A/N I'm sorry this chapter has taken longer than normal to be released. I aim for 10-14 days between chapters, but this one dragged on a bit. But I have my excuses!
Firstly, I was admitted to hospital via emergency! If only I'd known I was going to spend multiple days bored out of my skull without my laptop I'd have taken it with me. Hindsight, friends. I took a book, I took my phone, I even took my charger for my phone which show some evidence of planning even while clutching at my inexplicably painful abdomen. Next time, if I ever have such an experience again, I shall remember the laptop. Anyhoo, subsequent to that special time I have been on pain meds which while take away the pain and leave me in a state of happy, are not conducive to writitng. Sleeping, lazing around watching Saiunkoku Monogatari... but not writing.
Secondly, since the release of the last chapter I've just been unmotivated to write. You can thank Easter Egg-san for this chapter not being even more delayed. I was feeling guilty at being so far behind and was trying to get myself motivated... and that's when her review came in for the last chapter and did it for me. It gave me the happys and reminded me why I love doing this. And then Singing Sea's cemented it, so here, finally the long awaited chuunin exam nominations!
Iruka, transformed to look like a Rain-nin, landed on the dark rooftop behind Kakashi. He was fully aware that he had no need to hold the transformation any longer, that he was wearing it as a kind of armour to protect him from the penetrating gaze of the jounin. He needn't have worried. As he landed, Kakashi turned to face in the opposite direction. Iruka wasn't sure whether he should be upset or relieved.
Kakashi. Iruka had spent most of that day thinking about Kakashi. He had made a colossal mistake and had spent hours with his thoughts racing. As he considered and processed just what had transpired, he had come to an uncomfortable conclusion.
Kakashi wasn't the person he thought he was.
Rather, he was the person he thought he was and he also wasn't.
And Iruka had no doubt whatsoever in his mind that if he couldn't fix things between himself and the jounin here and now, the tenuous friendship they had developed would shatter beneath the weight of unspoken words.
The day before, and two days after the spontaneous day of celebration, Iruka was back at the Academy and the Desk. He hadn't been needed at the Desk the day after, so he had just stayed at home and hadn't come face to face with any his drinking companions since that night. He suspected that perhaps Kakashi and Kurenai were, in fact, incredibly wise to limit the amount they drank. While the jounin had taken everything he had said that night with great humour, he couldn't help but feel a little paranoid that on reflection they might feel differently; and he was particularly concerned about that strange confession to Kakashi.
Said jounin and his team were currently on a D rank mission - walking dogs of all things. Sometimes Iruka boggled at what people would pay ninja to do, but a paid job was a paid job. In any case he had to presume that team seven's report would come in later that day. He hoped this time when the report came in that the entirety of team seven would appear, partly because he still hadn't seen the children since they had come back from the Land of Waves, and partly so they could act as a buffer between himself and Kakashi.
But later that day Kakashi appeared alone, as had become standard. He handed the mission report over before putting his hands in his pockets.
"Thanks," Iruka said as he accepted the report. He barely glanced at it before looking back up at Kakashi, feeling awkward. He wasn't quite sure what to say, so he reverted to the safest topic he knew. He appreciated the irony that the safest topic for him and Kakashi was of all things, the Kyuubi vessel that had for so long been despised by the village.
"By the way, is Naruto getting along well with his team-mates?"
Kakashi looked at him with some surprise and then demurred, "Well, to an extent..."
Iruka blushed. He felt unexpectedly odd asking about Naruto, and Kakashi clearly hadn't been expecting it. Now he was feeling even more awkward. Naruto wasn't really even a safe topic.
"I've been busy lately, so I haven't seen him once since he got back," he explained, self-consciously scratching his cheek, "so, I was a little worried." He realised that the man sitting next to him at the Desk was giving him a bit of an odd look. He wondered if he was squirming and concentrated on behaving normally.
Kakashi smiled at him. "Well, as you know he has Uchiha Sasuke with him, Iruka-sensei. Since Naruto sees him as a rival things can be a bit difficult..." Iruka felt relieved. Kakashi was engaging in the topic of conversation. "...but subsequently," Kakashi continued, "he is improving. He's improving so fast that he'll reach your level, the level of a man he respects, in no time."
"I'm so glad," Iruka replied and smiled happily back at Kakashi. Kakashi wasn't coming across strangely whatsoever and everything felt like usual. Perhaps he didn't have anything to worry about after all. Kakashi hadn't avoided giving him the report, and was speaking to him normally. He was coming to the conclusion that Kakashi wasn't troubled by his unusual confession. He couldn't feel the eyes of his neighbour at the Desk on them any more either, so he figured he had been successful at controlling his body language. His cheeks felt warm however, so he suspected he was flushing again. Flushing, unfortunately, wasn't so easy to control.
He didn't really want Kakashi to leave yet, but he didn't have anything of importance to hold him there, and he did have work to do. He dragged his eyes off the smiling jounin and down to the report before his neighbour started looking at them oddly again and noticed his flush.
"Naruto would insist on the big dog, wouldn't he?" he chuckled as he stamped the report.
"Sometimes his greatest rival is himself," Kakashi replied as he started to turn away. "I'll catch you around, Iruka-sensei!"
Iruka watched him leave.
Later that day Iruka finally found out what he had been helping the Third to organise. The announcement came through that the chuunin exams were being held in Konoha, beginning on the first of July – in a week's time. In retrospect it made sense, but up until that point he hadn't been able to see the big picture from the pieces he had previously seen. It did explained why the Hokage had given as many people as possible a day off with the instructions to relax... security was going to be high in Konoha as large numbers of people from other countries, shinobi and civilian alike, would be flooding in to participate and observe. There would be no relaxing for the shinobi of Konoha until it was all over.
Other than heightened security Iruka wasn't really expecting it to have much impact upon himself. The Academy would still run, missions would still be assigned and reported. He wondered if he would even have time to see much of the event personally. Not that that particularly troubled him beyond interest's sake – his graduate students were still too inexperienced to participate and he didn't have much connection to any of the other genin. He was curious how Guy's team would fare - he was certain they would be participating. Hyuuga Neji was one of those young shinobi, like Sasuke, who had the genius label attached to him, Tenten was a fiercely competitive weapons expert and then there was the determination of Rock Lee who had graduated the Academy with only being able to use taijutsu. That must have been an interesting decision for the Academy examiner who chose to allow Lee to graduate.
The following day he was called to a meeting regarding the imminent exams. Various Academy instructors, all of the genin team jounin, and the shinobi who would participate in the exams as proctors were called together for the nominations of the genin who would be given the option to participate.
When the Hokage called forth Kakashi, Kurenai and Asuma, the leaders of Iruka's nine graduates, he knew that they would decline participation. Traditionally every genin team leader was called forth if their teams had completed the required minimum of eight missions, but no one nominated them that early. The three rookie teams were still far too inexperienced.
When Kakashi nominated Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura he was astonished. When Kurenai and Asuma also nominated their teams he went somewhat into shock. He wasn't the only person floored by the situation and murmuring immediately broke out after Asuma fell silent. It was unusual for any rookie genin to attempt the chuunin exams let alone three teams of them. What were the jounin thinking? Was this some kind of weird competition? There was no way these kids were ready.
Kakashi and Kurenai hadn't had genin teams before. Surely they were overestimating the abilities of their teams? He didn't know what Asuma's excuse was, but then if Kakashi and Kurenai nominated he probably figured he might as well... except... the chuunin exams were dangerous. People DIED in the chuunin exams. These jounin were all so exceptional surely it was colouring their perspective. His worry became greater than his sense or propriety and he couldn't hold himself back.
"Please wait!" he spoke up.
"What is it, Iruka?" the Third asked. The three jounin turned to look at him.
"Hokage-sama... please let me speak!" Iruka said, worry making him feel almost nauseated. "Excuse me for interfering, but the nine who were just nominated were my students at the Academy. Every one of them is talented, but it's too soon for them... they need more experience before they attempt the chuunin exams!"
Kakashi looked at him squarely, "I became a chuunin six years younger than Naruto."
"Naruto is not you!" Iruka shouted at him. "Are you trying to crush him?"
"They always complain during important missions," Kakashi said dispassionately. "Putting them through some pain might be interesting. Crushing them might also be interesting."
"What did you say?!" Iruka said, anger rising from his stomach and radiating through his body. He could taste bile in his mouth.
"That was a joke," Kakashi said without any change to his expression. "Iruka-sensei, I understand where you are coming from, you are clearly worried, but..."
"Kakashi, stop," Kurenai said softly.
Kakashi paid no attention to her. "... don't interfere! They aren't your students any more. They're my subordinates now." Kakashi was looking at him with cold, hard eyes.
No, not Kakashi. Hatake Kakashi, Copy-ninja, Master of a Thousand jutsus.
Iruka was shaking from more than just anger. He made himself breathe and calm down just a bit before speaking again. "But the chuunin exam is also known as the..."
"Iruka," the Third interrupted. Iruka looked towards him and the three jounin turned back around. "I understand what you are saying..."
"Hokage-sama," Iruka said with a bit of hope.
"... so we will put the rookie genin through a special preliminary exam," the Third continued.
"A preliminary exam?" Iruka wasn't sure what that meant, but it was something and while he was still worried, he was relieved the Third was listening to him.
"Maa," Kakashi said, "that really isn't necessary Hokage-sama, but if it will silence the doubters. I myself have no doubts in the abilities of my students. Or Kurenai's and Asuma's, if they think they are ready, for that matter. These kids are perfectly capable of getting through a dangerous situation like the chuunin exams."
Kakashi's words refuelled Iruka's ire and he said angrily, "I don't accept it! They may be your subordinates now, but they used to be my students. I know more about..."
"Iruka's right," Guy interrupted, stepping forward out of the ranks. "This isn't so easy. You're rushing things. My team waited a year to get stronger first. Let them mature a little."
Kakashi laughed scornfully. "They may not be perfect, but they'll quickly blow by your team."
Guy glowered at Kakashi. Iruka just stared at him. He was going to get the kids hurt with that arrogance. Even Guy didn't seem to know what to say. He made a sort of growling noise in the back of his throat.
"That's enough," the Third said. "That's it for the rookies. We'll move on to the nominations for the non-rookie genin."
His words shut down any further discussion and Iruka and the four jounin stepped back into the ranks. Iruka couldn't look at the three instructors he'd spoken up against, especially not at Kakashi. While the rest of the genin team instructors nominated or declined their teams, he wasn't paying any attention. His mind was racing. He was so worried for his students, but at least Guy agreed with him, and the Third had listened. But he shouldn't have spoken up like he had in front of everyone. He ground his teeth. The three jounin had every right to be very angry with him.
He had publicly questioned them, so as soon as the meeting was called to a close he immediately went to them before everyone could disperse.
"I'm sorry, Kakashi-sensei, Kurenai-sensei, Asuma-sensei. I was inappropriate."
"Thank you, Iruka-sensei," Kurenai replied. "We can understand your concern, but thank you for apologising."
Asuma rubbed the back of his head. "Don't worry about it, Iruka-sensei."
Iruka looked at Kakashi who merely nodded stiffly without making eye contact. Iruka hadn't expected anything more. He bowed again and left the three jounin to discuss the preliminary exam for their charges with the Hokage.
After Iruka's part in the affair he wasn't particularly surprised to become further involved in the proceedings. He, along with two other chuunin, were given the task of testing the nine rookies. Iruka was personally responsible for testing team seven, but the other two chuunin came to him with the results of their challenges to the other teams. It was up to Iruka to report to the jounin in charge. He was quite certain it was no accident that it was to Kakashi that he had to make that report.
The results of the challenges showed that all nine rookies had become more adept than he had given them credit for. They had shown the proficiency the Hokage required of them to allow their participation in the chuunin selection exams. Even though, he still didn't personally like the idea of them participating, but there was nothing further he could do about it. The Hokage and jounin had had no requirement to tolerate his outburst in the first place.
He went to make his report.
Kakashi was sitting patiently on a rooftop in the darkness, looking out over Konoha. When he turned to face in the opposite direction to where Iruka stood, Iruka's emotions went to war; relief that he wasn't being subjected to his insightful eyes, and sorrow that the jounin couldn't even bear to look at him.
"So? How did they do?" Kakashi asked.
"Although we went through the trouble of setting up a special preliminary exam, all nine rookies passed," Iruka replied a bit stiffly. Given Kakashi wasn't looking at him there was no need to hide behind the transformation, so he let it drop. "Apparently their skills are growing, just like the three of you said," he admitted. Even without Kakashi's eyes on him, he looked down at his feet.
"But the real Chuunin exam isn't going to be that easy," Kakashi admitted softly, still looking out into the night.
Iruka looked back up, and studied Kakashi's back.
He had been thinking, all day, ever since he walked away from the three jounin after apologising, and right now, Kakashi was supporting the tentative theory he had developed.
Iruka felt sick in his stomach. He was disappointed in himself. He was disappointed in himself, because Kakashi was disappointed in him. It would be easier, in a lot of ways, if the jounin was angry with him. But he wasn't. There wasn't a trace of anger in his voice, in his posture. Iruka closed his eyes.
The Kakashi in front of him was not the Kakashi who had turned cold eyes on him at the meeting. The Kakashi who had spoken of crushing his team was not the Kakashi who had offered Iruka supportive words that had helped him to develop a relationship with Naruto. Kakashi was cold, unrelenting, terrifying, but Kakashi was considerate, kind, caring. Kakashi was merciless, but Kakashi didn't leave people behind. Kakashi was unstoppable and unbreakable, but he was vulnerable and fragile.
Kakashi was full of inconsistencies, but inconsistencies only seen by tiny group of people. People who he let see those inconsistencies. People like Guy, Asuma, Kurenai and Genma.
People like Iruka.
And Iruka was certain that Kakashi didn't give second chances when it came to himself. If he didn't figure out how to fix things between them right now, the friendship that had been developing between them would die, here and now. From this point on Kakashi would be cordial, even friendly, but Iruka would never feel that warmth he had felt as they had laughed together when Kakashi had walked him home.
His inability to control himself had jeopardised everything.
To be continued...