to Sasuke. Iruka realizes he has no idea where Kakashi lives.
“Hey Iruka-sensei.”, Naruto pipes up, interrupting his theorization of where the jōnin could possibly reside. The old tree near the Inuzuka shrine is a serious contender for the position. “Can we have iridofu for dinner?”
Kakashi sighs almost silently.
“Sure.”, Iruka replies with a pavlovian reflex, a bit surprised at the request. Naruto always chooses ramen whenever he can... He is still mulling this over and not really thinking about what he is saying when he turns to the other man, “Would you like to join us? I’m afraid I have no sake, but maybe some plum wine somewhere…?”
“Thank you.”, Kakashi is probably smiling as he bows his head slightly, “A warm meal would be very nice.”
So they had back to Iruka’s empty apartment - now deep cleaned, but if Kakashi notices, he doesn’t comment. Of course, he has to order Naruto to scrub first, because frankly he smells like a boy who hasn’t had a bath in days while running around all day, which, let’s be honest, is probably what happened, and Iruka will not cook or let the boy step onto his clean tatamis like that. So in he goes, and he doesn’t even complain, which again, shows how exhausted he is.
Iruka smiles to himself for the first time in two weeks.
His home suddenly becomes so much warmer, so much more a place to live with (a now clean) Naruto underfoot in his kitchen babbling about their mission, with a jōnin taking a soak in his bathtub, with him cooking; he hasn’t even realized how much he missed this. How it feels like a different place altogether, now that he isn’t alone in it. He used to think alone was okay, but...
“So, suddenly we get attacked by Zabuza.”, Naruto says, sitting on the barstool by his kitchen window and swinging his legs. Iruka puts his knife down from chopping in shock, derailed yet again.
“Zabuza?”, he turns to stare, incredulous. No wonder Kakashi is so exhausted. Goddamnit, he knew it, he fucking knew that something was wrong.
“And his partner, Haku. But he was disguised as a hunter-nin, and we didn’t realize he was working with him until later.”, he mumbles with a frown, “And by then, Kakashi-sensei was so exhausted he needed a week to recover. So we trained! And I can climb a tree with only the chakra in my foot now!”
Iruka ruffles the blond locks affectionately, while Naruto pretends he doesn’t like it. Iruka pretends he isn’t holding back a scream of pure anguish.
(Zabuza! Demon of the Hidden Mist, Zabuza! One of the Seven Swordsmen, Zabuza! Dangerous S-rank criminal Zabuza with dangerous S-rank protege attacking Naruto…!!!)
“But then at the final battle! Man, Zabuza was betrayed by that Gatō guy… And, and Sasuke almost died…”, Naruto’s mouth quivers a bit when he says that, and Iruka feels bad for not inviting the Uchiha boy over, “But it turned out okay in the end. We protected the bridge, and Tazuna-san is safe.”
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
Yes, it did turn out well, he tells himself, nay, shouts at himself mentally, because they are all home safe and sound. Yes, shitty as it is that they went up against a man like that with no backup, they’ve made it the fuck out. He gives Naruto another hug, with the boy complaining loudly about how he doesn’t want any really and would Iruka-sensei just cook already please.
Iruka wacks him on the head with a wooden spoon for the insolence. Dumbass brat.
Later, after Naruto had fallen asleep in front of the TV and Iruka had carried him to bed (and tucked him in), he finds the blood in the bathroom. Well, he finds the dirty field bandage in the bathroom trash, and notices his medical kit is missing some parts. He takes it with him to the living room, making a mental note to disinfect his bathtub tomorrow.
It looks like Kakashi is watching the news, resting his elbow on the table and his head in his hand, but his breathing is slow and his gaze unfocused from the scenes of the report; some fire, somewhere, Iruka doesn’t pay it much attention. He sits down next to him.
“May I look at the wound?”, he says softly. Wounds, outside the field, are touchy subjects amongst most shinobi, for a myriad of reasons he finds hard to understand - he had always found the notion ridiculous, but the jōnin might not.
Kakashi looks at him in surprise.
“That's right.”, he forms the words slowly, as though in a dream, lifting his top up with all the swiftness of a snail, “You used to be the medic. It's not that bad, just a little uncomfortable.”
Iruka frowns as he takes the clumsily applied bandage off. For a veteran who has had his fair share of wounds (as evidenced by a scar-littered torso), Kakashi is not very good at dressing them; but then again, he probably always had someone to do that with him before. The cut extends from the left breast to the right waist, deeper at the top where someone had clumsily stitched the skin together, maybe Kakashi himself or a local. It is clean, at the very least, but Iruka cleans it again before beginning to knit the muscles and skin together, starting at the bottom and stopping once at the top halfway to take out the stitches. In the end, Kakashi is left with new pink skin; he leaves most of the maturation to nature.
“Thank you. Marry me?”, Kakashi says sleepily, and Iruka doesn't smack him on account of being injured, but shoots him a glare as he packs the things away and makes the futon. He is pretty sure the jōnin is asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.
It only occurs to Iruka as he is brushing his teeth that he hadn't really asked the man if he wanted to stay the night, but they all assumed he did. He hopes he doesn't mind.
Iruka wakes to the creek of the bedroom door. He expects the patter of feet to head to the toilet, but instead, they come towards the living room; he lifts his head to see Naruto standing hesitantly in the doorway, lit by the moon shining through the window.
“Iruka-sensei…?”, the boy whispers, still a little loud for a ninja, but to be honest Iruka had never deluded himself with the notion that Naruto will turn out to be a silent assassin, “Are you awake?”
“Yes.”, he replies, carefully shuffling towards the middle, certain Kakashi next to him is also awake and feigning sleep. He lifts the cover, because it is autumn now and he doesn’t have that much heating, “Come here, you’ll catch a cold.”
His not-a-student-anymore is still for a minute before quickly running over and laying down on his side. He looks almost afraid - is probably afraid, most likely had a nightmare; it was, after all, his first kill. Iruka knows it’s supposed to be hard and shocking, but only from his literature, because he has long forgotten under Shachi-sensei what it’s like not to kill. He leans on his elbow, letting the boy have his pillow as he throws the cover over him.
Naruto bites his lip. “... re… remember when Mizuki said I’m the fox? What if… if I turn into the fox again…?”, he clutches the corner of the pillow seemingly somewhere on the verge of tears, and Iruka curses Mizuki for eternity in his head again for telling the boy what should really have been a secret. He is too young to know this, to really understand the complicated, almost parasite-like connection between himself and that Thing, much less the political implications thereof.
“You are not the fox, Naruto. That’s not how it works. You’re a human…”, he whispers, petting the blond hair a couple of times, but he doesn't look to be convinced by his words, those sweet blue eyes not meeting his gaze at all. Remembering when he was sixteen, he can't really blame him. “Hey. You know how some scrolls have things sealed in them? They are still just paper, they are not the weapons. That's just like your situation. You are still human, with a weapon sealed inside. Sort of.”
Naruto looks up at him now, pondering this analogy over for half a minute, brows furrowing, until he finally heaves a little sigh of relief, wiping at his eye.
“But I was… it was like I was remembering being the fox… when it attacked Konoha. It was a terrible dream, Iruka-sensei! Like, when I thought Sasuke was dead… I was angry, so very angry, that I wanted to hurt people...”
(What? Shit. Could the seal have cracked or slipped because of the emotional upheaval? Iruka bites his lip, ignoring the alarm bells going off in his head; they can deal with it in the morning, without worrying the boy further.)
“Everyone is angry and distressed and fearful when someone they love is in danger.”, he begins to smooth the blond locks down once more, and Naruto’s eyelids at last seem to grow heavy from the motion, “Sasuke is your teammate, of course you wanted to protect him. That’s normal. I’m sure he wanted to do the same, and Sakura too. You are a cell, one unit, that’s what you do. The rest is just a bad dream you should forget… Everything’s fine, Naruto.”
He waits until the boy's breathing has evened out before taking him back to his bed again, small and soft in his arms, and he tries not to think about the gigantic beast locked within him - a beast that has apparently found a sliver of a crack in his prison. When he returns to the futon, Kakashi is sitting up and waiting for him.
“You love him like a son.”, Kakashi states when he has sat down, quietly and in a way that books no argument; Iruka ducks his head to hide an embarrassed flush. “Why not adopt him? I'm sure he’d be ecstatic.”
“I… I’d love to. But I think there are politics there I’m not quite privy too; I still don't know why he was given his mother's name instead of his father's, for example.” His guest sighs like someone reminded of something they’d rather forget, and Iruka wonders if he knew Naruto's parents, if Naruto is the boy who reminds him of his father; he thinks it's better for them both if they change the subject. “Do you think the fox is feeding him memories?”
Kakashi clicks his tongue, shaking his head. “I couldn't see because of the mist.”, he murmurs, “But I could feel the evil chakra the fox was lending to him. And… I noticed on the way that his healing is accelerated.”
“That was always the case. He grows teeth back in half an hour.”, Iruka replies absentmindedly, mind rattling with this new information; just how much chakra was the fox giving - and what was it taking? He turns to look at his bookshelf, mentally leafing through his literature before deciding that his next free hours will be spent in the Forbidden Library - when Naruto doesn't know. He jumps slightly when Kakashi calls his name, and turns his attention back to him.
The other man is smiling at him, he thinks… or he hopes. He isn't sure which.
“We’ll figure it out, the two of us. I’ll mention it just in case to Sandaime tomorrow. Let's sleep.”
As usual for a Saturday, Iruka is awakened by his internal clock at 6:30. He climbs out of bed slowly, groggily, takes a piss and makes some coffee, blinking out into the street as he sips it from one of his two good mugs. He watches the clouds go by.
He is somewhat surprised that Kakashi keeps sleeping even when he sneaks back to get dressed; Iruka knows he couldn't possibly be silent enough to not stir a jōnin’s senses, but maybe the other is just tired enough to not care about him sliding open the closet door. Once clothed, he shaves and fusses over his hair in the bathroom, telling himself that this time, he will cut it, knowing full well he won't because it reminds him of his father more and more every year. (But he refuses to have a horrible moustache like that. Really, Dad?)
He leaves the third spare keyring on the small cabinet by the door with a note, just in case Kakashi wakes up and wants to leave while Iruka is gone, and heads out to the market. He enjoys the quiet, how there are barely other customers around, and that he has the freshest produce to choose from. He has a nagging feeling Naruto might be sleeping at his place for a couple of more nights, but life has taught Iruka that two unopened packets of everything at the back of his shelf is a must at any given point in time, so the boy isn't that much of a strain on his pantry. On a whim, he buys some daifuku and mizu yokan from the corner shop run by an elderly couple; maybe he can send some to Sasuke and Sakura with Naruto as congratulations for their first officially C-rank / gone to shit / we weren't paid enough for this mission, being an important stepping stone and all.
He gets back home a little after eight, and is dismayed to find both Naruto and Kakashi still in their beds. Typical, really, have the chūnins do all the real work, Iruka thinks to himself as he puts the food away. He hears Kakashi get up and shuffle to the toilet, and takes the chance to grab his copy of Thousand Strings of Autumn from the bookshelf, the definitive manual to the Uzushio seals he inherited from his parents. He hides it under the big notebook that has become his makeshift recipe book.
“Good morning.”, Kakashi mumbles, standing in the kitchen door with his face scrunched up slightly from keeping his scarred eye shut and blessed with the worst case of bed hair Iruka has ever seen. “May I-”, a yawn, “- trouble you for some coffee?”
“Sure.”, Iruka says, and hums along to his crackly radio as he fills new water and coffee into his small one person coffee maker, putting it on the stove. He decides it's ample time for breakfast, so he goes and bangs on Naruto’s door. “Breakfast in thirty!”
He putters about a bit more, handing the barely awake man in his kitchen his other mug once the brew is finished. (“Marry me.”, Kakashi sighs, and Iruka smacks him on the arm.) He tries steering him gently towards the barstool in hopes he’ll actually not be in Iruka's way, but it's a mixed success, because Kakashi is lanky and also curious, and can't really be handled into a position, much like a cat.
Iruka bangs on the door again. “Fifteen!”
Steam blows out of his rice cooker as he finishes making some tamagoyaki. He hears Kakashi sniff around appreciatively behind him, and it's only then that he realizes that the man’s mask must be pulled down to take the occasional sip. Iruka feels a little touched, and makes sure not to look up from his cooking.
When he bangs again, he hears Naruto yell back something obscene about getting up at the crack of dawn, which he good naturedly ignores. Divine retribution can come later, in the form of a tidied up room and a missing bean bag.
On the whole, breakfast is a quiet affair. After they finish, Naruto lounges about on his stomach reading a favorite manga, and Kakashi sits leafing through that porn of his. (Except, as Iruka discovers when he returns to the kitchen to do the washing up, his Thousand Strings of Autumn is no longer under his notebook, while coincidentally being about the same size as Icha Icha Paradise.)
They are still there after Iruka has washed up, took the futon out to air on the balcony, put in a load of (mostly Naruto's) laundry, mopped his floors, and refilled the water orbs of his plants. He’s about to start cleaning his bathtub when the doorbell rings.
Sasuke and Sakura stand there, both looking a little better since yesterday, but Sasuke still quite bandaged up. Has he been to see a medic, Iruka wonders. The boy is mature for his age, but he might be too full of bravado.
“Hello, Iruka-sensei.”, Sakura chirps, and he smiles back at her.
“Sakura, Sasuke! Do come in. The lazy ass and his sensei are both here.”, he says loudly, stepping back to let the genin in.
“It’s called taking a break, Iruka-sensei! Not that you know what that means!”
The beginning of Kaminazuki (神無月, “Month of the Gods”; October), the year Naruto graduates
The next Friday, Iruka is standing in his kitchen chopping vegetables for the tempura when Sakura peeks her pink head in and asks, “May I bother you a bit, Iruka-sensei?”
He’s mildly surprised by her approach. It's not that he got along badly with Sakura or any of his female students, but they never really confided in him or made deeper connections, especially those that came from a civilian background, and Sakura was no exception.
(Iruka had been quite shocked at the first office hours they held with Uchikawa-sensei, and how all civilian mothers, one after the other, were asking things like 'will she be able to find a good husband like this?’, 'what if she gets a scar and no one will marry her?’. He was sixteen, a boy raised in the shinobi world, and their concerns seemed strange and incomprehensible; Uchikawa-sensei had laughed at his anger.
'Marriage is very important for civilian girls, more than anything else.’, she had said, 'And even more so for their mothers. You’ll see, in two months, all of our girls will be fighting over the most popular boy, especially those from non-shinobi families, to put their mothers’ minds at ease.’
And she was right. Iruka tried once not placating the mothers, telling them that all shinobi had scars and their daughters would be respected members of Konoha’s forces; all but two of his kunoichi were suddenly pulled out of school, and Sandaime himself had to persuade the mothers to let them come back. Iruka kept his distance after that, allowing Suzume-sensei to deal with his girls.)
“Sure. What’s on your mind?”, he says, watching her scrutinize his fish-patterned apron from the corner of his eye. He puts his knife away, turning the heat up under the oil.
“I…”, she begins, then seems to think better of it, “You said before that you studied some medical jutsu. Would you please teach me some, Iruka-sensei?”
“I don’t know why, but Kakashi-sensei doesn’t seem to want me to learn any…”, she continues quietly, glancing once in the direction of his main room, where the others are. Iruka doubts this is actually true, but doesn’t say anything as he is whisking the batter together. “But I… I don’t want to…”
“I understand.”, Sasuke did appear truly dead, according to his sources, and that must have been hard for a girl like Sakura; coming from a civilian family, no deep gashes or bandaged limbs were there to normalize the sight and smell of blood in childhood, other than the accidents occurring now and again at the Academy. He puts the first batch of battered vegetables into the oil. “But you must talk about this with Kakashi-sensei. He is your cell leader; you should follow his instructions, but it’s important you also tell him what’s on your mind.”
He looks at her, still so small and fragile as she stands in his kitchen. She keeps tucking a pink strand behind her ear, nervously looking in the direction of the jōnin, and Iruka wishes he could free all his female students from these stupid preconceptions their mothers nurture in them, this pose of fragility and blending in, this mentality of being subservient, of being pretty rather than strong. He wants them to know that they can crush mountains, like Tsunade-hime is famed to be able to do.
He decides to push her into the deep water this once.
“Kakashi!”, he yells, and boy can Iruka yell when he wants to, despite the girl hissing at him not to do this, please, “Sakura has something to say to you!”
It doesn’t take long for the other man to appear in the doorway, boxing Sakura into his kitchen. Iruka takes out the first batch of tempura, and begins to fry the second. Maybe Naruto won’t mind eating the vegetables so much (read: complain loudly) if they are deep-fried.
“What is it, dear?”, Kakashi chirps, and Iruka throws his sponge at his head for the nerve of it. (He dodges it easily.) He barely notices how he wrinkles his nose at the oil - does he not like deep fried things? - before looking down at his genin, who is tugging on her clothes nervously, and worst of all, silently.
The tempura crackles, and the rice cooker clicks that it’s done.
“I... it’s not important, Kakashi-sensei…”
…. this is a tiny kitchen.
“She wants to learn medical jutsu, but thinks you don’t want her to.”, Iruka sighs, taking the bowls out of the cupboard and pushing them into Kakashi’s hands. Sakura blushes sweetly, shuffling her weight from foot to foot and not meeting the jōnin’s eyes.
Kakashi hums, cocking his head to one side, before turning on his heel and heading back with a singsong, “And here I was, thinking you wanted some extreme taijutsu training...”
Sakura gawks before heading after him with loud yells of protest. Iruka chuckles to himself, finishing up the last batch of tempura while scooping out the rice. Naruto yells in delight when he appears in the room. “You’re wearing it!”
Like Iruka could ever not wear the apron he bought for him from Wave country…!
The beginning of Kaminazuki (神無月, “Month of the Gods”; October), the year Naruto graduates
Naruto is unusually chipper today, even managing to work together with Sasuke. (Kakashi just doesn't get it. What was between these two boys? His understanding of human nature would dictate that they should have grown closer, not further apart after Wave country. Eh. This is exactly why he was unsuitable to lead anything, especially a genin team. But does Sandaime ever listen to him? No. The answer is no.) They trod along one of the well beaten paths of outer Konoha, heading back after weapons training towards the Academy to give back the borrowed katanas and war fans, and then to collectively devour some good home cooking at Iruka’s.
“What’s gotten into you today?”, Sakura sighs wearily.
(He knows he should get her started on medical training. He knows. She asked, even. She has the chakra control for it, Naruto is close range, Sasuke is versatile but leans towards close range as well - she should be. But... but all he can think of is Rin. He doesn’t want her to be another Rin, killed by her teammate. He shouldn’t be a cell leader.)
“Today is the day!”, Naruto whoops, “When I get the present from my ghost!”
“Your what now?”, Kakashi raises an eyebrow, thoughts derailed from their gloomy destination, a little worried about potential answers. No one outside of caretakers were supposed to be dropping off things in the boy’s dismal apartment.
“My ghost.”, the boy exclaims, “They bring me food for my fridge every week, and one time, when I was a lot younger and my sink didn’t work, my ghost fixed it for me when the stupid caretaker wouldn’t. They help me with a lot of things like that! And every year, they bring me the birthday present! I kept all the cards.”
The present. Not a present. Kakashi suppresses the guilt that threatens to rise up like bile in his throat, focusing instead on the very strange and hitherto unknown ghost, who is strictly speaking a threat to the village’s security. Just how had the caretakers not noticed? Weren’t they supposed to have been on 24 hour shifts around Naruto until graduation? (He has a sinking feeling he’ll discover things he won’t like if he looks into it.)
“Do you know who they are?”, Sakura tilts her head, as though trying to figure out a tricky puzzle. “They must be someone you know, right?”
“Eh? No… that’s why they are a ghost, Sakura-chan.”
Some very loud and rather deserved beatings later, Kakashi is still musing on this ghost-problem. It definitely needs closer inspection. When he assessed Naruto’s fridge months ago, it was mostly empty - that was, let’s see, a Thursday. So this ghost probably makes his rounds on Friday; Saturday means there is a higher chance of Naruto finding them out, and Sunday seems too far away, if what the boy said about the weekly nature of this unorthodox grocery delivery is true. Unless, of course, he has no sense of portioning his rations, which is honestly also likely...
(He tries very hard to ignore the voice in his head protesting the absurdity of expecting a twelve year old to take care of himself completely as they climb the stairs to Iruka’s floor.)
Motivation will probably be a key factor. (Naruto babbles as he runs about the hallway of Iruka’s home, still excitedly debating with his peers what he could possibly get this year, while Iruka yells at him once again for failing to put down his sandals in an orderly fashion.) His sensei was beloved by the village, but Naruto unfortunately was tainted by the association with the beast - what’s more, Minato-sensei’s parents had not only refused to take the boy in, but had also denied him a place in the family register, along with the name; a good, strong Konoha name, leaving him instead with the untrustworthy Uzushio Uzumaki of Kushina-san, who had no family alive to protest or care for her son. Yes, he could hardly imagine anyone with love towards his parents caring for Naruto in such a roundabout manner. That was the whole issue, wasn’t it, the need to be inconspicuous-
Iruka hands him a gaudy orange party hat with a grin.
“Will you put it on when I bring out the cake?”, he whispers, glancing towards the living room where the kids are arguing about something again, “I already hid the balloons in some taiki, and I want to do the cake with an azuke.”
Ah. Well, maybe that wasn’t the huge mystery he thought it would be. Kakashi takes the hat with a snort at Iruka’s plan to summon the balloons and cake - what Uzushio blood - chiding himself for not having sooner realised that the person who would have wanted to give Naruto presents but couldn’t so far was right here in front of him.
Needless to say, Naruto loves both the colorful balloons, the ugly hats, and the blueberry cake, sniffling at the tankōbon of his favorite manga he gets along with Iruka’s very practical gift of a new pair of sandals and a set of mesh armor.
I named the two sealing techniques 預け azuke (keeping) and 待機 taiki (standing by), because I'm a nerd.