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Naruto: 5
Iruka: 17

Iruka never imagined his first year as a chuunin flash-stepping after paint-blotched adolescents or genjutsu-ing away from irate parents, but then, even with the lousy pay and lousy hours, being a teaching assistant at the Academy was the best he could hope for in peacetime. The shock in the students' eyes just as he caught them celebrating their escapes, or when their answer books (stolen) exploded in a flood of spiders (illusioned): this was Iruka in his element.

His one problem stood shortest in the class and interrupted it daily. There wasn't much to be done about that, not when Nakamura-sensei wouldn't yell at Naruto. No one ever yelled at Naruto, the Nine-tails vessel with a contingent of ANBU at his back, not when they weren't sure what he might do. Not while they remembered what he could do.

It wasn't as though Iruka didn't feel the same cold stone in his gut when he looked at Naruto, but Iruka still forgot, sometimes, to go tight-lipped and sour like everyone else. He had never been good with silence.

"Naruto, you can practice on the roof after class!"

"Naruto, if you call that a seal, I'm chakra-binding your fingers!"

"Naruto, the next time you climb in through the window, just remember that I'm waiting on the other side."

"Naruto," Iruka scolded, "Nakamura-sensei said to turn to the full diagram in your book and follow along."

"I did. It wasn't there," Naruto answered, not bothering to keep his voice down.

Iruka grabbed the book himself. "If you don't even try, how can you expect—" he began, but broke off in shock. The page had been ripped out. He flipped through the rest, quickly. More pages were missing, and some in chunks. Nearly shaking with fury, he dragged the boy out of the room. He didn't need to distract the class of naturally-inattentive children.

"Why?" he demanded, shaking the text in front of Naruto's face. "Why would you destroy this book? It belongs to the Academy."

"It was like that."

"I've used this book before," Iruka snapped, "when I couldn't afford my own. And now you've stolen that chance from another student."

"I didn't! Just because you never believe me, doesn't mean I'm a liar!"

"If it wasn't you, then who? Who else had this book?"

"Nakamura-sensei gave it to me. He hates me."

Iruka opened and shut his mouth, speechless for the second time in as many minutes. "Are you accusing your teacher of defacing a class book?"

"I don't know," Naruto muttered. "Maybe you did it."

Iruka didn't so much as take a deep breath as gulp it. Would anyone even care if—?

"Who cares?" Naruto cried, so close to Iruka's thoughts that he flinched. "I remember what it looked like last time and I still don't get it."

Iruka pushed the gutted book into the boy's chest. "Right. Sure. Just—just get inside." Iruka stayed in the hallway, breathing hard. How Mizuki could want to be an Academy instructor was beyond him.

It was only on the way home that Naruto's words struck him. The five-year-old remembered what the chakra diagram looked like from a year ago. Had he been lying? Or had he been paying attention after all, and the fault lay elsewhere? The possibility gnawed at him. A few conflicting days after, he found himself dropping a detailed chakra diagram onto Naruto's desk when Nakamura-sensei wasn't looking.

One week later, Naruto failed the chapter exam with his usual totality. Either he hadn't read Iruka's notes, or they hadn't helped him. Iruka wasn't sure if that made him feel disappointed or relieved, but he tried not to think about it.


Naruto: 5
Iruka: 17

 

Iruka startled awake, hackles raised. Sleep was elusive even on a good night, and this had not been a good night. He had a feeling it was about to get worse.

He slipped outside using a hatch just above his window, but spotted no one. Keeping his grip on the wall with chakra, he peeked around the side.

Crouched on his doorstep was one Uzumaki Naruto, a brush in one hand, a slip of paper in the other, and something piled on the floor. The paper (a tag, probably) was strung together with others in Naruto's pocket. Iruka crept closer and watched.

The brush was covered in glue; something water-based that helped the paper go translucent and blend in. Naruto was only applying the tags to the exterior, rather than breaking in (not that he would have succeeded). The first slip looked like a motion-sensor activation tag, the second for chakra absorption, the third, a timer, and the fourth, a water tag. Carefully, Naruto began gluing the mystery object (a funnel) just over the last tag. In the morning, Iruka would have turned the knob, set the trap into motion, and have been doused. There wouldn't be a spark of chakra to warn him, and it would all be invisible on the other side of the door. A convoluted mess of parts, but effective in ruining someone's day.

Iruka shook his head. Naruto could be surprisingly clever sometimes; it was a shame that it never carried into his schoolwork.

Just when Naruto was about to finish, Iruka broke into a set of seals and...mooed.

Naruto jumped and spun at the mimicry.

"It's rude to schedule tutoring without the tutor," he said dryly.

"I don't need tutoring!" Naruto declared proudly. "I did this all by myself."

You would have had to, Iruka didn't say, because he was careless by nature, but he'd never thought of himself as cruel.

He rolled his eyes instead and stood. It was late, but not late enough that Naruto wouldn't try again, and a ninja did his duty, even when his week had been filled with D-rank missions and one student's pepper bomb obsession. "Come on," he said. "You're going home."

Iruka didn't ask Naruto where he lived; everyone knew where Naruto lived. Naruto didn't seem surprised as he was pulled along. Though he put on a wide pout and intermittently huffed his annoyance, he didn't jerk away from Iruka's grip on his shoulder. It wasn't until they reached his apartment that he he reverted to his usual antics.

"What?" he squawked. "I'm here already!"

Iruka crossed his arms. "Really? I didn't know you lived outdoors."

Naruto turned back to his door with the key, throwing it open so that it nearly smacked into his sullen chauffeur. Iruka took in a breath to yell at Naruto's retreating back when he saw inside.

He stepped into the barren studio with an odd look.

Iruka knew that Naruto didn't have any parents, but he'd never thought of Naruto as an orphan before, at the mercy of the Village Fund. He remembered how tightly he himself had had to live, even while padding his allowance with possessions that hadn't been destroyed in the attack.

The bed in the corner, with its worn coverlet, looked like it had been dragged in straight from the dump. There were a few boxes neatly stacked at table-height, and hanging just above them was a chakra diagram. With a jolt, Iruka recognized the handiwork as his.

"Get out!" A sudden blow to his shin had him backed to the threshold. "Get out!" Naruto cried, his tiny hands pushing against Iruka's stomach. "Go away!" Too stunned to do otherwise, Iruka obeyed. Naruto slammed the door in his face.

Iruka turned and took to the roofs. It wasn't any of his business. Naruto was still being fed and clothed, and if the Hokage saw fit to allow things to continue in this vein, it was not Iruka's place to question him.

He hastened his way home with chakra, and arrived exhausted. Even so, sleep wouldn't come.

~*~

The next day, a grumpy, tired Uzumaki Naruto opened his front door with a poof! He gasped, and then choked, too shocked to run out from under the cloud of sparkly (and sticky) glitter.

There was a note taped to the outside of his door. He stared at his name for a moment before opening it carefully. It said,

This is how you lay a trap:

There followed several crisp diagrams, all featuring a tiny stick figure with cactus hair and whiskered cheeks.

Naruto ran back inside, but even after ducking his head in the sink twice, he couldn't scrub out the mass of glitter. He marched into the Academy anyway, and was promptly laughed at. With his usual spontaneity, he retaliated with a blinding light jutsu.

Across the room, Iruka-sensei burst into laughter. Naruto shone for the rest of the day.


Naruto: 6
Iruka: 18

 

Iruka left the Hokage Tower with a yawn, looking forward to some real food and a bed that didn't fit into a knapsack. In the past month, he had cleaned out a pig farm, distributed two (jilted) love letters, guarded a noble mansion, built a firebreak, and delivered a calf. With all the higher ranked ninja occupied with war preparations (classified knowledge, but was Iruka a ninja or wasn't he?), he had been grabbing as many C- and B-rank missions as he could. They were a lot like D-ranks, but they paid better because they involved higher probabilities of being impaled, trampled, or beheaded.

Weeks earlier, he had even managed to snatch an A-rank from the mission desk. The Hokage himself had praised his affinity for espionage, and those words made his muscles burn with the hope that he might yet make jounin.

Iruka rounded the corner to see Uzumaki Naruto pulling his eyes and waggling his tongue at a small crowd of sneering boys. Of course he was. It was impudent and short-sighted, but he did have to admire that kind of spirit.

They looked several years younger than Iruka, which meant they were old enough to know, but not old enough to know better, or they wouldn't dare confront Naruto so openly. He sent a small charge of chakra through his feet, testing their signatures.

Unbalanced, unfocused, and spiking with their movements and emotions. More than likely they had never entered the Academy, which had opened a year after the attack with a smaller class than at the village's founding. (Except for the boy at the forefront. He looked vaguely familiar...probably a drop out.)

Any moment now, the ANBU guards would flare their chakra, and the little brats would run off.

Any moment now.

Any moment. Any at all.

Iruka's palms itched. Of all the rumors surrounding Naruto, he'd never thought that this would turn out to be false. Because no matter how taxed the village was for mission fulfillment, surely they would have found someone. Surely they wouldn't have allowed the vessel holding the greatest threat Konoha had ever seen to walk the streets without an escort.

Surely they wouldn't have allowed this six-year-old boy, who lacked a bounty on his head only by the Hokage's decree, to walk the streets without an escort.

His mind pinwheeled at the thought. Was this why Naruto had been entered in the Academy three years early? And entered again, still two years too young? From Iruka's semester-long stint as a teaching assistant, he hadn't been surprised to hear that Naruto had failed First Year again.

Naruto would be entered once more this fall. Iruka wondered if finally being the proper age would be worth anything.

The boys crowded in closer, looking even more livid: Naruto had just transformed into one of them. Iruka would have been impressed by the bald patches and splotchy coloration if he'd thought Naruto had done it on purpose.

Still no ANBU. It being the middle of the day, the streets were crowded, but streams of people flowed around the spectacle easily. No one else had even stopped.

Iruka started moving again. Sedately, like he wasn't doing anything wrong, before turning into the first alleyway he could.

Then he stopped, closed his eyes, set his hands, and did something very stupid.

~*~

Tanaka Jiro didn't have a reason for approaching the Nine-tails vessel. Sometimes things just worked out that way, when someone was orphaned and angry and there was an abomination walking free in the street. So there.

One minute, the five of them had the little runt cornered, and maybe he acted all tough, but Jiro could tell he knew how screwed he was, and something loosened in his chest for the first time in years.

The next thing he knew, four ANBU had dropped from the sky.

He couldn't sense their signatures, but he could feel the killing intent. It didn't make his skin burn or his eyes melt, or anything like what people said. It just wafted in the air around him, cold as mist and soft as music. One by one, they bowed, and their voices echoed through their masks.

"What a lovely day for a meeting. It is only a shame—"

"—that you seem to be ignorant of the laws that allow such freedom."

"But by the generous Hokage's decree—"

"—we have been allotted time to teach you."

Jiro stiffened when a mask connected with his shoulder, only lightly enough to transfer the vibrations of the man's speech. "Do you have a free moment? Jiro-kun?"

He watched, frozen, as the ANBU sank swiftly into the earth, each with a hand raised and open. He didn't scream until he felt the grip on his ankle.

He bolted. The others could stay and die if they wanted.

~*~

Idiots, Iruka snickered as he rose back to street-level. People were stopping and staring now. Since it would be fantastically pointless to save Naruto from one mob only to leave him in the path of another, he scooped the boy up and ran for the nearest wall. Iruka dropped the stunned boy when he touched down on the roof, and squatted so that they could see eye to eye.

Then he raised his fake-mask and grinned. "Naruto! Long time no see."

"Iruka-sensei! You're in ANBU?" Naruto cried loudly. Loudly enough to reach even civilian ears on the ground. Iruka sighed and released the illusion. The mask and uniform disappeared, leaving behind his usual chuunin vest and clothes.

"Don't be an idiot. I'm not even a jounin!"

"I bet that's what they make you say when you're in ANBU," Naruto said dubiously, before his face lit up. "Hey, hey, is that why you left? Did you have a super secret mission?"

"My time was up, that's all." Naruto's face fell. "My job was only for one semester, and I didn't get it renewed."

"Why not? You were way better than Mizuki-sensei."

"Hey, don't say that! He's a good friend of mine, and he actually wants to be a teacher." Iruka hadn't seen his old teammate in a while. Maybe...

"It's truuue," Naruto whined. "You should come back."

"Aah—" Iruka started, taken off guard. If he was so good, why hadn't Naruto shown any signs of improvement?

Is it because I avoided you instead of pushing you?

"Are you hungry?" he asked instead. "I was on my way to get some ramen."

"Ramen? Is that the stuff they're always selling in the street?"

"It's not the street! It's a stall!" Iruka barked, before Naruto's words caught up to him. "What, you've never had ramen? What have you been eating all this time?"

"Rations." Naruto tilted his head at him. "Isn't that what ninjas eat?"

If Konoha was providing his food, it made sense. Rations were cheap, easy to stock, and required no preparation beyond a mental one. Come to think of it...

Oh, hell. He'd known those boxes in Naruto's apartment had looked familiar.

"Most of the time, since they're so," Iruka struggled for something appropriate, "nutritious. But usually when we're on missions. At home, other foods are way better. Come with me, and I'll show you," Iruka said, to his own surprise. Naruto looked warily at him, and he couldn't help but share the boy's doubt. "My treat," he said firmly. "I just finished a mission, so I have enough money."

Naruto's suspicion evaporated into astonishment. "You get paid to do missions?"

Iruka held his laughter in. "Of course. Why do you think ninja do missions?"

"Because they love the village," Naruto said matter-of-factly.

It was entirely right, but he'd never heard it said with such casual conviction before. "We do," Iruka sputtered. "It's important to being a Leaf ninja. Very important. But we have to eat, too."

Naruto quieted before grinning wide. His eyes shrunk to slits that stretched parallel to his whisker scars. "Then, then, I can pay you back when I'm a great and important ninja!"

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah! I'm going to be stronger than anybody! And I'm going to love the Village more than anyone, too! Even Sandaime-ojisan!"

This, here...this was one of those moments where a word could change everything. If he could just say something about how the past didn't matter, that Naruto could still move up in the Academy if he just worked harder, that it wasn't going to take forever and a miracle to make the Council promote him beyond genin. Something that his father would have said.

He slammed the thought closed.

"Sandaime-sama," he chided. "Don't be so disrespectful to your own leader!"

"Hmph. When I'm Hokage, I'll call him anything I want!"

Iruka let himself smile openly at that. "You can start training to be Hokage after lunch, okay?" He spread his arms, and tried not to think of how earnestly Naruto jumped into them.

Lunch at Ichiraku's was unexpectedly enjoyable. It had been so long since Iruka had spoken to anyone other than a superior in the mission office, or a superior at the Academy, that Naruto's barrage of inane questions was kind of refreshing. What had been his coolest mission? Had he ever seen an elephant? Why were there only twelve seals, and when would they make a new one? Where did he get his scar?

He answered them all except for the last. Naruto hadn't seemed to mind, and had prattled on like normal, declaring his undying love for ramen. Iruka bought him another bowl, and waited until his mouth was full of noodles to tell him they came in instant-form too.

"REALLY? Hey, hey, you'll tell me where, right?"

~*~

Back in his own apartment, Iruka's thoughts kept drifting back to the boys in the street. They had been stupid, low, and hateful. But ultimately, they had been able to look at Naruto and see nothing but a helpless child, a victim.

Iruka rolled over and burrowed into his pillow.

They made it look so easy.


Naruto: 12
Iruka: 24

 

When Nakamura Naoto unceremoniously quit his position days before the Academy was due to reopen, Iruka fueled the gossip fire not only by applying, but by being accepted. It would be the last time his unassuming maturity shocked anyone.

The Hokage issued a mandate that all teachers would progress with their students from then on, and return to teach first-years when their brood had graduated. Even if by the skin of his teeth and at the bottom of every class, Naruto passed each year as normal under Iruka's tutelage. In another five years, he would graduate the way he did everything else: unconventionally.

The next morning, after assigning teams to the genin he had taught for most of his chuunin career, Umino Iruka was called to Council.

***

It had been three hours since he arrived, but Iruka was not surprised to still be waiting: he had come prepared to be humbled. Given the sheer size of the village headquarters, like the Hokage Tower laid sideways, he'd already been moved nearly a dozen times.

Not escorted. Moved.

"We need this room for a meeting. You'll have to wait on the second floor; the receptionist will direct you."

"This room is only for file storage—go back and ask for another."

"We reserved this room for rations-pickling."

Iruka fell back on old habits and was all smiles as he limped to his next destination. The hallways were full of staff muttering about their suddenly missing files and supplies, accusations flinging left and right. A small part of him was amused.

The rest of him was shattered.

His best friend had turned traitor, and insult to injury, he had been taken completely by surprise. It wasn't as though he had a multitude of friends to keep track of, and he had spent nearly every day of the last six years with Mizuki.

Not once had Iruka called Mizuki's loyalty into question, whether to himself or the village. Not even when his friend had come to alert Iruka of Naruto's theft. Thanks to his blindless, Naruto's very life could be in danger.

And the secret was out forever. Its ruthless reveal weighed heavily on Iruka; it would take more than ramen to fix this, and Naruto would soon be out of his sights.

Had Iruka known Naruto would graduate, he would have placed him on Team 8, rather than Kiba. Yuuhi Kurenai was renowned for her ability to see to the heart of even the most obfuscating of people; given the circumstances, her insight and even-handedness would be even more crucial. Naruto's unwitting tendency to galvanize others would also have been a good match for the shy Hinata and passive Shino, even more so than Kiba's affinity for teamwork.

"Umino-san," a man said, standing tall in front of him, "you may follow me to the Chambers, now."

Iruka nodded and rose to follow.

"Daisuke, you pervert!"

"That—that isn't mine, I swear!"

The doors closed on the chaos behind him. The jounin and council members turned as one to face him, but Iruka only gave his most disapproving gaze in return. Unlike the Academy students Iruka faced every day, no one here would throw shuriken at his back, hide itching powder in the chalk dust, or circulate crude drawings of his underpants.

His chair seemed specifically designed to set his injuries on fire. The Hokage, in his own balcony, met his gaze for a second, before returning to the wider audience. Sandaime could not help him here. Iruka couldn't find it in him to be disappointed. If the Hokage could support Naruto openly, this farce of a trial would not even take place.

Iruka stood to be addressed, but he refused to crane his neck. "Umino Iruka," Mitokado Homura, high councilor, began. Sandaime had always spoken well of him, but Iruka could only see ruthlessness in the man's expression. Koharu Utatane, the other high councilor, sat at his right. Together, they were an imposing set of bookends; the antique kind that were once considered beautiful and were presently just creepy. The other council members were seated to either side, on a bench that was almost eye-level. "Do you know why you have been called before us today?"

It wasn't an extension of courtesy; it was a chance (the first of many, he thought nastily) for Iruka to hang himself. He bowed, ignoring the sensation of his wound reopening. "I was told that the Council required my account of last night's events, Councilor-sama. I am honored to be of service."

"Yes, the theft has left us in a rather precarious position."

Mitokado's loaded statement made Iruka's hair stand on end, like weapons at the ready. He tried to bury his indignity with the memory of that fierce, jubilant pride he'd felt tying the hitai-ate in place, but it only made him more aware that he was facing the Council without it.

"Chuunin of seven years, Academy instructor for the last six," Koharu continued. "But your first mission had been at the Academy as well. As a teaching assistant. Could you elaborate on your termination?"

Funny how the rejection could sting so badly so many years later, when at the time he had only shuffled guiltily. "My superior disagreed with one of my tutoring methods. He thought it best not to renew my position, Councilor-sama."

Mitokado raised Iruka's record and scanned it with deliberate care. "Is that so? Here it has been filed as 'insuboordination'. Providing unfairly advantageous learning aids to a student without the instructor's knowledge."

"The child in question had a damaged textbook. I did not believe he could have understood the material without possessing the material, and I provided nothing more than what was accessible by other children. It was my error that I did not seek my instructor's approval first, Councilor-sama."

"Yet, not six months later, you impersonated several ANBU and threatened a small group of civilian children," Koharu continued with fake concern, "on behalf of this same 'child in question': Uzumaki Naruto."

The chamber acoustics were phenomenal: the hisses and murmurs rumbled like a faraway avalanche. Iruka didn't dare turn to look.

"You are correct, Umino-san," Mitokado said, "we are in need of your account of last night's events. You have clearly gone to great lengths for this child. Considering how your colleague and the Nine-tails vessel nearly escaped with one of Konoha's most forbidden scrolls, it has become paramount that you explain why."

Iruka had expected the accusation, but it still sparked a manic urge to sew stinkweed into the man's robe collection.

He'd rehearsed answer after answer in the hospital, his apartment, and his long, shuffling wait, but the stitled words he'd coaxed to life seemed determined to stay in his mind. What could he say that wouldn't chafe later? He didn't want to face Naruto with yet another regret.

"Maaa, am I late?"

There was a certainty level of insanity expected of all jounin, particularly the special ones like Sharingan Kakashi, but they usually manifested in flamboyantly obvious ways that somehow worked to everyone's advantage but the enemy's. Not direct insuboorindation to some of the most powerful figures in the village.

And like most special jounin, Hatake Kakashi was so far above him in level, he could probably kill Iruka by dropping a penny. It was a mark of Iruka's skewed survival instincts that this was not what put him on edge.

Iruka had known Naruto—no, not just known, but paid attention to Naruto—for a long time, and he'd never seen Hatake near him, nor heard of him in conjunction with Naruto's name.

Not for the first time did Iruka wonder what twist of fate had made Naruto such a friendly boy, so eager to see the good in people. Met with a potential ally, Iruka could only brace himself in suspicion.

"I'm sorry, Councilors," Hatake said sunnily, not sounding very sorry at all, "I was told last night that I would be assigned a team of cute new graduates, but someone must have forgotten to tell me that one of them was on trial!"

"It is Chuunin Umino Iruka that is on trial," Koharu said cooly, eyes narrowed, "on suspicion of conspiracy of treason against the village."

"That sounds very serious," Hatake said, "but I hope you'll forgive me when I say it's also dead wrong." He slipped his hands back in his pockets, and his visible eye went droopy again. "I admit that at the time, I hadn't understood Yondaime-sama's last wish."

Last wish? Iruka thought. He didn't remember any last wish, but then, he didn't remember learning about Naruto's sealing, either. It felt like something he'd always known, even though losing his parents was a perpetual surprise.

"But to think that you would charge the one person that has kept us from failing him as a village, with treason..." Hatake tilted his head and reverted to his cheery, one-eyed smile. "Well, it sounded so absurd, I just had to come down here to see it for myself!"

The trial concluded with astonishing swiftness.

***

"Hatake-san!" Iruka called, walking up to the other man. He ruthlessly crushed the paranoia that Hatake had put the jogging distance between them on purpose. He stopped dead when Hatake turned to face him, the sight of a porn novel in the elite ninja's hands causing his mind to stutter. He was even more mortified to feel a blush burst across his face, which did not help him regain his train of thought at all. "Thank you," he blurted, "for saying all that about Naruto."

"I didn't say anything about Naruto," Hatake replied. He looked up from his book without tilting it downward. "It was about you."

"Nothing in that room was really about me."

"What I said was," Hatake said, eye sharp, but it was hard to take him seriously when he was still holding up a neon sign of perversion. Iruka desperately hoped this conversation wouldn't be miscontrued by passerbys. "I'm sorry I was late. Thank you for watching Naruto."

He knew Hatake had been the Fourth's student, everyone knew that, but anything about a last wish for Naruto's well-being had been buried in that first wave of hatred and grief, twisted like burning paper. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask why Hatake had said nothing of it in the last 12 years, but such an admonishment would be monumentally hypocritical. Naruto had never asked Iruka, and even if the thought filled him with guilt, thinking of the boy's magnanimious nature made him smile.

"Then...I am glad to know that you'll be taking care of him next, Kakashi-sensei."

"Hmm, yes, I suppose I should go meet them now."

Iruka's jaw dropped and his sudden magnanimity evaporated. "I assigned teams almost four hours ago. What were you DOING in all that time?"

"Well, I was passing by the zoo when the electrical wiring shorted and the cages—"

"Stop," Iruka managed to say through gritted teeth. "Like you said, perhaps you should go meet them now."

"Calm down, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi drawled. "A ninja should learn to be patient." He looked back down at his glaringly orange, widely perverted book, but met Iruka's eye before he had turned away completely. "I would suggest you get some coffee, but I hear some deviant has pickled all the beans."

Iruka spun to walk in the opposite direction, flushing red, but by the time he had found Sandaime-sama, he was smiling.

Maybe Naruto wouldn't be his student anymore, but at least he had someone to keep him out of trouble.