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A World Beyond Konoha

Chapter Text

When the explosions started, no one was prepared.

Even those who survived the war had never felt anything like it before.

It was as if the entire town stopped breathing for those first three seconds.

.

.

.

Then, the screaming began.

-----One Year Before-----

"Wait, wait, wait — are you being serious right now?"

Iruka abruptly cut the Hokage off mid-sentence as he tried to clear the haze of tobacco smoke sitting between him and the old man.

Hiruzen continued to idly read the scroll on his desk, giving the shocked Chunin nothing but a single cough in response.

Iruka knew that was the Hokage's way of telling him to be patient. It was a signal he knew well, one he's heard for over a decade.

But patience was never Iruka's strong suit.

"Ugh, come on, just answer!" he whined, his annoyance displayed prominently through the massive eye roll he gave Konoha's highest leader.

Hiruzen coughed again, this time to hide the laugh that threatened to come out. Normally, he wouldn't condone being spoken to so informally, but the hardheaded Chunin was a special case.

He may, first and foremost, be Iruka's Hokage, but he was also the closest thing the young man had to a parent. And maybe he had been a little lax about disciplining the Chunin as a child, but he never saw it as an issue. Where Iruka lacks tact with authority, he more than makes up for with his fearless convictions and steadfast principles, things Hiruzen considered much more important than a little attitude here and there.

Besides, he always thought Konoha's leaders could use some shaking up every now and then.

The Hokage took the pipe from his mouth and let out a steady stream of smoke.

"Yes, Iruka, I'm being serious. You'll be gone for a year," he calmly replied.

Iruka slumped onto the back of his chair.

"A whole year?" he mumbled dazedly.

He knew he wasn't handling the news as professionally as a shinobi should, but he had good reason for his concerns about the sudden new mission.

"I only just got accepted for my new job yesterday," he started. "This was going to be my first year as a teacher at the Academy. But now you want me to go and create an entirely new school in some random small-town village?"

The Hokage looked up from his scroll then.

"I know you were excited to start at the Academy, but I think this mission is a good opportunity for you. You're still young, and you should use this time to be out in the world," he encouraged in a strong, paternal voice. "I've kept you sheltered in the village for far too long. And what better hands-on experience is there for teaching than getting to create a whole new school?"

Iruka narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

"You're rambling, old man. I know you only gave me this mission because all of the other teachers are married and they don't want to leave on some year-long trip."

Hiruzen cleared his throat and continued as if he didn't hear him.

"I think you'll do a great job. You're passionate and kind and those kids will benefit from your presence there." His voice lowered then, taking on a more somber tone. "And it's not just some random small-town village. The village is on the outskirts of Fire Country, and it's in desperate need of revitalization. I'll be giving full details of the mission in two days when the rest of the team is here. I just wanted to tell you early so you can mentally prepare yourself."

Iruka sank even further down in his seat as he worriedly gnawed at his bottom lip.

Not only had he not been on a mission since he started his year-long training to become a teacher, but he had also never been on one that lasted longer than two weeks.

He could thank the Hokage for that — the old man never let him go on long-term missions, only assigning him jobs like letter deliveries to feudal lords or post-battle recovery.

Iruka wasn't sure if he had it in him to do a year-long mission, let alone one where he had to build and create a new school from the ground up.

"Iruka, you'll be OK," the Hokage said, interrupting his increasing apprehension. "Don't think of this as a mission, think of this as your first job as a new teacher. Your job is to start a small shinobi school for the town's kids, most of whom were orphaned from the war, which I'm sure you, more than most, can sympathize with. I chose you for this mission because I wouldn't trust anyone else to do it."

Iruka looked out at the wall-to-wall window that overlooked the entire village. The sun was nearly gone past the edge of the mountain, but it laid a warm orange glow over Konoha to give its last farewell before dusk came to settle in.

People were starting to turn on their lights, and he could see thousands of tiny windows light up with a fluorescent twinkle that illuminated the village as the sun disappeared. The streetlamps were flickering on row by row, with neon signs from restaurants and bars quickly following suit.

He'd seen the same view for over twenty years, but he still found it beautiful in its consistent charm.

It was the village hidden in the leaves, cozy and familiar, and Iruka would miss it terribly.

But the Hokage finally said the right thing to get him to agree — if there was a town full of parentless children and they needed schooling, Iruka would be there.

"OK," he nodded. "I'll do it."

The Third smiled happily at his pseudo-son. "Good. Prepare your materials in the meantime, and make a list of all the things you think you'll need to manage a class of about twenty or so kids. You'll be introduced to the rest of the unit in two days. I think you'll like the team I set up; I assigned Konoha's best for this mission, you know."

"Konoha's best, huh?" Iruka replied skeptically.

"Yes, Konoha's best," Hiruzen repeated, looking completely serious. "And that includes you."

Iruka sighed dramatically and rolled his eyes again as he stood up to leave, but the small grin he hid was filled with the kind of exasperated love one can't help but have for their parents.

He bowed and walked out of the room, his mind running wild once more. He had so much to do in such little time.

He quickly walked down the hallway, muttering to himself like a madman as he began mentally parsing through every textbook he owned.

"Let's see...I'll take all the books from the core curriculum, but what about the stuff on weaponry? Should I just make it a practical lesson instead?" he mumbled distractedly.

The newly appointed teacher was so deep into his planning that he almost ran headfirst into someone passing him in the hallway. He wouldn't have even noticed if he hadn't seen a flash of silver and something orange quickly moving to avoid collision.

By the time he turned to see who it was, they were gone.

 

-----

Iruka was in way over his head.

His apartment looked as if his bookshelf and drawers had simultaneously exploded. Clothes were strewn everywhere, books were open and facedown on the ground, and blank scrolls littered the floor while his backpack remained strangely empty.

The mess felt like a fitting reflection of the inside of his mind.

It was almost unbelievable that less than 48 hours ago, he had been jumping up and down in glee because he found out he got the teaching job at the Academy. He had thrown all dignity out the window, yelling out, "I GOT THE JOB! I GOT THE JOB!" to the amusement of everyone in the mission room.

The room had been full of Jounin, but Iruka didn't care — he was too happy to notice their smirks or even one particularly silverish eyebrow raised in disapproval at his unprofessionalism.

To Iruka, it wouldn't have mattered if the Fire Daimyo was standing in front of him. His feelings know no bounds, and even he can't stop himself once he really gets going.

But now, instead of preparing for the Academy, he was preparing to leave Konoha for a whole year.

Everything was happening so fast, and the immense joy he had felt a couple of days ago was now running as constant low-grade anxiety. He was grateful the Hokage at least had the sense to tell him early, because he wasn't sure if he would have been able to control his shock in front of the rest of the unit.

Iruka got up from the middle of his living room floor, wilfully ignoring the piles of teetering clothes and books. He had spent the whole day going over a curriculum he felt might be appropriate, but with no information yet about the students he'll be teaching, it was difficult to know for sure.

So he decided to wait for the rest of the mission details to finish packing — it was his last couple of days in Konoha, and he was determined to enjoy the night out with his friends.

A quick shower later, he was standing on his tiptoes by the bar's entrance trying to find his friends among the large sea of heads. After a quick scan, he found them sitting in the back corner waving him into their booth. Iwashi and Anko sat on one side while Izumo and Kotetsu sat on the other. Iruka squeezed in next to Anko, who clapped her hand on his shoulder so hard that it immediately stung on impact.

"I can't believe you're going to be gone for a year," she said without a greeting. "You're, like, the last person I thought would ever go on a long-term mission."

Iruka took the beer Kotetsu handed him and turned towards the dango-loving woman.

"Why do you say that?"

Anko guffawed. "Uh, because it's you. You're a total homebody. You'd do anything to not leave Konoha. You changed your profession so you could do a job that lets you chill in the village all the time. Like, hello?"

Iruka froze midway as he was about to take a sip of his drink. His eyes slowly narrowed and he tilted his head slightly to the side, which all his friends knew meant that whatever was about to come out of Iruka's mouth was not going to be a fun experience for Anko.

"I changed my profession because I love working with kids and I'm damn good at it," he corrected angrily. "Anko, don't take your insecurity out on me just because you failed the exam to become an Academy teacher. You know as well as I do that being a teacher doesn't mean I'm just chilling in the village all day. I'm proud to stay in Konoha and be someone who can actually make a difference instead of just being a foot soldier for the rest of my life."

He finished by downing his entire beer. Everyone was silent, sitting frozen in their seats.

A few seconds passed that way until Iruka suddenly started laughing.

"Shit," he grimaced, scratching the scar across his nose. "I'm paying for drinks again, aren't I?"

The entire table burst into laughter with him then, and the frozen silence immediately melted back into friendly camaraderie.

"Damn, Iruka," Kotetsu cackled. "You really know how to bust some balls."

"Yeah, do you even know the meaning of softening the blow?" Izumo scoffed, shaking his head.

Even Iwashi, who was always so reserved, piled on. "You better just hope you don't drop one of your anger bombs to the wrong person one day, because not everyone will take it as kindly as we do."

"Kindly?!" Anko screeched, grabbing Iruka by the head and giving him a noogie. "You're lucky I love you, you asshole, otherwise you and I would be bar fighting right now."

Iruka laughed with them, taking Anko's hand as a peace offering. "I don't know why I do that, it's like a compulsion. I mean, you were right, I am a total homebody. I've actually been anxious all day because I don't know if I can stay away from home for that long," he said concernedly. "I'm sorry, Anko. You know I didn't mean that last part about 'actually' making a difference. I was just taking my own insecurities about not doing more missions out on you."

She squeezed his hand back reassuringly. "Eh, don't worry about it. You were harsh, but you were right too — I was being a jealous bitch."

Kotetsu signaled the bartender for another round. "What's there to be anxious about?" he asked. "It sounds like you won't have to worry about much danger. You're just going to help set up a new school at this village, right?"

Iruka nodded. "That's what the Sandaime said. But I won't know for sure until tomorrow. I guess I'm just anxious because it's such a long mission, and I've never been away from home for so long. I'm going to miss you guys."

"Ugh, the mission desk is going to be so boring with you gone!" Anko moped, throwing back sake from two shot glasses at once. Her voice slurred as she flung her arm around Iruka's shoulder. "Irukaaaaa, what are we going to do without you?!"

The bartender had their tray of drinks ready, so Iruka pried a drunk Anko off of him and stood up to grab them from the bar. He was about to turn when his back collided against someone's sturdy chest.

"Oof!" he cried, turning around to apologize. "Sorry, didn't see you there, I —"

"Maa," the stranger smoothly interrupted. "I guess with you it doesn't matter whether you're facing forward or not, you'll manage to find some way to run into me."

They were standing so close that Iruka had to tilt his head up to see the person's face, not that it did him much good. Most of it was hidden behind a mask, and the only part Iruka could see was a single onyx-colored iris and a silver eyebrow that matched the mess of silver-spiky hair facing every which direction.

"Uh, do I know you?" Iruka frowned. The stranger's tone was extremely casual, almost bored, but something about the subtle piercing nature of his singular gaze gave Iruka the impression that he needed to be on guard with this man.

The strange shinobi stared back easily with his visible eye.

"I guess you wouldn't, considering how distracted you always seem to be." He turned and held up his gloved hand in a lazy salute. "Well, forget I said anything. I'll just avoid your path from now on to make it easier for everyone."

He started walking away, much to Iruka's affront. Even with the mask, he knew the man had been smirking. He could feel his indignation rising up as he watched the overly-layered shinobi effortlessly avoiding bumping into people on his way out the bar.

Iruka ignored the calls of his friends and angrily went after the man, looking much less graceful as he pushed his way through the crowd.

"Hey! Who do you think you are?!" Iruka thundered, grabbing the man by his forearm.

They were outside the bar now, standing below the spotlight from the streetlamp overhead. It was a hot summer night, but the anger Iruka was feeling was heating him up far more than the warm air surrounding them.

As the door swung shut behind him, they were left with the muted sounds from the noisy bar and the crickets chirping in the dark.

The silver-haired shinobi slowly turned to face Iruka, looking down at the hand still gripping his arm before slowly making his way up to Iruka's incensed glare.

"Excuse me?" he said indifferently.

Iruka grit his teeth and his eyes narrowed angrily. If his friends were there, they would have run away from that look alone.

"I said, who do you think you are? You think you can just walk away after insulting me like that? You don't even know me!"

The one eyebrow Iruka could see raised at his heated reaction.

"I don't think it was an insult so much as fact," the man replied lazily, releasing his arm from Iruka's grasp and slipping his hands in his pockets. "If I'm correct, which I usually am, you were the one who almost barged into me yesterday and you were the one who bumped into me two minutes ago. It's not my fault you don't pay attention when you walk."

"Yesterday?! I didn't see you yesterday," Iruka argued. "Trust me, I would have remembered your annoying face if I did."

The increasingly vexing man smirked again, provoking Iruka even further.

"My comment was in regard to you almost running into me by the Hokage's office yesterday evening. I believe you were muttering to yourself something about textbooks? When you were far too distracted to notice anything in your surroundings? Remember that?"

Iruka's expression froze as he did indeed remember the sudden flash of silver in the hallway. He groaned to himself, wishing he didn't have to give this man the satisfaction of being right. It was unbelievably irritating how easy it was to discern his expression even through his dark mask — his smug look was so apparent, it took all Iruka had not to punch it off his face.

"Well, I apologize for running into you today and almost running into you yesterday. You can rest assured it won't happen again," he responded sourly.

The silver hair gleamed under the light as the man leaned back to survey Iruka dismissively.

"I'm not sure that's something you can promise. Knowing what I know of you thus far, you'll probably run into me many more times and annoy me again just as you are now."

"Of all the arrogant —" Iruka fumed, mouth agape as he started to see white.

In a span of less than five minutes, this man had managed to go from complete stranger to the person Iruka wanted to punch most in the world.

His last threads of self-restraint snapped, and before he knew it Iruka had his fist raised, heading directly towards the center to wipe the smug look off the masked face. But before he could make contact, Anko and Iwashi were behind him holding his arm back while Kotetsu and Izumo were in front trying to push him away from the shinobi.

The man had no reaction to Iruka's outburst, walking away looking completely unbothered.

"You better hope I don't see you again because I promise you next time it'll be my fist running into your mouth!" Iruka yelled out after him, thrashing about and kicking his legs in the air.

His friends let him go once the man rounded the corner and disappeared.

"Why did you hold me back?!" Iruka snapped. "That guy deserved what was coming to him!"

"That guy is Hatake Kakashi," Izumo answered. "You know, the Hatake Kakashi? Famed Jounin, the Copy-Nin, Kakashi of the Sharingan? Ring a bell? You would have been murdered if you hit him."

"I don't care!" Iruka spit out. "I don't care if he's the lord of all jutsu, he was a total dick!"

Anko chortled, still drunk off her mind. "Even if he's a dick, I hear his actual dick is quite something. He can be lord of my you know what alllll he wants, hah!"

Kotetsu stared at her in disgust. "Ew, Anko. What makes you think we wanted to hear any part of that?"

She waved him away as she stumbled her way back towards the bar.

"Meh, it doesn't matter anyway. I hear he plays for your team, not mine. Though, by the looks of it, I have a better chance than Iruka does to get into his pants now," she cackled.

"Oh, please. I'd be out of my mind to ever hook up with that guy," Iruka scoffed. "I guess that's one good thing from this mission — I don't have to worry about seeing his face for an entire year."

Iwashi passed out the shots and said, "Can we please stop talking about annoying, big-dicked Jounin and your mission? Come on, Iruka. This is our last day to see you, let's have some fun."

Iruka shrugged back. "I guess you're right. I'm not going to let some random guy ruin this night for us. Another round, on me!"

Everyone cheered as they all clinked their glasses together.

Iruka slowly forgot about the unpleasant exchange as the night went on, letting loose dancing and laughing with his friends. There was a moment when he took a mental picture of them all together, jumping around on the dance floor with Anko on the ground grinding up on a hysterically giggling Kotetsu as Izumo drunkenly tried to push her off his boyfriend. Iwashi stood shaking his head at their out of control behavior while Iruka laughed uproariously.

He had a feeling he would want to remember this happy moment later on, but he had no idea how right he would be.

-----

Iruka was nursing a small hangover as he stood in front of the Hokage's desk, the morning light shining from the window a little too bright for his comfort.

He knew he shouldn't have had the last two shots, but Anko was determined to get him as drunk as she was and practically forced them down his throat.

The insistent ticking from the large clock on the wall was starting to drive him crazy, so he tried to distract himself by stealing a look at his fellow teammates.

There were eight other members, most of whom he didn't know. But they seemed to know each other, as they were talking amicably amongst themselves while the Hokage was busy. Luckily, Iruka was quite close to the one person he did know.

Asuma grinned as they made eye contact, and he walked over to give Iruka a friendly dab to his arm.

"Iruka, who would have thought dad would actually let you go on a mission for once, huh?" he chuckled.

Iruka grinned back, relieved there was at least one familiar face going with him. He and Asuma were practically like brothers since Iruka used to eat dinner with his family nearly every night when they were young, sleeping over just as often.

"I know, I didn't believe him at first," Iruka replied. "I wish he told me you were coming on the mission too; it would have saved me a lot of worry yesterday."

"Well, you know how much he likes the element of surprise," Asuma said a little darkly. "But I'm glad you're coming with us. You'll be a great addition to the team."

The Hokage lifted his hand then, and everyone immediately stopped talking and stood at attention.

"While we're waiting for our captain, I'll start briefing you all on the mission," he started, handing each person a mission scroll. "The purpose of this year-long trip is to help with redevelopment efforts for the town of Kiyoko, a small village on the outskirts of Fire Country. The town was hit hard during the Third Shinobi War, but it was made even worse from constant pillaging by looters and missing-nin over the past decade. They've had no real leader to help them overcome the traumas of war, which is where we come in."

"Why are they asking for help now?" Asuma asked, looking over the mission details on his scroll. "It sounds like they've been needing aid for a while."

"This request for long-term aid has come directly from the Fire Daimyo," the Hokage answered. "While the town itself is currently in shambles, its natural environment is one of beauty, and the Daimyo wants to preserve it all before it's too late."

"So, the Daimyo doesn't care if the villagers die from lack of care, he just wants us to protect some trees and build him some buildings," the shinobi with a senbon in his mouth sneered.

"Saving the village and its surroundings requires saving the people living there," Hiruzen countered. “Personally, I don't agree with the Daimyo's way of thinking, which is why I've chosen my best shinobi for this mission to care for the villagers. I will admit, most of you are overqualified, but this mission requires high levels of patience and leadership, which the town desperately needs. So I expect the utmost professionalism from each of you Konoha shinobi, is that understood?"

"Yes, sir!" everyone asserted in unison.

The Hokage nodded, satisfied with their response.

"Your captain will be informing you of the rest of the details, so make sure to pay attention since you'll all be reporting directly to him throughout the mission."

As if timed deliberately, a small curt knock came through behind the door before it swung open.

"Ah — there he is now," the Hokage smiled.

Everyone turned their heads, including Iruka. He peered curiously behind his shoulder to see who it was that would be his leader and captain for the next 365 days.

But unlike everyone else who grinned merrily at the final addition to the team, Iruka's mouth dropped open, horrified at what he saw.

Kakashi was standing by the door, one hand in his pocket and the other raised in greeting.

"Yo."

Chapter Text

"You!" Iruka choked out, completely aghast. "What are you doing here?!"

His hangover that had been slowly dissipating evolved itself into a digging pain in his temple as the blood rushed through his head from shock, making Iruka wonder for a moment if he was still so drunk he was hallucinating the sight in front of him.

He prayed that was the case, otherwise, his reality was about to get so much worse than he ever thought it could.

Everyone in the room looked around bewildered, taken aback by his sudden outburst at their captain. Even the Hokage paused, his eyes slowly tracing back and forth between the two men.

The only person who acted as if Iruka's lividity was totally normal was Kakashi.

"Well, it looks like I was right again.” Kakashi stared coolly back. "Were you so distracted this time you forgot what you're here for?

Two pink circles bloomed on Iruka's cheeks, a visible mix of both his rage and embarrassment.

The scenes from last night were reeling in his head as he remembered their heated — heated on his end at least — exchange outside the bar.

It was like a nightmare come alive, a dirty trick played by the gods. He was hoping it was an actual nightmare or even just a bad joke, one maybe his friends had somehow put the Hokage up to as a final prank before the mission.

But the joke wasn't ending, and it was only getting more real by the second.

The silver source of Iruka's stress deftly moved toward the giant map on the blackboard, blithely ignoring the growing tension exuding from every inch of Iruka's body and the confused looks on the rest of the team’s face.

"Our mission objectives are simple, but it requires some discretion," Kakashi got right to the point. "We'll be helping to rebuild Kiyoko, but more than half of our team will be undercover. There are three reasons for this: one, we're a large group, and the last thing we want to do is draw attention to ourselves. Three of us in this group alone are in the Bingo Book, and if our presence becomes known, you can bet there will be people coming to challenge us."

It seems the old man really did assign Konoha's best to this mission if there are people in the Bingo Book coming along, Iruka thought. He begrudgingly assumed Kakashi was one of them, but he wondered who the other two were.

The guy with the senbon? Or maybe the girl with the red eyes?

Iruka started working the mission desk six months ago to get some extra income, but he'd hardly ever seen any of the shinobi here. He'd noticed the girl with the red eyes a couple of times and the guy wearing the green jumpsuit was impossible to miss, but some of the other faces he'd never seen before in his life.

That meant they most likely only went on missions assigned directly by the Hokage and they report only to the Hokage. He supposed it was a good thing if he was traveling with high-level Jounin or even Anbu, though it made him feel even more perplexed as to what he was doing with this group.

"The second reason has to do with the villagers," Kakashi continued. "As you can imagine, after everything they've been through, they may not take too kindly to ten strange shinobi randomly showing up to their town."

He picked up the clipboard behind him and lifted up the sheet of paper.

"The team will be set up as such," he said, focused intently on the information in his hand. "Aoba, Tenzo, Guy, you three will be going as builders. Tenzo, you will obviously be our biggest asset with redevelopment, but make sure you don't get caught using your jutsu with any of the townspeople, got it?"

The brown-haired man with the happuri-style forehead protector nodded silently.

"Asuma and Genma, you two are going to set up and manage a local tavern. It'll be our rendezvous point for meetings and mission updates, so the Daimyo will provide whatever funding you need to run it as an actual business."

"Understood," Asuma responded with an easy-going smile, fist-bumping his new business partner.

"Kurenai," Kakashi went on, "Your job is crucial to our mission because you'll be undercover as the Daimyo's representative and advisor, which means overseeing the development of the entire village along with the town's leaders. It seems they're currently run by a council, but from what the Daimyo says, they're weak and filled with internal opposition."

He finally looked up from the clipboard to address the whole group, looking more serious than he had been since he walked into the room.

"That is the third — and most important — reason why so many of us are going. Not only are we there to help with redevelopment, but we're also going to weed out those causing trouble from the inside. We believe there may be multiple factions forming in the village, and if it's not stopped, the town may never be able to recover."

"But the town is small, right?" Kurenai asked, her smooth, feminine voice like a soft current. "How much trouble could they be causing?"

"You'd be surprised," Asuma answered with a knowing look. "Kiyoko is a coastal town, and they have multiple harbors all along their village, and people everywhere use that village to load and unload their goods. I imagine since the war they haven't had as many customers as they used to, but whoever has control of the town has control of their ports, and that's financial power anyone would want."

"Exactly," Kakashi nodded. "The Daimyo claims that his reasoning for this mission was for us to help the villagers rebuild, but it's pretty clear his main focus is to regain control of the town so it can generate revenue for him again."

The team started scoffing and shaking their heads, complaining to themselves about economic greed and how they're all just pawns for political power when Kakashi interrupted.

"Uh — I believe you all only agreed to this mission once you found out the Daimyo is paying triple your salary?"

Suddenly, all the complaints transformed into mumbles about unpaid bills or feigned surprise at the news of their increased salary.

Iruka was the only one actually surprised; he was so busy worrying about the mission that he didn't even consider how much he was going to be paid for it. At this point, he couldn't even bring himself to care — all he wanted was to do a good job and hopefully survive a year under Kakashi's leadership.

"Now, if we're all done complaining?" their captain asked sarcastically, pulling everyone's focus back to him. "Let's continue. The rest of us — Yugao, Hayate, and I — are the only ones who won't need to hide the fact that we're Konoha shinobi because we'll be with him," Kakashi pointed at Iruka. "He'll be creating an adjunct Academy as part of the Daimyo's aid package, and we each have a job pertaining to the school."

The two shinobi standing in the farthest end from Iruka took a small step forward at the same time, their subtle movements mirroring the other. So far, they were the quietest of the bunch, so much so that Iruka almost forgot they were there.

"Yugao, you'll use your medical ninjutsu skills and act as the school's nurse," Kakashi addressed the purple-haired woman. Then he looked toward the guy with the dark markings under his eyes. "Hayate, you and I are posing as the school's guards."

The quiet shinobi nodded mutely and let out a shaky cough.

"The town's leaders will think I'm the captain for what they'll assume is a team of four," Kakashi informed them. "We're the only people who they'll know belong to Konoha, which gives us freedom in some sense. Yugao, Hayate — I've chosen you two along with myself to lead the reconnaissance efforts. Your experience will be crucial for this part of the mission, especially when it comes to any sort of tracking or spying at night."

"Understood," they both said at once, sounding much more professional than anyone else had.

As they stepped back into the line, Iruka stepped forward.

"Uhm, what will I be doing to help stop any threats?" he asked, looking pointedly at Kakashi.

"You won't be doing anything," the captain dismissed, turning his attention back to his clipboard. "Your job is to implement the Academy curriculum to the school and teach kids five days a week for a year, and that's all."

The unnecessary addition of "that's all" made Iruka grind his teeth. He took a deep breath as he tried his best to stop his hands from clenching at his sides.

The least this guy could do is look at him when he spoke.

"But everyone else has some kind of undercover or reconnaissance job," he persisted. "I should be putting in the same amount of work."

"Maa, I don't think you have to worry about that," Kakashi quipped. "With your level of distractedness, managing some children should be plenty of work for you."

If blood could literally boil, Iruka would be hot soup right about now. He was starting to think he should make good with his promise from last night about what he plans to do with his fist when he heard the Hokage in the back give a small cough.

It was the cough specially curated for Iruka, his warning to the Chunin to reign in his soon-to-blow temper.

Iruka almost considered acting like he didn't hear it so he could go ahead and tell his new captain exactly where he could shove his precious clipboard, but instead, he decided to take the high road. Even his big mouth knew it wouldn't be a good idea to cause problems on the first day.

Hiruzen cleared his throat before he interjected.

"Now that you each have your mission details, I'll leave you all with one last message," the Third said, making a point to pause a few extra seconds at Iruka. "You'll be spending a lot of time together, so I hope you bond quickly and learn to trust each other as I trust you. I strongly believe the success of the group is what will determine the success of this mission, so it is imperative you all keep the Will of Fire strong in your hearts as you move forward each day. Have I placed my trust in the right people for this mission?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama!" everyone proclaimed, straightening their backs in salute.

Iruka hesitated for a second but he also did the same, though he couldn't stop his eyes from revealing his doubt. He was clearly the odd one out in this group, and the one person he would work with most already disliked him.

"We leave at dawn," Kakashi finished matter-of-factly. "Use the rest of today to prepare and say your goodbyes, because starting tomorrow, our new home is Kiyoko. Dismissed."

Everyone relaxed and restarted their lively conversations from earlier. As they made their way out of the room, Asuma gave a quick smile and nod to Iruka before he joined them.

Soon enough, the only people remaining in the office were Iruka and Kakashi, who was quietly discussing last-minute details with the Hokage.

Hiruzen looked up from the scroll in Kakashi's hand.

"Oh, Iruka, I'm glad you stayed. I wanted to talk to the two of you."

Their eyes flickered to each other for the briefest second before they made their way in front of the Hokage.

"My plan was to introduce you to each other today, but I'm getting the sense that you've already been introduced?" the Third smiled.

They both nodded silently, though Iruka could tell from the subtle clench in Kakashi's jaw that he was also thinking about their unfortunate run-in from last night.

If Hiruzen noticed the tension between the two, he acted as if he didn't.

"I see. Well, you two know how passionate I am about the Academy, and though we have our own mission to complete, I think creating an adjunct school for the village is a great idea from the Daimyo, and I want to see it done well," he said seriously.

Iruka took out the list he had written down yesterday along with the curriculum he had tentatively planned.

"I wanted you to take a look at what I've created so far. I also have a list of things I'll need to teach a class for a year," he added.

"Ah, that's right," Hiruzen remembered. "Kakashi, tell Iruka what you did for him."

Kakashi took out a red and gold sealed scroll from his back pocket and placed it on the desk in front of Iruka.

"Since there's no way you can carry or even seal everything you'll need to last a year, I created a fūinjutsu that connects directly to the storage unit in our Academy,” he explained. “All you need to do is write down what you need, input your chakra, and the scroll will directly transport whatever it is from the Academy right to you. I tested it out myself last night, and it seems to work fine."

Iruka glanced at Kakashi at his last comment. He wondered if it was before or after the bar that he tested it out, and whether he had known the person he created the seal for was the same person who threatened to punch his face out.

"Uhm, thanks," Iruka mumbled, taking the scroll and putting it in his pouch.

Hiruzen smiled widely at the two again as he handed his notes back to the Chunin.

"This looks great, Iruka. But I know things will most likely change once you get there, so don't worry if you have to be flexible with the curriculum. I trust you wholeheartedly, so you have complete freedom to teach your students how you see fit."

Iruka returned the smile, and his eyes couldn't help but water as it finally hit him that he won't be in this office again for a whole year. His sentimentality was as large as his temper, and he was trying to fight being overcome with emotion.

"Take care of yourself, old man," Iruka spoke with a watery grin. There was so much more he wanted to say, but he knew if he said any more he would start crying, and he didn't want to show Kakashi any part of his vulnerability if he could help it.

Hiruzen didn't have the same concern as he immediately walked over to Iruka and embraced him deeply, patting his ponytail just as a proud father would.

His body feels frailer than before, Iruka thought to himself as he held on tight.

"I'm going to miss you, Iruka-kun," the Hokage said gruffly, not hiding the emotions in his voice. "Take good care of your health and write often. You can send your letters along with Kakashi's mission reports. And keep your brother from drinking too much at his new bar, you know how he gets when he's drunk."

Iruka laughed, but hearing the Hokage call Asuma his brother tugged on his heartstrings so much it threatened to pull his tears out. Now that he was going away for a year, it really cemented how much of a father figure the Hokage had become for him, and it was surprisingly difficult to let go.

But let go he did. He had a job to do, and it wasn't going to get done by hugging onto the Hokage for the rest of his life.

The last thing he heard as he walked out of the room was Hiruzen telling Kakashi, "Take care of Iruka for me."

Chapter Text

The early heat from the morning sun promised a hot day of travel for the team.

Lovely, Iruka lamented to himself. He was already starting to regret not wearing his summer uniform as he made his way toward the gate's entrance, his long-sleeve clinging to his back with sweat pooling from the heat of his vest and his large travel backpack.

By the number and color of heads he counted, he was the second to last to show up. They were still waiting on their captain, but unlike Iruka, the rest of the team looked relaxed and well-prepared for the summer weather.

Everyone but Hayate and Yugao was dressed in loose-fitting casual wear with their own large backpacks in hand, looking like civilians going on a trip. Yugao and Hayate wore sleeveless shirts underneath their flak jackets, each with a sword clipped onto the side of their pack.

"Good morning," they greeted, smiling at a damp Iruka as he waved to everyone.

"Apparently you all are much smarter than I am," he breathed. "I didn't think it was going to be this hot today."

Asuma went to stand next to him, speaking out to the group. "Hey guys, I want to introduce you to Umino Iruka, Chunin and Academy teacher. I figure we should exchange our pleasantries now before we head off."

"Hiiii Iruka," everyone chimed at the same time like they were greeting a new classmate.

"Hi." He smiled sheepishly back. "Please be patient with me; I lack a lot as a shinobi, but I promise I work hard and I'll do whatever I can to be of help."

Guy, who was wearing skin-tight green shorts that looked suspiciously like he had cut his uniform tights with a scissor, bounded up to a startled Iruka.

"Iruka-kun, I am Konoha's majestic Blue Beast, Might Guy," he declared loudly, gripping Iruka's hand and pulling in so close that Iruka could see each strand of hair on the other man's thick eyebrows. "I am utterly, entirely, wholeheartedly moved by your passionate promise of hard work. Hard work is my number one rule, and I —"

"—Oi, Guy, just listening to you talk is making me sweat," Genma interrupted. "Where the fuck is Kakashi? I'm sweating my ass off here."

Like clockwork, the man they were waiting for was suddenly standing in front of the group, looking around as if he had been there the whole time.

"Don't get your panties in a bunch, Genma, I'm here," Kakashi announced lazily. "And if you don't hear me complaining about the heat, I definitely shouldn't hear you complaining."

Kakashi was in his usual full shinobi attire along with his mask and backpack strapped sturdily to his form. If Iruka didn't find him so incredibly irritating he would be impressed at how unfazed the Jounin looked standing under the sweltering heat with his dark mask on.

The Jounin tossed a map to Guy and Asuma while holding out his own. "I just finished mapping out the separate routes we'll be taking to Kiyoko," he informed as to why he was late.

"We're going in three teams, separated by our roles. Guy, Aoba, Tenzo, you three will reach the village first. You should get there in about two to three days. Kurenai, you're traveling with Genma and Asuma for the journey, but you'll need to separate once you get close enough," Kakashi said. "The rest of us will arrive a day or two after everyone else. Do you all have your credentialing papers?"

Everyone confirmed yes, checking their bags to make sure they had their documents for their lodging and new positions.

"Alright. If you run into trouble, contact me immediately. Otherwise, I'll see all of you in about five days," their captain finished, nodding at his team of ten.

They clapped each other on their backs, waving goodbye and throwing peace signs to their village as they headed out the gate.

Iruka hesitated an extra second, turning to Kotetsu and Izumo who had been standing in their usual positions by the security desk. They were waving goodbye, smiling sadly at their last look at their friend. He put on a large smile and waved back, wanting to assure his friends that he was fine, even though he felt far from it.

They were surprisingly somber yesterday when he told them that Kakashi was his captain. Instead of making fun as he thought they would, they asked if he was OK, if there was any way he could not go on the mission. By the long hug they gave him last night, he could tell they were having just as much trouble letting him go as he was about leaving.

He couldn't help but look back towards his home one last time, wanting to carve the view of the Hokage Monument into his memory. The Third's stone face stood tall over Konoha, spotlighted by the rising sun.

He prayed that it watch over him, getting the feeling that once he left the gates, his life would never be the same again.

Chapter Text

If the journey to Kiyoko was any indication of what the rest of the mission was going to be like, Iruka was in for a long, exhausting-in-every-sense-of-the-word year.

It's not like he didn't expect to be a little sluggish after taking a year-long hiatus, but he'd always kept in shape and trained diligently every day — even twice on the weekends — so he figured whatever impact it had on his endurance would be minimal.

But as he stood panting on the side of the dirt path at the end of their third day of travel, his beads of sweat looking more like pools of sweat, he had to come to terms with the fact that he needed to get reaccustomed to the physical strains of being an active shinobi. Fast.

Sure, it didn't help that the ball of fire they call the sun had been incessantly raging every single day, but the rest of the team weren't nearly as worn-out as he was. More than once, Iruka heard Kakashi give a wayward sigh at having to slow his pace down so the Chunin could keep up.

Iruka never once complained or asked for a break, moving stubbornly ahead as if his bones didn't feel like lead and his backpack a boulder, but he couldn't help letting out a sigh of relief when they finally stopped for the night.

They made quick, albeit quiet, work setting up their campsite. The group's members weren't a particularly loud bunch to begin with, but with the chilling atmosphere resting between Kakashi and Iruka, they were practically mute. Day after day, they sat in silence around the campfire, the only words being exchanged used to tell each other whose turn it was to go on watch.

Tonight, it was Iruka's as he sat high up on a large tree branch, resting his back against its trunk.

It was the perfect spot, situated high enough to avoid being noticed but not so covered by leaves that he couldn't see the open sky where millions of crystal clear stars were painted across their inky blue backdrop.

He closed his eyes, listening to the water from the nearby stream trickling down its bed of rock while little nocturnal feet scurried through the forest path.

It was his first moment of peace since he'd left Konoha, finally getting a break from the vexing Jounin judging his every move. Iruka peered down where the Jounin in question was fast asleep next to the fire, the uncovered half of his face luminous under the warm glow.

The fire blanketed a bright orange hue over his grey hair, a color combination Iruka hoped would make the Jounin's hair look murky and dull. Instead, his hair was lustrous, the crackling light bringing out the silver tones shimmering through his strands.

Iruka couldn't help but stare, using his elevated view to look clearly at Kakashi for the first time.

He had to admit, the Jounin wasn't bad-looking. Some might even say handsome.

The way his cut jawline was prominent through his dark mask, the flawless blend between his light hair and pale skin — anyone could see that Kakashi was the kind of man no one would complain about being seen dating.

Anyone, that is, except Iruka.

It was easy to judge objectively when the man was unconscious, without his intolerable sighs and constantly dismissive attitude there to make Iruka want to rip out every shiny strand off his head.

He wondered how things would have been if he never bumped into Kakashi at the bar. Maybe they'd be amicable with each other now. He figured they still wouldn't have been anything more than professional since their personalities clearly didn't match well together, but maybe they wouldn't have had such an intense dislike from the start.

Well, nothing he could do about it now, Iruka shrugged, breaking his gaze away from the peacefully sleeping Jounin.

A big yawn escaped his throat, and he stretched his arms high up over his head to try and keep awake. He'd be damned if he fell asleep in the middle of his watch and gave Kakashi more reason to mock him about being distracted.

It was then — in the middle of his wide open-mouth yawn — that he heard it.

A faint whisper crying out softly.

"Help. Help."

He slowly lowered his arms, turning his right ear toward the sound. It had been so faint he thought he might have imagined it, a trick played by his sleepy brain and the swaying leaves.

But then he heard it again.

"Help. Help."

It sounded like a child's voice.

Iruka looked around everywhere, trying to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. It was as if it was carried through the warm breeze, both everywhere yet nowhere at all.

Then, about two hundred yards away, he saw a small ball of light that vanished as quickly as it appeared. He gripped his kunai in its holster, debating what he should do. His teammates were still asleep, unaware of any noises or strange balls of light.

He slowly got up, thinking he should go and wake them when the voice suddenly changed.

"Help!! Help!!" the child screamed as if in pain.

Iruka disregarded everything he knew about the rules of conduct as a shinobi then, the only thing on his mind to save the child from whatever was causing it to scream out that way.

The sound had come from the same direction where the light had shone, and he furiously jumped from tree to tree with his kunai in hand, not even considering the risk of going out alone without his teammates knowing where he had disappeared to.

It was like he had forgotten himself as his need to protect the child overwhelmed his every instinct and fear.

He jumped down to where he thought he saw the light flicker in and out, frantically checking the clearing for clues about where the child could have gone.

But there was nothing. No sign of struggle, no blood.

Nothing but darkness.

He paused.

Something was off.

And by the way his arm hairs were raised, his body knew it too.

Then he realized. Shit. This is genjutsu.

"Kai!"

He disrupted his chakra flow, releasing himself from the jutsu. But now he had a much bigger problem, and it was surrounding him from all angles.

"Well, well, well, I didn't expect you to get out of the genjutsu so quickly."

Iruka shot his head toward the deep, hostile voice. It had come from his left, hidden in the shadows, looking at him with beady, malicious eyes.

He slowly backed away to the center of the clearing with his kunai clutched tightly to his chest. By what he could see, there were five of them, three on the ground and two in the trees.

They radiated a terrible aura, eyeing him like he was a piece of meat ready to be hunted.

"Who are you? What do you want?" Iruka challenged.

"Who we are is none of your business," the same voice said snidely, walking out of the shadows and into the moonlight.

Iruka focused his breath as he tried to stop his heart from beating too fast. He kept his eyes locked on the man walking toward him, though he sensed the others slowly moving closer to him as well. From what he could tell by their shabby wear and dark chakra, they were shinobi bandits, going from place to place, stealing and doing god knows what else to innocent people.

He was angry more than scared, angry at himself for falling for such a trap and potentially putting his teammates at risk.

His priority now was to find a way to warn them. He considered screaming out, but first, he needed to know what the purpose of the ambush was, to find out if they wanted to steal from him or kill him.

He repeated his question again.

"What do we want?" the bandit sneered. "We want to take every last dime you and your friends have, and if you cooperate, we won't slice their throats in front of you to get it."

The bandit on his right, with a weasely, high-pitched voice, said, "Yeah, and you're our bait."

So that's their plan, Iruka thought. That meant they needed him alive more than dead if they wanted to use him as a negotiating tactic.

The wheels were turning in his head as he quickly formulated a plan to escape.

"You guys must be real weak if you need five of you to take on one person," he taunted, trying to distract them from his other hand slowly reaching into his back pouch. "And by the looks of you, you're not very good at being bandits, because if you were, you could afford to buy some new clothes."

That got him an instant reaction.

He heard snarls coming from the trees as the bandits brandished their weapons, their serrated blades and kunai gleaming threateningly under the moonlight.

Iruka used their moment of rage to drop a flash bomb, hoping the sound of the detonation and the blinding light would be enough to wake his teammates.

He sprinted away as fast as he could, but the enemy was already on his tail. From their distance, he wasn't going to make it by running away. He threw two kunai with exploding tags behind his shoulder, the brief but strong explosions causing the forest to rumble.

A pained grunt soon followed, informing him that he hit a target.

One down, four to go.

He turned around, using his kunai to block a blade that someone threw at his back. He could feel the blood pumping in his brain, all traces of sleepiness gone and replaced with high-running adrenaline.

The weasely bandit was the first to attack, coming at him with a rusty knife.

Iruka easily disarmed him as he landed a sturdy kick straight to his opponent's head, and the bandit flew into a nearby tree and was knocked unconscious.

That's two down, he counted.

He was about half a mile from his campsite, having run the opposite direction. He needed to get the bandits as far away as he could from his team, to give them time to protect themselves. If he had gone toward them he would have made it by now, but there was no way he would risk their safety for his own.

"Is that the best you got?" he called out loud, wanting to keep their attention on him.

By the level of chakra they emanated, most of them were weak enough for him to take on by himself. The two who had hidden in the trees came down on him at the same time but he was ready for them, sticking a sealing tag on one of their shoulders.

It activated the second it touched bare skin, gluing the two enemy shinobi together butt to butt.

"Hah!" Iruka shouted. "Hope you don't have to use the bathroom anytime soon!"

The seal was one of his own creations, something he developed as a young boy during the peak of his pranking days. Its original use was for messing with his classmates, but after his Academy teacher finally stopped shouting at him in the hallway the day he tried it out, he quietly whispered to Iruka that the seal was actually well made and could be effective during missions.

And his teacher was right — the two shinobi were completely immobilized, not able to do anything without dragging the other behind him with their butt cheeks stuck together.

Their leader, the one with the deep pitch and beady eyes, roared in rage when he saw his final two subordinates defeated. There was something sinister and ugly about his chakra, and unlike the others, he seemed to be a Jounin-level shinobi. The way he moved told Iruka he needed to be extremely careful.

He changed course, sprinting back toward his campsite now that he had made enough ruckus to alert the others.

He managed to get about a hundred yards in when he felt a heavy kick to his back, making him tumble onto the ground. Before he could get up, the bandit pressed his dirty boot onto his neck, digging Iruka's face into the dirt.

He winced as the enemy sat on his back and crouched close, growling into his ear, "I underestimated you. I thought you were just a pretty little thing, but you impressed me tonight."

The dark-haired bandit was breathing heavily in Iruka's face, his breath smelling like rancid eggs and tobacco. It took all Iruka had not to hurl as he desperately tried to think of a way to get out of his position.

He was forced to drop his kunai with his arm twisted behind his back, and when he tried to turn his face away from the terrible smell, the bandit yanked on his ponytail, causing Iruka to grimace in pain.

"Did you like the genjutsu I placed on you?" his enemy rasped, aggressively pulling Iruka's face back by his hair. "I can make you hear the thing you fear most, the thing that makes you willing to do anything to stop. Most people get so triggered they don't even realize it's a genjutsu until it's too late."

Iruka was forced to look into those beady eyes staring at him with a mix of fury and arousal. The revolting shinobi licked his thin, nearly invisible lips as he adjusted his heavy weight on Iruka's back.

He was about five inches taller and wider than the Chunin below him, his weight nearly crushing Iruka's lungs.

"Fuck you," Iruka gasped, baring his teeth at his enemy who smiled the ugliest smile in return.

"You got a mouth to you too," he jeered. "I like that. You know, I was just going to use you as bait so your teammates don't give me a hard time when I'm stealing their stuff, but now I think I'll take you with me. I know some feudal lords who would be more than happy to pay me a pretty penny so they can get a turn fucking that mouth of yours."

He slammed Iruka back into the dirt, knocking the wind out of him.

"But first, I'm going to test you out myself. Think of it as a lesson for what you did to my crew," he snarled.

Iruka was trying to twist and turn his body, doing anything he could to get out of the bandit's strong grip. But it was impossible, and his exhaustion was starting to give way at any hope he had to escape.

He decided to use the remainder of his strength to yell out for help, praying that someone on his team was close enough by.

Before he could even get a word out, the bandit covered Iruka's mouth with his dirty, scabby hand, laughing evilly at his failed attempt. "Nice try," he smirked. "But I can't let you call your friends here and cause any trouble for me. And you don't want them to — ARGHHH!"

Iruka had bitten down so hard on the beady-eyed man's palm that he tore through two layers of skin. If he couldn’t scream, he would make the other guy do it for him.

His mouth was covered in his enemy's blood as the bandit wrenched his hand away from the Chunin, looking down at him with fresh unbridled rage.

"You're going to die now," he said nastily, grabbing Iruka's kunai from the ground with his uninjured hand.

He lifted the weapon into the air while Iruka stared ferociously upon his enemy. If he was going to die, he was going to do it with his eyes wide open, defiant until his last breath.

The bandit swung down, the tip of the kunai half a centimeter away from Iruka's neck when suddenly a burst of blue lightning shot out through the bandit's left shoulder, making him scream out in pain as he dropped the weapon.

It all happened so fast.

One second Iruka was about to die, and the next the enemy was thrown off his back while the kunai clattered to the ground beside him.

Iruka quickly scrambled to his feet, sweat pouring down his face as he took back his own weapon that almost killed him. When he turned around, there was Kakashi standing behind the enemy, his gloved hand filled with lightning chakra sticking out of the writhing shinobi.

He looked furious and terrifying all at once.

Chapter Text

Time is a precious thing for a shinobi.

Most of them don't get too much of it, and when a second is more than enough for their life to end, they know not to take it for granted whenever it works in their favor.

Iruka was no stranger to the blessings and curses of time; tonight, it just happened to be a split second between life and kunai lodged in his neck.

And the one who determined his outcome was Kakashi.

The jagged streaks of blue and white lightning seared a cold, ruthless sort of light under the Jounin, revealing his look of absolute fury and disgust at their enemy. It was nothing like the look on the bandit's face — his was twisted and ugly while Kakashi's had a cold-blooded yet somehow magnetic nature to it that both scared and captivated Iruka more than anything else had all night, sending chills down his sweaty back.

Kakashi moved his furious gaze upon Iruka, and his usually grey eye was jet-black, shadowed between the night's darkness and his own chakra.

When their eyes met, Iruka suddenly pictured the Jounin bathed in warm firelight, fast asleep as he had been earlier. He blinked, confused as to why his brain decided to conjure up that image at a time like this.

It had to be the adrenaline, he thought, shaking the image out of his head. It wasn't that Kakashi had just looked so peaceful and maybe even — dare he say — a little nice as he slept under the warmth from the campfire. No, his brain must be going haywire from the physiological stress, heightening his senses in all things and making him remember moments he didn't even know he had imprinted into his memory.

Whatever the reason, Iruka wished he was still looking at that Kakashi and not the one in front of him. The one in front of him was very awake and very angry, and he knew not all of that anger was reserved for their enemy.

Iruka broke their eye contact first, turning his attention to the man who almost killed him ten seconds ago. He was unconscious already, his body still flopping about from the electric current running through his nerves, making the blood drip even faster down his palm.

In one swift motion, Kakashi pulled his arm out of his jutsu's victim and kicked the bandit brusquely to the side, all while keeping his eye trained on Iruka.

After a tense moment of silence, Kakashi nodded to Iruka's mouth.

"Is that your blood?" he asked coldly.

"No," Iruka mumbled, slowly lowering his kunai before putting it back in its holster.

"Are you hurt anywhere?" Kakashi asked in the same stony voice.

"No." Iruka shook his head, taking a deep breath before he met the Jounin's eye again.

"I passed by four others on my way here. Are there any more?"

"No."

Silence fell in the clearing once more as the two stood frozen in their respective spots. Iruka had hoped that would be the end of their incredibly uncomfortable exchange, but the icy glare he received said otherwise.

It's not like he didn't know he messed up. But knowing didn't make what came next any easier.

"Tell me, Iruka, what is Rule 6 in the Shinobi Code of Conduct?" Kakashi asked, his tone deceptively casual.

Iruka bit his lip to keep from retorting, knowing exactly what Kakashi was trying to get at with his condescending approach.

But the Jounin didn't let him remain silent, repeating the question with steely force.

"Rule 6. Go."

Iruka held back a sigh and kept his fists to his sides as he answered stiffly, "Rule 6: A shinobi must follow their commander's instructions."

Kakashi nodded, putting his unbloodied hand in his pocket. His attempt to seem casual would have been more convincing if it wasn't so obvious that his jaw was tightly clenched in anger.

"I believe my instruction for the one on watch was to let me know immediately if something was off," Kakashi said, his disapproval at the Chunin seething out of his teeth.

Iruka stepped forward, needing to explain himself to the one person he wished he didn't have to explain himself to.

"I know," he acknowledged. "I know I should have woken you up before I left. But I thought a child was in danger and my body just reacted. It wasn't something I could control."

Kakashi narrowed his eyes, remaining so still he looked like he had been frozen by an ice jutsu. They were both so tense the air felt like it had frozen along with them.

"You never should have left to begin with," the Jounin hissed. "While you're unable to control your emotions, what do you think will happen to your team? What if we had gotten ambushed while we were asleep? Did you consider these factors when you were gallivanting off to save a nonexistent child?"

Iruka held his ground, trying not to let the scathing words affect him.

"If a child is in distress, I have to do whatever I can to help. The second I realized what had happened I did all I could to warn you and get them far away from everyone," he replied, keeping his voice monotone so it wouldn't shake and give away the knot in his stomach. "I would have died before I let them hurt my team."

His explanation only seemed to upset Kakashi more. He broke his glacial stance and began aggressively walking toward Iruka, his anger now visibly apparent on his well-covered face.

Iruka kept still, but he couldn't stop his hands from trembling a little as Kakashi bore down on him, standing less than a foot away.

It didn't escape his mind that the last time they stood this close was at the bar, and that didn't end well for either of them back then. And it didn't seem like it was going to be any better this time; in fact, it was looking like the stress between the two was nearing a place of no return.

Kakashi, towering over Iruka, responded in a biting voice. "And if you died, what would have happened to our mission? You think you would have done us a favor if you had saved us by dying on your own? And what do you suppose I, as your captain, do to prepare the Hokage for the news that his precious Chunin died three days into our journey?"

Iruka opened his mouth to respond, but Kakashi wasn't done with his bashing.

"I knew you were going to cause problems with your incompetence, but I didn't expect you to also be stupid," he remarked caustically. "It's a miracle how you managed to take out four of them on your own because I —"

"Hey!" Iruka yelled, all self-control over his temper lost as Kakashi crossed a line. "What the fuck is your problem with me?! I know I messed up this time, but you've been an asshole to me from the second I met you. You cannot possibly hate me this much just because I bumped into you once!"

Kakashi raised his eyebrow at Iruka's outburst, assessing the brown-haired man coolly. He seemed to be making his mind up about how he wanted to respond. His frosty demeanor incensed Iruka to no end, appalled at how opposite they were even in the way they got angry, with him heating up while the Jounin became colder.

The taut friction between the two was at an all-time high, compounded by the days of silent tension between them as Kakashi took another step forward, forcing Iruka to back up.

"You want to know what my problem is with you?" he repeated harshly. "Fine. I think you lack respect for authority and what it means to be a shinobi, jumping around the mission room with no regard for professionalism, talking back to your superiors, thinking you can get away with your childish behavior because you're the Hokage's favorite. He's babied you for the majority of your life, and now other people have to make up for your lack of experience because you have no idea what it is to be on missions where your life is constantly on the line."

He didn't hold back, staring intently at Iruka as he let him know exactly what he thinks of him.

"The fact that I have to essentially babysit you for a year, when you can't even make the journey without getting tired, is aggravating to me. I've known who you were long before you bumped into me, and I know that you're loud, you're unprofessional, and on top of it, you're completely controlled by your emotions. It's everything a shinobi should not be, and you've somehow hit all three points."

Iruka felt like he just had the wind knocked out of him again. It would have been kinder if Kakashi had slammed his face into the dirt like the bandit had.

His step faltered a little as he felt his back hit a tree behind him. Kakashi had slowly backed him into the edge of the clearing during the middle of his tirade without Iruka realizing, too focused on the intensity of the cutting words being thrown in his face.

Maybe it was because he almost died a few minutes ago and his heart was still racing with tension, or maybe it was because Kakashi just tossed acid into his worst cuts and insecurities, but the Jounin's words wounded him much deeper than Iruka thought they would.

He bit his trembling lip, taking a second before staring resolutely up at his silver-haired captain, the back of his ponytail grazing the tree as he held his head high, his dark-brown eyes filled with blazing emotion.

"You're wrong, you know. You don't know me at all," Iruka said stoutly. "I may need a little time getting my endurance back, but me taking out those four bandits was no miracle. Just because I'm not some arrogant prick of a Jounin like you doesn't mean I can't fight. You have no idea what I can or cannot do, so don't ever talk as if you know anything about me."

He took a large step away from the tree, forcing Kakashi to back up this time.

"And I don't lack respect for authority; I lack respect for authority who haven't shown me they deserve respect. So if I think you're wrong, I'll tell you you're wrong and I don't care who you are or what position you hold. I may be indebted to you now because you saved me, but I know you only saved me for the sake of the mission, not because you consider me your comrade."

He jabbed his finger on Kakashi's chest, punching in his final point.

"And whatever your problem is with me being close to the Hokage is not my problem. I never asked for any sort of special treatment, so if I die during this mission, feel free to let the Sandaime know it was completely my fault due to my incompetence," he emphasized sarcastically.

He turned away, leaving a slightly stunned Kakashi alone in the middle of the clearing with the unconscious, bloodied bandit still splayed by his feet.

Chapter Text

For as long as Iruka knew him, the Third always had some kind of old man proverb ready to share at any moment.

If he told the Hokage he was hungry, proverb. If he said he was bored, proverb. If he picked his nose, proverb.

He used to find it annoying, preferring a much more straight-forward way of communicating. But as he stood on the edge of the forest grounds, staring open-mouthed at the breathtaking view in front of him, the first thing he thought of was one of the Third's favorite sayings:

Walk aloud with your heart wide open to all you see, because when you are open to the world, the world will open to you.

And the world had certainly opened to him because Kiyoko was the most beautiful place he had ever seen.

Settled in the heart of a small cliff, the town was fortified by the large mountainside dense with forest green as it faced the shimmering eastern sea. And the water was nothing like anything Iruka had seen before. It had color gradients that ran endless shades of cerulean blue which gradually transitioned to a glistening emerald as it neared the white sanded beach.

The way the sun shined onto the ocean's surface made it look as if it was sparkling with diamonds, almost blinding in its beauty. Even the cliffside was magnificent as years of crashing waves formed it into a smooth, pearly-white rock, a worthy pedestal for the people living on its head.

But the thing that took Iruka's breath away was the waterfall in the far back, high up on the mountain opposite where they were standing. They could see it cascading down its giant rock, creating a refreshing backdrop that made Kiyoko look like nature's haven.

It was so beautiful he had forgotten for a moment all of his stress and anxiety, suddenly excited at the fact that this natural piece of heaven was going to be his new home for the next year.

They all spent a few minutes just staring, their collective silence feeling less tense than usual.

He couldn't help but glance over at Kakashi, curious how the cold man was reacting to the view. He expected to see the same bored expression as always, but even the Jounin was a little round-eyed taking in the spectacular view below them.

After their anger-filled confrontation two days ago, the rest of the journey had been nearly unbearable with poor Yugao and Hayate stuck in the middle of it.

But it was as if the waterfall was helping to wash away the stress from the last five days, making Iruka feel a tiny bit hopeful that maybe spending this mission with Kakashi wasn't going to be the worst thing ever.

At the very least, he had a great view.

The Jounin cleared his throat, breaking their enraptured gaze. "Alright," he said. "We can enjoy all the nature we want later, but right now we have to prepare to meet the council."

He took out his mission scroll, making a little note beside their schedule.

"Since we didn't receive any messages, we can assume the others are here now. Remember, we have to act as if we don't know who they are. Kurenai will probably be with the council already, so let's head out."

Iruka's anxiety slowly began creeping back in as he followed the others down the hill.

Was he going to be able to do a good job for the kids of this town? What if he wasn't ready to teach?

He tried not to let these worrying thoughts plague his mind, focusing back on all the nature surrounding Kiyoko. But even that was difficult as they got closer to the town itself, where some of the not-so-pleasant details that weren't noticeable before were now in full view.

Up close, even the wondrous lush of green surrounding them couldn't mask the fact that the village was indeed in need of desperate revitalization. Many of the buildings were old and dilapidated, with windows patched up with broken pieces of wood and rusty bent nails. Some parts of the town looked like it had been bombed away years ago, leaving large patches of dirt and broken apart walls as the only remnants of what used to be.

The air was tense and silent, but for the first time since the mission started, it wasn't because of Iruka and Kakashi.

They made their way through the main road where some of the locals were setting up stalls with their meager goods, looking warily at the new people with the Konoha crest on their foreheads.

The others on the team continued staring forward as if they didn't notice the locals' hostility at their presence, but Iruka couldn't. He met eyes with many of them, trying to give them a small smile to let them know he was here to help, not harm.

None of them smiled back.

They scowled and turned away or hid behind their stalls while others scattered, giving them a wide berth as if it was dangerous to walk too close to the shinobi.

He was starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable at the unfriendly glares they were getting, keeping his head down when he suddenly felt a small body collide on his back.

"Oof!" Iruka cried, catching his balance before he fell on his face.

Everyone around them gasped, looking terrified as they watched the team pause in the middle of the street.

They turned to find a shoddy-dressed, blonde-haired little boy on the ground. The kid had darted out of the alleyway and ran straight into Iruka, too busy focusing on whatever he had been running away from.

The boy was crying, but when he looked up he froze in terror, seeing that it was a shinobi he ran into. The rosy color from his chubby cheeks paled as he got on his small knees with his hands up in repentance.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" the boy apologized profusely, sounding and looking far too scared for the situation. "Please don't hurt me!"

The child couldn't be more than 8-years-old.

Seeing him beg broke Iruka's heart.

He squatted down to meet the boy eye-level, ignoring the second gasps from the onlookers. The kid flinched and covered his face with his arms as if he was bracing for pain, but when it didn't come, he slowly peeked open one eye to see Iruka smiling at him.

"What's your name?" Iruka asked gently.

The boy's initial suspicion matched the same wary expression on the adults' faces. But Iruka kept his smile steady and warm as he waited patiently for the answer, and the boy eventually lowered his hands.

"Miko," he mumbled.

"Hi Miko," Iruka said softly. "My name is Iruka. Are you OK? Are you hurt anywhere?"

He sniffed, nodding his head slowly as he pointed to his elbow.

"Let me see." Iruka spoke nurturingly, brushing away the tiny pebbles and dirt stuck onto the skin. "It looks like you have a little scrape on your elbow, huh?"

He began digging around in his pouch, taking out his olive green handkerchief embroidered with a Konoha crest, a little bottle of ointment, and a bandaid. He wetted the handkerchief and began wiping the droplets of blood on the kid's elbow.

Miko, along with everybody else around them, was staring wide-eyed with bated breath while Iruka worked, humming a little tune to reassure the boy that he wasn't a threat.

He worked quickly but gently, rubbing some ointment on the wound before placing the bandaid over the scrape. When he was done, he reached back into his pouch to take out a plum candy which he handed to the boy with a smile.

"You're all set, Miko. Next time, make sure you watch where you're going, OK?"

The little boy looked awestruck at the candy in his hand, blinking a million times as if he couldn't believe his eyes. Then he looked at Iruka, his fear gone and replaced with complete adoration.

He threw himself onto the Chunin and gave him a big hug, making the locals gasp for the third time. Iruka chuckled and hugged him back, feeling his heart fill up with joy over the child's affection.

"You're the nicest person I ever met, Iruka-san!" Miko shouted gleefully in a way only an unknowing child could around the tense environment they were in. "Are you really a shinobi?"

Iruka took the boy by the shoulders and grinned. "Yes, I am a shinobi. I'm from Konohagakure and I'm here with my friends." He pointed to his teammates. "This is Yugao, Hayate, and Kakashi."

They nodded in greeting but Miko didn't greet them back, still looking a little scared at the rest of them.

Iruka, noticing his fear, changed course. "You seemed like you were running away from something. What was it?"

Miko sniffed again, wiping the snot from his nose with his torn sleeve. "I was running away because some kids were bullying me."

"And where are your guys' parents?" Iruka asked, looking behind the kid as if he was expecting an adult to walk up and claim him.

The boy's head bent down, and Iruka suddenly knew the answer before it was even said.

"We don't have parents."

It was as if the entire street had stopped to listen, waiting to see what Iruka would do. But he was too preoccupied with the child to feel any pressure, turning toward the alleyway where four pairs of children's eyes quickly darted behind the wall upon his gaze.

Iruka stood up, helping Miko off his feet as he said loudly, "Hmm, you know Miko, I have sooo much candy in my pouch that I don't really know what to do with it all! I wonder if there are any kids around who could help me out with them..."

He was instantly surrounded by children then, all jumping in their spots as they shouted, "I can! I can!"

Iruka held his hand up and the kids immediately quieted and stilled like trained puppies waiting for a command.

"Now, I only give candy to good kids, and good kids don't bully others. Are you guys good kids?" he asked sternly, looking at the four children who stared sheepishly back.

"You know what else good kids do?" he continued, fighting a smile from forming on his face. "When good kids do bad things, they say sorry and they make sure to never do that bad thing again."

It took less than two seconds for the kids to apologize, making so much noise Iruka couldn't help but laugh.

"OK, OK, settle down," he chuckled. "Miko, do you accept their apology?"

Miko was still jumping up and down, completely overexcited at the news of more candy. "Yes! Yes! I forgive them! Now candy!!"

They all cheered as Iruka took out a handful of his favorite plum candy, handing them out to the children.

"Thaaaaaank you, Iruka-san~!" they sang out with heart-eyes for their new favorite person.

The Chunin smiled, feeling happier than he had in a long time. "You're welcome," he said warmly. "Go and play nicely together, and watch where you're going!"

"OK~~!" they shouted, running down the opposite street with their precious candies held tightly in their hands.

Once they disappeared around the corner, Iruka and the others continued on their way, but the mood was entirely different from earlier. The locals looked more mystified than wary now, some even smiling a little as Iruka passed them.

They went down the main road to a quiet path, letting out a big exhale as they were finally away from all the staring.

Yugao turned to Iruka then, looking totally impressed. "Iruka, that was amazing."

He scratched his nose self-consciously as he responded, "Eh, that was nothing. It's easy when you have candy. I normally wouldn't give it away like that, but I wanted those kids not to fear us so much."

"Not just the kids," Hayate said quietly. "The villagers too. You did an incredible thing just now. I could see it in their eyes — you changed their opinion about us, even if it was just a tiny bit."

"Yeah." Yugao nodded. "And that tiny bit is critical for our mission. They seemed so averse to us I wondered how we would ever get them to trust us, but you did it in five minutes."

Iruka smiled shyly, feeling his heart swell a little at the compliments.

"Why do you think they hate shinobi so much?" he asked. "I never experienced having an entire town look so upset at me, and I used to pull pranks on everyone all the time."

Yugao frowned, looking concernedly at the ground. "I was wondering the same thing. I expected some pushback, but not at the level they showed."

"Like the Sandaime said, it seems they haven't really recovered from the war yet," Hayate coughed. "And they've probably gotten so used to shinobi using their power to take advantage of this village that they automatically mistrust any shinobi who walks in now. We'll have to be very careful about how we tread so we don't cause further harm."

"Yeah, we should all walk around with candy in our pouches," Yugao smirked, elbowing Iruka playfully.

He rolled his eyes and smiled back at her, his heart feeling lighter than ever.

The old buildings suddenly looked much more friendly and inviting to him, seeming more like opportunities for something better rather than ugly reminders of a sad past.

Walking down the streets of Kiyoko, Iruka finally realized what the Hokage had meant.

Walk aloud with your heart wide open to all you see, because when you are open to the world, the world will open to you.

He opened his heart to the child and in doing so, the world — or, in his case, the town — opened up to him, even if it was just a tiny bit.

He felt like the small encounter with that child brought back a part of him that had disappeared since this whole mission started. He had let his ego and pride drive his reactions, getting so caught up in his anxiety about the mission itself that he forgot why he agreed to do it in the first place — he wanted to teach children so they could become good citizens of the world, and it didn't matter if he was in Konoha or on the other side of the country.

A light gust of ocean breeze blew by at that moment, reinvigorating his soul as the air filled his lungs. He knew this was just the beginning and he had a lot more to do before he could truly feel like he had accomplished his goal here, but after his blunder from the journey, he wanted to hold his tiny victory from today close, protecting it in the same way he protects his heart.

As they were nearing the council chambers, he found himself wondering if his newfound perspective on the mission could also apply to his relationship with the Copy-Nin.

It was bothering him more than he thought it would that he and Kakashi were on such bad terms. His pride didn't want him to admit it, but it hurt knowing that someone, even if that someone was a jerk, hated him so much.

Everything would be so much better if they could get along.

For the sake of the mission, of course.

Iruka decided to risk another glance at the aloof Jounin walking behind him. He tried to act nonchalant in his movements, like he was just turning to look at the view. But when he turned, he was surprised to find the silver-haired Jounin looking at him first.

It seemed he wasn't the only one who had a different gaze in his eyes.

For the first time, Kakashi — who had been silent throughout the entire exchange — was looking at him with something other than disdain or annoyance. There was no darkness in his soft grey iris, no cold rage like there was that terrible night. Instead, he had a quiet thoughtfulness about him, almost like he was trying to figure the Chunin out.

Iruka quickly turned back around, his heart beating a little faster than it was before. He hadn't expected the Jounin to be analyzing him that way, nor did he expect his heart to jump the way it did.

But there was no time to think about the meaning of his body's reaction because they were steps away from their destination.

Feeling excited, Iruka ran forward and opened the chamber door for everyone, emboldened by his recent victory and wanting to get started on building his very own school.

Yugao and Hayate went in first, but as Kakashi was walking in he hesitated for a second, opening his mouth like he wanted to say something.

They stood by the doorway, inches apart as a subtle intensity lingered in the salty air between them.

But then Kakashi looked away, clearing his throat as he continued on through the door, and whatever it was that had lingered wafted away.

Iruka blinked and slowly let out his breath, only realizing then that he had been holding it in. His cheeks were a little pink and warm, and he shook his head to try and clear the strange energy that had passed between him and the Jounin.

He shut the large, wooden door behind him and made his way into the chamber where the others were waiting, avoiding Kakashi's eye as he walked past, completely unaware that the Jounin had also been holding his breath too.

Chapter Text

Iruka gently placed his backpack on the floor beside the bed and sat down as he looked carefully around his new home, a small, modest space where everything but the bathroom was packed into one room.

From what he could see, the place came furnished with the bare minimum: a bathroom, kitchen, twin bed, an old dresser, a small, square dining table, and a single wobbly chair.

The apartment building, like most of the places in Kiyoko, was old and poorly maintained. Its wooden exterior looked like it had suffered through some harsh seasons with its rough and splintering texture. And judging by how well he could hear the noise coming from his neighbor, the walls were also very thin and poorly insulated, which meant it was going to be a cold winter for the Chunin.

But the inside of his room was clean and mostly well-maintained, which is more than what he had hoped for.

Sure, there were definitely some loose floorboards with nails jutting out that screamed blood poisoning and the mirror in the bathroom was so old it had dark blotchy spots on its filmy glass, but there was no mold on the tiles and his shower stall — just big enough to fit one person — even had a little bench, a small comfort he appreciated.

Iruka had always needed his place to be like a sanctuary, a space where he could let his hair down, both figuratively and literally. He was a creature of comfort, to the point where he never once even considered moving out of his family home even though the Hokage offered multiple times for him to move in with the Sarutobi family, a choice that could have saved him a lot of money over the years.

But he didn't care.

He could never part with the memories held inside his childhood home, even if no one lived there anymore.

He got up from the bed and opened the window by the kitchen, trying to bring some fresh air into the slightly stale atmosphere. His new kitchen didn't have much except for a small fridge, a two-burner stove, and some cabinet space, but he hardly cooked to begin with, so he wasn't complaining.

A nice breeze waved into the kitchen then and Iruka closed his eyes to breathe in the cool air, taking a moment to pause before going on with his day. Luckily for him, he had until tomorrow to get settled in, so he was going to use every second he had to turn this small space into a home.

He jumped down the stairs back onto the street to start his errands, wondering if he would also be able to catch a glimpse of the others on the team now that he had seen Kurenai during their quick meeting with her and the council members.

Kurenai had played her role flawlessly, dressed in a grey power suit with her thick, raven hair held loosely on top of her head with a pencil, looking and sounding just like a high-level consultant as she informed them that the construction for the school was complete and ready to go for Monday.

To the untrained eye, she was calm, collected, and as professional as could be. But as a shinobi, Iruka could see a slight strain in the corner of her eyes that she couldn't mask, and he quickly understood why.

He had only spoken two sentences with the council members trying to get more details about the school and it already felt like he was trying to pull his own teeth with dirty pliers. They were all old men with pudgy, flabby necks, too preoccupied with the platter of fresh fruit in front of them to answer any of his questions.

After asking how many students he'll be getting for the third time, Iruka finally gave up. It looked like he was just going to have to wing it on Monday.

Kakashi spoke to the council then, looking completely unamused.

"I was hoping you all could answer something." His voice remained smooth and relaxed but it carried a commanding tone that even got the council's attention. "When we were walking through town, your villagers seemed very suspicious of us being here. Is there anything you think we should know?"

The main council leader, a fat man with squinty eyes and rat-like features, shrugged indifferently. "It's been tough. We've been struggling for years and more recently we've been getting a lot more missing-nin and bandits coming and bothering the townspeople."

Iruka frowned, seeing a potential problem arising. "If this town is so against shinobi, is building a shinobi school the best thing for it?" he asked.

"Who cares?" The councilman shrugged again with his mouth full of papaya. "If the Daimyo wants to build a shinobi school for free, we're not gonna say no. We're just glad he's finally giving us some aid." The rat-like man squinted his eyes at Kakashi then, the fat from his cheeks folding up to make his already squinty eyes look like they were practically closed. “In fact, we wanted to ask you Konoha shinobi for a favor."

Kakashi remained impassive, nodding to the councilman. "Please tell us."

"We know you're here for the school, but we want you to help us out with some of the outsiders who come by the town and bully the villagers. We don't have a police or security force, and the people are starting to get restless with all their boohooing about the crimes."

Iruka, who was standing next to Kakashi, could see with his peripherals that the Jounin's sharp jaw had clenched in displeasure before he carefully answered. "The Daimyo requested us to be here as part of his relief aid, and we consider that to include protection for the entire town, not just the school."

And so they left as a spit-roasted pig carried on a silver platter entered the room and they lost the leaders' attention, with Kurenai and Kakashi exchanging the subtlest of nods before they made their way out.

As soon as they stepped out of the building and shut the door behind them, Iruka let out a frustrated groan.

"I'd like to give that guy something to boohoo about — no wonder this place is struggling so much. The council sucks! I'd start a faction too if my town was run by those idiots," he scoffed.

Hayate nodded, his dark circles looking more pronounced since the meeting. "If I'm honest, I agree with you, but we still can't let our personal feelings get in the way of the mission."

"I feel so bad for Kurenai," Yugao added, shaking her head sympathetically. "She has to deal with those pigs every day for an entire year."

Kakashi sighed wearily before addressing the team. "It looks like the council won't be much help to us or to their villagers, for that matter. But we have a mission to do and our priority hasn't changed." He handed each person their new room keys. "The four of us are living in the same building near the school. Since we don't start until Monday, you can do whatever you need today and tomorrow to prepare. I'm going to walk around the village and get a feel for the area."

Thirty minutes later, Iruka was back on the main road where a lot more stalls were now up and ready for business.

As he walked along the middle of the bustling street, one of the villagers who recognized him from earlier waved him into her stall. She was a tiny, wrinkly old thing with a bald spot on top of her head and two missing front teeth.

"You're that shinobi from earlier, aren't you?" she asked, her voice coarse yet strong for her age.

Iruka bowed. “Hello, my name is Umino Iruka. I'm actually the teacher for the new shinobi school they recently built. I'm very pleased to meet you,” he said smiling.

The old lady stared leerily back at him. "A lot of people here aren't happy with that school, you know. They think a shinobi school is going to cause more problems than it'll fix."

Iruka hesitated. "I know you all have had a lot of run-ins with terrible shinobi since the war," he said understandingly. "But we're here to help and we're going to do everything we can to protect the town over the next year."

"Hmm...well, you are the first shinobi I've seen who was nice to those kids..." She pursed her lips and slowly looked him up and down, appraising him as if he was one of her goods.

It seemed he passed her test because she finally said, "I don't normally sell to shinobi, but I'll make an exception for you. What do you need?"

It turned out he got lucky with the right seller because the old lady had nearly everything he needed in her hodgepodge of goods. He left her stall with a small toolbox, cleaning supplies, bedding, and another chair for his table. She even threw in an old lamp once he promised that he would come back to her shop whenever he needed something.

It took him the rest of the day and a second trip to the market, but his new place was already starting to feel a little homier. Iruka let out a content sigh as he placed the finishing touches down on the kitchen counter: a tiny framed picture of his parents and another of him and the Hokage.

He proudly surveyed his newly refurbished room, feeling satisfied with his day's work.

The entire place had been scrubbed from top to bottom, the loose floorboards and wobbly chair were now repaired, and the entire bathroom was disinfected and ready for use. All his clothes were placed neatly in the dresser, his books organized by subject on the dining table, and his bed was made with his new sheets and a thin inky-blue blanket so soft and cool that it felt like the ocean water outside lapping on his skin.

His new-old lamp helped tie the place together perfectly, its antique design and warm light making the room feel cozy and bright.

He had been moving around all day off the high of seeing the town for the first time and focusing his energy on making this place a home, but now that the excitement had settled and evening had arrived, he could feel a subtle melancholy enter the room.

He sat down on his now-sturdy chair by the dining table, staring pensively at the empty one sitting across from him.

When he bought it, he told himself it was just in case he wouldn't be able to fix the wobbly one. But as he looked at the empty seat, he knew it was because if he at least had another one, it could leave open the possibility that maybe one day somebody would be over to use it.

He wasn't very used to this particular brand of loneliness creeping in his heart.

It wasn't like the loneliness he felt when his parents died. That had been a persistent, all-encompassing type of loneliness that he never completely stopped carrying, even with his close relationship with the Hokage and his friends.

But he knew it was a common feeling for shinobi who regularly go on long missions, especially those who go on long missions by themselves — those shinobi would be able to describe exactly how he was feeling right now.

They say it always happens on the first day when everything dies down and they're left alone in the silence; an anxiousness mixed with homesickness, feeling like tiny beings in a big, foreign location with an uncertain future laid out before them.

He found himself starting to think about Konoha again, wondering what his friends were doing. Since it was a Saturday night, the mission desk would be quiet and they were probably sitting around tossing jokes and wadded balls of paper like they always do, except this time he wasn't there laughing with them.

Iruka abruptly stood up from his seat with a stubborn look on his face.

There was no way he was going to let himself sit and miss his friends all night, even though all he wanted to do was get into his new bed and sink into the loneliness. His friends wouldn't want that for him, and wallowing wasn't going to make the evening go by any faster.

He decided to take a walk and see how the village looked at night, maybe even grab some food along the way.

Things look a lot different here, he thought as he walked around the quiet streets. Since there weren't as many buildings so tightly spaced together, the town wasn't lit up with fluorescents the way it would be in Konoha.

In this town, the lights that shined brightest were the natural ones in the sky.

Maybe it was because he was by the ocean, but the moon here was the biggest he had ever seen and it wasn't even a full moon yet. The number of stars was at least twice that from what he would find in Konoha and they covered the entire sky, full and bright, twinkling like trillions of shiny little baubles.

He walked along the road that circled the edge of the cliff, overlooking the vast sea that now looked dark and mysterious, its rocky surface reflecting the moonlight that was causing itself to crash in large, black waves with the high tide.

Iruka stood there for a while, letting himself really experience all of it — the sound of the waves crashing over the fine sand, the salty mist from the sea sprinkling over his face, the cool ocean breeze making his hair dance as it mingled with the warm air.

Just for that moment, it felt like he and the ocean were the only two things that existed in the world.

He wasn't sure how long he stayed there for, but many of the stores and restaurants were closing for the night by the time he came back to the center of town. He ordered some yakitori from a nearby food stall so he could eat and walk back home at the same time.

But instead of going back home, his feet decided to take him to the school.

He had planned to come in the morning to set up, but he was curious what it would be like to visit the school for the first time in the quiet peace of the night.

It was a small building, not even a fourth of the size of the Academy back in Konoha, and it was made entirely out of wood instead of the original pale concrete walls and red roof that held up the building back home. It sat a little farther away from the center of town, closer to the outskirts near the forest where the students had ample room in the back to run around and train.

He could feel his anticipation rising as he inserted the key he received from Kurenai and unlocked the door, surprised to find that, unlike the outside of the building, the inside was designed to look very similar to the structure in Konoha. The nurse's office was the first door on the right of the hallway and the restrooms were on the left, just like it was back home.

Whoever designed it basically made a mini Academy with only one large classroom instead of twenty.

Iruka took a deep breath before he slid open the door to his new classroom, a moment he had looked forward to ever since he decided to become a teacher.

The room opened up to him and he looked around in quiet awe, unable to control the excitement bubbling over into his smile. His classroom looked just like the rooms back home, except he could finally call this one his own. The large windows, the blackboard, the podium in the center — they were all his.

He slowly traced his hand across his new desk, enjoying the feeling of the cherry wood smoothing through his fingertips. All the furniture smelled like new wood, clean and ready for a bunch of kids to stink it up.

He couldn't believe, after a year of so many sleepless nights and painstaking hard work to become a teacher, he was finally going to be one. And it was even more unbelievable that he was going to be one in a school located across the country.

As the pale light from the moon shined through the windows, it gave his classroom a sort of soft, romantic glow, complimenting the quiet stillness that laid peacefully around him.

He stood by the large window where the moon shined brightest, closing his eyes and folding his arms comfortingly over his chest as he tried to take everything in like he did earlier in front of the ocean.

But his busy mind betrayed him and he suddenly found himself thinking about the Copy-Nin.

He was glad they were done with their journey so he didn't have to be stuck beside the silver-haired Jounin all day, but now it was like the man had taken up residence inside his head as Iruka thought back to the strange moment that had passed between them earlier today.

If he didn't know any better, he would think that Kakashi had been a little impressed with the way he handled things with the children — not that he cared in the least what the Jounin thought of him. He was only thinking about it because he didn’t know if it meant things might be different between them now.

Liar, his conscience nagged. You do care.

"Ugh," he grumbled out loud to the empty room. "Get out of my head."

"Who's in your head?"

Iruka gasped as he wheeled around at the deep voice, feeling his heart jump out of his chest.

Kakashi was standing in the doorway with his hands in his pockets, looking at the Academy teacher with his usual cool gaze.

"Kami, don't scare me like that!" Iruka said loudly, clutching his fast-beating heart. "You totally snuck up on me!"

"I've been standing here for a good half-minute," Kakashi said matter-of-factly. "Again, not my fault you're so distracted."

Iruka lowered his hand off his chest, huffing in annoyance.

Of course things weren't different between them.

"What do you want?" he asked curtly. "I assume you didn't come all the way here just to insult me again."

Kakashi took a cursory glance around the moonlit room as he casually made his way in, his muted expression remaining unchanged.

"We're going to meet everyone around this time tomorrow night at the tavern. You don't really need to be there, but Yugao said I should at least tell you," the Jounin shrugged.

"Gee, thanks so much for including me," Iruka responded, his sarcasm dripping like poisoned honey. He roughly grabbed his keys off his desk and started to make his way out, the peaceful mood from earlier ruined by the silver-haired presence.

But right as he passed the Jounin, he felt a hand lightly stop on the back of his shoulder.

Iruka paused, looking questioningly at Kakashi who quickly took his hand off once the Chunin turned around.

"Look," Kakashi started, avoiding Iruka's eyes. "I think we should talk."

Iruka stared distrustingly back at the Jounin. "And what exactly do we need to talk about? My loudness? My inabilities as a shinobi? My uncontrollable emotions?"

Kakashi sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck, visibly uncomfortable at the situation.

"I...regret saying those things to you. I accused you of allowing your emotions to get the better of you when I did the same. Personal feelings aside, I realize I might have handled that moment wrong as your captain."

Iruka blinked in surprise at first, not having expected that from the masked man. But as the words sunk in, he found they didn't really make him feel any better. He stared a little sadly back at the Jounin.

"I appreciate you saying that, but that just means I would have never known why you hate me. At least now I know where I stand with you."

He started to turn back around but Kakashi stopped him again.

"Wait," he said, moving so he was standing in front of the Chunin. "I don't want you to think that I hate you," Kakashi clarified, looking more and more uncomfortable. "I don't. I may have my reservations about you, but I don't hate you."

Iruka wasn't sure how to respond so he nodded slowly and said, "That's...good to know."

"And...," Kakashi continued awkwardly, "I think you were right."

That got Iruka's attention.

"I was right?" he repeated, unable to stop his grin at the Jounin's obvious discomfort at saying so. "About what?"

Kakashi sighed again, dropping his hand down from his neck. "I judged you too harshly when you were right — I don't really know you. I still think you made a huge error by running off on your own that night, but you also clearly have strengths that I wasn't aware of. Having the villagers trust us is extremely important for our mission, and I think we're going to need your help making it happen."

It was more than Iruka had ever expected to hear from the Jounin. It was in no way a great apology or even a declaration of friendship, but at least he finally acknowledged that the Academy teacher could be of help to the team.

Iruka smiled genuinely for the first time at the Jounin. "Well, thank you for that. For what it's worth, I'm sorry for blowing up at you the way I did. You weren't totally wrong either — I do let my emotions get the better of me a lot."

Kakashi's eye twinkled in the dark. "So, am I not an arrogant prick of a Jounin anymore?"

"No, you are." Iruka grinned smugly. "I don't regret calling you that at all. I mean, you were arrogant and you were such a prick. But I'll try to keep the insults to a minimum the next time you and I argue."

"There's going to be a next time?"

Iruka rolled his eyes. "Of course. There's no way you and I are not going to clash when we're stuck together for a whole year. Knowing what I know of us thus far, I'll probably question your frustrating rigidness many more times and you'll find me annoying and loud just as often."

He grinned impishly as he had used the same phrasing the Jounin had during their very first encounter by the bar.

Kakashi looked stunned at first, but then he let out a single chuckle and shook his head, making the moonlight dance around on the front of his silver mane.

"I think you're right," he acknowledged. "I'm not sure if we'll ever completely get along, but I would like if we could at least try and be respectful of each other. Otherwise, this mission is going to be exhausting for both of us."

"And the rest of the team," Iruka said in agreement, feeling guilty for what they put Yugao and Hayate through the last five days.

They fell back into an awkward silence as they stood in the middle of the classroom, neither of them sure how to end the conversation since this was the first they had that didn't end in insults or threats of violence.

Iruka, scratching the edge of his scar on his cheek, broke the silence first.

“Uh, well, should we head out now?"

Kakashi put his hands in his pockets and nodded, his expression back to its carefully measured look.

They walked out of the room together and down the dark hallway. The weird energy was back and it was making Iruka nervous as their mutual silence was only making it more intense.

He quickly relocked the entrance, but in his haste to get away from the Jounin, he fumbled his keys and they fell onto the ground a couple of feet away from him.

"Shit," he mumbled, feeling his cheeks grow warm.

He went over to pick them up, but he was too distracted feeling Kakashi standing closely behind him to notice the rock hidden in the grass right between his feet and the keys. The edge of his sandal got caught as he lifted his foot and he tumbled forward, a blink away from landing facefirst onto the ground.

But he never got there.

Kakashi had grabbed his arm at the last second, twirling him around so that Iruka fell forward onto the Jounin instead of the grass.

"Oof!" Iruka cried, the sound muffled as his face was pressed against the front of Kakashi's vest.

They stood there that way, both lingering a little too long with Kakashi's hand around the Chunin's back while Iruka could hear the Copy-Nin's steady heartbeat. It felt like time had stopped for a second and the only thing his brain could register was the feel of the Jounin's powerful body around his. But then he came back to his senses and frantically pushed himself away from Kakashi, letting out a nervous laugh as he apologized.

"Agh, my bad, I know, I know — I got distracted and ran into you again like I always do."

Kakashi, who stayed perfectly still, was looking at Iruka with the same thoughtful gaze he had earlier.

"Maa...," he drawled slowly, running his eye curiously over Iruka's blushing face that was noticeable even under the dark sky. "I think I can let it go this time, seeing as I was the one who pulled you to me."

Iruka stood frozen as Kakashi slowly walked over and bent down to neatly pick up the keys still on the ground behind him. As the Jounin placed them back in his hand, he gave Iruka a small smile, his eye curving in the same crescent shape as the moon above.

"I'm glad you and I were able to talk some things out tonight," he said lightly.

Then poof!

He was gone, leaving a swirl of summer-green maple leaves in his wake.

Iruka blinked as if he was coming out of a daze.

"What...was that?"