Notes: I'm so so very sorry that it's taken this long to update – I'm getting worse aren't I? – but there have been a few fairly good reasons why this was on the back burner! Gah. Ah well, Hope you've all had a great couple of months! ;)

Just as a reminder, I'm running on the theory that, according to the guidebooks (and leafninjadotcom), the original InoShikaCho lot are Chouza, Shikaku, and Inoichi. As ever, thank you for your continued support (and patience), and I appreciate any feedback that you want to throw at me XD Extra thanks to Kiki and Alana for proofreading various drafts of this EVIL chapter!

This chapter is dedicated to WinterOfOurDiscontent! Happy Birthday!

July's heat was oppressive, but not exceptionally so. The Leaf village's design and construction offered no real shade from the clear skies and glaring sun in the wide, winding streets. In the central part of the village the air was thick, and sweet with the scents of its citizens' lives. Medicinal herbs mingled with cooking spices, the strong odours almost staining the more overpowering scents of metal cleaning agents and acidic weaponry compounds that lingered around the military compounds and official towers. The fragrances of a hidden village – the fragrances of death – should not have been so inviting, but to a shinobi and his comrades it was home.

Crouched outside the east outer wall of Konoha, several Stone Nin baked outside the kiln of Fire Country's stronghold, unsettled by the tangy scents that wafted over the Leaf's defences.

"All Hidden Villages smell the same, you notice that?" muttered one shinobi, lying on his back and fiddling discreetly with the small thread of chakra grenades stretched across the seven of them. He paused now and then to carefully tug strands of long dark hair from the knotted wire.

"Oh shut-up, Kazu'. It smells of sweat and spices and fucking pine." A deeply tanned man kicked lightly at his comrade, hissing in ridicule. "Tell me how that's anything like home?"

"Mmm, spices." A chubbier lookout chuckled from a tree. "I love Fire Country cooking. It's tangy, but never too spicy; not like Wave."

"Wave is delicious!" the first man, Kazuhara, paid no attention to the scoffs of his friends. "My wife's from down that way, you know? She cooks it all authentic-like!"

Down the line, a much younger shinobi was tutting to his superior. "They won't stop chatting, Tsuki-san. They'll attract attention."

"What attracts more attention in a ninja village, kid; shinobi chatting while they fiddle with something, or shinobi silently threading explosive wire through chakra grenades?" Tsuki's scarred face grinned wildly at the teenager's furious expression. "They've known each other since they were Gennin. This isn't their first op, you know?"

Tsuki smiled to himself as the conversation at the end of his impromptu assembly line turned to the newest addition to Kazuhara's family. Thoroughly chastised, the younger shinobi kept his disbelieving huffs to a bear minimum. Tsuki could remember being a teenager, new to the Jounin ranks. He could remember being that uptight, and so often now did he wonder how the hell he managed to survive the shit he had.

"…We're thinking of calling her 'Ling-Wai.'" Kazuhara was saying, hushing his team-mates half-heartedly as they exploded into helpless giggles. "Shut up, Hanba-bastard, it's a foreign name. My wife's got family from… wherever the hell she's from. I tend to switch off when she gets all cultural on me."

"Ling-Wai!" Hanba wheezed, curling up a little in his attempt to let no sound escape his lips. "It'll be the most picked on kid in the playground."

The man in the tree chuckled a little, looking down as his team commander bit down on a grin himself, shushing the protesting boy beside him. "He's right, you know. You'll have to die a hero, Kazu-kun, it's the only way she'll have any respect from her peers!"

"That can be arranged." The youngest said, standing up with a content look of triumph in his eyes. Pulling a kunai from his belt.

"What the fuck are you doing, brat, get down immediately." Tsuki's hiss was ignored completely as the kid began to wave at the guard atop the Konoha tower. Tsuki's team froze, none of them quite prepared for this situation. No fucking way was this kid a traitor. Tsuki had trained this one himself!

"Oh, damn." Hanba said, pulling a kunai from his belt. "I recognise this jutsu."

Kazu looked frantically back and forth between the kid and his team-mate, his previously expressive face hardening visibly, becoming a soldier. "You don't mean… Oh. Of course." He caught a sight of bright hair on the Konoha guard, recognised the team as he squared up beside his friend. "Yamanaka-san. A pleasure."

The kid grinned at them both, Inoichi's words through a too-young mouth. "Nice detective work, shinobi-san!"

"What are you? Some sort of telepath?" Tsuki asked, circling around his student's captured form and discreetly toeing the explosive threads.

"I've come to wish you a fine morning in Konoha." Inoichi paused, the body of the young Stone shinobi holding a razor sharp Kunai to his own throat. No one made a move. "I'm your last fucking welcoming party."

Then, they moved.

It'd been utter chance that Iruka had decided to walk that particularly way to the Academy on Thursday morning, but – after bumping into Aoba – he was damn glad that he had. Aoba had been working off and on for some time on the ANBU mission desk and in Tsunade's office, and was often privy to certain, often classified information. His standing as a Konoha Jounin – and relatively close friendship with Kotetsu and Izumo through his work with the Hokage – meant that he was designed to gossip, and sometimes the poor man just had to let rip.

"…but the Stone haven't shown any kind of range, right?" Iruka was saying, the hushed tones of an overworked teacher designed to attract no more attention than a passing pitiful glance. "I mean, they've been sticking to ambushes exclusively, no actual attacks, no variation of pattern…"

"Maybe." Aoba leant against the low wall, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of paper. "Not that you heard this from me, you understand – you do understand that right, 'Ruka-kun?" he watched as the Chuunin nodded, shifting the stack of files balanced carefully in his arms. Iruka jerked a little in frustration. Getting gossip from Aoba was like getting iron from its ore. You knew it was there, you knew how to get it; but it didn't stop it taking fucking ages to have anything to show for your troubles.

"But Apparently - " and Aoba made some vague gesture to indicate just how certain his apparently was; " – a couple of the border guards were attacked in force earlier this morning, just before dawn."

"In force?" Iruka was a Chuunin, so he didn't quite drop his students' report files in shock. "Holy shit, you mean like an attack? At the borders?"

"Like an attack, sure." Aoba said, and Iruka could see the dramatic panic in his eyes. "At the South fucking Gates."

It took a moment for the statement to sink in. The fact that, somehow though all that talk of war, Iruka had never really thought that it would hit the village itself. The last one never did, not up until the end. Apparently, the Stone were trying a different tactic this time round. "Shit."

"From what I heard – and this constitutes as stuff you've never heard, you get me? - " Aoba's eyes were wide and glossy, freaking out at the depth of the knowledge he'd been told to handle, and Iruka wondered how Aoba had ever been entrusted with this kind of information. It was, after all, where he'd heard the first rumours of war, months ago now.

But then, Iruka thought, maybe that was the very reason Aoba had got the job. His penchant for gossiping couldn't have gone unnoticed, and his capability was undeniable – so maybe it was seen as a really simple way to get certain information filtered down the ranks, giving shinobi a chance to prepare themselves for the actual news.

Iruka gave his friend a nod, and waited for the next half sentence of gossip. " – Three ANBU teams were dispatched; from what I could make out – and it wasn't a lot, that Locust is one uptight bastard when it comes to throwing a bone – one to track the attackers, one to clear up the area, and one to reinforce the defences."

"Doesn't sound too bad, at least." Iruka knew, as soon as he'd said it, that he'd end up lying through his teeth.

"We weren't without casualties, Iruka-kun. The ANBU teams were dispatched about 60 seconds after the first explosion, and that's as much as I know."

A chill settled happily in Iruka's gut. When Iruka had woken this morning he'd been oddly alone, sheets cooling but heavily scented still. "You don't seriously think they were trying to invade?"

"I don't know. It's one rumour, but…" Aoba bit at a nail, running it across his teeth. "…If they were, they probably could've. They chose a weak point in the guard, which means something of that Reiko woman's reports must've got back to base."

"Or someone else knows Konoha better than we'd counted on."

"Either way," Aoba conceded, looking around guiltily as he resettled on the wall. "Until the ANBU teams get back in, we literally have nothing to go – oh!"

Iruka hadn't realised how close they were to the ANBU compound until four particularly beat-up looking operatives trundled past, slowing to an awkward halt when they noticed the two gossiping shinobi. Iruka automatically searched for a shock of silver above a red-streaked Hound mask, but couldn't see anyone he recognised.

"You know, officially, we're supposed to stay out of sight," one ANBU said, short, honey-brown strands of hair flopping over the front of a vaguely bear-like mask. "But we're a little tired and new an' all, so..."

Iruka had no idea what to say, the sheer presence of more than one ANBU at a time was…overwhelming. Aoba, who Iruka knew manned the desks now and then, was a little more at ease with so many at once.

"Sorry, I've no idea what you mean." The Special Jounin said, his conspiratorial wink somehow taking in the group of ANBU operatives and Iruka's silent form. "Me and the sensei, here, have been chatting for a while, but this road's relatively quiet besides a few kids here and there. Right, Iruka-sensei?"

"Oh yeah. Either way I'm oblivious half the time, walking up and down here." Iruka shifted his report files again, holding them against his chest. "I can't see over this stack for a start!"

"Alright. Thanks!" The Anbu said, and then vanished with the rest of his team.

"I'm gonna be late to meet the kids…Thursday's are always a bit, you know. Hectic." Iruka said, pretending to glance at his watch as he surreptitiously took in the almost fevered expression on Aoba's face.

"Yeah," muttered the Jounin, glancing with a grin at the spot the ANBU had so recently vacated. "I'll catch you later then, Iruka-kun. I need a little overtime; I think I'll go see what deskwork's available…"

Guard duty was probably the easiest job in a shinobi's career, Shikaku thought, as he lazed in the sun by the tower, listening to Inoichi's idle chatter as Chouza showed Shikamaru the ropes. It was fun though, with the right company, and Shikaku had more than the right company.

Officially, it was only Inoichi on guard duty that morning; the South Gates of the village – surrounded as they were by the harshest forest, and enclosed by the most highly vigilant town in Fire Country (retirement paradise for the elderly nin) – were never heavily guarded.

Inoichi, however, when not on a mission, went completely stir crazy without someone to talk at, and it wasn't uncommon for one or the other of his team-mates to accompany him to the towers. Of course, Konoha's officials didn't say a word, because who was going to complain about having two ninja present, and only having to pay one?

Of course, it was more like three for the price of one Thursday morning; Shikaku, for some stupid, multi-layered reason that only his son seemed to get, had been asked to teach Shikamaru the intricacies of guard duty. When his entire lesson had culminated to Shikaku pointing south and saying "be vigilant," Chouza had called him good-for-nothing, and proceeded to teach Shikamaru himself, in a far more comprehensive and detailed manner. Shikamaru, having grown up with that sort of banter between his team's fathers, found somehow that he had missed it terribly, and listened happily, even when Chouza ran out of things to say and started repeating much of what the young strategist had learned at Gennin Level.

"Oh come on, Chouza-kun!" Inoichi laughed, patting his friend on the back and delighting in the solid slap of flesh. "He's a Chuunin. He knows how to tie a – huh."

"Inoichi?" Shikaku asked, putting a hand on Shikamaru's shoulder and drawing him back a little. "Oh, shit. What are they doing?"

"One of us should definitely go and find out." Chouza muttered, and Shikamaru wondered what he meant until suddenly his father was laying Inoichi's empty body onto the floor behind the walled parapet, a sight so familiar to his own team that he had a rush of déjà vu.

A thought that had been niggling at him – the thought that all this ANBU and strategy work was leading him on a path too separate to his team-mates – was suddenly soothed. This formation was a natural one, an eternal one, and Shikamaru had no fear of it ever being broken.

He finally caught sight of the line of enemy shinobi; while there were only a few of them there, there were far too many for just one team. If he had to guess, Shikamaru would say they were the scouting party, or a primary assault group, and he'd bet that there were more than Konoha would bet on hiding in the thick trees.

"Chouza, call for backup." Shikaku said, eyeing the exchange outside their walls. The youngest one stood up, suddenly, pulling out a kunai, and Shikaku knew from his friend's stance that things were about to heat up. Chouza knew it too.

"No way; from the looks of things you might need back up before I can get it back to you."

"Shikamaru." His father slid into stance, eyeing the cloud coverage and calculating the distance. Not enough by half. "Go."

"Are you sure that's wise?" Shikamaru asked, echoing Chouza's statement. He sighed at the grim look of concentration on his father's face. "Fine, I'll go get back up."

"Hurry." Shikaku said, watching the youngest of the Stone Nin slump horribly as Inoichi gasped back into consciousness, momentarily disoriented but still clambering to his feet, shouting a warning that had the four of them reeling…


When he saw the Stone Nin hurl the explosives towards them, Shikaku pitched himself over the barriers, running parallel with Inoichi towards the origin of the attack as he half-watched Chouza expand his body ten times it's normal size at least, wrapping large arms tightly around his friend's son, trying desperately to block the brunt of the Stone's assault from Shikamaru's young form.

As a string of high power explosives made contact with their friend, it was only the sight of one of those bastard Stone Nin in the trees ahead of them that stopped Shikaku from falling to his knees. Pieces of Chouza – fucking pieces of him – rained down on them like ash, and Shikaku heard Inoichi's snarl of frustration – could imagine those eyes glazing as his advanced body-mind-switch caused the enemy ninja to twist horribly, stabbing themselves suddenly in the face or the friend, at the whim of the blonde man in front of them.

Shikaku made hands seals as he ran, allowing his shadow to branch in as many directions as possible, the shade of the trees giving his shadow manipulation all the extra power it needed to capture as many of those murderous fucks as it could. Several gasps and squeals of surprise were heard as Shikaku choked the life out of he didn't know how many – they were all enemies, they had all strung together the very weapon that sent Chouza – Chouza, for the love of fuck – floating down from the sky above.

Inoichi was pushing his body up and forward - glancing around furiously for someone else's body to steal - and Shikaku couldn't tell if it was sweat or tears that streaked his friend's face.

"Shikaku-san, please stop." The voice was soft, feminine, but the easy command sent chills down Shikaku's spine. He turned, aware that at least two enemies now had their backs to him, and faced the ANBU operative, smirking as he realised just how much backup Shikamaru had managed to round up.

One team of four immediately sped into the forest (and Shikaku could hear dogs, even if he couldn't see them, and wondered if it were Inuzuka or Hatake that had rejoined those elite dark troops) no doubt to dispose of the enemy in that horrific, organised way the ANBU had. Another team was clearing the area of bodies – he and Inoichi had got a fair few between them, and it would certainly go towards their reputations, if nothing else.

The third team, as this girl was telling him now – stern, soothing tones washing over him like genjutsu – were here to make sure they got back safely, needed in the village, grief understandable, but Shikaku was numb, now, had stopped listening to the mindless chatter and was just… letting himself be led.

"Dad?" Shikaku put his hand on Shikamaru's head, unable, for the moment, to do a whole lot more. There'd been a time, when he'd been younger, that he could switch off in a battle; go from fighting to grieving to eating his wife's cooking without a problem at all. But now, his son was shaking, covered in his best friend's blood, and it was all Shikaku could do not to break down there and then.

Looks like they were going to have to tell the old crowd to prepare a little better this time round. War wasn't coming; War was on their fucking doorstep.

Raidou walked into his apartment to find Genma, in full ANBU uniform, crouching on the top of the counter in their little kitchenette. Below him – and apparently the foul creature he was so valiantly trying to avoid – a scruffy little mutt yipped and bounced up affectionately, obviously craving fuss.

"Genma?" Raidou knew his lover well enough by now to approach very carefully. If he was hiding from a puppy, he'd either lost his mind entirely or the dog was not what it seemed. "Genma, why are you on the counter?"

"I would have thought," Genma's voice was full of disdain, and Raidou was a little impressed at how, even in a situation like this, the younger Jounin could pull off 'righteous indignation' so very well. "That much was obvious."

Raidou took in the scene, tried not to laugh but couldn't quite hide the amusement from his voice. "You're failing at hiding from a dog."

"It's not just a dog!" Genma hissed, uncurling a little to lean over the side, barely avoiding braining himself on a cupboard as he leapt back from the dog's sudden affectionate jump. "It's one of Kakashi's. It's a menace."

"To what?"

"To me!" Genma whined, "He won't leave me alone, and I can't figure out why not!"

"Who, Kakashi?" Raidou was getting more and more confused, settling at the small table and beckoning the dog onto his lap. It was a lot heavier than he'd expected, and Raidou figured this was going to end up one of those giant things so many of Konoha's dog handlers seemed to favour as pets. "What did you do to him?"

"No, Sushi! The bastard dog! I didn't do anything but it won't stop attacking me and chewing me and sitting on my head and pissing on my ankles and will you put the bloody thing down!"

"So it can attack you again?" Raidou mused, scratching the dog's nape and chuckling as it flopped, tongue lolling, against Raidou's torso, bony little paws digging into his lap. "This thing does look like a monster after all! Isn't that right, pup!"

"Oh shut up!" Genma said, leading Raidou to burst into choking giggles, curling protectively around Sushi as the younger Jounin gathered the courage to leave the side, wandering into the bedroom to change. Raidou shuffled off the chair, urging Sushi to the floor where he immediately ran into the bedroom.

Raidou tried not to laugh – really, he did – as he heard Genma's frustrated screech travel through the apartment. Seconds later, Genma erupted from the room, hopping into his trousers – one leg on, and one firmly gripped between Sushi's teeth.

"Get off, you little shit!" he growled, yanking the trouser leg from Sushi's snarling grip. The dog yelped pathetically, running headfirst into the door where he vanished in a pop and a puff of smoke, and Raidou wondered how a thirty year old ninja as utterly capable and graceful as Genma, could be reduced to a stroppy teenager over a single annoying mutt.

"Hungry?" Raidou asked mildly, biting his lip in amusement as he fiddled around the kitchen, gathering pots, pans and the rest of it. Genma growled in the affirmative as he dropped himself down in a chair.

"Kakashi's gonna kill me," he mumbled, so grumpy and pained that Raidou found himself laughing again, ruffling the younger man's hair on the way to the fridge and receiving a slap on the way back. Raidou made dinner as Genma sulked, and wondered how much more normal their lives could get.

Kakashi leant against the wall of the mission room, balancing on one leg as he used the other knee as a desk, finishing some half-arsed report that he doubted anyone would actually read. Ah, the exciting life of a ninja, Kakashi thought, three hour missions every now and then and sod all else to do until the enemy attacked. He didn't even have Gai to make fun of; the Green Clad Wonder was four days into his excursion to Hidden Sand, and he and Kurenai – should all go well – weren't expected back for at least another five days.

Kakashi wasn't sure of the details of the trip, but then he hated ambassadorial work, hadn't done any since he was fifteen; not since that trip to the Hidden Mist that had ended up with barely concealed threats to the Leaf and a coup d'etat several months later. Kakashi knew that he hadn't been in any way a cause of the incident, but he always mentioned it when the elders suggested he represent the Leaf, just on the off chance they'd reconsider.

"Yo, Kakashi?" The Copy Nin breathed in his companion's gift of second hand smoke, wondering how the hell Asuma could run as fast and as far as he did with that shit constantly congealing in his lungs. "Can I ask a favour?"

"Hold on a sec..." Kakashi muttered as he scribbled something almost illegible in the margin of his report, annotating the drawing there as best he could with his limited artistic ability. His last mission had been short and simple, reconnaissance more than anything else, but it had been most interesting. He'd found out a lot about bees. He finally closed his report, filling in the official details: name, rank, ID number, mission code, date completed, and then looked up at his friend, Asuma's rough face concerned and a little bewildered. "What is it?"

"You still know this place well, right? All the tower's little secrets?" Asuma's voice was hesitant, and Kakashi gave him a wary look. "I want to know about Kurenai's latest mission. She said she was accompanying Gai but… I'm a shinobi, Kakashi, not an idiot. I've been sleeping with the woman long enough to know when she's faking something."

Kakashi eyed Asuma, not quite sure whether that was a joke or not. Either way, he had warned Kurenai that he wouldn't lie for her. "She's accompanying Gai at my request, if that helps. There're a couple of reasons, and it doesn't look good after Ebisu if the Jounin look like they're taking outside threats lightly."

Asuma was silent for a long minute, judging Kakashi's cool response his comfortable slouch. "That's what she said," The Jounin narrowed his eyes. "You know, when she was lying."

"It's one of the reasons, Asuma, you have my word." Kakashi moved towards the desk queue. This'd teach him to turn up on time; not only was there a queue but now Asuma was asking stupid questions. "What Kurenai told you is none of my business."

"Why did she go to Wind Country, Kakashi? She could've helped with deciphering the genjutsu traps on that Stone weapon, right?" Asuma put out his cigarette on a kunai as one of the Chuunin staff shot him a dirty look. "I've heard that Gai had to argue with a lot of people to get her on that trip. It's not like him to be so picky. Tell me why she went. The truth."

"I told her I wouldn't lie to you, Asuma-kun, but believe me when I say you do not want to hear this from me." Kakashi shuffled a couple of steps. Why couldn't Asuma just get the message? Why hadn't Kurenai told him in detail? Kakashi was getting the horrible feeling that he'd been played – and as innocent and heartfelt as he knew Kurenai's dilemma was – he really didn't like being the messenger.

"Tell me." Saratobi Asuma came from a long illustrious line of nobility turned shinobi, the Saratobi had been heroes in the founding of Konoha, trusted allies of the Shodai and Nidaime Hokages – but for all the man's fine lineage… he still growled like an Inuzuka.

"Kurenai had something she needed to take care of away from prying eyes." Kakashi admitted, voice low enough to be secretive but not enough to seem ashamed. "I suggested a very reputable clinic in Wind Country that specialises in sensitive feminine matters."

Asuma froze for a long moment, the words and Kakashi's subtle actions – he held a hand to his abdomen as he spoke, patting slightly to draw his friend's gaze – stringing quickly together in his mind. "You…"

No-one in the room noticed Asuma move until Kakashi's body slammed audibly against the wall of the building, and he glared silently down at Asuma as the larger man held the Copy Nin to the wall by his throat. Kakashi's feet didn't quite touch the floor as Asuma applied pressure, but to the shock of the room, Kakashi didn't make a move to retaliate.

"You son of a bitch!" The pressure increased, and Kakashi clutched at Asuma's wrists as the other man growled, trying to keep the weight of his body centred in his back rather than his neck. Behind the hand-in desks, the Chuunin scrabbled to inform the guards, many of the shinobi in the room simply didn't move, so utterly shocked at the actions of two of their best shinobi.

"Technic'lly…" Kakashi rasped, digging nails into Asuma's flesh as he tried to shrink into the wall, tried to fight every instinct honed in twenty years of ninja life and remain placid under this attack. Must not kick my team-mate in the nuts. Must not kick my team-mate in the nuts. The mantra ran through Kakashi's head as he hung from the wall.

"Whoa, man – Asuma – Calm." Suddenly, Raidou and Genma were there, one at each of Asuma's arm, coaxing him back from strangling Kakashi. Genma, oddly enough, took the soothing approach, crooning slightly as his firm grip on Asuma's arm belied his voice. "Calm down."

Raidou, on the other arm, was fuming. "What the fuck are you doing! Let go. Right fucking now, Asuma, drop him!"

"My entire fucking team, huh?" Asuma snarled, ignoring the world around him. "My entire fucking team is in on this shit?"

"Drop him, Asuma." Raidou commanded again, something in his voice more stern than Asuma had ever heard it. "Now."

Flanked by two Jounin and, somewhere in his mind, knowing that Kakashi would only stay this docile for so long before his survival instincts kicked in – and kicked Asuma into next week, no doubt – Asuma turned frustrated from the wall, dropping the Copy Nin. He turned back savagely, pinning Kakashi by the shoulders this time, before snarling in his face. "And I bet you think you're playing the fucking hero, too."

"Asuma!" Genma warned, making signals behind his back at the gathered shinobi, taking unofficial command of a unit prepared to step in if this all got any nastier.

"Not your team, Asuma-kun." Kakashi's voice was raspy, but he seemed as unaffected by the world as ever; unaffected by the snarling, growling ninja before him. "Gai was just along for the ride, hasn't a clue. You could say we're using him, if you insist on making a villain for this pantomime."

"What the hell kind of right do you have? Telling my girl where to go?" Kakashi offered no explanations, aware of how little Asuma was hearing. He hadjust known something like this was going to happen; Kakashi resisted the urge to just disappear, knowing that would only stoke the fires of Asuma's rage. He'd told Kurenai to talk to the other man, but no. Everyone thinks they know best. "You're a fucking murderer!"

"Hey! That is all kinds of too far!" Genma's growl match Asuma's own, some underlying threat taking over the calm persona he'd been trying to keep up. Shinobi dealt with death. They were paid assassins, cultivated killers. But 'murder' was not a word shinobi used. Murder was something people did for selfish reasons, for spite or vengeance or some gross perversion. Murder made what ninja did crude, vulgar. Murder was a dirty word.

"You don't think she had her reasons? You don't think she can make her own decisions?" Kakashi's voice was calm, but Raidou could see his feet sliding subtly into stance, bettering his balance for some kind of movement. Knowing Kakashi, it'd probably be debilitating. "I might as well have handed her a fucking coat-hanger she was so intent on this. You have preferred to take that risk?"

"Wait, wha – your girl? -" Raidou grasped Asuma's shoulder again, pushing himself a little more between the two elites. "Kurenai's pregnant?"

Asuma growled again, slamming his palm into Kakashi's shoulder, trying to ignore the sense he was making, for once. "Well she was, until this piece of shit - "

"Oh for fuck's sake." Kakashi breathed, watching with exasperation and utter fatigue as the mission room erupted into shocked whispers.

Finally, thankfully, the Godaime herself entered the room, casting surprised eyes at the scene and picking up Kakashi's spilled report before actually addressing the gathered shinobi. She turned to Asuma, flexing a fist with anticipation as she watched Kakashi fail to avoid rubbing his throat. "Shinobi, stand down."

Asuma did, and the four of them – Genma and Raidou positioning themselves between their friends, just in case – faced the Hokage. Tsunade's brow creased as she took them in, how tense they all were, and wondered a little how it was that Asuma wasn't curled up in agony on the mission room floor right now. Between them, Kakashi, Raidou and Genma could cause quite a bit of damage even to the most skilled opponent.

"What in hell happened here?" Tsunade asked lightly, and as the queue started to reform in a slow, eavesdropping manner, four Jounin experienced the most humiliating public debriefing of their careers.

Four days into their mission, approaching the desert borders of Hidden Sand, Kurenai was more anxious than she'd ever been in her life.

She'd been desperate since they'd left Konoha, spent the journey in a tense sort of stillness, deliberating her decision and whether or not she could really, honestly go through this all now. Kurenai had never really considered herself the family sort, but now the opportunity was right there could she really pass it up? She could die tomorrow, she could lose Asuma to death, and how would either of them cope without something more than each other to hold onto?

It wasn't about right or wrong – Kurenai was a ninja for anyone's sake, and held no moral qualm about taking life. Sometimes, when she looked at the orphans of Konoha, when she heard stories of the orphans of other villages, she could understand that sometimes, the best gift a woman could give a child, was to not let it go through that. It wasn't about right or wrong, not at all. If it had been, Kurenai had a damn fine argument why she should terminate her pregnancy. Her argument began and ended with the words: Shinobi Warfare.

Kurenai was selfish.

The more she thought about this, really thought about it, the more she could imagine a child, their child, with sleek dark hair and a powerful presence. She caught herself hoping it wasn't a girl, in case she found herself with Asuma's genes and a monstrous 'tash. Kurenai wanted it. She had never been the type to set up shop and play house, but it was really something, wasn't it? It was something that proved, wholly and utterly, that the two of them could do so much more than maim and kill. That they were human, the way Inoichi and Chouza and Shikaku had proved it; the way even Inuzuka Tsume had proved it, though Kurenai had long since lost hope of ever discovering who the father of that litter was - the bet, however, was still running strong.

The more she considered the idea of motherhood, the more she wanted it, and decided that she really, really hated women's prerogative. One day she'd learn to make up her mind.

It was just shitty luck, she thought, as three Missing Nin blocked their paths, that they would be the ones graced with such an ambush.

The fight was quick – the enemy shinobi not skilled enough to cause these two Jounin of Konoha any major problems. Kurenai disabled one quickly with her signature genjutsu, the apparent suicide more than enough to pinpoint one of three genjutsu experts as the opponent of the fallen nin. The beauty, Kurenai thought, of having such a high level of skill in the often 'forgotten' ninja skill, is that while powerful and competitive ninja in many other areas were having to come up with jutsu after jutsu to play their advanced little games, Kurenai was only really interested in the advancements of one or two other shinobi – both of them in apparently allied villages, conveniently enough, so their little rivalry was so much more encouraging than others.

Kurenai dodged and ducked quickly as a second nin tried to move her away from his comrade – perhaps not realising that he was already dead – lashing out with taijutsu she could barely follow, spinning and ducking so that she could barely moved to block.

The nin delivered a mighty kick squarely into Kurenai's abdomen – the brunt of the attack taken by the arm flung instinctively across her midsection. Gai half watched as she grimaced, clutching at the injured spot with an unreadable look, even as he finished up his own opponent and moved on to disable his team-mate's attacker. Seeing Gai take control of the situation allowed Kurenai the space to just let go, and she allowed her body to slump carefully, one hand digging up fistfuls of sand as she knelt on the ground.

Gai found his opponent to be capable, presenting an almost worthy challenge to the skills of Konoha's Noble Green Beast. He understood the movements of Taijutsu, the grace and sport of the technique – he was limber and youthful – but there was very little passion in the fight; Gai more concerned with why Kurenai had not yet risen.

Finishing the fight quickly, Gai barely noted the opponent's death before turning to investigate his team-mate. Kurenai was hunched a little, bracing herself with one arm as the other wrapped itself around her torso. She was shaking as well; mouth set in a terrible grimace and Gai wondered what in the world could cause such a reaction in this strong Kunoichi until – 'oh,' thought Gai, catching sight of the tiniest trickle of blood. 'Oh shit.'

He knelt beside her, touching a large hand to her shoulder with great care. "Kurenai-san…"

"Shut up." She grunted, hunching further through a spasm of pain, instinctively channelling desperate chakra to the damage. "Shut. Up."

Kurenai couldn't think, refused to cry, focusing on the waves of healing chakra that washed through her - aided by Gai's limited knowledge of healing jutsu- and the surreal nature of the situation. Here she was, crouched in the dirt, utterly powerless.

Gai was saying something in his usual expressive manner, but it wasn't getting through. She felt herself lifted, arching awkwardly against the pain the movement brought, and then sped away.

She clawed a hand into her team-mate's spandex covered shoulder, grateful that of all the people she could've been stuck with, she had the one that didn't think to ask questions outside of what could save her. The invincible nature of Maito Gai was, comforting, in a way, as he repeated comforting words of Suna Hospitals, and chakra meditation and 'If I Don't Get There in Record Time's …

Kurenai fed more chakra into herself, feeling the basics of theinjury knit itself slowly back together. She would not lose her child like this.

This had to be her choice.

They met on the highest tower of Konoha's skyline, two colourless silhouettes against the summer morning blue.

"We need to borrow your students for a while, Brat." Jiraiya said, leaning his back against the low wall of the building's roof. "There's a mission between borders that could use their particular expertise."

Kakashi didn't move from his slouch, toeing the wall slightly as he assessed his superior. "I was under the impression the Godaime was intent on training the three from scratch – at least as far as their teamwork goes." His voice was unconcerned, slightly curious, and the cold tones put the Sannin on edge. "You said they were too volatile to be inflicted on the outside world."

"Well the situation's changed." Jiraiya's stern voice left no room for argument, and he watched Kakashi for a flinch that never came. "I'll be leading the team myself, so you needn't worry about their safety."

"You, Jiraiya?" The Copy Nin kicked gently at a loose bit of brick as he tried for a logical tactic. "Sasuke won't respond well to yet another of the Sannin having such a strong hand in his life; you know he doesn't like you, old man."

"Everyone likes me." Jiraiya exclaimed, gesturing grandly to the village sprawled out below them. "And less of the Old Man, you're getting worse than the Princess!"

Kakashi just snorted disbelievingly, following Jiraiya's hand to study the winding streets below them. He could see the Yamanaka Flower shop from this height, could see Inoichi's soft faced wife fiddling with an outdoors display as if her husband and daughter weren't preparing to fight in a war that would probably kill them both. As if her husband's best friend hadn't been blown to tiny little pieces a week before. He wondered sometimes how the world didn't fold in on itself more often, as the words 'They're taking my students again' ran in circles around his head.

"He'll survive it for a few weeks or less." Jiraiya watched how the Jounin's dark eye lingered on the horizon, scanning professionally until stopping on some detail that escaped the Sannin entirely. He clapped a large paw on Kakashi's shoulder and grinned a little when he gained no response. "Naruto will hold them both in check, I'm sure."

"In my opinion, Jiraiya-sama, they're not ready to work together on anything above a high C rank." Kakashi kept his eyes fixed on the world around him, not seeing Jiraiya's faltering grin. "Not until Sasuke learns to cope effectively with unprecedented stress, and Naruto learns to stop picking at his team-mates' weaknesses. I explained that when I was getting the whole puppy thing approved."

Jiraiya laughed a little despite himself at the masked Jounin's words. The 'risk of unprecedented stress' was the excuse Sandaime had used to try and pull Kakashi from the ANBU after Rin had died. Somehow, though, Kakashi had managed to not only keep his position in the force, but increase his solo mission take quite steadily over the following four years, becoming an almost full time assassin – a level of intensity very rarely allowed within the ANBU structure. Full time guard work with the occasional kamikaze mission was an acceptable career choice. But sane people didn't kill people on a 9-5 basis.

"And how will he learn to cope if he is kept coddled?" For all his years of experience, Jiraiya found himself looking at an impenetrable wall of masks. When his own students had been worried about something, Jiraiya had always just ruffled their hair and taken them all out to eat. He had the feeling that if he tried something like that with Kakashi, he'd probably end up as dog food himself. "Weren't they your words, once?"

"The situation was entirely different." Kakashi's voice was stiff, and the Sannin watched fascinated as he continued to toe at the wall; tiny, crumbling fractures lodging themselves between his bare toes. "I assume I'll be on more intensive ANBU detail while you're away."

"Something like that. The Hokage has a particular request, involving the tanto we recovered from the Stone spy." Jiraiya chewed thoughtfully on a sweet, wondering how best to phrase what Kakashi was probably expecting anyway. What he'd probably been expecting since he saw the damn woman's perfect tanto blade. "Konoha doesn't have many heroes anymore, Kakashi, and the legend of the Sannin can only protect us to a certain point. We're working on heightening the village defences but we need to discourage the Stone from coming into the village proper and we need to do that now."

"You want me to whip up a memory or two?"

"Umino Iruka's got the tanto for you, and Kamizuki Izumo and Shizune witnessed the exchange, so it should get on the Gossip Vine pretty quickly. We told the Chuunin present that you requested it yourself, so play along." Jiraiya glanced again at Kakashi's thoughtful expression. "You will report to the Hokage directly, and work alone until your Jounin team reassembles."

"Hmm…that means the good stuff." Kakashi bowed a little before he disappeared, the scent of sulphur lingering only slightly – but the Copy Nin was famous for his ninjutsu use, even among those that didn't attack the shinobi on sight, and Jiraiya was surprised to even sense that smoky odour as the Copy Nin fled.

Tsunade'd better play nice while he was away, Jiraiya thought, mulling over that horrible stillness the Copy Nin was just so good at. Sakumo had been so expressive; his wife had been quiet, but human. Sometimes, Jiraiya missed the old days, but – with the exception of saving Orochimaru's life that time in Grass Country when they were fifteen – the Sannin wouldn't have done all that much different.

Regrets were a weakness in some, a driving force in others. For Jiraiya, they were just another part of life.

Five weeks since Tsunade's announcement of war, and Ibiki sat with his team in the corner of the Hokage's Strategic office as the Godaime bounced around the centre table, barking random suggestions and orders at the elite strategists gathered about the room. Hatake Kakashi was leaning against the opposite wall, chin raised and eye closed as he shut out the hectic nature of the room, looking for all the world like a hung over version of the inaccessible, arrogant bastard he used to portray. Ibiki couldn't honestly tell whether approaching his friend was a safe thing to do at that moment.

He waited until Tsunade called for a break, sliding through the milling operatives and paper pushers to get to the other side of the room, standing a carefully measured distance from the seemingly inattentive Copy Nin. "Long day?"

It was only 9.30 in the morning, but Ibiki wasn't overly surprised when Kakashi didn't get the joke. The interrogator always tried to keep tabs on the missions of those he considered friends – a habit made incredibly easy by the mission room shifts his Chuunin subordinates often took. The last week's mission call had been curiously absent of Hatake Kakashi – considering both Team 7 and Team Elite were both temporarily disbanded made this less strange than it might have been – but the ANBU Hound had been seen a lot more than Ibiki's ANBU underlings were used to.

Eventually, Kakashi shifted; his voice so rough when it came that Ibiki wondered if he had actually been sleeping through the meeting after all. "Long year, I think."

Ibiki chuckled as he sipped at his coffee, knowing that feeling only too well. "Sit for a minute. You can go back to looking aloof when the meeting resumes."

Kakashi slid to the floor obediently, eyes still closed but somehow sensing the way Ibiki's confused gaze focused on him and offering an explanation. "I really don't have the energy to focus on finding a chair." He paused for a second, considering. "Actually, not overly sure I have the energy to get back up again either…"

Ibiki raised an eyebrow instinctively; slurping meaningfully at his coffee to account for Kakashi's closed eyes. "What time did you get back yesterday?"

Kakashi grinned a little at that, the irony like a poke to his very bruised ribs. He waggled a finger at the other man, his bored tone lecturing and patronising. "No no no, Ibiki-kun! I went out on the field yesterday. Well, the night before last, which is practically yesterday. I got back about an hour ago. Had a meeting I couldn't miss, or something."

"You've been actively working on the field for over 24 hours?" Ibiki knelt down beside the Copy Nin, fighting to keep his voice cold and professional. Overworking able Jounin before the larger battles had even begun was a really idiotic move to make. Ibiki was not impressed, but then, there were rumours of chidori, and flashes of white chakra and a couple of long forgotten names starting to whisper their way along the Gossip Vine. Ibiki might not have been impressed, but he couldn't deny he was damn curious.

"Including transit time. Classified strategic setup operation. Unforeseen combat." The clipped report sounded strange, especially when punctuated by a yawn. Ibiki wondered why Kakashi was expected to attend a meeting at this level of fatigue so early on, and what that said about how often he returned from missions in such a state. Ibiki was lucky, in a way, that his job meant he was rarely called for active field combat. "Diversionary and combative tactics took a little time to stabilise, Morino-kun, and that's past the limit of your official knowledge."

"Casualties?" Kakashi worked to the letter of a mission brief – it was part of why he was such a good operative for the ANBU – but the more experienced Jounin were a little more lax with their treatment of the more confidential aspects of a mission than their other comrades were. Ibiki didn't feel too bad about pushing for details while his friend was in such a fatigued state; it meant there was less chance of getting caught in a riddle, and clear details saved lives after all.

"You think it takes me that long to kill something, Ibiki?" The seal of Kakashi's eye crinkled a little in amusement. "Come on, you know me better than that. My team returned four for four."

Ibiki made a mental note to find out how many ANBU teams had been sent. "Clean up?"

"A bunch of corpses in the area kind of give away a trap." Kakashi muttered, stifling another yawn. "I really need to wake up."

"Here," Ibiki pressed the rest of his coffee into Kakashi's hand, knowing it wasn't worth the argument of offering to fetch one over for his comrade. Kakashi hummed in contentment as he brought the mug up to his face, opening his eye only briefly to make sure no gaze was on him before taking a long pull of the warm, bitter liquid. Ibiki studied the papers on the central table, curiosity overwhelmed by the knowledge that things are never as interesting as they promise to be. It was probably just a face, anyway. "You're welcome."

END OF CH 18! (finally)

Shameless Pimping: As it is Winter's birthday, I thought I'd point out the new LIVEJOURNAL community narutoreviews. Please check it out, whether you're looking for a beta, a good read, or just the chance to give and receive some good honest criticism. The com is for everyone, every genre and every pairing in Naruto fanfic, so if you'd like to see your favourite fic represented, go and represent it! XD

Sorry again that it took so damn long, but hey. I wanna just post this now, so please forgive the kind of impersonal list of thanks. Your reviews have meant and continue to mean a huge amount to me, and I really can't thank you all enough for your criticism, support and suggestions!

Huge Thanks to: Telosphilos, Winter, Alana, Nezuko, Kiki, sna, eloquencelost, shock, Aya-kun Rose, Matsutake (thank you for the spellcheck! XD), Sorviball (hugs), Goldenrat, Smoking Panda, Azumiko, Redex, Alana Hikari-chan (lol), AnkhKhpt (the title's from a song I was listening to… I'm pants at naming things XD), Rabid, QoV/ Alitta (I adore you, you twisted Shakespearian slasher you), shi-chan, Shock (we're just so ambiguous ;)), Hey-Diddle-Diddle, Blue tajiri, Alesca (thank you, and one day I'll finish that Izumo/Kotetsu thing I owe Faith b…one day XD), tampoposensei, aozora23, Tami, Kunoichi008, Nezuko, Oboro, Zenna, MIkazuki, IceDragon3 (thank you for the grammar check, I will get round to proofing myself again one day XD), devinewaterdragon (So much love for your picture! XDDD), BitterEloquence, SugarHighSP, Forst, Faith b (I miss you girl! Hope life's treating you well!), inarae, Elvin Flame, futago akuma-tenshi02, Black Mystick, Marigold Futura, Admantius, TheDragonClawMistress, blue ½, CuriousdreamWeaver, danse, Olivia wood (wow, thank you), GSYH and wolfkun!