Well, folks, it's that time again!

UPDATE MANIA! WHEEEE:bounces off the walls:

Warning: This chapter may contain ample amounts of cracked-out, slapstick humor, because…author is hyper…so do not expect much seriousness (although most of this story can hardly be considered serious…XD)

Chapter 11: Operation Catch That Squirrel!

Maito Gai was on the prowl.

No, no, not for ladies, never fear (what a frightening prospect, ne?). No, our lovable, spandex-wearing image of esteemed ninjahood had received a tip from a very reliable source—one Sarutobi Asuma, who was feeling a bit on the snarky side and decided that a certain silvery-haired friend was in need of a some extra excitement—that Hatake Kakashi and Mitarashi Anko had gone off on a skiing excursion a day or so ago, and had not since returned.

"Yeah, I have no idea what they're up to," the chain-smoking Jounin had said between drags on his ever-present cigarette. His deep voice contained subtle hints that he did in fact know what they were up to—or, more specifically, what Kakashi was up to—however Gai was too overjoyed to notice.

"Skiing, eh?" He mused, rubbing his hands together gleefully. "I'll bet that idiot went and got himself killed on the way down one of the hills."

Asuma snorted, and nearly inhaled his cigarette. "I doubt that," he wheezed. "You know Kakashi. He's always been athletic."

Gai's face fell, overly large brows snapping together. "You're right. It wouldn't be that easy to get rid of him." Damn…

"Do you really want to get rid of him?" The other man inquired, amused. "Who'd be your eternal rival, then? Sure as hell wouldn't be me."

"Oh…I hadn't really thought of it that way."

"See? I'm useful once in awhile," Asuma replied cheerfully, and then slapped Gai on the back. "You should try and track those rascals down. All of your missions are finished, right?"

"Yeah," Gai admitted reluctantly. "But why should I waste valuable leisure time on them? I don't care what they're doing," he scoffed, though it was a boldfaced lie, and his companion knew it.

"If you find them, you'll be able to spy on 'em for us and bring back the dish," Asuma pointed out, a large grin plastered on his face. "Didn't you hear about the bet? I wagered an arm and a leg that they'll be on each other by the end of the week, and Genma's a stickler when it comes to gambling. He's in charge of the money, and he'll own me without blinking an eye if they don't show soon."

Gai did try to appear nonchalant about the whole thing, tapping one finger against his chin as if mulling over his options, but there was no way he could allow the opportunity to snoop on his life-long nemesis pass him by. "I suppose I don't have anything better to do," he conceded with a shrug. YOSH! This is my chance! I'll finally be the one who looks cool instead of him! "And I'm always willing to help a friend," he added modestly, his signature smile, complete with a 'ting' from his pearly white teeth, springing into action.

And so it was that Konoha's original Green Beast departed from his home and began the quest of locating the elusive Sharingan Kakashi and the hyperactive Mitarashi Anko, a pair that gave trouble its middle name—er…Double…trouble. Well, whatever. The two were devious enough on an individual level; together, their antics spread chaos wherever they went, and it was essential that their nefarious ways be exposed at all costs.

This mission was an A-rank, no doubt about it, and Gai would die before he failed to carry it out.

Or something like that.

Besides, the horrified looks he would receive from Kakashi when he embarrassed him in front of everyone would be a payoff he'd cherish for years afterward, so he didn't mind slogging through snow with silly contraptions shaped like tennis rackets strapped to his feet, nor wearing goggles that engulfed most of his face, giving him the appearance of a deranged bug. The huge green parka he wore over his clothes only added to the image—there had been plenty of other parkas for him to choose from when he went to the store, but green was his favorite color, and, naturally, he bought that one, not considering how much like a grasshopper he'd look once all of his gear was on.

The wind was quite brisk as he toiled out in the wilderness, the exposed areas of his skin turning a bright and rosy red. Here and there, woodland animals frolicked through the white-coated forest; on occasion, small packs of the critters would line either side of his path, their black-button eyes grave as they observed this great, hulking thing that had intruded upon their habitat.

Being Gai, he could not resist smiling at them as he passed.

"Hello there, little ones!" He called loudly, waving one gloved hand.

The animals—a group of snowshoe hares—exchanged bemused glances that seemed to say 'What the heck is this moron doing?' before turning tail and bounding hastily away.

Well that wasn't very nice! He thought, incensed. I was only trying to be friendly—

A sudden crashing sound from above drew his attention.

What the—?

Once he was buried beneath an avalanche of snow, Gai understood the reason why the rabbits snubbed him.

Shouting in a snowy wood was never a good idea if one wished to emerge on the other side intact.

After all the hoopla over Sakura's ghost story settled, the remainder of the night passed uneventfully—at least, for most members of the mountain house party.

Sasuke, tired before people started claiming they'd heard violins, slept like he hadn't in years, and he was still out cold when the others began to stir.

Since Lee had been one of those volunteered to search the attic, he was a trifle jumpy, though he did manage some sleep, his head buried beneath his pillow, an arm and leg flopped over the side of the couch.

On the floor yet again, Kakashi and Anko seemed to have no problems drifting off, the latter using the former as a sort of makeshift bed. The silvery-haired Jounin woke sooner than his conquest, allowing him time to fully appreciate their position—in other words, his hands just so happened to start roving of their own accord. At one point, they settled in a spot that made it rather impossible for the woman being groped not to take notice, and her reflexes proved faster than Kakashi's, earning him a nice, healthy black eye—the normal one, mind.

"Look at it this way," she told him once the colorful array of bruises began to show, "I've balanced out that pretty face of yours. I'm so generous sometimes, I make myself sick."

"Oh yeah," he deadpanned, "real generous. Thanks ever so much."

"It's your own fault," she informed him primly. "You should've kept your hands to yourself." The mischievous part of her mind had a different opinion, however, the very same part that egged her on the previous day during the broom closet escapade. Why did his touching her now matter, if he did much more than that earlier?

Hush, she ordered her errant thought processes. That's not the point, here.

The fact that she wasn't exactly sure what the point was made her slightly uncomfortable—there was no way Kakashi could have reeled her in so fast. She wasn't some fickle bimbo who flitted from one man to the next whenever she felt like it!

Although, to get technical, the only other person she had any kind of relationship with had been Orochimaru, and that could hardly be considered a 'relationship' in conventional terms. It was more like he singled her out when she was still young and vulnerable as a guinea pig for some of his experiments, and, as she had not exhibited what he searched for, he discarded her like an old, useless rag.

Kakashi was a far more attentive…whatever he was…(her mind screamed lover, but she ignored it), and he pursued her with dogged determination, never giving up no matter how often she abused him. Perhaps that was why, even though she resisted him, she inevitably found herself in a hopeless bind whenever he was near. The years with Orochimaru had scarred her to a degree, making her hesitant to put herself in a spot where she had to surrender control to another, and Kakashi knew it. He knew, yet instead of driving him away, her unique predicament made him as persistent as ever.

Any which way she looked at it, she was doomed.

Leaning forward, she brushed her lips against the thin scar on his cheek, grateful that they were the only two awake so far.

When she drew back, he was examining her with the strangest expression on his face, as if stunned that she had initiated a show of affection.

"What was that for?" he asked in wonder, cheek tingling where she kissed it.

She felt her heart melt at the way he stared at her, his hair unkempt and messy, stray pieces of silver falling in his eyes, looking as cuddly as a teddy bear… "No particular reason," she replied, "Just my way of apologizing."

One of his silvery eyebrows arched. "I thought you were pissed at me. Change your mind now that you gave me a shiner?"

"Yes, actually."

He pouted at her for a moment—a most deadly tactic, indeed, as she had to fight like mad not to fling herself at him, the clever bastard—and then the pout morphed into a smirk. "Figures. Women have a tendency to be irrational about everything," he observed, giving her arms a yank so that she fell against him, hungry mouth seizing hers.

And the funny thing was…she didn't shy away.

I'm losing my mind…I must be…

Any further internal musings were put on hold when Nartuo, bleary-eyed, came bumbling in—led by Sakura, of course, since his motor skills had not yet caught up with his brain signals—and made note of the interesting new development in the most tactless manner possible.

"Whoa…d'you see that?" He whispered loudly, waving one finger in Kakashi and Anko's direction.

The Special Jounin could feel her face heat up as the kiss came to an abrupt end. As one, she and Kakashi turned their heads, both wearing the same sheepish expression.

Sakura, in a better humor today over her new houseguests appearance, raised one delicate pink eyebrow. "Progressed beyond the broom closet, have you?"

"Er…" said Anko.

"I wouldn't exactly call it progress, Sakura," the silvery-haired man came to her aid, grinning impishly. "This is tame compared to what went on in the broom closet. Now, if you had caught us—"

"Do you want me to black out your other eye?" Anko interjected before Kakashi could embarrass her beyond the point of repair. "They get the picture. Shut up."

Sakura's other eyebrow joined the first. Getting a closer look at her former sensei, she noticed his new affectation and shook her head. "You never learn, do you, Kakashi? It's amazing. Even the women who like you beat you up."

Naruto—who had somehow made it to the kitchen table without any assistance—and Anko both sniggered at that.

Kakashi, on the other hand, appeared as if he were about to protest, though changed his mind midway. "I don't know what happened to you," he said in a tragic voice to Sakura. "You used to be such a pleasant little lady, but now the claws are out. I suppose shrewish behavior comes with age…"

Luckily for Kakashi—Sakura, by this point, was about ready give him more than just a black eye to worry about for his comment—a disturbance in the nearby vicinity diverted the attention of all, even those formerly asleep.


A pile of blankets erupted from the far couch like magma shot out of a volcano, revealing everyone's favorite psychotic Sand-nin, his eyes staring about wildly. "I can't play the violin anymore!" he croaked, voice raw as if he had been screaming. "My hands are gonna be cut off if I do! I need my hands!"

Naruto, Sakura, Anko, and Kakashi gaped, their mouths hanging open. Lee, startled awake, did not quite grasp the fact that his pillow found its way over his head during the night, and was therefore convinced that he had gone blind.

"Gai sensei!" He lamented with a muffled cry. "I can't see! My eyes are—"

Sasuke, once again deprived of extra sleep by all the commotion, reached over from his couch and knocked the pillow off. "Moron," he muttered irritably.

Lee blinked, his vision miraculously restored. He looked at Sasuke, then at the distraught Gaara, who was babbling on about violins, and blinked once more. "Oh," was all he managed by way of response.

"It was just a dream, Gaara," Sakura soothed, having since kneeled by the redhead's couch in an attempt to calm him. "Your hands are fine, see?" She showed him the matching pair, and he seemed to relax somewhat.

"Then I don't have to play?"

"No," she replied firmly. "You don't have to play."

"Good," he said, hints of his more rational—well, as rational as Gaara could be—self slowly seeping back into him like water absorbed by a sponge. The telltale danger twitch in the early stages of re-emergence, he treated the others to a universal glare. "If any of you says a thing about this later, heads are gonna roll."

The threat was really unnecessary, of course. It was a shared instinct not to provoke Gaara in any way that would send him over the edge, or the consequences would exceed dire. A friendly reminder never hurt, however. The Sand-nin's companions were known to slip up on occasion, so he figured it would be best to provide some reinforcement of the rule.

Sakura answered for all of them by plopping the GameBoy into his hands. "Say anything about what?" She said, sounding genuinely puzzled, and then winked. Gaara scowled at her for all of two seconds until the irresistible pull of the GameBoy drew his eyes to the screen, and he immersed himself in the animated world of Hyrule.

Meanwhile, in another part of the house, Shikamaru was under siege by a formidable opponent, indeed, one equipped with a voice that could be defined as 'expressive,' by some—he was more inclined to call it a direct threat to the eardrums of unsuspecting victims—, claw-like extensions that were generally classified as fingernails, and an exquisite talent in the art of bestial facial manipulation.

In other words, Yamanaka Ino.

"You—stole—all—the—covers," the devil-creature grated between clenched teeth, taking her time to draw out each word. Her cerulean eyes were narrowed into slits, and they flashed dangerously beneath her lids. "We had no heat last night because the electricity's out, and you hoarded all the sheets for yourself!"

To a degree, this was true. When he woke—Ino took the liberty of deciding he didn't need any more sleep—he found himself wrapped from the neck down in bedclothes, which only left a tiny patch no bigger than a hands width for Ino. Right away, he knew he was in very deep trouble.

"I didn't do it on purpose!" He insisted even as he scrambled to disentangle himself. "Seriously, Ino—"

"That's a likely story," she almost shrieked. "Look at my arms!" She shoved them in his face. They were covered in gooseflesh.

Shikamaru winced. Wonderful…

"I'm going to get hypothermia," she raged, tugging on the edge of one of the blankets, "and it'll be all your fault, and then you'll have to wait on me hand and foot until I get better!" Another savage jerk and the blanket came free—Shikamaru along with it. Like coiled rope unwound, he went rolling over the side of the bed to land on the floor with a thump. While the impact was nothing short of painful, it was made worse by the crack on the head he received from the nightstand on the way down.

Dazed and cross-eyed, he lay there motionless. "Ouch."

Ino was horrified. She had not expected such a dramatic outcome in her efforts to liberate the blanket, and she scurried over to the edge of the bed to peer down at Shikamaru, lip trembling. "Did I kill you?" She whispered in a querulous little voice, her fingers bunched in sheets that she held to her mouth.

If this is death, then I'm a goldfish, the Jounin thought dryly. "Yes, Ino. You killed me. My lips are moving and sound's coming out, but I'm really dead." There was an odd ringing sensation in his ears, one that made his words echo strangely. Weird…maybe I shouldn't talk anymore…

"Don't joke about something like that!" the blonde girl snapped, her temper already on the rise. "You really could've been hurt!"

Had his head not been spinning so much, he would have laughed, but he settled for a terse grunt instead. "I'm hovering on the verge of unconsciousness, though I guess the standard for serious injury has gone up these days."

Her anger evaporated in an instant. "Are you honestly going to pass out? Oh lord…I'll go get Sakura. She's a medic, she can—"

"Whoa," Shikamaru cut her off, "I'm fine, I'm fine. Just…gimme a hand." He extended his arm to her, and, with some effort, she got him into a sitting position.

"Are you sure you're okay? You're not bleeding, are you?" Climbing down from her perch, she gently probed her fingers over his scalp. He winced when she brushed a sore spot, but as far as blood went, she didn't find any. "Good," she breathed, relief washing over her features, and then she gave him a sharp look. "You need to stop being so reckless!"

Oh, the irony.

Shikamaru decided he wasn't in the mood for an involved discussion about the sheer irrationality of Ino's thought processes, because he was sure she would become defensive at some point and rattle a few more of his essential brain cells, so he allowed her the comment without retaliation.

Only later, once he and Ino joined the others around the kitchen table for a conference, as Sakura called it, did the implications of Shikamaru's acquiescent behavior hit home.

He was his father's son.

"Okay," Sakura clapped her hands together briskly as she addressed the members of the mountain house party, looking very much like a drill sergeant, "we've got a lot of work to do. Naruto, Saskue," she glanced at each in turn, "since the power's still out, I want you two to fiddle with the circuit breaker and try to get it back on. Ah," she held up her hand before they could protest, "no arguments, or I'll be mad." She smiled sweetly. "We don't want that, now do we?"

Naruto's face drained of its color. Avoiding his pink-haired girlfriend's wrath was a top priority, especially when one considered the insane strength she possessed in abundance that enabled her to smash through solid objects—like boulders, for instance—and not even break a sweat.

"No," he said quickly, shaking his head back and forth with such force his hair was a yellow blur. "We'll get right on it," he glared at Saskue, "won't we?" In the pause that followed, he mouthed, as unobtrusively as possible, 'you say no, and you die.'

For a moment, it appeared as though, out of spite, Sasuke was about to refuse, however the disadvantages of that course of action far outnumbered the benefits—and Sasuke wasn't so dense as to risk his hide for the sake of a petty dig. "Whatever."

Sakura beamed at them, and moved on to her next targets, Gaara, Shikamaru, and Lee. "Firewood," she stated flatly.

Gaara, seething over Link's latest departure from life, stared at his host, eye twitching violently. "You…are you…outside…after…" A flurry of rather vulgar oaths tumbled out of his mouth, one on top of the other.

Shikamaru, his normal, emotionless expression in place, heaved a great sigh. "How troublesome."

Having exhausted his arsenal of vile curses, the Sand-nin reverted back to normal speech. "I went up into that damned attic while all you pansies were pissing yourselves, didn't I?" He growled, a vein in his forehead joining the twitching eye. "What more do you want from me, woman?"

"My, I believe someone needs a time out," Sakura observed as she examined her nails.


"Ignore them, Sakura-san," Lee declared grandly over Gaara's outburst. "They may complain, but I'll make sure we don't fail you!" On his feet in a flash, he seized both of her hands in his. "A man never turns his back on a woman in need!"

"There he goes," said Kakashi, his features a cross between amusement and vexation. "Shame. All of Gai's worst quirks rubbed off on him…"

Naruto, who did not care for this recent turn of events, glowered darkly at Lee. "If he tries anything—with my Sakura-chan—there will be hell to pay—"

Ino stole a sidelong glance at the fuming blonde, and could not suppress the tiny bubble of jealousy that sprang up out of nowhere. I wonder if Shika would ever be so possessive of me, she mused, chewing on her bottom lip. I mean, in his letter, he sounded sincere, but I don't think he's the type of person who would become fired up so easily…Her brow furrowed—a very Shikamaru-like action—and she frowned. The letter…I still have no idea where it is…

Something was nagging at her, something just out of reach. Whenever she tried to grab it, hold it down long enough to analyze, it trickled out of her grasp like water contained in cupped hands.

Perhaps her newborn suspicion was unfounded…or perhaps not. Ah, well. She'd work on it later.

Sakura, slightly thunderstruck by Lee's…enthusiasm…said, "Er…thank you, Lee. That's very sweet."

Gai's protégé reacted as per usual, his round eyes filling with tears. "Sakura-san!" He cried, and then crushed her against his chest in a massive bear hug.

Poor, poor Lee. On the whole, his way of the ninja was rather impressive, but some parts of it were in need of major renovation.

In that department, Naruto was ready and willing to help.


And thus the manhunt commenced.

Amidst snarls (from Naruto), whoops (from Lee), and the aggressive sound of collision with random pieces of furniture (from both), Sakura distributed the jobs that remained while rubbing her temples.

Since Kakashi and Anko had a fondness for the broom closet, they were ordered to use it properly this time and clean the house. Sakura herself, along with Ino, would try, sans electricity, scraping together breakfast.

"Everybody clear on what they should be doing?" She inquired, though the tone she said it in suggested the topic was closed, and had better remain that way.

A chorus of yeses later, the group disbursed—well, more like Sakura kicked them all, except Ino, out while waving a spatula around as if it were a sword, and bellowed, red-faced, at Naruto and Lee when she noticed one of her vases lie in pieces, a casualty of their war.

Ah, the beginning of another fabulous day.

"That…damn…stupid…moron…" Naruto snarled from between clenched teeth, flinging the door of the circuit breaker open. In this state of mind, he probably shouldn't have been assigned the task of dealing with electricity, as, in his fury, he might trip the wrong switch, to any number of disastrous results.

Granted, Sasuke wasn't any more in the know about circuit breakers than the blonde boy, but he figured it would be a good idea if he took control before Naruto actually wrenched the door off its hinges, which, given the way he clutched it, knuckles white and hand shaking, certainly appeared like he was about to do.

"Move over," he demanded, and forced his way in front of the rectangular metal box. Two vertical rows of heavy black switches were at the top; directly below them were two more rows of switches, these smaller and red.

There were numbers next to each switch, but no specific indication of what they controlled in the house.

Tricky. Very tricky.

And irritating. Where the hell was the instruction manual?

Of course, Naruto wasn't helping at all, either. He continued muttering atrocities—all of which were directed at Lee—under his breath, and it was distracting.

"Damn it, Naruto, would you just shut the hell up for five minutes?" He blazed, nettled. There had to be directions around somewhere

"You saw him though, didn't you?" The blonde finally exploded, a crazed look in his eyes. "That was a blatant attempt at coercion!"

Sasuke made a face, the corner of his top lip curling. "Idiot. You can't even get your terms straight. If you coerce someone, it's like bullying them. Lee wasn't exactly bullying Sakura."

"No," Naruto said broodingly. "He was charming her against her will. It's pretty much the same thing!"

The Uchiha heir didn't quite make the connection, however that wasn't much of a shock, considering the individual he held this conversation with.

He said, "How do you figure that?" and leaned forward a bit, bringing his face closer to the box. Perhaps if he squinted, the numbers would make more sense.

Almost by impulse, Naruto flung his arms up in exasperation. "He knows she's off the market now, so he needs to keep his damn eyebrows to himself!" When Sasuke did not grace him with a reply, he glanced over, jaw unhinged. "What are you doing?"

Grunting, the dark haired boy braced his hands on either side of wall on which the circuit breaker was mounted and, with noticeable effort, drew his head back. An imprint of one of the switches dimpled his forehead.

He was not happy.

Naruto gawked at him for a few moments before he doubled over, clutching his sides.

Before now, there had been a fair share of instances in which Sasuke loathed the air Naruto breathed, like the time he discovered Sasuke's stuffed ducky—an exact replica of the electric yellow ducks on his favorite boxers—and proceeded to announce publicly that the mighty Avenger had a soft spot for 'ickle baby duckie-poos.'

Oh, how he hated him then…

He hated him now, too, as a matter of fact.

"Naruto," he said in a dangerously quiet voice, "you are so dead."

"Dude, did it snow again?" said Gaara incredulously as he waddled through mountains of the white stuff, voice muffled beneath his layers of insulation. When Sakura said, 'firewood,' she implied the three of them—Gaara, Shikamaru, and Lee—ought to scamper off to the nearby forest and procure some by any means they felt necessary. They were rough and tumble burly men after all, and everyone knew that rough and tumble burly men were natural born lumberjacks.

Never in his most obscure fantasies had the Sand-nin felt the urge to be a lumberjack, and would have checked himself into the nearest rehab center right away if he did, because he had obviously become addicted to some sort of powerful hallucinogen without realizing it.

The only perk that accompanied this job was the fact that he could use an axe.

Gaara liked axes. They were sharp enough to do serious damage, but not so sharp that you couldn't draw out the satisfaction of chopping something—or someone—to miniscule splinters.

Yes, axes were grand.

This snow, however, was not grand.

"Why did we have to come all the way out here?" He groused, dragging his feet like a petulant child. "Wood's wood. It's just gonna be burnt anyway, and there were plenty of trees near the house."

Shikamaru wasn't exactly thrilled about this arrangement, either, though he did understand some of the method behind Sakura's madness.

"Landscaping," he stated around a yawn. "The scenery wouldn't be picturesque anymore if we hacked at the foliage around the house."

Once he thought about what he said, he frowned.

Not only am I turning into my father, but parts of Ino are rubbing off on me, too…

Some revelations are best kept at a distance until one is positive one can handle the repercussions.

Shikamaru decided this was one of them.

"Picturesque?" Gaara repeated, and gave the pony-tailed boy a strange look. "Foliage?" He sniggered into his crimson scarf.

A blush crept up Shikamaru's cheeks. "Yeah. So?"

The sniggers continued. "Nothing." He made his voice an octave higher. "Oh, my, what a lovely shrubbery!" He exclaimed, gesturing outrageously at a rather average bush. "Isn't it exquisite?"

Lee, who had not spoken much due to the state of his puffy lip—a parting gift from Naruto—, snorted. "Superb," he commented cheerily. "You have impeccable taste in the finer aspects of vegetation."

The Sand-nin inclined his head.

Shikamaru, now the color of a beet, informed them, "I hate you both." In an uncharacteristic move, he brushed ahead of them, moving much faster than his normal, stately pace, and hoped that the breeze would clear his head. Gotta be more careful…I can't afford a lapse like that again, or I'll never hear the end of it…

By the time he reached the entrance of the woods, his thoughts had veered off in a direction they hadn't since his vacation began. The letter. He still had no idea where it could have gone…although…

There was something about the sheer convenience of this trip—hadn't Naruto suggested it out of nowhere right after the letter vanished? —that unnerved him, made him wonder if perhaps there was more going on here than met the eye.

With the friends he had, he wouldn't be in the least surprised.

His eyes shifted to the right. A flurry of wood chips soared through the air as Gaara drove his axe into the trunk of a tree, an almost demonic expression of glee etched on his face. Lee attempted to explain to him that there were plenty of fallen branches they could gather up that were big enough to suffice; the redhead feigned temporary deafness.

Hmm. He'd just have to be observant from now on, wait for evidence that supported his theory. After all, he excelled at Shogi and Go, games that required intense concentration.

And patience. Nara Shikamaru could be very patient.

Content for the moment, he returned to his task, convincing himself that the shadowy figure he glimpsed fleetingly out of the corner of his eye was only a figment of his imagination.

Kakashi never dreamed sweeping floors could be so exhilarating.

Of course, much of the thrill was entirely at Anko's expense, since his judgment of how dirty each section of the paneling was—and therefore which ones could be glossed over and which ones required more intimate attention—just so happened to correspond with whichever room the Special Jounin occupied.

The Haruno family apparently had a fondness for wooden furnishings; all of the tables, desks, and dressers were made of oak or mahogany or cherry, and attracted dust like an industrial-sized magnet. Armed with paper towels and a full bottle of Pledge, Anko scrubbed the surfaces until they shone.

Gallingly enough, whenever she was bent over to get at a tough spot was when Kakashi made his inevitable appearance, whistling as he glided past her. On each instance, he just so happened to lose control of the broom handle and just so happened to regain it after he'd made contact with her derriere.

Anko determined that if one more thing just so happened, her foot would just so happen to imbed itself you-know-where.

Kakashi, well aware of her increased vexation at his person, carried on as if he were oblivious. Maybe he was pushing his luck a smidgen; the past few days' efforts had yielded a major victory on his part (minus the black eye), one that had been entirely unexpected. Well…to some degree. It wasn't often his charm failed him, especially when he unleashed the full shebang.

He couldn't help that he was a natural-born lady-killer.

Besides, he loved seeing Anko in a tizzy.

"ARGH!" She roared after the seventh go, her composure shred to tatters. She rounded on him, Pledge at hand. "I'll spray you, and if I'm fortunate, you'll inhale it and drop dead."

Undaunted, he raised his eyebrows. "That's not a nice thing to say." His mouth quirked, and she stamped her foot.

"I know! That's why I said it!" She still held a used paper towel in her other hand; peering at it, she wadded it into a ball and chucked it at him.

The ball bounced off his nose.

"Feel better?" He queried in a strained voice, on the verge of laughter. "You can throw the bottle, too, if you'd like. I'll even give you another angle—"

"Don't goad me," Anko warned, reminding herself when she felt her resolve waver what would happen if she succumbed to her attraction again. Fight fire with fire. "You never know what you'll get." She smirked, gave him a pinch as she walked by, and left him there without so much as a backward glance.

The broom felt very heavy all of a sudden. Tearing his eyes from the empty doorway, he examined it, grinning dumbly. "And that is why I adore her," he told it.

"I guess they didn't figure out the circuit breaker," Sakura remarked to Ino when Sasuke stormed in, an indentation in his forehead that looked remarkably like a switch.

"You can't trust boys to do anything right," the blonde girl agreed. Naruto, a bit worse for wear, followed not too far behind. Plopping himself into a chair, his head hit the kitchen table with a thunk.

"Why don't you go out and make sense of it then," Sasuke bristled, in no mood for wisecracks.

Naruto turned his face to the side. "I thought you were making breakfast," he said, puzzled. The girls were at the table when he came in, and neither had the appearance of people who'd been working very hard—not that he had, either, though that wasn't entirely his fault. Sasuke was too damn sensitive about the silliest things. Naruto hadn't meant to knock him face-first into the circuit breaker, but Sasuke didn't seem to understand that it was an accident.

He'd always been such a whiner.

Though I guess that makes sense. I mean, the guy's favorite boxers have duckies on 'em…

"We were. The no electricity part tripped us up," Ino retorted dryly. "We figured it wouldn't be a good idea to serve bacon and eggs raw."

Good point.

"You can have cereal," Sakura said to her boyfriend, giving him a playful little nudge with her foot. "The milk hasn't gone bad yet."

Naruto was about to ask if there was a way he could make ramen without a stovetop or a microwave when the front door opened and the three lumberjacks—er…Gaara, Lee, and Shikamaru, that is—entered, each holding a pile of firewood. Gaara's pieces were the biggest—and most jagged—of the bunch, and he seemed to be in a pleasant humor. Which was good.

"Where should we put all this?" Lee inquired, wary of Naruto, who had been giving him the eye.

"Over there," Sakura waved at a corner by the fireplace. "It doesn't really ma—" She froze.

Naruto jumped up. "What is it?"

Ino felt something brush by her leg. "AIIIIEEEEE!" She shrieked, recoiling so quickly that she knocked her chair over.

She had ignited a chain reaction.

Lee, Shikamaru, and Gaara all dropped their burdens, which rolled pell-mell across the floor. Ino flung herself at Shikamaru and clung to him before he had a chance to see what had startled her; Lee's hero complex kicked in and he dropped into fighting stance while loudly assuring everyone that he'd protect them; Naruto shoved a wildly gesturing Sakura behind him; Kakashi and Anko, who had heard Ino's screech, collided with each other as they raced down the hall.

The only semi-calm one of the bunch—what is the world coming to? —Gaara crouched so that his knees were level with his chest. The cause of the disturbance rose on its hind legs, large, bushy tail whipping back and forth as it stared in fascination at the Sand-nin, who stared back.

The room went absolutely still.

"It's a squirrel." Said Gaara.


"&#$$!" Said the squirrel, and bolted.

There were assorted cries of "CATCH IT!" and "DON'T LET IT CONTAMINATE THE FOOD!" and "HOLY MOTHER OF CRAP!"

These are all wonderful words full of wisdom, however Mr. Squirrel—as he is forthwith named—proved much faster than these feckless humans. He wasn't stupid. He knew when to run. Did they honestly believe he'd stand there like a vapid dimwit and be tackled by a horde?

No sir!

In a brash technique that would have made a ninja proud, Mr. Squirrel weaved masterfully through legs and arms and hands, and then POOF, he vanished!

Well…he didn't quite vanish. There was a small niche in one of the walls that he scurried under, and he prepared to wait there until he felt like venturing out once more. There were so many places for exploring in here, after all, and he was not about to allow them to go uncharted!

As for the humans…

"He could've gone anywhere!" Sakura was saying—forcefully—to Naruto as she grabbed hold of his shirt and shook it for emphasis.

"It's not my fault!" He defended himself in an injured tone. A thought occurred to him, and his eyes gleamed. "It's Lee's. He must've brought it in from the woods!"

"Now wait just a second!" said Lee, hands on hips. "I know you're mad at me—"

"If you morons hadn't spooked like that, it wouldn't have run away," Gaara interrupted scathingly. They all deserve the axe. All of 'em…

Ino, her fright somewhat under control, gave Shikamaru a look, and he grimaced. Swell…I've been targeted…

"What, Ino?"

She smiled a sugarcoated smile at him. "Since you're our resident tactician, it's only natural that we employ your skills." The smile grew wider.

The pony-tailed Jounin gulped. It always made him nervous when she smiled like that. "Thanks for the explanation. It's clear as crystal."

Ino glared at him. "I was implying that you come up with a plan to catch the squirrel," she snapped.

"Me? Why me?"

Kakashi shook his head. "Never ask why," he said softly, more to himself than to anyone else. "First rule of conduct."

Anko, who had overheard, grinned approvingly. "Smart boy."

"Because!" Ino hissed. "You're the one with the interstellar I.Q.! Although," she added as an afterthought, "I'm starting to doubt that test was accurate."

There were snickers all around at that.

Shikamaru sighed. Why did it always fall to him to fix things? What happened to his clouds? He hadn't been able to lie on his back and watch them coast along for ages, it seemed.

May as well bite the bullet and be done with it.

As he would if this were a serious battle, he closed his eyes and steepled his fingers in that special way he did when he was conceiving a strategy. "Okay, here's what we'll do," he said after a while. "I think there should be people stationed near all the cracks and corners. It's most likely that our squirrel's hiding in one of them." He held his chin. "Too bad Kiba's not here," he mused, "that nose of his can sniff out anything, and he's been building traps since he was little…"

"I can help you out in that department," Kakashi offered. His grin was savage. "I have plenty of experience with traps."

Sasuke correctly interpreted the grin. "Gai?"

"None other," the silvery-haired man replied with aplomb.

"Though, obviously, my sensei's were superior," Lee sniffed. "He's the one leading your rivalry."

"And I'm sure he told you that himself, didn't he."

"Yes he did! I'd never doubt Gai-sensei! He can beat anyone!"

Anko and Kakashi exchanged a glance, and burst into gales of helpless laughter.

"What's so funny?" Lee demanded, indignant. "It's true!"

"Let it lie," Sakura advised, close to giggles herself.

Ino said, "I wish we had some light other than from the windows in here."

"Shut up, Ino," Sasuke muttered, feeling mutinous. "Just shut up."

She stuck her tongue out at him.

"Shall we begin?" Shikamaru said.


In spite of himself, he grinned. "Operation Catch That Squirrel, commence!"

He could not say how long he remained trapped beneath the mound of snow. He figured it had to have been at least fifteen minutes before he reoriented himself and all of his gear enough to dig his way out.

Gai was not discouraged, however. He'd gotten himself into worse situations in the past, and compared to some of those, a snow burial was only a minor setback.

In the face of adversity, Maito Gai always prevailed. Hadn't he trained like a dog for years with the specific intention of defeating Kakashi's sharingan? And he'd done it, too. Once.

But that little factor was trivial.

"Better press on," he declared once he was on his feet. Can't afford to dilly-dally!"

The forest seemed to stretch on for miles as he lumbered through the snow; the deeper he went, the less light shone through the white-coated pines, in their element here, with the cold and the snow. They reminded him of old men, ancient and gnarled and proud, the wardens of the wood.

After about a half hour of walking, he thought he saw light up ahead, and heard voices. He almost called out, but held his tongue after he remembered what had waylaid him previously.

By the time he reached the end of the forest, the voices—and the people they belonged to—were long gone, though their tracks had not been dusted over.

In a stroke of pure genius, he decided to follow them.

And so it was that the Green Beast wound up at the mountain house, the very same place where Hatake Kakashi and Mitarashi Anko were currently attempting to catch the renegade Mr. Squirrel.


It was rather curios that there were no lights on in the house, when he knew there had to be people inside. An open circuit breaker answered his question.

"Ah. The power went out," he observed, and flicked a switch. "There! That should do it." A glance at the closest window confirmed his success. Satisfied, he closed the breaker and meandered around to the front door, disregarding centuries of proper decorum. He had not a clue who the house belonged to, yet he was already acting like a member of the family.

He was a piece of work, that Maito Gai.

"HELLO!" He exclaimed exuberantly even as he had his hand on the knob of the door. "Would you mind if I came in?"

Kakashi, at his post by the door, reacted a second too late. "No! Wait a—"

But the door flung open.

For an instant, the two rivals gaped at each other before Gai broke the silence.

Kakashi blinked. For a minute, he thought that a giant green slug with legs stood in the doorway, but after closer inspection, he determined it was in fact a person.

"Gai, you'd better get out of the—"

The Green Beast took a step forward, oblivious of the trip wire he'd just set off. "HA! I WIN! I—" A bucket of icy water upended itself over his head.

"I did try warning him, didn't I?" Kakashi said to Anko. "He never listens!"

Gai just stood there, spluttering as the water seeped through his parka. "You—you—this—"

"What happened?" Another voice filtered down the hall—Naruto's. "Did you get it?"

"No!" Anko shouted back. "We caught something else!"

"Eh?" Shikamaru poked his head around the entrance of the kitchen. He took one look at Gai and a few things clicked. "So he got the electricity running again."

For Sasuke, that was salt rubbed in an open wound. "I don't want to hear it," he fumed. "Not one word."

Gaara cackled. "Feel stupid now, don't you, dipwad?"

Mr. Squirrel chose that moment to abandon his sanctuary. After nearly having his tail squashed numerous times by traps, he wanted out, and the front door stood gloriously open.

"THERE HE IS!" Ino hollered, springing out of her hiding place in the bathroom.

Lee, overjoyed at the sight of his sensei, immediately took action—he had to impress Gai with his manly skill, of course. Sprinting down the hall, he swan-dived, arms outstretched, but Mr. Squirrel darted just out of his reach. Lee cleared the remaining stretch of hallway on his stomach, a most inglorious sight, indeed.

Surveying his options, Mr. Squirrel ran into the kitchen and scurried under the table; Shikamaru tried using Kagemane no Jutsu, which, instead of trapping the squirrel, ensnared Naruto. Sakura attempted to corner the critter before he could get away, however his agility aided him, and he evaded her.

Out of the kitchen he ran, leaping over and around the obstacles—Kakashi, Anko, Gaara, and Sasuke—that appeared in his path. For a brief instant, he felt sand brushing his fur, and he came close to panicking, but, with an incredible burst of speed, he rocketed forward, between Gai's legs, and emerged outside, free at last.

Mr. Squirrel vowed that would never return to this particular house. The humans that inhabited it were a bit too excitable for his taste. The one with the sand wasn't all that bad; he would have liked to study him longer. Ah, well. Maybe their paths would cross again someday.

That settled, Mr. Squirrel departed into the morning, in search of a new haunt that preferably included lots of nuts.

"Well," Kakashi said, running a shaky hand through his hair. "That was interesting."

Shikamaru—who had since released Naruto—could think of other ways to describe their morning that were less polite, though he kept them to himself. "I think the mission failed."

Gaara looked around at the detritus of a battle zone. "Good observation, slick."

Naruto saw Gai for the first time, and his face mirrored his confusion. "What the hell is he doing here?"

Looks like the Haruno mountain house had acquired another member.

:breathes sigh of relief: That was one hell of a chapter to write, man. I had FULL-BLOWN writer's block, and I can't tell you how often I wanted to yank my hair out of my head one strand at a time…I apologize for the delay, truly. :falls out of chair: