CHAPTER 1

IF THERE BE THORNS

" Hatake Kakashi ? "

The Chuunin sat staring at the third Hokage of Konoha for a few moment. His expressive brown eyes were wide with disbelief. Having struck speechless by the news, Umino Iruka slowly tried to clear his mind and assessed the situation and possibilities calmly. He knew that Naruto and his teammates would be undergoing their first run-test with a new instructor. Yes, he was fine with that, but never in his wildest dream that the instructor would be the notorious Copy Ninja himself.

" Why Kakashi-sensei ? " he asked slowly, trying to decipher the rationale behind the decision " Surely there are others that is more suitable. A lower ranked ninja perhaps. "

" It was Kakashi's request "

" What ? " the Chuunin gasped and slowly sank onto the chair in front of the Hokage's desk. His mind was whirling so much with unanswered questions that he felt suddenly dizzy.

The old ninja master sighed and leaned back against his chair. He had anticipated this reaction from the young man, but what he was not prepared was the intensity.

He knew that Iruka was very protective over his former students especially Naruto. It was something he realized from the beginning. Having shared similar childhood past with much lost and loneliness, the two somehow managed to connect where others could not. Naruto sees Iruka as a brother and Iruka in turn, in spite of the Kyuubi that was trapped within, treated the hyperactive boy like his adopted son.

To all, things were going more or less their way up until Kakashi came into the picture.

With much concern, the Hokage eyed the young Chuunin thoughtfully. Iruka was always known to be vocal with his opinions and at that moment, seeing him so silent was unnerving.

" Iruka, are you agreeable to this ? " the Hokage asked slowly gauging the Chuunin's mood. There was a frown marring Iruka's face, indicating that he was deep in thoughts. Perhaps he is contemplating on his next move, the Hokage thought at first before a sudden frightening possibility hit him; or could it be that he might even confront the Jounin himself.

He knew it was a ridiculous, but then again, anything was possible when it came to the seemingly shy teacher.

The idea of the mild mannered sensei engaging in a battle with the ex-Anbu sent a shiver down his spine. There was no way on earth that Iruka could ever match the elite Jounin and the thought of Iruka being hurt was disheartening.

However, the old ninja master kicked himself mentally for berating the young Chuunin. Iruka was not totally defenseless. He was a shinobi in his own right, and the only Chuunin entrusted to ever carry an A class mission.

It was very, very rare that a middle-ranked ninja is entrusted with such a high ranked task, but Iruka was special and everybody knew that. He should have become a Jounin a long time ago, but he remained in the lower ranked position by choice and the old ninja master understood the underlying reason for such a decision.

Besides, Kakashi would never hurt a fellow shinobi of the village intentionally…

Especially Iruka, he added to himself with a knowing smile.

" Hokage-sama ? ", Iruka's gentle voice reeled him back from his musing

" Yes ? "

" Hokage-sama " Iruka started, slowly forming his sentence " Why did Kakashi-sensei picked team 7 to train ? "

" I would not know of his motives " he said slowly " But one thing is definite. I trust Kakashi's judgment in such matters "

" But he has never passed any of the students under him "

" Hai " Sandaime nodded in agreement to that bit of fact " Kakashi has indeed high expectations and I am sure that it is with good reasons too "

" What will happen to them ? "

The old ninja master sighed " At this point, even I am unable to predict the result of the run-test ", he answered honestly.

A long and uncomfortable silence proceeded and during that time, the Hokage studied the Chuunin's face intently, noticing the mixed emotions that crossed his beautiful features. It's been a long time since he last saw the young man this unsettled. And this above all worried him.

" Promise me Iruka " he said gently " What ever the outcome, please…please do not hate Kakashi for it "

Iruka did not give his answer to that request. Instead, he slowly got up, bowed his respect and excused himself. " I will take my leave now " he said evenly " I apologize for taking too much of your time on trifle matters "

" Do you care for Naruto ? " the Hokage called out suddenly as the young Chuunin was about to open the door.

" Of course I do. You know that "

" Then such things are not trifle "

x x x x x

Hate Kakashi….

Hate Kakashi….

Hate Kakashi…

That was something he's been trying to do for the past ten years.

He kept convincing himself again and again that the silver-haired Jounin was a selfish, self-centered, perverted porn reader and an inconsiderate jerk who does not deserve his sentiments. And that, He, Umino Iruka was much better off without such a presence in his already complicated life.

However….

His heart has always been a stubborn bastard. And this, above all was the root of his current predicament.

A mentor…

A friend…

A brother…

Kakashi was once all that to him and he could not find it in his heart to hate the man in spite of all the pain he had caused him throughout the years. There were too many history between them, too many memories that could never be erased by simple hatred.

Maybe that was why he kept trying to go around the situation instead of addressing it. He could never confront Kakashi and demanded an explanation.

His pride will never allow it….

x x x x x

Later that day……

" We passed ! Iruka-sensei, we passed ! "

Iruka could only let out an odd sound of surprise before he was nearly bowled over by an ecstatic bundle of hyper energized boy draped in a ridiculous orange outfit. Luckily he managed to secure some impressive moves that prevented him from tumbling backwards from the impact.

" Naruto ! What the….."

" We passed ! We passed ! " cried the blonde boy again in utter happiness as he flung his arms around his former teacher's neck in abandoned affection. After recovering himself, the baffled sensei finally managed to gather his scattered mind back and digest the information. Gently he lowered the boy back on the ground.

" You passed the run-test ? " he asked, not trusting himself to believe what he just heard.

" Hai. Are you proud of me ? " Naruto asked beaming up at him as bright as the sun " Ne ? "

Iruka smiled tenderly at the boy and affectionately rumpled his unruly hair " Hai Naruto, I am proud of you "

The blonde boy smiled and hugged his sensei, returning the gesture with mutual fondness " I'm glad " he whispered and nuzzled the elder's stomach.

" Now, this calls for a celebration ne ? "

" Ramen ! "

x x x x x

Meanwhile……

High above the unsuspecting village, a lone silver-haired ninja sat crouched on top of one of the rooftops looking at the scene before him intently. Silhouette against the darkening sky, one might easily mistook his tall, lean form as a statue if it were not for his mismatched eyes that seemed to be focused on the Chuunin-sensei and his new loudmouthed charge.

His eyes softened when he saw the blatant affection between the Genin and the Chunin-sensei. He could clearly see that the bond between the two was strong and neither even bothered to conceal it to the onlookers.

Some ninjas might regard such open display of affection as tasteless and even unethical under the shinobi code, but to the silver-haired Jounin, the gesture only confirmed that underneath their somewhat indifferent facade, shinobis were all human after all.

The ironic theory brought a smile to his face which slowly turned into a frown.

Human…

Could a blood-stained ninja like himself be considered as human ?

How long has it since he last felt human ?

He was already Konoha's most ruthless killing machine by the age of thirteen, and through the years, he has killed so many people that he forgot the true meaning of remorse. Emotion was something he could not afford and he knew that when he had to give up the one person whom he cared for more than anything in the world.

To keep his best friend safe, he gave up his conscience, his heart and indirectly his soul.

The Copy-nin eyed the two figures sadly and was surprised at how such a simple gesture of affection could brought forth all the unwelcome memories which he kept buried deep inside his mind. He thought he was over this, but deep down inside he knew that he could never relinquish his most solitary hope that someday, somehow, fate would be kind enough to let him be happy like he was before.

And maybe, just maybe he would be given a chance to explain to Iruka why he had to sacrifice their beautiful friendship.