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In Your Bedroom Window

Chapter Text

“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.”

Iruka frowned.

“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.

Chapter Text

Shinobi reflexes were honed by years of training and missions—actual life-and-death situations in which an instinctual, unthinking movement could save a life long before cognition had a chance to step in. Iruka hadn’t primarily been in the field for many years, but he bore his fair share of scars nonetheless. He trained and took periodic missions as was required of all Academy instructors. In the last six months, he had clocked more field time than in the last four years combined.

Those instincts had saved his subordinate this past weekend, turning a lethal strike to the liver into a mere slice in the meat of her thigh.

She was still hospitalized with blood loss, but she would live and walk again.

That was more than many others could say.

It was these warrior instincts, borne out of necessity for survival—that Iruka put to rather less dramatic use in catching his stack of papers before they hit the ground.

It was probably a poor sign of his skill as a shinobi that Iruka had to catch them at all, but he blamed fumbling for his key, the two-foot-high stack of exam papers, and whatever obstruction had enacted blunt-force trauma on his toe.

It was probably another poor sign that he was able to save the completed exams from complete disaster, but not his shoulder from a hard impact with the wall.

Hissing in pain, he pushed himself back with his elbow, bracing the stack with his key-holding hand. He craned his neck like an ostrich to get a view of his feet and the obtrusive green oddity brushing his kneecaps.

Ukki-san was, miraculously, unharmed.

It wouldn’t have been Iruka’s fault even if he had smashed the damn thing, but holding his ground while explaining that to Kakashi seemed like it would require more yelling than Iruka felt up for after dealing with thirty nine-year-olds—especially since, for some reason, Kakashi actually seemed to care about the thing: Ukki-san’s leaves were a brighter green, standing proud if not exactly glossy.

Kakashi had nursed it back to health.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been too surprising, coming from a man with eight dogs, but the impressions Iruka had been given by Naruto and the chūnin exams confrontation… they didn’t exactly paint the jōnin in a nurturing light.

There were a lot of things about Hatake Kakashi that Iruka didn’t understand.

After kicking open the door and testing the kotatsu’s weight capacity with his armload, he returned to pick up Ukki-san. The terracotta was warm to the touch, like it had recently been held by warm hands. He paused on the doorstep for a long moment, staring down at the vibrant leaves and wondering if he would accidentally kick it again in the morning if he just left the thing on his doorstep.

The cool autumn breeze tickled Iruka’s nose, making him grateful for the long sleeves and thick vest of his uniform.

The terracotta wouldn’t stay warm for long.

Damn, who was he kidding?

Iruka gritted his teeth as he resigned himself to his own bleeding heart.

While carrying the smug interloper to his bedroom, Iruka caught a glimpse of something white protruding from the soil, a single triangular corner peeking out. He turned the pot after setting it in the windowsill, getting a better look at the thing, in case it was a bug or fertilizer or some other plant-thing of which Iruka had no clue.

Paper.

Iruka plucked it from the soil. Brushing off the debris, he gently unfolded it, trying not to rip the damp creases.

Ukki-san enjoys watering three times a week, gentle dusting of his leaves, and daily haiku readings. He tells me the light from your bedroom window is perfect.

He would like to thank you for taking care of him, and tells me I owe you two favors now.

Back in twelve days.

P.S. A perfect mission report is worth at least four favors, sensei, so think of something else.

A henohenomoheji stared at Iruka in place of a signature.

He squashed his initial impulse to ball the note up and chuck it out the window. Instead, he smoothed the paper out so the creases would dry and set it beside the pot. Tugging the curtains open revealed fading orange light, casting a warm tint on the leaves and paper.

‘The light from your bedroom window is perfect.’

Looking out, Iruka saw the mown lawn behind his building. The neatly clipped portion only lasted a couple dozen yards before devolving into tall grasses and then sparse pine forest. His apartment block was mostly other single-bedroom apartments, most suitable for single adults, but sometimes he saw children playing in the trees. Moegi’s family lived on the other side of them. Bare hints of the white and tan of her building could be seen peeking through the sparse foliage near the bottoms of the trunks.

Kakashi could have surmised Ukki-san’s location from the fact that Iruka disappeared down the hallway to retrieve it.

Or he could have been out there, obscured by the thick green needles from one month ago, watching for the moment Iruka returned home.

It was useless to wonder, Iruka told himself firmly. He didn’t have time to think about paranoid ex-ANBU who couldn’t even change out of blood-stained clothes before making sure their precious houseplant was safe. He was somewhat offended by the lack of faith, however.

(Even if it was well placed.)

 


 

When the pain from Iruka’s wrist began shooting up the entire length of his forearm, warning him that too much more time with a pen and his grip on shuriken would be questionable at best, he forced himself to retire for the night. More work could be done in the morning, before classes started.

Moving to close his curtain before undressing, Iruka paused, eyes catching on the strip of moonlight highlighting Kakashi’s note.

He couldn’t say why he didn’t throw it away. He wasn’t quite so absent-minded as to forget how often to water Ukki-san now that he’d been told (and that was the only part of the instructions that Iruka intended to heed).

Yet there was another part of the note that seemed important, even if it was a joke. It was a reminder that Hatake Kakashi, of all people, owed Iruka favors; even in jest, that meant something.

Iruka couldn’t deny he was annoyed at being treated like a convenient plant-sitter—again—but…

It could have been worse.

 


 

Three times a week. It should have been easy. The soil was damp when he got it, so he waited a couple of days until it crumbled beneath a poking finger. He poured the water in slowly, starting close to the base of the stems, and watched carefully for the moment it started to trickle into the bottom plate. It took just over half a glass.

He resolved to do just under half a glass in the future.

So, the hard thing wasn’t the amount of water—it was the frequency of it. Iruka thought about Ukki-san multiple times a day: when he woke up, while he got dressed, when he opened the curtain before leaving, when he saw the vase of daffodils on Suzume’s desk, when he took off his thigh holster before his shower, when he drew the curtains tight, when he lay in bed staring at its outline in the moonlight.

Nearly every single one of those times, Iruka had to refrain from doing anything.

He didn’t get it.

Dogs, Iruka understood. They wagged their tails when their owners got home, unreasonably excited for something as pure and simple as a pat on the head; sort of like toddlers, actually. Ninken were different, with sapient intelligence and jobs to perform. They bridged the gap between canine and shinobi, pet and comrade. Iruka had never met Kakashi’s pack, but he’d heard of them, and seen adorable sketched depictions on missions scrolls. He could see the appeal of them, even if talking somewhat negated the beautiful simplicity of normal dogs.

Iruka had always wanted a dog.

What was the point of a plant?

Iruka thought he’d understood before. Caring for creatures—dogs, cats, children, elderly, even plants he guessed—made a person feel useful. The act of nurturing something was nurturing to the caretaker, as well.

But if he only had to touch it three times a week, was that really nurturing?

It didn’t feel like it was enough. He should be doing more.

 


Maybe Kakashi actually did read haiku to it every day.

More likely, he read excerpts of crappy erotica and called it poetry.

Iruka shoved his hot face into the pillow, pressing it firmly against his ears as if to block out the intruding fantasy—Kakashi’s smooth baritone lilting across words too sensual to have ever been penned by the Toad Sage’s hand.

 


 

Iruka had taken Naruto out to Ichiraku only once or twice a week at most. His wallet couldn’t have handled much more, even with the occasional coupons.

He should have done more for Naruto.

He knew Kakashi had. Naruto had loudly complained about the forced imposition of fresh vegetables into his diet more than once.

 


 

On the rare days Iruka had no responsibility, sleeping in was a luxury permitted by bedroom curtains thick enough to block both light and sight. On the sixth day, after watering Ukki-san for the second time, Iruka drew those curtains shut between the plant and the rest of the room, blocking it from view. The curtains bulged strangely, and the corner of Kakashi’s note peered out from under them—but Ukki-san was no longer the first thing Iruka’s eyes were drawn to the moment he walked into the room.

It helped.

Some.

 


 

A two-beat knock sounded on the evening of the eleventh day. This time, Iruka was too exhausted to care about the relatively cluttered state of his living room or the lingering scent of instant ramen in the air. He hadn’t undressed beyond removing accoutrements and hair tie, so that would have to be good enough.

When Iruka opened the door, Kakashi looked as bad as Iruka felt.

“Yo,” and a subdued wave greeted him once more. There was a dark circle beneath Kakashi’s eye, as evident as a bruise on the pale skin. His uniform was clean, but his hair drooped like Ukki-san’s stalks after overwatering. It took Iruka a moment to realize that it actually was wet, like Kakashi had taken a recent shower—or someone had held a watering can above his head. Iruka’s lips twitched as he withheld the kind of euphoric laughter that only comes after too long without sleep.

Iruka cleared his throat and regained his sobriety. “Yeah, I’ll get it.”

He didn’t bother shutting the door as he padded back through his house. When he returned, Kakashi was standing in his genkan and looking around idly, taking in the pictures on the walls. His gaze sharpened as Iruka approached.

“Here,” Iruka said.

Kakashi’s fingers brushed his as they made the hand-off.

This time, when Kakashi blinked down at the thing rather than moving, Iruka wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with it or if the jōnin had fallen asleep while standing. He wouldn’t discount the latter.

“What?” Iruka frowned down at the plant. Its leaves were still a healthy green. “I didn’t overwater it.”

“No, you didn’t,” Kakashi agreed slowly, the words dragging along Iruka’s floor as if each one took chakra-strength to push out. “It’s phototropism.”

Iruka chewed over that for a moment, unwilling to admit he had no clue what it meant. “It got as much light as before.”

“But only from one side. See how he’s leaning?” Kakashi gently thumbed one of the stems.

Iruka squinted and tilted his head to the side. If he looked from the left, and slightly below, he supposed it did look a little… lopsided. The stems weren’t exactly wilting, but it looked almost as if someone had grasped them firmly at the base and tugged just a bit to the left.

“Ukki-san’s species is positively phototropic, so he grows towards light. Did you not turn him this time?”

Kakashi said it like Iruka had been turning it before, but he never had. Nothing had changed, except—

The curtain.

 

Heat spread across Iruka’s cheeks. He crossed his arms and averted his gaze.

There was no way he was going to tell Kakashi that the only way he could keep from thinking about the damn thing—and its irritating owner—was by blocking it from view like a child hiding the broken pieces of a vase.

“You didn’t tell me I had to turn it,” he argued, raising a hand to scratch at his scar, hoping it would hide the flush he could feel working up to his ears. “I thought the point of plants was that they weren’t needy. This is worse than a cat.”

Kakashi didn’t exactly smile, at least not as far as Iruka could tell, but his stare lifted from the plant to trace over Iruka’s face instead. When he spoke, he sounded faintly amused. “Maa, don’t say that, sensei. Ukki-san doesn’t scratch up your furniture or bring you dead mice, does he?”

“No, he brings me half-dead jōnin instead,” Iruka deadpanned.

Kakashi’s shoulders straightened. He suddenly seemed more alert than before, eye crinkling pleasantly. “Is there something you’d rather he bring you?” He took a short step forward, closing the distance between them. The action made the slight difference in their heights suddenly apparent. “I do owe you two favors, after all.”

Iruka had thought about that more than once over the last week. He didn’t think Kakashi’s gratitude would extend very far. Shinobi were natural-born liars, jōnin even more so, and ANBU sat cloaked at the very pinnacle. Kakashi would find a way to weasel out of anything if he wanted to, and he might not even care enough to disguise it as a weasel.

However, there was one thing that Iruka had a good chance of getting if he tried, because Kakashi had stated the qualifications for it himself.

Iruka dropped his hand back to his arm, embarrassment melting as his lips quirked into something smug. “I’ve decided to wait until I have four favors saved up. Then you’ll owe me that perfect mission report you promised.”

Whether Iruka got that report or Kakashi decided to stop using him as a plant-sitter before four favors were accrued—either way, Iruka would be getting something he wanted.

Kakashi’s eyebrow rose.

Then he chuckled, the sound light and airy.

It was the first time Iruka had ever heard him laugh.

“I’m sure there are other things I could do for you that would be worth more.”

“Worth more than making my job easier?” Iruka huffed. “I don’t think so. Now take your plant and get out so I can sleep.”

Kakashi paused for a moment before easily acquiescing, turning to the open door. “Thank you for your help, Iruka-sensei.”

Iruka mumbled some semi-polite response and started to close the door. Kakashi’s voice stopped him:

“Ah, one last thing...”

Sighing, Iruka reluctantly opened the door back an inch, peering through the crack to see Kakashi’s suspiciously smiling eye.

“How did the haiku readings go? He prefers the collected works of Matsuo Bashō, but—”

Slamming the door in Kakashi’s face was starting to become a habit.

Chapter Text

Winter descended, bringing with it frost, barren trees, and a sizable school holiday.

In typical years, this had meant an opportunity for a short mission or two, ones that took Iruka out of the village for a couple nights. Preferably, those nights were spent visiting nearby hot springs. C-rank courier missions—while potentially urgent in their arrival—rarely carried a sense of exigency in the return. Therefore, Iruka didn’t begrudge himself a rare, indulgent night in a neighboring town after the job was done.

There was no one to care if Iruka came home a day late, so long as it was before school started back up. There was no one waiting at home with a wagging tail or a warm smile—not this year.

When Iruka was young, his parents would take winters at home as much as was feasible. Every cold spell brought with it sensory memories of hot chocolate and roasted sweet potatoes, seeping blissful heat through hand-knitted gloves. The bright lights of the Rinne Festival were preserved in Iruka’s photo albums, and every New Year’s he considered going to the local shrine just to feel the warmth of the milling crowd in contrast to the frigid wind.

For twelve years, it had been easier to leave Konoha in the winter.

For twelve years, Iruka hadn’t realized that there was someone who had only ever experienced the harshest, bleakest views that December had to offer.

For one year, Iruka had managed to change that—he had managed to give Naruto the bare minimum that any child should receive.

Like everything else to do with the knuckle-headed brat, Iruka hadn’t meant for it to happen, hadn’t woken up one day and decided to try to be the family that Naruto never had. In actuality, it had been for Iruka’s sake as much as Naruto’s, if not more, though he hadn’t realized that at the time.

For just a few days that year, Iruka got to experience a Konoha winter once more.

He’d made Naruto promise to meet him without telling him why. The half-hour of waiting in the cold had been more than worth Naruto’s round-eyed expression when he realized they weren’t walking through the festival, but to it.

The fact that Naruto hadn’t questioned it spoke volumes.

Iruka had bought them roasted sweet potatoes and managed to convince Naruto to try one by emphasizing the word ‘sweet’. After the first couple bites, it had disappeared so quickly that Iruka’d had to buy two more.

The night had been too cold for the clothes Naruto had been wearing for two years, the ones that were too short in the legs and yet not short enough, because surely Naruto should have grown more than that by now. So Iruka had found a hideously orange hat with a fuzzy bobble and jammed it over yellow hair. He’d laughed and flicked the pompom and teased until Naruto defiantly proclaimed that he could make anything look good and Iruka didn’t know awesomeness when he saw it.

(It was a good thing Naruto was easy to fluster—Iruka had already paid for the hat and, from the look on the stall owner’s face, he didn’t think the man would appreciate it being returned.)

Naruto hadn’t noticed until ten minutes later that they had left with his hat still on. He glanced nervously at Iruka a few times, perhaps expecting Iruka to ask for money.

It took fifteen minutes for Naruto’s shoulders to relax, finally trusting that his gift wasn’t going to be taken away.

Iruka wished he had money to buy Naruto everything he wanted, but a stick of dango and a small coin purse shaped like a frog had had to do. The coin purse was because Naruto was finally getting enough from missions that he needed to learn how to save his money instead of spending it immediately, Iruka had said.

(If he had slipped a few coins into the aptly-named Gama-chan when Naruto wasn’t looking, well, Iruka had made sure Naruto had no reason to find them that night.)

They hadn’t ended up going to the shrine because Team Seven had been given a mission the following day. While Iruka hardly thought shoveling snow from roofs was going to require Naruto to be well-slept, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Eventually, it would matter. Building good habits as a genin, taking his missions seriously, could save Naruto’s life when he started on C-ranks and beyond.

Iruka wasn’t certain if Naruto even knew about New Year’s traditions, but Iruka could teach him next year, he had told himself. They had time. If Naruto still came around to his apartment and bugged him for ramen even after graduating from the Academy, then that wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Next year, Naruto would still be a child. Next year, Iruka would give Naruto all the things he had missed.

Except he couldn’t. Naruto wasn’t a child, and Iruka wasn’t a world-renowned Sannin who could protect the jinchūriki from everything the world had against him.

Iruka hadn’t fully realized his own selfish motivations until he found himself sitting in an empty apartment and wishing a frustrating, genin-sized tornado would come knock down his door.

He really hadn’t wanted to spend another winter in Konoha alone.

Unfortunately, avoidance was equally unlikely. Iruka’s missions now were determined by the needs of a struggling village rather than the freedom from a decade of peace.

This year, there would be no hot springs or wasted nights in cheap accommodations. This year, Iruka was responsible for more than just himself, even if he wasn’t responsible for the person he wanted to be.

When he made it back to the village, wet-nosed teammates in tow, he had accrued more sore muscles than relaxed sleep, more scrapes than soft skin. Snow had made permanent residence inside his sandals, his toes too chilled to even melt it, and frozen tears of exhaustion clumped his eyelashes.

Naruto had broken Iruka’s last space heater by somehow dropping it from the top of the linen closet while pulling out the visitor’s futon. He would buy a new one tomorrow, he promised himself. For now, the only thing that called to him more than his bed was a scalding shower, hot meal, and two layered sweaters.

Partway through this rehabilitation routine, with frozen soup in the microwave, two sharp knocks interrupted the lifeless silence.

Iruka leaned back, bringing his face out of the steam rising from his mug of tea.

Leaving the warm comfort of his kotatsu to open the door, only to find winter air and either a potted plant or a mooching neighbor, felt like an insurmountable task that Iruka had no will to overcome. His cheeks felt flushed and tacky with condensation. His hair had no doubt dried in a frizzy array after his vicious attack on it with a towel.

He sipped his oversteeped tea.

A minute later, the knock sounded again.

The mug was halfway to Iruka’s lips once more when the ice freezing his mental gears began to crack, exposing him to the horrors of reasoning and consequence.

If it was Kiyoko, she would give up soon enough. He had successfully ignored her once or twice before, if guitily.

But If it was Kakashi… jōnin weren’t exactly well-known for their readiness to back down, and surely it was too cold to leave Ukki-san on his doorstep. A crystal-clear slideshow of all the times Kakashi had entered or left the mission room via the window played through Iruka’s mind.

Iruka imagined having to clean up the mess from one of his booby traps, without even the satisfaction of seeing the intruder covered head-to-toe in bright yellow paint.

Damn it.

Iruka’s stiff joints protested as he stood, the long scrapes on his forearms rubbing painfully against the coarse wool of his sleeves. He didn’t set down the tea to answer, but it did little to combat the blast of winter that stung at his exposed skin as the door opened. A full-body chill ran down his spine, shaking him from head to toe.

Kakashi looked better than last time, like he had actually gotten some sleep. The circle under his eye was gone and his skin was a healthier shade. Iruka would have hated him for it, but considering Tsunade’s slave-driver mentality, it was likely the man had been hospitalized with something more grievous than mild hypothermia and only a couple missing layers of skin; Iruka doubted any active-duty shinobi in Konoha had more than one good night’s rest these days unless they could claim not fit for duty.

“Iruka-sensei.” Kakashi’s head tilted slightly as he looked Iruka up and down. He held a giant gray blanket in his hands. It looked thin and scratchy, and swirled in a spiral around a vertical shape that Iruka presumed to be Ukki-san.

Kakashi took better care of his plant than Iruka did himself. There was some sort of humorous irony there, but Iruka was having trouble finding it.

“I know, I look like shit,” he grumbled, tucking the tea close to his chest to better absorb any lingering heat it still had to lend.

“Maa, I wouldn’t say that,” Kakashi drawled. “But you don’t look like you’re feeling well.”

Iruka’s eyebrows scrunched as he tried to isolate the difference in meanings. He quickly decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “I’m not, so it’s a good thing plants need less wrangling than pre-genin and brand-new chūnin.” He paused with a grimace. “Usually.”

“He’s promised not to misthrow any shuriken, at the least.” Kakashi’s eye curved into a pleasant arch.

That better not have meant that the plant was going to throw them correctly, either. Iruka had been attacked by enough things in the last seventy-two hours—he really didn’t feel like fending off more. Iruka backed up, tilting his chin towards the small genkan table on which he normally rested his book bag. “Estimate of when you’ll be back?”

“As soon as I can.” Kakashi returned vaguely, stepping through the doorway.

Iruka opened his mouth to argue that wasn’t any sort of answer, but hesitated before giving the thought voice.

For the first two years that Iruka worked at the desk, Kakashi hadn’t turned in a single mission report. In fact, Iruka couldn’t recall seeing the jōnin even once (and his appearance was hard to miss). Yet he’d heard the name whispered since a time when his parents were still alive. Even much older jōnin and Morino Ibiki himself treated Kakashi with a sort of wary respect that didn’t seem to fit the slacker persona he portrayed.

Back then, it hadn’t taken long to piece two-and-two together to figure it out.

It didn’t now, either.

The faction hit hardest by Orochimaru’s attack was Konoha’s ANBU; Kakashi hadn’t turned in a report at the desk since Team Seven was disbanded.

Iruka let out a deep breath and nodded. Kakashi may have been a cagey asshole who enjoyed toying with people, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t have legitimate motivations at times, and Iruka learned very quickly working at the mission desk that some things were simply above his pay grade—mostly, for good reason.

“I’m guessing you didn’t come here to bring me a blanket,” Iruka prompted, using his tea to not-so-subtly gesture towards the bundle that Kakashi hadn’t taken the hint to set down.

Kakashi tilted his head further, and his eye darted down before slowly sliding back to meet Iruka’s in a half-lidded gaze. “No, but now that I’m here, you do look like you need something to warm you up.”

Iruka jerked to a standstill, his tea sloshing dangerously in its mug. Something in Kakashi’s tone and words prickled at his subconscious like the heat had at his frozen fingertips. His eyes widened, but Kakashi was already setting the bundle down and unravelling the blanket, revealing vibrant leaves beneath. He gave no indication that he had said anything unusual at all.

Maybe he hadn’t.

Moistening chapped lips, Iruka clutched the mug tightly to his chest and cleared his throat. “If you have any fire jutsu that’ll give me hot tea again without cracking my mug, be my guest.”

Kakashi’s eye narrowed consideringly. Blanket draped over one forearm, he took a silent step forward.

For a bizarre moment, Iruka sincerely thought he was going to see some S-rank tea-warming jutsu, something Kakashi learned from a little, wrinkled, missing-nin lady hiding out in the Land of Iron before he killed her.

Instead, while Iruka stood immobile, Kakashi’s arms wrapped around him, a short gust ruffled his hair, and then a light weight settled across his shoulders.

Bringing one hand up instinctively, Iruka felt coarse wool beneath his callouses.

The blanket was cold, but it wouldn’t take long to heat up—not with the amount of warmth radiating from Iruka’s face, or from Kakashi’s fingertips where they stilled, resting on Iruka’s collarbones through too many layers of fabric.

For a moment, Iruka almost imagined he could feel Kakashi’s body heat.

For a moment, Iruka could see nothing but a dark iris, and imagined diving into it.

For a moment, Iruka registered movement beneath Kakashi’s mask, and he had a sudden, desperate urge to tear the cloth away.

(Except it wasn’t sudden at all, was it?)

For a moment, Iruka couldn’t breathe.

Kakashi’s fingerprints pressed lightly into the blanket as he pulled away, too gently to match the frantic beating of Iruka’s heart.

“Take care of yourself, sensei,” he said softly.

He broke the sanctity of the space between them, turning to the exit.

For a moment, Iruka thought about stopping him.

As Kakashi’s gloved palm rested on the doorknob, Iruka clutched the ends of the blankets with one hand, tugging them tightly around the racing pulse in his throat.

“You, too,” Iruka blurted with all the force of air his too-small lungs would allow.

Kakashi paused, looking over his shoulder.

For a moment, Iruka couldn’t decipher the expression there. He cursed the mask that had disturbed him from the first glance, that made him uncomfortable because it hid everything he wanted to understand, and some things that he didn’t but needed to—a known danger was always better than the one not seen.

Kakashi had always been a danger.

Danger smiled.

The softness of it stuck in Iruka’s throat and jammed up his veins, slowing his pulse to syrup.

Kakashi didn’t say anything, but his eye spoke words too soft to be understood.

The door closed, and Iruka’s company became tea-stained mugs and old picture frames once more—and a single, potted plant.

Ukki-san retook its place in Iruka’s bedroom window and in his life, but apparently, Iruka simply wasn’t meant to take care of things, no matter how much he wanted to.

Two weeks later, Iruka stared down at withered brown leaves, and realized:

Ukki-san was dying.

Chapter Text

Kakashi departed, Ukki-san remained, and Iruka could no longer hide from thoughts of either plant or person. Giving it a home on his windowsill, he kept Ukki-san in full view, curtains pulled back whenever Iruka wasn’t dressing or sleeping. Rather than watering it incessantly, he quelled his restless urges by turning the pot a quarter rotation every time he passed. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as watching water soak into dry soil, but it was far less demoralizing than coming home to a half-dead plant.

Unfortunately, the open curtains and regular fiddling meant that Iruka could no longer ignore something he had thus far left blatantly unaddressed:

Kakashi’s note.

The damp creases had dried to wrinkles, stiffening the paper. While the ink was still perfectly preserved, there were beige smudges on those parts which had touched soil, giving it a dappled appearance that combined with the setting sun’s light to make it appear much older than the few months it actually was.

Iruka hadn’t discarded it yet, he told himself, because it was tangible evidence of Kakashi’s insinuation that accumulated favors could be exchanged for a perfect mission report. Iruka wanted to be more than ready to brandish that proof before a masked nose if it became necessary. He had no illusions that it would force the Copy-nin to do anything he wasn’t already planning on—but at the least, it would give Iruka’s anger a righteous edge.

Over the next two weeks, the note stared at Iruka, and Iruka stared back.

 


 

Konoha was experiencing a worse winter than she’d had in years. Activity at the mission desk slowed to a crawl, assignments and returns being delayed due to blocked roads and harsh conditions.

Some brave entrepreneurs had taken to selling hot broth at unreasonable prices from street stalls, constantly sweeping the accumulating snow from their workspaces as the hours and people trudged by. Citizens and shinobi alike scurried around the village, stopping only out of necessity or a desperate bid for warmth, bundled in knitted caps and scarves pulled high to cover vulnerable noses.

Between the two, Iruka couldn’t recognize most he passed on the street, even if he had been in the mood for conversation. ANBU, as well, were taking precautions against the frost: he’d caught sight of a team slipping into Hokage Tower, clad in white and black cloaks with hoods pulled high enough to conceal hair and the typical, emotionless, porcelain masks.

It seemed everyone was hiding something these days, be it fragile skin from harsh winds, the still-fresh grief of Orochimaru’s attack, or their very names.

Everywhere, there were masks.

Iruka hated them.

It wasn’t as though he didn’t understand their purpose—he was raised by two shinobi, after all—but there were differences between ones worn by necessity and those donned for personal gain.

Too often, people used the latter, and with nothing more at stake than their own pride.

Naruto’s mask was a thick layer of bravado to conceal insecurity, threaded with aspiration to conceal his fear of isolation. That was a fear borne from a lifetime of experiencing nothing else.

Iruka tried to let the boy keep that patched-up mask as much as he could. If it blocked out the sneers of strangers and neighbors and peers, then Iruka wanted Naruto to have it—at least until it inevitably blinded him to the kunai aimed at his throat.

That mask was why Iruka hadn’t been able to let Naruto graduate even though he knew it would destroy the boy’s pride, knew it would push Naruto deeper into the feelings of inadequacy that Iruka had no idea how to combat other than with strict words and warm broth. Once the mask came off, Naruto wouldn’t have been able to deal with what was exposed.

Except that he did. He proved that with Mizuki. Naruto had learned the truth of his own demon, confronted the very source of the hatred directed at him throughout the entirety of his young life—and had defined himself beyond it.

Iruka had been wrong.

So he gave Naruto the hitai-ate from his own forehead, and told Naruto that he passed: not for any forbidden jutsu, but for the strength he demonstrated when his securities were removed—the proof he gave that he could handle the world once his mask was ripped away.

Iruka had known others that were not so strong.

Mizuki had worn a mask of deception for more years than Iruka could possibly know—and that was what hurt most, what cemented the cruelty of masks in Iruka’s eyes: he didn’t know.

Mizuki had stood beside Iruka at the Kyuubi funeral.

Mizuki had listened to Iruka gush about his first kiss.

Mizuki had encouraged Iruka to apply to the Academy.

Mizuki had told him it was alright, that there was nothing wrong with pursuing teaching instead of a promotion to jōnin—that it didn’t make Iruka weak, that not wanting to watch his teammates die didn’t make him less of a shinobi.

Mizuki had lied.

The fact that Iruka had no idea when the change occurred, when Mizuki had gone from being his friend to being a cold, power-hungry bastard—that was the worst part. Because of that mask of geniality and empathy, Iruka would never know when he truly lost his friend, or if he had ever had one at all.

Iruka hated masks.

He had heard about Hatake Kakashi, they all had: the Copy-nin, Kakashi of the Sharingan, the Man of a Thousand Jutsu. Iruka pieced together the clues—that first shitty mission report, the respect other jōnin paid him, years without record of any reports at all—and came up with the image of a porcelain mask over the cloth.

Cold and unfeeling.

The lazy attitude, the careless demeanor Kakashi portrayed, his habit of manipulating others and taking pleasure in watching them squirm—all of those had added together over time, forming layer upon layer over the man himself.

Mask upon mask.

By the time the chūnin exam had come around, Iruka’s image of him had long since been set in stone. While he never truly believed Kakashi would sacrifice the children for the fun of it, he had allowed his own conceptions to blind him to the reality.

The reality was something that he’d heard in Naruto’s complaints about vegetables being forced into his diet and home, in Sakura’s account of their mission to the Land of Waves, in Sasuke’s unvoiced but evident respect.

Now, Iruka wondered if he hadn’t been wrong from the very start.

Not entirely, not about the mask itself—no one could possibly deny the masks Kakashi wore, physical one notwithstanding—but about its purpose.

Perhaps Kakashi’s mask was more like Naruto’s: built for defense.

Iruka felt as though, if he could have seen beneath it, maybe he would have understood the expression Kakashi made as he closed the door behind him.

 


 

The new space heater in Iruka’s bedroom, combined with a plethora of blankets, was enough to keep Iruka warm through the winter. He spent the days teaching, working the mission desk, and turning Ukki-san at regular intervals, as well as watering him half a cup precisely three times a week and rereading Kakashi’s note for no reason he cared to admit to himself.

It wasn’t working.

In the second week, the edges of Ukki-san’s leaves slowly began to crinkle. Dry brown steadily encroached towards the stems, forming an inverted V that spread death closer to the center of the plant with each passing day.

On day sixteen, Iruka admitted to himself that Ukki-san wasn’t going to last much longer.

On days seventeen through twenty-two, Iruka stared at the plant as he tried to fall asleep, counting every leaf and watching as they withered away, powerless to save it.

Iruka hated feeling powerless.

He had been powerless to save his parents, or become the strong jōnin they had no doubt wanted him to be.

He had been powerless to save Naruto from a life of hatred, or to protect him now from those who would do him harm.

He had been powerless to see when Mizuki went wrong, or to protect his beloved mentor and village when they were under attack.

Yes, Iruka hated feeling powerless.

He realized, as he watched Ukki-san’s leaves wilt and thought of the dirty dishes in his sink, the pile of laundry in his hamper, the masks he had never bothered to see under before—

Iruka realized that, while he hated feeling powerless...

He hated being powerless even more.

 

On the twenty-third day since Kakashi’s departure, Iruka went outside on a weekend—not prompted by an assigned mission or desk shift—for the first time in more months than he could count.

Well, that was a lie. Iruka could count them—he just didn’t want to.

He woke up early. He showered, dried and brushed his hair, and did every bit of laundry in the house, including his bedsheets. He didn’t have the energy to tackle the dishes yet, but he told himself he would, soon. He donned clothes still warm from the dryer and forewent his flak vest, bundling up in his thickest turtleneck sweater instead.

The bell above Yamanaka Flowers’ door greeted him, along with a gust of air so warm that it nearly sent Iruka tumbling back out. It burned the cold from his cheeks and nose, setting capillaries aflame in stark contrast to the chilled winter still clinging to his clothes and hair in bits of melting snow.

“Iruka-sensei!” Ino said brightly from the register, looking up from the glossy pages of her magazine. She slid off her stool with a grin. Much like Sakura, she had always had a lovely smile, as long as she wasn’t thinking about it. “It’s been a while since I saw you at the mission desk!”

“Long mission. It’s good to see you, Ino-chan.” Iruka hid his guilt behind a fake smile of his own. “How’ve you been?”

Ino immediately devolved into a long and complex spiel that Iruka listened to more intently than he probably ever had when she was a student.

She was one of the village’s best gossips, which was saying something in a town of shinobi. Normally, between his various jobs, Iruka heard just as much as she did—and from slightly higher ranks. This time, almost every bit of information she slipped him was shiny and new, including how Shikamaru was handling his promotion to chūnin.

It sounded like better than Iruka was handling his general life at the moment.

Shikamaru was the only one of the genin that Iruka had honestly believed had any shot at passing the chūnin exam. Once he accrued experience and battle techniques fitting of his rank, his intelligence and wisdom would take him to jōnin—of that, Iruka had no doubt.

As much as he feared for his student’s safety, he had to admit that Konoha needed every hand she could get. Manpower was at a high premium, and skilled shinobi weren’t randomly appearing from holes in the ground—or if they were, it was to attack rather than aid.

Asuma had never been a great friend of Iruka’s, but they used to speak on occasion. Since the attack, the jōnin had been out of the village as much as the rest of them. Iruka didn’t know if he had seen the man once since the Sandaime’s funeral, and even that had been only a glimpse over Konohamaru’s small, shaking shoulders.

Unlike Naruto, Konohamaru was liked by his peers and would never want for a thing within Konoha’s walls—but Iruka knew exactly how little those things mattered when your home was suddenly empty.

Iruka should check on the kid soon, during the winter break—maybe coincidentally bump into him not far from the Sarutobi Residence, buy him ramen from Teuchi’s.

Why hadn’t he done that already?

Ino was as unobservant to other’s emotional crises as usual, for which Iruka was immensely grateful. However, when she finally turned the subject around to plants, Iruka found that—despite his best intentions—he was woefully unprepared.

“It’s… the leaves are shaped like” —he made a vague shape with his hands— “and they’re long but narrowing, rounded at the end. They used to be sort of a dull green, and it’s about yea high…”

Ino blinked at him with mascara-rimmed eyes. “Right… um…” She looked around, then bent over to bring an order sheet and a pen out from under the desk. “Maybe you can draw it for me?”

He tried.

He failed, but he tried. He grimaced remembering all the times he told children that their art was perfect as long as they were happy with it.

Perhaps the basics of technical drawings should be added to the Academy’s lesson plans.

“Well, if it’s browning, then it’s probably not getting enough water,” Ino eventually sighed, audibly resigning herself to Iruka’s utter inadequacy. “If the soil’s dry, then just try watering it more frequently.”

Iruka didn’t want to admit he had already made that mistake once before. “Could it be… starving?” Iruka’s ears burned as Ino didn’t quite manage to stifle a giggle. He carried on, valiantly resisting the long-engrained urge to scold. “Does it need fertilizer or something?”

“If you weren’t already giving it some, then it would be weird to start now. Plants normally need fewer nutrients in winter, not more.” She idly tapped on the counter with the pen she’d retrieved from Iruka’s horribly unartistic hands.

“But I’m keeping the heat on in my apartment, and it hasn’t been outside for weeks.” Iruka frowned. “Does the season matter?”

“Plants still know it’s winter, sensei.” Ino was at least more patient with him than she was with Sakura. Suddenly, she stood up a little straighter, pale brows rising. “Wait, where are you keeping the plant?”

“On a windowsill?” Iruka had no idea what other answer she could expect. He wasn’t quite so ignorant as to not know that green in plants equalled chlorophyll and therefore photosynthesis.

“So it’s sitting in a cold window, being blasted with heat from the other side.”

Iruka hesitated. “I’ve been turning it, though. I… thought that might even things out.”

His theory sounded a lot less solid now that he was saying it aloud.

“Move it back from the window and increase the hydration. Heaters dry out the air, so it’s going to lose more liquid through transpiration even though it’s winter. You can mist its leaves, too, if you’re afraid of overwatering it.” Her glossed lips lifted in a knowing smile. Iruka wondered if he was truly that predictable as an overnurterer. “You could come back later to talk to my mom if that doesn’t help. She’s on a mission right now, but she should be back in about a week.”

By then, it would have been over a month since Kakashi left.

At this rate, that expression was going to fade from Iruka’s memory long before he got a chance to pull back the masks that concealed it.

“Thanks, I’ll try your suggestions for now.” Iruka rubbed the scar over his nose, feeling the deep ridge that would never quite heal. “Do you have any spray bottles for sale?”

Melting snow and ice crunched beneath Iruka’s shoes as he walked home, arms laden with grocery bags, his supplies from Ino slipped in among milk and eggs and fresh zucchini. He smiled to Teuchi and Ayame as he passed Ichiraku’s.

Iruka had been skating by, doing the minimum possible, since Hiruzen’s death. Maybe even before, if he was being honest with himself.

He wasn’t going to be able to break all of his bad habits in a single day, and the idea of tackling his many tea mugs was too much for one day—but he would try again tomorrow.

He wouldn’t let himself be helpless again.

 


 

Thirty-seven days since Kakashi left, Iruka’s hands were warm in the pockets of his coat, belly full with ramen that tasted far better when an enthusiastic trouble-maker was scarfing down more bowls than could comfortably be pulled out of Iruka’s wallet. He kept his head down and shoulders, snowflakes catching in his hair and melting into the soft fabric of his hitai-ate. Winter had begun to soften her hold, biting winds exchanged for gentle snowfall, but it was still too cold to linger for long.

It was only the light reflecting off a matching hitai-ate that drew Iruka’s attention to the roof of his building.

If it weren’t for that shimmer, Iruka would have never seen Kakashi, or would have abstracted him out as another bare tree in the winter landscape, branches devoid of life and coated in the same layer of frozen dust as every other thing in nature that didn’t have the ability to shake it off.

It took less than two seconds, and no conscious thought, for a burst of chakra to carry Iruka to a second-floor awning, and from there to the rooftop. His weight sunk him into the snow, nearly burying his toes. He flinched and took a step forward, exerting chakra from the soles of his feet to balance atop the blanketing white as if it were water.

Kakashi had not done the same.

“Iruka-sensei,” came a soft greeting.

He had no idea how Kakashi’s voice didn’t waver. He wondered if his lips were blue beneath the dark mask.

“How long have you been here?” Iruka demanded, taking another step forward to see more clearly.

Kakashi’s uniform was the same as always, except for the darker spots where it was soaked through from sitting cross-legged in the snow. There was no bag under his bloodshot eye—there was no color to his form at all, other than the barest hint of crimson staining the bandages that peeked out from one finger of Kakashi’s left hand.

“Not long.”

Iruka wanted to run his fingers through Kakashi’s hair, to shake free the evidence to the contrary that weighted silver locks down. There had to be over an hour’s worth of ice and snow embedded in it like crystals.

Before he could call out the blatant lie, Kakashi’s stiff figure moved, dislodging clumps that fell to the roof with soft plops.

With blue-tinged fingers, Kakashi opened a side pouch, pulling out a rectangular, golden tin.

“I brought you hot tea.”

Five heartbeats.

Iruka released a deep breath that fogged the air in front of him, momentarily obscuring what little could be seen of Kakashi’s benign features. Iruka shook his head, turning to the edge of the roof.

“Just come inside.”

He jumped down, knowing without question that Kakashi would follow.

Chapter Text

Iruka jumped down from the roof, his weight crunching snow beneath his sandals. He took a moment to dig out his keys, the world silent except for the distant cheers of children—but when Iruka unlocked the door and glanced over his shoulder, Kakashi stood just behind him, leaving no footprints in the freshly-fallen fluff.

Damn ANBU stealth.

Stomping his sandals on the welcome mat before stepping inside, Iruka shrugged off his coat. He hung it on a hook within the genkan and finished sliding out of his footwear just in time to see Kakashi do a full body wiggle outside the entryway like a dog shaking itself dry. Snow and water dripped from his uniform, leaving him half-soaked and bedraggled.

Iruka didn’t try to stifle his snigger as he made room for Kakashi to enter behind him.

Unfortunately, it would have been more amusing if he wasn’t genuinely worrying about the gray tinge to Kakashi’s ears.

“I’ll get you a towel,” Iruka said, pointing firmly to the kotatsu as he passed. “Get warm before you lose any toes.”

Iruka shuffled through the house, eventually returning with his fluffiest towel. He found Kakashi sitting cross-legged under the kotatsu, the navy blanket draped across his thighs to keep in the warmth, hands curled on top. (Who didn’t switch to full gloves even in winter?) Now that Iruka was paying attention and Kakashi wasn’t entirely concealed by a thick layer of white, he could see faint trembling in his lithe frame.

Well, that ruled out any magical jōnin immunity to the cold.

“Thanks,” Kakashi murmured, frozen fingers brushing Iruka’s as he took the proffered towel. He ran it harshly over his hair, scrubbing until it stuck up in tufts that were only a touch stranger than their normally electrocuted state.

The golden tea-tin sat atop the kotatsu. Iruka leaned forward, taking it and scanning the label.

Houjicha Karigane, of a brand which seemed vaguely familiar but that he couldn’t recall seeing on any store shelf in Konoha.

Iruka narrowed his eyes at Kakashi, whose cheeks were beginning to pinken to a healthier flush from the warmth of the apartment. His single eyelid drooped like it was attached to a weight, but his pupil was focused.

“You can brew it the same way you always do.” Kakashi supplied unhelpfully.

“I wasn’t questioning how to make it.” Iruka pinched the bridge of his nose, where his scar crossed it. He debated if his forming headache was a byproduct of the sudden temperature rise, or the living irritation sitting before him. “I was wondering when you had time to buy me expensive tea during a—” he cut himself off, biting the inside of his cheek, “—during your mission.”

Kakashi hummed, gaze sliding to something on Iruka’s right before his eye returned, curving into an amiable arch. “Don’t worry. It’s from a reputable source.”

That didn’t mean much coming from a disreputable pervert who read erotica in front of children. But in the end, Iruka didn’t have a good reason to refuse quality tea, and he hadn’t actually considered that Kakashi’s intentions might be nefarious—merely questionable.

Iruka was beginning to question a lot of things that he hadn’t before.

Deciding that pushing the issue now was sure to spook Kakashi like a jumpy alley-cat, Iruka let out a deep breath. “I’m brewing a cup for you, too,” he warned in his strictest tone that didn’t require dangerous decibels, “so don’t think of making a break for it before your body temperature’s in the safe zone, or you’ll be wasting your own ryō.”

Kakashi’s mask twitched, possibly opening his mouth to speak. Something in Iruka’s expression must have gotten through, because he closed it to nod meekly. “Yes, sensei.”

Satisfied (or as much as he was likely to get), Iruka turned on his heel, escaping to the kitchen with the tin—and an unsettled sensation in his gut.

Running water from the faucet drowned the room in white noise as he filled the kettle. He closed his eyes, focusing on the sound.

Since the first time Kakashi showed up at his door, brandishing a houseplant and promising favors, Iruka had been doing his best not to examine the man, or situation, too deeply. It was easier if he didn’t deal with it—easier if he pretended that his life was exactly the same whether Kakashi intruded in it or not.

But when Iruka finally stopped to consider it, there was a reason for everything Kakashi did, even if it was only for his own amusement. He didn’t get involved in needless confrontations. He didn’t rise to the bait when one of his students insulted him. He didn’t hang around the mission room to gossip or show up at The Sharpened Kunai either to drink or mingle.

No, what Kakashi was best known for—besides for his skill in combat and a kekkei genkai that had never been his—was lounging in the tops of high trees and reading novels with covers and titles that turned most polite conversationalists to the nearest door.

Yet… Kakashi could have found other things to do with Ukki-san. It didn’t have to be Iruka. Even then, Iruka was, by his own admittance, a bleeding heart that had trouble saying no—Kakashi was never obligated to offer favors in return for a few days of watering. He hadn’t even found a more suitable caretaker after Iruka had proved himself incapable of doing that much correctly, though there must have been other solutions.

Measuring the leaves into each cup (and it was a sign of his progress that he had two already clean), Iruka closed the tin and leaned on the counter.

The dry brown sticks were all too reminiscent of Ukki-san’s leaves only a week before.

Considering the withered state of the village as a whole, Iruka should have realized it earlier. However, just as with Konohamaru, he had been too stuck in his own head to notice:

Iruka wasn’t the only one who had been left out to dry, the only one who had lost someone. Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, Hiruzen—Iruka and Ukki-san weren’t the only ones who had been left behind while others moved on, or were taken away. Iruka wasn’t the only one who had been left without a purpose.

Well, there were missions (anyone in their right mind knew that Hatake Kakashi was an invaluable tool in Konoha’s arsenal), but Iruka knew very well that one couldn’t live as a weapon. Perhaps survive—but not live.

Iruka wanted to live. He wanted Kakashi to, as well.

Doing that together seemed like a level of insanity roughly on par with assigning six-year-olds to lead shinobi into battle.

So, standard Konoha fare.

The shrill whistle of the kettle indicated it was ready. Iruka flipped up the spout and poured it gently, watching color leech into the water, softening the leaves into supple approximations of what they had been in life.

Iruka had been approximating life for the last nine months.

He wasn’t going to delude himself into thinking he knew all of Kakashi’s motives, but if all the two of them ended up building was an unsteady and mildly aggravating friendship—then that was more than social interaction than it seemed like either of them were getting otherwise.

They could do that much. They were both mature, reasonable adults.

Carrying the laden tray to the living room, he found Kakashi slumped over, eye closed and clothed cheek pressed to the table. Even with Iruka’s footsteps, he didn’t stir.

“Kakashi-san?”

No reaction.

Iruka barely avoided spilling the tea as he hurried to set it on the kotatsu, dropping to his knees diagonal from Kakashi.

Still no response.

“Are you alright?” Iruka could barely tell Kakashi was breathing, but there were no more signs of bleeding or injury than there were before. The bandages peeping from beneath his glove were no more stained. While Iruka had been worried about frostbite, actual hypothermia seemed unlikely: Kakashi’s skin had pinkened up quickly, and he had been perfectly lucid only minutes earlier.

Was it too optimistic to hope he had simply fallen asleep?

“Kakashi-san—” Tentatively, Iruka extended a hand, hovering between them as he weighed the necessity of assessment versus the dangers of abruptly waking a sleeping ANBU.

But since when did ANBU not react instantaneously when approached, even during the deepest stage of sleep?

Iruka swallowed roughly. He had to risk it. Reaching forward, he tensed his muscles in preparation to jump back or defend himself—

Kakashi’s eye snapped open.

Iruka felt as though his heart stopped for the entire time it took for Kakashi’s pupil to focus on Iruka’s outstretched hand, and then his quickly warming face.

“Ah,” Kakashi sighed, blinking lethargically. “A second too early, hm?”

Iruka’s heart started back. He dropped his fist to his thigh, sitting back on his heels to put more space between them. “Too early for what?”

Sluggishly, Kakashi pulled his face from the table and rolled his shoulders to a semi-upright slouch, looking for all the world as if it took more effort than an S-rank jutsu. “Nothing important. I was just daydreaming.”

Well. At least one of them was a mature, reasonable adult.

Gritting his teeth, Iruka slid to the other side of the kotatsu, dragging one of the teas towards himself. He loosely cupped his palms around it, not quite touching the overheated ceramic. “If you’re done with that, maybe you can tell me: any particular reason you were trying to add a new snowman decoration to my roof?”

Kakashi was silent for a few moments before answering, looking down at his own drink. He curled his fingers into his palms on either side of it, far enough away that Iruka didn’t imagine he could feel the radiating warmth at all. “Ukki-san wasn’t in your bedroom window.”

Memories of looking out at autumn pines came to Iruka’s mind.

“So you were waiting to ambush me with accusations of his murder?” His lips twitched up as he imagined Kakashi shunshinning to Tsunade’s office, passionately demanding Iruka’s arrest.

“Maa, I was going to give you a chance to defend yourself before resorting to dramatics.” Kakashi reached up to scratch near his ear. The bandages peeking from under his gloves contrasted strongly against the flush of his skin and the black of the leather.

Iruka tapped his mug with the pads of his fingers, feeling the sear on his fingerprints for a moment before pulling them away. He considered drinking it, thinking it might be a touch below scalding, cool enough to sip if not touch.

It was funny how some of the most sensitive, tender places—mouth and tongue—could handle more heat than the skin that daily braved elements, abrasives, kunai; humans could handle more inside than out.

“He’s not dead,” Iruka replied, refusing to acknowledge the subtle heat that rose to his cheeks as he considered exactly how close Ukki-san had gotten to just that. Although Ukki-san’s leaves were still a bit browned and crumpled on the very edges, he didn’t look nearly as bad as he had the day Iruka went to Yamanaka Flowers. “But the cold from the window wasn’t helping, so I moved him.”

Doing that while still giving Ukki-san some measure of sunlight had required moving his bedside table about two feet further from his bed and rather inconveniently out of arm’s reach.

It was worth both that and the too-frequent misting to see Ukki-san’s leaves beginning to perk back up to a healthy green.

Kakashi paused before speaking in a voice too neutral to read anything into. “I’m glad you found a solution.”

Iruka definitely wasn’t going to mention Yamanaka Flowers now if Kakashi wanted to assume that Iruka had figured out the problem all on his own. “If your instructions had focused more on the technicalities of plant care than your own eccentrics, I would have had an easier time of all this.”

Tilting his head, Kakashi seemed to consider that. He tapped the side of his tea mug with one long finger, which was at least back to its normally pale hue, even if his eye was still bloodshot and his posture even worse than usual. “I honestly thought he was much sturdier than this. Moving him around so much might be making him more susceptible to other issues.” He paused. Then his mask shifted with what was presumably a smile. “Or, you might just have a very black thumb, Iruka-sensei.”

Iruka frowned. As much as he wanted to, he really couldn’t deny that it was a strong possibility. “I’m surprised you’re any better. Why do you have something that needs so much care when you’re active-duty?”

Kakashi looked into the cup that had somehow become half-empty without Iruka noticing. He spoke softly. “You can’t always choose what you care for.”

Iruka’s pulse sped up, a pressure he could feel in his throat.

No, Iruka hadn’t consciously chosen to care for most of the things and people in his life.

This time, he could.

This time, Iruka wasn’t going to back away.

“You should leave him here.”

Kakashi’s eye widened. Iruka hated that he couldn’t tell if one brow was raised in question, or both in surprise. “Are you trying to adopt my plant, Iruka-sensei?”

“It’s not a child.” Iruka protested. “But no, I’m suggesting” —hell, what was he suggesting?— “shared custody.”

“We’re getting a divorce already?” Kakashi sounded distinctly amused. “I thought things were going so well between us.”

“Since when were they going well?” Iruka grumbled and averted his eyes, heat spreading to his ears and the back of his neck. He held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I’m just saying I should keep him for the rest of the winter so he doesn’t have to be moved again! As soon as the weather heats up, you can take him back. I’ll give you visitation rights until then. It shouldn’t be more than a couple weeks, anyway.”

For a few long moments, Iruka couldn’t hear anything but his own heart and slightly too-quick breaths. He glanced back, checking that the jōnin hadn’t already used his characteristic shunshin to escape with Ukki-san in hand.

He hadn’t.

Kakashi was watching him, expression indiscernible behind the mask.

Just… watching.

Iruka was nearly ready to explode—to break the silence himself despite his stubborn nature telling him to wait it out—when Kakashi spoke.

“You haven’t been reading him haiku, have you?”

“No,” Iruka spluttered honestly, caught off guard. “Of course I haven’t.”

Kakashi nodded slowly. “I do. It’s part of my routine, on the days I’m in Konoha. Feed my pack, hide from Guy, water Ukki-san, dust his leaves, read from his favorite haiku collection. Crochet tiny sweaters for kittens.”

It said something that Iruka had genuinely no idea which of those statements he should be taking seriously. He squinted, as if it would help him see past the concealing fabric. “Well, you can only do three of those here, and the haiku isn’t one of them.”

Kakashi was distracting enough just by being in the same room; having his voice constantly floating through Iruka’s brain, a smooth baritone backdrop, would be far more than he could handle while managing to get any semblance of actual work done.

Though Kakashi himself had been proven enough to distract Iruka for an unreasonable period of time, even after he left. Perhaps that would change with limited, repeated exposure. Like an inoculation against a silver-haired virus.

Leaning forward, Kakashi placed an elbow on the kotatsu, languidly resting his chin in his hand. “Oh? What will you allow me to do, then, sensei?”

Iruka felt restless under that gaze. He fidgeted with his cup, bringing the tea partway to his lips before answering. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

At first, he barely tasted the liquid that slipped over his tongue, focused on breathing steadily as the warmth travelled all the way to his belly.

Then all else was forgotten. Iruka’s eyes widened with wonder. “Holy shit, this is amazing.”

There was an empty beat, in which Kakashi looked at him with the strangest expression. Certainly, it held nowhere near enough excitement for Iruka’s momentous, tea-related revelation.

Kakashi’s shoulders shook as he chuckled, his palm sliding to cover his entire face.

Iruka watched in bemusement as Kakashi laughed into his hand, hoping he wasn’t aggravating whatever unhealed injury lay beneath the bandages.

The laughter continued, nearly devolving to wheezing before Kakashi finally recovered sobriety. His eye glittered with unabashed delight. “You buy teas labelled as sweet, but they always turn out bitter, don’t they?” Stunned, Iruka nodded. “You choose what has instant appeal, Iruka-sensei, but you put too much into everything you do. You use water that’s too hot and let it steep too long, which brings out tannins. This tea is made with older, roasted leaves that need heat and time to bring out their flavors. It takes longer, but for you, the result will be worth it.”

It was hard for Iruka to resent the constant examinations of his personality when they resulted in living plants and the best tea he’d ever had.

Unfolding his legs, Kakashi abruptly stood. “Well, I should be going.” He said, sliding the towel from his shoulders and folding it with crisp motions.

Iruka blinked, taken aback. “Don’t you want to see Ukki-san?”

Kakashi set the towel neatly beside the kotatsu, then straightened and rubbed the back of his neck, taking a few steps towards the door. “Hmm, I’m satisfied he’s alive now, and I don’t have his favorite haiku collection with me, so… I think I’ll just see him later, if that’s alright.”

“You’re not reciting poetry in my house.” Iruka reminded him, scrambling to follow and wincing as cool air and hardwood assaulted his bare feet. He caught up to Kakashi, who was sliding his sandals back on in the genkan, seemingly unconcerned about the damp state of them. “But, uh, that’s… fine.”

Kakashi finished and stood. He made a vague noise of assent as he twisted open the doorknob, waving lazily with his offhand. “See you, sensei.”

“I—yeah. Thanks. For the tea.” Iruka crossed his arms over his chest.

He cursed the good habits his mother had instilled in him about seeing guests to the door, particularly as Kakashi pulled it open, exposing Iruka to an unpleasant reminder of winter.

“Oh, no need to thank me.” Kakashi half-turned, mask stretched over his cheeks. If Iruka didn’t know better, he would think Kakashi sounded damn near giddy. “It wouldn’t have been any fun if I let you get a perfect mission report out of me so easily, would it?”

It was definitely the cold that distracted Iruka, making him take a couple seconds to register the words.

His jaw dropped. “What—that doesn’t count as a favor! You also had a cup!”

Kakashi turned back fully. He took a step to close the distance between them, bracing one hand on the doorway and leaning closely enough that Iruka would have backed away if righteous outrage hadn’t overwhelmed his instincts of self-preservation.

“I only did what you told me to, Iruka-sensei.” Kakashi purred, some of the cheer leaving his voice at it dropped, low and smooth and enveloping Iruka’s senses.

He wanted to watch as the words passed Kakashi’s lips, wildly imagined that he might actually be able to see the movement from this close, even beyond fabric—but the intensity in Kakashi’s eye kept him riveted there. “I always will. Please keep that in mind for the future, or I might misinterpret. Even I get hopeful sometimes.”

Iruka couldn’t breathe.

Kakashi stepped back; cold seeped in.

His eye curved pleasantly, and he waved once more.

Swirling leaves took his place on Iruka’s doorstep.

This time, it took immeasurable moments for Iruka to close the door behind him.

Chapter Text

In only three days, the thick blanket of snow that encompassed Konoha had begun to melt wherever sunlight touched. Forest floors and the dark alleys between buildings provided shelter for the last dredges, but the rest had dissolved to water and accumulated at low points. Iruka could feel winter slipping away, earlier than anyone had anticipated. This year, Iruka felt as though something else might slip away with it.

The two weeks he had given for their shared-custody arrangement... might have been a generous estimate.

Kakashi hadn’t returned. It wasn’t as though he had committed to coming by, and Iruka’s heart probably wouldn’t survive the stress-induced tachycardia if the jōnin appeared too frequently. He could have even been called out on another mission, even though in his state, Iruka hoped that it was a mission that involved being tied to a hospital bed.

Despite logically knowing it meant nothing—that he should take everything with Kakashi to mean nothing—Iruka wondered.

He wondered for three more days and restless nights. Ukki-san’s leaves grew greener and perkier, receptive to the additional humidity, and Iruka turned him in frequent circles. That attentive care was the reason he noticed the white speckles that dusted a few of Ukki-san’s leaves and parts of his stem. It almost looked like frost had traveled from the outside world and found a home in Ukki-san’s pot. Misting the leaves disintegrated the dust, only for it to accumulate again in far too quick a time.

Thoughts of Kakashi followed a similar pattern. Iruka cycled between assuring himself of the obvious and doubting those same conclusions, all within nauseatingly short increments.

Iruka was no fool, and the evidence was quickly becoming damning—but he feared being wrong more than he longed to be right. He pushed his ideas into the farthest corner of his mind, along with the note that spawned them. The slip of paper was carefully enclosed in Iruka’s bedside table, out of the sight of a prying gray eye—should it return.

Fortunately, Iruka could only stew in his uncertainty for so long. The fourth night’s return to winter hosted the true danger: frigid temperatures froze all remaining moisture in thin sheets on walkways and in busy streets.

 

Most of the major roads had been salted, but Iruka remained wary of depressions all the same. During their return from a simple escort-mission, he and his teammate stuck to the higher edge of the road where the sun had surely reached. Akemi’s dark bob was hidden by the giant coat she had bundled herself in, leaving only a hint of her sharp features visible. He was certain his fellow chūnin was as eager to be back in her warm bed as Iruka was his own, but neither cared to expend the chakra or effort required to traverse ice at a brisk pace; that left them at a near-civilian speed that would see them back sometime in the late afternoon, provided nothing unexpected occurred.

It was as they crested a shallow hill that Iruka saw something which gave him the sinking feeling that his hope for a boring return was too wishful for reality:

A small dog with a squashed face was trotting up to them from the direction in which they were headed. Its stubby legs and tiny paws were certain even on the slick road. A Konoha hitai-ate glinted the light of the midday sun.

Unexpected.

Iruka squinted and raised a hand to shield from the worst of the glare. He and Akemi slowed to a halt, her keen eyes scanning their periphery while Iruka kept his attention fixed on the approaching dog. It stopped several yards from them, ears flapping and buggy gaze switching between the shinobi.

It turned in a quick circle, reminding Iruka strongly of a dog finding a comfortable spot in which to lay. Iruka caught a flash of white, and by the time the dog came to a halt standing and facing them once more, his brain had completed the picture of the henohenomoheji emblazoned across the pug’s (hopefully warm) vest.

"Hey,” the pug rumbled. Its gruff voice would have been fitting on Morino Ibiki. “Got time for a side-mission?"

Akemi drew in a sharp breath beside him. Iruka empathized, as his dropped jaw could attest.

He’d only ever heard one ninken speak before, and that had been the giant wolf-hound partnered with the head of the Inuzuka clan herself. Neither Akamaru or the few other ninken Iruka’d had the privilege to see in action had ever spoken a word, though they were somehow understandable to their own partners even so.

Bits and pieces of information flitted through Iruka’s mind, gathered from years of frustrating mission reports.

Kakashi had referred to them as his ‘pack’, and from the vague wording used in his scrolls, Iruka had presumed their numbers were somewhere close to double-digits, which seemed remarkable even if none of them spoke. Did all of Kakashi’s ninken speak? Or was this the leader of the pack? Was there even a leader of the pack outside of Kakashi himself?

No matter how that power dynamic worked, the wrinkly-faced creature in front of him was to be respected. The fine chakra control necessary to mimic human speech without even the basic physical attribute of a dextrous tongue—it was likely greater than Iruka’s own, and certainly worthy of the hitai-ate tied neatly beneath his furry chin.

Luckily, Akemi was several years more experienced than Iruka, and practical enough to get over her shock before Iruka had moved past the mental image of Kakashi leading a small army of tiny pugs into battle.

"What's the situation?" she asked.

"A wagon lost traction on the ice, took a tumble off a side road about a half-mile south-east,” the dog reported. “One occupant: an old farmer. Mild injuries, and stranded."

Iruka had been expecting something a bit more urgent, or perhaps a message from Konoha herself. He frowned. "Why do you need us if Kakashi-san is there?"

The pug’s tail twitched a few times in what could have been either irritation or a happy wag. His tone didn’t reflect much either way. "Boss couldn't stick around. Two of us stayed with the civilian, and I was heading towards Konoha to get someone to help. This'll be faster."

“Wait,” Akemi ordered, holding a palm out as if she was expecting Iruka and the dog to immediately take off running over the frosty hills. Neither of them had moved an inch. “First—’when will the leaves fall’?”

The pug snorted. “Took you long enough. ‘Before they grow again.’ Now hurry up, my tail’s about to freeze off.” He passed between the chūnin, leading them back the way they had come. Iruka and Akemi took a few quick steps to catch up to the pug’s surprisingly brisk pace.

“If you know the callbacks, why didn’t you initiate one?” Iruka asked as they drew level.

Large eyes peered up at Iruka. "I recognized your scent, and you recognized my vest,” he stated simply. “You can call me Pakkun.”

“Shiranui Akemi,” she offered.

“Umino Iruka.”

Pakkun’s lips stretched back over his teeth. “I know.”

 

The ‘old’ farmer turned out to be ancient, and the ‘mild injuries’ turned out to be a broken ankle and at least severely sprained elbow, along with a deep gash in his bicep from the rivened end of a wooden slat. The injuries would have been easier to treat if the man hadn’t been highly (and perhaps reasonably) suspicious of the giant bulldog and the mutt with sharp teeth and sharper eyes, both of which had cornered him against a tree. He didn’t even allow Iruka to roll up his pants leg before the two ninken had reversed their summoning, leaving only deceptively-unthreatening Pakkun to remain.

By the time the man’s ankle was splinted and he was secured on Iruka’s back, Pakkun still hadn’t left, and Iruka didn’t have the energy to question it.

On a normal day, Iruka could have carried the old man for sixteen hours and barely felt it, a combination of actual musculature and chakra balance supporting him. On that day, it only took an hour for Iruka’s thighs to begin to ache. He tried to keep his breathing even as his lungs argued that there wasn’t enough oxygen to go around. After two hours, his arms started to tremble. He pushed chakra through them and down to the soles of his feet.

It hadn’t been a difficult mission; it had been a difficult year, and months of overworking were taking their toll.

The last few sleepless nights surely contributed, as well. A maelstrom of thoughts, fatigue, and a literal load on his back weighed him down, forcing him to focus only on his feet as he placed one in front of the other. Akemi hovered just behind while Pakkun took the lead.

Iruka wondered how many times the ninken had done the same for Kakashi, in far worse situations than a wagon slipping on ice.

 

The sun was already bidding its own farewell as Iruka dropped the farmer off at Konoha’s hospital, into the far more capable hands of the medics. Akemi had stopped at the gate to handle the requisite forms vouching for civilians entering Konoha, so all Iruka had to sign was a hospital intake form and a short paragraph about the incident. The detailed mission report (and Iruka had rarely been so glad to be the subordinate on a mission) would be filled by Akemi.

That meant everything was in order. Iruka could curl up under the warmth of his kotatsu and a bowl full of oden. He’d fall asleep with his cheek pressed to the table, smudging it with ink from freshly-updated lesson plans.

Except for two things: Pakkun had yet to follow the example set by his predecessors by poofing away, and Iruka was never able to leave well-enough alone.

“Are you hungry?” Iruka asked as he stepped away from the counter. Pakkun looked up from his spot at Iruka’s heels, hitai-ate reflecting light from the obnoxious fluorescents.

“What do you have?”

Iruka tucked his neck into his collar, shoving his hands into his pockets as they stepped out into the cold. He had been in it for long enough today that even his gloves felt like ice. “Leftover oden, I think.” He frowned. “Maybe a chicken breast?”

Pakkun grunted, “good enough for me. But just so you know, I’m not telling you anything the Boss wouldn’t want you to know.”

“I didn’t think you would.” Iruka tried to cover his chagrin. There was still a decent chance he could get some sort of useful information—he wasn’t the type to give up so soon. “But I think I have the right to ask a few questions.”

“You can ask what you like, I’m just not promising to answer. Wait ‘til we get there, either way.”

That was easier said than done. Iruka had never been the most patient of people. He fidgeted, pulling at a loose thread inside one of his pockets and glancing at Pakkun every so often. All Iruka could really see of him was his tail, his little nose twitching occasionally as they must have crossed over interesting scents, and the henohenomoheji that stared up at Iruka from the dog’s vest.

Iruka had seen that symbol nearly every day for the last several months. It had wormed its way into him, until it was clearer behind his eyelids than it was on the worn paper.

Iruka hardly noticed the difference in temperature when they stepped into his apartment.

"Did you want the chicken, then?” He asked as he stripped off his sandals. Pakkun wiped his paws on the genkan, leaving shiny spots of moisture behind.

“Sure,” Pakkun said as he hopped up on the shallow step. “The oden’s probably too salty: I’m trying to watch my sodium.”

It was probably a bad sign that a dog was more health-conscious about his diet than Iruka was.

Within ten minutes, the kotatsu was warm and laden with steaming food. Iruka had debated about setting the chicken on the floor, but Pakkun had hopped up onto the top of the kotatsu itself, and Iruka didn’t dare question it. If he was sacrificing his last cooked chicken breast for some tiny hint into the indecipherable mind of a jōnin, he might as well give up some table-space and propriety while he was at it.

“Ok. So…” Iruka began as he stirred his food to distribute the heated bits. When Pakkun didn’t look up from scarfing down the bits of dry chicken, Iruka impatiently gave in and further prompted, “What, you’re spying on me?”

Pakkun huffed through his nose, warm air brushing Iruka’s knuckles. “What do you take me for? You would have never known if that were it.”

Iruka’s eyes narrowed. “Then how did you recognize my scent? Have you spied on me before?”

As much as Iruka had tried to hold himself back, tried to go against his natural inclination to jump to the most extreme conclusions—it would have made sense. Kakashi’s odd knowledge of Iruka’s tea habits, the uncomfortably keen insights into his personality—Iruka could no longer ignore that none of those things had come from the interactions Iruka recalled. Those moments were mostly raised voices (well, Iruka’s raised voice, at least) and quibbles about what constituted ‘late’.

“Like I said, kid, I wouldn’t tell you.” Pakkun shook his head, making his ear flop around cutely. “But for what it’s worth, no. We had no clue until the plant started smellin’ like you. Nice shampoo, by the way, but a bit strong. Sage and thyme?”

Iruka resisted the temptation to sniff his hair based on advice from a dog. “No clue about what? Is this the first time you’ve seen me?”

The dog’s nails clicked lightly as he set his paw back on the kotatsu. “Hey, I didn’t say that. It’s a small village.”

It really wasn’t.

Pakkun shuffled forward on stubby legs, lifting one paw to place on the back of Iruka’s hand. “Listen, kid, you’re not gettin’ the point here.”

Iruka let out a deep breath, willing his facial muscles to relax. “And what’s that?”

Pakkun removed the comforting weight of his paw, sitting back, his tail thumping dangerously against his empty plate as he did so. “All I’m sayin’ is: Boss may not look it, but he takes things seriously.”

A beat passed in silence while Iruka deciphered that cryptic statement, and Pakkun watched him do it. Iruka had never considered before how difficult it was to read emotions on a dog, particularly when its face had more wrinkles than expressions. He swallowed. His gut felt like jello on shaky ground, and his face hot in comparison to the cool air Pakkun’s arrival had brought. “Does he?”

That was the question Iruka had tried and failed not to ask himself for three long, cold nights.

Pakkun tilted his head to the side, and it was such a familiar motion that for a moment, Iruka almost considered that Kakashi had used a rather remarkable henge. “He also ain’t the type to do things only for himself.” Pakkun’s beady eyes took on a harsh glint. “Just keep that in mind, yeah?”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. That went against Iruka’s nice, easy assumptions, and even the more troublesome ones about Kakashi being lonely, reaching out to the first person that (for some unknown reason) came to mind. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Iruka asked sharply. His fingernails dug into the meat of his palm. “That he thinks he’s helping me? That’s—no. This is too one-sided. I don’t know a damn thing about him, but he—”

Pakkun interrupted, cutting calmly through Iruka’s steadily increasing volume. “If you don’t get it by now, maybe you aren’t looking. Or, maybe you just don’t want to see. What he—”

Pakkun’s eyes snapped open, giving the impression of nearly popping out of his head, and he abruptly stilled.

Then he vanished with a small pop and a puff of smoke. Instead of leaves, a fine mist of dog hair rained down, peppering the kotatsu and Iruka’s uneaten oden.

The summoning had been undone on Kakashi’s side—either intentionally, or because he no longer had the chakra to sustain it.

Iruka told himself he wasn’t considering the worst option.

Chapter Text

The last year had been a series of emotional lows for Iruka, oscillating between listless and frantically trying to grasp a few threads, hoping to tie them together into a semblance of a capable adult, shinobi, and teacher. Iruka might have settled for just one of the three if it weren’t for those who depended on him—something he’d had to be reminded of.

Kakashi didn’t seem to mind playing that role. Somehow, he had managed to do it without Iruka even noticing.

Now, Iruka noticed.

When Kakashi turned up at his door in the evening four days after Pakkun’s visit, Iruka breathed a low sigh of relief.

Kakashi looked like he hadn’t slept in a week, but Iruka was starting to forget what well-rested shinobi looked like. Jōnin and ANBU were stretched thinner than all the rest. Sallow complexions and bloodshot eyes were as common as kunai to the higher ranks, and Iruka had even seen Genma without a senbon in his mouth twice in the last week—he theorized it was because Genma was a teeth grinder and didn’t want to impale himself when he dropped off to sleep in the Jōnin Standby Station.

Iruka didn’t wait for the customary, “Yo,” and wave, instead leaving the door open as he turned back into the house.

“Maybe you’ll know what’s wrong with him,” Iruka called over his shoulder as he retreated towards his bedroom, too restless to wait while Kakashi slid off his sandals. “But I’m pretty sure it isn’t my fault this time.”

He didn’t hear a response, but the front door closed softly behind him.

Standing before his nightstand, Iruka crossed his arms over his chest as he looked down at the large, flat leaves. The lush green had been mostly restored, the wilted brown tips falling and being replaced with fresh, revitalized growth. The only lingering issue was the dust on Ukki-san’s leaves, which was as stubborn as a ninken. Iruka had begun to suspect it was mold; although he had no idea if it was even possible for living plants to mold, it would make sense with the more humid environment, and Iruka was certain it wasn’t actual, every-day dust. Even when his apartment was a sty that pigs would be ashamed of, it hadn’t been bad enough for dust to accumulate within the span of a few hours.

Spring would be coming before long. Iruka had turned his heater down to low, opting for blankets and long-sleeved shirts instead of spending more money on electricity. The Academy would restart in only two days. Iruka finally felt like he was prepared for it, with every test graded and a make-up exam prepared for Hatsuki, Sano, and Moegi. His lesson plans were updated from last year, and he actually had enough clean clothes (and cups) to last the first week. He’d never gotten around to doing a deep clean of his bathroom, but his apartment was mostly livable, which was more than most bachelors could say.

This—Ukki-san—was the only thing left that Iruka couldn’t understand, the only thing that still needed slotting into place.

Iruka’s life was almost manageable again. He no longer had bi-weekly tea with Hiruzen, or a yellow-haired tornado to chase around Konoha—but he had his students, past and current. He had Konohamaru, who may not be starved for food, but certainly was for affection. He had classes at the Academy starting back, meaning his workload was going to at least be predictable, if not fully manageable.

The only thing that kept Iruka up at night—the only one that could be addressed without time travel or Yamanaka jutsu, at least—was Ukki-san.

No—Iruka could admit it to himself by now: it was Kakashi.

There were no footsteps to announce Kakashi’s approach, just a disturbance in the air and a prickling awareness on the back of Iruka’s neck. He didn’t turn around, frowning down at the plant as Kakashi stepped up behind him.

“You’ve been misting him?” Kakashi asked, leaning around Iruka to run the pad of his thumb across one leaf.

Their bodies didn’t touch at any point, and Iruka couldn’t feel Kakashi’s body heat or smell cedar and pine (like in the first horrible chapter of Icha Icha Paradise that Iruka had tried to read). But he knew Kakashi was there—so close.

Iruka’s heart beat strongly against his ribs.

“My space heater was making the air dry, I guess. The misting helped, but,” —Iruka waved one hand towards the plant— “I don’t know what this dust is.”

Kakashi hummed noncommittally. “Do you have any lemons?”

“Huh?”

“Lemons, or lemon juice.” Kakashi explained. “Limes would work.”

Iruka gritted his teeth, turning around. Kakashi was just as close as he’d imagined. “If you’re messing with me—”

“I could find much more interesting ways to mess with you, sensei.” Kakashi’s eye squinted into a smile. There was a faint line under it that Iruka hadn’t noticed before, a very pale pink like a cut recently healed with medical jutsu.

Iruka tore his gaze away. With a disgruntled noise and heated cheeks, Iruka headed for the door, arm brushing Kakashi’s as he passed. “You’re going to explain this when I come back.”

He didn’t catch Kakashi’s reply as he sped to the kitchen.

Iruka was never good at regaining composure once he lost it. By the time he returned with a long-forgotten and half-full container of lemon juice, he felt no more settled than when he escaped.

Kakashi was staring out Iruka’s bedroom window, out onto the vacant lawn. The snow had long since melted except for one or two spots beneath the evergreens in the distance. The jōnin glanced over and held out a hand when he heard Iruka re-enter. Calloused skin brushed Iruka’s knuckles as he gave over the bottle.

Unlatching one of his side pouches, Kakashi withdrew a packet of gauze, ripping off the top and discarding the paper in the trash can beside Iruka’s bed. The covers were wrinkled and unmade from the previous night.

Iruka watched silently as a few drops of lemon juice were added to the spray bottle. Kakashi then poured some of that concoction onto the gauze pad, along with a couple more drops of lemon.

As gently as if he were caressing a lover, Kakashi braced one leaf with a flat palm beneath it, and began wiping the surface with slow, broad strokes.

By the time he finished one leaf and turned to another, Iruka was brimming with annoyance and confusion—the latter of which no doubt contributed to the former.

“So,” he began, “should I be adding lemon juice to my lesson plan on magical cure-alls, or is this a classified secret?”

Kakashi’s mask shifted subtly, though he kept his attention on Ukki-san. His tone was grave. “Highly classified, sensei. I was taught this secret by a monk named Oda, in a temple hidden high in the mountains of the Land of Iron. It was there, as we were returning from the temple’s well, laden with buckets, that he shared with me the secret—of hard water.”

Iruka blinked away his vision of Kakashi dressed in hakama and tokin. “Hard water?” he repeated, mind slowly catching up to the right context. “So this is—what, scale?”

“Mm. I’m guessing you always watered him near his roots before, so you didn’t notice the scale until you began misting him.” He moved to another leaf, taking in a breath like he was going to continue.

Iruka cut him off, coming to stand beside Kakashi. “And the acidity in the lemon juice breaks down the mineral deposits,” he concluded. “Is it harmful in this case?”

The gauze swiped over another blade. From this close, Iruka could see the shine of moisture on the leaves, and the pure green without a hint of white. He was willing to bet they would stay that way instead of the marks returning as soon as the water dried.

“I doubt it,” Kakashi’s arm pressed lightly to Iruka’s as he moved to another leaf. “But over time the scale could clog the stomata, decreasing the plant’s ability for respiration.”

“How do you know all of this?” The question came out more suspicious than Iruka had intended.

“A friend gave me a book about houseplants after I got Ukki-san.” Kakashi’s eye crinkled as it raised to hold Iruka’s gaze. “I decided to make him paranoid by actually reading it. It’s interesting that you enjoy learning this.”

“Enjoy?” Iruka asked, eyes widening as he was taken aback. He opened his mouth, ready to deny it and swing the blame back on Kakashi for foisting his plant off on Iruka in the first place.

Something in Kakashi’s steady gaze—a knowing glint—stopped him.

He averted his eyes down to Kakashi’s pale fingers, working on one of the last few leaves. The cloudy white disintegrated with each gentle touch, leaving clarity in their wake.

Gradually, the pieces that made Kakashi and his motivations were beginning to slot together. If Iruka squinted, he could see the vague outline.

Iruka swallowed. “I’m a teacher; I wouldn’t be one if I didn’t enjoy learning. Though admittedly,” he continued in a grumble, “it’s easier when you’re actually given all the materials.”

He half-expected Kakashi to turn it around on Iruka, or perhaps take it as a joke. Instead, the man turned pensive. His eyebrow dipped in the center as if in a frown, and his hands paused their motion. Ukki-san’s leaf trembled beneath the static gauze. “Aren’t there times when you have to let your students work things out for themselves?”

A heaviness had descended in the air. “With thirty children and twice as many weapons? Not often.” Iruka shrugged, rubbing his arm and shifting his weight. “There are cases, sure. But sometimes, they learn the wrong things.”

Kakashi didn’t respond for a long moment.

Iruka held his breath, though for what, he couldn’t think above the energy buzzing in his brain.

Eventually, Kakashi’s hands started moving again. “It took me too long to understand that,” he murmured. This time, the gravity in his tone wasn’t for drama’s sake.

They weren’t talking about what Iruka had thought at all, but it only took a few moments for Iruka to follow the dots of guilt and students and link them one of those that weighed most heavily on Iruka’s own mind:

Sasuke.

“Not everyone can be helped.” Iruka’s throat tightened around the words, but it was no longer in anticipation. His fingers rose to idly trace over his scar. Unlike the one on his back, it hadn’t pained Iruka for nearly twenty years. “They make their own choices in the end.”

Kakashi finished cleaning the last few leaves in silence.

When finished, he shifted his weight off the wall, taking a step forward and dropping the damp gauze in Iruka’s trash can. He paused there, so close that Iruka could have felt Kakashi’s breath if there were no mask between them.

Kakashi’s voice and eye were softer than Iruka expected. “I have faith in you, sensei. If you want to figure it out, you will.”

Too many heartbeats passed before Iruka once more attempted to catch up to Kakashi’s nonlinear train of thought. It seemed to follow tracks for which Iruka never saw the signs.

“Ukki-san?” he tried to confirm. Kakashi’s expression—what little of it could be seen—didn’t change, but neither did he correct Iruka.

It was a good guess, at least, one based on the conversational circles they had walked before. Ukki-san had sat as a comfortable barrier between each of their interactions, softening every blow, providing excuses and distractions.

Iruka had spent too long clinging to that barrier.

Now, he wanted to break it down.

“What more is there to learn?” Iruka asked.

This time, Iruka could see the rounding of Kakashi’s cheeks as he grinned. He felt his own lungs and the space between them diminish in size as Kakashi slipped his hands into his pockets, leaning forward. The action was miniscule in literal distance breached, but grand in its effect. Kakashi’s rich voice dipped low and pleased. “You’ll have to find that out for yourself, sensei.”

Then, Kakashi stepped back.

Iruka nearly followed him, the bubble of space around them carrying him into Kakashi’s orbit—but a rustle of paper permeated the quiet. Kakashi drew a hand from his pocket and held out a thin beige envelope.

Hesitating, Iruka frowned at it. “If this is more instructions, I think you’d be better to just lend me that book.” Iruka muttered, taking it and turning it over in his hands. The exterior was a bit crinkled, but blank.

“It’s from Naruto.”

Iruka’s head snapped up, eyes widening. In a single second, all else was forgotten. His heart soared. “You saw him?” Iruka asked, already ripping it open at the seam. “How was he?”

“Loud.” Kakashi looked up at the ceiling, scratching the back of his neck idly. “So the same as always.”

Iruka unfolded the sheet of paper. The creases were uneven, slanted like Naruto had never quite mastered the art of folding paper into even thirds. The writing was also nearly illegible, but Iruka was familiar with that chicken-scratch—it hadn’t changed much in the last five years, despite Iruka’s wheedling.

There were only two short paragraphs. For Naruto, that was as good as a missive. Some spots had been erased and then scribbled out for good measure: possibly Kakashi or Jiraiya reminding Naruto not to share sensitive information.

Iruka eagerly read every word.

Mostly, Naruto bragged about being uncountable times stronger already and helping people and doing Very Important Things. Iruka grinned, imagining Naruto telling his vague, grandiose stories through a mouthful of ramen, with huge gestures for emphasis that nearly knocked their bowls off the counter.

Naruto’s personality was in every wobbly line.

He was safe.

The third-to-last sentence caused Iruka’s grin to slowly fade.

Nestled there, innocently seated between a boast and a promise to pay Iruka back for every bowl of ramen—was a phrase that Iruka swallowed down like an icicle, piercing the floor of his stomach on its way down.

I told Kakashi-sensei to make sure you haven't burned your apartment down trying to cook.

“Naruto... asked you to check on me?” Iruka whispered, crackling and hoarse.

He didn’t look up, but he could hear the puzzled lilt in Kakashi’s voice. “Maa… not in those words, exactly.”

Of course not. It had probably been said in the careless way Naruto said most things: as a brag about himself that he never realized so clearly betrayed his own insecurities. On some level, Naruto had been genuinely worried about Iruka, and unwilling to admit it for the sake of both of their egos. Casually insulting Kakashi by treating him like an errand boy was probably a favorable consequence, if Naruto had even thought about it that far.

Kakashi wasn’t the sort to do favors he didn’t want to do—Iruka had been very conscious of that from the start—but for Naruto

“He also ain’t the type to do things only for himself.”

After losing one student, would Kakashi refuse a favor from another?

“What’s wrong?”

Iruka’s head jerked up at the question. Kakashi was watching him intently. His head tilted slightly to the side, so reminiscent of his ninken.

The ninken who had known Iruka’s scent before Ukki-san carried it to them.

“I didn’t—” Iruka turned unseeing eyes to the paper. The lines blurred, out of focus. He didn’t try to force them to; he already knew what was written there. “No. It’s—exactly what I expected.”

He didn’t realize Kakashi had moved until there was a gloved hand lightly touching his forearm, perhaps intending to ground him. It did: it pulled Iruka down to the earth and anchored him six feet below, with metaphorical dirt caving in on him from every side.

Iruka stepped back.

Kakashi’s hand hovered in the air for a long moment before dropping. “Iruka-sensei—”

“Winter’s almost gone,” Iruka said, clutching the letter from Naruto tightly. The paper crinkled within his grip. He stared at it still. “You can take Ukki-san back without hurting him.”

Silence.

Eventually, the heat in Iruka’s blood became too much. He picked up Ukki-san’s pot, one hand supporting the terracotta plate, and held it out.

Kakashi didn’t move.

“Naruto’s doing fine,” the jōnin said quietly. His hands slowly came up, resting lightly on Ukki-san’s pot without taking the full weight of it. “He’s getting stronger every day. You don’t need to be worried about him.”

“I’m always going to worry about him,” Iruka snapped, pushing Ukki-san forward forcefully. “That’s what family is.”

Abruptly, Kakashi supported all of Ukki-san’s weight. Iruka’s hands dropped limply.

If only it were so easy to get rid of all burdens.

As it was, Iruka didn’t feel relieved at all.

“Sorry, sensei. I didn’t mean to overstep.” Kakashi’s tone was too even, perfectly measured.

Iruka hated it.

He swallowed hard, fighting past the itch of every nerve, every doubt that prickled at his skin like senbon, slicing in deeper with each second. He cleared his throat. “You didn’t. I—”

Iruka looked up, and found himself alone.

Three browning leaves spiralled slowly to the ground.

He heard the soft click of the front door latching shut.

For the first time, Iruka wasn’t the one who had closed it.

“I only did what you told me to, Iruka-sensei. I always will. Please keep that in mind for the future.”

No, Iruka couldn’t even fool himself anymore.

Iruka was still the one who closed that door.

Chapter Text

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.

Before Kakashi.

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 note.

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.

Something happened.

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.”

Chapter Text

“Ukki-san’s in your bedroom window.”

If adrenaline hadn’t already pushed Iruka into a mindset of damage control, he might have stopped to stare at that non-sequitur.

Instead, he carefully shuffled closer, holding his palms out where Kakashi could see them—just in case. Getting a limb taken off by an injured ANBU would have been slightly more embarrassing than accidentally rejecting him had been.

“Right. But is that all your blood, or—” Iruka desperately hoped it wasn’t. Crimson bloomed from a clear slash across Kakashi’s ribs, but it was impossible to determine entry points for the rest of the speckled mess. Arterial spray? It had soaked into the coarse fabric of the jōnin flak jacket and begun to dry, meaning that the battle had been over for some time—and it likely hadn’t occurred in Konoha.

Small mercies.

“No,” Kakashi’s steady response interrupted Iruka’s analysis. He hadn’t moved an inch, in either posture or closed-off expression. “Why is he here?”

The question seeped into Iruka’s mind, already-forgotten context trickling in to fill the gaps between their respective concerns. Somehow, to Iruka, houseplants just didn’t outrank morbid injury in his list of priorities.

Kakashi was waiting for an answer.

Iruka searched for one to give, but he whiplashed between the urges to laugh or yell. The potential reactions jammed together, forcing themselves out of him in a grunt of frustration.

The major fears that Iruka associated with a shinobi appearing in his bedroom in the middle of the night—crisis and infiltration—had already been proven false: Kakashi was too good a shinobi to have come to a chūnin if Konoha or her people were in danger, the battle hadn’t taken place in her walls, and there was no uncertainty that this was, indeed, Kakashi.

Iruka doubted any others had the particular brand of insanity to—even when bleeding and barely conscious—selflessly care more about a plant than himself.

At least Iruka wasn’t the only idiot between them.

“What, did you expect me to leave him in the classroom?” Iruka demanded, throwing an arm out to gesture wildly to Ukki-san. Kakashi didn’t flinch, nor did his eyes track the movement. Iruka couldn’t think right now to decide if that was a positive or negative in the columns of mental and physical health. “I’m sorry I trusted thirty nine-year-olds with a breakable object just a little bit less than I did myself. A mistake, obviously, but not what’s important right now.”

Kakashi’s brow dipped towards the center. For the first time, he glanced down at Ukki-san on the sill beside him, as if its location was the only unexpected change he had noticed.

Iruka didn’t particularly want Kakashi to notice anything now, if he hadn’t already. It was inevitable—Iruka was sure the dawning of recognition would creep into Kakashi’s dead gaze at any moment—but he would rather pay for his mistakes when it wasn’t potentially harming Kakashi to do so.

“Look, I—can you just sit down?” Iruka waved towards his bed, the first clear and level surface in sight. “Let me look at your wound. And then we can talk.”

For a moment, it seemed as if Kakashi couldn’t hear him. Then, carefully and with the sort of flat step that comes from a fight against vertigo, Kakashi shuffled forward. He placed a gloved palm on Iruka’s bed, before twisting to sit. The downward motion was deliberately controlled, using as few muscles as possible.

Iruka hoped he was better at putting people back together than he was terracotta; bones and flesh and souls weren’t as easy to replace.

Switching on his lamp caused Kakashi to wince, pupils contracting viciously. Iruka sympathized, but examining the injury was more important. Kakashi must have agreed, because he remained passive and immobile as Iruka ran tentative fingers along the incision now thrown into sharp relief.

It spanned at least six inches on his left side, a clear source for the largest dark splotch of blood. The fibers were cleanly severed and the cut drew to a shallow scratch on either end—probably the result of a single stroke from a curved longsword.

Iruka settled on the bed beside Kakashi, careful not to dip the mattress. He made a flicking gesture with his hand and Kakashi obediently sat back, one palm braced on the unmade covers behind him, so that Iruka could lean in.

Drawing the zipper down, Iruka heard each click of the teeth, louder than his own stagnated breathing.

Gradually, the coarse material parted on either side, revealing the tattered undershirt below. Kakashi lifted that last layer himself, shifting until he could drag it upwards with the hand not supporting his weight.

It came away stiffly. The dark fabric was dried with either blood, or water and sediment from the attempt at removing it. Iruka began to assume the latter, as it didn’t stick to the wound as it was pulled away—

—but more likely, it didn’t stick to the wound because said wound was already bandaged.

A rectangle of gauze had been secured to Kakashi’s upper-left ribs with paper tape. Light pink stained the outer layer of the pad from the bloody water that must have leaked from the vest, but either it was a fresh application or the wound itself had long since stopped bleeding.

“The fabric caught most of it. Less than a dozen stitches,” Kakashi said. The rigid curtain of black descended once more, cloaking bruise-mottled skin. Iruka’s eyes reluctantly raised to meet Kakashi’s calm gaze. “Cleaned and disinfected.”

Iruka’s hands fell to his knees, fingers curling tightly against bare skin.

“They let you leave the hospital already?” Iruka knew the medic-nins were as overworked as everyone else, but there was no reality in which that was the right decision. Moreover, there other injuries that should have been treated: an abrasion on the inside of his right wrist between glove and sleeve, a contusion on the other side of his abdomen that was purple and swelling and had to be restricting his mobility—

“Iruka-sensei,” Kakashi placed his palm over the back of Iruka’s white knuckles. The fabric was soft—either cleaned or replaced. “You said we could talk.”

Had he?

That was stupid of him.

Well, it was far from the most impulsive thing he’d said as of late, but it earned a spot in the top ten.

Iruka had obsessed over what he should tell Kakashi for nearly two full months. He’d lingered over different apologies, demands, requests, proposals—and ended up with nothing.

It didn’t matter what Iruka intended. It never did. He always messed up at the start, and pieced things together only once all the other choices had been stripped away.

Iruka’s throat worked for useless seconds before he finally forced out the something—anything—to keep Kakashi from leaving once more.

“I’m sorry I broke Ukki-san’s pot.”

Silence greeted him. Iruka would have thought Kakashi had already been replaced by swirling leaves, if not for the firm hand still on his own.

When Iruka gave in and looked up, he saw Kakashi had turned his gaze to the windowsill, and the midnight moon casting shadows from Ukki-san’s leaves. After a moment, Kakashi glanced back to Iruka and asked calmly, “Exactly how angry were you?”

Iruka spluttered, “I didn’t do it on purpose!” He intended to continue, but petered out before he could form a full word.

Kakashi’s eye had already curved into a smile.

He didn’t need to say the words for Iruka to read them clearly in that single, exposed eye: ‘I know.’

For so long, Iruka hadn’t understood—had been afraid to understand.

Now, he didn’t know how he ever thought Kakashi was inscrutable.

From the very first day, the very first sentence, Kakashi had been willing Iruka to look below the surface.

He still was.

“I don’t think Naruto will notice the new pot.” Kakashi hummed consideringly, eye set on the clear silver orb set high in the sky. “Well, Sakura might, but I’m the one she’ll blame. Not that she’ll be wrong, of course.”

It seemed Iruka was never going to stop being confused by the twists and turns Kakashi took in conversation.

Only now, he felt like he might be able to ask.

“Sakura and Naruto?” He repeated softly.

Kakashi withdrew his hand, fingerprints brushing Iruka’s knuckles as he pulled away. Iruka’s pounding heart stopped him from pulling that hand back, but barely. Kakashi shifted until the headrest was half-behind him, taking some strain from his abdominal muscles.

“They gave him to me for Rinne last year, the day after the festival.” He reflected, voice growing distant and gaze unfocused—either from memories, emotion, blood loss, or a combination of each. “Sakura was very vocal in blaming Naruto for Ukki-san’s name.” He paused for a moment. “She said it was from the whole team, but Sasuke wasn’t there. She’d been crying. I imagine he wasn’t receptive of her attempts to share Rinne with him.”

Iruka thought back to the little boy who had trudged into his classroom every day, refusing to speak to anyone, closing himself off where Naruto had been desperately reaching out.

It didn’t take imagination for Iruka to understand Sasuke, though, at least in this way. And even if he hadn’t known what little he did about Kakashi’s family, he would be able to tell it was the same for him.

After spending long enough alone, anything else began to seem impossible, and ‘moving on’ morphed into a synonym of ‘betrayal’.

If there was one thing Sasuke had never seemed to want, it was for someone to replace his family.

Iruka had taken Naruto to his first festival that same year. Sakura had probably pounded on Naruto’s battered door first thing in the morning, impatiently waiting for him to make himself presentable before they left. Perhaps Naruto had written the gloomy name on the houseplant behind her back, as retribution for the wake-up call.

Sakura had always had her parents to celebrate the holiday with; she wouldn’t have understood Sasuke’s rejection. She wouldn’t have understood whatever face Naruto made when she gave him his very first present from someone outside of Iruka. It had probably been a small trinket that cost far less than whatever she had chosen for Sasuke, but it would have meant something nonetheless. No doubt Naruto had stood awkwardly beside her at Kakashi’s front door, chin tucked low and that hideous orange cap pulled down over his ears, bobble wobbling as he fidgeted.

What had Kakashi’s Rinne been like?

What if Iruka had invited Kakashi to go with them? What if it had been three fellow orphans asking Sasuke to go, rather than one well-intentioned, but oblivious teammate?

In reality, Sasuke would have said no—Iruka knew that. But maybe the next year… maybe the year after that… perhaps eventually, he would have changed his mind.

That dream would never come true. Any chance there was of saving Sasuke was effectively gone, even if Iruka wanted so desperately to believe in Naruto’s childish, naive hopes.

But Naruto would come back.

Kakashi had never left.

None of them had to be alone.

“You should come with me,” Iruka said. His heart beat strongly against his ribs, but it no longer raced. Adrenaline had left his bloodstream, replaced with something warm and alive. “To the festival this year. If we’re both in Konoha, I mean,” he amended quickly.

For an instant, Kakashi’s eye widened. Shock, and something more shadowed, coalesced too quickly for Iruka to distinguish. Then his expression dropped back to nearly neutral lines.

A mask behind the mask.

Kakashi’s eyelid drooped and he cocked his head. “Maa, sensei, do you normally ask your dates nine months in advance?” His tone might have been meant to convey amusement, but there was a serious undercurrent that urged on that live thing in Iruka’s heart, making it brighter, lighter.

“Uh, no, I—” Iruka reactively tried to wave off the insinuation of intent, then paused. He looked away, scratching his scar in a futile effort to hide the blood warming his cheeks. “It sounds weird when you say it like—”

“That’s an awfully long time to wait.” Kakashi commented, a smooth lilt. “How are you going to make sure I don’t forget?”

There was definitely no hiding the heat that rose up to Iruka’s ears. He shifted, the mattress depressing under him.

If they hadn’t been sitting so closely, Iruka wouldn’t have noticed the way Kakashi’s body suddenly tensed, or the wince that cleared from his expression so quickly Iruka nearly second-guessed himself.

It was a good thing he was done doing that.

“Are you seriously flirting with me right now?” Iruka demanded.

He hadn’t noticed Kakashi had started to lean forward incrementally until he blinked and sat back. “Ah,” Kakashi began, with an odd hesitation that Iruka was starting to find familiar. It felt like using a substitution in battle, like retreating to a safer position to analyze an unexpected move by the opponent.

Maybe Iruka wasn’t the only one who could be thrown off-guard.

“Is it the timing or the action that you have a problem with?” Kakashi asked, in a tone Iruka would have once described as light.

Now, it felt like a careful venture—a move that could turn into a feint or remain true, based on the response given.

“The timing!” Iruka hissed, valiantly resisting the urge to put his fists on his hips and launch into a full lecture on proper self-care after blood loss. “You’re irritating your stitches, and if anything I’ve heard from Team Seven is true then you’re probably chakra depleted, too.”

Kakashi sluggishly raised a hand, rubbing the back of his neck. “Maa, that sounds like an unfair characterization. You know children are prone to exaggeration.”

“Yeah, about as much as I know that you’re the type of idiot who hides to lick his own wounds rather than let someone else help him.” Iruka rose from the bed, intending to shoo Kakashi back to the hospital or carry him there himself if necessary.

Cool fingers around his wrist stopped him.

“That’s true,” Kakashi said quickly. “I do—but I’ve seen how that goes.” The words were hoarse but swift, edged as if they had been pulled from his throat against his will—or perhaps pushed with the very last ounce of it. “What it takes away.”

Kakashi’s body and fingers tensed as if he wanted to fight or run.

Kakashi had, Iruka thought, been fighting and running for far too long.

“It’s easy, as a shinobi, to believe that results are all that matter. It’s safer, simpler; it’s what I told myself for years.” Kakashi’s eye slowly rose to meet Iruka’s. “But it isn’t death that determines the worth of a person, but the choices made that brought them there.”

His fingers tightened incrementally, a grip growing more certain of itself. It started to steal warmth against Iruka’s skin, lessening the cold. Iruka shifted closer, reducing the length Kakashi had to stretch his arm; though the pain and blood loss might have contributed to Kakashi’s verbosity, he either didn’t notice or didn’t care about them when he had a goal in mind.

Currently, that goal was Iruka. The intensity seared the space between them, locking Iruka in a cloak of energy he couldn’t even think to walk away from.

“Speaking to Sasuke sooner might not have made him a better person—but it would have made me one.” Kakashi’s voice lowered, softer in the silence of the room. “By giving up on myself as a teacher, I gave up on my team as well.”

“That’s not true,” Iruka muttered. He wasn’t able to build up his argument before Kakashi continued.

“But you never gave up on anyone, sensei,” he murmured.

Iruka had never before noticed the gravity, the importance, that Kakashi placed in the simple honorific.

Iruka had never noticed a lot of things.

He might not have even caught the next part if he couldn’t have seen the fabric of Kakashi’s mask shift very slightly with each word:

“Not even yourself.”

How many people had Kakashi seen give up on their own futures? Iruka wondered. How many times had Kakashi been close to it himself?

Iruka pressed tremulous lips together and shook his head. “You helped with that.”

Kakashi smiled—a small, wry thing, only visible in the tender creases in the pallid skin around his eye. His hand gently twisted in Iruka’s grasp, until their palms met and their fingers laced together. “You would have gotten there either way.”

“Maybe,” Iruka murmured. He molded their grips and fingers tightly, forming a lattice, stronger woven than apart. “But I’m glad you did anyway.”

It was surreal, nearly a dream, to watch as relief smoothed Kakashi’s features, as his shoulders drooped and a dense spring unfurled in the air around them.

Yet the next moments were real and concrete, and Iruka engraved each one into his bones:

Kakashi raised his free hand to his face. His fingers hooked the dark cloth that clung to his features. Time dripped like molasses as Kakashi pulled the mask to rest under his chin.

Iruka didn’t even try to breathe.

Thin lips, an angular jaw, and high cheekbones captivated him. A healed scar split the skin beneath the hitai-ate. Iruka wanted to map it with his thumb, to memorize the texture and feel the proof that, despite anything, Kakashi had healed, and could again.

Iruka didn’t get the chance.

He would have thought he was being pulled forward by sheer magnetism if not for the heat on his cheek from Kakashi’s hand gently guiding him down until they met.

Kakashi’s lips were cold, but soft. They soothed Iruka’s anxieties, absorbed his warmth until they were one temperature, one body. Words were pushed aside and discarded, making way for actions that left no room for interpretation—emotion in its rawest, unformed state, coalescing into a brilliant glow in Iruka’s cheek, chest, hand, being.

Kakashi didn’t try to move away; neither did Iruka, until a base need to be closer, to feel more—something pure with anticipation, unmuted by fear—urged Iruka further.

His knee bumped into Kakashi’s as he tilted his head slightly, deepening the simple press of lips into a true kiss.

Kakashi’s breath hitched and a sigh fell between them.

Unfortunately, Iruka had been around too many injured shinobi to think it was due to his prowess.

He pulled back abruptly.

This time, he truly couldn’t tell if the sound that hitched in Kakashi’s throat was pain or disappointment. Perhaps it was both.

Silver lashes weakly fluttered open, eye unfocused. Iruka’s cheeks heated in unpleasant realization.

 

“Fuck. Lay down,” he ordered, cupping Kakashi’s hands with his own and lowering them to the jōnin’s lap. They fell easily, dead weights.

Kakashi blinked, eye narrowing as if taking in Iruka’s form took a particularly strong effort. “Maa, sensei, as much as I would like to go further, I’m not sure tonight is—”

“I’m not talking about that,” Iruka growled, irritation and embarrassment adding excess fire to the words and face. “If you’re going to pass out in my bed, you should at least be laying down first.”

Kakashi didn’t argue as Iruka stood and pulled the sheets down. Iruka wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not, but Kakashi managed somehow to scootch and lower himself down, cautious until he fell the last inch, bouncing slightly and wincing. His hair blended strangely well with Iruka’s beige pillowcase. “Your bed is definitely more comfortable than mine. We should use yours in the future.”

Iruka crossed to the other side and slid under the sheets, careful not to allow them to touch. He would worry about the blood and dirt stains in the morning.

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s why you snuck out of the hospital—to find a more comfortable bed to die in,” Iruka grumbled, but he had to turn his head to hide the way his lips persistently tugged into a small smile.

He couldn’t quite bring himself to lay down, so he propped himself against the headboard, pulling his knees up to his chest and crossing his arms on them. If he couldn’t force a stubborn jōnin to go to the hospital, he’d at least stay awake and monitor Kakashi’s condition. If worse came to worst, Kakashi hopefully wouldn’t be physically able to stop Iruka from getting help anyway.

“Didn’t sneak out,” Kakashi mumbled. His eye was still open, but bleary.

Iruka raised a brow dubiously. “You must have,” he frowned, examining the dark flecks he could still see staining the collar of Kakashi’s vest. If they had cleaned the wound, they wouldn’t have allowed him to leave in contaminated clothing. “There’s no way—wait.” Horror dawned on him as a disturbing possibility formed. “You didn’t do the stitches yourself, did you?”

“‘Course not,” Kakashi dismissed.

Iruka sighed in relief.

“The angle’s all wrong. A clone did it.”

Perhaps Kakashi felt that statement ignite the air, because he struggled to continue.

“Ah, don’t worry; it was my clone, so it was very well-trained.”

Iruka rubbed the bridge of his nose. A headache was already beginning to pound war drums in his temples. “‘Unfair characterization’, huh?”

“Maa…” Kakashi’s voice petered out.

Iruka looked over, half-expecting to see Kakashi already asleep.

He was watching Iruka, tired eye partially closed and bare features relaxed.

Iruka swallowed down a lump of awe and concern and rising fears, averting his gaze.

It fell on Ukki-san, whose leaves rippled from the spring breeze unhindered by glass.

“We’re really going to try this?” Iruka whispered. He could barely hear Kakashi’s steady breathing beside him, but he could feel the depression his body made in the mattress. Iruka wished he could sink into it as well.

Another night.

“Without the cryptic statements or freezing on my roof?”

Kakashi hummed softly. When Iruka chanced another glance, he saw Kakashi’s eye fully closed. “Does that mean you’re going to give me a key?” Kakashi murmured, the quiet sound barely distinguishable—but the movement of his lips filled in all the gaps.

Iruka didn’t need to hide this smile.

“No—but you can use the window.”