Iruka hadn’t realized how little contact he had with Kakashi until the very last shred was ripped away.
Every single thing that used to connect them was gone: Team Seven, the mission desk, Ukki-san—even Kakashi checking in at the guard station on some of the rare days that Iruka picked up an extra shift.
All of those connections had been severed by circumstance, though: Sasuke’s betrayal, Naruto and Sakura finding new mentors in the Sannin, and ANBU forcing a new mystique on Kakashi’s comings and goings—except for Ukki-san.
Iruka had destroyed that one all by himself.
He had never been one to linger in misery, not if there was another place to direct his efforts. The problem was that, up until recently, Iruka’s focus had always been on taking care of others.
When his parents died, he still had Mizuki, teachers, and classmates. He had to pretend to be fine for them. He had to show how proud he was of his parents, because no one else did. Eventually, he had the Sandaime, too—someone that he never wanted to disappoint.
In subsequent losses, he had teammates or friends surrounding him. After Mizuki’s betrayal, he couldn’t let Naruto see him fall apart.
After Orochimaru’s attack, Iruka had no one to focus on but himself.
His coworkers and friends were suffering as much as he was, if not more. They were overworked and exhausted, finding stress relief through quickies in The Sharpened Kunai’s bathrooms instead of wasting time they didn’t have on lengthy social contact. Iruka might have been one of them, if he could have brought himself to leave his apartment at all.
Naruto had been the last person Iruka felt like he could help.
Doing things solely for Iruka’s own sake had never been motivation enough. It should have been—he had read books on overcoming grief, taken the class for Academy instructors on how to deal with that issue in children—but somehow, the idea was always easier on paper, or when applied to other people.
Kakashi had given Iruka a reason to take care of himself again.
In return, Iruka had essentially told him to fuck off.
Iruka’s emotions always got the better of him. It wasn’t until life-or-death crises that he typically realized what an idiot he’d been. This time, Iruka had finally wised up without anything quite so grim—but it didn’t matter either way.
Kakashi wasn’t there to tell.
The note remained, with its faded ink and scribbled face.
Naruto’s letter remained, with easy fodder for Iruka’s insecurities.
The box of tea remained, with only enough leaves for two more cups.
All those things did was remind him of the person who was missing.
How could Iruka miss someone who had never belonged to him at all?
Iruka passed Yamanaka Flowers at some point after the days grew warm and the skies clear. It occurred to him then that he could try to fill the hole Kakashi left. There were plants for sale, and books about them. There were other people, and some who would drink expensive tea with him. (Iruka was fairly certain his neighbor with the sugar-fixation wouldn’t have minded.) There might have even been peculiar jōnin with bizarre hair and an army of pugs.
Well, perhaps not the last one.
Iruka wouldn’t know; he didn’t look for a single one.
Classes wouldn’t start for nearly an hour, but Iruka had chalkboards to prepare, a thermos of coffee to drink, and weapons boxes to reluctantly remove from storage.
Spring had brought pollen, and allergies with it. They happily stampeded through Iruka’s classroom, turning the phrase ‘snot-nosed brats’ into a literal description. He had restocked his desk with tissues twice in the first week, and held as few weapons practical as he possibly could (combining sneezing children with shuriken never seemed to yield favorable results), but training little shinobi couldn’t be put off forever, as much as Iruka would have loved to have done so.
Iruka went to his desk first thing, setting down his thermos and locking his satchel in the large bottom drawer. It was as he straightened that he noticed the silhouette in his periphery.
The window faced west, so the sun hadn’t yet risen high enough to wash the object in backlight. The rays gently illuminated it instead, filtering warmly through green leaves.
Iruka’s stomach lurched. He didn’t have to look around the room to know that Kakashi wasn’t there, but he did it anyway, whipping around and visually checking each corner.
As expected, no tufts of silver peaked out from between the benches.
Approaching the window, Iruka stared down at Ukki-san, checking the name on the pot as if it could possibly be anything else. He poked the soil—moist. No white powder stained the leaves, and they were as perky and green as they had ever been. Gently, Iruka lifted Ukki-san up, peering down at the windowsill below.
No Kakashi, and no note.
Iruka carried Ukki-san over to his desk, sitting him down firmly in the center, out of the way of knobbly elbows and rambunctious kids.
He stood there for several minutes before forcing himself to leave for the weapons closet.
There was no time to be lost in thought—or there wouldn’t be once the kids arrived, at least.
Only a couple of the children asked about Iruka’s new decoration. The lack of curiosity that the others displayed would no doubt become both a boon and a hindrance in their future careers.
Some secrets were meant to be kept; some weren’t. Many pains came from never learning which was which.
It seemed Iruka hadn’t figured it out yet, himself.
Thoughts and conclusions circled around the back of his skull while his eyes and ears remained in use, geared towards spotting stray shuriken flying towards tiny, unsuspecting bodies.
Someone else was always more important.
That was the only way Iruka knew how to live.
After classes ended, Iruka shouldered his satchel and balanced Ukki-san on his hip. A pleasantly cool breeze kept him company on the walk home; no one else did, but Iruka’s thoughts were more than enough.
Kakashi had brought Ukki-san back. Iruka had been nearly certain that he never would again, so technically speaking, seeing the plant at all should have felt like a victory—at least a reason to hope that he hadn’t messed everything up completely beyond repair.
On the other hand, Kakashi had given Ukki-san to him in a way he never had before. Every other time, there had been some level of interaction, whether it was Kakashi greeting him in person or leaving a note. He had also always done it at Iruka’s home, something that Iruka had before believed was simply convenient due to the hours Kakashi tended to leave and return.
Now, he suspected it had been intentional, as everything else about their meetings had been.
That meant that this change was also intentional, each degree of separation deliberate. From home to work, intimate to remote, the entire thing confirmed that Kakashi had taken Iruka’s words—
Well, exactly as they had been said.
Iruka was tired of making excuses, for himself or others.
If this continued, Iruka could see their future. Soon enough, Kakashi would find someone else to take care of Ukki-san. Iruka would lay awake at night a decade later still thinking of all the things he could have done differently. They would both go to Naruto’s wedding wearing smiles. It would be as though nothing had ever happened. Even Anko wouldn’t notice Iruka’s awkwardness, because he never had been able to stand in the same room as Kakashi without glancing out of the corner of his eye every few seconds, overly aware of every lazy slouch and sharp stare.
Iruka could admit it to himself now. He might never get the chance to admit it to the man himself.
Kakashi had done exactly as he promised, and taken Iruka at his word.
It was Iruka who had been lying to both of them.
Ukki-san found his home once more in Iruka’s bedroom window. He received waterings three times a week and quarter-turns every time Iruka passed. The months-old note remained stashed in Iruka’s nightstand, and the gray blanket that had never been returned sat folded neatly on top of his washing machine, void of all the multicolored dog-hair and subtle scent that had originally accompanied it.
Seven days passed, and Ukki-san seemed fine.
Eleven days passed, and Ukki-san stood proud.
Fifteen days passed, and Ukki-san was vibrant.
Seventeen days passed.
Iruka woke in the middle of the night with the desperate need to use the bathroom. He didn’t check his clock, but from the lack of sunlight visible behind his curtains, it couldn’t have been past four in the morning.
As he shuffled back to bed in his thin boxers and stained t-shirt, Iruka’s gaze caught on the window.
Iruka didn’t form habits easily, but once they had been bashed into his skull for long enough, he held onto them with an iron grip. His body moved without conscious thought, carrying him to the window. He was barely half-awake as he pulled back the curtain and gave Ukki-san a quarter-turn.
Perhaps he slid on one of the dirty socks he had haphazardly kicked off before falling into bed. Perhaps his knee had given out after too much time spent kneeling that day, scrubbing his kitchen floor clean because the grime between the tiles had finally gotten to the point that he’d forgotten what shade it was originally.
No matter the cause, the result was the same: Iruka plummeted towards the ground, and his sleep-ridden mind afforded him none of the reflexes for which shinobi were known. He threw out an elbow in an attempt to catch his fall, banging it hard into the windowsill and wrenching his shoulder painfully as the rest of his body continued to slam into the floor.
The sound of something breaking filled Iruka’s ears an instant before something cool and moist sprayed over his bare thigh.
Broken bones and blood normally came with more pain and less dramatic noise.
Clutching his left elbow with his right hand, Iruka gritted his teeth against the throb and quickly determined it would only be a nasty bruise. His shoulder had probably subluxed, but definitely not a dislocation. It would be fine. His gaze traveled up, over his leg, which was speckled with something dark and indistinguishable.
His gaze didn’t stop there; his heart did.
Ukki-san’s pot lay shattered on the floor. It had broken into large shards, the kind that Iruka had stepped on as a child. Matte terracotta split to reveal the grainy interior, and dirt had spread like a pool of blood from the impact of the crash.
Ukki-san lay diagonal, cupped within most of one side and only a few inches of the bottom. His roots were exposed and tangled, most of their soil shaken free.
“Fuck,” Iruka whispered. It echoed in his head, as loud as the destruction itself. “Fuck, no, fuck!”
Iruka sat there, adrenaline coursing through him at the speed of a shunshin, until his body decided to outpace his frozen mind. He scrambled to his feet, heedless of the debris he trailed across the floor as he left the room. In the kitchen, he pulled open cabinets, choosing several wrong ones before finally chancing on where he kept his only mixing bowl.
He didn’t have any pots or vases or planters. He was woefully unprepared for this, like everything else in the last year of his life. He wiped some accumulated detritus from the bottom of the blue plastic as he walked back, heart pounding and breaths coming far too quickly to merely be from the lingering pains from the fall. He could barely feel those now, anyway, panic overriding his senses.
Iruka fell to his knees before Ukki-san, setting the hideous container to the side as he picked out the large pieces of terracotta, setting them to the side. Then he worked in broad strokes, sweeping his palms over the floor to collect as much scattered soil as he could. He dumped it into the mixing bowl.
The small batches didn’t even come close to half-filling it. The bowl was too shallow, too wide. Too much soil had been dispersed into hidden corners and tracked down the halls. Ukki-san’s roots would have nowhere to go, nothing to cover them.
By the time Iruka was ready to handle Ukki-san himself, his fingernails and the creases of his palms were filthy. His hands shook, itching to form seals or grasp around the hilt of a kunai. Instead, he cupped them gently around Ukki-san’s base, trying to contain as much of the soil feebly clinging to the roots as possible.
As carefully as stitching closed a sucking chest wound, he transferred Ukki-san to his temporary shelter.
It was all wrong.
There were no holes for drainage. The bowl would block all the light from the lower leaves. It wouldn’t even fit on his windowsill now.
He tried to manipulate the remains of the pot, seeing if he could maybe use glue, or tape, or epoxy or whatever, but—the thin edges had turned to grit, disintegrating and forming cracks that would never quite fit together again.
Iruka’s fists left dirty smears on his thighs. Warm liquid dripped onto his knuckles. Salt-water leaked down his face, collecting in his scar, which diverted the flow to the sides of his face like tiny rivers.
“Fuck,” Iruka cursed, broken. He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, pressing so hard that dark red lights flared behind his lids.
Kakashi had given him one last chance, and Iruka had already destroyed it.
At some point, the sky beyond the window lightened into gray. A bird out in the pines began to tweet its song, only managing a few notes before a slamming door sent it fleeing in alarm.
Somehow, Iruka made it to his feet.
The nightstand that had sat properly beside his bed for the last month-and-a-half was pulled back out, onto the small scuff marks left from Ukki-san’s previous stay. The mixing bowl found a temporary resting place atop it.
Iruka didn’t allow the shower time to heat up before getting in, scrubbing fiercely at his hands and under his fingernails before tackling the rest of himself.
The pains from his fall ached only dully, a numbness that barely encroached on the edges of his awareness when he stretched to zip on his vest, or secured the heavy satchel across the wrong shoulder.
The school day was long, and Iruka’s attention span was short. Luckily, the sharpest things on the itinerary for the day were graphite pencils. Iruka only needed to use half his mind to keep watch for wads of gum and the tugging of hair.
Half his mind was all he had, anyway.
Class let out. Yamanaka Flowers closed early on Wednesdays, but Iruka knocked on the door insistently. It only took a couple minutes for Ino’s mother to appear, blonde hair piled in a messy bun and scissors in one hand.
“Iruka-sensei? What can I—”
“Do you sell flower pots?”
Ukki-san’s new home wasn’t exactly the same. The pot was a shade lighter, and a touch bigger. Ino’s mother had said that Ukki-san would have needed a new pot soon, anyway; his roots had begun to outgrow it, and would have knotted into each other before long, something she called “pot-bound”. The soil, too, was different—darker and filled with little white flecks, ones that she had definitely told him the purpose of, but which he couldn’t remember afterwards for the life of him.
A cheap paintbrush and a tube of black acrylic paint became Ukki-san’s neighbors, because every time Iruka picked them up, he hesitated before actually opening the cap.
Two shards of the original pot remained. Ukki-san’s name was split between them, one chip out of the second kana missing. Iruka had scanned the floor for an hour searching for it, and dug carefully through every bit of the original soil he could find. He knew what it had said, of course, but the exact way it was written—the curve of the lines—
Not everything could be recovered after it was lost.
He didn’t know who had given Ukki-san his original name, or if it was Iruka’s place to attempt to replicate it. He didn’t know if anything was his place anymore—even this.
Iruka had destroyed so much.
Twenty-one days after Ukki-san appeared in the classroom, Iruka was woken by a loud thumping and the brittle twang of a chakra trap springing. He jolted upright in bed, hand flying out in the darkness to reach the kunai strapped to the side of his mattress.
His hand never quite made it.
Kakashi had somehow made it into his bedroom without either knocking Ukki-san to the ground, or being caught by the trap seal Iruka had set up in the window too many years before to recall.
That, in and of itself, wasn’t surprising. Kakashi was a shinobi of unparalleled caliber.
The fact that the Copy-nin leaned heavily against the wall, bracing against it with an arm on the windowsill like he might slide to the ground without it, was extremely surprising—as were the dark stains mottling his uniform.
Kakashi’s entrance had pulled back the curtain. Moonlight dappled across his vest in thin slivers. It was only because Iruka’s eyes were already accustomed to the darkness that he could see exactly what the minimal light illuminated:
Blood. Torn fibers where a long blade had sliced through and reached vulnerable flesh.
“What—” Iruka rasped, tongue thick and cottony in his mouth. He threw off the covers and flung his legs over the side of the bed. “You need to be in the hospital!”
Kakashi’s pupil was dilated, his gaze unfocused. It narrowed, but Kakashi made no move to approach or defend himself, so Iruka judged it safe enough for him to stand. He took a small step forward.
“Kakashi-san,” Iruka started, speaking lowly and clearly. “What can I do to help?”
Kakashi didn’t reply.
A concussion, most likely, or dizziness from blood loss. But Kakashi was an elite shinobi, and Iruka couldn’t discount that there was an actual line of reasoning to his presence. “Why are you here?” He tried once more.
That got a response. Kakashi’s eye narrowed further and his head tilted. Iruka almost expected his body to follow, but Kakashi stayed thankfully upright.
His answer was quiet, but distinct:
“Ukki-san’s in your bedroom window.”