This chapter begins with a significant time jump.
You'll see the end result first, and then be taken to the past via flashbacks to fill you in on the details. Enjoy!
Anko confidently strode toward the Mission Room just after dawn. It was rather early to be picking up a mission, but she had her reasons.
The kunoichi stepped into the room and her confident smirk quickly faded. 'No! Not him…'Anko thought, heart sinking. He was never here this early!
Was there a way out of this? The kunoichi nervously eyed the door behind her. He hadn't seen her yet. She could still escape…
Just then, he looked up from the files on his desk, his brown eyes meeting hers with that deceptive kindness. Retreat was no longer an option. Evil incarnate though he may be, Anko had no intention of letting Iruka know that she was purposely avoiding him. Thus she put on a brilliant smile and ambled to the distribution desk.
"Morning, Iruka!" she beamed. "Fancy seeing you here this early."
"Good morning," the chunin greeted in return. He was surprised to actually see Anko in the mission room. He knew that she went out of her way to come only when he was off-duty and, really, he couldn't blame her.
For weeks after that Monsoon Mission Iruka had assigned her for revenge, just the sound of a dripping faucet had the kunoichi curling up in a corner, rocking back and forth, and murmuring "Rain, rain, go away…" in a singsong voice.
Iruka had felt dreadfully guilty about that, but thankfully Anko made a full recovery after several sessions of therapy. He had apologized and even occasionally took her out for dango when he was off-duty and thus, in her mind, not as dangerous.
Nevertheless to this day, years later, she was still cautious about raising the chunin's ire.
Anko approached, smiling a little too brightly. "Hey, you're looking good. Have you been working out lately?" She further emphasized her admiration by lightly skimming her fingers over his pecs.
"Anko!" Iruka pushed her hand away, scandalized. "You can lay off the flattery- I'm in such a good mood, you couldn't anger me if you tried." He slid a scroll toward her. "By the way here's your mission."
Sighing in relief, the young woman opened the document and quickly scanned it through.
Her eyes ran over the words a second time, hoping against hope that it didn't say what she thought it said. "No…" she whispered in a horror laced tone. "No…what did I do to deserve this?!"
"What the matter?" Iruka blinked, genuinely confused by her distress. "You won't even need to leave the village for this one. I'm only asking you to substitute my class for the day. Naruto is officially advancing to chunin rank, and I don't want to miss the promotion ceremony."
"You're so evil!" the kunoichi wailed mournfully.
Iruka was patted her hand comfortingly, still trying to comprehend what had upset her so badly when Iwashi finally entered the Mission Room to relieve him from his shift.
Eager to be on his way, the sensei didn't even bother to gather his papers or tidy up his desk. "Thanks, Iwashi," he called as he sped out of the room.
* * * * *
Iruka observed the simple ceremony with pride. By defeating Pain, Naruto had clearly demonstrated he was worthy of more than just his current genin status. Undoubtedly he could have skipped straight to jounin level, but Danzo had decided against that. His reasons were unclear, but Iruka was willing to give their Hokage the benefit of the doubt. He must think it best to move Naruto along a little step at a time to ease the transition.
Though Danzo may have been strangely dismissive of the boy's achievement, the other villagers quietly celebrated their hero in a way that warmed Iruka's heart. Once the official ceremony was over, the sensei wound through the crowd, seeking out the boy amidst the informal party that followed.
"Naruto! Congratulations on your promotion to chunin," Iruka beamed proudly when he finally caught up to the teen by the snack table. "You deserve it. And you're that much closer to fulfilling your dream, ne?"
The new chunin flushed with pleasure at Iruka's praise. It made him even happier to know that the sensei arranged to be absent from classes, just to see Naruto's promotion. "Thanks, Iruka-sensei! I'm glad you came."
"Of course I came!" the older chunin exclaimed. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. Come on now, I even have a gift for you. Follow me."
Naruto followed his former sensei to the hall and then into a side room, away from the milling crowd that had gathered to eat, drink, and be merry. The gift was lying on a table. "Is that…?" The blond approached and ran his fingers over the strong, green material.
"I gave you my own hitai-ate for your graduation," Iruka reminisced. "Today, I'd like to give you my flak jacket. I know you already have your own from the ceremony, but you can never really have too many. A ninja will easily go through dozens over the years. Your shinobi vest shields you from light attacks and is incredibly useful for holding equipment. I used to wear this one for teaching, but it's still in very good condi…Naruto?...What's the matter?"
The youth had an odd expression on his face, as though he was struggling not to burst into tears- and Iruka hadn't even gotten to the sappy part of his monologue! A lecture on the usefulness of a flak jacket was nothing to cry over.
"Iruka-sensei!" Naruto scooped the feline body into a firm hug. "Thank you," he whispered.
Iruka shifted in his grip to a more comfortable position. He'd done something wrong, but he wasn't sure what. Ears lowered regretfully, he nudged the boy's chin with his forehead. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"No, you didn't upset me," Naruto assured squeezing marginally tighter. "I just…I just wish that…that you could still wear your flak jackets too."
Oh… Iruka looked down at his paws and sighed. "Naruto, it's okay. It's been years now. I've moved on."
* * * flashback* * *
When Iruka pulled open his heavy eyelid, the first thing he did was look down at his body.
A lump formed in his throat. His form was still small, still furry…still feline. "No," the chunin snapped his eyes shut swallowing the disappointment. "No…"
He remained stock still for a moment before cautiously peeking one eye open. "No?..." The other eye opened. He licked his lips and tried again, tasting the word on his tongue. "No! Ha, ha! No-no-no-no-no." He laughed again, despite the skull crushing headache, delighted to just hear human sounds from his own mouth. "Yes! I can talk!"
"Cat's no longer got your tongue, I see," a male voice commented from beside him.
Iruka turned his head abruptly, regretting the motion as pain coursed through his neck and spinal chord. "Kakashi?"
The silver haired jounin chuckled sheepishly. "I think I've spent too much time around Kawa. His awful sense of humor has rubbed off on me."
Standing beside the silver haired jounin, Aburame Shibi nodded solemnly. "Yes, well…you are a copy-cat ninja."
The other two shinobi stared. Did…did Shibi just make a cat joke?
Iruka waited for some of the pain to subside before asking, "Why am I still a cat?"
"Ah…" Kakashi stared down at his hands. "The foreign chakra has integrated itself more thoroughly than any of us anticipated. The good news is that we've re-establish the chemical balance in your brain. It will take further testing to be sure, but we hope that at least your mind has been fully restored."
"My insects are still integrated in your system, making sure that your chakra paths heal well from the surgery," Shibi added. "This way, whatever progress we were able to make won't get reversed."
"But what's going to happen now?" Iruka pressed.
"Now," Kakashi responded, "We'll just keep trying until we get it right."
"Or until we exhaust all our options," Shibi reasonably supplied.
* * *present* * *
Iruka well remembered how the months following that surgery they held onto hope that the transformation would be reversed. And yet, despite meticulous research and risky experimentation, no such solution ever turned up.
It had been difficult to accept that nothing could be done.
Iruka finally wriggled out of Naruto's too-tight grasp. "I know it's not the same, and it never will be…" the feline shinobi paused and pawed the hitai-ate tied conspicuously around his neck. "But I've adapted. I'm still a ninja. I can still teach, with an assistant to help with some of the more hands-on tasks. Why, I even still go on occasional missions."
* * * flashback** *
Sakibou the cat summoner placed her hands on her hips. The Sandaime had sent her to check up on the depressed feline. "Honestly, Iruka, you're being way too melodramatic."
The chunin glared at her irritably. "I'm sorry- but my career, my life, my humanity is over. I think that's plenty dramatic."
The blonde glared right back at him, refusing to take pity. "No one said it has to be over! Whatever your form, you're still you. You're still alive. And there's no reason why you couldn't continue being a ninja. You'll just have to learn to fight like a cat."
Iruka's ears perked up and he stared up at her guardedly. Could he even dare to hope that was true? "Could…could you teach me to do that?" He asked finally.
A smile spread lazily across Sakibou's face. "I can help a little," she withdrew a scroll from her vest and bit down on her thumb. "But Miya would be the best candidate to train you in the ways of a feline shinobi."
A swipe of blood and a puff of chakra smoke later, and the white long-haired cat summon appeared. "Oh. It's you again." She sniffed and regally turned her head away.
Miya, for all her aloofness, turned out to be a severe task master. She mercilessly drilled Iruka on proper form and technique. He took this in stride, determined to learn all he could from the fussy feline.
He was ecstatic to discover that cats had their own version of shinobi handsigns.
"Well, of course," Miya declared with a longsuffering sigh. "How else could we perform jutsu? Let me show you." She swiveled her ears into complimentary angles and curled her tail to the left. "This is the sign of the monkey, for example."
Iruka mimicked her motion and, after some minor adjustments, Miya nodded. "Good. You'll find that some signs are quite simple. For instance, curl your tail to the right, and swivel your left ear another 23 degrees."
Iruka followed her directives.
"That would be the sign of the rat," the cat summon nodded approvingly. "However, other signs are much more complex… Lift up your left forearm, stretch out your right hind leg, angle your head 37 degrees to the side…"
Iruka obeyed her instructions one by one, trying to memorize them as she went along.
"…cross your eyes, wrinkle your nose, and stick out your tongue."
Precariously balanced, he only barely managed to maintain the complex pose. How would he ever get that one right on the battlefield? Iruka gazed expectantly at his instructor, vision doubled due to his crossed eyes. "Well?"
"Well, what?" Miya blinked.
"What sign is this?" Iruka prompted, struggling to maintain his position and speak with his tongue poking out.
The aristocratic feline giggled. "Oh, that's not a sign. I just wanted to see if you'd actually do it. You look ridiculous."
"What!" Iruka dropped into a crouch and pounced, his infamous temper getting the best of him.
"Hey… stop! Brute!" Miya squeaked. "You're not pouncing properly!"
* * *present* * *
Naruto nodded at his former sensei's words. He knew better than most all the adjustments and painstaking labor Iruka had gone through to overcome the struggles his new body caused. He'd seen how the older ninja learned everything he could about being an effective feline shinobi, how he had even buckled down and mastered several feline languages in an attempt to seize every advantage possible, how he learned catsigns to perform a basic henge and temporarily take on human form when necessary. Yes, sensei had come so far.
Naruto tried on his new flak jacket. It fit perfectly. Though he meant to let the subject drop, the question was past his lips before he could restrain it. "Don't you miss your old body, Iruka-sensei?"
If the question upset him, Iruka didn't show it. "Hm," the feline cocked his head and pretended to think it over deeply. "No, I don't think I do."
"Really?" the teen blinked in shock.
"No," the elder responded flatly. "Of course I miss my human form! It's perfectly normal to miss something you've lost. I still miss my parents, and the Sandaime, and many other things… But I can't let that stop me from enjoying what I still have." He rubbed his head against Naruto's open palm. "And I'm glad I don't have to miss your growing up and becoming a better shinobi."
A small figure appeared in the doorway, followed by other larger forms. "Found him," Pakkun announced. His canine packmates entered the room, pleased to have tracked down Naruto so quickly.
Kakashi stepped up to the door along with Sakura. "There you are, Naruto!," the girl exclaimed, "We were looking everywhere for… Oh, hello Iruka-sensei!"
Iruka nodded at each of them in turn, returning the greeting.
"Congratulations," The silver haired jounin loped into the room, smiling as he ruffled the boy's bright gold hair. "It's about time you made chunin, kid."
Naruto, who up until that comment had been grinning proudly, crossed his arms and frowned in mock-indignation.
The feline chuckled at their antics, knowing the deep affection that lay underneath. "Why don't we all go out to celebrate? Ichiraku's, my treat."
Naruto cheered and pumped his fist in the air, indignation forgotten at the proposal for ramen. Sakura agreed with a smile and Kakashi nodded. The four ninja began to leave with Naruto enthusiastically leading the way.
Iruka straggled behind. Just before exiting, motion in his peripheral vision caused him to turn his head sharply. "Mouse," he whispered to himself, eyes alight as he prepared to pounce.
A canine jaw snatched him up by the back of his hitai-ate. The tabby craned his neck to look behind him and met Bull's dark, affectionate eyes.
"Ramen," the beast reminded him gently.
"Right…ramen," Iruka acknowledged sheepishly. "Thanks, Bull."
A/N: *nervous chuckle*
…please don't kill me…
Look behind you! A mouse!
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