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what comes next?

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Tsunade-sama, in her wisdom, had seen the near-destruction of Konoha as an opportunity for growth and expansion. Any building in town that had a need for increased space could request it now, and would be likely to receive some so long as the town was still being reordered. Naturally this meant the Academy was being restructured and reorganized; though it still needed to be in the same general area, to be able to take advantage of the underground escape routes should a need arrive once more, classrooms could be expanded, indoor training areas better designed, and women's restrooms finally added on the second floor. Iruka and Sameko were observing some of the final reconstruction of the main building when Sameko spotted a familiar orange figure wandering past in a daze.

A curious state of affairs, given the rush of joy widespread acknowledgement had given Naruto not so long ago, Iruka thought, but one he wouldn't mind attempting to fix. His presence at the rebuilding was, at this point, primarily to reassure his own nerves, so there was no reason he couldn't leave it be for an afternoon. "Naruto! Naruko!" He waved, trying to catch their attention; Sameko trotted into the crowds to nip playfully at Naruko's heels.

It was the bite that grabbed their attention; Naruto's head jerked up and around, confused, and Naruko croaked loudly, hopping up onto Naruto's shoulder to inspect the 'wound'. "That really hurt, you know," she muttered, sulking. Naruto, however, had spotted Iruka and waved back. He followed Sameko back to Iruka's side, saying, "Hey, Iruka-sensei!"

Iruka smiled up at his long-favored student, marveling not for the first time at having to look up, at the width of Naruto's shoulders, the grace in his movements that came with long practice and experience. Naruto had really grown up.

Naruto grinned and prodded Naruko in the side. "Sorry about her, she's just oversensitive 'cause a stack of boards nearly fell on her earlier and nobody noticed but me. It doesn't really hurt that bad or anything, she just plays it up for attention." Naruko blew a raspberry at Naruto, which at this distance ended up halfway in his ear. He squawked, pulled her off his shoulder and started complaining about how gross she was. She shouted back that he was one to talk, and who knows how long they would've gone on if Sameko hadn't barked her Teacher's Bark to get their attention.

"Sorry, Naruko. I wouldn't've bitten you if I thought Iruka could get Naruto's attention otherwise," Sameko said. "You were totally lost in your head, kid. What's going on?" Iruka winced at Sameko's bluntness; he would never get used to just how forceful and direct she could be. If it had been up to him, he would have gotten a bowl of ramen in Naruto's belly before he started asking questions. But then again, if it had been entirely up to him, he might've not said anything at all, and just been out a couple hundred ryou for his troubles.

Naruto ran a hand through his hair and glanced away, flustered. "Ah, well, I..."

Naruko grinned and patted Naruto's hand with a web-toed foot. "Sorry about him, he's just distracted 'cause - "

"Naruko-chan," Naruto whined, drawing out the honorific plaintively.

"Hey, you obviously need to talk about it to somebody, since just us talking about it's gone exactly nowhere. Why not Sameko and Iruka? We trust them."

"But..." Naruto protested, face going a bright red. "But it's so - "

"What?" Sameko barked. "Spit it - "

"How about we get some ramen while you think?" Iruka suggested, speaking over Sameko (which got him a low growl for his troubles; he'd be in trouble later). When Naruto boggled at him, he grinned. "In my experience, a full stomach helps you put together your thoughts. Maybe you'll figure out an answer without having to tell me anything after all!"

As if on cue, Naruto's stomach growled loudly. "Well," he admitted sheepishly, "I could eat..."

As always, that statement proved frightfully true; the stack of bowls that quickly piled up between Naruto and Naruko made Iruka feel vaguely weak in the knees (or, at the very least, his wallet). That was, until the owner smiled at him and mouthed "No charge!", and he realized how happy they were to see Naruto. Here were two of the earliest people to acknowledge Naruto, long before Iruka had the sense to realize what a great kid he was teaching, and now the whole village was seeing what they saw. He supposed this was their method of honoring Naruto's accomplishments, and he could respect that; in a way, it was also his.

Still... that was a lot of ramen to be giving away for free. Iruka shot the man an uncertain look, silently asking, "Are you sure?" He just shook his head, smiling.

Naruto, catching this wordless conversation, glanced back and forth between the owner and Iruka, his head bobbing slightly with the motion. "What? What?" he mumbled around a mouthful of noodles.

Naruko smacked him on the arm. "Swallow before you talk, stupid!" He obeyed, struggling to choke down the unchewed mass, and she muttered, "Honestly, what does this girl see in you?" Naruto froze up and nearly did choke, requiring a few hard pats on the back to clear his throat. After they were sure he was okay, Iruka and Sameko shared a look. So this was about a girl, was it?

"Naruko-chan, you promised you wouldn't," Naruto complained hoarsely. He rubbed at his throat absently, until the owner's assistant was moved to offer him a cup of tea to soothe it. He insisted he was fine, though his hand still came up to touch it once or twice more, before settling a little lower.

Naruko shrugged, impenitent. "You gotta talk about it sometime."

His hand pressed firmer against his chest in what Iruka suspected was an unconscious motion; Naruto's eyes were downcast, and his gaze was distant. He looked unsure, and though he started to talk more than once, it was several minutes before he actually said anything.

"Iruka-sensei," he finally began, "what do you do if - if you have a friend who says to you one day that she... that you saved her, and she..." Naruto's face crumpled, confusion and doubt warring in an expression that just ended up looking lost. "But how did I - ?"

"Hey," Naruko said sharply, "I know what I said, but I was kidding. There's plenty of things you did that could've - "

"I think," Iruka interrupted gently, "I get the picture. You have a friend who recently told you that she..." Oh, how to put this delicately?

Sameko lifted her head up from where she'd curled up on one of the spare stools. "She said she loves you, right?" Both Iruka and Naruto flinched. Blunt Sameko, same as always.

Iruka fumbled for the words to salvage this situation. "Ah, uh, what Sameko means is, she said she admires you, or has feelings for you, or something to that effect, right?" To his surprise, Naruto shook his head. "She didn't? Then what - ?"

"No!" Naruto flushed. "No, I mean... that's what she said. What Sameko said, I mean."

"Oh." Oh my. This was a bit more than Iruka had been expecting. A crush was one thing - but to be using a word like love... well. In Iruka's (okay, somewhat limited) experience, that meant she was serious - for good or ill. Shooting Sameko a look that meant let me handle this, Iruka asked, "Naruto... just how recently did this happen?"

"Huh? What's that got to do with anything?"

"I mean... sometimes when a person becomes very suddenly well-liked - a hero to the village, for example - some people will say they feel more than they do, to become close to that person." Iruka wasn't sure whether to say more; it had been so long since he'd spent a significant amount of time with Naruto, he couldn't say for certain if that furrow in his brow meant he was still deciphering Iruka's sentence, or if he'd deciphered it and didn't like what he was hearing.

"What?" Naruto demanded, slamming his hands down on the tabletop. "You think - no way! Hinata's not like that, and anyway, she said that stuff before I - " He cut himself off with a strangled sound as he realized what he'd said. Iruka blinked heavily, reassessing. This had happened prior to saving Konoha, and the person had been... well. Perhaps that shouldn't have been so surprising.

"So this is about Hinata-kun, then."

Naruto ran a nervous hand through his hair, avoiding Iruka's eyes. "Uh, yeah."


"Well, that's alright then," Sameko said, settling back down with a huff of air.

"Huh?" Naruto and Naruko said in unison.

"If it's Mejiro and Hinata, then it's fine," she said, tucking her head tight against her stomach and feigning sleep. Clever Sameko, Iruka thought darkly, leaving Iruka to finish the conversation. Well, if it was a matter of putting it off, Iruka could do that too. Grabbing his last bowl of ramen, which had gone untouched for a few minutes, he tilted it up and drank the rest of the lukewarm broth in one long sip.

Naruto was still frowning when he was done. Damn it.

"What does Sameko mean, "it's fine"?" he asked.

Iruka smiled. "Just that you don't have to worry about the things we were worrying about, that's all."

Naruto squinted at him. "Huh?"

"I think he means the girl saying more than she means stuff," Naruko said, slowly. Iruka nodded. "Good. Mejiro's weird, but he's okay. For a bird."

"I still don't get it," Naruto said, practically moping in his fifth empty bowl. "Those things she said... what I'm supposed to do now..."

"Well," Iruka said thoughtfully. "How do you feel about Hinata-kun?"

"How do I - uh." Naruto flushed. "I. She's. She's really nice. And brave!"

"Standing up to Pein like that was more stupid than brave, if you ask me," Naruko muttered.

Naruto ignored this. "She's strong, and kind, and - and a little weird, with that stutter."

"And how Mejiro always stared at us."

"And the way her face would go all red sometimes?"

"Weird, huh?" Iruka hid a smile behind a napkin, and on the stool beside him Sameko let out a whuff of doggy laughter. It seemed that Naruto had picked up on more of the signs than he would've expected.

"Totally weird," Naruto and Naruko decided. The two of them stared at Iruka expectantly. "So?"

"So, do you like her? Weird and all?" Naruto flushed, squirming in his seat. Iruka laughed, giving him a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Just think about that. That's all you have to do."