Betas: ashcat (here at fanfiction[dot]net ) and txilar (at livejournal[dot]com).

Chapter 13: The Measure of Beginnings

"Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."

~Henry Ford

Neither the baby nor Kakashi were in the nursery when Iruka woke up in the morning, but he heard a low mumble of conversation from his room next door. He dressed and washed his face quickly, going over to see Tsunade and Toshiaki seated with Kakashi at a kotatsu. Kakashi had Kumiko warmly wrapped in his arms, and Toshiaki was leaning close to speak in confiding tones to the namesake of his wife. Iruka bowed in greeting, and then knelt beside Kakashi, making a face at the muted aches in his body. He still felt a little tired and he wanted nothing more to go back to sleep, but he also wanted to stay close to their child as much as possible.

"I'm all right," he said when he caught sight of Kakashi's concerned gaze. "Good morning Toshiaki-san, Tsunade-sama."

"Good morning," Toshiaki said warmly; he appeared years younger as he smiled down at Kumiko again; Iruka knew that as she grew older, he would make sure she called Toshiaki Grandfather.

For her part, Tsunade gave him a very piercing stare and then nodded, apparently pleased at whatever she found. "Iruka, I was discussing with Kakashi the current issue of rumours circulating in the village... regarding your unique nature."

Iruka exhaled. He should have expected something like this; theirs was a village of nosy shinobi and civilians. Someone could have overheard something, or kept an eye on the Hatake compound... anyone nosy enough, with time on their hands, would have found something to be suspicious about. A tiny fretful part of himself declared that he should have never let anyone find out what he really was, but he squashed that down. He was part-dragon, part-human. He would make sure that he would instill in Kumiko that pride of her heritage.

"I have nothing more to hide, Tsunade-sama," he said, tilting up his chin. Kakashi leaned against him, his arm warm and solid against Iruka's; the baby fussed for a moment and then settled down."If anyone wants to know the truth about me, then they can."

To his surprise, Tsunade frowned and shook her head. "We cannot allow that, Iruka-sensei. You must remember that your child is quite special, even in a village as this one. She is the direct heir of the Hatake line, which is important in itself, but part water-dragon as well? If I were the leader of another village and I discovered that, I would not hesitate in my attempts to take this child away." She tilted her head, tendrils of blond hair falling against her cheek as she considered. "The Hidden Village of Mist may even have rights to lay claim to you and the baby, Iruka-sensei. You were born there, after all, and who knows? Some obscure law may work in their favour."

Iruka bristled; he could almost feel the raising of fins on his back and along his spine, ready to defend his family to the death with snapping jaw and whipping tail. He looked down when he felt Kakashi's hand creep into his and then took a deep breath.

"Well... what do we do?" he asked, tightening his grip around Kakashi's fingers.

Tsunade smiled like a cat that had the mouse securely in its grip. "How do you hide the truth?"

"You make it look like a rumour," Kakashi answered promptly and grinned at Iruka.

Iruka frowned. "What?"

"There are many tales floating around about you and your baby, Iruka-sensei," Tsunade said with an air of intense self-satisfaction. "Some say that you were captured and experimented on during the undercover portion of your mission, inflicted with Hatake genetic code to produce an offspring. Very Orochimaru-ish. Or, you had to hold yourself in Naruto's Oiroke no Jutsu, and you and Kakashi indulged to escape the pressures of your duties, resulting in Kumiko-chan, here."

"That one is my favourite," Kakashi drawled, even as Toshiaki appeared as if he wanted to put his hands over Kumiko's sensitive ears and shield her from all this adult talk.

"Or! You are part water-dragon, of all things, and due to your genetic make-up, you became pregnant! So many stories," she finished with an expressive wink. "Who knows which one is true?"

Iruka shook his head at all this machination. "But... everyone will still know that she's a Hatake as well."

"That's fine," Tsunade said, waving one hand dismissively. "My greatest concern is that someone will try to take you, her or both as some kind of jinchūriki, and I will not have that."

"Tsunade-sama would rather have all the potential powerful weaponry right where she can see it," Kakashi said in a careless tone, but the expression in his visible eye was cool. Tsunade arched her golden eyebrows and nodded without shame.

"That's right. Hopefully, no one will know what the truth is."

"Who spread all these rumours?" Iruka wanted to know and Tsunade wrinkled her nose, her eyes twinkling.

"Let's just say that a certain loud, blond jōnin is apparently quite loose-lipped when drinking, talking about the return of his beloved sensei and a new sister in his life." She grinned when Iruka let out a choked laugh. "Naruto is a far better actor than people think, wouldn't you say? Possibly he's been getting lessons from his partner."

Kumiko had obviously had enough of all this talking; she started to cry, and Kakashi turned to him.

"I think she's hungry," Kakashi said, his nose wrinkling under his mask. His tone was a little wry. "I changed her just a few moments ago. It was an... interesting experience."

Iruka blinked at him, slightly boggled at the mental image of Kakashi changing their baby, and then said, "Oh. I'll get some milk then." He took her out of his arms, getting to his feet and walking outside towards the kitchen. The ANBU Haru and Aki stood guard on the roof, and Iruka smiled up at them in greeting.

"My most heartfelt congratulations, to you and Kakashi-san," Haru called down to him, his metal arm-bracers glinting in the sunlight as he waved. "Your daughter is beautiful, and you must be very proud."

Iruka paused and gazed up at the ANBU. He had never heard Haru say such a long sentence in one go, and there was something in his mode of talking that rang a familiar bell inside Iruka's head.

"Thank you very much, ANBU-san," he replied. "We are indeed very grateful to have her. Could you come down here, and help me?"

After a quick, muttered conversation with Aki, Haru leaped down nimbly into the courtyard and followed Iruka into the kitchen. Iruka spotted a long and narrow wooden box on the table. Its label sported the neat strokes of Kurenai's handwriting, which indicated the date and the latest time the milk it held could be consumed; Iruka reminded himself to contact Kurenai and thank her for her thoughtful help. She made sure that Kumiko had fresh milk every day.

As Iruka took out a fresh bottle, placing the rest in an old-fashioned deep-freeze that Kakashi had dragged in from goodness knows where, he decided to perform an experiment... two experiments, in fact.

"Haru, could you hold her? I want to warm her milk." He eyed Haru's cloak. "Are your clothes clean?"

"Yes," Haru answered, and there was a trace of gentle eagerness in his voice even as he stripped off his gloves and bracers, and went over to the sink to scrub thoroughly. After he dried his well-muscled arms, he held them out; Iruka placed Kumiko in his care and then turned to the bottle. Tsunade had informed him that his chakra could be used normally now, but he wondered if his dragon-chakra would be involved in any way, now that it was free. He formed the seals for a katon, placing the Tiger hand-seal at the very end to make sure that the jutsu was weak enough to not boil the milk. He gasped at how his chakra flowed in his body and out his fingers, smoother than usual. It didn't feel too powerful, not now, but the potential was there... quite possibly strengthened in his dragon-form.

No wonder Tsunade preferred to keep his nature a continued secret.

"Is everything all right, Iruka-sensei?" Haru asked, and Iruka nodded. The katon he had created did not give off any visible flame, but simply warmed the air near his palms. He took up the bottle and held it for a few moments before ending the jutsu and testing the temperature of the milk.

"I'm so glad Kurenai-sensei is helping me with Kumiko's milk," he said, replacing the bottle on the table and turning towards the bare-armed ANBU who appeared quite at ease to be holding a fussing newborn. "I really hope Kumiko will grow as strong as her son."

"Do not fear!" Haru exclaimed, and Iruka stifled as smile as he retrieved his child. "With you and Kakashi as Kumiko's most beloved parents, she will grow up in the full power of her youth, just like Hiruzen-chan!"

"Ah," Iruka said, grinning openly as he sat down with Kumiko at the table and got to feeding her. "I suspected as much, Gai-sensei."

Haru was silent for a long moment, then folded his arms across his chest. "Iruka-sensei, that was very sneaky of you. How long have you known?"

"It occurred to me just now," Iruka admitted, still smiling. However, now most of his attention was focused on his small daughter, her perfect little fingers and her spare lashes. Her hair seemed as dark as his, and the shade of her unfocused eyes suggested that she would gain that lighter colour possessed by Kakashi, and not his own brown. She was utterly lovely, and Iruka loved her without question. Now, he seemed to understand the determination that had driven his parents all the way from Mist, to keep him safe. He was certain that even the thought of their own lives had been secondary to his safety, for that was the way he felt about Kumiko now.

"You should not know," Gai was muttering under his mask. "I see how you tricked me. You used my adoration for the miracle of youth against me!"

"Thank you for your protection," Iruka said. "It means so much to me. And Aki?"

"I would not presume to divulge their secret!" Gai said and then seemed to melt behind his mask as Iruka shifted in his seat so Gai could see Kumiko as she fed. "Iruka-sensei, you really do not play fair at all."

"Hmm. Never mind, I have an idea about Aki as well," Iruka said. Kumiko finished feeding and he set aside the bottle to burp her. "They seemed very interested in Kakashi's drawings of the baby's furniture. An artist themselves, I think. And the only well-established artist I know who is also also capable of providing ANBU-level protection... is Sai."

Gai made an annoyed noise. "You are very observant," he muttered and Iruka nodded smugly. "Like Kakashi. Although the two of you were not very observant about each other's feelings before."

"You're right." Iruka glanced up at the porcelain mask that hid the familiar bushy-browed visage. "But I think that we will be more observant from now on."

Gai looked down at him for a very long time, and Iruka kept patting Kumiko's back. "That is good, Iruka-sensei," he finally said. "I had many words with him before he left and after he returned. Please understand that he was very confused and angry. But he returned, determined to be a good parent... and trusted partner, if you would accept him."

"I... yes, I would." Iruka felt a tiny belch escape his child and made a face at the damp spit-up on his shoulder. He should have placed a cloth there. "I really know now. You won't have to write any letters to me over that," Iruka said and they both laughed. They were talking about Hiruzen-chan, Kurenai and other shinobi families when Kakashi walked into the kitchen, dressed in his shinobi-gear. Haru gave them both a deeply respectful bow, then left them to return to his post with Aki. Kakashi's gaze was fixed on Iruka and Kumiko as Iruka got to his feet and approached him.

"Toshiaki and Tsunade-sama have departed. I've been assigned a mission," Kakashi said; his voice was toneless, but Iruka watched his shoulders form a tense line. "It will only last a few days, I promise."

"I understand," Iruka said, but there was a strange expression in Kakashi's exposed eye. "What is it?"

"We are shinobi." Kakashi's gaze flickered down to the baby, in an almost helpless fashion, before he returned his gaze to Iruka's face. "We serve our village, follow orders... we are weapons. How can we be adequate parents as well?"

"I really don't know," Iruka admitted. "But tell me something: how do you feel about Kumiko?"

"I would die for her," Kakashi answered without hesitation, and blinked at Iruka's low laughter. "Iruka, it's not funny. If I had to choose between Kumiko and the village, then I would choose her, every single time... and I've only known her for a few days."

"Then it is a good thing that she is a part of our village," Iruka said and stepped even closer to Kakashi. He turned a little so he could bestow a kiss on the imprint of Kakashi's lips under his mask without crushing the baby between their bodies. "Kakashi," he said against the other man's mouth. "I think we will do our best... together."

Kakashi's eye was half-lidded when Iruka pulled back a bit. He tugged down his mask and claimed a deeper kiss, a hand cupping Iruka's jaw, his thumb stroking across a flushed cheek-bone. They broke apart when Kumiko began to wriggle and whimper.

Kakashi took Iruka's free hand in his and pressed it to his mouth. "There's only one person that is as precious to me as Kumiko," he whispered against Iruka's palm. "And that is you."

Before Iruka could even formulate an answer, Kakashi released him abruptly and spun on his heel, stalking out of the kitchen and tugging his mask up at the same time. Kahiro followed behind him, visible in twisting whirls of blue-white light against the walls, and the main gates began to open. Iruka stood in the shade of the outer corridor, and Kumiko set up a loud wail. Kakashi paused at the threshold of the fully opened gates, staring over his shoulder with a considering grey eye.

"We'll be fine!" Iruka called out and rocked their crying daughter. "We'll be here when you return. Hush, Kumiko, he'll be back soon."

Kakashi was actually turning around slowly, and Iruka pointed a stern finger at him.

"Don't you dare. Go to work... I carried this baby all these months and I'm sure I'm quite capable of taking care of her now that she's out. Now go."

"Fine, Sensei," Kakashi drawled, and launched himself into the trees on the other side of the road. Iruka narrowed his eyes, making sure that traces of Kakashi's chakra had indeed dispersed from the area. There was an air of amusement emanating from both the ANBU and Kahiro; Iruka shook his head at them and looked down at the reddened face of his bellowing daughter. Part was worried over how long she could keep this up, but the majority of his mind was full of pride at the evidence of her strong lungs. How strange was a parent's love.

"Kumiko, my darling," he whispered to her. "You've already got us wrapped around your little finger."


Author's Note: I had dashed off the scene for hiding-truth-as-rumour, and then I saw a similar idea written in a fic by Lomonaaren. So if you see it, you'd be quite right in agreeing with me when I say that I think they did it a lot better.

Well... this is the final official chapter of this series, and I'm feeling really happy and sad at the same time. I have a bunch of half-finished scenes, written and in my head... of Kumiko's view of her parents, and maybe a whole other arc involving the Hidden Village of Mist and their Hokage. I'm not sure if I can touch that right now, but I do have it in mind. There's a half-finished one-shot that will be posted very soon.

I just want to thank my betas, Niko (txilar) and Ash (ashcat/photoash); they've been really invaluable to this endeavour. Sometimes I went too far, overly excited, and they'd be like, "Whoa, just concentrate on the here and now," and it was amazing advice. I would not post until I had their stamps of approval, and I'm really glad I had them here for the ride.

Thanks so much to those who followed this fic, I truly appreciate that. I've been really encouraged and supported by your reactions, and I'm sorry I haven't been able to reply to everyone.

And most of all, thank you so much to the original and anonymous prompter, over at the Livejournal kakairu_kink meme. If you didn't post that prompt, this wouldn't have been written. :D