“Thanks, Iruka-sensei! I’ll be back in two weeks.”
That was all of the explanation Iruka received. He stood in his open doorway, clutching the potted plant with the instinctual fear of anyone responsible for a fragile item belonging to another.
The terracotta felt grainy beneath his fingers. Iruka envisioned it crashing to the ground, each grain splitting apart into fragments as small as sand. He was pretty sure it would actually make large shards, though, the kind that Iruka had stepped on as a barefooted child; he could still feel the jagged scar on his tender sole.
Iruka stared at the vortex of leaves (shunshin remnants, not from the potted plant) that had taken Hatake Kakashi’s place on his doorstep. After it was clear the jōnin had no plans to return, Iruka stepped inside, kicked the door shut, and searched for a single flat surface that wasn’t covered in books, papers, knick-knacks, or used tea mugs.
He found none.
Delicately, Iruka settled the plant on his couch, on the cushion that he rarely used and therefore wasn’t caved in the center. He glared at it as he backed away, a warning of what would happen to it if it dared tilt.
Moving a ball of rubber-bands and a two-year-old daily planner off his windowsill successfully revealed a white-ish square, outlined in six months of dust.
Or maybe it was seven months; he wasn’t sure the last time he cleaned, just that it was before Hiruzen’s death.
Like so much else in life, cleaning had been put on hold.
Now, Konoha didn’t even have a yellow-haired tornado to kick up the stagnant air.
Standing back, Iruka put his fists on his hips and ran through a mental checklist of things plants typically needed—presuming that was why Kakashi gave it to him.
Shinobi on long missions often enlisted friends—to water plants, feed fish, consume perishable goods before they turned a home into a health hazard—but that was typically asked of, well, friends. Iruka couldn’t recall speaking to Kakashi since the Sandaime’s funeral. With Naruto training and Kakashi taking S-ranks from the new Hokage herself, their lives had no reason to intersect, not even in the limited ways that they had before.
Apparently, Kakashi had created a reason. One named Ukki-san, if the front of the pot was to be believed. The script was clumsy and thick, familiar in the way all children’s handwriting became after years of deciphering scribbles.
Geez. He hoped Kakashi hadn’t trusted him with something he’d had since childhood. Iruka wasn’t sure how long potted plants could live, but he didn’t want to be the one who found out.
He had no idea what sort of sunlight the thing needed, but the tiny amount from his north-facing living room window would have to be enough. The leaves were dull and a bit droopy, but Iruka couldn’t tell if that was a sign of impending death or a feature of the plant’s species. He could take it to the Yamanaka flower shop, ask Ino or her mother about the proper way to care for it.
Then Iruka glanced at the huge stack of ungraded papers on his kotatsu, the used mugs littering the floor around it, and his own disheveled appearance: grease stains on his sweats, no socks, and at least one hole in his faded green t-shirt, all because he hadn’t gotten around to doing laundry yet and had to keep a few clean uniforms in case he was needed. With Tsunade in charge, lower numbers, and a need to prove Konoha remained the most powerful of the Hidden Villages, even Iruka was taking missions on the weekends.
Yeah, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Sighing, Iruka poked the soil and decided it felt moist enough. Wiping his finger on his pants, he shuffled over to grab as many mugs as he could to carry, then dropped them into the sink. He filled them with water in an effort to loosen the evaporated dregs.
Iruka didn’t have anything against Kakashi anymore—at least nothing stemming from their argument over the chūnin exams—but just because he was an academy teacher, that didn’t mean he was available to do anything the man requested.
If the plant was dead when Kakashi got back then, well, he should have left it with some instructions.
Despite that callous resolution, Iruka found himself thinking about the plant more than he would like. Thoughts of its owner naturally followed.
He was pretty certain that most shinobi gave keys to their own apartment rather than dropping off the interloper—but in this case, it made sense in an odd, paranoid-jōnin kind of way. He couldn’t imagine Kakashi allowing a virtual stranger to enter his apartment whenever they wanted.
It wasn’t a horrible hardship to keep the thing for a while, but it blocked the natural light from his window, casting shadows on his paperwork that made grading difficult, and the thing’s presence impossible to forget.
He hoped Kakashi would come back early.
On the third day, Iruka poked the dry, crumbly soil, and reluctantly spared some water from his glass. The liquid soaked into the dirt, darkening it to a healthy black. It didn’t stop there, descending until it seeped out into the round plate at the bottom.
At least it didn’t drip on his floor.
Naruto had always seemed to spill something.
On the sixth day, Iruka moved the plant to his bedroom window, assuring himself it was only because he had finally gotten fed up with it interfering with his grading. It absolutely wasn’t because that window faced east and got the best sunlight in the apartment.
Somewhere around the eighth day, Iruka started keeping an old plastic travel mug beside Ukki-san on the windowsill. He poured a little into it every time he noticed the water in the bottom plate had evaporated.
On the eleventh day, Iruka wondered if he was going to have to fend off a murderous jōnin if Kakashi came back and found his plant dead.
Somehow, despite Iruka’s attentive care, Ukki-san was undeniably worse off than when he arrived. A couple of leaves were bleached yellow around the edges, and they drooped more severely than before, forming arcs that nearly reached down to the pot itself.
Iruka refused to feel guilty; he had tried. The only thing more he could have done was visit Yamanaka Flowers. Between the Academy and extra shifts at the mission desk, he wouldn’t be able to do that until the weekend, by which point Ukki-san would be only a day from retrieval.
Kakashi would just have to accept the consequences of abruptly foisting a living thing onto someone who could barely keep themselves fed with takeout and instant ramen (with frozen vegetables added, of course—he wasn’t Naruto).
If Ukki-san was starving, then it was due to Kakashi’s negligence, not Iruka’s.
He kept telling himself that.
On the twelfth day, Iruka thought about Naruto.
He thought about how small Naruto had seemed on that first day. He thought about how he was shorter than all the other boys, not to mention the girls. He thought about how Iruka had convinced himself it was fine, convinced himself that no child of Konoha would ever suffer from malnutrition; Hiruzen wouldn’t allow it.
Iruka thought about the first day he brought Naruto to Ichiraku, remembered the wide blue eyes that stared at the pork like he had never been offered meat before.
Then Iruka looked at yellowed, withering leaves.
Iruka really hoped Kakashi would come back early; Ukki-san was living up to his gloomy name.
On the thirteenth day, Iruka ran around his house like a hurricane, whipping up items to shove into closets and dusting surfaces, until his living room looked like it was inhabited by a responsible—if incredibly busy—adult, rather than a preteen boy who sniffed his underwear to see if it needed to be washed.
None of that effort was for Kakashi. It just needed to be done, and Iruka had finally found the time.
By the morning of the fourteenth day, Iruka was unaccountably nervous. He expected Kakashi’s masked face at every window, gray eye cold and damning like when the man dressed him down in front of every high-ranking official in Konoha.
(So maybe the memory still pissed him off a little, even if he could now admit that Kakashi had been right.
Sasuke wasn’t a child.
None of them were.)
Iruka remained on high alert after getting home. His ears pricked with every noise. He didn’t loosen his hair or change out of his flak vest until the clock neared midnight.
If Kakashi had forgotten about him, Iruka was going to throw the damn plant in a dumpster.
…or at least rename it.
On the fifteenth day, Iruka stopped for takeout from Ichiraku. He politely waved off Teuchi’s offer to stay and chat. Eating at restaurants alone had always made him feel uncomfortable.
As Iruka lay in bed that night, belly full and satiated, he stared at the asymmetrical shadow in his window.
He thought of Teuchi and Ayame. He thought of the coupons for ramen that had been slipped in his takeout bag tonight. He thought of the ones that Naruto sometimes showed up with after that first dinner together, the ones that had the expiration date conveniently clipped off. He was never sure if that was Naruto or Teuchi’s doing, though he suspected the latter and that Naruto simply never noticed. Either way, the store owner had never turned the coupons down.
...Iruka wasn’t scheduled for the mission desk on Thursday.
He could make it to Yamanaka Flowers before they closed.
On the sixteenth day, Iruka barely had time to get comfortable before a polite knock sounded at the door. He’d already lobbed his vest and hitai-ate onto the back of the couch, but didn’t bother reaching for them again. The two raps weren’t sharp enough to be an emergency.
If it was Kiyoko from next door, Iruka was going to give more weight to his recently developed Innuendo Theory; no one could truly need granulated sugar that often and still never remember to buy it.
It was not Kiyoko.
“Yo.” Kakashi raised a hand in a lazy wave.
That infuriating, careless air, instantly sparked the tinder that had been building in Iruka’s chest over the last two weeks.
Without a word, Iruka moved back. Kakashi observed him for a moment before following. Two steps brought him inside, and he allowed Iruka to shut the door behind him.
He looked like he expected an attack, but wasn’t particularly concerned about the outcome: eye sharp but half-lidded, hands shoved casually in his pockets, shoulders slouched.
Iruka had never been good at hiding his emotions, but he didn’t even make an attempt to conceal the annoyance that seeped through his tone. “I guess you can’t be on time even when you’re imposing on someone, huh?”
“Maa…” Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck abashedly, eye darting away for a quick moment. “I actually had intended to be early for once.”
Something in his drawl held an edge, an unsteady tilt like a building missing a support.
Iruka’s irritation stuck in his throat.
Peering closer, he thought he saw fine lines around Kakashi’s eye. There were mud stains around the cuffs of his pants, as well as flecks on his vest that were too dark to be anything so innocuous as dirt. The loose set to his posture spoke more to exhaustion than his typical lackadaisy.
Iruka let out the air he had gathered in a huff, releasing his fire with it.
Whatever the mission was, it hadn’t gone well.
Still… Kakashi was the one who came to Iruka. He obviously thought he was capable of receiving any complaints Iruka had to give—and Iruka didn’t consider for a moment that Kakashi hadn’t expected some.
Sighing, he crossed his arms over his chest, stubbornly grasping hold of the tone he used when lecturing less troublesome students than Naruto. “You really didn’t have anything else you could do with it?”
“Nothing breakable is allowed to cross Guy’s threshold, and the rest of the jōnin are taking as many missions as I am,” Kakashi listed readily. “My pack, as intelligent as they are, sadly have a distinct lack of opposable thumbs.”
“I’m still a shinobi, Kakashi-san,” Iruka gritted through closed teeth, heat building in his stomach and face at the implied insult. “I’m doing my share of missions, too.”
“Ah, but you’re invaluable to the village itself, Iruka-sensei.” His eye turned up into a pacifying arch. It still seemed to droop at the edges: fatigue. “Tsunade-sama would rather send me on a month-long mission to the Land of Snow than lose you for a single week. Konoha would crumble.”
Iruka scowled. “At least give the respect of not patronizing me.”
Suddenly, Kakashi’s eye-smile fell, face drawing down into serious lines. His voice sobered, and the tilting building crashed back into place with blunt force.
“I’m not. You’re worth more within these walls than any soldier, Iruka-sensei.”
The living-room clock ticked, second-hand dividing Kakashi’s intent stare into perceivable moments.
Iruka couldn’t count them and couldn’t respond. They pounded in his ears along with his pulse, drowning out any understanding Iruka tried to shove into the too-small gaps in his brain.
Kakashi didn’t blink.
Clearing his throat, Iruka turned away. His mouth had run dry. “I’ll, uh, get the plant.”
Standing in his bedroom, Iruka willed his heart to slow, his face to cool.
Hatake Kakashi was eccentric at the best of times, and known to enjoy poking sleeping bears. Iruka had seen him standing in the mission line more than once, Might Guy chattering away into his ear, only for the Copy-nin to end the conversation with: “Did you say something?”
There was no doubt in Iruka’s mind that Kakashi had heard every word spoken at those times. He was as crazy as the rest of the jōnin, but not a single one of them could be called unobservant—Kakashi perhaps least of all. Combining that with the stories Iruka had heard from Team Seven...
Iruka didn’t know much, but he clung to the one thing he was certain of, using it to calm his pulse:
Kakashi couldn’t be taken at face value.
Grabbing the plant by the tray, Iruka balanced it carefully to avoid spilling the accumulated liquid in the bottom. Returning, he found Kakashi waiting in the genkan, muddied sandals still on. Iruka presented Ukki-san, jaw clenched as he waited for the verdict.
Kakashi looked down at the offered plant, expression unreadable.
More seconds ticked by.
“You didn’t tell me how to take care of it.” Iruka said defensively, flushing. He refused to look down at the wilting stalks. “Decorative house plants aren’t exactly included in the Academy’s field survival training.”
Kakashi tilted his head to the side, like he would be better able to categorize the damage that way. “You overwatered him.”
“You’re supposed to stop before the water leaks out,” the jōnin continued in a monotone.
“Well, I’m sorry.” Iruka thrusted the plant farther forward until pale fingers were forced to wrap around it. “But maybe you should have mentioned that before giving it to me.”
“That’s true. I should have expected you to do too much.”
“I’m not the one who bought the damn thing,” Iruka growled. “I’m not going to feel stupid for not knowing how to take care of it.”
A slight widening of Kakashi’s eye made him look surprised. Then the entire expression shifted like the man had been gifted a present, smiling so brightly the mask shifted over his cheeks. “That wasn’t an insult, sensei. I only meant that it’s like you to overwater, while others would have ignored him. There’s no fault in caring too much.”
Iruka blinked, lips parting soundlessly. He oscillated between conflicting desires to push the source of his confusion out of his home and demand answers that would probably be as unsatisfactory as what had prompted the questions.
He knew he was being played; he just couldn’t find a way to call Kakashi out on it without making himself seem like the asshole for taking offense at an alleged compliment.
So this was how Hatake Kakashi applied his supposed ‘genius’.
“Thank you for taking care of Ukki-san.” Kakashi inclined his head politely and moved towards the door, saving Iruka the trouble of finding a response. He balanced the pot easily on one gloved palm while turning the knob with his other.
Before leaving, Kakashi looked over his shoulder. His dark eye crinkled with unfamiliar warmth. “I’ll bring a list of instructions next time.”
Iruka slammed the door before the floating leaves could hit the ground.