Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto and various companies. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: Iruka is one of my favorite characters in Naruto, primarily because he's such a decent, ordinary human being, exactly the sort of person I'd want as a friend or relative. And yet, he spends his life teaching children to kill. And he's very, very good at what he does. That contrast interests me. "Lessons" assumes some minor background from "The Way of the Apartment Manager," but it isn't dependent on that story, and can, in fact, fit into manga canon. (I think.)
Summary: Umino Iruka is a good ninja, and a good man. But nobody is born with all the answers.
If someone had walked up to Umino Iruka when he was twelve years old and told him that five years later he'd want to return to the academy -- and return as a teacher -- he'd probably have laughed his head off... or tried to perforate the unfortunate person with shuriken. Iruka was a little touchy about people who assumed they knew what was best for him. He had a goal, and he wasn't going to settle for being a stupid teacher. He was going to fight his way up to jounin and prove to people that he wasn't just some worthless kid who got a free ride because his grandfather was one of the Third Hokage's genin teammates fifty years ago.
His jounin-sensei, Iinuzuka Kaoru, recommended Iruka's genin team for the chuunin exam that first year. Iruka, Pazu, and Rei were thrilled. They had no idea what they were getting into. The first time they faced people -- fellow human beings, only one year older than they were -- who honestly wanted to kill them, they froze. They nearly died, and Iruka gained several scars on his back and legs to match the old one across his nose.
Kaoru-sensei patched them up and asked them if they'd learned anything.
"How to run away," Iruka mumbled, feeling shame burn on his cheeks.
"Don't look so upset," Kaoru-sensei said. "Sometimes running away is the smartest thing you can do. And running is hard to do well -- on our way home, I'm going to track you. If you can evade me for three hours straight by the last day, I'll take you all out for dinner."
They managed to win while they were still two days out from Konoha. But Iruka still hated running and hiding.
The next year, Kaoru-sensei recommended them again. This time they made it to the third test, and won another free dinner as a reward.
"Why couldn't we get a day off instead?" Iruka asked. There was a cute girl down at the local sushi place, and he thought she might be willing to spend a day with him if he asked.
Kaoru-sensei snorted. "We're ninja, Iruka. We can't afford to get soft."
Iruka deliberately slacked off in training the next day. Rei and Pazu yelled at him when Kaoru-sensei set extra drills, but Iruka didn't care. He was fourteen years old, damn it. He had a right to a life!
The third year, Pazu and Rei actually passed the chuunin exam. Iruka cheered for them in the third test, and then found himself on the bare floor of an arena in Hidden Mist, facing a little girl who couldn't possibly be more than ten years old. She was barely half his size, skinny as a sapling, and armed to the teeth. Her eyes were flat.
This is not right, something inside him whispered. This is not the way the world should be. Iruka raised his kodachi, set his feet... and couldn't bring himself to fight that girl with her twig arms and baby face. Her close combat skills were flawless; she tore through his half-hearted defense like a hawk slicing through clouds.
"What the hell happened to you out there?" Kaoru-sensei demanded afterwards.
"She was just a kid!"
Kaoru-sensei folded her arms and growled like one of her dogs. "She wasn't a child. She was a ninja, like you're supposed to be. We aren't trained to have second thoughts, Iruka. We aren't paid to feel guilty and let our targets escape. You could have taken her. But maybe you're not cut out to be a ninja."
For the first time since his parents died, Iruka didn't explode at those words. For the first time, he thought that maybe everyone who told him he was too nice to be a ninja might be right. He looked down at his feet.
"Oh, hell," Kaoru-sensei said, and laid an awkward hand on his head. "Look, Iruka, why don't you take a year off and think about what you really want to do. Go work at the academy while you're at it -- remind yourself that children aren't innocent, and take a good long look at what we teach them." She scratched the base of his ponytail the way she scratched her dogs' ears, and then turned him around and pushed him toward his teammates.
Iruka thought that might be the best advice anyone had ever given him. He said as much to his great-aunt, Umino Sadako, when he returned home and started cleaning, fixing, and restocking all the various things around the house that she couldn't deal with on her own.
Aunt Sadako smiled. "No, Iruka-kun, it's just the first advice you've been willing to hear. Now shoo -- out of my kitchen. Maybe I can't carry groceries home anymore, but the day I can't cook my own dinner will be two days after I'm dead."
Iruka laughed and let her nudge him out the door.
The ninja academy always needed assistant instructors, and Iruka found himself hired on the spot. After a few quick questions about his skills, he received a half-hour orientation session and instructions on how to discipline 'the little monsters.' "You start tomorrow with the nine o'clock shuriken demonstration. The little beasts will mob you at first, but remember: don't ever let them know you're afraid," his new supervisor, Mizuki, said as he handed Iruka his new schedule. "Otherwise they'll eat you alive."
Iruka blinked. "Um. Aren't teachers supposed to like kids?"
Mizuki laughed. "Are you crazy? I like kids well enough, but nobody can deal with a bunch of brats day in and day out and not want to murder them at least once a week. And these kids have weapons and they know how to use them... or they have weapons and they're complete amateurs, which is almost scarier."
"Oh," Iruka said, somewhat dazed. "Yes, I can see that."
"No you can't," Mizuki said, sounding altogether too cheerful. "But you will."
One week later, Iruka slumped over Aunt Sadako's kitchen table at the end of the afternoon and whimpered. "Mizuki was right," he said when his great-aunt made an inquiring noise. "I thought I was basically a nice person. I thought no kid could be worse than I was -- and I still think I was right about that, but twenty kids together don't have to be nearly that bad. They just have to keep setting each other off."
Aunt Sadako stirred a pot of fish stock and smiled. "Why Iruka-kun, I do believe you're growing up. That sounded almost exactly like what your mother said after the first time you invited a friend home for dinner."
Iruka lifted his head from his arms. "Really?"
"Really. Only she cursed a lot when she said it."
Iruka turned that knowledge over in his head. His mother had loved children, and she'd never seemed to run out of patience no matter how wild he acted. But she'd gone to Aunt Sadako and cursed after dealing with only two kids. He'd lasted a whole week, with at least twelve kids per class, before he snapped.
"Thanks for telling me," Iruka said.
"Anytime, Iruka-kun. Now go clean up for dinner."
It took Iruka another week to loosen up and learn the limits of his authority as an assistant teacher, and two more before he finally felt secure enough to hand out punishments on his own instead of turning the kids over to their regular instructors. After three more weeks, he lost his temper during one particularly impossible lesson on basic traps and bellowed at the mob to "Shut up, drop those wires, and get into line!"
The nine-year-olds were so shocked to hear 'stupid, boring Iruka-sensei' actually yell at them that they shut up and scurried into a line before Iruka quite got over the shock of losing his control.
He eyed them suspiciously. They looked back warily, and fidgeted.
"Um. Keiko, you're first. Pick up a coil of wire and show me how to rig a simple leg-snare." A twitch of motion caught his eye, and he glared down the line. "Hirotomi Gensou, take your hand off that kunai!" The boy in question jumped and tucked his hands behind his back.
Iruka nodded. "Good. Now, Keiko..."
The unexpected peace didn't last more than one day, but news spread through the classes that Iruka-sensei might not be quite as much of a pushover as everyone had thought, and Iruka found that he didn't have to work quite as hard to keep his classes in order. The kids squelched some of their minor squabbles on their own, and didn't push as hard to keep him off-balance.
"You're learning," Mizuki said when he collected his class after one of Iruka's target practice sessions. He grinned as the kids stampeded back toward the academy building. "So, have you started having fantasies about strangling them at birth?"
Iruka stared. "What?"
"Don't play innocent, Iruka -- I'm a teacher too. Speaking of which, I'd better get inside before the little monsters destroy my classroom or figure out today's lock on my desk and steal my grade book. That might be good practice for infiltration but it's hell on grading policies." Mizuki waved and hurried off across the grounds.
Iruka leaned against a tree and wondered at Mizuki's attitude. He didn't actually have fantasies about strangling the kids at birth. Instead, he imagined getting hold of them a few years earlier and shaking some sense into them. He imagined talking about compassion and getting something other than blank stares.
He remembered the academy as a place where he spent hours trying not to fall asleep during interminable lessons on history, geography, other cultures, the theory of chakra manipulation, and other esoteric topics. He'd always liked the reading his teachers assigned, which was more than most of his classmates could say, but he couldn't manage to sit still through the lectures.
From this end, from a teacher's perspective, the academy existed to teach children how to kill. Oh, there was some attempt at teaching ethics, and there was a lot of effort put into creating loyalty to the Leaf and respect for the Hokage, Anbu, and jounin, but the academy wasn't a real school, not like a civilian school. If the kids absorbed the lessons, then they wouldn't have to spend so much time studying backgrounds for missions once they graduated, but most teachers almost encouraged their students to pass secret notes, cheat on tests, and escape their assigned seats.
They were taking wild kids, and instead of training them to turn pride and anger to peaceful purposes, they encouraged violence. They showed children that killing was good. They taught contempt for anyone who followed the rules of civilian life.
Iruka wasn't sure he liked that.
His great-aunt twisted in her seat, one hand flying toward the senbon she used to hold her hair in place. Then she relaxed, smiled, and picked up her knitting again. "Iruka-kun, you know better than to sneak up on a ninja! I may be old, but I still have teeth."
Iruka sank onto the sofa across the room from her and didn't smile back. "Aunt Sadako, what does it mean to be a ninja?"
Aunt Sadako looked down at her flashing needles; the steady click and tap of wood on wood filled the sunlit room. "Why do you ask?" she said eventually.
Iruka leaned forward and rested his elbows on his thighs. "I don't like what the academy teaches. All I see, all I hear, is 'This is how you kill people. You're going to kill people. Killing people is good.' Nobody says that you'll probably freeze up in your first real fight, and that it's normal to be scared. Nobody says that maybe sometimes you shouldn't kill people. Nobody reminds the kids that they're kids."
He slumped down and rubbed the scar across his nose. "A ninja is a tool; I know that. A ninja exists to serve the village and complete the mission. A ninja can't give in to feelings. But... if you're a ninja, do you have to stop being a person? Isn't there any way to be both?"
Aunt Sadako let the question hang in silence for a time. The evening sun slanted in through the window beside her and cast her face into shadow, out of which she spoke quietly. "Iruka-kun, if ninja couldn't also be people, do you think your parents would have cared enough to marry, have a child, and die to protect you?"
Iruka flushed and scratched the base of his ponytail. "Um. But how? Kaoru-sensei told me I wasn't supposed to feel guilty and have second thoughts, but if I could turn everything off and pretend a little girl was just a target, how could I live with that? And if I kept pushing everything aside so I never had to think, how could I care enough to protect my teammates? How could I come home and still love you?"
Aunt Sadako set her knitting on the arm of her chair, rose, and walked across the room to her great-nephew; her bad leg dragged slightly with each step. "Every ninja has to answer that question his or her own way," she said. She patted Iruka's shoulder and rubbed her gnarled hand over his shoulder blades. "Your mother was lucky, you know. She never had to kill a child. Your father... well, one night he came home and just sat in the kitchen for hours before he pulled every glass out of the cupboards and threw them against the wall. And even years after, sometimes he'd go still for a while and hold you very tight -- do you remember that?"
"Well. As for me..." Aunt Sadako's hand stilled. "When I was fourteen, just after we'd signed a treaty with Hidden Grass, to fight against Hidden Sand, I had a mission to infiltrate a Fire daimyo's manor and find out if he was passing information to his father-in-law in Wind Country. He was, so I killed him. That would have been the end of it, except his son happened to have a bad dream that night, and the daimyo's wife brought the boy in to see his father."
After several seconds, Iruka asked, "So?"
"So I killed them. One knife to the kidney for the woman. I caught the boy as he dropped from his mother's arms, and I killed him the same way. It's a fast strike; the target is in too much systemic shock to scream or struggle." Aunt Sadako's voice was clinical and flat. Then she reached down and tugged on Iruka's chin until he faced her. "I had nightmares for years about that boy. But the daimyo had to die, and nobody could be allowed to describe my face or my village allegiance. I worked through it, in time. We do what we have to do, Iruka-kun, and we forgive each other for being able to carry on. That's human."
Iruka laid his hand on Aunt Sadako's gnarled, twig-thin fingers. They sat together in silence as the twilight deepened.
After the academy let out for the year, Iruka went to the mission center and declared himself available for the patchwork teams put together when all the regular chuunin and jounin groups were out on missions and something came in that was a bit too high level for the fresh genin teams and their frazzled jounin-sensei. Within a week, he found himself en route to the Wind Country border with Hiroshi, a twenty-year-old genin; Daishi, an elderly chuunin; and Chizuru, a recently-promoted jounin.
"We're investigating rumors of a band of missing-nin preying on trade caravans," Chizuru said as they leaped through the forest. She swiped her hair back from her face and ran an assessing glance over her new team. "Orders are to find a recent ambush site and track them back to their camp. If spotted, we retreat. We engage only as a last resort, or if we catch them by surprise and they turn out to be damn pathetic. Clear?"
"Yes ma'am," Hiroshi rumbled. Daishi and Iruka nodded.
Despite their best efforts, they were spotted. Then they were pursued, and eventually cornered against one of the isolated rocky outcroppings that dotted Wind Country like the lost game tokens of some giant race. Hiroshi fell first, gutted by whirling blades on the end of a long chain. Daishi burned six attackers to ashes, and then collapsed from the chakra drain. Chizuru was everywhere and nowhere, darting in to lay chakra-coated fingers against joints and leave writhing, twisted bodies in her wake.
Iruka pressed himself against the rocks, blood running down his leg, kodachi raised in a guard position, and wondered why he'd ever wanted to be a ninja. He could fight. He could face down a killer. He could forgive his friends for their kills. But there was a line he couldn't make himself cross.
Three missing-nin lay near his feet: one man unconscious from a hilt-weighted blow to the head, one woman clutching a crushed knee; and one man in shock and bleeding out from a slice across his gut. But they weren't dead. Not yet. They weren't dead.
"Fucking coward," the kunoichi with the crushed knee panted. "I'm finished -- can't fix a knee this messed up. Fucking kill me already. And give Masato a clean death, not bleeding out by inches."
Iruka shook his head. "I can't," he said. "I can't." Then metal flashed, and he spun sideways to avoid a barrage of shuriken from a new enemy. The strange man charged forward, and everything blurred into reflex, defense and attack honed by hours upon hours of kata. When Iruka blinked away the exhilaration of the fight, of feeling his body and swords dance with hard-earned skill, he found his kodachi thrust clean through the other man's gut, angled sideways and down. His fist was pressed against the man's shirt; blood seeped out over his fingers.
A kidney strike, from the front. Scroll-illustration perfect.
Iruka stumbled back and let the man slide off his kodachi. The ninja's eyes were angry, but oddly resigned, and he fell without a sound.
"Fucking liar," the kunoichi spat. "You can. I'm not going back to the Sand to face trial. Give me a clean death, Leaf-nin, me and Masato. You owe us that much."
Yes, Iruka though, I owe you. If you hadn't distracted me, I might have been able to stop that man before he surprised me, before he made me stop thinking. You made me into a killer. And yet, she was also right in the way she'd meant her words. He'd destroyed her chance of fighting again. She was a criminal, but she was still a person, and he owed her something for that.
It was easier to hack through the bleeding man's neck, and Iruka felt a tiny thrill at knowing his aim was true and he'd judged the force of his strike closely enough to keep his blade from scraping against the rock. All those years of training weren't useless. He wasn't useless. He wasn't weak.
"That's Masato," the kunoichi said. "Now me." She tilted back her chin and spread her arms wide, giving him a clear shot at all her vital points. She wasn't pretty -- her nose was long and slightly hooked, her hair was ragged and greasy, and her body was whittled thin from harsh living -- but there was something beautiful about her dark eyes, her pointed chin, and her refusal to scream from the pain in her knee.
"What's your name?" Iruka asked.
"Shino Ai. Do it now."
Then he slumped against the rocks, and cried.
Iruka went back to the academy in the autumn. He felt off-balance for the first week, unsure that he should be around children when he'd killed in cold blood, but he found the little brats oddly soothing. They knew he was dangerous -- he was a ninja, so of course he was dangerous -- and they didn't care. They told him he was boring and his stories were dumb, but he was still cooler than their other teachers.
When one girl, barely ten years old and built like a fragile bundle of twigs, hugged his waist and told him she liked his classes best, Iruka had to excuse himself and hyperventilate in a bathroom for several minutes.
The next day, he woke up smiling for the first time in two months.
Kaoru-sensei stopped by Aunt Sadako's house a few days thereafter, to say that Chizuru had complimented his performance on missions that summer, and to ask if he'd be interested in working with her on scouting missions until the next chuunin exam.
Iruka shook his head. "I think I'm more useful where I am."
Kaoru-sensei shrugged. "It's your life. You were a good student, and I wish you luck. Just remember that those children will be ninja; don't coddle them." She whistled for her dogs and strode off down the street.
"I don't coddle them," Iruka said to Aunt Sadako, who'd been eavesdropping from the kitchen. "It isn't coddling to expect them to have some respect for life, and for what they're choosing by becoming ninja. It isn't coddling to let them know that living can be harder than dying."
Aunt Sadako smiled. "I'm not the one you have to convince, Iruka-kun."
"I know," Iruka said, flushing. He rubbed his scar. "I'm just frustrated -- I try to explain things, but it's hard when I don't have any real classes. If the kids only see me when I'm teaching them new ways to be violent, they don't take me seriously when I tell them that violence isn't always the answer."
"So I need to be a full teacher, not just an assistant."
"Well, for that, you need to be a chuunin -- and you don't trust yourself in the exam, do you?" Aunt Sadako spooned up a bit of ramen broth and tasted it. "I think you'd do well. Actually, I think you might have passed already if you'd had a different jounin-sensei. Iinuzuka Kaoru would do fine for most ninja, but not for ones who want to understand the secrets of life as well as the secrets of the shinobi's art."
"Kaoru-sensei is a good teacher," Iruka snapped. "She taught me a lot, and she's the one who told me to try working at the academy."
"True, true, but you heard her just now -- she still doesn't understand you. She doesn't see anything wrong with the academy as it is."
Iruka sighed as he set out bowls on the kitchen table. "Most people don't."
"And that's why the children need a teacher like you, Iruka-kun. Now stop brooding; it's time to eat."
If someone had walked up to Umino Iruka when he was seventeen years old and told him that six years later he'd be the most beloved teacher in the academy -- and the one who consistently turned out the graduates who had the best chance of surviving as genin while still being reasonably well-adjusted human beings -- he would have scratched the base of his ponytail and said he didn't think he'd ever manage anything that spectacular, but it would be a nice goal to keep in mind.
He didn't care much about reaching jounin anymore. He'd almost forgotten that Sarutobi Hokage-sama actually knew who he was, and he certainly didn't think he'd had any undue help reaching his current position. He had run, and failed, and fought, and killed, and carried on. He was a ninja -- a good one -- and he thought he might be a good person as well.
Iruka wasn't completely sure it was possible to be both at once, but at least he was trying.
AN: Thank you for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.