The first few minutes of dinner were spent in relative silence as ten pets and two humans started eating rather enthusiastically after an exhausting day. The stiff scrape of chopsticks on their plates and the chewing and swallowing of food were the only sounds in the air and for a moment, Iruka could look around the dinner table and pretend everything was back to normal.
And then his gaze would land on a certain blond kitten, who was shooting pouty glares in Sasuke's direction while stabbing his tempura resentfully with a chopstick, and a sigh would well up in his chest. If he was honest with himself, Iruka had known from the moment he'd heard the word "heat" that nothing was ever going to be normal again.
When he'd first found Naruto, he'd had no intention of ever encountering a pet, much less getting one of his own. His late father had made enough money as a contractor for them to be able to live comfortably, but it was a known thing that pets were the playthings of the wealthy. He'd had two cats and a dog as a child, and Iruka chuckled internally now as he recalled thinking that a humanoid pet couldn't be so different.
He had taken Naruto in without a thought to the consequences. In a way it hadn't even been a conscious decision – there had been no contemplation, no consideration, no hesitation on his part. Naruto had taken rein of him the moment he looked into those clear blue eyes.
In some way he supposed it was because he saw himself in the kitten. He had been lost after his parents' death, wandering from city to city, ragged in appearance and broken in spirit. Finding something more vulnerable than himself, something so tiny and helpless yet still so determined had given him more strength than he could have ever imagined.
People had thought him a little bit crazy when they heard he'd adopted the blond kitten. He was dirty, mousy thing, with chipped teeth and mangy fur. And not only was Naruto filthy, he was also wild. Pets were valued based on how closely they could imitate a human despite their animalistic qualities, but it was obvious that no one had ever tried to tame the blonde. He spit and clawed and bit and even – Iruka choked as the memory flashed across his mind's eye – pissed on you.
He shook his head minutely at the countless pairs of curious eyes that looked up at the stifled sound. Kakashi looked curiously at the slight man trembling from suppressed humor besides him and found himself unable to look away. Captivated by his flushed cheeks and dancing eyes, Kakashi stared unabashedly as Iruka remembered.
It had been the first time Iruka had taken the blonde to a vet to make sure he didn't have any sort of contagious disease that could be seen as a health hazard. He had cleaned the kitten up as best he could at that point and he had thought he looked rather adorable but unfortunately the vet didn't think so. That moment, the exact moment the vet had given him a look of concealed disgust and Naruto had hissed violently in his arms, had been when Iruka realized how perceptive his kitten actually happened to be.
He had soothed him as best he could and, at times, held him down as the vet attempted to examine him without getting kicked in the face, but all of his coaxing fell apart when she announced that it was time for an injection. The blonde had gone wild in his arms, kicking and scratching and knocking things over (though Iruka distinctly remembered that he had never once tried to injure him) and the vet had quickly called in her assistant and strapped him to a chair.
Iruka himself had felt a spike of panic rush through him at the sight of the restrained blonde and had been about to call the entire appointment off, but Naruto took matters into his own hands. Or rather, penis.
Unable to hold back to the laughter this time, Iruka quickly excused himself and rushed to the kitchen before he doubled over the sink, shaking in silent mirth as he remembered the look on the woman's face as she had been sprayed rather enthusiastically with urine.
"Y-you.. that! Th-Get! Get that thing out of my office!" she had screeched, and when everyone had stared at her in stunned silence, she had grabbed Iruka by the shoulders and shoved him at the door. "GET OUT!" she'd bellowed as Iruka had hastily grabbed the blonde kitten and wrapped him in a towel, "AND TAKE THAT UNCIVILIZED BEAST WITH YOU!"
And Iruka couldn't be sure, but he swore to this day that the reason she had thrown an expensive monitoring device at the door and accidentally hit an unsuspecting patient had been due to the self satisfied smirk Naruto had thrown at her over his shoulder.
"Oh, god." Iruka gasped into the sink, still clutching at his stomach as another wave of laughter burst out of him. It was actually starting to hurt now - his ribs ached - but he couldn't seem to stop himself.
"I didn't peg you for one to lose it so quickly."
The laugh caught in his throat as he whirled to face Kakashi, who had once again silently crept into the kitchen without him noticing. The way the masked man was attempting to look nonchalant while obviously worried for Iruka's sanity caused him to erupt into giggles once more.
"So-Sorry," he managed between chuckles. "I, I just…"
Kakashi raised an eyebrow in question and Iruka shook his head helplessly. "It's all so surreal. Just this morning I was worrying about whether I could get that stain out of the carpet," he waved his hand vaguely towards a stain Kakashi could barely make out, "and now, a-and now I'm worried about if my male kitten can get pregnant!"
Another bout of laughter that held a tinge of desperation followed this statement, and Kakashi moved closer with a hidden frown, trapping the smaller man against the counter.
"Do you ever think maybe you just worry too much about everything?"
A cool grey eye blinked at him impatiently. "Giving yourself an ulcer won't help anything."
Iruka started, looking up at the taller man in bemusement. "What? I was just having a laugh."
Kakashi's eyebrows rose at that, and his slow drawl was dry. "If that's how you normally laugh, I'd hate to see you cry."
Iruka rolled his eyes. "Well, no, but this isn't a normal sort of situation." He looked out towards the dining room and sighed as the soft chatter of the pets drifted into the kitchen. "I really am in over my head, aren't I?"
"Which begs the question," Kakashi said slowly, following Iruka's gaze. "Why you have so many pets in the first place. I've seen one or two – sometimes three – in a household, but ten?"
Iruka got the feeling that he wanted to ask a lot more than he was allowing himself to.
"I… I hadn't planned on it," he replied with a shifty shrug, sliding past Kakashi and opening the fridge for no reason other than to occupy his hands. "They're not all mine, you know."
"Really." The sharpness of his voice caused Iruka to turn in mild surprise.
"Well, yes." He fidgeted with the handle, uneasy without anything to do. "Naruto and Chouji are mine, and the rest sort of… well, found their way here." Kakashi tilted his head slightly as a cue for him to continue, so he did.
"I picked Naruto up from the street four years or so ago. And Chouji… well, I discovered Chouji when I began to investigate what we thought was a rat infestation back when I worked as a chef." He laughed softly at the memory of finding a rather plump baby wolverine hiding in one of the lower cupboards and eating his fill of the kitchen's leftovers.
"Then, one of my father's good friends - Hyuuga Hiashi, you may have heard of him? – had an unexpected litter. He didn't want to keep them all, and…" Iruka faltered, and swallowed thickly as he remembered the cold, cruel eyes of the leader of the Hyuuga Clan. He looked uncertainly towards the dining room and Kakashi leaned forward in encouragement.
"He was going to… put down all but the healthiest one," Iruka managed to get out with difficulty, and Kakashi felt something in him tighten at the sight of the man so clearly in distress. "I heard about it too late. Three of them were already gone but Neji…" He sighed. "I knew he had some debts towards my father so I tried to convince him to keep Neji."
"And he refused?" Kakashi spoke up, and was momentarily startled by how soft his own voice sounded.
"No. No, he kept him. Treated him like trash, but kept him." Iruka's lips thinned in fury. "I worked for him for a short period of time. I saw how he, he would…" He shook his head, agitated, and Kakashi decided not to press the issue.
"And then I did something foolish." He laughed, but it held none of the amusement Kakashi had heard before. It was bitter, stiff, and Kakashi found it didn't suit the slight man in the least.
"You threatened to report him." He finished Iruka's thought for him, looking back steadily as quick brown eyes snapped up to meet his.
"I-yes, how did y—"
"I was a trainer," he said quietly. "I know the abuse of a pureblood humanoid is considered a felony."
Iruka nodded, momentarily appeased with the evasive answer. "He fired me instantly. Not only that, he had me shipped out of the city with a few threats of his own. So I found myself led here by my search for a job. Eventually, I got one as an editor, but I'd already bought this house and… well." He smiled and a bit of the previous light returned to his eyes. "You can see why I didn't want to leave."
Kakashi could see quite clearly. The house was almost unbearably cramped and small, especially for ten pets, but the surrounding scenery was breathtaking. The large lake stretching out behind the house as far as the eye could see had previously been a reservoir, so it was clean of pollution and shone like crystal in the sunlight. There were lush woods surrounding the tiny house on either side, and while it was a bit isolated from the village proper, it was close enough that help could arrive in a hurry if there was ever an emergency. It was the perfect location to raise a family, and though, Kakashi thought with a secret smile, while his wasn't the most conventional of families, Iruka was doing just that.
He wanted to ask Iruka how he had managed to nab it before some of the wealthier villagers did, but decided to save that line of questioning for later.
"We settled here quite nicely. Kiba belonged to the old butcher in the village – he had come about as sort of an inheritance – but the man had wanted nothing to do with a rambunctious pup ruining a business that was already close to falling apart so he decided to hand him over to me.
"Naruto and Chouji were already a handful then, but I," Iruka continued dryly, "in my astounding naivety, thought that they would keep each other busy."
Kakashi fought the urge to smile, something he found himself doing a rather lot in Iruka's presence, and then, realizing that his mask would cover any expression of amusement regardless, allowed his lips to twitch into a grin. "And the others? How did you manage to get Neji back?"
"Ah." Iruka sighed. "That wasn't until a few months ago. Hiashi died in a rather unexpected accident and his will hadn't been confirmed, so everything he owned was put on the market."
"Including his pets."
"Including his pets," Iruka confirmed with a nod. "But if you remember, there was a lot of controversy about the Pet Sale and Trade Act then, and the Clan didn't want to risk it. They didn't care much for Neji and Hinata anyway, and since selling them was out of the question… I didn't think about how many more pets I could keep. I just grabbed the chance when I had it.
"And then I brought them back here," Iruka continued. "Word spread pretty fast in the town. You know there is a summer resort just behind the hill, overlooking the lake from the other side? Taking vacation for more than just summer has become a popular thing now. And when all the businessmen and councilmen who had come here with their families and pets heard that I was running a pet service of sorts – that was the word that got around the village, mind – they started dropping them off over here.
"Some for a few weeks, others for the entire course of the vacation. The resort is meant to be a getaway; they don't want to have to look after their pets while they're trying to relax, and that I'm keeping them close by is a relief, considering how valuable they—"
A loud clatter from the dining room cut him off, followed closely by a yelled, "Kiba, I'll kill you!"
Iruka moved quickly towards the noise, but Naruto's exclamation had reminded Kakashi of something rather important. He grabbed Iruka's arm and jerked him back against his chest, refusing to acknowledge how startlingly attractive the slight man looked with his eyes widened like that.
"Sasuke," he started, only years of experience keeping the urgency from his voice. "You never told me how Sasuke got here."
Iruka gave him an odd look. "He wa—"
The sound of something expensive being smashed cut him off this time and Iruka wrestled his arm away from Kakashi's grip and ran into the dining room. His agitated voice carried back to the masked man in the kitchen.
"Naruto, w-what, what is going on in here?!"
Kakashi raised a hand and wearily rubbed his face as he sighed. His voice held a sardonic tinge as he spoke into the empty kitchen.
"How damn ironic is it that I got distracted from getting the information I wanted by the very man I was supposed to be distracting."
"So, Sasuke-kun…" Ino spoke up, twisting the long fur on her tail over her fingers. The oppressive silence at the table was making her twitchy, and she didn't like the looks that passed between Sasuke and Neji. After Iruka-sensei had snorted rather loudly into his food and excused himself and the masked man had followed, the tension had risen a hundred fold.
Realizing no one else was going to speak up, she graciously took matters into her own hands. "Does your eye hurt very badly?"
Sasuke didn't even acknowledge that she had spoken, but Ino continued, undeterred. "It looks painful, Sasuke-kun." She eased closer to him in that slinky, stealthy way felines did, and failed to notice the way his eyebrow twitched in irritation.
"Do you want me to lick it better?" she purred lasciviously, sliding her tongue over her top row of teeth before flashing her canines in a grin.
"No he does NOT, Ino, you pig!" Sakura shrieked in response, tugging the blonde Persian back as Chouji took advantage of the distraction and nabbed her tempura.
"What did you just call me, you little—" Ino turned back with a hiss, brandishing her claws as a no-fail intimidation tactic, seeing as the pink bunny had none of her own. "Hey, fatty, get away from my food!"
She grabbed for the stolen morsel but Chouji hurriedly popped it into his already stuffed mouth before she could. Ino screeched in affront and attempted to crawl across the table to strangle the wolverine as all the pets at the table twitched their ears flat against their heads to escape the awful noise.
"Get over here, you—" Ino slashed at the wolverine, but slipped on the mat and the tip of her claw caught the furry, sensitive edge of Hinata's ear instead. The timid Siamese gasped softly in pain, but any other noise was drowned out by the vicious growl that came from Neji's throat.
He snarled at Ino as he moved around the table and placed himself between her and a quivering Hinata. The Persian backed away quickly; Neji's overprotective behavior when it concerned his littermate was a well-known fact. Any damage done to Hinata in any shape or form would be returned with interest.
"I-It was an accident," Ino stammered, backing away until she reached Shikamaru and ducked hesitantly behind him. "It was stupid Chouji—"
"Shut up," Neji hissed, tail stiff and lashing. "Shut up and sit down."
Ino sat. Neji turned to Hinata and gave her ear a cursory glance before confirming that it was nothing he couldn't get revenge for later. He settled besides the shy Siamese, appetite lost, and worked on trying to bring his tail back from its bristled state.
The table fell into silence once again, but this time Ino was keen on keeping it that way. Kiba, unfortunately, wasn't.
"So what's it like being a girl, Naru-chan?"
"Who're you callin' a girl, shithead?!"
"Ooh, language, Naru-chan-"
"You—" Naruto sputtered in rage, jumping up from his mat but falling flat on his face as his tail caught in the large over shirt Iruka had made him wear and he lost his balance. Sasuke stiffened almost imperceptibly as Kiba guffawed at the blonde's lack of coordination.
"What are you talking about?" His voice was taut and quiet, but he knew the dog boy would be able to hear him.
Large furry ears swiveled in his direction and Kiba cocked his head. "I heard the guy with the mask say so in the bathroom that Naru-chan here was a girl."
"Half girl," Shikamaru said with an aggravated sigh, unable to let such blasé untruths go uncorrected.
Sasuke dimly heard Naruto and Kiba yelling over Shikamaru's explanation to the girls', but all he could think about right then was how he could have missed it.
"Don't tell me you've never heard of hermaphrodites?"
"Hermaphrodite. You know, they have both boy and girl par-"
"The little kitty's rolling in heat."
Heat. Sasuke felt his own body begin to heat as mortification washed over him like a wave. Heat. That's what it had been. He had been trying to… trying to mate. Sudden nausea rose in him and the onigiri he had just eaten roiled rebelliously in his stomach. Oh, god, not Naruto. Not Naruto, not him.
Desperation clawed inside of him and he tried to remain composed. He remembered everything in much more clarity now – the feel of Naruto underneath him, the mad urge to claw his way inside the blonde if only to make them one, the taste of his blood, the smell… the smell.
Spots danced in front of his eyes and he clutched the edge of the table as the memory sent pulses of heat through his body. He sensed rather than saw Neji turn towards him with a calculating air about him, but paid him no attention. All of his focus was pressed on one loud, blonde kitten.
Hermaphrodite, that's what the man had called him. Sasuke distantly remembered hearing that word before, or perhaps reading it, back when his mother had been around to tell him pointless stories about fantastical beasts and the havoc they caused on the world. Demons, she'd told him in a whisper, they're demons, not man nor woman but some strange mix of the two, with their bloody eyes and powers that devour the very soul. She had shuddered in exaggerated fear and curled a smaller version of Sasuke closer. It's best to be wary of such creatures, Sasuke. They define evil.
A sudden clatter caused his eyes to snap open, and he saw Naruto, a demon, in the form of an incensed blonde kitten – red in the face from yelling and waving his fists in the air as if to make himself look bigger, more intimidating.
He closed his eyes again, and saw in a blink the blood red eyes of his brother as he slit their mother's throat with a smile. No, Mother, he thought, oddly numb, you didn't recognize evil when you saw it.
"Kiba, I'll kill you!"
The war cry snapped Sasuke back to the present and he fought back a violent shudder as the remains of the gruesome memory pressed against his mind. He turned every bit of his attention on Naruto as if pulled by a magnet, tugging his mind from the past and into the now. The one thing Naruto could always do, if nothing else, was repel his memories.
His lips twitched in an infinitesimal smile as the blonde leapt across the table and tackled a taunting Kiba to the floor, smashing several expensive plates as he went about it. Sasuke was about to get up and calmly return to his post by the window, when a thunderous exclamation halted all of their activities.
"Naruto, w-what, what is going on in here?!"