"I don't think they're ready for this," huffed Iruka, leaning indignantly against the wall of the missions office. It was evening. Iruka watched, angrily, as the sun slipped away. When it rose tomorrow, Naruto would be on his way to Grass Country with Sakura and that man.

It was not as though he hated the man. It was a mild distaste for his mannerisms, really. Not the entire person. He knew too little about him to hate him. After all, he hardly saw the mysterious jounin, except when he turned in his reports or bumped into him in the streets. He could go for months without hearing a word about the particular person, or if he did, it was with disinterest. Only when he did something completely careless and irresponsible did the full magnitude of Iruka's distaste surface. Only when it involved the wellbeing of his students. That was when he hated Kakashi. And he hated Kakashi now.

"Hm." Genma twirled his senbon, and looked out the window.

"Exactly! It's too soon after he left." Iruka paced the floors. "I just think they should wait a little."

"Who should wait?" The voice belonged to neither of them.

Genma and Iruka spun around. Kakashi stood in the doorway, holding a mission report. Iruka shot him a harsh glare. He always showed up when he was being talked about.

"Y-you!"

Kakashi feigned surprise. He sauntered to the desk and placed his report onto a stack of others.

"It's not as though I can choose which missions I'm assigned, Iruka-sensei. Take this up with Tsunade-sama." And he always knew why he was being talked about. At least it saved the academy instructor the effort of bringing it up himself.

Still, Iruka had to take a deep breath so as not to march into the jounin's face.

"You can't tell me that an elite jounin has absolutely no control over his missions."

"Actually, I don't," Kakashi muttered, flicking a crumpled scrap of paper off the desk. "But you're a chuunin. What would you know about it?" He turned, a smile in his eye. Iruka reddened; he ground his teeth. Unfortunately, it was true; there was no comeback. Still, that didn't mean that Iruka would stand for it as an insult.

"You just remember, if either of them is harmed, it'll be your head," Iruka wagged a finger threateningly in Kakashi's direction.

"Oh hoho," chortled Genma from far in the corner. Iruka ignored him.

"We are ninja, Sensei. Harm is a part of the job," Kakashi brushed past him, cold, as he would brush past a stranger in a crowd. He was halfway out the door when he turned. "We leave at 5 o'clock sharp, if you want to kiss us goodbye." The Copy-Ninja grinned, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"You--! You don't care about them at all, do you!?" Iruka shouted into the dissipating cloud.

Genma started to laugh.

"Well you really let him have it."

Iruka slumped against the wall.

"Shut up, Genma." He tossed his pencil, halfheartedly. Sulkily.

"Maybe you should try doing that yourself," sassed Genma. "Kakashi's going to hate you if you keep butting heads with him." Iruka scowled.

"I don't care what he thinks of me." The pony-tailed chuunin plopped angrily into his chair, and looked at the clock. Eleven hours until they left. Iruka held his head in his hands, frustrated. It didn't seem to matter what he did. Kakashi would never listen to him. He could hear Genma walking out the door. His shift was over; there was no reason for him to hang around.

"You know, it's not easy for him to take this mission, either. If you know anything about him and Grass Country, I mean."

The jounin slid his senbon into a pouch, without another word. The door swung lightly closed behind him. What was that supposed to mean?

He sighed, dejected. It was silent. Utterly silent. The fluorescent light flickered. The door creaked open again, and a crowd of chattering chuunin filed in to hand in their reports. Iruka sighed again, and put on a cheery face. Five o'clock it would be, then.

- - - - - - -

Kakashi stood with his team outside the great gates of Konoha. The sky was a dark glowing blue; the sun was just beginning to rise. A few birds chirped short, clipped conversations. He had only taken the first steps down the road when he heard the gates reopen.

"Iruka-sensei!" Shouted Naruto, and sprinted back to greet his onetime teacher. Sakura glanced up at Kakashi, and he nodded for her to follow the yellow-haired boy. The three chatted briefly - familiarly, Kakashi noted - and then Naruto and Sakura returned. Naruto gestured for Kakashi to come closer.

"He wants to say something to you," Naruto whispered in his ear. What was it about people that made them whisper when no one was around, Kakashi wondered.

"About what?"

The boy shrugged. Kakashi sighed. He walked, with a particularly exaggerated laziness, to meet the Academy instructor at the gates. Iruka had his hands on his hips, but not angrily. At least, he was trying not to look angry. This was diplomacy.

"Kakashi-san."

"Iruka-sensei."

There was an awkward pause.

"Good luck," murmured Iruka, eyes askance. He looked up, scratching his scar, and lips stuck in a stubborn frown. Kakashi nodded, and began to walk away. Iruka sniffed, feeling, as in all his dealings with the silver-haired jounin, completely shortchanged. He turned his back on the other, heading again into Konoha.

"I protect my precious people," he heard, quietly murmured by the slouched, retreating form. It had been lighter than the wind that carried it. When Iruka spun around, he saw only the back of Kakashi's head as he strolled, slowly, away, hands plunged in his pockets. His was a solemn profile, and it did not match with the cheerful sunrise, or the bright orange of Naruto as he waved enthusiastically from up the road. Iruka gave a weak wave back. He watched the three disappear on the horizon.

The gates of Konoha closed between them.

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