Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this innocuous interlude. Oodles of respect for Masashi Kishimoto, the creative force behind Naruto. Please do have patience with me and with the ninja who kind of wishes something interesting would happen.
Fandom Anniversary: The first two chapters of News Hound posted on September 22, 2020, marking a milestone (the aforementioned fanniversary) in my usual way—with storytelling. Watch for weekly updates. How do Tuesdays work for you? ::twinkle::
Author's Note: I write professionally, but I still dabble in fandom for fun. If you find yourself wanting more of my stories, there are lots. Check out my profile.
ONE: HOT SPRING
Pausing within the shelter of a ponderous old evergreen, Iruka crouched on the matted needles that would hide any trace of his passing. Signs of life were already stirring in the inn's courtyard—hens scratching, smoke rising, the scrape of a door, the familiar scuff of the innkeeper's gait, followed by a covert whiff of tobacco.
Nobody ever noticed his pre-dawn trek into the woods to battle against the restlessness caused by too many idle days. Why would they? They'd barely even heard of ninja, let alone suspected him of being one.
He was here undercover.
Why remained a mystery.
Konoha's genin were on their summer break, which for most students meant training hard with their families. Most clans had specialties. Jutsu to hand down. Fighting styles to master. Traditions to uphold.
This year, Iruka's class had included three children whose parents were civilians. He'd arranged homestays for them with clans whose training didn't necessarily require the inheritance of a bloodline trait. He'd even managed to get Izumo and Kotetsu to commit to working with one of them. In part because it would bring their aptitude for teaching to the Hokage's attention. Chunin had plenty to offer.
Apparently, that included himself.
Lady Tsunade had been spare with details. "Blend in, stay alert, report back if anything interesting happens."
He should have asked for how long.
Not that he should be complaining. With summer half-gone, he was missing out on the worst of Konoha's heat and humidity. And if he was honest, days tended to drag without Naruto around to liven things up. Where they dragged shouldn't matter.
With little else to do, Iruka was painstakingly thorough.
Every caution taken. Every order obeyed.
He took his time. He checked and cross-checked the identity of every villager. He embraced a facsimile self. He infiltrated at an easygoing pace. In this place where people came and went, he was no longer a newcomer. He knew every man, woman, and child by name, and he made a point of introducing himself to anyone stopping over or passing through.
This mountain village made a modest livelihood thanks to the local hot springs, and they mostly catered to convalescents. Of which Iruka was meant to be one.
Giving his surroundings another long look, he moved toward the inn as carefully as if he expected his path to be littered by tripwires and explosive tags. Dull or not, he was on a mission, and he would do his job—was doing his job—to the best of his abilities. Granted, Teuchi from Ichiraku could have handled this assignment. Maybe even done it better, given the average age of locals and their guests.
Slipping through the sliding screen into the modest room assigned to him, Iruka reached for what he needed before light-footing it to the springs. Some of the juiciest gossip of the day was bandied about by four old men who relished their morning bath.
Thoughts were already skimming ahead to his convalescent routines, but his attention snagged on a bird call that didn't belong anywhere near these woods. Iruka forced himself to take two slow breaths, calming his heart and making doubly sure his chakra remained under control. Turning his body, he carefully pushed the screen open, just wide enough that he could scan the forest.
Among the sagging boughs of the very pine he'd sheltered under minutes ago, a ghostly face peered at him. The porcelain mask with its round eyeholes was too far away for him to make out its pattern. But it was ANBU. And that meant they were someone from home. Maybe even a friend.
He barely resisted the urge to wave.
Instead Iruka offered a small headshake. They would find the drop point empty of messages. He had nothing worthwhile to report, and he refused to use Konoha's elite ops for something as frivolous as writing home to ask for news.
Was an ANBU team passing through the area? Had Lady Tsunade sent someone to check on him? Either way, the masked figure was a reminder that he wasn't forgotten. And he wasn't alone.
Still, when the masked face withdrew, Iruka felt a pang of regret.
End Note: originally posted on September 22, 2020. 699 words.