Iruka woke to a cold, wet nose in his face. He didn't need to open his eyes to know his alarm wasn't set to go off for at least another two hours, but the rhythmic swish of a tail on his chest made it clear that going back to sleep wasn't an option.
He tried to smother himself with his pillow, but that only earned him a whine of protest and a persistent muzzle finding its way past his feather and cloth defense to nose under his jawline. He groaned and gave in to the inevitable, pushing his pillow aside in defeat.
Cracking open his eyes, he was greeted by his fox grinning at him.
"When did you start liking mornings?" he asked, voice sleep rough. Usually they were in agreement that mornings were the work of some missing-nin out to destroy the world. Today, she seemed to have other ideas.
Iruka grunted as she used his rib cage to springboard off the bed then bounded out the room.
She was making excited chattering sounds from the general vicinity of the kitchen, waiting for him to join her. But his attempts to sit up were foiled by gravity, stronger than usual in the early morning hours. Flopping back down onto his bed, he stared up at the ceiling.
For one brief moment, he was allowed to hate life and mornings and everything else in existence. It didn't last long. Just as sleep was tugging him back under, his fox returned, front paws on the bed to peer at him with her head cocked like he was the strange one.
He groaned again and rolled out of bed, heading for the bathroom. This had better not be a thing. They were absolutely not becoming a morning person.
She peeked into the bathroom impatiently, expression clearly saying that Iruka was being unreasonable in his need to empty his bladder and splash cold water on his face. Making breakfast was complicated by the way she kept hopping around his feet, like she'd managed to get into some hitherto unknown fox equivalent of catnip while he slept.
She nipped at his heels, trying to get him to hurry up, all but herding him towards the door even before he’d changed into his uniform.
“I can’t show up to school in pajamas,” he said, but that just earned him a series of low, scolding yips, as if she couldn't believe how ridiculous he was being. Iruka stepped around her and pulled his loose night shirt over his head. She might not care about uniform regulations, but the Academy principal certainly did.
For all her excitement and urgency, she disappeared like usual the moment Iruka opened his apartment door. He felt the weight of her settle back into his soul as he stepped outside. Not surprising. Most spirit animals avoided appearing around other people, preferring to show themselves only to the closest of friends and family in private. Occasionally he saw flickers of his friends’ animals lounging around their apartments, but public appearances were rare. His fox, though, she was even more reclusive than most. He could count on one hand the number of people who’d caught a glimpse of her since his parents had died.
Iruka shook his head. The buzz of her excitement hummed in his body, a jolt of caffeine that didn't quite take the edge off the godforsaken hour. It was still too early to be heading to work, but he had some grading to do and she wasn't going to let him go back to sleep, so he might as well make the best of it. Of course she wasn't the one outside at far-too-early in the morning, skies still pale gray with the first breath of dawn. This really had better not become a thing.
There was hardly anyone outside, and Iruka didn’t blame them. If it were entirely up to him, he’d still be in bed.
He heard the yowls of a couple of stray cats fighting in the alley around the corner from his apartment and a third sat perched on a wall just across the street. Iruka knew most of the strays in the area on sight. He kept track of which were friendly and which would run the moment they were even looked at. This one he’d never seen before.
It was all fluffy gray fur and scars, sitting on the low wall like it owned the neighborhood and was out observing its kingdom.
Iruka figured he'd try his luck.
It didn't run or hiss when he approached, so he reached out his hand.
The cat gave him an unimpressed look, but didn't move away. As far as cats went, that was invitation enough for Iruka. He scratched it under its chin.
After a moment, it started to purr, rough and uneven, like it wasn't quite used to it. Somehow it managed to look mildly put out by the whole situation even while purring.
For all its offended looks, it let Iruka continue to scratch under its chin until a neighbor's door opened. Iruka turned away from the cat to greet his neighbor, and by the time he turned back, the cat was gone.
He didn't think much of it, there was nothing remarkable about it. Just another stray wandering a village that already had more than its fair share.
It still looked vaguely offended as Iruka gave it another head scratch, but it did shift ever so slightly into his hand, pushing against him in a way that still left plenty of room for plausible deniability. It wasn't enjoying this, it was just indulging Iruka.
The sounds of someone coming down the street towards them made its ears flicker in that direction. It then jumped down behind the wall it was sitting on and went on its way.
When Iruka got back inside his apartment, his fox reappeared almost before he could shut and lock his door. The sudden lack of her pent-up nervous energy gave Iruka a little more space to breathe. She proceeded to spend the next hour running around his apartment in near-manic glee, from the living room, into the bedroom, looping through the kitchen and back.
Between essays on "What the Will of Fire Means to Me," Iruka watched her in confusion.
After she'd worn herself out, she flopped down beside him, panting hard, tail nearly wagging.
Iruka shook his head as he looked down at her with a fond smile. She never acted like this. Maybe she really had found some kind of foxnip while he was asleep. He scratched behind her ears then went back to grading.
It always let him pet it and it always started to purr, even if it never seemed particularly impressed with him while he did. More often than not, it looked bored by the whole thing. Like it deigned to give Iruka the honor of petting it out of its divine graciousness and nothing more.
Iruka tried not to let on how much he was starting to like its aloof ways, but he was pretty sure it knew.
He was walking through a quiet, isolated park when he spotted it sitting on a bench. This was far from its usual haunting grounds, but Iruka still went over to it. He was in the middle of scratching a spot behind its left ear, one that definitely didn't make it close its eyes and lean into his hand just a little more, when he felt a familiar presence leaning against his leg.
Looking down, he was shocked to see his fox. He blinked at her, almost not believing she was visible. He'd been so focused on the cat, he hadn't even felt her materialize.
She inched her way to the bench, leaning cautiously up towards the cat until their noses brushed.
A faint hint of warmth bloomed inside Iruka's chest.
"Oh," he said.
From the cat's expression, it thought he should have realized this months ago.
And then it hit him. He'd been petting someone's spirit animal like it was a stray cat for months. He'd even offered it table scraps.
"OH," Iruka said again, blushing. "Sorry about..." He made a vague gesture he hoped conveyed treating you like a stray.
The cat watched him with bored eyes and Iruka realized how close they were, his hands still within easy petting distance. He started to pull back, but the cat just headbutted his right hand. It was the first time it had ever initiated contact.
Iruka snatched his hand away like the cat had thrown a fire jutsu at him.
The cat stared at him like he should be attending remedial classes, not teaching them.
Iruka glanced around, trying to figure out whose spirit animal this was, but the park was empty. Someone had to be nearby though. Spirit animals rarely appeared far from their human.
All the scars on the cat suddenly made sense. It wasn't some tomcat getting in alley fights, it belonged to a ninja.
His fox nuzzled against the cat, braver this time, and a warm jolt of happiness raced through Iruka's body, making his breath catch.
Oh, that definitely would not do.
In his adult life, no one had ever touched his spirit animal. It was an intimate experience, just as intense as rumor made it out to be, and he'd been doing it to some unknown person for months.
Iruka tried to shoo his fox away from the cat, not liking the idea of some poor ninja minding their business somewhere only to have the feeling of another person's spirit animal touching their own.
When she didn't move away, Iruka tried to pick her up. The cat whapped him on the hand with a quick paw, though it kept its claws retracted. It then very deliberately leaned down and butted its head against the fox.
Iruka felt another wave of warmth wash over him. His whole body tingled in the most pleasant sort of way.
The cat looked up at Iruka with something that had to be the feline equivalent of a smirk, then jumped off the bench it was sitting on, disappearing before it hit the ground.
His fox leaned against his leg again, making happy little chirps before melting back into him, her shimmering contentment making his cheeks color.
He cast anxious glances around the park, but still didn't spot anyone. If he ever did figure it out, he was going to have a lot of apologizing to do. Petting a stranger's spirit animal like a stray cat was definitely not considered polite.
He didn't try to pet it again, though he did stop to acknowledge it. If he'd thought it'd given him unimpressed looks before, it didn't begin to compare to the looks it gave him when he tried to make small talk with it. Apparently it had no opinion on the weather.
More than once it jumped off its wall to rub itself against Iruka's legs while Iruka awkwardly hopped around, trying to minimize contact and hoping its human didn't mind too much.
From time to time it would show up around the Academy, like it was playing a game, trying to see if it could sneak past all of Iruka's students and get to him unseen. It'd slink up to him in the schoolyard, lean against his leg, then disappear whenever any of the students got too close.
And whenever the cat found him in some quiet, out of the way corner, Iruka's fox would gather the nerve to appear, slinking forward slowly before cuddling up against the cat. Each time Iruka felt warmth and happiness race through him and he wondered if the owner of the cat was feeling the same.
He hoped not. That would be terribly awkward.
It was supposed to have been a lazy Sunday. Iruka had finished all his weekend grading the night before and had nothing to do but relax. He'd thoroughly planned all the nothing he intended to do for the day.
But his fox was having none of it. She was all but destroying his apartment, running in frenzied circles, pawing at the door, whining at Iruka.
"You want to go outside?" Iruka asked. It was ridiculous, she didn't go outside, but she just whined again.
Iruka shook his head. Stranger things had happened. So he stood and opened the door.
The cat was waiting for him. It was bloodied and beaten, but more than that, it was faint, just a ghost of itself.
"Can you take me to them?" Iruka asked and the cat turned away. It didn't run so much as flicker ahead of him. Pulsing in and out of focus, ever slower, like a fading heartbeat.
He found Hatake Kakashi in a clearing not far outside of Konoha's walls. He was also bloodied and battered. Fading.
The cat curled up on his chest and was gone, the energy needed to maintain itself too great.
Iruka pulled Kakashi onto his back, then used the large majority of his chakra to body flicker all the way to the hospital. If it had been much further, he would have been admitted himself for chakra exhaustion.
Medic-nin converged on them, Kakashi was taken away, and after it was confirmed that Iruka was not injured as well, he found himself with a sizable pile of forms to fill out. Iruka wrote about how he found Kakashi, leaving out the part about their spirit animals (some things were too personal for hospital paperwork), what condition he found Kakashi in, what measures he'd taken after finding him, and so on.
When he was finished, he was rewarded with a lecture on the dangers of chakra exhaustion. He hadn't exhausted himself, but it'd been close enough for highly trained professionals to notice. The medic-nin cautioned him like Iruka didn't teach that lesson himself at least once a year.
He waited until she was finished before he asked the only question on his mind.
"Can I see him?"
"Only family and significant others are allowed at the current time," she said.
"Can you at least tell me if he'll be okay?"
"Only family and significant others are allowed that kind of information." She cocked an eyebrow at him, an unspoken Are you? He could lie, he could say they just hadn't gotten around to filling out the emergency contact paperwork yet. It might work.
"I'm not-" Iruka started to say, but then stopped.
Down the hall, behind the medic-nin's back, a familiar gray cat was walking towards them. Relief flooded him.
He wasn't sure what the expression on his face was, but it had the medic-nin turning to see what had caused it. She blinked in confusion at the cat. It was clearly not a summons, the only animals that were regularly allowed inside the hospital, which left one thing it could be.
It was solid again, and Iruka let out a heavy breath. He didn't need the medic-nin to tell him anymore. Kakashi was going to be okay.
The cat walked directly over to Iruka, sat down right next to his feet, and leaned against his leg. It was staring up at the medic-nin with its signature unimpressed look. Iruka enjoyed that look a lot more when he wasn't on the receiving end of it.
"Oh," the medic-nin said, blinking down at the cat. This was not normal spirit animal behavior. She made the connection so fast, Iruka felt like even more of an idiot for how long it had taken him.
It was so obviously Kakashi's, Iruka couldn't believe he'd missed it before. It even had his eye scar. Though, in his defense, there were a lot of strays in his neighborhood.
"Right," she said, blushing, "this way please." She clearly had some erroneous ideas about the nature of Kakashi and Iruka's relationship, but Iruka wasn't going to correct her.
She turned to lead Iruka to Kakashi's room. Not that she would have needed to. Iruka was pretty sure the cat had that covered.
Iruka wasn't even surprised when his fox appeared once the medic-nin had left. She seemed content as she hopped onto Kakashi's bed and carefully curled up by his feet, head draped over one of his legs.
Iruka felt a spiral of warmth that only increased when Kakashi's cat jumped up and joined her, curling up against her side.
From there, all he could do was wait.
When he cracked his eye open, the first thing he saw was his cat sleeping at the end of the bed with a small brown fox. To his right, Umino Iruka was half-asleep in a chair.
It'd been over four months, since the first time his cat had wandered off. He'd been asleep at the time, and had woken up, feeling inexplicably content, to the sight of her smug little face staring down at him.
Since then, he'd lost count of the number of times she'd snuck away while he wasn't paying attention, often while he was reading. He wouldn't notice she wasn't nearby until a rumbling of happiness would start to build inside of him. Then he'd find her halfway across the village, looking quite pleased with herself, but he'd never managed to find her in time. He'd had his suspicions, from how often he'd found her near the Academy or one particular chuunin apartment block, but he'd never been 100% sure.
"So," Kakashi said, voice a quiet, dry rasp that still managed to jar Iruka out of his doze, "you're the one that's been petting me."
Iruka blushed bright red. "I did stop once I realized."
"Do you go around petting spirit animals often?" Kakashi asked.
"Just yours, apparently. Sorry."
Kakashi huffed out a breath and looked down at the two animals curled up by his feet. "Not a dolphin?" he joked, as he turned back to Iruka.
"Never heard that one before," Iruka said wryly, then continued after a pause, "I would have thought you'd be more of a dog person."
"Same," Kakashi said. "I've had multiple words with her about it, but she refuses to admit she should be a dog."
His cat cracked one eye open just enough to let him know exactly what she thought of that.
"She does fetch quite well though," Kakashi said.
Iruka laughed quietly and shook his head. "As long as she doesn't need to do it often."
Kakashi could agree with that.
His cat was still staring at him like he was an idiot.
Kakashi's mind ran though two dozen pickup lines, all with some variation on asking if Iruka would maybe like to pet something else for a change. He discarded them all. Iruka was already there, Kakashi didn't need to pick him up. His cat had somehow managed that for him.
Keeping things simple, he reached out a hand, palm up in invitation.
Iruka didn't hesitate. He laced their fingers together, and warmth flooded through Kakashi. From the way Iruka was blushing, he'd guess Iruka felt it too.
At the foot of the bed, his cat started to purr.