Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto > Falter

Falter

by iamzuul 5 Reviews

Even a person with the strongest convictions may feel themselves occasionally falter. [One-Shot]

Category: Naruto - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Drama - Characters: Iruka, Naruto - Warnings: [!] - Published: 2005/07/03 - Updated: 2005/07/03 - 5289 words - Complete

Generic Disclaimer: Naruto not mine. Woe.

Everything else: I actually wrote this back in January, posted it on my livejournal in February - along with two Sakura drabbles - and promptly forgot about them. Then I remembered about them again last night. This is an unforgivable failure on my part. -hangs head- I am such a horrible author. Anyway. I have plans for this, eventually, but for now consider this a one-shot. I may get around to writing more later, but... eh. I'm easily distracted. ^^;;

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.oO0Oo.
FALTER
.oO0Oo.
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Iruka clenched his fists. Took a slow breath. Unclenched his fists. Clenched them again.

He had only been a teacher for four years - a short time, as far as experience went, but long enough that he was no longer apprehensive of the first day of class. Used to be he'd have worse butterflies than the students themselves, a gnawing anxiety just under his lungs that kept him from keeping down any kind of breakfast and had him stuttering all day.

But this no longer affected him. He had taught four different levels of genin, some of which were jounin and even ANBU now. He was a good teacher. He had nothing to be apprehensive about.

Iruka scrubbed the palms of his hands against his pants. The material felt slick, oily. Or maybe that was just the sweat. No, he wasn't sweating - it was just the clothing. The fabric would wear smooth after too much use. He probably needed to order a new jumpsuit.

This would be his fifth year of teaching, his fifth crop of students. Two classes, two different sets of faces that he would have to match a name and a family and a personality to. But that wouldn't be hard. The black-haired chuunin had a good memory, and the Hokage had already provided him the paperwork on his students. The folders were sprawled across his desk, pertinent information tucked inside, bewildered entrance photographs neatly paper-clipped to the front flap.

He closed the folder directly in front of him, pushed it away. He had recognized the photograph right off - unsurprising. It was not easy to miss that child, not after - well. He just wasn't easy to miss.

/I can't believe the Hokage actually allowed him to enter the shinobi academy/, Iruka thought dully. His was the final stage before the students were pronounced genin, apprentice shinobi. There was one other level before his, and standard grammar school (which all children attended) before that - each three years in length. For the boy to have reached the last stage before genin meant he must have already been in the school system for six years.

"You're insane," he said aloud. He knew the Hokage couldn't hear him (although one never knew, these days), but vocalizing the thought eased his nerves some. How many other teachers had said the very same thing when they received the very same folder?

Iruka touched the item in question, tapping it lightly. Most of the paperwork contained within was detention slips and transferal forms, all flimsier that the usual paper that grades and recommendations were printed on. It was thinner than the others, lighter. Lighter than any of the folders of the other students he had taught. Nearly a quarter of the size of the Uchiha boy and Hyuuga girl, the poor things.

But an interesting fact; Iruka had assumed the boy's folder would be thicker. So that any soul who didn't know about the boy - and those could only be transfers, no member of the Hidden Leaf was ignorant of that boy's history, save for the children - could be brought up to speed before the first day of class. So that any unwilling teacher could protest the boy's presence. As many already had, paperwork inside the folder showed - four teachers had completely dropped the class before the first day once they learned who they were teaching. Three more dropped after the first day. And the boy had been transferred between classes a grand total of twenty-one times in six years.

Iruka didn't know if he should pity the boy or not. So many transfers and withdrawals must have played hell with his education. Who can learn anything with any kind of consistency when the style of teaching is changed more than three times a year?

But he squashed the thought down. The boy shouldn't have been taught anything in the first place. He should have continued on to a vocational school after his first three years of schooling, instead of being allowed into the more advanced shinobi academy. He was... he was...

Flipping the folder open again, Iruka stared at the photograph of Uzumaki Naruto. The blonde child had his tongue stuck out at the photographer, a grimy finger pulling down the lower lid on one eye, the other squinted into little more than a slit of blue. With the way he was grinning, it was hard to ignore the fact that Naruto's canines were longer than the average eleven year old.

Iruka rubbed the scar that ran across the bridge of his nose.

He was... going to be trouble.


~


It was the first time in over two years that Iruka had awoken with a hangover. Only it wasn't a hangover, not really, because he hadn't drunk a single drop of alcohol the night before. His headache seemed to deny this fact, though, and his stomach heaved at the scent of his percolating coffee.

After hanging over the toilet for almost half an hour, the chuunin wisely decided to skip breakfast. He showered, dressed, and swallowed two aspirin dry on his way out the door.

It was the first day of class.

As the students filed through the school room door (he did, after all, teach two classes - one in the mornings, one in the afternoons), Iruka's nausea only increased. It felt not all that dissimilar to waiting for the executioner to arrive, waiting for the axe to drop. Which was stupid, he was a chuunin for crying out loud, he had survived countless missions much worse than teaching a class of rowdy students.

And yet all that experience meant nothing in the face of this first day of class.

He made the students wait in the front of the room, walking down the aisles and calling out their names as he pointed to their designated seats (organized by their family names). He managed not to stutter, even when he called Naruto's name and the child in question did not appear.

Naruto's absence heartened him in a way that should have been shameful. How many times did he have to remind himself that he was a shinobi and Uzumaki was, for all extents and purposes, still a child?

/Your parents were shinobi, too/, a hateful voice whispered, resonating somewhere in the region of his chest.

Iruka squashed the thought before it could bloom into anything else, something that seemed to be quickly becoming a habit. Ignoring the single empty seat in the back of the room, he introduced himself to the class.


~


Half an hour after class had started, when he was in the middle of reviewing the main classifications of jutsu, someone in the back began to giggle.

Iruka disregarded it, staying focused on the representation he was drawing on the board. He didn't really expect the children to pay close attention to him, not when the material he was covering was the same stuff that had been pounded into their heads for the past three years. It wouldn't hurt him to be a little lenient for the first few days.

But the sporadic giggling spread across the classroom as he continued his lecture, soft snickers hidden behind hands from the girls, snorts of laughter from the boys. To their credit, they were trying to be quiet, but weren't even in the general area of succeeding.

The chuunin got a sudden mental image of himself from behind: a tear in his pants, smack dab in the middle of his right buttock, a bright yellow smiley on the boxers beneath peeking through. Or maybe a cluster of hearts. Which boxers had he put on this morning? He couldn't remember.

At the sound of a harsh thud and two boys cursing quietly in unison, Iruka realized his students weren't staring at the imagined rip in his pants. (This eased his recurring nausea considerably.) Apparently the class-wide hilarity was something he would need to investigate after all.

With an exaggerated sigh, the man dropped his chalk on the metal tray with a clatter, and turned -

- just in time to see Uzumaki Naruto pop up from beneath his desk to settle into the one empty seat in the room.

It didn't take a genius to figure out what all the laughing had been about. The boy had slipped in through the door (left open to catch the summer breeze) and crawled beneath the desks to try and escape Iruka's attention.

Most of the children were caught in the middle of smothering a giggle. A few were rolling their eyes in exasperation. The rest ignored the situation entirely, like the Uchiha boy - who had his chin in hand and was staring out a window, looking bored out of his skull and probably wishing he was somewhere else.

Iruka empathized with him.

The class quieted as he glared (or rather, tried not to glare) at them; they struggled into impassive faces as he in turn struggled with his internal reactions. Naruto tried, and failed, to look serious under Iruka's scrutiny, a smirk threatening to lift his lips.

This was it, he realized. This was the demon who had nearly destroyed the Hidden Leaf village over a decade before. This was the nine-tailed fox that the Yondaime had given his life to seal away. This was what had killed his -

/Close it off, Iruka/, he heard the Hokage say in the depth of his mind. Unthinking, he shut the door on those thoughts immediately.

"Uzumaki-kun," he said with stiff formality. "Care to explain your tardiness?"

"My alarm didn't go off so I woke up late and I can't think on an empty stomach so I went to the ramen shop but he didn't have his morning shipment so we had to wait for the truck and then I had to help the old guy stock the ramen for a free bowl but I promise I ran allthewayhere." The boy grinned. For someone who claimed to have run all the way across the city, he sure didn't seem out of breath.

Someone groaned on the other side of class. Iruka thought it might have been the Nara boy.

Exhaling slowly, the chuunin tried to calm his mounting anger. Part of it was the unacceptable behavior; part of it was the strange fluttering in his stomach that indicated his deep anxiety.

"That was very responsible of you, to help Tatsuki-san stock his goods," he said calmly. "So I won't mark your attendance record as tardy."

Naruto's grin widened in triumph. His teeth were starkly white against the tan of his lips.

"But to make up for it I'll need you to stay a half-hour after class today," he finished.

The grin abruptly disappeared.

"Now." Iruka turned back to the board, his unease rising at putting his back to the boy, but somehow feeling an odd surge of satisfaction at the same time. "As I was saying before Uzumaki-kun decided to join us..."

Really. He shouldn't be so twitchy about this. Naruto was just a /child/, after all.

But every time he caught a glimpse of the blonde sulking and outright glaring at him when he thought the chuunin wasn't looking, Iruka couldn't help but be reminded of blood.


~


After class, Iruka made Naruto write "I will not be late to class" as many time as could be fit into a half hour. At first he was dubious at the atrocious script, but after half the board was covered with nearly identical lines of lop-sided kanji, he realized the boy honestly couldn't write worth a damn.

The objective part of him wondered how anyone could let this child's education slip so badly.

The anxious part of him, that recoiled low in his belly every time those blue eyes looked at him, didn't really give a damn.

Iruka ignored the obnoxious noises Naruto made at his back as he let the boy out, and silently prepared the room for his next set of students.


~


Naruto was an hour late the next day.

He didn't try to crawl under the desks this time, but instead behind the student's seats; surprisingly, Iruka wasn't alerted to his presence until the Yamanaka girl stood to give her response on which Hidden Villages studied which elemental jutsu. Naruto's indignant squawk when his fingers were caught under the chair leg and Ino's squeal of dismay when the seat (and consequently, she as well) toppled over backwards and onto the floor was indication enough of the boy's presence.

The blonde gave the same excuse as the day before: waking late, raiding the ramen shop and helping the shopkeeper stock his wares. Iruka managed not to yell when he chastised the boy for being late. He made Naruto stay an hour after class that day as well, scribbling the same short message on the blackboard.

The boy made no attempt to hide his obscene gestures at Iruka when the teacher all but kicked him out of the class an hour after everyone else.


~


On the third day of class, Iruka wisely decided to close the door once his students were seated. Because the room got so stuffy, however, he chose to leave both the small windows open - which proved to be a stupid move. Roughly half an hour after class had commenced, the pink-haired girl (whose parents had migrated from the Hidden Cloud village five or six years ago, if he remembered correctly) screamed in surprise when Naruto slipped coming in through the window and executed a painful-looking belly-flop on her desk.

Iruka covered his face with his hands and tried to compose himself.

"Crap," the boy groaned against the table-top, and the class immediately broke down into helpless laughter. Haruno-san snarled in fury (an interesting contrast to the startled-young-girl impression she had done an instant before) and shoved the boy off her desk. He disappeared behind the Hyuuga girl with a startled gasp.

In the front of the classroom, the chuunin counted slowly to five, and then dropped his hands to rest them on his hips.

"Uzumaki-kun," he said levelly. "Your art of stealth leaves much to be desired."

This threw the classroom into a whole new level of hysterics.

The boy grasped the edge of the desk to haul himself back to his feet, and stomped across the room to his seat in the back. The way he dropped into his chair looked just as painful as the way he had landed on the desk, but he made no sound of pain.

He didn't bother to give an excuse for his tardiness this time. Iruka didn't ask for one.

But he couldn't ignore the miserable clench in his gut every time he caught the glimpse of Naruto's sullen expression.


~


"Can you tell me, honestly, if this is going to become a habit?"

The boy stood in front of his desk, head down, hands shoved in the pockets of his bright orange jacket. The jacket itself was only zipped up about half-way, and underneath Iruka could see the off-white tee-shirt that was a size too big. The neckline drooped too low and exposed the sharp angles of his collarbones.

Naruto just shrugged and stared at the floor.

The chuunin smothered a sigh. Over the past two weeks the boy was consistently tardy, always fifteen minutes or more late to class. He had strongly considered dropping his initial lenience - allowing Naruto to make up the time at the end of class - for even his nigh-legendary patience was becoming strained. If he had been bothering to record the tardies, then it would only take about five more before Naruto would be facing some serious repercussions from the school board.

"Is there any specific reason why you can't seem to make it to class on time?" Iruka persisted.

The blonde shrugged again, glancing off to the side. "Does it matter?"

"To you, I should think." He looked down at the papers on his desk, at the results of the first test. Just a review of everything the students had learned in the last year, really. Just to make sure that everyone knew the book work before he took them out to the training field to enhance their knowledge of their physical skills.

The boy in front of him had not just failed the exam. He had tanked the exam. The only way he could have failed it worse was if he had not answered any questions at all.

He rested his elbow on the desktop and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Listen, Uzumaki-kun. The academy /does /have a strict guideline concerning tardies and absences, excused or not. Over the course of the school year, you can only miss fifteen days, or forty-five tardies. As it is, you've already had fourteen tardies - that counts as just shy of five days."

"I know that," the boy said irritably. He stared off to the side, at the stuffed dummy in the corner of the room that illustrated the numerous pressure points on the human body.

"Then you also know that there are forty-eight weeks in the school year," the teacher replied, not succeeding in keeping the irritability out of his own voice. "If I decided to start counting those tardies against you, you'll flunk out of the academy in two months."

Naruto kept his silence, still staring stubbornly at the dummy.

Iruka found himself rubbing the scar that ran across his nose, and forced his hand flat against the grain of his desk. "If you can't make it to class on time, I will have to start counting those tardies against you. An inability to wake up in time does not count as an excuse."

The boy's head snapped back around to face him, eyes hateful. "So? Why don't you?" he hissed. "No one wants me to graduate from this stupid school, so why don't you just flunk me now and get it over with?"

The black-haired chuunin felt his patience quickly slipping in the face of the blonde's anger. He forced his hands into fists, nails scraping against the tabletop. "I don't want to flunk you, Uzumaki-kun."

The boy gave a short, sarcastic bark of laughter. The sound - and the expression on his face - seemed entirely too old for someone only eleven years old.

"The academy has three rules regarding how the students must perform in order to graduate," Iruka said tightly. "One: they must be punctual. A ninja who is late is a ninja who will miss pertinent information and lose vital opportunities. This may cause him to lose his life. Two: they must be knowledgeable. A ninja who does not know the rules and regulations, in addition to the various arts of fighting and healing, is a ninja that is unprepared. This may cause him to lose his life. Three: they must be sound in mind and in body. A ninja who is weak - mentally, physically, or emotionally - is a ninja that has flaws that can be taken advantage of. This may cause him to lose his /life/."

He turned the paper on his desk around, with Naruto's abysmal grade scribbled on it, so that the boy could see. "So far the only thing you're succeeding at is the third rule. And one out of three is not good enough."

Naruto didn't even look at the test. "So what?" was his half-sneered response. "Even if I did get here on time and studied for those stupid tests, you wouldn't pass me. You'd find some stupid little thing that didn't look right and flunk me either way. I've had half a dozen teachers do that and another dozen more try it. Don't bother pretending to be nice. I've seen how you glare at me."

Iruka pressed his fingers into his eyes, grinding his teeth. What the hell was this boy's problem? He was trying to do the kid a goddamned favor/, and he was getting shot down before he could even get to the point! "/Why are you consistently late, Uzumaki-kun?"

"Why the hell do you care?"

"/Because I want to give you a chance!"/

The blonde recoiled as though he had been slapped, eyes widening. The room seemed twice as silent after Iruka's outburst of anger. It took him a second to drop his gaze, to relax his fists again, to exhale slowly.

He reached out to pick up the mug of quills and charcoal pencils that had been knocked over when he had slammed his fists against the desktop. "I'm trying to help," he said quietly. "Please let me help you, Uzumaki-kun."

Something seemed to spasm under Naruto's skin, the muscles in his cheeks twitching as some strange emotion flitted there and gone again before Iruka could identify it. He held the boy's gaze calmly enough this time, listening to his heartbeat slowing in his ears.

The blonde finally looked away. "I have to work to make my rent," he muttered.

"In the mornings?"

Naruto nodded.

The chuunin exhaled slowly again, half in relief that the boy was finally communicating with him, and half to further slow his heart. "I teach two classes," he said, dropping his eyes to the attendance book half-buried under answer sheets and tests. "My second one doesn't start until two hours past noon. It's a three-hour class as well." He looked up at the boy again. "Will you be able to make it on time to that class?"

A long moment passed before Naruto, ponderously, nodded again.

"Good," Iruka said. "Good. Come to my second class tomorrow, then. It's in the same classroom. And... " he pulled open a drawer on his desk, rifled through the folders, pulled out a single paper, "... I've made you a make-up test."

The boy's head shot up again, and he stared in blatant surprise. "A what?"

"A make-up test," the older man repeated. "I can't take you to the training field until you pass the written review, so... " He shrugged and extended the paper towards his student. "Make the effort to pass it. Try going to the library, the answers are all easy to find."

Naruto stared at the paper as though he thought it was going to bite him. It made Iruka wonder if he had never been administered a make-up test before. Had all his previous teachers really tried to flunk him for no good reason? There were few records of his standard grades in the student's folder, only what he had made on the actual exams.

"I..." The blonde paused, hesitated, and one hand came up to his cheek in a nervous gesture. It looked almost effeminate in nature, until Iruka realized he was stroking one thumb over the whisker-like scars. "I don't have a library card."

"Oh. Then, here." The chuunin once again leaned over to search through his drawer, and pulled out a narrow, battered looking book. The cover was scuffed and the corners had grown soft from age and use. He extended both the test and the book to the boy. "This is last year's text-book. I pulled all the questions from it."

The boy continued to stare at the proffered items, stroking his cheek. Iruka had to sit for nearly thirty seconds before Naruto finally reached out to take them.

"Where do you work?" he asked, not letting go when Naruto tried to tug them away.

The blonde tugged again, and paused. "The ramen stand," he said slowly.

"Just in the mornings?"

Naruto pulled at the book, frowning, and Iruka let go. He tucked them under his arm quickly, as though he expected the chuunin to change his mind and ask for them back. "When do I have to turn this in?"

The change in subject was blatant, but Iruka didn't press the issue. "Tomorrow." The chuunin paused, then added, "After class. I'll take you to the training field with the rest of the students, but if it looks like you didn't bother trying to find the answers, or you're more than five minutes late, I'll fail this test again. You'll be set back with the rest of the failed students until you pass it. Otherwise, you won't be going back to the field again."

The boy nodded again, woodenly, and looked nervously toward the door. All his previous bravado and anger had vanished in the space of two minutes. It startled Iruka, and also disturbed him in a way he wasn't quite able to identify. Had the boy never been given a second chance before?

When Naruto glanced back at him again, he nodded. "You can go home." He raised one hand, extending two fingers. "Remember: two o'clock.

"Two o'clock," the blonde repeated, and fairly ran from the room.

Iruka sighed and put his head in his hands. /Is this even worth it? /he wondered.

He certainly hoped so.


~


Iruka did not eat supper that night. He showered, set aside his clothing for the next day, tossed his dirty laundry at the hamper in the closet, and went to bed early. He was exhausted, and a migraine loomed heavy on the proverbial horizon. /Better to sleep now and cut it off at the knees/, he thought.

He fell asleep almost immediately.

Iruka dreamt of the night his parents had died. He still dreamt about it a great deal, even eleven years after they were gone, even after the wounds were healed over and barely more than the mottling of dark, shiny new skin. The Hokage had done what he could to help - had done more than many others had, but there had been so much to do, so much to repair. Who would notice one orphaned boy among hundreds?

He dreamt of the sound of screaming. Of the roiling stench of fire, the blazing heat of it, the greasy smoke it puked out like some kind of airborne disease. The animals had screamed when the fire reached their stalls, the horses, the cows, the pigs - god, they sounded like children - but no one was there to let them out. No one was there to let out the people trapped in their own homes, either, but their screams of death were not loud enough to pierce the roar of the flames.

The burning animals had, predictably, put up a stench that smelled like over-cooked meat at an outdoor food stand.

The burning people smelled like roasting pork.

"/Let me go!/" child-Iruka screamed. "They're still back there! Mom and dad - /let me go!/"

The ninja didn't say a word, didn't let him go, didn't even grunt until the flying piece of timber from yet another shattered home gutted him from sternum to hip. They fell, and Iruka's hand tangled in the steaming guts when he tried to get out from beneath the corpse.

He didn't see the shrapnel from the ruined water tower until it flew by his face and nearly took his nose with it.

Iruka woke up with a scream lodged somewhere in the back of his throat, blankets twisted and knotted around his legs, darkness streaming in through the open window, and he though he had died that time, had really died - he put his hands to his face and they came away wet, warm like blood, and he thought the old wound had broken open again until he realized it was just his tears.

He did not try to go back to sleep.


~


Naruto's absence from the morning class was a subject of large debate when he did not make it to the training field.

"You think he dropped out?" he heard Sakura ask as the students sat on the turf, waiting their turn to spar.

"He was probably kicked out," Ino said confidentially. "Remember what he did to the cafeteria last year? He pulled the cables on all the refrigerators and everything spoiled over-night. Yuck city!" She turned to Sasuke, whom she had conveniently managed to sit close to. "Do you think he was kicked out, Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke ignored her.

"Actually," Iruka said without looking at the students, "Uzumaki-kun switched classes. His financial responsibilities were getting in the way, so I put him in the afternoon class." He pushed away from the tree he was leaning against and clapped his hands. "Hinata, Chouji! You did well. We'll go into more detail over your offense and defense later. Shikamaru, Sakura. Your turn."

"Man, I can't hit girls," the Nara boy said sullenly.

"So pretend she isn't a girl." The chuunin nudged the boy with his toe. "Go on, get up."

Ino remained silent for several minutes, and Iruka wondered if the subject had really been dropped that quickly. He was, however, convinced of her lack of interest when she leaned back toward Sasuke and said, "I fight so much better than her, don't you think?"

Sasuke gave her a dirty look and shifted away with a sigh.


~


Iruka sat at his desk with his hands clasped tightly in front of him.

One minute until class started.

The students filed in through the door, lingering in groups near the doorway, around the desks, chattering at each other in the easy way children had. As though it wasn't fifty-eight seconds and counting down until they needed to be in their seats and paying attention. Some of them didn't even bother bringing their books, extra paper, or even a pen to class. Maybe he should consider automatically failing those students that didn't bring their own paper or pens for tests.

Then again, Naruto never brought any supplies to class, either.

Iruka pursed his lips. Maybe he'd think on that idea a bit more before he implemented it.

Thirty seconds until class started.

He didn't expect much on the training field from this class. Somehow it seemed like the more talented children all seemed to get grouped together - whether by manipulation of the school faculty or because talent breeds talent (and laziness breeds laziness), he didn't know. He wondered if Naruto would be automatically hated here, as he was everywhere else. It came from the parents, he supposed. Children only emulated what they saw, after all, and if mother and father saw fit to talk trash about some kid they only saw on the streets, never mind actually spoke to, why couldn't they?

After all, hadn't he all but hated the boy on sight?

He realized he had been gritting his teeth and forced his jaw to relax.

Fifteen seconds.

Some of the students that had been standing in the hall started towards their seats, smart enough to know better than to be tardy but too casual to care too much.

Ten seconds.

There were more empty chairs in this class than in the other one. All in the back, though; hopefully Naruto wouldn't have any problems sitting next to Kiba. They both seemed to have the knack of pissing people off.

He closed his eyes.

Five seconds.

Four seconds.

Three seconds.

Two seconds.

"Uh. Hey."

Iruka opened his eyes. Naruto stood uncertainly in front of him, both hands jammed into the pockets of his jumpsuit. The folded edge of a piece of paper stuck out from behind one elbow, stuffed in a back pocket. The jacket was zipped up to the neck this time.

"Where... do you want me to sit?" the boy asked slowly.

Iruka smiled.


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