a/n: If I make any mistakes in either characterization or canon then please poke me, Kakashi is tricksy, Iruka perhaps even moreso. And this is like, not-really-romance-but-treading-the-line-to-romance.

Yes. I hope to write them more sometime, this is my first attempt, and hopefully not my last.

started: January 10th 2006

finished: January 12th (just barely, mind you) 2006

for: 31days of livejournal

Also, light spoilers for some of the more recent chapters. (and by 'recent' I mean post time skip, if you will)

Iruka collects strays.

Always after work his visits the market, brings home milk for stray cats, makes a routine of buying breadcrumbs for pigeons and scraps of meat for wandering dogs and other lost forest animals.

He spreads the breadcrumbs out on his way to work, a trail of fluttering wings and cooing marks his path, like living footprints over the cobblestones of alleys on the road to work.

The cats wait for him to come home. Some are tame enough that they twine around his legs as he carries the groceries in, tame enough that he can reach and stroke their ears and weave his fingers along their stripes. Others are especially wild, so wild that if he even moved an inch, they would bolt to the nearest shelter, yet they always come. Iruka worries if they don't, worries that some animal has killed them, and leaves an extra plate of milk and doesn't sleep well that night.

They aren't his, but if he doesn't take care of them then no one will.

He never lets this get in the way of his job or become an excess, because he has no family, he sees it as giving him a sense of purpose. It's a syndrome of something much larger, all the nights when he stayed up at night and wished that there wasn't just the oppressive dark, that there was some comforting sound of snoring or muttering, the quiet comfort of siblings tossing and turning in a nearby cot, but there was nothing but his own breathing and the realization that he was so utterly alone.

It comes out in milk poured out for stray cats which gather round like a noisy sort of family he never had. It comes out in his love of strays, how he roots for the underdog. Once, for the most troublesome student to ever grace his classroom, a little stray fox who plagued the town with all kinds of pranks, stealing food and defacing monuments, failing classes, but Iruka, for all his sternness, believed in the fox. fed him dishes of ramen and eventually saw and helped him pass.

"If you ever need a place to come back to..." he says carefully, choosing each word as if it would be the last exchange between them and even in the back of his mind he worries that it might be so.

And Naruto grins and says everything would be fine and that he'd make everyone proud by becoming the next Hokage, just you see.

His new teacher, leader and even guardian stares on at this exchange impassively before calling him away.

It's been so long, Iruka thinks, almost wistful. Two years already? Where has it gone? He goes through the normal routine, work, setting out milk for the neighborhood cats, coming home to an empty home, a bit of reading and then lights out.

As he's drifting towards sleep, Iruka is jolted by the sudden realization that he's not alone.

Whether an intruder or a stray animal looking for a meal, he can't be sure, but the soft noises are getting louder, closer, and even if it is more likely to be a stray dog searching for a meal, he can't take that chance. Iruka whispers a quick, terse cloaking jutsu and feels for a kunai near the side of his bed. He moves the door quietly, quietly, opens it as to not make a noise, and listens, trying to find the source of the sounds invading the peace of his home.

He slips soundlessly through the house, knuckles turned white from clenching the kunai. His nails are biting into his palms but he doesn't notice past the beating of his heart.

But it's not an intruder, not an animal but inexplicably, a jounin. Naruto's team leader, who now was going through the contents of his icebox. At 12AM.

"What are you doing here?!" Iruka demands, more confused than angry.

"You said I could stay," Kakashi says, almost drawling as he peers into the contents of Iruka's icebox.

"I said Naruto could stay" Iruka says, not sure whether to feel appalled or dismayed at the strange man now inhabiting his kitchen, so he settles on a combination of the two.

"I'm Naruto's teacher" Kakashi says absently, without turning to face Iruka. "I'll be gone by tomorrow morning" he says, continuing sifting through the icebox for food.

Kakashi looks scruffy in the moonlight, with his grey hair in a perpetual state of disarray, his clothes are dusty as if he's just withstood a long journey, there's a trace of dried blood running down the side of his right leg.

"Aa, no– It's ok. Afterall you are Naruto's teacher, and of course his friends – and his other teachers are welcome here as well" Iruka says, a hint of a blush dusting along his cheekbones. "I can make you something, here, let me."

"You'd make a good housewife"

"Whhhhat!" Iruka says, incredulous at such a remark.

"A joke." Kakashi says, with a lazy sort of smile (or Iruka guesses from his eyes) and sits down.

It seems almost as if he belongs, here in this place, this house.

When he gets home, Iruka sets the milk out for the cats, and he makes dinner.

There's no trace of his earlier visitor, nothing to prove that his presence wasn't just some conjuring of memory arranged into a convenient tale, some waking dream which disappears when touched.

He leaves an extra bowl of rice out, covered in a creamy sauce which he's proud to call a specialty of his own. (It's not that he lacks cooking skills, merely that he has no one to cook for)

He waits, not anxious despite his foot tapping, but there's nothing but the sound of his own breathing. Finally, he finishes his own food and leaves, deciding to turn in.

He remembers that some of the cats are wilder, they stay long enough to eat but don't wish for company, sometimes it takes weeks, months even years for them to warm up to him and let him get close enough to touch.

As he drifts off to sleep, there's a whisper of screen opening and soft unconcealed footsteps across the tatami mats.

Iruka smiles.

Work goes relatively smoothly, Konohamaru is following in Naruto's footsteps and someday's it seems as if all the students are plotting to cause him massive migraines.

He is able to leave work early and beeline towards the library. "I need to research for school, we're doing important figures soon" Iruka says to the librarian and is allowed into the archive without question.

Gathering the needed scrolls for school, he places them on a bench and moves towards the shelves again, flicking through alphabetized scrolls, until he finds his way to H and begins digging.

The entirety of the scroll isn't much, and the facts fail to illuminate much. "reached chuunin at age six, jounin at thirteen. " it continues on to chronicle notable events "fellow teammate died in battle at..."

"Wasn't he part of ANBU?" Iruka murmurs to himself, but finds no conclusive passage to support that. A rumor, perhaps.

Overall the information is sparse, nothing but dry facts which show little to why Kakashi appeared on his doorstep late at night and decided that this was a place where he could silently cohabit for unexplained reasons.

Shaking his head, Iruka closes the scrolls, placing them back on the shelves with great care, and thanks the librarian as he leaves.

The house is empty as he enters, a few of the more daring cats follow him in as he prepares the food, weaving into his path and hesitantly peering through the house, curiosity gets the best of them and they follow him farther in.

"You could've just asked."

Iruka flinches and almost drops the milk he's holding.

Kakashi moves out from the shadows, his expression indiscernible.

"I didn't think you'd tell." Iruka replies, uncomfortably aware of Kakashi's presence.

"Ah well, no harm done." Kakashi replies amiably.

He watches Iruka feed the strays, watches Iruka's happiness at taking care of all these unwanted creatures and thinks for the second time that Iruka would make a good housewife. The thought makes him smile.

This odd arrangement continues for a month and three weeks.

Everyday Iruka leaves out food and Kakashi stays somewhere in his house, his footsteps as light as raindrops on the roof. There's small hints in the ghosts of empty dishes and damp bath-towels.

They rarely talk, rarely even meet but Iruka finds this second presence comforting. Finds that he's sleeping better just by another person in his life, someone to take care of and someone who shares, partakes in his life, even how very little.

One day Kakashi simply isn't there, on the table was a bit of parchment, the writing so tiny Iruka has to strain to read it.

Was called away on a mission. If I am asked about don't answer.


There's no signature, and the scroll dissipates in a wisp of smoke as soon as he's finished reading.

When Iruka wakes up the next morning, two of his shirts are missing.

Kakashi's throat is dry, and his tongue feels like it could stick to the roof of mouth. His senses feel heightened with each pounding heatbeat.

It's not that he's fearless, only a fool would be without fear when there's danger creeping around every corner, a million ways to die in this fragile world of soldiers and constant warring.

It's that he's learned to deal with it, take the fear pulsing through him and bridle it, control it, master it.

The sky is bright with stars, he can make out constellations, planets even galaxies. A vermillion shaded Mars, stars with mythological feats attributed to them.

Iruka's shirt smells clean and fresh, like comfort, like home. It was taken impulsively, like a talisman, it feels warm against his skin and it reminds him of the quiet sounds of stray cats purring and how Iruka would speak softly and lean over them as if they were long-lost family members, how he would pick up a tamer one and laugh as it licked his chin.

It reminds him of home.

Every night, Iruka leaves out an extra placemat and makes an extra bowl of dinner, sometimes soup or ramen or rice with soy sauce, but always something. Night after night it's left uneaten and given to the animals in the morning.

He doesn't know how long this misson is to be, (He never did say what kind of mission it was, afterall) but he still cooks a second meal everynight lest it be tonight that Kakashi returns.

He leaves a lit candle in the window, a long known beacon for weary travelers, a lighthouse showing kindness and open arms, he watches the wax melt and slip down and the wick burn to nothing. When it has burned down to nothing, he replaces it with another, and another.

Two weeks and Iruka hasn't slept much, he never does when there's someone missing from his life. Worry eats at him from inside, gnaws like some stomach worm, twisting threads and cocooning itself off into moths which flutter all the way up his torso, making it hard to breathe, to focus on anything.

He remembers nights when he would stay up for hours calling the one cat who hadn't come that night, and then worry himself to sleep. He's not changed much throughout the years, matured, found his place in society but he's still the same boy who spent half the night taking care of injured strays, cleaning wounds until his eyes seemed to shut on their own accord.

Another week crawls by and still with no word, another candle and countless dinners made.

Tonight isn't any different.

There's a whisper of screen opening and footsteps soft on the tatami, to Iruka it sounds like rain in the desert, something that he's been waiting all his life for.

"You returned" Iruka says, sounding a great deal more pleased than he intended to.

Kakashi nods.

"Are you ok? Oh, sit down, let me make you something. I can run a bath in a minute."

"What are you now, my wife?" Kakashi says, amusement filtering into his voice.

And Iruka swats at him, intentionally missing, shoes him to the nearest chair, and begins to throw together a quick dinner which they can eat together.

The stray cats will have to wait a little longer.