His father had told him once that, unless he decided to have kids somewhere down the road, the ninken would be the most frustrating blessing in his life. At three, surrounded by roly-poly puppies, he'd just frowned judgmentally at his father and, when Sakumo had turned his back, had whispered into their downy fur, "You're not frustrating. You're never going to be frustrating."
He hadn’t been quite world-wise enough yet to realize that fate was going to make him eat those words. He was significantly older and wiser now, and fate prodded those words out of the back of his mind every once in a while to remind him that he had, at one point, actually believed that. In fact – he glanced down at the rapidly deepening pool of water that currently occupied the floor of his bathroom and then back up at the expressions of studied innocence on the faces of his ninken – those particular words seemed to be threatening to make another timely appearance.
“It wasn’t our fault this time, boss.”
Kakashi raised an eyebrow and took a quick glance around the room. Older and wiser maybe, but he still loved the motley crew of assorted canines to distraction. He’d rather give them the benefit of the doubt, and, in their defense, the walls and bits of exposed plumbing looked remarkably intact.
“It’s coming out from under the wall.” Pakkun leapt off the toilet and went almost completely under the water before splashing back up and slogging over to the far wall of the bathroom. He poked his nose at a spot along the baseboard where the water was gushing out. “It’s only been a few minutes, but we thought we should try to stop it.”
That explained why all the towels he owned – which, admittedly, did not amount to a very large number – were currently stretched in a chakra-infused line across the doorway that was, so far, keeping most of the water contained in his bathroom. Although it was rare, the ninken did have the capability to mitigate destruction. He glanced out the door at his mercifully dry bookshelf and thought, not for the first time, that he should probably empty the bottom shelf just to be safe.
After a long moment of studying his bookshelf and the surrounding floor for any hint of water residue, he turned his attention back to the wall that was leaking water all over his floor. “Have you heard anything from the other side?”
The ninken glanced up at the wall and then shook their heads.
Kakashi sighed and scratched at the back of his head. He had the vague recollection of seeing boxes outside the neighboring apartment but hadn’t paid enough attention to know if someone was moving in or out. If his neighbors had actually vacated, the apartment might remain empty and molding for days. He knew from experience that the walls, while reasonably soundproof, provided almost no protection from smells. Shinobi training in general, and jounin training in particular, focused on elevating their mind above such worldly concerns as lack of sleep, foul smells, extreme blood loss, and missing limbs, but that didn’t mean that the intelligent shinobi would put up with those things if he was given the choice.
The less intelligent shinobi took away the message of acceptance before avoidance. That variety didn’t tend to last very long.
Kakashi sloshed over to the wall that separated the two apartments, staunchly ignoring the water pouring over his feet, and placed a hand against the wall. An inquiring probe of chakra swept the far apartment but turned up no signs of life. That was a promising sign. It would take only a moment to check the apartment for damage and see if it happened to be the source of the water, and he wouldn’t have to worry about disturbing its occupants.
He slipped the lock easily. The door opened a scarce fraction of an inch before jamming, forcing Kakashi to turn sideways to squeeze inside. Something creaked ominously in the darkness behind him, and he reached out a hand to steady the precariously leaning stack of boxes just inside the door. Similar stacks covered the floor in a haphazard pattern that could either have been created by someone moving in or out; it was impossible to tell. Either way, his neighbor’s paraphernalia was rapidly getting soaked, and, from a quick glance into the bathroom, the cause wasn’t as simple as a clogged sink.
“We brought towels....”
Pakkun’s voice trailed off, and Kakashi turned around to see his whole pack standing just inside the doorway with their faces raised to the ceiling and their eyes squeezed shut in looks of puzzled concentration. He sniffed the air as well but could smell little besides new cardboard, water, and a faint, underlying, indefinable aroma of fresh air, trees, and chalk.
Bull lifted his head even higher and turned slightly, as if tracking the scent. His bulk grazed one of the piles of boxes. It was little more than a tap, but between Bull’s mass and the general instability of the stack, the top box wobbled and began to topple. Bull shuffled back to shoulder the box back into place, but not before the top flopped open and a few items slid out.
Kakashi caught them deftly before they hit the floor. The framed photo on the very top was a close call, but he managed to keep everything except for the corner from getting wet. He eyed it, and turned to find the ninken closest to the door. “Uhei, go tell them to turn off the water to this part of the building.” At least that would keep the situation from getting worse. He reached out and propped the photo up on the windowsill where it would be safe. A much younger Iruka, together with his parents, grinned out at him. He looked around. Certainly some of the boxes must have contained unimportant things like socks and underwear, but he wasn’t going to take that chance.
Between Bull and himself, they managed to shift the stack of boxes away from the door enough that he could pull the door open wide and start evacuating the apartment.
The boxes cluttering up the hallway and a good portion of the top of the stairs looked strangely familiar, and Iruka slowed to a stop beside one that was clearly labeled in his handwriting. “What?” He sprinted the last few steps to his apartment and skidded in through the open door, gasping out, “What’s wrong?” Even as he crossed the threshold.
Kakashi stood in the middle of Iruka’s apartment with a box clutched in his arms. A couple of his ninken swirled around his ankles with assorted bits of his clothing tossed over their backs and gripped in their jaws.
“What...,” Iruka repeated, only dimly becoming aware of the fact that his feet were rapidly becoming sodden. He gaped down at the shallow pond that had taken up residence in his apartment. “Happened?” He finished lamely.
Kakashi’s eyes flicked towards the bathroom, where an entire section of the wall was missing and had been replaced with a hastily hung curtain.
Iruka followed his gaze, one eyebrow hitching up higher. "You put a hole in my wall."
"I live on the other side."
There was an awkward moment of silence while Iruka tried to parse the meaning behind that statement. He finally tried to correct himself with a hesitant, "You put a hole in our wall?"
"Please, sensei, do you really think I would intentionally damage my own wall?"
"Ah.” Well, that explained it. “So it was an accident, then?"
Even through the mask, it was clear that Kakashi was frowning at him. "The pipes burst."
As if on cue, the stooped, ancient man who served as the village's only plumber stomped through the curtain. "Pipes damaged. Easy fix" He inhaled a long, thoughtful breath, pursed his lips at the damaged wall, and shook his head. "Not crucial. Give me a week or so to get to it."
"A week?" The words were out of Iruka’s mouth before he realized how insulting they sounded. He’d been busy looking around at his sodden belongings and wondering how much he’d lost and hadn’t been listening closely enough to be sure he’d heard the man right.
The old plumber huffed and leveled a glare at Iruka. "Yes, a week. You don't like it, then you should go tell your friends to stop using my plumbing to climb the sides of buildings or using the water towers for target practice. It's raining over in the market because some fool put a dozen shurikan through a main water line for no good reason. I turned off the water, but that cuts off half the village, so I'm sorry young man, but your leaky faucets are going to have to wait." He grabbed his bag and shuffled out with impressive speed.
The door slammed shut behind the man before Iruka’s apology made it to his lips. The words shifted even as he started speaking and turned into a bemused, “Who uses the pipes to climb the building?”
Instincts honed by years of teaching hordes of mini-ninja twanged in response to the sheer amount of guilt that filled the ensuing silence.
Iruka turned towards Kakashi. “Is that what happened?”
Kakashi leveled an unimpressed look at him. “You know, sensei, I could bring all your stuff back inside.”
So his reaction hadn’t been entirely fair, and Iruka realized that he hadn’t actually acknowledged what Kakashi had done. “Thank you for doing that.”
Kakashi turned towards the curtain that separated their apartments and threw a lazy wave over his shoulder before ducking through the curtain.
The ninken swirled indecisively. They kept glancing back at Iruka as if the secrets of the universe were tattooed on his forehead. Finally, the small pug – Pakkun, if Iruka remembered correctly – put his head against the back of his fellows' legs and shoved them through the curtained opening after Kakashi. Pakkun hesitated on the threshold, looking for all the world like he was going to say something to Iruka before his face set with determination, and he followed Kakashi.
Strange behavior from Kakashi’s ninken, however, took a backseat to the flood in his apartment. Iruka sighed and went looking for his mop.
Several hours later – the mopping hadn’t been so bad, but bringing in the damaged boxes proved difficult to accomplish without simply dumping his belongings and carrying them in piecemeal – he found himself standing in the bathroom running a toothbrush over his teeth after soaking it with the bottle of water that stood propped on the sink. Even though the apartment building had a communal bathroom on the ground floor, Iruka wasn’t going to walk down there just to brush his teeth. He turned towards the curtain and studied the softly undulating fabric.
Even when they weren’t trying, jounin left disturbingly little trace on the world around them. With enough preparation and the right seals, Iruka could probably sense someone like Kakashi if his guard was down. But people are, in general, very good at knowing whether or not they are alone even if the prickling sensation along the back of a person’s neck is too easily dismissed when his eyes and ears and every other sense contradict that feeling. Iruka couldn’t be sure – not without expending significant chakra reserves in what would be a decided waste of a jutsu – that Kakashi was standing on the other side of the curtain, but he certainly didn’t feel like he was alone.
The thought of Kakashi standing on the other side of the curtain brushing his teeth made Iruka snort. The thought of Kakashi doing much of anything mundane added to his amusement, and he vaguely wondered what it would be like to share a wall with Kakashi. Considering he’d only been in the apartment for one day, the track record wasn’t that good.
Every time he closed his eyes he saw the fox. He saw the fox, and his parents, and his own hand, reaching desperately for them.
He hadn’t been injured, but the hospital hadn’t been short of beds – most people either came away unscathed or had not survived the encounter with the kyuubi. The ANBU who’d dragged him away had muttered words under their breath that he couldn’t quite make out over his yells, but the doctors had nodded in agreement with them and had admitted him.
The ward had its share of patients, but Iruka avoided all of them. Despite his doctor’s endless encouragement to find a kindred spirit to help him grieve, the pain seemed too enormous to share. He woke crying more times than he could count, but he shunned the sympathetic looks of his fellow patients. Loss was a common denominator between all of them, and Iruka didn’t think he could offer the same comfort when the others needed it.
Tonight was particularly bad. His dreams had been rife enough with memories of his parents that, for a few short seconds upon waking, Iruka hadn’t been sure whether they were alive. He practically fell from his bed, tangled in the sheets, and blindly shoved his way into the deepest, farthest corner of the ward before his companions could even ask him if he was okay.
Beyond defunct medical equipment, a small space of floor had been cleared in front of a heavy metal door. Iruka had found the location several days before and discovered that if he hunkered down, no one could see him when he was back there, and that the barricade of equipment offered something almost akin to protection. He fled there, stumbling over equipment, and crouched beside the door.
If he folded himself into a small package, with arms folded up against his head and knees pulled up to his chest, it almost felt like he could suppress the overwhelming pain. He curled tighter and tighter, but none of it was a reasonable outlet, so he slammed his fist into the door beside him.
“You should stop that.” The muffled voice came from the other side of the door.
Iruka was too trapped within himself to realize that he hadn’t even known that door led anywhere let alone that there was someone beyond it. Instead, he curled himself tighter, sniffed, and snapped, “Why?”
“You’re going to break your fingers.”
“Oh yeah? And how would you know?” Even as the words were coming out of his mouth, he knew what a stupid response it was, and that it just made him sound even more like a petulant child than he’d sounded before.
A slight tapping on the other side of the door drew his gaze up to a spot that would have been just over his head, if he’d been standing up. The metal of the door bowed outwards. “They just bandaged mine up,” the voice said.
“You didn’t do that punching it.” Iruka knew that the person on the other side of the door could have done it – most shinobi could punch through a door like this if they wanted – but he was in pain, and lashing out was helping. It was easy to be as contrary as possible, especially when the person he was aiming it at remained faceless.
There was a long silence before the voice finally admitted, “No.”
“I knew it.”
“I kicked it,” the voice corrected.
Despite himself, Iruka felt his lips twitch in something that could almost be considered the start of a smile. Then he remembered why he hadn’t smiled at all in the last three days, and his face fell. He leaned his head against the door, hugged his knees tighter against himself, and hated the voice on the other side of the door just a bit because it had made him forget, if only for the briefest of seconds. “Who are you?”
“ANBU?” Iruka hadn’t even known that ANBU went to the hospital. Somehow, he’d pictured that they either toughed out their injuries or didn’t survive them, but the thought of an ANBU bandaged and connected to an I.V. seemed immensely strange.
The voice made a soft assenting noise. “We have our own ward. We have information that shouldn’t be shared with the general populace, and we tend to rave while we’re healing. We can also be indiscriminately dangerous if we’re injured badly enough. We also don’t have to wear our masks in here.” The last bit came out slowly, as if the voice was repeating the official description without offering much support.
Iruka thought there might be some advantages to being able to wear a mask in this place. The doctors kept asking him how he was doing, and he lied through his teeth and told them he was fine. He had no doubt, given the sympathetic looks they turned on him every time, that the truth showed on his face. He didn’t care. This was not something that he wanted to talk about. This was definitely not something that he wanted to talk about with strangers. With a mask, he may have been able to hide the truth. With a mask, they might have just left him alone.
He let himself slide farther down the door. “I don’t know. Wearing a mask wouldn’t be all that bad.”
There was another long silence, long enough for Iruka to think the owner of the voice had left, and then the other person said quietly, “No, it’s not.”
“You all smelled it, right? I’m not going crazy?” Bisuke hissed and, when he got a chorus of affirmatives, said, “What do we do?”
After vacating Iruka’s apartment, the ninken had found a far corner and were exchanging significant looks and whispered words.
“We have to tell the boss that he’s the boy from the hospital.”
“We can’t,” Uhei protested. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen!”
They all looked at her and, as one, nodded.
Humans were strange and fantastical creatures to the ninken. They obsessed about the oddest things that, if their noses had just been keen enough, they would have been able to settle without nearly as much fuss. They also mistakenly thought they had significant advantages over their furry brethren – like opposable thumbs. The ninken couldn’t even begin to count the number of times that Kakashi had stared at them, dumbfounded, and asked them how they could possibly have done that.
One particularly spectacular example was the day that he’d discovered them sitting in the middle of the floor with his entire collection of Icha Icha – and a few other choice pieces of adult fiction – spread around them. It seemed to be the fact that they’d been able to pull the books down that had astounded him, not the slew of questions they pelted him with – which ranged through topics from anatomy to plot to speculation on future books and undeveloped backstories.
He’d blinked at them and, instead of answering any of their questions, had only asked, “How?”
They’d glared at him in unison and hadn’t deigned to give him a response. Honestly, they were as fully capable as any shinobi, and he thought they wouldn’t be able to read something as simple as book without any opposable thumbs.
The books and ensuing conversations were massively enlightening for the ninken. Many years before, they’d set up permanent residence in Kakashi's apartment instead of living with their clan. This was, in part, due to the presence of large, squishy pillows spread about Kakashi’s apartment. It was also due to the significantly more interesting reading material available in Kakashi’s apartment.
After demolishing Kakashi’s bookshelves, they were astounded at the depth and complexity of human relationships. Bisuke even took it upon himself to draw up a long and well-researched flowchart of rules that helped guide their less-than-subtle hints to Kakashi whenever they perceived a romantic opportunity. None of them needed to look up the rule that applied in this situation. Mistaken identity was an all-too-common theme, and a happy ending only happened when the two people in question figured it out on their own.
The ninken looked at each other and all began to talk at once.
“So, what do we do?”
“We can’t just sit here.”
“We have to!”
“No, we have to do something. What if they don’t realize it?”
The question effectively killed all conversation. A long silence followed while they all pondered the consequences. Most of them agreed that the boy from the hospital was about as close to an endgame as Kakashi was likely to get. They remembered those nights all too clearly and remembered how Kakashi’s raw pain had been smoothed over and patched until it was manageable instead of debilitating.
The boy from the hospital, whether he had intended or even known about it, had pieced Kakashi back together at a point when the ninken had not been sure if Kakashi would ever be able to recover.
“We could help,” Bull offered at last. When they all stared at him, he plunged on. “I’m not saying we tell them. Just give them some nudges. That’s okay, right?”
They thought about it, nodding slowly while the idea sunk in. Eventually, a few tails twitched and then set into full blown wags.
He arrived home to discover that the lock on his front door was broken. Broken was, perhaps, a bit of an understatement. When he peered into the lock, he could just see that all of the delicate little mechanisms had been slagged together. Not only was the handle frozen in place, but he'd have no luck picking it.
He glanced over at Kakashi's dark doorway. There was no way to lock the curtain that currently hung between their bathrooms, so he could always get in that way. He raised his hand to knock, and hesitated. It would certainly be easier to just go through Kakashi's apartment, but it would definitely lose him points in the shinobi category. No self-respecting shinobi ever got locked out of his own apartment. He sighed, told himself he didn't care what Kakashi thought of him, and went back downstairs anyway. The scamper up the outside of the building was easy enough and a few minutes later, he boosted himself through his window and into his apartment.
Iruka frowned at the door. It looked solid enough, but he’d been able to hear the ANBU clearly through it before. He’d knocked but hadn’t gotten a response, and he was beginning to think that it had been little more than a waking dream. He jostled the handle.
The handle turned easily, and the door opened a fraction of an inch towards him. Iruka started and almost slammed the door shut in surprise.
But then someone grabbed the door from the far side and hauled it shut despite Iruka’s best efforts to keep it open. He yelped.
“Didn’t I tell you that the ANBU ward is on this side of the door?”
“Have you been there the whole time?” Iruka snapped, but he didn’t wait for an answer, “If it’s the ANBU ward, why isn’t the door locked?”
“Do you think a standard lock would stop a determined ANBU?”
“I thought this door was there to keep us separate,” Iruka shot back. “And safe.”
“There’s a very large sign on this side. It’s in yellow and black, and it’s very eye-catching. I suspect that would stop most of us, and we wouldn’t see it as a challenge.”
“What’s supposed to stop people from this side?”
A slight smile tinged the voice on the other side. “Injured, paranoid, and murderous ANBU aren’t dissuasion enough?”
“There’s no sign on this side of the door.”
Iruka didn’t bother to answer that question. He eyed the door again; it didn’t look nearly as sturdy as it had seemed in the beginning. “Should I be barricading the door?”
“Injured, paranoid, and murderous, remember?”
“I’m not....” The voice hesitated and fell silent.
Iruka waited, but no conclusion was forthcoming. “Hey,” he called. “I was joking.” He knocked but got no response.
A sudden wail broke through the curtain between their apartments. The anguish brought Iruka tumbling out of bed and through the curtain before he even considered thinking about it. He skidded to a stop just on the other side, only realizing that he’d barged into Kakashi’s apartment when he caught sight of Kakashi standing in the middle of the hallway, a phone held loosely in one hand and a look of intense horror hovering around his eyes. Embarrassment warred with sheer surprise that Kakashi had his mask up.
“Sorry,” he stammered after an awkward silence, “Is everything okay in here?”
Kakashi turned a vicious glower on him. “There’s a new Icha Icha book, and every single copy is missing from the store.”
The ninken around him nodded vigorously and, for some reason, looked like this was the most significant disaster to hit the village in recent memory.
Iruka knew for a fact that wasn’t true – he’d been present at most of the village’s disasters, and they were a lot worse than a few stolen books. “Are you...,” he spluttered, set his jaw, and tried again, “I thought something serious had happened!”
“This is serious!”
“It’s a book. Not only that, but it’s the type of book that focuses more on getting the characters naked and horizontal than it does on an actual plot.”
The dumbfounded look that settled on Kakashi’s face was almost comical. He looked personally affronted at Iruka’s words, and, after a moment, he said coldly, “Don’t judge something you haven’t read.”
“At least you have the good sense to recognize that I haven’t read it.”
“You haven’t read it.” One of the ninken near Iruka’s foot asked, looking crestfallen. “I thought everyone had.”
Apparently the ninken were severely sheltered thanks to Kakashi’s choice of books.
Iruka rolled his eyes, “There are a vast assortment of books out there. Just because the ones at hand only conform to a narrow genre doesn’t mean that there aren’t different, and better, works out there.”
“Come now, Iruka-sensei, I have fewer books because I just have better taste than most.” The pompous tone was almost enough to mask the hint of amusement.
Iruka chuckled. “I’m sure that’s it, Kakashi-sensei. But if your ninken are interested in broadening their literary horizons, I’m always happy to lend them a selection from my more varied collection.” He wasn’t sure, but he thought he spied a brief smile tugging at the corners of Kakashi’s eyes.
“They keep asking me what I’m doing with my time.”
Kakashi sensed the boy on the other side of the door long before he spoke. He’d wondered if the boy was going to say anything today – sometimes they sat in silence. On those days, he knew the boy didn’t know he was there and that he was only seeking solitude, not companionship, but wallowing in the silence together somehow seemed more appropriate.
“I don’t know what to tell them. It seems like there’s no right answer. If I tell them I’m doing things, then I’m avoiding my problems, and if I’m not doing anything, I’m dwelling on them.” The boy huffed.
“I read,” Kakashi offered. He didn’t talk much to the boy, but the longer their stay went on, the more he felt the need to engage. What the boy said usually struck a nerve, and Kakashi was so grateful to find a sympathetic and relating ear to vent to that he didn’t remember his cautious oath to stay disengaged from everything.
“Does it work?”
“No. They say it’s escapism.”
The boy seemed to be mulling over something, and he finally asked, “What do you read? Maybe it’s escapism when it’s one genre and recuperation when it’s another.”
Kakashi told him. At the description of the cover – he settled for descriptors as opposed to titles because he was sure the boy hadn’t ever encountered it - he heard the boy suck in a scandalized breath.
“You read what? You can’t be....” He faltered. The door cut off any visual interaction, and all personal details had remained studiously unmentioned. “I mean, I didn’t think you were of age.”
“We are the children of shinobi. We are given weapons at early ages and expected to be ready to kill only a few years after that. We lose our childhood just by the circumstances of our birth. Do you really think there’s any point in restricting what we read?”
“Yes!” There was a thump from the other side of the door, like the boy had dropped his head against it. “Our parents are shinobi, but we’re both still kids.”
“I was never a kid.”
“Sure you were. Your parents....” He stopped sharply, memories perhaps too close to the surface for comfort, and seemed to correct himself, “Or, or whoever raised you. They treated you like a kid, right?”
Kakashi opened his mouth to retort that he was ANBU. Age notwithstanding, no one treated him like a child. He was expected to be efficient and ruthless, and ANBU had learned long ago that coddling did not produce good shinobi. But the words died in his throat because they weren’t entirely true. When he spoke, it was hesitant; the words dry in his throat. “He always ruffles my hair. I’m ANBU, and I’m almost as tall as he is.”
“Guess the mask didn’t scare him off.” The boy didn’t wait for a response and followed that comment immediately with, “If he knows that you’re ANBU, can you talk to him about this?”
The words slammed into him with an almost painful force. He’d slipped – surrounded by death as he had been all his life, he was usually meticulously careful to use past tense. It kept faint hope at bay. For a moment, he’d almost forgotten.
“I didn’t mean... I like talking to you. I just thought that someone you knew better might be more help.”
The boy certainly meant well, Kakashi was sure of that, but the clarification only made things worse, not better. He turned away from the door, unable to face answering any of his questions or to clear up the misunderstanding. He ignored the apologetic entreaties from the far side of the door and vanished back into the main sections of the ANBU ward.
A great heap of blankets occupied a large portion of the floor between Kakashi and Iruka’s apartment. It quivered slightly, and, when Kakashi drew closer, he saw that it was because its occupant was shaking violently.
Iruka glared up at him, eyebrows quirked in a clear dare for him to say something. When Kakashi didn’t take up his graceful offer, Iruka said from between chattering teeth, “Did you know we have air conditioning in our apartments?”
“We don’t.” Kakashi said mildly – a statement not a question.
“I know that. In fact, I remember it being one of the negatives of this apartment complex. Could you perhaps explain to me, then, how my heating vents are blowing out sub-zero air and why my sinks all look like mini ice skating rinks?” His tone was unavoidably rhetorical, and he didn’t seem surprised when Kakashi didn’t answer. “At least it’s sunny out,” Iruka huffed, burrowing deeper into the pile of blankets and raising his face into the pleasant heat of the sun.
Kakashi made a sound of agreement. He stepped carefully over a pair of lumps that were probably Iruka’s feet. Or knees. He couldn’t be sure. The front of his apartment was still warm, but the temperature in his bathroom was dropping quickly – the curtain didn’t provide much insulation between the rooms. He hesitated in the doorway. It would be easy to duck back outside and settle on the ground next to Iruka. It would also be easy to invite Iruka in, given that his apartment was passably warm in comparison to Iruka’s.
Instead, he ducked into Iruka’s apartment and searched out the objects controlling the jutsu that was systematically freezing all of Iruka’s belongings. Something about it felt familiar, but try as he might, he just couldn’t put his finger on it.
When he stuck his head back out the door, he saw that Iruka still had his face turned skyward, eyes narrowed in contentment, and he let him be.
The boy had said something, but Kakashi hadn’t been able to make out the words. The chatter of teeth was audible even through the door and interrupted every syllable. “What?”
“S-s-sorry.” The word was only slightly more intelligible. “I’m j-just so c-c-cold all the t-t-time.”
“You’re in shock.” He didn’t need to rely on his lessons at the Academy to make that diagnosis. He remembered the days after his father – and later, his mother – had passed that he hadn’t seemed to be able to get warm. Only burrowing in between the ninken and using them as a furry, living blanket had helped assuage the worst of the chills. “You lost someone.”
It wasn’t really a question, but it wasn’t really a statement either. After a moment, the boy said, “You too?”
Kakashi didn’t answer, but it felt like his silence spoke volumes.
“I’m s-s-sorry,” the boy said, finally. The apology came out just as shakily as the first, and there was a rustling of blankets from the other side of the door.
Over the years of being ANBU, Kakashi’d learned to shut down his shock, detaching himself from his emotions so that he could continue to perform at peak levels. This time, he wasn’t freezing. He was numb, and the ninken couldn’t help him with that, but they could help his friend. He gave them instructions to pile onto the boy’s bed as soon as he was asleep, but to vanish if he woke up. The ninken were too readily identifiable, and his identity as an ANBU still had to be protected.
The next day, the boy’s voice was steadier, with only a little trace of the shivers that had wracked him so badly. Kakashi felt the tiniest of smiles tug at his lips.
Walking around in the dark was only an impressive feat when executed with catlike stealth. Iruka managed that on a regular basis through his apartment – at the early morning hours that he kept, the lights were almost painful, so he generally left them off – but only because he knew where he left everything. Catching his toe on a random object in the middle of the room was not at all expected. He stumbled and only just regained his balance in time to keep from sprawling on his face.
With a muttered curse, he reached out for a light switch and slapped it on. The offending object turned out to be a book with a bright orange cover and a bright adults-only symbol on it. He glanced around and saw a few kunai floating around on his piles of stuff. He weighed one pensively. All kunai looked relatively similar, but the balance of these was off. In short, they weren’t his.
Neither was the book, but the owner for that one was a little more obvious.
He piled everything into a stack, studiously avoided looking at the book, and reminded himself to drop it off at Kakashi’s door when he got a chance.
“It’s stupid.” Iruka snapped. He knew that he was being irrationally irritable, but that wasn’t stopping him. “Almost everyone’s been discharged, so it’s not like the ward’s crowded any more. Why do they care if my stuff is taking up two beds?”
He’d been scrupulously careful to keep his possessions out of everyone’s way, claiming two of the farthest beds in the ward and keeping everything within the confines of those beds. There were no tripping hazards and no obstacles to any necessary equipment. He’d honestly been careful to make sure that he wasn’t going to be a bother, and he couldn’t understand why they’d raised such a fuss about it.
“You’re just trying to make it feel like home,” his friend agreed.
Iruka paused. He hadn’t really thought about why he was doing it, only that he slept better – or at all – when his belongings weren’t relegated to an 8-inch by 8-inch cubbyhole. The more he considered it, the more he realized that his bed and its general vicinity were actually starting to smell like home instead of harsh chemicals. “How’d you know? I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. Wait, did you do the same thing?”
“The head nurse yelled at me about it yesterday.”
“It helps, doesn’t it?
This time, the boxes cluttering the hallway weren’t Iruka’s. He leaned in his doorway and eyed them. He’d rather expected that someone would have been by to either collect them or move them into an apartment, but he clearly had no such luck. Despite his best efforts to navigate the maze of boxes carefully, he caught his toe on a protruding corner and almost fell headfirst down the stairs. Only a couple of wide-flung arms and a well-placed thrust of chakra kept him from tumbling all the way down.
He might have avoided falling down the stairs, but that didn’t spare his toe and he limped the rest of the way to the Academy.
“Broke your toe?” His friend wheezed the words out through helpless gasps of laughter.
Kakashi immediately regretted telling him the story. The crash – followed by inventive cursing – that he’d heard from the other side of the door had brought up memories of that eventful mission. He’d been able to hear his friend muttering about the possibilities of a broken leg and debating on how he was going to explain that to the nurses, and he’d started regaling him with the story of his own, most embarrassing broken bone.
His friend giggled again – a muffled sound, as if he was trying to mask it behind his hand. Apparently, he did not respect the spirit in which Kakashi had offered up this story.
If he came back tomorrow and it turned out that he had, in fact, broken his leg, Kakashi was going to have a long, hard laugh at his expense.
“ANBU and you broke your toe on someone’s antique tea set?” His friend gasped the words out between snickers. “How have I never heard this before? It sounds like one of those stories that everyone passes around.”
“You’re the first person I told since....” Kakashi broke off, still unable to say his teacher’s name. Memories welled up and threatened to overwhelm him, and he almost shut down completely like he had so many times before.
After a long silence, a hesitant voice offered an apology. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed at you.”
“He laughed at me, too.” The words tumbled out of his mouth and took him completely by surprise.
“My mom... she’d have laughed at me too, if she was here.”
Just like that, the dam broke. They talked for hours until they were both hoarse and emotionally exhausted. The pain didn’t vanish, but it became something that could possibly be manageable in the future.
None of the hospital staff were entirely sure what happened, but in the space of two short weeks, two of their most recalcitrant patients had picked themselves up, dusted their proverbial pants off, and started to move forward again. A dozen doctors credited the success to their rehabilitation techniques and never recognized the connection between the two.
The lack of running water severely limited the cooking options, but Kakashi raided his cabinets and rolled up his sleeves, determined to make the best of it. A sharp rap on the door interrupted his efforts. He set aside his knife and crossed the floor to pull the door open.
Iruka was standing uncertainly in the doorway. “Evening.” He brandished a scrap of paper that said, ‘Dinner?’ in a scrawling, almost illegible hand. “I wasn’t sure what you were making – I wasn’t sure what you could make – but I thought I should bring something.” He held up a bottle of sake.
The note didn’t look even remotely familiar, but something about the handwriting was vaguely recognizable even though he couldn’t put his finger on it. Kakashi wasn’t entirely sure what was going on but had reached for the bottle out of sheer reflex before he realized that would make it impossible to back out gracefully. “Come in.” He added, lamely, after an awkward silence.
Iruka crossed the threshold and pulled the door shut behind him. He was wearing his uniform pants and shirt, but had shed the vest and other accouterments.
The look was significantly less stiff and formal than what Kakashi was used to seeing and was made even more so by the soft smile that graced his features. Kakashi followed his gaze towards the stack of well-loved dog beds and had to smile as well. “They have a hard life.”
“I didn’t expect.... I sort of figured that the ninken would be insulted if anyone tried to treat them like regular dogs.”
“Had I bought them of my own volition, I probably wouldn’t be standing in front of you right now.”
“Not your idea then?”
“They presented me with a list of items that would make my apartment livable for them.” Kakashi snorted at the memory. He could still picture the list tacked to one of the walls at knee height with a shuriken. It had been several pages long and, although he had never been allowed to taunt the ninken with this fact, had consisted almost exclusively of items from his local pet store.
Iruka leaned in conspiratorially. “Do they ask you to buy them treats as well?”
Kakashi matched the lean. “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you to protect their good name.”
“So that’s a yes.” His grin was wicked.
“You didn’t hear it from me.”
“So I shouldn’t start carrying milkbones around in my pocket to assuage any canine sensibilities I might insult?”
“That would only get you into more trouble, I can assure you.” Kakashi paused in the act of slicing bread – dinner wasn’t going to amount to much more than sandwiches considering that he had no easy way to wash dishes. He eyed Iruka speculatively. “Have you been going around insulting my ninken?”
Iruka’s eyes widened and he held up both hands. “No! At least, not intentionally, but they really stared at me the whole time you were in my apartment. I couldn’t tell if it was friendly, curious, or irritated. I don’t particularly relish the idea of being on the wrong side of a group as powerful as your ninken.”
That was odd. The ninken rarely took interest in humans unless they had food or were a threat. Even stranger was the fact that they hadn’t said anything to him about Iruka. Usually, if another human managed to draw the attention of the ninken, they would almost immediately pepper Kakashi with questions in order to satisfy their curiosity. Something tickled the back of his mind – disparate information floated around his brain and refused to coalesce into anything.
“Powerful or not, it must be nice having them here. My parents always said that a house without pets wasn’t a proper house.
"Did you have pets?”
“Only when I was little. Once my mom started actively taking missions again, it wasn’t really possible to keep them.” Iruka folded his arms tight across his chest. "How about you? Did you grow up with the ninken?"
Speaking about lost loved ones never became easier. Kakashi was surprised that Iruka’d even offered up that information in the first place. He avoided the topic if at all possible. It was significantly more difficult to be silent, however, when asked a direct question. Only after he started to give Iruka a straight answer did he realize that he could have easily given an evasive half-truth like he used so often with everyone else. It was tempting to backpedal, but he felt far more comfortable talking about it than he had in years.
And so it went. Kakashi told him about growing up with the ninken, both his and his dad’s. The words had their old familiar ache that would never really fade, but he hadn’t talked about his father’s ninken in years, and he found himself smiling as he recounted some of the more embarrassing stories.
It had been his father’s ninken that figured out how to write with no opposable thumbs. For a good two weeks, the house had been carpeted with scraps of paper, all bearing various and sundry lists. Their handwriting had been so distinct that there had been no mistaking the source.
The handwriting had been – Kakashi’s thoughts derailed suddenly. Of course the handwriting on Iruka’s dinner invitation had seemed familiar, he’d seen it a dozen times or more. It answered one question but opened up so many more. First and foremost was why his ninken had decided to invite Iruka for dinner. “Excuse me.” He shoved his chair back, rose, and crossed to the other room.
He grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled out a note for the ninken. Several words were underlined two or three times, and he finished with ‘ASAP!’ The floor creaked behind him, and he turned just in time to see Iruka step into the doorway.
“Kakashi-sensei, a timer just went off in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure what it was....” Iruka trailed off, eyes focused fixedly on the note under Kakashi’s hands. “It wasn’t your handwriting. Well.... That’s embarrassing.” He took several steps back and pointed over his shoulder. “I think I’m just going to go now.”
Calling after him seemed pointless – Kakashi wasn’t even sure what was going on at this point. He did, however, add a second exclamation point to the end of the note and pinned it to the wall at the ninken’s eye level.
The timer was still buzzing in the kitchen, and Kakashi switched it off. It was, ironically, set to remind him to drag the ninken’s beds back into the low sunbeams streaming in through his windows. He sighed, moved them, and tried hard not to think about how it had felt like he and Iruka were simply picking up an old conversation.
Kakashi pinched the bridge of his nose. He’d phrased the question every single way he could think of but had gotten only a variation on the most recent answer. “Can you at least tell me why you can’t tell me?”
“No!” The chorus of voices brooked no argument.
“Is there anything you can tell me?”
They exchanged a series of uncomfortable looks. Finally, Uhei looked up at him and spoke up, “It’s important.”
Kakashi sighed. Of course it was. If it wasn’t important in the eyes of the ninken, he’d already know what they had been doing. It was only when something was important that he had to worry about them being sneaky and secretive. The sound of a faint footfall on the steps outside caught his attention. He rose and turned towards the door.
“What are you going to do?” Pakkun took a hesitant step forward, as if worried that Kakashi was planning on something monumentally stupid.
“I’m going to make another try at dinner.”
“Because it’s important?”
Kakashi shook his head. “Because I haven’t talked that openly in years.” At least, not to another living person. He spoke like that in the depths of his soul whenever he stood in front of the memorial stone, but the words never reached his lips. He’d thought that was enough, but he’d slept better last night than he had in ages. The catharsis took him by surprise. Unsurprisingly, however, he didn’t feel like sprinting out and blabbing to any random person on the street. Something about Iruka had drawn this out of him, and that intrigued him at the very least.
He managed to catch Iruka partway up the stairs. The pipes were fixed and the water was back on – although there was still a huge hole in between their apartments. Apparently the only thing in more demand in a shinobi village than a plumber was a person to patch random holes in walls. As would be expected, shinobi tended to be rough on their walls.
Iruka seemed to be taking advantage of the sudden accessibility of the water; he was loaded down with several bags of groceries tucked into the crook of his arm and a couple of plastic bags draped over his fingers. The skin under the handles had blanched a horribly unhealthy white. He must have spotted Kakashi’s movement at the top of the stairs because he looked up, hesitated, and blushed furiously.
“Good afternoon, Iruka-sensei.” When he got no response, he stepped lightly down the stairs until Iruka couldn’t get past him without literally knocking him down.
Iruka sighed and shifted the bags higher on his hip. “If you don’t mind, Kakashi-sensei, I’d really just like to pretend we don’t know each other for the next several days to salvage some of my dignity.”
Apparently, the fact that Kakashi wasn’t bothered by Iruka’s actions wasn’t enough to lift his embarrassment. Kakashi stepped to the side to let him pass. He couldn’t help but notice that Iruka’s fingers were getting, if possible, even more bloodless. He held out a hand. “Ignore me, but at least let me carry some of that.”
“I’m fine, really.” Iruka kept his gaze resolutely forward, seemingly determined to ignore Kakashi’s presence. The red flush high on his cheekbones wasn’t diminishing at all.
“You’re going to break your fingers.”
“And how would you know?” Iruka rocked to a halt, huffed out a self-deprecating snort, and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Kakashi-sensei. I said that to someone a long time ago, and it sounded just as childish and ridiculous then.” He held out one of the bags with an apologetic smile.
Kakashi barely got his hands up in time to catch the bag. Those words. He’d been so aching, angry, and wholly determined to remain insular that he’d almost ignored the sounds from the other side of the door. Those words had started a relationship that had helped him to heal.
No wonder it had felt like he was simply picking up a long-forgotten conversation.
“Thank you.” Iruka paused in front of his door and reached out a hand for his bag.
Kakashi handed it over wordlessly, still trying to process the development. After a moment, he opened his mouth to say something, anything, even though his words deserted him.
“Look, Kakashi-sensei, I appreciate the help with the bags, but I’m going to go back to pretending you’re a stranger. I’m not going to survive the embarrassment if I don’t.” He stepped inside his apartment and closed the door before Kakashi had a chance to respond.
The plain door offered no answers, but that didn’t stop Kakashi from standing on Iruka’s doorstep for several long moments. He thought about knocking but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. It had been over a decade since they’d stood on opposite sides of that metal hospital door, and, although Kakashi could remember every word with perfect clarity, he never would have expected to encounter his friend in a situation like this. He could imagine that, had the ninken not been behaving strangely, he might have missed it altogether.
A sudden idea struck him; one that would require no explanation and would give both Iruka and himself time to process their roles.
The curtain that had separated Kakashi’s bathroom from his own was gone and had been replaced by an all-too-familiar metal door. Iruka stood in the doorway – toothbrush jammed into the corner of his mouth – and stared. He crossed the room slowly until he was within touching distance of the door. He dropped his head against it and raised a hand to knock on the smooth surface. It had been ages since he’d last used the knock, but he remembered it well.
“At least you recognized that you were being petulant this time,” Kakashi said from the other side.
Iruka laughed into the door. “I knew full well what I sounded like. I just didn’t care.”
“And now you do?”
“A Jounin and former ANBU has free access to my apartment through what was an insubstantial curtain; I’d rather not give you a reason to be upset with me.”
“I have only ever entered your apartment on the best of intentions, and that was only twice.” Kakashi sounded affronted.
“Twice?” Iruka leaned back to look out to the main room of his apartment and the stack of Kakashi’s belongings that he’d piled up. “I’m still finding weapons and books that belong to you scattered all over my apartment. What did you do when you stepped inside: shake?”
“I didn’t...!” Jounin and ANBU was a dangerous combination, and it meant that Kakashi was a very good liar, but there was absolutely no sound of deception in his voice.
Iruka’s heart dropped even as his blood rushed back to his cheeks. “Are you serious? The person who left me that dinner invitation is also spreading his stuff around my apartment? Who thinks that’s a good idea?”
“No. They’re my belongings. It’s just that I didn’t put them there.”
“Are you trying to tell me someone stole your stuff and planted it in my apartment? Who would do that?”
“My ninken.” Kakashi breathed a long-suffering sigh and explained, “They realized who you were during the leak – they’d slept on you while we were at the hospital, and they recognized your scent.” He summarized what the ninken had done – and why.
The relief that all of the strange occurrences had a simple, albeit strange, explanation was short lived. Irritation battled with relief and finally won out. “Why would your ninken think that this was a good idea?”
There was a long pause before Kakashi finally admitted, “Their education on humans is...slightly one-sided.”
Iruka considered what Kakashi had said, trying to decode his words. “What you’re trying to say is that they’ve read too many of the Icha Icha books?” A sudden thought occurred to him. “They thought I’d read them! When all the new copies went missing, they expected me to be just as incensed as you were.” Iruka couldn’t help but laugh. “They thought we’d bond over it.”
“They weren’t entirely off the mark,” Kakashi countered. “It was very enlightening for me.”
“I learned that you are not the type of person to waste time getting dressed if you think someone is in danger.”
There was the damn blush again. He’d been wearing loose, calf-length pants, and nothing else, when he’d tumbled out of bed. By any standards, he’d been decent enough, and he was not going to apologize for rushing to save Kakashi’s life. He crossed his arms, gritted his teeth, and resolved not to say anything on the matter.
“It’s a good quality. I wouldn’t have expected anything else from the person I met all those years ago.”
Iruka leaned his shoulder against the door. “Me too.” He shook his head, still trying to process the information. “I can’t believe you’re real.”
“Most people in the village know me and can back that up.”
“Clever. I meant... I’d almost convinced myself that the person from the hospital was a figment of my imagination. Something my brain cooked up to help me cope. I never expected I would actually meet the person I’d been talking to. I never thought about what I would say.”
“Thank you,” Kakashi said.
Iruka snorted. “That would probably be a good place to start, but it really doesn't encompass the details of the difference that you made. You saved my life during those weeks. The doctors tried, but they couldn’t reach me. I still don’t know how you could have made such a difference when we never talked about my parents except at the end, but you did. So thank you, Kakashi-sensei.”
“That’s what I was saying thank you for – all of that.” The smile was evident in Kakashi’s voice. “That wasn’t meant to be a suggestion for what I thought you should say.”
After a long pause, Iruka heaved a sigh. “Sorry. I can’t believe I got more awkward when I grew up.”
“You started our last relationship by punching a door. Hard to be awkward after that display of strength.”
“You kicked it.” Iruka shot back.
“Hmm, and I’d say we did a pretty good job. It still has the dents.”
Iruka took a step back and stared at the aforementioned dents in the metal. He’d thought the door looked familiar, but he’d rather assumed that Kakashi’d found a similar one. “Did you steal this from the hospital?”
“I needed to set the mood,” Kakashi said defensively.
“What about all the poor, unsuspecting regular people who are going to be beset by – what was it – injured, paranoid, and murderous ANBU?”
“What about the poor ANBU?”
“I’m fairly certain I didn’t ‘beset’ you.” Iruka hesitated, not sure if he should continue and take the chance of upsetting the comfortable status quo of being snarky at each other. Finally, he plunged on. “I don’t think you’d still be calling it a ‘relationship’ if it had been annoying and a waste of time.”
“I certainly wouldn’t have stolen a door,” Kakashi chuckled and then said quietly, “It was a relationship, and a good one for both of us, I think.”
“Yeah. Talking to you was the first time I laughed since....” Iruka trailed off, eyes widening as the realization struck him. A bubble of laughter escaped his lips. “You broke your toe?” No sooner had the words made it out then he doubled over laughing.
“This shouldn’t be any funnier than when this was just some unknown ANBU.”
“Oh, but it is,” Iruka gasped out. Sullen silence practically boiled through the door. Iruka swallowed down another laugh and offered an apology. “Sorry.”
“You know, Minato-sensei laughed at me too. Then he apologized, and he also didn’t mean it.”
“I do mean it!”
“Somehow, the wounds on my soul don’t believe you.”
Iruka snickered. “How about I make you dinner? Would that work as an adequate salve on your wounded ego?”
“Only if you let me cook. I’ve heard horror stories from Naruto.”
“I’m not that bad...” Iruka spluttered, but finally gave in. “Alright, fine. You can cook. If I did it, we would probably be having sandwiches again.” There was no response from the far side of the door, and Iruka thought he could just make out footsteps moving away. “And bring the ninken,” he hollered through the metal. “They need a better literary education.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” A voice said directly in his ear. “Long-lost friends manage to move in next to each other and slowly realize they have a shared history? Sounds like something off my bookshelf.”
The whole scenario did rather resemble something from Kakashi’s books, but Iruka wasn’t about to admit that aloud; not until years later when someone asked about the heavy metal door propped in the corner of their apartment. The yellow and black sign declaring boldly, “Danger: ANBU remain in secured area,” was facing out towards the room. He smiled at it. He knew the sign irritated Kakashi to no end – particularly because he’d hung a sign over the bathroom appointing it the secured area – so he flipped the door around any chance he got. It was a bit of a running battle.
When he’d finished the story behind the door – he'd left a donation at the hospital for it when he realized that neither he nor Kakashi were rushing to return it – he blinked at the stunned expressions and sighed. “Yes, it’s a bit romance novel.” He heard Kakashi start laughing from the kitchen.
All in all, he wasn’t going to complain. Trite story or not, like most good novels, it had a happy ending.