A/N: I'm not even going to begin to try to come up with an explanation for how long this took. I feel like a failure. -_-
"So that went pretty well," Naruto murmured, walking slowly with his hands in his pockets; Leaf trotted at his side, warm brown eyes trained upon the Genin. "They liked you. That's good, right?" He smiled. "I'll bet you liked them too. Yeah, they're really great. You have no idea how lucky we are to have them."
Leaf barked, and Naruto grinned. "Right, right - dinner!"
And then he froze midstep, senses on high alert. His eyes scanned the road, and he cursed himself for taking it. It was narrow, and the walls on each side were tall.
Not the ideal place to outnumbered, he thought bitterly. But when is it ever ideal?
And sure enough, as the men revealed themselves, stepping out of shadowed doorways, Naruto sighed gustily. "Do any of you have actual - y'know, lives? 'Cause this is kind of ridiculous."
"I wouldn't talk so much, demon," one of them sneered, advancing. "You don't know the first thing about lives - all you know is how to ruin them."
Shaking his head, Naruto took a step forward, rotating his shoulder - and Leaf moved up with him, stiff-legged and bright-eyed.
"No no no," Naruto said at once, dropping to his knees and dragging the dog back with both arms. "This is not where you come in." Leaf strained forward anyway despite the boy's best efforts, a low growl forming in his throat. It was enough to make the villagers hesitate, but not for long.
"Why attack them?" Naruto whispered, struggling to keep hold of him as the men drew nearer. "They haven't done anything to you."
"Sorry to interrupt."
Naruto felt his heart swell with relief so fast it hurt, and he glanced back quickly; unsure whether or not he should feel relieved or ashamed, and uncaring either way - because he knew that voice.
And Kakashi stepped forward, inclining his head slightly in Naruto's direction. Naruto was happy to take the hint, attempting to dog-wrangle his charge out of harm's way.
Then one of the nameless, faceless villagers - a man Naruto might never have been able to pick out of a crowd, would never have harbored any particular ill-will towards - recovered enough from the sudden threat of a second shinobi to speak. "Why do you defend him?" he spat. "That monster?"
His words slurred and Naruto wrinkled his nose in distaste at the heavy smell of alcohol. The words themselves didn't exactly bother him - he heard things like that a lot. So he ran his fingers absently through Leaf's fur, murmuring things that sounded soothing and smiling a bit when the dog relaxed with a grumble and allowed his ears to be scratched.
He jumped a bit when Kakashi said his name and scolded himself for it as he turned to glance at his teacher who was standing much closer in a much emptier street.
"I know I mentioned something to you about fighting back," the Jounin mused almost conversationally, strolling back to him like they'd just met in the market on a sunny afternoon.
Naruto scowled up at him. "Well, I kinda had my hands full." He redirected the frown at Leaf, who barked. "He freaked me out, going for them like that."
Kakashi gave him a long look, before sinking into a crouch to regard the dog. And after a second, Naruto realized he hadn't explained the animal in any way to his teacher, and pulled Leaf closer almost subconciously. Somehow, his friends finding out was okay; anything they said would run off him like water off a duck, and besides, they knew Naruto well enough not to try to fight him on something he had a strong stand on. Even Iruka was more likely to leave a matter alone when Naruto planted his feet and crossed his arms, so long as Naruto's health wasn't on the line. Naruto was stubborn like that.
But Kakashi was stubborn too. And he could take Leaf away. Somehow - Naruto wasn't sure how he did it, but somehow Kakashi could make things that made sense seem stupid. And make something worth doing seem like a waste of time. And if he wanted to, he could make Naruto get rid of his dog.
Naruto clutched Leaf tighter, staring resolutely at his golden fur. He could feel his teacher's eyes on him now, and wondered how much of a fight he'd be able to put up against a firm "no" from the gray-haired man. The fact that it was a fight he could lose scared him.
Losing scared him. He couldn't afford to lose what little he had.
"You know," Kakashi said suddenly, bringing a hand up to scratch behind Leaf's ears, "he was probably ready to fight them because he could sense they wanted to hurt you."
Naruto's head snapped up, and Kakashi eye-smiled at him.
"Dogs aren't like people, Naruto. They don't need a reason or an excuse to protect what's important to them."
"Leaf - sit."
Their audience clapped when the Golden retriever promptly obeyed, tail dusting the ground and tongue lolling as he watched the orange-clad boy before him intently.
Iruka sat with his chin cupped in his hand, watching Naruto and Leaf run through all their tricks with a smile on his face. The blue-eyed menace was surprisingly patient when it came to his four-legged charge, and in a week or so had the basic commands down. And so, reasonably enough, started making some up.
"Dance!" Leaf rose to his hind feet and hopped around; Iruka laughed before he could help it and Naruto beamed at him as though it were the greatest compliment the Chuunin could've offered. "Alright boy, we're done for today. Take a bow!" Leaf jumped on him instead, knocking him into the grass and washing his face enthusiastically.
Iruka watched them roll around from where he sat; content to let the sound of that laughter wash over him. It had been too long since he last heard it, so happy and unrestrained.
And when Naruto ran towards him, Leaf hot on his heels, Iruka opened his arms for the boy to dive into, dizzy with so much love for Konoha's hated demon child, and breathless with relief that he hadn't lost him.
Looks like you haven't taken everything from me after all, Sasuke.
There were still shadows in that young, scarred face, but maybe now there was a chance Naruto wouldn't be lost to them. And Iruka would cling to that hope until he absolutely had to let it go.
He wasn't sure if the dog was a good idea. It was more unneeded stress, another mouth to feed. Just something else for Naruto to worry about. One more thing for him to put before himself. And the dog might have an owner, someone who was out there looking for him-
But Kakashi the teacher stepped up beside Kakashi the ninja and opened his eyes.
He's happy. For the first time since you found him in the rain, he's smiling.
So he shoved all the concerns to the back of his mind and ruffled sunshine blond hair, reveling in the way those blue eyes lit up like the sky in June and those thin arms came so firmly around him in a desperately grateful embrace.
It'll have to be okay for now. For his sake.
(Part 6) -