Uuhei casually scratched behind an ear. “How long has it been now?” she asked of no one in particular, her bright blue eyes fastened on the scene in front of her with intense interest.
“Dunno,” Guruko mumbled sleepily, stretching his forelegs out with a yawn. He rolled over in the sun-warmed grass and returned to dozily watching, only upside down and with all four paws dangling limply in the air.
”Forever!” Bisuke complained, gnawing on the fur between his toes, still sneaking covert glances up at the object of their mutual attentions.
Pakkun glanced up at the sun, still playing peek-a-boo behind ragged gray shreds of cloud, and shook his head. “About three hours now.”
“Four soon,” Buru grunted, laying his massive head across Akino’s back.
The gold dog just sighed and shifted his weight a little, his expression saying all too clearly what he thought of the current state of things.
Shiba had turned his attention to the sky. “I think it’s gonna rain soon.”
Uuhei lifted her head, slender muzzle pointed toward the sky. “I think you could be right about that,” she grumbled. “I doubt they’ll have it all out of their systems before then, unfortunately.”
Her gaze returned to the center of the training field and the two figures there, both braced into fighting stances, both panting and disheveled, and in her considered opinion — both idiots.
The day had started out well enough, too, with Kakashi summoning them for some training. It was a regular thing and if they were careful about it, they could coax him into being the child he’d been once, cadging pats and turning a serious training situation into play. Not always, but sometimes, he would lose his hardened exterior, in in those moments, just be a pup again.
All of the pack understood duty and how it had to come first, but they knew, deep down, that if they did not coax those few moments of relaxation from Kakashi, he would break under the weight of that duty. They had seen the cracks, after all.
Kakashi would not thank them if he had known of some of the things they had done for his sake, like having Pakkun sneak away from a training session and in to see the Third. He’d brought with him several reasoned arguments as to why Kakashi needed to be retired from ANBU. To this day Pakkun would freely admit he was not sure whether he’d convinced the Sandaime or whether he’d played right into the old man’s hands.
They had been overjoyed when Sandaime had convinced Kakashi to take on a genin team. Despite the fact that they were training to become ninja, they were still pups, and pups could inject some manner of fun into their interactions. Unfortunately, Kakashi showed very little interest in the loud, playful antics of any of the village’s children and even less in the pups the Third most wanted him to train. Despite that, he had taken the role of jounin mentor on, and seemingly had come to some sort of, if not contentment— balance.
And then that tenuous balance had been disrupted, first by the mission to Wave, where Kakashi would never admit to just how close he had come to losing them, and most recently by his decision to nominate his team for the chuunin exams. The pack had understood his reasoning, even if they did not condone it.
Kakashi saw his carefully cultivated detachment being threatened, and the beginning of caring for people again creeping back in, and that shifted the balance even further. Even though he could not admit it, even to himself, Kakashi was afraid. So by pushing them into the exam, where hopefully, they would be made chuunin, he could again distance himself from his own emotions, and close himself behind walls of detachment to avoid being hurt again.
And then had come the greatest disruption of all, in the form of a temperamental chuunin-sensei with a heart big enough to care for the boy who hosted the demon-fox, and an axe to grind with Kakashi. He’d come storming into the training grounds, all clenched fists and roiling, furious chakra. “You...” How a man could hiss a word that was all vowels, none of the dogs knew, but they’d sensed his anger and had hastily moved out of his way. Kakashi was on his own with this one.
Uuhei had called it, telling the pack as they had moved away from the brewing confrontation, “He’s a bitch with pups to guard. You don’t get between a bitch and the object of their anger.”
The pack had settled just within earshot, but far enough away that they were not likely to be drawn into the confrontation.
Right away, Kakashi had managed to prime the fuse, stating that the pups were no longer Iruka’s concern.
Iruka’s face reddened and his hand curled into fists. “They may not be my students anymore,” he snarled in a scathing tone. “But I will not ever not be concerned about them. Every single student I’ve taught will always be someone I care about. Even if they grow up into myopic, short-sighted, and hard-headed jounin more concerned with reading porn than training students, they will forever have been one of my students and thus someone I care for!”
“You can’t coddle them forever, Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi replied, marking his page lackadaisically. “They’ll be chuunin soon, and won’t need a mother-hen clucking after them.”
For all his training and speed, Kakashi had never seen that blow coming. He’d dodged out of the way of a flung kunai, ducked under the backhanded strike that followed, but didn’t see the swift sideways kick coming until it was far too late to dodge. The sheer force of the strike had caused him to take several small steps backward to recover.
“Should we help?” Bisuke had asked uncertainly.
Pakkun had shaken his head. “Best not to get involved, pup. They’ll need to work it out between themselves. They both have a point, the only problem is neither of them can see the other’s side of things.”
Uuhei nodded in agreement. “The boss closes himself off too much; forgets that there are others who care so much. Iruka-sensei wants to protect, but doesn’t realize that he might be holding them back.”
“Humans are idiots,” Shiba announced.
So they had watched, and waited. And waited some more. They didn’t know it was going to take this long though; both men were stubborn to a fault.
Pakkun finally rose to this feet with a shake. “Well, I don’t fancy getting rained on, so let’s go give the two of them something to agree on.”
Uuhei eyed him with keen interest. “Like what?”
Pakkun’s jaw dropped in a canny grin. “What else?” He barked to stir the others. “Bisuke, you and Shiba and Akino, go harass the sensei. See if you can steal something of his. Give him incentive to chase you. The rest of us will do the same with the boss.”
It had taken the better part of the afternoon to run the humans up one side of the village and down the other and the sky had darkened with each passing moment. It all came to a head when Kakashi and Iruka had managed to corner their respective group of hellions at the same place, near the entrance to the tunnels under the Hokage Monument.
With a percussive crash of thunder that left deafened ears and vibrations humming in their bones, the sky opened.
One and all they instinctively ducked into the shelter of the caves, wet and tired.
The pack crowded back into the shadows, hoping the distraction of the rain would make the two hard-headed humans forget about holding grudges.
It seemed to be working when Iruka flopped down on the stone floor, throwing an arm across his eyes. “I suppose this is some sort of revenge for me challenging you at the nominations? If so, fine, you win. But don’t expect me to like it, Hatake-san.” Iruka lifted his arm just enough to fix Kakashi with a damning glare. “They’re better than I gave them credit for, but they’re still just kids.”
“Yes, they are,” Kakashi’s voice went quiet, and the dogs all pricked their ears to catch his next words. “But try as we might, we can’t protect them forever.” His voice dropped almost to a whisper and he stared down at his gloved hands, fingers curling into fists until the knuckles were white. “We can try but they slip through our fingers even faster.”
He blinked out of his thoughts and fixed Iruka with a hard stare. “That’s why I have to push them; force them to grow stronger. They have to be ready for anything.”
“Because you had to be?” Iruka’s gaze was steady and he pushed himself up to a sitting position. “I read your public file, y’know, when Sandaime said you were to be their sensei, so don’t look so surprised.”
Kakashi glanced away, making a small huffing sound through his mask.
“The best thing to do is let them learn their own limits, not push them until they break. Something broken too many times can never be entirely mended.” Iruka finished, his dark eyes still steady on Kakashi’s hunched shoulders.
Kakashi chuckled sardonically. “Like me, you mean?” he asked darkly.
Iruka rose with smooth grace and stalked over to where Kakashi leaned against the cool stone wall. “Shut up before I hit you again for stupidity. You’re not broken. Dented and damaged, yes, but not broken. Sandaime would never let a man too broken to be safe lead a genin team. He learns from his mistakes. Like you do.”
Kakashi sagged just a little bit more. “Not so sure about that, sensei,” he rumbled, “Seems I haven’t learned when not to push your buttons.”
Iruka barked with laughter. “Some lessons bear repeating. Anything Naruto learned, for example. I can’t remember how many times I had to repeat things for him.” He grinned.
Kakashi lifted his head and smiled back, a little tentatively, but a genuine smile. “And me?”
Iruka chuckled. “I think with a little positive reinforcement, you’ll learn faster.” He turned his gaze to where the pack had huddled, hoping to remain unnoticed. “Not so sure about your ninken, though, they might need more than a few lessons on when it is appropriate to interfere.”
“Oh, shit,” Guruko yelped, and the entire pack vanished in curls of smoke. They wanted nothing to do with any lessons Iruka had to teach them!