Well, it's been just about a year since I joined ff(dot)net! To celebrate, I'm posting this old story from my collection.

Among the earlier of my Iruka-centric fics, I wrote this somewhat absurd story almost three years ago. While I left it intact and true to its original form, I've also polished it to make it more presentable. This short story was written at the same time as a much darker fic; I worked on it whenever I needed a more lighthearted diversion.

I, of course, do not own Naruto and receive no compensation for my stories other than reviews and the warm, positive feelings they generally inspire.

Finally the village's perimeter defense walls were in sight! Iruka's legs nearly buckled as an overwhelming sense of relief washed over him. Konohagakure had never looked so beautiful, the chunin thought wearily. He only wished he were returning under more normal conditions.

Iruka had left the village gates for a B-ranked reconnaissance mission with two teammates: Rei, a recently promoted chunin, and their squad leader, a kunoichi named Chizu. Neither stood by him now as he returned. Nevertheless, he at least had hope that they had made it back to Konoha safely, as both had left him before the enemy's strike.

Leaving Iruka alone in hostile territory had been a calculated risk. Their three-man reconnaissance had been progressing smoothing, until the night they ran out of rations and needed to forage for food.

During their dinner, the rookie Rei made a regrettable discovery: he was deathly allergic to mushrooms. Their desperately ill teammate needed to be rushed back to Konoha and, rather than abandon their assignment, Chizu instructed Iruka to stay behind and continue surveillance until her return.

The decision had been based on the fact that their presence was still unknown to the enemy and Iruka, with his master henge, had the best chance of keeping it that way.

Unfortunately for Iruka, the enemy's ignorance was feigned. Equally unfortunate was that they chose to drop their ruse when Iruka happened to be alone. In defiance of his streak of foul luck, the chuunin managed to escape capture. But considering the state of his body at the moment, Mistress Misfortune was not finished with him yet.

Mud and debris stubbornly clung to the chunin's form. Painful scratches stretched across his already marred face. His paws now bled heavily with every step, and his tail was still sore from when they'd yanked it.

Paws and tail were not usual features of Umino Iruka's anatomy, but he had found a cat henge to be a suitably effective disguise for gathering data.

And Iruka was trying very hard not to panic ever since an enemy's chakra-scrambling jutsu rendered him incapable of freeing himself from feline form.

The four-footed chunin made a quick stop at a stream to wash up. Padding lightly to the water's edge, he dipped a paw into the stream before involuntary jumping back and hissing at its frigidity. Catching himself, he stopped and blinked, surprised at his reaction. It was only water.

Forcing himself to wade in despite his body's protest, Iruka rinsed off as much of the filth and blood as he could before slinking back to dry ground. His compact form shook, flinging the cold droplets from his fur, and he proceeded to lick his forearm. Catching himself again, he stopped, tongue out. 'I am not a cat,' the chunin affirmed in his mind, 'I will not act like one!"

Now that that was settled, he turned to problem at hand: entering the village. As disappointing as it was to have his cover blown, Iruka's consolation was that he managed to discover the information needed before they attacked. Clearly they had not expected him to make it out alive with that knowledge.

Getting that information into the village would be a challenge. Iruka couldn't speak to the guards at the main gate to gain entrance. He couldn't use any jutsu that required hand signs. Perhaps he could climb the wall…but even if he hadn't drained his chakra reserves running back here, he knew the guards at the towers would spot him. Too many ninja could use summons to allow for an unknown animal to infiltrate the village. Spies, after all, came in many forms.

Iruka sat down to think, absently rubbing a paw along his nose. There were certain access points he knew about since his prankster days that he could use- but only if he could deactivate the traps protecting them. For that he would need opposable thumbs.

He sighed, staring up at the sky. How was he supposed to report to the Hokage if he couldn't even get into the village?

The feline's ears perked up. He could hear someone approaching. Yes…a Konoha squad returning from a mission. Quickly, he ran into their path, thinking of how he might communicate with them. Perhaps one of them understood cat-speech? It was worth a try.

"Hey! You there! Stop." Iruka meowed. "I need help getting into the village."

The jounin squad stared blankly at the slender, tan and brown striped tabby cat and kept walking.

Iruka recognized one of the squad members. "Anko!" He darted up to her ankles, "It's me, Iruka!"

The kunoichi scrunched up her face. "Ugh, get away from me!" Shaking her head, she mumbled, "Nasty, flea-ridden animal."

"It's probably looking for a hand-out," another jounin pointed out. "Just give it a beef strip. That'll keep it busy."

Anko grinned wickedly. "I have a better idea."

A well-aimed kick sent Iruka flying over the trees.

An exhausted Iruka managed to gather the dregs of his drained chakra reserves and cling to a tree branch, but not before being battered by several of the branches above it. 'When I get back to normal,' he winced, 'I'm going to send that psychopath on most miserable C-ranked mission I can find. It's monsoon season in Rain Country, isn't it?..."

Still grumbling about the cat-kicking kunoichi, he gingerly climbed back down the tree and waited for his next opportunity.

After being kicked, yelled at, and forced to dodge dozens of pointy objects and one fire jutsu, Iruka decided this tactic just wasn't working. By trying to make people realize he is not a cat, he only succeeding in convincing them that he was rabid.

He had even tried to write a message in the dirt with a stick, but soon realized he was no longer capable of writing. For some reason he could not remember how to form kanji or put them together in a meaningful way.

Time for a different strategy.

He took shelter beneath dense shrubbery, dreading his next encounter. Iruka's heart leapt when he saw the next returning squad: Team 7- Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke, and their jounin sensei, Kakashi. His new plan just might work with them.

Cautiously, he approached the four and meowed softly. The jounin kept his face in that orange book, utterly disinterested, but the three genin glanced his way.

"Look! Someone lost their cat," Naruto lamented.

"I doubt it," Sakura reasoned, taking in his scruffy and battered appearance. "It's probably a stray."

Iruka meowed again and approached Naruto, whom he felt reasonably sure would not kick him. Then he began purring and rubbing against the boy's ankles. The blonde genin, Iruka knew, was most likely to respond positively to affection since he received so little of it.

"Don't let it touch you," Sasuke scowled irritably. "It's going to give you fleas."

Naruto's eyes flashed defiantly at Sasuke's demand. "Shut up! Who asked you?"

Kakashi cleared his throat, "That's enough, boys. As fascinating as this…" he wrinkled his nose distastefully, "cat is, I still want to get back to village sometime before sunset. Let's go."

The group walked away, but Iruka caught up again, purring loudly and following close as he dared to Naruto's heels. The blonde stopped and looked at the scruffy stray. "Aw, guys, I think I'll take him home and feed him at least. He looks like he's starving."

Now they were getting somewhere. Iruka meowed and nuzzled the boy's ankle.

See? He likes the idea!" Naruto grinned. "Come on, little guy, I'll get you something to eat." He promptly scooped the tan and brown tabby into his arms.

Intensely relieved to be on his way into the village, Iruka allowed his body to fall limp in the boy's hold. He felt so tired and, now that Naruto was carrying him, his weariness was really catching up. Even so, he felt someone's stare boring into him and lifted his head in time to catch Kakashi's one-eyed gaze.

Did the jounin suspect something? Perhaps now would be a good time to try to show that he was not actually a cat. Iruka was so busy puzzling through his options that he didn't immediately notice Naruto's fingers scratching him gently under his chin. But once he did notice, it became suddenly difficult to recall just what had seemed so important a moment ago. It was hard to think and that scratching felt so relaxing.

The tabby's muscles melted in Naruto's surprisingly gentle hold and a contented purr reverberated in his throat. Whatever it was, he'd worry about it later.

"If you're going to keep that thing," Sakura commented, "You should take him to the vet. He'll need shots and stuff. And you probably ought to get him neutered."

Iruka stiffened. Neutered? No. Damn. Way.

Naruto's face scrunched in incomprehension. "New-derd. What does that mean?"

Kakashi good-naturedly, if not a bit crudely, supplied the answer. While both boys involuntarily paled, Sakura rolled her eyes. "They don't just chop them off! My parents had our puppy neutered- it's a very safe medical procedure…"

"No way!" The blond fiercely declared, tightening his hold on the feline. "Don't worry, kitty, I won't let you become a new-derd!"

Before further discussion could ensue, the team arrived inside the village proper. Kakashi informed his team of the time and place for tomorrow's training, and the four went their separate ways. Iruka would have tried to separate himself from Naruto at this point, but he recognized the warning signs of chakra depletion in his own body. If he didn't take care of himself, he would seriously endanger his health.

The chunin didn't relish the thought of what might happen to him if he fainted in the street. Thus, he allowed the boy to bring him home.

Naruto wasted no time in preparing a package of instant ramen and pouring some in a bowl for Iruka. The chunin was so grateful for food, he didn't even mind eating it on the floor. He also didn't really put up too much of a fight when Naruto bathed him, since he was filthy and refused to lick himself clean.

After the bath, Iruka jumped onto Naruto's battered couch and settled in for some overdue sleep. The genin had other plans. "You've got scratches and cuts all over. Now that they're clean, I'll put some healing salve on them."

Iruka blinked. He'd never imagined that Naruto would be such a thoughtful caretaker. Maybe he ought to buy the boy a pet for his next birthday.

Naruto didn't know to trim the fur around the wounds, but he did take the time to spray them with a mild antiseptic. With surprising tenderness, he smoothed small amounts of cool healing salve onto Iruka's paws, then on the scratches on his face. The boy paused over the feline's nose. "Hey…you've got a scar across your nose, just like Iruka-sensei."

The exhausted feline looked up sharply. "I am Iruka-sensei," he meowed.

The genin of course did not understand. 'Don't worry, it's a good thing to be like sensei. He's a great guy." Naruto paused thoughtfully. "I know! I'll call you Ruki!"

Iruka was touched, but tried again to make the boy understand. He meowed and placed his paw on his own chest. "I am Iruka-sensei." He tapped his scar, then his chest. "Me." He repeated the motion again, for good measure.

Naruto stared at him intently for a long moment. Iruka stared back evenly, hoping…

"You don't have a scar on your chest, Ruki," the boy said finally.

Iruka sagged. That didn't work. Still, there had to be a way to…

The boy's nimble fingers rubbed just behind his pointed ear, interrupting his thoughts. Soon Iruka was purring contentedly. Slowing he succumbed to the pull of sleep. Whatever it was he'd been trying to do… surely it could wait until morning.