I'm so sorry for the horribly long delay. There is no excuse. This concludes this twoshot, although it's a bit difficult to write one chapter, then months later, write the next... the flow may be a little disjointed, and I'm also sorry for that. But I hope you all enjoy it, regardless :)
Naruto ran all the way home from school, perfectly intent on just locking himself in his apartment and never coming out again. That way, no one could be mad at him, and, more importantly, Iruka and everybody else would be safe from him, and he could never pull any stupid pranks and put anyone in the hospital ever again. It was for the best, he told himself through a sob, unlocking his door and throwing himself inside, it was so Iruka and people like Iruka would be safe from him and-
Naruto tripped over something that shouldn't have been there and landed sprawling. His head stayed buried in his arms as let out another little hiccuping sob, hands clenched, body shaking. It wouldn't be the first time someone had broken into his apartment, but, maybe, this time, he wouldn't care if they wanted to hurt him. They never were strong enough to put him in the hospital, not like him and Iruka-
He froze at the familiar voice.
That wasn't one of the villagers, intent on trashing his home and hitting him until he stopped hitting back. That wasn't one of the villagers, who would glare down at him and yell until he left them all alone. That was…
"Hokage-jij?" he whispered, not daring to lift his head from his arms.
A large, warm hand rested on his shoulder, helping him up. And, normally, Naruto was thrilled to see the older man- but not this time. He kept his head bowed down in absolute shame, cheeks flaming and eyes burning as he stared at the floor, teeth sunk very firmly into his lower lip, shoulders trembling in guilt.
"Naruto, look up at me. There's no reason for you to be so ashamed."
Naruto tried to speak, then swallowed the lump in his throat and sniffled, wiping a sleeve across his cheeks and nose. "…I hurt Iruka-sensei," he whispered, horror and guilt washing through him at the terrible admission.
"No," the Hokage said gently, hand still resting on his shoulder. "You played a prank on him. A prank that went very wrong, but a prank. You had no intentions to hurt him."
Why isn't he mad at me? After what I did… "But I did," he insisted weakly. "He's… he's in the h-hospital because of m-"
"Judging by your reaction, I'd say you had no idea what you spiked Iruka's coffee with. Where did you get the ipecac from, Naruto?" he asked softly, still keeping a comforting hand on his shoulder. "What did you think it would do?"
He bit his lip harder. That stupid shopkeeper… I should've made him drink all of that stupid- stupid ipecac stuff! He deserves to be sick like that! Not Iruka-sensei! "S-some… some guy… I was l-looking around for something better than salt to put in his c-coffee, and when he found that out, h-he sold me the ipe… that stuff. What you said. He said… said it was a really good p-prank…"
The Hokage let out a quiet sigh, then squeezed his shoulder again. "All you're guilty of here, Naruto, is trying to play a prank. He lied to you, but you had no reason to suspect that he would make something like that up- you just wanted to play a prank. And, I bet Iruka himself can understand that- he used to be quite the prankster, when he was your age. Did you know that?"
"Iruka-sensei?" Naruto managed, scrubbing away at another tear. No way. Iruka-sensei? A prankster? He tried to compare the straight-laced teacher with the idea of a prankster, then shook his head. "There's no way."
The Hokage laughed. "Oh, yes. Maybe, if you asked, he would tell you about it sometime."
Naruto began to nod hesitantly, then remembered his earlier promise to himself and shook it instead. He couldn't ask Iruka about that if he never was going to leave his apartment again, and besides, there was no way Iruka would ever be willing to talk to him again. "No. I can't."
"Mmm? Why not?"
Naruto shook his head stubbornly, quickly pulling away to move over and slump down on his bed in defeat, wrapping his arms tight around his legs. "I'm not going to leave here ever again. Because… because I hurt Iruka-sensei, and… everybody's always calling me a monster. I didn't understand why, but- but if I can hurt him like this, without even meaning to- they have to be right!" he cried, scrubbing at his tears again. "I never meant to make him sick, but I did, and-"
"Naruto, you didn't mean to hurt him, and you regret it now that you did. That's not a monster. Monsters mean to hurt people, and they don't regret it when they do."
"But I-" Naruto fell silently, biting his lip again. He tried to find a way to disprove the Hokage's argument, keeping his eyes focused on the ground when he couldn't.
"Come on," the man said decisively when Naruto had no answer. He reached out to guide him towards the door of his apartment, even Naruto flinched back and tried to hold his ground. "I think I know someone who can convince you even better than I can. And if he can't- well, you still owe him an apology, Naruto, so at least have to leave your apartment for that."
Naruto stumbled on along after the Hokage, wanting to protest, but…
He's right. I really should apologize to Iruka-sensei…
Maybe he won't hate me as much if I say sorry?
Naruto sincerely hoped so. The idea of Iruka hating him, no more how much he deserved it…
It just hurt more than anything he could imagine, and he found himself hoping, just hoping, that maybe Iruka could forgive him- because he really was sorry. He had never been more sorry in his life-
But, for the first time, he didn't think an apology would be enough.
With one firm, solid push, Naruto was led into the the large, cold hospital room, and then the door was shut behind him, cutting him off from the Hokage, and, right now, his only source of comfort.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Naruto fisted his hands in his pockets and stared hard at the white, tiled floor. He made himself move one foot, then another, and almost backtracked before he steeled himself, forcing himself to stay.
He had to at least apologize to Iruka. After that, he could leave, but first…
Taking a deep breath, Naruto readied himself, then raised his head.
If the Hokage himself wasn't waiting right outside, Naruto would've dearly loved to turn right around, walk out, and pretend he had the wrong room.
His sensei was turned onto his side on the narrow hospital bed, head pillowed on one arm, the other wrapped tight around his stomach. His eyes were closed tightly, forehead creased in pain, his usually bronze, tanned skin a sickly, ashen white, glistening with a fine sheen of sweat. His breaths came short, quick, and pained, laced with raw coughs and broken by violent shivers. Naruto had never seen Iruka's hair down before, but it was now, falling to his shoulders in lanky, sweat-dampened strands, usual lush brown darkened by perspiration. There was a blanket drawn up around his waist, but Naruto could still see that his usual uniform shirt, at least, was gone, replaced by some kind of grey, ugly gown for a shirt, - the front of it was splattered with vomit. Naruto could see a thin, clear plastic tube inserted into his wrist by a needle, and his chest twisted in horror.
His mouth fell open, and no noise came out.
Oh my god.
"I'm feeling better, doctor-san," Iruka ground out, his voice strained. "Still nauseous, b-but… think…the vomiting is finally done."
Naruto couldn't help but let out a little whimper, and his teacher's eyes snapped open. They went momentarily wide with nothing more than surprise, and then Iruka let out a pained, sheepish chuckle, shifting his head a little on his arm. "Oh. Naruto. You're not the doctor."
He managed a weak shake of his head, quickly biting down on his traitorously trembling lower lip. He shifted anxiously on his feet, feeling his heart pound like it was about to jump right out of his chest, watching as Iruka looked back at him. There was no anger in his eyes, no annoyance, or hatred, or- just, nothing but a pleasant surprise, if twisted a little by pain. "What are you doing here?" Iruka asked him, though the question wasn't sharp, harsh, or accusatory in the slightest.
Naruto glanced back over his shoulder at the closed door, knowing the Hokage was behind it, then turned back to Iruka. He opened his mouth, snapped it shut again, then shuddered at the sight of him.
Iruka frowned slightly, then let out a slight cough. "Y-you don't have to look so-" The man was abruptly cut off by a gasp, and then he hunched over with a round of painful, hacking coughs, that left Naruto stunned and Iruka curled up breathless, even more pale than before, drops of sweat trickling down his forehead and cheeks.
"Oh, my god," Naruto choked out, feeling as if the sight of his teacher like this was a harder blow than any of punches he had ever faced. He stumbled forward in horror, reaching out as if to help, then froze, gasping worthlessly as his panicked eyes trailed up and down his shaking form, looking for something, ANYTHING he could do. "Iruka-sensei!" he cried, paralyzing fear for hurting his sensei draining away in a desire to ease his suffering as he bounded forward, leaning over the bedside frantically. "Sensei!"
"-ruto," Iruka panted, shaking his head as the coughs died down into something controllable. "Naruto," he tried again. "Wait. I'm fine, don't- I'm really fine."
Naruto stared at him, eyes wide. Panting, shaking, trembling in pain- he most definitely was not fine. You're not fine! he wanted to scream, but yelling at someone's sickbed seemed inappropriate, especially when he was the reason Iruka was hurt in the first place. He stared on anxiously, watching as Iruka recovered from the bought of coughing to smile at him again, the expression brittle and pained, his features drawn and pale. Naruto had to look away, sickened with himself.
"I-It… it was j-just supposed to be salt…"
Iruka's eyes, which had started to drift again, hazy and tired, focused on him again. "Huh?" he managed intelligently, and Naruto wiped his nose again before clearing his throat thickly, trying to explain as he had for the Hokage.
"The ipe- the- whatever it was. It was just gonna be salt. 'Cause you gave me detention… I was mad at you…" It all seemed so stupid now, and Naruto felt, for one of the first times in his life, like just a kid. Immature- that was what the adults and teachers called them. All the time. He wasn't the only one that hated that word, but there were those very few times when, shamed and confused and only just now realizing how foolish he'd been, he'd felt it could subscribe to him.
"I w-wanted to use salt, but that's boring. So I was in a weird looking shop to find something new. But the guy saw me, and he looked at me all funny, and I told him I wanted to get back at someone, and he pointed out this stuff to me… said it would work great. To use the whole bottle. I swear I didn't know it'd make you sick, Iruka-sensei," he pleaded, ducking his head as Iruka's hazel eyes slowly widened, his tight expression turning bright with surprise. He stared at the floor as he continued, his eyes boring into the cracked and dirty grey tiles, his ankles trembling. "I don't even know what it was! Ipesac or something- it was just supposed to make your coffee taste weird, or, make you fall asleep, or- I don't know!" he cried, frustrated. "I don't know but- it wasn't supposed to make you sick! I didn't know it was dangerous!"
Iruka didn't speak immediately. Naruto kept his eyes fixated on the floor and shook, listening for some kind of- any kind of- response, with his heart somewhere around his throat. The thought burst into his head without any kind of willingness on his part that Iruka might hit him, like the others, and he couldn't stop himself from flinching. Iruka hit students sometimes, if they did something really stupid, like tried a dangerous jutsu or tried throwing sharp weapons at someone else; he'd smack them real hard over the back of the head and yell that they could've hurt themselves or their friends. Naruto hadn't yet been the recipient of one of those; he had another trouble with the regular jutsu without trying for more advanced ones, and it was easier to throw sharpened kunai outside of school, where the culprit wasn't so easily pinned down as him and no one could tell on him to Iruka-sensei.
Except this time, his stupidity had hurt someone.
He bit his lip, kept his eyes down, and held his breath in preparation for the oncoming blow.
"You're right, Naruto- salt is boring."
No blow came.
"You know what you should try next time?"
Slowly, hesitatingly, Naruto raised his eyes to meet Iruka's again, this time in disbelief. His sensei had laid back down on the bed, limp and exhausted, but his eyes were bright with a mischievous glint, and he was smiling, just slightly, the corners of his mouth just barely twitched up. There was no anger there, just amusement mixed with a tinge of fatigue.
Taken by surprise, Naruto blinked again, stumbling back uncertainly and looking at Iruka blankly. He opened his mouth once, shut it, then opened it again, completely unsure of what to say. "…Those are hard to use, though," he managed at last, his voice tiny and trembling. He didn't know what to do except to play along. "The second you put them in the drink it starts to explode. The only way is to drop it in there when they're drinking it but then it's obvious it's me, I get wet too, and they catch me anyway."
Iruka grinned, and Naruto looked at him in wonderment. The Hokage had said Iruka was a prankster once- he hadn't imagined it was actually true!
But the mischievous glee in his eye, the slight grin…
His respect for Iruka suddenly doubled.
"You're not thinking hard enough," he admonished, shaking his head. "A piece of dental floss, or thread- those should always be in your prankster's arsenal, you know- tie it around the mentos. Then find a carbonated drink, but it has to be a bottle cap one, canned won't work- anyway, open it, then put the mentos in just at the very top. Close it again with the floss in place, so the mentos is suspended just above the liquid. Next person who gets it, opens it, then…"
Naruto grinned again in spite of himself. "Boom," he whispered, and Iruka nodded approvingly.
"But don't let me catch you doing it," Iruka continued on a moment later. "Detention for the rest of the year if I even find a mentos in your pocket, got it?"
Naruto nodded mutely. It was a challenge, all right- and he was Uzumaki Naruto. If there was anything to that name at all, it was that he didn't back away from a challenge.
Then his mind caught back up with the situation again, and he remembered that this wasn't Ichiraku or the Academy but the hospital, and he remembered why they were there. He swallowed. Iruka didn't seem mad at him, he certainly hadn't hit him, but…
He shifted from foot to foot anxiously, his nervous gaze dropping down to the floor again. He didn't know what to say, or how to apologize; he didn't know much at all, actually, just that he felt as sick as Iruka was, and that no matter how much he apologized Iruka would always hate him for this, he was lucky Iruka hadn't hated him from the start, but now that he'd provoked him-
"Now, speaking of detentions… your punishment, Naruto."
He closed his eyes tightly and shrank back again.
I'm really really sorry Iruka-sensei…
Please don't hate me…
"Let's see- detention every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for the next eight weeks for trying to pull a prank on me.You would've gotten away with it if you hadn't told Izumo and Kotetsu, which showed good judgment; you went to an adult when the situation had gotten out of control- otherwise, it would be another four weeks. But you also showed bad judgment by using the ipecac without knowing, really, what it was. Important rule of being a shinobi: never drink anything when you don't know what's in it, and never use a poison if you don't know exactly what it'll do. We haven't gotten to poisons yet, but, really, Naruto, that should be common sense, for a pre nin. So,another three weeks for that. I'll use the time to start teaching you poisons ahead of time, since you seem so intent on drugging people."
Then Iruka stopped talking.
Naruto stared at the ground in shock.
That was… it?
He thought he'd be kicked out of the Academy. Poisoning a teacher? Never mind that it was him doing it; wasn't an attack on a teacher grounds for expulsion?
And Iruka's voice had been deceptively lighthearted the whole time. No blows had rained down, not a single one, no threats, no anger- just like Iruka had caught him cheating on a test; a simple handing down of detention. Except less anger. Iruka got very anger very easily, and he lectured a lot if he did something bad enough to get detention, lots of stuff about shinobi and shinobi rules and honor, and then, as if that wasn't enough, he'd almost always talk about how he could've broken the rules, but not gotten caught, if he'd just studied his jutsu harder. A funny parallel between scolding him for what he'd done, but then trying to improve his technique so he could do it better next time.
Well, Iruka had already done that last part. But where was the anger?
He chanced another glance up at his sensei to see him watching him, still smiling slightly. He remained drawn and pale, but his voice was stronger than when he'd first come, and he wasn't coughing as badly anymore- and he still didn't look angry. Naruto just didn't get it.
"…But I did- this." He gestured vaguely with a shaking hand, then bit his lip. "I- I made you sick. Aren't you mad at me?"
Iruka grinned again. "Well, what was your intent? To make my drink taste bad. Civilian crimes are judged by intent, not action. Shinobi, intent doesn't matter in the slightest- but you're not a shinobi yet. So, all I know is, you wanted to play a prank on me and did the equivalent of pouring salt in my coffee. Trust me, Naruto, if I broke off friendships over that, I wouldn't have any friends."
Chuckling hoarsely, Iruka sat up a little straighter, his smile widening to the point that it stretched his scar. "You didn't mean to get me sick. That's the way I see it. I can't punish you for something you didn't mean to do."
A pinpoint of light broke through the dark curtain that had cast itself down that morning, and suddenly, it was just that easier to breathe.
Iruka nodded easily.
In that moment, it felt as if some terrible, choking weight hanging off his heart snapped and vanished, and everything spun around to become right again.
Without even making the conscious decision to do it, Naruto had launched himself forward, jumping up off the floor and at Iruka. He heard a soft grunt beneath him but just wrapped his arms around him, gasping in relief, the shards of a terrified fantasy crashing down on him as just that, a fantasy. "Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!"
Iruka laughed suddenly, unrestrained and joyful, and Naruto squeezed him tighter. Slowly, eventually, one long, tan arm moved up to reciprocate the embrace, and Naruto at last let himself relax. Given every opportunity and reason, and Iruka had still not yet once treated him like he'd grown used to expect. He didn't know how or why- but he really thought he'd found his first friend.
It made him happy inside in a way that he'd previously thought only ramen could, except much more than that.
"…You know," Iruka said at last, "you pranked me, Naruto. Unfortunately, I can't let such a slight go unanswered. Reputation, all of that. Pranked by one of my own students? No, it would never do." Iruka shook his head. "No- the only way this can get even is if I pranked you back."
Naruto shook his head fiercely. "No! No way, Iruka-sensei! Then my reputation would be ruined! I can't let you prank me! Then I'd have to double prank you back!"
"Sounds like a prank war to me."
His eyes widened. He twitched back to look up at Iruka's face- the man was smiling again, and that mischievous glint was back.
"You're on, Iruka-sensei!"