There was snow everywhere, piled up in doorways, weighing down roofs and ankle deep in the streets which had not been cleared. It was unusual for Konoha but the younger generation had no problem adjusting to it. There were snowmen littering the roads, grinning with mouths of rope or rocks or in one case he was pretty sure it was chocolate. Occasionally, snowballs would hurtle through the air. Sometimes the culprits were children, out in the open or hiding inexpertly in shadowed doorways. The dangerous ones were from the older children who were better at hiding and more than once he'd had to dodge fifty or so snowballs in fairly well planned ambushes. He had dodged them, of course, even though he could have let them hit him. What kind of sensei would he be if he didn't teach?

He'd known about the ambushes before he'd walked into them, of course. He wouldn't be a shinobi (or at least not a living one) if he couldn't sense that. Most of his concentration was in keeping an eye out for Naruto. To say that the kid had greatly improved was an understatement and Iruka wouldn't put it past his favorite student to try and nail him in the back of the head. It had been a while since he'd talked with Naruto. Oh, he'd seen him but it had been a while since they'd eaten ramen together. Naruto was where he belonged now, among his peers, the bright loud center of attention. That's what kids did, right? They grew up; they went on and hopefully survived into adulthood. Either way you learned to let go when you had to and keep everything you could tucked close to your heart. Even if what you treasured hurt you, sad memories, empty longing, cutting into you and leaving wounds like paper cuts that no one else could see but you could feel them there.

"You got depressed in a hurry."

Iruka jumped a mile at the sudden voice right next to him and in an instant kunai where in his fingers. Kakashi stared back at him impassively, (though did he really have any other expression?), one hand scratching his nose, the other holding a copy of Icha Icha Revisited.

"You scared the hell out of me," Iruka said, putting his kunai away. He would have liked to add a line about accidentally turning Kakashi into a pin cushion if it wasn't so frankly laughable.

"Sorry," said the jounin, though he didn't sound like he meant it. As if that was all he had to say, Kakashi lifted the book a little and thumbed through a page. Iruka decided to play along and, noticing a splash of yellow on the bottom, pushed the book up with his index finger so he could get a better look at it and saw it was a limited edition. How Kakashi had gotten his hands on it was anyone's guess.

"Naruto's going to try his hand at writing one," Kakashi said, thumbing through another page.

"Where is he going to get the material?" Iruka said dryly. As far as he knew, Naruto hadn't even kissed a girl yet. (Or a guy, said some distant part of his mind which Iruka shoved back and locked down before it had a chance to breed.) Kakashi shrugged.

"He has been getting closer to Sai lately."

"What?" If Iruka had been walking he would have frozen in place. Given that he was standing still all he could do was stare at Kakashi who seemed absorbed in his book. It wasn't… It couldn't be… Naruto wasn't… No one who could make a jutsu like that could possibly be… Of course given the way Konohamaru modified it… but still…

"You're joking," Iruka said. Kakashi smiled, eye closing.

"I am."

Iruka rolled his eyes upward. God. Twice in one day. Of course, it had been rather foolish to believe Kakashi right away. Then again, he could have been telling the truth too. Or even lying about lying. You never really knew with Kakashi. Iruka started walking again and Kakashi fell in step behind him. A chill wind blew from the south and Iruka buried his hands in his pockets. The clouds were low and gray. It looked like more snow would be—

Wait a minute.

"What do you mean I got depressed in a hurry?" Iruka said, turning on Kakashi who stopped and blinked at him. "How long have you been following me?"

"Since you left the house," Kakashi said. Iruka stared at him. Kakashi stared at his book. Questions flitted through Iruka's head one after another. He didn't even know what to say. How did you react to a statement like that? Without even looking up, Kakashi reached out and nudged Iruka to the side just as snow from an overhanging roof fell into the place Iruka had been standing. The movement jarred some sensibility back into him.

"Can I ask why?"

"You can," Kakashi said, tucking his book somewhere in his coat. "Have you shopped for the winter celebration yet?"

"No, and don't change the subject." He wasn't going to let Kakashi get him off track. Not that he was particularly frightened of Kakashi following him but some explanation would be nice.

"Do you have any ideas what I can get for Naruto? I want to get him something but I'm not sure what would be appropriate." Kakashi asked with a smile that seemed somehow different from the last one. "I haven't shopped for the winter celebration in a long time."

"Hmm," Iruka said, folding his arms and staring off into the distance as if he was thinking. Truthfully, he'd never brought Naruto anything either. Winter celebration was a time when you bought gifts for families, close friends and lovers. Iruka hadn't had any in so long that he'd gotten out of the practice himself. Neither had Naruto, of course, and he must have felt the absence of gifts more deeply than Iruka ever did.

"We could pay Naruto's ramen expenses for a year," Iruka said, then inwardly flinched. Because nothing said "I care" more than food. Sure Naruto always seemed happy when they ate ramen together, but they ate ramen together a lot, (though not so much anymore.) It was such a mundane thing. What could he get him? What did Naruto need? What did he want for that matter. Oh god, did he just say "we"?

"You know," Iruka continued with a big bright false smile. "Because it would take both our salaries just to keep it paid." He laughed a little. Oh god. Please buy it. He prayed silently to whatever deity would listen. Please do not let him get the wrong idea.

"That's a good idea," Kakashi said. For the third time…(or was it the fourth?) Iruka was reduced to staring at the man with no clear idea what to say. Was it really? It couldn't be that good of an idea. Could it?

"You think so?" Iruka asked, scratching at his cheek in an attempt to appear casual. Either that or he looked like an idiot. However, wavering between scratching and not scratching was even stupider so Iruka settled for shoving his hand back in his pocket just for something to do.

"It doesn't have to be an unusual gift to be important. Sometimes just letting someone know you care, even with a simple thing, is better than nothing," Kakashi said, taking out his book again.

"Well with the way that the boy eats it's not going to be cheap," Iruka said with a smile, though struck by Kakashi's words. Could such a simple thing really matter that much? On the other hand he'd always been amazed at what could motivate Naruto, what could light up his day.

"I don't think so either," Kakashi said. "You can start. I'll pick up the slack when the funds get low." With that, the jounin turned and started to walk back the way they had come.

"Oh no you don't. We're paying equally, half and half," Iruka called after him. He was not about to be caught by that. He was a sensei damnit and he knew words.

"All right," Kakashi said.

"I mean it."

Kakashi waved over his shoulder in acknowledgement. He'd better acknowledge it, Iruka thought, turning around. Naruto ate like a horse and it would take a lot just to- He blinked as he felt something in his coat pocket that had not been there before. What in the… Closing his hand around the strange thin object, Iruka tentatively pulled it out. It was a candy cane with a small elegant bow wrapped around it and a tiny piece of paper dangling on a string that said, for Iruka. Not Iruka-sensei so it was obviously not from Naruto and it had obviously not been in his pocket a few seconds ago.

Had Kakashi--? Iruka turned but of course Kakashi wasn't there. Iruka stared at the candy cane, then the snow where Kakashi's footprints abruptly vanished not a few steps away. The man's voice echoed in his head 'Sometimes just letting someone know that you care…' Did that mean he--? If he did in what way? Not that it mattered in one way because there could only be one way. As friends! He shouted inwardly as his mind went springing off in an entirely different direction. But…he…didn't really…know Kakashi all that well.

Yet. Said a voice in the back of his head. A whisper. A promise. A warm shiver went up his back and he tried to ignore it. Tried to ignore all the signals that the rest of his body was sending to his brain. It was simply not going to happen. He refused it. All of it. Until proof presents itself.

No. Never. Ever. Understood? Iruka shook his head, trying to get his thoughts back under some control. Unwrapping the end of the candy cane he took an experimental nip, expecting peppermint. Mmm. He lowered his eyes as the taste crossed his tongue. It was unexpectedly sweet.




Night Mare