Okay…. So this is rather late. But never mind! With some luck there will be another chapter forthcoming at some point. Anyway, please enjoy and remember it doesn't belong to me, but to Masashi Kishimoto, in case anyone was confused on that point. (^_^)
It seemed to Kakashi that everywhere he looked he saw the influence of Umino Iruka.
A few weeks ago this hadn't been the case; Kakashi had lived in a comfortable world where Iruka was filed away as a rather annoyingly opinionated and loud, but ultimately harmless and insignificant man. Now, thanks to an interesting evening in the man's company, he was being plagued with thoughts of the scarred chuunin that had forced him to investigate the suddenly remarkable man further. And once he started looking it was as though he couldn't stop.
At the present moment he was sitting concealed in a large, sturdy oak tree watching a group of children loitering outside the academy. This in itself would usually be no cause for interest but the fact that it was now the summer holidays (and as such no self-respecting student would usually be seen dead in the vicinity) had captured Kakashi's attention. He recognised most of them as guests from Iruka's Christmas party. Most of them were very young, maybe eight or nine, and they were obviously getting impatient although they hadn't been waiting long. They were squabbling among themselves, a couple of girls getting ready to pick a fight and a few boys obviously planning some mischief, if the exploding tags they were chuckling over were anything to go by.
It came as no surprise to Kakashi when Iruka arrived a few minutes later to a chorus of overly innocent greetings and a panicked scramble to hide the contraband. What did surprise him was the presence of two other ninjas that he wouldn't have expected Iruka to even have known. One, a tall, stern looking woman that he knew from his ANBU days as a deadly and elite warrior, was not the type to associate with low ranking teachers and their charges, at least in Kakashi's experience.
The other, a darkly intense man of middling years, he knew only by sight as one of Ibiki's most trusted and loyal captains but he would not have expected to find the man in Iruka's company either. Although it was certainly true that they both hopelessly outranked the teacher, this wasn't the reason that Kakashi was surprised to see them with him. He may have only started taking Iruka into consideration recently, but he already knew that bright, warm-hearted Iruka-sensei was more likely to earn scorn and disgust from such companions than respect or friendship. But here they were and, Kakashi reminded himself, he was now here to observe, rather than judge, so he made himself look more closely. Ah, there it was. He could see it now: a dark fragility in their eyes. A look he had seen in both himself and many others over the years, when loss and pain had become a crippling source of despair.
The two fearsome Jounin were hanging back warily, looking with some consternation at the group of children that Iruka was even now warmly greeting, ruffling hair, making enquiries, and scolding by turns. The children seemed to drink in the attention like plants photosynthesising briskly on a sunlit day and there were many cries for attention as a gabble of news was exchanged at a breakneck pace. Iruka took it all in with a broad smile for them all and it was a few minutes before he turned back to his adult companions.
"Kids, I'd like you to meet two of Konoha's finest ninja." He said, gesturing to the two behind him, "This is Hitomi-san and Sumino-san. They're going to help you train today while I'm busy!"
"But Sensei, we were supposed to go swimming today!!!"
Ignoring this outburst and the looks of stark horror and indignation on the faces of both parties, his grin widened, baring his teeth. He continued blithely.
"Hitomi-san, Sumino-san, these are the people I told you about. I promise you, you will find this a very…educational experience. Good luck, I'm sure you'll get along splendidly and then tonight I'll treat you all to dinner if you've worked hard." This statement seemed to encompass the adults as well as the children.
Iruka seemed happily oblivious to the high tension emanating from both his students and two adult companions. Kakashi almost wanted to warn him that two highly strung and extremely deadly warriors were about to snap and that he would be their prime target but his curiosity stopped him; he wanted to see how Iruka handled the situation. He had misjudged and underestimated the man before: he was not about to make the same mistake twice. Also, if all the information he had gathered over the last few weeks was anything to go by, this was sure to end in a far more unusual and interesting way than the bloody murder and messy disembowelment of one of Konoha's most enterprising teachers.
He was not disappointed. As he watched, Iruka continued speaking as though neither the students or Jounin were getting ready to protest loudly and violently.
"Now kids, I want you to pay close attention to your two new teachers. They are both Jounin of high renown and courage, they have been fighting and defending this village since before you were born. You may not have met them before but their efforts have kept you safe and as such your lives are indelibly linked. They can teach you things that I can't, things that may help keep you alive in the years to come. Do you want to be skilful ninjas or not? This is a great chance for you to learn from the masters!"
As he spoke Iruka had settled into a lecturing stance, hands on hips, his voice filled with enthusiasm and warmth. Whether he meant it to or not (and Kakashi, even after weeks of observation, wasn't entirely sure), something in his words or his tone had struck a note with the Jounin for something about them had loosened; their eyes were still haunted but a little warmth had crept into them.
The children had started to become more enthusiastic about the idea after all the talk of new skills with which they could no doubt wreck havoc but they did have one more complaint to make:
"But Sensei" One little girl whined, "You promised we could go swimming today."
"I hadn't forgotten, Miyuki-chan, I was hoping Sumino-sensei and Hitomi-sensei would taking you training near the lake, perhaps teach you some water jutsu. Would that be ok, Jounin-sama?" He turned to the two Jounin with an enquiring look.
He had done it. That look, the one that said: but surely this is what you intended all along. I knew how kind and dutiful you were. You won't disappoint me now, will you?
They both nodded slowly.
Minutes later, the new teachers were led off dazedly by their young charges, presumably to the river, with a cloud of excited discussion from the children about the many exciting, deadly, and gruesome skills their illustrious new tutors were undoubtedly going to teach them. Kakashi watched Iruka watch them go, and rather liked the mischievous smirk that played on the teacher's face.
As he watched Iruka turn and walk off in the opposite direction to the others, ponytail bouncing cheerfully with each purposeful stride, he found his heart warm in a most embarrassing way at the thought that there was a man like him in the world. He briefly considered following the mismatched group that Iruka had so neatly dispatched but by this point in his investigation he thought he could guess what would happen there:
If Kakashi were a betting man, he would have staked money on both the lonely children and the two haunted Jounin, without even realising it, easing each others' loneliness and pain, simply by spending a day teaching and being taught. Perhaps the children would remind the jounin of what it was they were fighting for while the jounin in turn, might show the orphans that they were important and cared for. Perhaps the new bonds that were formed in a day of wet and muddy practice and pranks would sow the seeds of a relationship that would continue to flourish and bloom and, perhaps, make the lives of all concerned a little warmer and easier…all because one nondescript, mediocre, cheerful, kind man happened to suggest they train together…
The more he observed and analysed, the more certain Kakashi was that Iruka-sensei, with his kind concern, overbearing compassion, and subtle insight, was the unseen and unnoticed force behind the happiness and mental stability of a large number of the village populace.
Of course, there was always the possibility that Kakashi's overworked brain and rich imagination were drawing intriguing conclusions where there were none to be drawn, but long experience (the keyword being 'long' - not a word often used when describing the shinobi lifestyle) told him that his instincts were right about this one: Iruka-sensei was far more than he appeared. And Kakashi wanted to know more.