Hokkaido is cold and snowy when Iruka and Naruto arrive at the small town that was Iruka’s hometown, and is now their shared home. Anko meets them at the station--it’s been years since he’s seen her, and Iruka finds that the cold weather has done nothing to temper her energy. She grabs Naruto and whirls him around, both of them laughing, before pulling Iruka into a tight, rib-crushing hug.
“So, you’re back!” she says, when she lets go.
Iruka takes Naruto’s hand, makes sure the boy has his backpack and that he is holding his suitcase tightly with his other hand. “Yeah, I’m back.”
Naruto grins shyly at her from behind him.
Their apartment is surprisingly spacious, a 2DK with wooden floors and new appliances, a bed for Naruto and a futon for Iruka. He doesn’t complain; he needs space for his drawing desk and his bookcase in his room, for his paints and pens and ink. Those are shipped days before they set foot on the trains, and they and the majority of their clothes and other items are waiting in a pile against one of the walls in the entrance.
Anko helps them get the kitchen in order and then leaves to get back to work, promises to stop by and take them out for dinner that evening. Naruto, with instructions from Iruka, haphazardly puts his clothing away, digs the few toys he has out and quietly explores while Iruka gets the bathroom cleaned and the towels and toothbrushes away.
He has Naruto help him with his own room. The boy treats all of the art supplies with the utmost care, which is a relief for Iruka, and he likes looking through the illustration books that Iruka has always kept on the lower bookshelves.
They go to a ramen shop for dinner, Anko refusing to let Iruka pay and letting Naruto choose what he wants. Naruto, at least, has leftovers for the next day, and once he’s asleep Anko carries him, accompanying Iruka on a quick trip to the 24-hour shop for food.
The walk back to their apartment is somewhat longer than it could be, but none complain. Naruto is still sleeping, and Anko asks, “How old is he now?”
“Six,” Iruka replies, tightening his grip on his reusable bags and shivering slightly. He had forgotten how cold Hokkaido could be. “About a month back.”
“Man, three years with him already,” she says, rubbing the sleeping boy’s head.
“Ya get all that school stuffed figgered out?”
Iruka snorts, “Yes. You still haven’t had the Osakan beaten out of you.”
Anko smiles, a roguish thing, “Of course not.”
Naruto returns to school the next week. He’s a little young to be in first grade, but he’s done well since the beginning of the year and Iruka is able to give him any help that he needs.
Since he’s gone all day, Iruka can really get back to work.
He has most of the current book done, except for some artistic changes for a couple of the pages, and with no child to worry about during day he finishes the changes in two days. Most of the work he has after that is paid commissions, for assorted posters and dust jackets. It’s easy, well-paying work that fills in his time between books.
There’s no other single parents in the town, as it is quite small and most young adults around his age are either married or left for university, but Iruka meets people nonetheless, thanks to Anko.
Asuma and Kurenai are married, with a kid on the way. Gai teaches gym at the high school, Shizune works at the clinic down the street from the apartment, and Ibiki is a policeman.
(Iruka gets the feeling that Ibiki likes Anko as more than a friend after meeting him once)
Naruto pleads to go to extracurricular English lessons taught by a young woman from Britain, and when Iruka checks his pocket book he finds they’re doing quite well, so he lets Naruto go to the lessons. The boy was unexpected, when he had moved to Kyoto for school and to build up his experience; a recent orphan with no living relatives, the posterboy of an orphanage that needed funding.
He’d barely managed to scrape through and they’d lived on rice and vegetables for a full year until he’d graduated with honors and the commissions and the book contracts came. But he loves Naruto, and he would do anything for his son.
Kakashi is an outlier, Iruka decides when he meets him, a big fish in a very small pond. A judoka, a runner, a man who is known in the athletic world as a two-time Olympian, as a champion.
Iruka wonders what the hell Hatake Kakashi is doing in a tiny town in Hokkaido.
Naruto moves into second grade and Iruka celebrates his birthday with a contract to illustrate three children’s books written by a woman in Okinawa. Anko starts dating Ibiki and Shizune gets to know the anatomy of Naruto’s left wrist quite well when he breaks it.
Iruka’s out shopping one day while school is in--the best time, really, because Naruto isn’t there to throw sweets in the basket--when he runs into Kakashi, and the other man invites him out for a drink.
Anko, after laughing for nearly an hour, agrees to watch Naruto, and later she is watching television and folding origami frogs when Iruka returns.
“He’s from here too, you know,” she says, when she makes Iruka tea and refuses to let him freeze his head in the freezer. “Maybe two years older than us.”
“Why is he still here?” Iruka asks when he has the tea and he is more lucid, “He could be anywhere.”
“He never says it in interviews,” she sits next to him, nudges him with her arm, “but apparently he likes the silence, and the snow.”
In a way Iruka can relate to Kakashi, because he moved back home to live in the silence and the snow--and lower rent, but that was not important. And also for Naruto, to get away from the city that had sucked away the first three years of the boy’s life.
But--he doesn’t tell anyone, either. Anko knows, though. She typically knows.
Naruto spends all of his summer break at the ocean under Anko’s supervision. Iruka doesn’t have much time to be at the beach; there’s too much work to be done.
When he sees Naruto back to school it is fall, and he’s doing colors for a series of spreads that will be in a shounen magazine. Some series about sports, but it’s relaxing to not have to worry about lines and inks. And that work leads to more manga work. Iruka isn’t really sure if he wants to do it but, on the other hand, it’s easy money.
He takes the work and asks his normal publisher if he could write a children’s book.
He is so busy. Iruka has barely enough time to take care of and shower love on Naruto, work on his book (which was okayed) and keep up with the coloring contracts so other things fall to the wayside.
Anko understands, because she went to highschool with him and has seen him under unimaginable amounts of stress, and she gives him some space, takes Naruto on some afternoons and occasionally brings him juice and dango from her shop.
But he drops basically all of his social life and he doesn’t feel bad until he’s in the middle of a marker piece and his phone barks at him. He automatically flings the marker up and away because he’s trained himself to react that way whenever Naruto comes near him or anyone calls him, finds it on the floor and recaps it before checking his phone. From Kakashi (whose number he cannot recall getting, so it was probably Anko) is a short, “You doing ok?”
And Iruka does not understand why he suddenly feels terrible.
Kakashi gets the story from Anko, at least that is what the woman is telling Iruka when she drags Ibiki over and makes them all hot pot. Ibiki and Naruto are folding frogs when she corners Iruka next to the stove, sticks a dripping ladle to his chest and hisses, “You need to thank me you brat.”
He must look blatantly confused, because she returns the ladle to the almost-boiling donabe and explains, “I told Kakashi that you’ve been backed up because of work. I swear to god, that man would text you like a highschooler if he didn’t feel that it’s improper.”
“What?” Iruka manages, nearly dropping the knife and the daikon he is holding onto his feet. Anko looks immensely annoyed at him.
“Just text him back, he’s been stewing,” she says, turning back to add milk to the miso mixture.
Naruto really likes Kakashi.
Like, really likes him, and Iruka cannot fathom how this tiny blond boy found something in Kakashi’s prickly personality to tolerate, let alone like, especially given the fact that he’s only met the man a total of two times. But if he’s asking that question of Naruto he has to ask that question of himself as well and…
And he has no fucking clue what the answer to that question is, other than ‘everything’.
Iruka finally responds to Kakashi’s text, gives a bare-bones explanation for why he’s all but disappeared. He assumes the other man takes it in stride, because the tone of their texts after that is much more casual.
Just everyday stuff. Complaining about the weather, discussing food, talking about weekend plans.
It feels normal--it feels--
He’s working right up until Christmas on the book, finishing the illustrations and submitting the final product to his editor for the final final proofread. It’s scheduled to be released at the beginning of January and that gives him a few weeks of downtime--no manga illustrations, no coloring, no anything.
Iruka doesn’t really know what to do with himself at that point, so he breaks out the oils and teaches Naruto how to paint. His art would probably be considered ‘modern’ or ‘abstract’, but Iruka hangs it up in the living room anyway. And, anyway, with practice he will get better, and once he gets to paint once he continues to want to paint.
While others may say he is doting or enabling or some bullshit like that, Iruka just wants to make up for the three years of Naruto’s life that he wasn’t present for. He just wants to make Naruto feel like he belongs.
Naruto insists on going to a temple on New Year’s day even though they were going to wait a couple of days, but Iruka humors him. Once they are both suitably bundled up and kitted out in snowboots, they leave for the temple that is directly down the street from them. It’s no more than a five minute walk, but there is quite a crowd there so they have to wait.
An hour later they have rung the bells and gotten their fortunes and are on their way back. Naruto is chattering about food when Iruka’s phone buzzes in his pocket, but he waits until they are at home and Naruto is defrosting under the kotatsu with some hot chocolate to check it. Probably Anko.
It’s not Anko.
It’s Kakashi and it’s an invitation to a judo match in Sapporo and Iruka doesn’t even realise that he has accepted until the message is sent and Kakashi replies with an, “I’m excited that you’ll make it!”
Iruka never did judo, just grew up swimming and took up kyudo in middle school, but he has a basic grasp of the sport, enough of a grasp to know that Kakashi is not just good, but great .
When Kakashi gets back from competing in a tournament in Okinawa after the match in Sapporo and finds Iruka waiting at the station, he kisses him as soon as the other people he was travelling with leave. Iruka finds that he doesn’t mind, because perhaps he’s been waiting for that to happen.
Naruto is thrilled when Kakashi starts coming over more.