Notes: All Stone Nin are original characters. I'm trying to fit them in at least relatively seamlessly so please feel free to cut rip. Tsuzumi's not an OC, but I did give him a new job :D

Thanks again for all the support and criticism you've given!

The last scene of this chapter (with Kotetsu and Izumo) was part of an idea that I really liked, but didn't really fit properly, or move much on in terms of… anything, really. It was cut a bit, but if you do want to read the full scene you can find it on my LJ, the link's on my userpage XD)

If you haven't already, go read Tryin' to get to Heaven by Hey-Diddle-Diddle. I don't know how you could've missed it, but just in case. XD

Finally: GOOD LUCK to everyone who's had exams these last few weeks!

Tense. Tense was a good word, it described many things.

It described the weather – the thickness of the heat as summer tried to break equilibrium, the calm before the storm that the animals and villagers alike were straining for, hoping for. It described the denseness of the air, as pollen and dust rose without the constraints of humidity or a breeze to make breathing laborious, let alone doing anything more.

It described the upper echelons of Konoha's society, who seemed to be gaining information every day and not liking what they heard. Who had been moving shinobi about – in their ranks or their positions – to strengthen the forces of the Leaf. It described Jiraiya's sudden presence, everywhere. His odd need to ensure the emotional resilience of his Hokage's troops by teasing, or questioning, or occasionally just caring.

It described the Jounin – the odd rush to raise the standard, to hone the simple things that they already – surely – should've known. They were better off than most, however, taking the weight of new missions, crushing expectation and near-exhaustion pretty much in their stride. They were more tightly knit, though, their circles had closed in dramatically; Team Elite in particularly seemed to be feeling their particular heat. Their students were picking quickly up on the rolling waves of tension, despite the hastily assembled veil of calm. Team 7 had seemed to pick up on the other Jounin-sensei's worrying about theirs, and had been wandering around looking lost for days.

It described the Chuunin's reaction to the sudden cut-back of missions – no shinobi of Chuunin or lower rank had stepped outside Konoha in a week and weren't expecting to anytime soon. Most were even pulled from their duties in the mission rooms; instead helping to train the younger shinobi or performing other, more immediately necessary duties.

It described how Umino Iruka would find himself in his classroom often until nine or ten at night, after spending the day teaching a double-sized class, drilling information into Gennin or the more worried pre-Gennin students who feared the coming war. Suzume had been transferred back into Intelligence, ensuring newer recruits understood the systems and arrangements as well as she had, back in her hey-day during the crux of the Third Secret War.

It described in buckets Kotetsu's reaction when he was informed that he and Izumo were expected to perform a B-class pick-up, as decoys for an expected ambush.

It described the heavy weight that settled itself on Konoha as they realised that there was still no pattern to the enemy ambushes, and that of the four most successful Jounin of the Hidden Leaf, only one was present and in fighting condition – except she was expected to train. Kakashi's name entered the Gossip Vine again, as his disappearance became more and more pronounced.


It was a couple of weeks into Kakashi's mission – and Iruka found it odd that he was started to measure time this way – and the Chuunin was feeling the strain as much as anyone. If he thought this much time away from Kakashi could help figure out the twists and turns of their almost relationship, he was incredibly wrong. He hadn't told Jiraiya – though the man had proven as good as his word and kept Iruka informed of Kakashi's safety – but he had figured out more of the mission, thanks to Kakashi's own favours pulled.

The ANBU operative who had met Kakashi this last week had delivered four packages to Iruka's home. Three were addressed to Team 7 – training suggestions and teasing, no doubt, to make them paranoid as to how informed Kakashi remained while away from Konoha. Iruka grinned to himself, wondering how much improvement the teenagers had made with those dogs – Naruto hadn't seemed to understand even the basics of training a dog to obedience, let alone ninja abilities. Iruka himself had received a weightier package – a certain infamous orange book, dog-eared pages scattered throughout, the occasional marking or doodle in the margins.

Interestingly, chapter 14 was marked with the torn off edge of a map. Iruka didn't miss the significance. Reconnaissance, probably, if he didn't have time even to pretend to read his beloved porn and was instead playing with maps that – oh, damn, Iruka thought, as the strong scent rushed through him in a thousand ways – smelt like Kakashi's dogs.

It was, Iruka decided three hours later – totally engrossed in the implausible world of the secret underground brothels the beautifully formed heroine had to infiltrate in order to track down her brother's equally stunning kidnapped fiancée, to save him from dying of a broken heart back at their home, where he had in his desolate madness imprisoned a young milk-maid, who the heroine had become infatuated with, hoping to bring the fiancée back to her brother to free the milkmaid from where she was kept naked in a small hanging cage – a good chapter to have marked.


Rubbing his temples fiercely as he tried to look a little less organised than usual, tried to cajole his alarmingly quiet students into pulling some stupid prank or another, Iruka felt like the whole world was falling to crap a little too early for it to mean anything.

"I'm guessing you're all tense because of the rumours of coming war?" Iruka perched on the edge of his desk, grinning at his sullen students, waiting for the more awake few to nod carefully. "You are aware that none of these rumours can be confirmed until the Hokage makes an announcement?" More nods, this time, and quicker to come. But still so quiet.

"Right. I'm going to give you some advice, and please don't overreact until I've explained myself, ok?" They nodded again, adorably well-behaved and almost comically attentive. Wide-eyed and obviously expectant of Iruka-Sensei's Emotional Miracle Cure.

"Stop worrying."

Several of the kids gasped at the stupidity of the advice, one little girl at the front looked like she was about to burst into tears. Hyuuga Hanabi just scoffed, mumbling about enough fate and misfortune to make Iruka's hackles rise.

"Bugger it" Iruka muttered to himself, telling his kids to hold on a second while he ran through to next door – where another Chuunin-sensei, SarugakuTsuzumi, held his class – throwing a quick suggestion to the other teacher.

Returning to his own classroom, Iruka began herding his students out into the playground. "We're going to go on a field trip." He announced, grinning, as Tsuzumi led his class beside Iruka's. They ordered the kids to partner up, double file, and Iruka led the squabbling, babbling line across the village. He spotted Naruto playing fetch with Sushi in one of the training fields, calling him over as he left Tsuzumi to settle the kids down in a semi circle.

"Hey, Naruto!" Iruka ruffled the boy's hair in greeting, leaning down to pet Sushi, yanking the drool-slick stick from the puppy's eager mouth.

"What do you want, Iruka-sensei?" Naruto crossed his arms, leaning back from his hips in a huffy, childish slump.

"Aah, you've got me!" Hands held up in a placating gesture, Iruka nodded towards his nervous clump of students. "They've heard rumours of war; no doubt their parents are panicking before they've got any of the facts. I was hoping I'd find you here – I think hearing some adventures from someone they don't see as an 'adult' would comfort them a little. I'm trying to stop them from worrying – panic causes death in war, Naruto."

"You think war's definite, then?" Naruto's eyes were worried, but not surprised. "Sure I will, Iruka-sensei!" The blonde held his thumb up as he grinned excitedly. "You'll owe me ramen though, how about that?"

"Sure. I'll feed you." Iruka rolled his eyes as he led the boy to the crowd of nervous kids, watched Naruto's expression travel through bravado, ego, pity and determination, before he asked what they wanted to hear about. Tsuzumi asked to hear a story from one of Naruto's first experiences of a difficult enemy, so that the children would know how strong a newly graduated shinobi could be.

For the next hour, thirty six children and two Chuunin teachers listened rapt as Naruto carefully explained that first defining A Class mission – the strength of Hatake Kakashi fighting Momochi Zabuza, the quick thinking of Naruto and Sasuke when their teacher seemed close to defeat. He'd honestly explained the brief panic they'd all felt when Kakashi had passed out, the easy way he teased them into improving their own skills and the thrilling camaraderie when he and Sasuke had finally reached their goals. He told about the battle on the bridge – brushing over Haku's age and death and making a meal of Zabuza's acknowledgement of his loss and final penitent glory.

He managed to tell the children, in a way they would never forget, that each shinobi walked his path by choice, fought for their own lives, and traded in death - but did not necessarily live to kill.

Iruka hadn't realised that Naruto was capable of quelling his self-elevating instincts, his need to appear infinitely better than the world expected him to be. He wondered when that needy little boy had grown again, and where he had learnt to make the most of the truth, rather than skewing it. Iruka had never before heard the true tale of that mission, hadn't realised how deeply Team 7's bonds had been forged, and wondered again at their easy reacceptance of Sasuke after so much hurt. But then, perhaps that hurt explained it – Naruto had a way of making pain mean that something had been earned, and damn but they had made Sasuke work for their acceptance.

Iruka cleared his throat as Naruto finished, turning to his tiny army. "Do you see, now, how very strong Konoha is? Each Gennin is placed in a team like Naruto-kun's. Each one is given an experienced shinobi to lead them. Each Gennin becomes a shinobi very quickly. Each shinobi agrees to give their lives for the Hokage, and the protection of their precious village. But there is more to it than that. The village will do everything it can to protect its beloved shinobi."

"Do you see why you should stop worrying?" Iruka asked, as Sushi wriggled his way onto Iruka lap, sniffing at his hands and legs affectionately – no doubt recognising Iruka's scent from its master's own body.

"If an enemy can find a way to defeat this village – despite all we cherish and all we've been through – then it deserves to defeat us." An excited, exhilarated murmur ran through the class at Iruka's words, their sudden pride and faith drowning out their confused fears.

Fucking bastard blind son of a feral bitch!

That tracker-nin just had to go. Kakashi hadn't been able to move anywhere lately without the man on his tail – desperately trying to work his scent from the scent of the dogs he had been keeping with.

Three weeks (20 days, actually) into the mission, the infiltration of Stone and Kakashi was tired, achingly hungry, tense – perhaps a little too tense, he was losing precious sleep in his paranoid need for constant awareness – and extremely frustrated. He'd finally heard enough rumours of Tak's defeat of a Konoha team, Gai's name suffusing the gossip enough for Kakashi to snap – pinning his ANBU contact to a tree in an attempt to find the truth in the satisfied rumours. He'd copied dozens of new jutsus, specific taijutsu patterns, he'd analysed clan tactics – broken down the strengths and weaknesses of each familial attack – he'd stolen countless scrolls and scribbled the contents of countless more, passing them on ritualistically to his ANBU contact. He'd stolen into bars, bedrooms, war cabinets – in the middle of the night and the middle of the day – totally unsighted.

Yet what should have been the beginning of the more relaxing surveillance period – in many infiltration missions the first two weeks were the tensest, as some element of a presence was often picked up, no matter how good one was at hiding. After this time, the targets had usually accepted the odd presence as natural, and the real work could begin – was ruined by the fact that still he was being tracked!

Well, alright, Kakashi conceded, mostly unsighted. There had been a notable hour last week when, bored to tears of the rigid surveillance and verging on exhausted – and, ok, more than a little field-crazy – he'd been surveying the Stone's pre-Gennin academy, the structure not unlike that of Konoha's own academy. 'The academy where Iruka teaches.' Images flooded his mind at the thought of the Chuunin-sensei, and Kakashi quickly tried to stifle them; 'But not naked. He doesn't teach them naked…I shouldn't have thought the word 'naked'…'

'Definitely Field-crazy.'

Kakashi grew more and more restless as he waited, thoughts constantly returning to Konoha, to Iruka, even to his 'eternal rival' and Team Elite, particularly to the six adorable little nin-pups he'd left behind – and one of these days he would totally stop thinking of his students as puppies. Totally.

Eventually, Kakashi couldn't take the itch any longer, breaking his own rules again to carefully form hand seals and transform into the dog-form he was beginning to favour in this terrain, before plodding down to where a group of young children were sitting on the grass, eating their lunches.

"Do you think he's dangerous, Hisoka-kun?" squealed a little blonde girl, inching closer inside the silent boy's personal space as she noticed Kakashi.

"No." As the boy answered, receiving a scowl from what Kakashi had initially assumed to be a friend, the Copy Nin felt a horrid sense of déjà vu – the sycophantic nature of the girl and the rivalrous nature of the boys too much like his own team for him to turn away now. He had thought he understood his attachment to his precious students – hadn't realised just how deeply they'd wormed their vicious little way inside his seclusion, hadn't realised until he found himself missing the fights, the fears, the stupid inane questioning and chattering and incompetence and occasional, miracle moments of utter brilliance.

"Aww he's not dangerous, are ya doggy?" The second boy's bravado was another familiar sting, but he wasn't nearly as loud as the real Naruto, though Kakashi still padded over warily at the boy's call. Displacement was healthy to a ninja, Kakashi reasoned as he found himself comparing them to his students. He would deal with the repercussions when he got home – and hey, there was a word he hadn't used for a decade. Home.

"Here boy! C'mere, you ugly doggy!"

"Don't call him ugly, Jomei-baka!" The tiny, blonde Sakura-like creature screeched, raising her fist to strike the loud little boy.

"Sawa-chan! Did ya have to hit so hard?" Jomei's pathetic voice sealed the deal.

Kakashi flopped down on his side as the boy began petting him, glad that he had the need to 'maintain his cover' to excuse the tension rushing out of him at the kid's rough scratching. The other kids joined in, the blonde girl tentatively rubbing his nose until he yawned in spite of himself – exposing sharp canine teeth. The quiet boy, Hisoka, held out a little of his sandwich to Kakashi, who sniffed it carefully.

"Take it, Dog. It's not dirty or anything."

"Oh, Hisoka-kun, that's so generous of you!" The little blonde girl squealed – her eyes scrunching up in a smile. "Tomorrow, I'll bring extra food for Dog!"

As Kakashi smelt the slightly musty smell of chicken – cool, but cooked – he wondered why he hadn't thought of doing this before. It might be risky, yes, but no more risky than having potentially recognisable summons dragging barely edible scraps to his remote hiding place. He wolfed the sandwich scrap down, nudging the boys hand in appreciation. Imagine that – a Stone Nin feeding the Enemy.

Oh he'd be back, alright – Kakashi would've grinned, but settled for swiping his muzzle for any remnants of the treat. He was a sucker for irony.

Asuma's eyes shot open as he was rudely awoken from his doze on his apartment floor by the sound of his window scraping open.

He called out in greeting. "If you think I'm unarmed you're an idiot!"

"Asuma?" Kurenai's voice sang across the room as she walked into it. "What are you doing down there?"

"Recovering." He grinned at her as she put her hands out to him. He used her hands to drag her down to his lap, pulling her close. "I felt sleepy, so I took a nap."

"You couldn't have walked to the bed?" Her eyebrow rose mockingly but without malice, and Asuma saw easily through the false nonchalance. Yeah, he thought smugly, she's worried about me.

He pushed at the tightly wrapped strips of canvas on her shoulder, nuzzling at the soft skin. "Scratches…" she sighed, loving the feel of Asuma, the power of him. There was something in his gruff manner, some undeniable force in him that she had missed in her past lovers. Something about him was more unstoppable, more grounded in reality – he was the exact opposite of Kakashi's wraith-like fluidity, that untouchable quality that had infatuated her as a girl.

Asuma was so much warmer than anything she'd known before, as if he embodied that hot circle on the end of his ever present cigarette. No matter what she did to him, what their enemies did to him; no matter how life dragged on him, he only seemed to flare hotter. He was so bright to her – this strange, earthy man – so clear in her world of shadows and illusions. She was getting better though, stronger. A team-mate of Maito Gai, Hatake Kakashi and Saratobi Asuma could never be anything but intensely strong.

"How's chick-training going?"

Kurenai struck his shoulder lightly, making the muscle jump beautifully under her palm. "It is not chick-training. And it's awful!"

"Really? Genma said it's going gooood." He ran fingertips up her thigh, emphasising the perversion of his comment. She struck him again, trying to keep a straight face at the teasing.

"You couldn't have visited me in hospital?" He ran his knuckles firmly across the length of her back, dragged his rough chin over her collar bone; knowing how the skin would rush pink, how it would make Kurenai respond in wriggling pleasure.

"Didn't want to see you weak… hurting…" Her eyes were cold and focused despite the way she pulled her legs round to straddle him, pulling his face up to meet those crimson eyes.

"Just a virus, Kurenai, I'm fine." He kneaded at her lower back, watching her lick her lips. Her fingers pulled a little at his hair.

"I don't like to see you weak. It's hard enough having to visit my students when they get themselves into stupid situations…" She ducked her head, as if suddenly shy. "Have you heard about Gai-sempai?"

"Mmhm. They should at least let Neji take a peek at him, since they won't send for Kakashi." Asuma's brow creased in a low, churning sort of anger. "No-one knows a good jutsu like he does. He wouldn't put a mission before Gai's safety."

"Maybe that's why they won't send for him. Maybe what he's doing is critical." Kurenai stretched her arms out, looping them around the certain width of Asuma's neck. Her lips quirked up in amusement. "Have you seen his brats walking around with those puppies!"

"Oh yeah – who hasn't?" Asuma chuckled. "It's almost cute, the way Kakashi's setting them up to fail."

"They're not even real nin-dogs. Just standard summons." She carried on at Asuma's amused look. "I've been training with Inuzuka Tsume, and I asked her about it after Kiba-kun told me that Uzumaki-kun's puppy didn't have any chakra."

Asuma's rich laugh sent vibrations through her, and she saw the opening in the conversation for what it was. "She's only just returned to this level of active duty, since Kiba-kun was born. Could you imagine? Tsume was so fierce and then bam. Parenthood." He chuckled into her neck, his obscured face giving her the courage to continue.

"Asuma…" Kurenai whispered, moving a little further back from the cocoon-like safety of their embrace. "Do you – would you want children, one day?"

"One day, sure. Why?" Asuma tried to decipher the apprehension in Kurenai's eyes, grasping at straws. "You want to get in some practise? S'the best part…"

She bit back a smile, worming away as his hands feathered across the backs of her thighs. "NO! No, Asuma!"

He settled down surprisingly quickly, face stern as he pulled a rough hand to finger at her hair. She breathed in the lingering traces of smoke of his fingertips, wondering if she lingered on him quite like that richness. "Kurenai, I don't know what you're thinking… I want kids one day, I do. But there's a war coming, and…"

He sighed deeply, looking everywhere but those blood-tinted eyes, knowing he might be mere words away from crushing her very dreams. "…I look at us, at how we turned out – raised in war – and it frightens me to think we could do that to a life. What if we got lost somehow, and it turned out like Kakashi? What if we lost it?"

Kurenai bit her lip, relief thrumming through her as he continued to voice her own fears, her own reasoning. "We're shinobi, Kurenai. In a time of war a shinobi's life belongs to the Leaf. It's enough for me just having you, and my students, but a child? We couldn't risk that yet…We're fighters, you and me…"

She broke down, then, sobbing against his neck, the sheer relief flooding her after so many weeks of secret tension. "Thank you, thank you… Anko said…" and she couldn't continue, instead letting Asuma come to his own conclusions as he slowly removed the canvas wrapping, her under-dress, his own layers. Still sobbing slightly, she allowed him to carry her to his bed, so very gentle until she began to bite at him, clinging to him as he drove her mad with relief and desire and reality.

It was a good way to end a conversation that she had thought might break her, now she just needed Kakashi to come home and fix the rest.

To say Team Gai had been shaken after their last mission was an understatement. The ease with which their enemy had taken three of – supposedly – the Leaf's most promising fighters had shocked their village into a hiss of contemplation. The Gossip Vine was indeed buzzing.

Neji hated the fact that his flaws were so clearly on display to the village, couldn't imagine the scorn he would receive from his Uncle Hiashi when he finally dared to return to the Hyuuga estate – for now, when he wasn't aimlessly wandering the hospital corridors, he joined Lee at their sensei's own apartment, under the guise of 'looking after it' until Gai had recovered.

Neji had slipped in and out of a coma for a several days before managing to overcome the concussion. Gai hadn't woken at all since the battle with the Stone nin – the blow he had received had been infused with an enormous amount of chakra. The medical staff seemed at a loss for what to do, how to cope, and Neji had overheard Lee asking why they couldn't send for the Copy Ninja, Kakashi.

Neji understood the logic of his team-mate's plan – according to their sensei, Hatake Kakashi was Konoha's foremost expert on Ninjutsu techniques – he'd apparently even been allowed to study Sandaime's notes after the late Hokage's death. Neji didn't know how much of this was true or how much credit Gai was giving his rival, but he knew enough about training in the Gentle Fist style to know that once you'd figured out how to perform a move, similar moves were easy to work out. Neji was certain from Uchiha Sasuke's abilities that if there was one thing Hatake-san knew, it was the potential use of moulded chakra, so logically he should know what affects this jutsu had on Gai-sensei.

But they refused to send for him.

Neji tried not to think about where he was going, but his feet found their way to Tenten's private room regardless. The girl was reading on her bed – right leg cast and raised, covers tucked around her upper leg for modesty's sake. She was dressed in a standard hospital gown, nylon band secured round her wrist. Her hair was bound simply in a pony tail, and Neji realised yet again how utterly weak she looked, and hated it.

"Neji-kun," Tenten marked her page and place the thick book on the side. Martial Arts: A Guide to Traditional Weaponry throughout the Ages. Neji sniffed to himself, how very typical. "What are you doing here?"

"Visiting." His stern face softened a little as he hopped up onto the side of her bed. "How'd the operation go?"

"Fine, just… fine." Tenten smiled – but the bitter strain was obvious to her team-mate. "The next one will be in a few weeks, and then I have to wait six months for my body to get used to the new patella before the final operation. If all goes well I can begin training then…"

Neji tried not to stare, tried not to let her see his pity, hoping she wouldn't read it in his expressionless eyes – but – 'six months…'

"Can they do nothing to speed up your recovery?"

"They have already – the Hokage herself performed the surgery, Sakura-chan helped with the chakra maintenance and they say she has a better understanding of chakra control than most Chuunin. I'm lucky to be in a position to hope to walk again as it is. Tsunade-sama cut the recovery time down from about two years to one."

"That's good, Tenten…" Neji couldn't look at her, though his voice was strong, his white eyes darting to the window. "That you'll recover. It took Lee a time, but he recovered…"

"You're comparing me to -" Tenten's voice cracked slightly, and Neji glimpsed her hand wiping away frustrated tears. "I can't do this, Neji. I can't. Do you know what the nurse said to me?" Neji shook his head, lost for words as he took in the feral look of her eyes, the furious set of her jaw.

" 'Once you're all better, Ten-chan, you could think about becoming a medic!' They want me to be a fucking medic, Neji, to keep me off the field!" Her bitten nails barely dug into his hand and he clung back firmly, no fear of his grip shattering this kunoichi. "When we took the Chuunin exam I proved myself a fighter. I haven't trained every day of my life to be some simpering little rabbit safely stored behind the lines. There's a war coming, Neji, that bastard proved it when he took us down -"

"I know," he whispered, unable to imagine a docile Tenten, a version of Tenten that allowed some man to battle for her, to protect her. "I know, Tenten…"

"I want to fight! It's all I've ever wanted!" She gasped, unable to hold back the livid tears, choking on her own anger and trapped helplessness – and with a horrid shock, Neji recognised that look, knew that he'd been there too many times before, knew that Tenten had no blonde idiot to pull her out of such consuming despair.

"You'll fight!" Neji swore, breaking his usually calm façade as he gripped both her hands – a look of pain crossing her face as he accidentally jostled the cast around her destroyed knee. "If I have to train you myself, you'll fight."


Tenten yanked her hands from Neji's grip as the door slammed open – scrubbing the tears and exposed blush from her cheeks as the loud commotion filtered through the room. Lee crashed into the doorframe, panting heavily, eyes bright and impatient.

"Neji! Tenten! Gai-sensei – he's awake!"

Neji's eyes flickered to Tenten, silently questioning. She nodded in answer, voice thick when she dared to speak. "Go with Lee. Neji, go on."

The two boys paused for a moment before tearing down the hallway to their sensei. Tenten, alone again, pulled her book open as she listened to the much-abused medic-nins in the hallway, cursing as they tried to figure out how to contain those blurs of energy. She grinned to herself as she stared at the elegant craftsmanship of the Kwan Dao.

The wushu weapon would be difficult to find, and the technique hard to master – but she could double it as a staff if she absolutely had to.

Neji was right – she would fight again, if she never learned to walk she would find a way to fight. She had a reputation to uphold, after all, and a little injury had never stopped a student of Maito Gai…

Tak and Reiko didn't much care for tracking by scent – Tak in particular worked by sight and instinct, on cold logic and cruel invention. His favourite method of tracking was finding a way to make his prey come to him. Reiko had honed her knowledge of tone and voice to the point that she could usually hear the truth in the wildest rumour – hear in the uncertainty of a delivery how old the information was.

Tak and Reiko hadn't expected, then, for the first indication of their team-mates' presence to be the sick stench of rotting corpses.

At the sight of the display – and it was a display, quite the work of art – Tak froze, shocked to his bones. The two Chuunin stopped behind him, unsure what to do, where to tread – even more unsure when Reiko, spotting Koukotsu's prostrate form, ran to his gutted body with a shriek.

"What – what could have happened here?" a brunette Chuunin asked, his voice a whisper. "Hantaro-sama…?"

Tak's words took a moment to come, but his voice was clear when it did. "What do you think could've happened here?"

At the words, the two Chuunin sped along the ground, discovering the order of the action by the positions of the corpses, figuring out the possible motivation behind the attack, and searching for clues as to the killer's identity. They knew from the small smirk on their superior's face that he was analysing the scene with his eyes alone, knowing exactly what to look for to make the story run smoothly.

Finally, the Chuunin stood, the brunette's bald comrade speaking first. "Hantaro-sama, it would appear that there was no attacker. Koukotsu-san seems to have killed each of his comrades, and then himself."

"It would seem so…" Tak muttered, eyes still scanning his surroundings for anything that could give away the true attacker. Koukotsu was violent when he was angry, yes, but he'd never been suicidal – or killed a comrade while a mission was at stake. His dark eyes lingered on the strangled tracking master. At least they wouldn't have to deal with his irritating obsequiousness any longer.

He considered the fingers still loosely wrapped around the tanto jutting out of Koukotsu's gut. The positioning seemed familiar somehow… incomplete…

"He wouldn't do that! It doesn't make sense!" Reiko wailed, kneeling in the mess of her lover's blood, dry-eyed as her hands clung furiously to his shoulders. And suddenly, a piece of the puzzle fell vaguely into place. Why would Koukotsu kill a blind tracker if he had nothing to hide? Why would anyone kill the tracker first?

"Wait, Reiko," Tak turned from his appraisal of the scene, head swimming with memories of silent assassins who worked by scent, and men who kept dogs as warriors. There was one other clan in Konoha, aside from the Inuzuka, that fought with dogs. "Why doesn't it make sense?"

"This whole set-up, this ritual… he gave up those stupid beliefs when he became ninja…"


"Koukotsu's family originally came from Grass. They were descended from the Samurai there – as are half the Grass' population." Reiko was pure shinobi, down to the bones, Tak knew - her clan one of the founding families of the Stone - and he couldn't help but smile at her spitting insult to the still active Samurai clans of Grass Country. Reiko stood, finally, ripping the tanto from her lover's stomach. It took several tugs to loose the blade.

Tak was silent for a long moment. "Alright. We're done here. Put every shinobi's name on the Lost Soldier's monument – no word of this apparent suicide gets out, or you will find yourself suffering a similar fate. Chuunin – I want you to clear up here. Suggest to the Tsuchikage that we destroy all dogs and other scavenging animals in the village as soon as possible. Please inform him that I've taken the liberty of sending Reiko off early." Tak grabbed Reiko's arm, dragging her along with him.

"Tak…" Reiko refused to give into the empty clawing in her gut. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Not until we get to Fire borders. Then you can throw up as much as you like." Tak's cold dismissal caused Reiko to examine her friend carefully, watching his brows crease anxiously, wondering how close he was to losing his mind altogether.

"When we get to the border I'm going to beat you enough to require their care, ok?" Tak squinted at her, judging and amused. How could care so little about Koukotsu's death? Their comrades' deaths? Her grip tightened on the ornate black tanto.

"Yes, Hantaro-Sempai."

"Find what information you can – do not get attached to Konoha, it's surprisingly easy to do so. Find out if there is a spy in the Stone, find out who."

Her eyes shot to his face again, a long scar down his cheek pinching his expression slightly. She bet her life that, if there was a spy, he already knew who it was. Obediently, she replied. "Yes, Hantaro-Sempai."

Reiko pulled a tube of lipstick from her thigh holster, touching up the deep purple of her lips – knowing that nothing looked quite so gut-wrenching on an unconscious woman than lipstick smears from a strike. She hoped Konoha's Kunoichi were strong willed – she wouldn't be able to bear being trapped in a village of simpering wives and helpless medics. But then, the stronger women would be so much harder to crush, in the end.

If Tak was right, Konoha had stolen her life this afternoon. The Shinobi of the Stone were strong, unmoveable. She would do her duty. Gladly.

"It's pointless." Sasuke hissed to his team-mates as they watched their fluffy grey charges squabble hopelessly over Sushi's stick.

"You're a bastard." Naruto said, tiredly, as Kioshi bit Joben's tail, causing the latter to run in idiotic circles as he tried to discover what had caused the sudden pain. "But you're not wrong."

"What do we do with them?" Sakura asked, stepping away from Sasuke as she caught the faint traces of dog piss radiating from his skin in the heat. "My mother's about ready to skin Joben! He keeps getting into the drawers and…"

She blushed brightly as Sasuke raised a curious eyebrow – no matter how much she'd grown over the years she was still so weak when those intense eyes were solely on her. Of course, it was when Naruto's protective glower started to have a similar effect that Sakura realised it was merely temporary insanity bringing back her fangirl reflexes.

When no answer was forthcoming, and the ineffective growls began to rise in volume, Naruto yanked the stick away from the bickering dogs. Handing it to Sasuke, the brunette shinobi gathered a large amount of chakra in his arm before sending the stick flying. All three dogs ran haphazardly after it, barking and tripping over each other in their excitement.

Settling down on the grass – trusting they had a good half an hour before the pups thought to come back for another throw – they finally dared to open the messages from Kakashi that Iruka-sensei had delivered to Naruto. Inside each envelope was a postcard. Each one from a different part of the world – Naruto's holding an image of the famous spiralling waterfalls of Rain Country, Sasuke's showing an almost violet electrical storm from Lightening Country, and Sakura's showing the rolling hills of Grass Country. The same short message was written on each card:

Yo! Having a great time, weather's been crazy,
don't forget to feed the dogs till I get back!

They each stared at the postcards, the beautiful imagery of their neighbouring lands, and considered the ambiguous message. Eventually, realising that the messages contained absolutely no significance, they started bickering.

"Kakashi that bastard! There's no way he's been to all of these places! No way!" Naruto yelled at the postcard as Sakura flopped to her back on the grass.

"You moron, the images are representative." Sasuke shot back, a calm arrogance that was designed to drive Naruto crazy.

"Oh yeah? What's he trying to tell us? That Sakura-chan's covered in grass?" Naruto's growl failed to hide his irritation, and Sasuke smirked in obvious satisfaction. Sakura threw a clump of grass at Naruto, removing her leg-wraps to better soak up the mid-June sun.

"You're an idiot." Sasuke remarked, leaning back on his hands and regarding his blonde team-mate. "Sakura's picture's the most peaceful, the most consistent and stable – just like her chakra control. The waterfall in your image spirals around that central point and then crashes down wards, right? The same way that your chakra and the Kyuubi's chakra spiral and then merge when you need it to. The lightening represents my chakra because it's un-harnessed, it's raw power. It's what I spent so long looking for."

Naruto stared for a long moment, examining his postcard, tracing the spirals with a finger. Finally he turned back to Sasuke with a scowl. "…I hate you. I hate you for getting that."

Sasuke lips twitched almost imperceptibly, a sure sign of his delight, and Sakura groaned in annoyance from her sprawl in the sun. "He's making it up, Naruto! Kakashi-sensei wouldn't put so much thought into some stupid postcard. If there's a message, it's just to tease us about the puppies – because you just know after last week's lesson that Genma-san found a way to tell."

"Hey! It wasn't my fault that Sushi pissed up his leg, alright?" Naruto yelled, bristling as Sakura growled and Sasuke turned his face skywards to mask his smile.

Naruto paused, unsure for a moment, before launching himself at Sasuke. The two of them sparred for a while in the heat – Sasuke beating Naruto as usual, loving the training, and Naruto loving how close to contact his punches came, even while just playing like this.

After a while, the puppies did come back, and Sakura petted them lazily. Seeing that her boys weren't about to stop their fighting any time soon, she launched the stick in another direction, making the pups work for their praise.

Hagane Kotetsu slouched in the hospital corridors, watching the beaten girl sleep through the glass window that exposed the intensive care ward to the rest of the world. They'd found her near the fire country border, and hearing her pleas for sanctuary had taken her to the Hokage. Her name was Reiko, apparently. Kotetsu couldn't get her battered little body out of his head.

Stone or not, shinobi or not, whatever she was – or was not – like this, here, now, she was totally helpless. It called to something within Kotetsu, some sick little boy that he'd thought he'd left behind. Her lips had held purple stains, streaks of the same shade mottled across her chin – only noticeable because it clashed with the blood. He'd bet she was fierce. He'd bet she was the type to touch up that violet tint in the middle of a battle, to wear that clinging black outfit even in snow country – because fuck camouflage, he'd bet this shinobi wanted to be seen.

He didn't flinch as a slightly pointed chin came down to rest on his left shoulder, an obstructive tuft of rich brown hair making his cheek itch. Hands touched lightly on his arms, allowing him to remain contemplating the girl – only one person would ever dare to touch him like this. Kotetsu and Izumo had been friends since childhood. Izumo's family had been lost to the Kyuubi during that attack, and Kotetsu's father had been changed by the horrors he had faced. They'd helped Umino Iruka terrorise the Academy as kids, they'd graduated together, been Gennin team-mates and passed the Chuunin exam together. They'd later become Chuunin Examiners and had been posted as Godaime's guards – together.

They held no issues about personal space – maybe it was too human for most ninja, but the way they saw it, when a soldier was freezing his nuts off on a battlefield, warmth was warmth was warmth. And body heat was a form of warmth that was easy to share without giving away a location. Their connection was born out experience, out of too many harrowing moments on a battlefield, out of too often finding themselves out of their depth. Kotetsu had assumed until so recently that it was connection born of brotherhood.

"Hey," Izumo grinned into Kotetsu's shoulder, forcing a wave of guilt to roll through the spiky headed Chuunin's stomach. He couldn't not push it though – if he didn't say something, Izumo would know he knew.

"I wonder when she'll wake?"

"Ha. You don't have a chance, mate." The familiar teasing was a much needed comfort to Kotetsu, who leaned back slightly into the grip. He felt like his world had been turned upside down these last few weeks, since Iruka's birthday, since he proposed that he be the one to stay sober for once. Stupid morals. Look where they land him!

"You remember what my dad used to do to us, when I was a kid?"

"I remember, Kotetsu." Izumo shifted a little, tightening his grip. "The war changed people, he never meant it…"

"That's what mum would say. He would beat her, and she would love him anyway, because it was nothing compared to what he did to himself."

Izumo waited for Kotetsu to get to his point. It was possible he just needed to say the words aloud, but not likely. Kotetsu wasn't a private person by nature, but the secrets he did have ran deep. Kotetsu turned to squint awkwardly at his friend's bandana. "Sometimes it takes all manner of hell sitting on your face before you realise you're not the only one feeling the heat of it, you know?"

"I know. I know." Hands rubbed soothingly across his arms and Kotetsu felt guilty all over again. How did Izumo do it? The pretence, the constant silence? "Nice metaphor, by the way."

The jokes?

Kotetsu tried to keep his eyes trained on the sleeping kunoichi, tried not to focus on the deep, regular breath on his neck. Tried not to catalogue the way that Izumo breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth; like he was trying to memorise a scent. They should never have gone to Iruka's party – he never should've let Izumo get that drunk…

Konoha shinobi were supposed to be gifted at gathering information. He'd never stopped to think about how good they were at concealing it as well.


So lost in his thoughts, Kotetsu didn't notice icy eyes slit open to stare back through the glass. Squinting through the swelling of her left eye (and damn, but Tak had been thorough in his administrations) Reiko watched the two men watch her, a diagonal cut on her lip reopening as her lips twisting into a smirk and she noticed the insignia of the hitae-ate. The pain made her wince, helping her cover the streak of glee at being where she had only vaguely hoped she'd be.

Reiko groaned loudly as she turned, arching her thin body to better entertain her audience.

As the brunette in the bed beside her – leg cast and chin high – welcomed Reiko to Konoha with a wry grin, she knew she had just achieved the impossible.

Several miles away, pressed flat against a rooftop, Kakashi fiddled with wires and batteries, trying to hear the secrets of the Tsuchikage's strategists. A tug on his consciousness – a sort of wrench on his gut – pulled his concentration from the events below. Struggling to be aware of two things at once, Kakashi began to feel a rush a panic – a canine desperation – before the horrid feeling stopped abruptly, leaving him with an odd loss. As if a part of him had just… stopped.

Kakashi's nerves sang and tingled as the cloak of darkness became suddenly oppressive. He knew then that something had happened to one of his dogs, and prayed that it wasn't one of the pups back home.

No. No, that would be ridiculous, Kakashi told himself, idly cataloguing the phrases beneath him and realising how useless they were without a visual, even as he silently nicked a finger to summon Pakkun to the rooftop.

"What's happening?" he whispered, aware of Pakkun's link to the trained nin-dogs and how often it had helped them in battle. It only now occurred to Kakashi how little they'd tested the link between the untrained dogs, and he kicked himself for ever believing he could keep them safe as his beautifully feral pets.

"I…One of the dogs has been…slaughtered…near the main gate…" Pakkun sniffed at the air, mournful eyes slightly panicked, feeling the same dull echo of pain as Kakashi had, no doubt. "The other… can you bring him back? Bring him back!"

"Were they together?" Kakashi hissed, placing a hand on Pakkun's flat muzzle to quieten him a little. He felt the dog nod in the blanket of dark, felt his stomach drop as a second flash of colourless panic ran through him.

"Not now, it's too late. If they know to hurt to dogs they already think it's me…" Kakashi shuddered at the sudden snap as his connection with his dog evaporated – they were dead now then. "Shit, shit…too late…"

Pakkun whined quietly on the rooftop as Kakashi crawled shakily down to the window, risking a visual.


Huge thanks to:

ChibiRisu-Chan: Thank you so much! But yummm, psycho red-heads! I think the more I write Iruka, the more I get a handle on his character, so I'm much more comfortable giving him a lot of screen time now, since he's so inside the plot(s). You are right, of course, we are just really mean to our favourites. To make for it, maybe I could just... share out the pain? XD lol.

Alana Quinn: Thanks! Sasuke and Kioshi were probably the easiest pair to write. There was too much I wanted to say with Naruto, and Sakura just wasn't cooperating, lol. Glad you liked XD

Azamiko and Delusional Kitty: Thanks for the review and the nit-pick!XD

Hey-Diddle-Diddle: Thanks so much! You're cheering on Tak? That's such a compliment! Thanks.

Faith b: Hun, you're a nutter! Thank you so much for the novels and the encouragement! I really appreciated the comments on the OC's, I was very wary about sticking in so many new characters even though they're necessary for the next couple of chapters… As for Sasuke and Sakura, I'm not convinced she'd be able to look at Sasuke the same way after going through three years of life without him – even if she could, being 16 and being 13 are very different feelings. Sakura strikes me as someone who could grow. Hopefully there's enough references there to stay true to her character XD. (more wider? Lmao) (and you killed me with the silicon box line, lol)

Tami: Eek, Insane Neji Lovers? I fear them, will fix, scouts honour... I gave him lines as penance XD

Sorviball: Thank you so much, I'm glad the balance is working for you, and the mini-plots are not too off the wall. I don't know, I think I fell a little in love with the world of Naruto, as well as the fact that they all kick-arse! XD

Nezuko: Thanks so much – I'm so glad you find the OC's interesting, when I first started considering them I was really inspired by the way you integrated Shida into It's Nothing – I think I learned a lot from that. Thanks again for your support - I used to be fascinated with spy work and am glad that detail's coming through realistically for you XD
Hope you feel better soon!

Hikaru Yuki: Thanks so much! For the kind words and the recommendations! The Kakashi/Rin scene is probably the one I'm most proud of, so far at least, so thanks a lot for you comment on that! XD

Also to: Telosphilos,
Luvwiz, bluelady198, Night-Owl123, Suke-san, Kensington Gold, Fuhrer, Corycian Muse, Firedraygon, Roi du Ballet, JadeDragoness and Baka-Sensei