Notes: The worst part about plot points are getting to them. Speaking of plot points, on a related note – if you for some reason feel like reviewing (cough/hint/cough) are there any suggestions for dog names?

A huge thanks to everyone who's been reading – you have no idea how much all your comments have meant, especially coming from so many great writers in the fandom. As ever, scroll down!

(…and cheers to Azamiko, though now I feel reeaaalllly dumb, hehe!)

(Also to Nezuko – I've changed a few choice phrases to make Ibiki less… old!)


The two shinobi progressed slowly along the dark street, the humid air stifling and seeming to send the consumed sake straight to Kakashi's head. Leaning heavily on Iruka, his numb legs and inhibited balance only served to hinder their movement further, until the young sensei was practically dragging the elite Jounin along.

At one point, Kakashi dropped his scrolls, falling to his knees immediately, scrambling to gather them up. Iruka, shocked through to his very skin,leant in to help his desperate friend – only to receive a harsh slap to the knuckle when he bent down to touch hand to paper. This Kakashi, at least, was one that Iruka knew. Trying to maintain precious control. Though difficult to handle, and potentially dangerous in his inebriated state, this Kakashi was still more welcome than the lost little boy Iruka had encountered minutes ago in Ichiraku.

Clutching the scrolls to his chest, Kakashi allowed Iruka's arm to tighten around his waist – even dared to stumble carefully, landing his face comfortably in the curve of the academy teacher's neck. Iruka's startled jolt was so worth it, and Kakashi, taking it as a permissive gesture, began to nuzzle, nipping clumsily at the tanned skin found beneath the uniform's collar.

Iruka, torn between concern and mortification, half dragged Kakashi to an apartment which definitely didn't belong to the Sharingan user. Depositing the worn out Copy Nin on his bed, the Chuunin moved to leave the room.

"Don't -" Kakashi's soft voice was as close to pleading as Iruka had ever heard it. "- Don't go – stay. Just stay."

Within seconds of Iruka crawling into the bed, Kakashi had grabbed him, falling into a deep sleep.

x

Iruka woke early that Saturday, finding himself pressed snugly up against a tight, toned, slim body… unyielding, unconscious, smelling strongly of – Oh my sweet fuck it's Kakashi!

Literally bounding from the warm bed, Iruka narrowly missed braining himself on the bedside cabinet. Kakashi, dead to the world, merely shifted a little in his sleep, brow creasing as he burrowed slightly into the pillows, whimpering mindlessly at the loss of heat.

Iruka smiled at the sight before gently wrapping the rudely stolen covers back around Kakashi's sleeping form. Oh man, did he ever have it bad! Hatake Kakashi was a killer. The famous Copy Nin – and yet…

Just admit it – Even exhausted, beaten, sleeping, with sweaty hair clumping on the pillow, dry bitten lip looking swollen and raw, the brightness of his mouth making his pale skin look sickly – even like that, Kakashi was stunning. Iruka felt guilty for thinking of his friend in such a way, there was so much wrong with it. Although shinobi villages rarely judged by gender, kink or species, Konoha was adamant in looking after it's own – meaning that to screw with the feelings of friend without direct orders was perhaps the only taboo ninja gave any mind to.

Iruka's grin faded as he recalled the state his friend had been in last night, combined with the surprising lack of response from Iruka's movement - and he busied himself cleaning up, buying time until his mid-morning shift in the mission room.


Gathered around a multitude of maps, graphs and strategy diagrams, the elite strategists of Konoha's ANBU teams desperately tried to find a pattern in the ambushes of the last few months. It had gotten so much worse. Flat out threats of war were seeping through and after seeing the state of several ANBU operatives upon their return to Konoha, you didn't have to be a strategic genius to know that things were getting way out of hand.

Jiraiya watched appreciatively as Tsunade's deceptively youthful form bounced around the central table. From his lounging spot on the floor by a wall, the Toad Hermit was blissfully left out of the majority of the meeting – strategy was so not his thing. Just get him into the battle, adrenaline and blood rushing through his veins. Jiraiya had lived too long and seen too much to actually want to fight, but he knew without a doubt that he was damn good at it. He had worked so hard and long to become what he had – not possessing the genius qualities of Orochimaru or the powerful lineage of Tsunade, Jiraiya had constantly fought throughout his life.

To be the best, to be the survivor, to be the protector of those people that couldn't protect themselves. But on his own terms.

He'd never wanted the restrictions that came with power – with leadership - and so had adamantly refused the title of Hokage. He preferred to watch those he was fond of turn into those he respected, to watch them make their own decisions – sometimes with a necessary poke or prod in the right direction – until they were ready to fight as well, for what they believed in, rather than what they were told.

Perhaps it was these qualities that made him so fond of the Hatake brat. The cold little boy who had tripped upon his beliefs as all he held dear was slowly stripped away, to become a man who valued his team-mates above all things. His father, Hatake Sakumo, had always been fantastically compassionate, effortlessly gracefully, terrifyingly strong; until the end, at least. The White Fang and the Toad Hermit had been brothers in arms for the longest time, to the point where, when Orochimaru had first begun to delve deeply into forces he could barely control, Sakumo had become an unofficial Sannin, teaming up often with Jiraiya and Tsunade on the missions Sandaime had been too worried to send Orochimaru on. Perhaps that had been the White Fang's downfall, in the end. So used to a team that would find a way he eventually forgot how unusual it was to survive.

Too often now it seemed that history was repeating itself. Team 7 would, without doubt, continue the legacy of the Sannin; but it would be fascinating to see where their Sharingan wielding teacher fit into the scheme of things. He had been too influenced by Yondaime to ever take on Sandaime's mantle - but then, Jiraiya recalled, Kakashi and Sandaime also shared some interesting parallels. It had, after all, been the Toad Sannin to teach them both the Escape by Penetration technique.

Jiraiya smiled at the memory, causing Tsunade to give him a withering look. 'Angry… cute.'

Kakashi though… Kakashi seemed still to struggle with his heritage. There was power there, raw and unused, and Jiraiya knew without a doubt that Kakashi wasn't letting on half of what he knew. Jiraiya hardly blamed the kid, though. Sakumo's behaviour at the end – insanity or no – had been disgusting. Cowardly. To leave your seven year old child to a war-torn world. To allow your seven year old child to face life in its entirety, alone.

Orphaning a boy at any time meant forcing him to deal with fears of the dark, of bullies, of fire, of vegetables, of pain, of girls. Orphaning a shinobi in a time of war meant forcing him to deal with guilt, murder, injury, training, legacy and fear. Alone. Kakashi as a child had been frightening to watch. Nothing so young should have been so deadly. Jiraiya often wondered what the Fourth – being so much closer to the boy than he ever could be – saw when he looked down into those dark, numb eyes.

Heaving a deep sigh and cursing himself for such sentimentality, Jiraiya half-listened as the group of shinobi in front of him tossed out plan after plan to defend the village. It seemed as though there was only one option, the Bad Option. The one that nobody wanted to consider. During the Third Secret War, against the Stone, the only thing that had given the Hidden Leaf any kind of edge had become a habit of lining the entire forest with shinobi, waiting for the enemy to attack and then completely obliterating them in short, sharp bursts. The Leaf fatality was appallingly high. They had soon become so desperate that fresh shinobi like six-year-old Hatake Kakashi had slipped quickly up the ranks.

If these marvellous strategists could find no idea better than ambushing ambushers, Konoha was in trouble.


On the second day of Kakashi's mission – a day since Team 7 had discovered its existence thanks to Team Gai – his students were sparring in one of the smaller training grounds. They'd decided that without their lazy instructor getting in the way it wasn't implausible that they could actually work on some techniques for a change – rather than their usual routine of waiting for the better part of the morning for their questionable teacher to show up, and then spending the next few hours trying to decode his instructions to full coherency before they could actually do anything with them.

So it was to their absolute shock when, at 10am exactly, Morino Ibiki appeared in a puff of smoke directly in front of Sasuke, shoving three thin manila folders into his arms before trudging off in the opposite direction - mumbling angrily about not being paid enough to play 'gopher' for brown-nosing Jounin who didn't deserve to be in his face-space anyway!

Opening the top-most file, Sasuke turned to his team-mates, eyebrow raised in disbelief. "There's only one piece of paper…"

"Read it, idiot!" Naruto's shout was expected, and Sasuke didn't even flinch as he complied with the blonde's request.

Within the folders were three almost identical, official-looking mission briefings; written clearly in what appeared to be Kakashi's usually scrawled handwriting.

Exercise Reference Code: Ht6026-07. (2 of 3.)
Class: Unclassified/T ('mid-Risk' Training Operation.)
Date of Play: Tues 23th –Thurs 25th April – 72 hours full.
Assigned Operative: Haruno Sakura
Control Operative: Hatake Kakashi

Briefing: Gather information on any shinobi of your choice – at or above Chuunin level.
Remain in visual contact with target for 72 hours.
Present all information relevant to the briefing to Control Operative upon return.
No Written Record may be kept. Abort if discovered at risk. Do not confer results.

PS: Back no later than Friday.
Two questions left, Sakura!

The bottom of the page was stamped and signed, oddly, with a heno-heno-moheji figure. Recognising the style from the jackets of his teacher's nin-dogs, Sasuke couldn't help but grin very slightly at the well-known pun. The insanity of his team-mates was comforting, and the Uchiha heir felt a familiar wave of gratitude that they would welcome him back so eagerly after all he'd done in the last three years.

Handing each folder to its owner, Sasuke and his team mates pored over each paper – looking for the pointed discrepancies that would signal a code or possible interpretation of the orders given. Naruto, oddly silent, carefully read every word.

Kakashi was very good at figuring people out, and they wouldn't have put it past the masked shinobi to have created a different task for each of them between the lines of the given brief. Aware of the 'no conferring' rule, the three shinobi remained in pointed silence, wary of being watched. There could be no team-work clause in this particular brief, as they were each assigned to choose different targets, and information was less reliable when collected in groups.

The only real differences between the documents had been the added postscript on Sakura's file, and – for some unfathomable reason – the words 'No written records' had been underlined on all but Naruto's documents. It could've just been that Kakashi had written the blonde's briefing (3 of 3) last, and so simply forgotten to re-check the formatting – but Kakashi was attentive to his mind-games in a way he attended to little else – and outside of a mission his students, perhaps wisely, did not trust the Copy Nin for a second.

For Hatake Kakashi's notorious three, the exercise was far more difficult than it had at first appeared. Subtlety, tracking and memory were the important focus areas for this particular assignment – and Kakashi's convenient exclusion of any definable brief meant they were basically expected to remember enough information about their targets to answer any questions the Copy Nin might chance to have upon his return. Knowing their teacher, and resigned to their luck; the students had no doubt the question would be a stupid one.

x

Uchiha Sasuke, craving the challenge, picked Jiraiya – assuming that his training by Orochimaru would fair the young shinobi well against such a formidable target. In the 72 hour time span, the Uchiha's position was compromised seven times. The most memorable case being on the second day, when Jiraiya had physically reached into the shinobi's hiding place – a nearby bush – to drag the boy out by the scruff of his neck. Performing an advanced Henge by instinct, Sasuke was shocked when Jiraiya merely scoffed before dropping the boy to the floor.

"Hmph. Typical. Only you would be arrogant enough to believe you could follow me around without notice. Have I taught you nothing?" Jiraiya looked down at Naruto's stunned form, carrying on before the brat could muster enough rage to recover from his shocked silence. "Did it even occur to you idiots that Tsunade would never agree to such a perverted exercise without a little persuasion from me? Huh?" Jiraiya manufactured a particularly obscene finger waggle as he briefly paused. "Poor Kakashi! Even after the Sannin themselves make you into wonderfully powerful shinobi, he stills ends up lumped with babysitting brats!"

And then, before Sasuke could remember that he was supposed to be acting like Naruto, Jiraiya had disappeared with only the lingering hint of sulphur to prove he'd ever been there.

The Uchiha reverted to his original form, still in shock. Had Kakashi-sensei really convinced the legendary Frog Hermit, the Sannin himself, to help justify a silly little training exercise? How could that be? The Jounin teachers were selected due to their efficiency in teaching the rules of the shinobi lifestyle. Being the tool of your village should not involve convincing your superior to act as your go-between for matters of such little significance to the Leaf. Sasuke bristled. How could Kakashi get away with that? Unless their Jounin Sensei was more than just a Jounin Sensei?

Sasuke got to feet and brushed himself off determinedly. Kakashi was losing his touch, according to the rumours, there was no way this kind of mission could be a difficult as it seemed. He just needed to figure out the loop hole. After all, Uchiha Sasuke would not lose to Uzumaki Naruto.

x

Haruno Sakura had better luck with her target.

She had, on the 30th hour, been reprimanded by Tsunade for following Shizune around so devotedly, but had managed to convince her instructor that shadowing Shizune was the perfect opportunity for the young medic to see how other methods of practising. Tsunade's secretive smile was pleased, proud - though discomforting, but Sakura's priority was to shadow her target, and she was wary of wasting her time.

Shizune, though adorable, was clueless. And, as Sakura's inner monologue so frequently supplied, incredibly boring! On the final day of her shadowing, Shizune was ambushed by several other high-level Konoichis and all but dragged to the tea shop opposite Ichiraku's. Listening to Anko-san and Kurenai-sensei gossip shamelessly (and heatedly) for almost four solid hours, Sakura began to wish she had chosen one of them. Never had this wish been so strong as, when Shizune finally parted with the other shinobi, their conversation turned to Kakashi, and the rumours surrounding him.

One interesting thing she had learned that day, and Sakura would be sure to report it to Ino-Pig later on, was that there had been very few simple missions lately. Only the essential or highly paid missions had been approved and in the last few weeks it had not become uncommon for shinobi of a more advanced rank to perform lower level missions. More recently, or so Sakura heard, pairs of shinobi had been sent on what should have been solo missions. And no-one had an answer for the reason so much ability was being put to waste.

Had it not been for the deep concern in the Jounins' expressions, Sakura would have waved it off.

x

Uzumaki Naruto was not good at subtlety. The ability to tread carefully, to think strategically anywhere outside the heat of battle totally evaded the blonde shinobi. Lucky then, that one of Naruto's greatest strengths was knowing a good thing when he saw it. During the three days of close surveillance, the Kyuubi vessel had been treated to twelve bowls of Ichiraku's finest ramen; two allowances into his target's own home; one opportunity to search through his target's cupboards; and endless chances to bitch about his lazy teacher. The most interesting of those opportunities had been on the last day of his mission, in the middle of his favourite sensei's classroom, leading to a comfortingly nostalgic, grade-A ear shattering, Scream Of Imminent Death.

When he wasn't in close range communication with his target, Naruto took the opportunity to gather as much photographic evidence as possible, using one of Jiraiya's cameras. The beauty, he decided, of having an unabashed super-pervert as one of his teachers, was the endless supply of high-speed, stealthy, flashless, noiseless surveillance equipment at his disposal. (However questionable Naruto's subtlety was, the young kitsune had an uncanny efficiency when it came to blackmail, and, much to the ire of his ero-sensei, many means by which to gain an audience with the Hokage.)

Naruto had checked the information on Kakashi's mission report with a rare sort of commitment, and nowhere did it imply that the target could not be contacted, or that photographic evidence was unacceptable. Naruto was careful to write nothing down, but it would've just been foolish to miss this obvious chance to be spoiled by Iruka-sensei.


That Saturday, already five hours late meeting his team, already aching after his walk in the stifling summer heat, Kakashi found himself at the monument. Again. Kakashi had lost many people in his life, precious or otherwise, and he was known by his friends and closest comrades to remember each of them daily.

They were wrong.

Of all the people Kakashi had ever lost, he only paid regular visits to four of them. He would visit Rin on anniversaries – her passing, her parents' passing, her birthday, White Day. He never stayed long, just long enough to play those last horrific moments of her life in his mind's imaginative eye. To remember the final promise she'd made to him, seeming so unnecessary now.

Yondaime, his sensei, he visited more often. Whenever he felt most keenly the absence of his teacher's guidance. Whenever Naruto began to lecture his team-mates about friendship, and Kakashi had to excuse himself hastily lest he pummel the poor blonde for daring to live up to their many forgotten expectations. Whenever the Copy Nin did something stupid, which was often. Whenever he did something to make his teacher proud, which happened much less.

Kakashi always spared a passing glance at Sandaime's name; the obligatory 'Yo, Old Man' often slipped from his masked lips. Kakashi enjoyed paying the Third Hokage his compliments; there was no pain to the old man's death which the Copy Nin felt the need to hide from. Just a calm love for his people, after a long, proud life.

Uchiha Obito was visited every day. Kakashi didn't do it for the guilt – though he did relive those horrible decisions each time he heard his comrade's name. Kakashi and Obito, however much they had argued, however vicious their rivalry, had been family. They had depended on one another the same way Naruto and Sasuke depended on each other now. The name calling, the sparring, the one-upmanship - everything was a testament to the complicated sense of brotherhood of the Uchiha Runt and the Hatake Brat.

Their total opposition in every aspect of their lives had forged a common, unshakeable bond, and Kakashi missed it desperately. Kakashi's orphaned isolation compared painfully to Obito's large, proud clan; Kakashi's discipline and refusal to care contrasted starkly to Obito's compassion and unwillingness to fight. Even their appearances complimented perfectly – covered eyes and dark hair to grey tufts and hidden face. See no evil, speak no evil. It was interesting then, that Rin had always been the one to listen.

Obito had not been perfect by any means, and Kakashi refused to slur his memory by idealising the loud, obnoxious, fearful boy; but he didn't stop mourning. Because to stop mourning would be to lay Obito to rest, and how could he lay to rest the very things that made him what he was today? Kakashi would not stop mourning, if only to remind himself of all he'd lost that hateful day (his friend; his rival; his conscience; his ever fading innocence; his blind confidence; his faith) and all that he had gained (compassion; belonging; power; trust; self-worth). Obito had given Kakashi many gifts, Kakashi strived to return the favour, by living up to that beloved idiot's dream for as long as he could – to be a shinobi who could succeed in both mission and compassion.

So Kakashi had to visit Obito, because he had to keep the boy alive. If he were to move on from that death so much of what he had become would be without foundation. Without foundation, Kakashi would crumble.

He smiled as he traced his fingers across countless beloved names.

His students were waiting.


Said students were waiting - impatiently - at their usual meeting spot. It had been five and a half long hours since their arranged meeting time, and they were extremely conscious of what it meant to be late back from a mission that no-one had really been informed about. Gradually, as the hours wore on, lunch time had edged closer, and now all three shinobi had grown restless.

"We should just leave. Go train or something!" Sakura's voice had grown much clearer since their childhood, stronger somehow.

"That bastard said he'd be back. I'm not moving until he shows up – the lazy idiot, making us wait! Torturing us with stupidly ambiguous missions and then being LATE! AGAIN!"

Naruto fumed as always, Sasuke grunted as always, Kakashi was late, as always – and Sakura simply leant forward on the railing of the bridge, watching as her sensei's masked face reflected in the ripples below, sending a familiar wave of – wait – what?

"Yo!" Kakashi had a mental list of favourite faces – he would spend hours trying to tease certain expressions from his acquaintances and friends – desperate to get a just a certain shade of mortification on Iruka's face; or a particular dreamy look of absolute perversion on Jiraiya's. Of the many expressions that they pulled daily, the best one his students had, Kakashi decided, was that exact mix of shock and fury on their cute little faces every single time he popped up unexpectedly. And they still didn't get it!

"YOU'RE LATE!" Was it him, or was Sakura's scream extra high pitched today?

"Sorry, I was in a deep trance, meditating the meaning of -"

"LIAR!"

"– compassion." Kakashi grinned, finishing his sentence with a flourish, and – the Copy Nin almost fell from his perch – Uchiha Sasuke smiled slightly in reply. Jumping down neatly, slouching as soon as his feet touch the ground, Kakashi nonchalantly held one hand to Sasuke's forehead.

"Hn. There seems to be no fever..." their teacher look deadly serious at the confused expressions on the faces surrounding him. "Don't smile, Sasuke. It's just freaky."

Naruto grinned brightly as Sasuke practically spluttered. Not waiting for their bickering match to start, Kakashi turned to the pink-haired medic. "You got your questions yet?"

"I think so sensei, give me a few days more."

Kakashi nodded, grinning, and Sakura felt that strange warmth that could only come from surpassing one of the Jounin's expectations. His reply was oddly respectful. "Take as long as you need, Sakura-chan."

Unable to fully suppress a yawn, Kakashi noted the quickly exchanged series of glance-and-nod between his students. The silent communication was an encouraging testament to their improving team mind set, but directed at their teacher, it was just plain disconcerting.

"How was your mission, Kakashi-Sensei?" Sasuke's voice was low, tone neutral, respectful. Against such enticement Kakashi couldn't help the sardonic laugh.

"Interesting, but classified. If you want any information you'll have to use a question…" Kakashi's sing-song tone ruffled Naruto, his brow creasing before his face broke into a fox-like grin. In fact, all three students' looked oddly relieved at his teasing, and Kakashi wondered if he truly had lost his touch.

Wait. Relieved? 'No way!'

"Maa… How to put this…" Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke leaned in. "You're all crazy; you all look guilty. What did you break while I was away?"

A huff of laughter from Sasuke. "Only our minds and dignity."

"Excellent, you must've got my note." Two agonised twitches told Kakashi he had put them back on edge, and the Copy Nin immediately felt far more in control. "Follow me."

Kakashi had already begun to stroll back towards the village proper, Sakura quickly catching up. After a few minutes the boys were circling their teacher as he moved, alternating between insults, accusations and questioning suggestions to their teacher, thrown quicker than even his Sharingan could easily dissect.

Infinitely amused, Kakashi walked on.


A full hour since the end of the meeting, and Tsunade sat on the floor next to Jiraiya in the conference room. Back against the wall, her blonde head resting on his broad shoulder, the Hokage let out a sigh.

"We're fucked, Jiji." They both stared off into some distance spot, betrayed by their own memories. "There's nothing else we can do."

"The kids who survived last time, they won't like this. Not at all." Jiraiya's voice was searching. "Maybe they need to have a say in this."

"You mean Kakashi, don't you? Ibiki? Kids like that…" Another heavy sigh. "You're right of course, they lived through it, and if nothing else they might remember a few modifications to better exercise the strategy."

"You sound like Sandaime-sensei." Jiraiya sounded amused, fond. That sweet tone of voice Tsunade had never really registered as a young shinobi, but was coming to depend upon.

"Do you think…Do you think it'll be as bad as last time? Do you think the kids'll be alright?" Tsunade didn't bother to hide her distress, not from her oldest friend. This perverted man who somehow knew her best.

"You sound like Yondaime-gaki." Jiraiya smiled nostalgically, resting his cheek against her hair. "If we protect them, they'll be just fine. Trust me."

"I trust you, Old Man."


Eventually, Kakashi stopped outside a quiet little café, slumping gratefully onto one of the soft chairs surrounding the outside tables. Suppressing a relieved sigh – he didn't realise how much merely walking would take out of him so soon after his mission – Kakashi gestured to his brats to sit also. They did. Though warily.

A few minutes silence had all three shifting uncomfortably - they had never been so obviously under the scrutiny of their sensei outside of the training grounds – and Kakashi made the most of ordering tea for them all and one of the café's special desserts, asking the waiter to take his time.

"Well, what have you got for me?"

The Copy Nin struggled to keep an impassive look on his masked face, though his team no doubt knew how much joy he'd taken from getting that particular assignment agreed to. As he forced them to go through – in great detail – the issues they'd faced in shadowing their targets, the reasons they'd chosen who they had, the students had been surprised when the obvious amusement at their expense had turned slowly into a contemplative look usually reserved for his missions.

After hearing each of their methods – and mentally grading them, as ever – it was clear that in terms of style and ability Sasuke was more suited to shadowing work. Naruto's infiltration, however, seemed superb.

"Hmm. I don't recall giving you a detailed briefing…" Kakashi narrowed his visible eye. "What was your target wearing and doing at 9am Wednesday morning?"

It took several seconds for the question to fully register, and Kakashi got that furious look again. As even Sasuke's face visibly fell, Kakashi, smirking began to explain his point

"When shadowing or gathering information, you must fully understand your brief." Kakashi's rarely used 'Shinobi-Tone' cut through the devastated silence "If you have any insecurity regarding the evidence you need to find, the results can be disastrous. Without a focal point, the mission is pointless unless you know how to cover your bases. The only way to expose yourself to everything is to live in your target's pocket. You don't have to keep a distance to be a convincing shadow. Can any of you answer my question?"

Naruto's eyes lit up, and he dug around in his pockets for several moments before pulling out a wad of photographs. Kakashi didn't bother to train his shocked expression.

"What's this?" Kakashi started flicking through the images. Iruka walking, Iruka eating, Iruka cleaning, Iruka sleeping, Iruka teaching, Iruka yelling, Iruka blushing, Iruka marking papers, Iruka reading, Iruka opening a drawer… Kakashi caught his breath slightly.

"You said we couldn't write anything down, but I didn't want to forget anything, so I took photos!"

"Dobe! Who said you could take photos!" Sasuke's scolding hiss jolted Kakashi from his thoughts.

"Bastard! Nobody said that I couldn't!" Naruto's offended hiss was more of shout.

"Naruto, Sasuke, shut up." They quietened immediately and the waiter finally returned with four cups of spicy tea and an enormous bowl of sweet fruits and ice cream. Kakashi thanked the waiter and turned back to his students, mouths now slightly watering at the sight of the luscious dessert. "My brief was very precise, Sasuke. Although you performed admirably, you shouldn't jump in so quickly. Jiraiya-sama thought your impression of Naruto was an excellent touch." The Uchiha heir had the decency to look mollified.

"Sakura, your justification to Tsunade-sama was flawless, but you should be more subtle. Kurenai-sensei noticed you at the café, perhaps it would've been more convincing if you'd roped some more friends in? Don't be above using what's in front of you." Sakura looked pleased, if confused slightly.

"Naruto, congratulations. You passed this exercise most efficiently. You are aware enough of your weaknesses to work around them; however I want you to work on your stealth abilities. Your luck may one day run out, and all you'll be left with is your skill." Kakashi's pleased smirk soothed away Naruto's automatic bristle at the jibe; he was soothed further still as Kakashi pushed the incredible ice-cream in his direction.

"Drink your tea." Kakashi ignored their gaping faces as he pulled a tattered copy of Come Come Paradise from a pocket. "It'll fend off this heat."


Two days later, Kakashi was standing amongst a collective of his oldest comrades. Each shinobi in the room had been devastated by the Third Secret War – meaning that they had fought in and survived it. Morino Ibiki inched his way across the room to the Copy Nin, and leant in conspiratorially. Kakashi was amused to notice many other ninja operatives acting the same.

"Makes me feel very strange, being without my subordinates." The scarred interrogation expert whispered.

"Mmm. And without the rest of the Elite. It's easy to forget that we were so young." Kakashi felt strangely on edge without the comforting companionship of his team-mates, most of whom had barely been Gennin graduates while he was fighting as a Jounin shinobi in the war with Stone. Ibiki shook his head in disbelief, not bothering to pretend he hadn't also noticed the common link of each ninja there.

"Idiot, you were the only Jounin of our age. The bar may have been lowered to bring soldiers through, but you forget your youth, Hatake. I hadn't even made Chuunin when they pulled me in, I can't think why I'd be here at all, apart from - " All the shinobi hushed as two of the legendary Sannin entered the room. If it had not been for the tense look on their leader's face, Ibiki would've carried on.

"Shinobi of Konoha, you have been gathered here for a specific reason, as you have no doubt begun to work out." Tsunade paused, taking a deep breath. The shinobi in the room tensed.

"I won't bother to hide from you the gravity of the situation. We are close to war. Many of you are aware of the series of threats and ambushes gradually escalating in these past months. Konohagure has since received open declarations of war. We wish to avoid open combat for as long as possible. As successful field-operatives of the Third Secret War, we ask each of you to take a copy of this file -" The Godaime Hokage held up a thick folder. "- containing the brief and proposed strategy. I urge each of you to make any amendments you feel are appropriate, and return the signed, amended copy back to me as soon as is possible."

The silence of the room was hot. Kakashi felt his mouth dry in something akin to resignation, wondering how this threat could be compared to the war that had ripped so much of his life away from him during his teenage years. Perhaps that was the point, he thought, to bring these injured soldiers together, to make them relive their regrets in the hopes to avoid making the same mistakes again. Whatever the reason, it was a brilliantly effective strategy. The nervous, breathless heat hardened. The shinobi in this room had been chosen for their strong survival instincts. They would perfect this strategy, whatever it was.

"That is all shinobi. You are dismissed."


END CHAPTER 4!

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Nezuko: Firstly: I'm SO SORRY! I swear if I get anywhere NEAR your ideas, tell me and I'll stop writing forever, your stories are too too addictive for one mangled plot bunny to steal them away, .… secondly, for your comments: Thank you so much, and as far as the mutual appreciation goes, I bow at your pretty yet kinda evil feet XD

Terra-lilly: thank you! I was worried about the chapter length, I can't seem to find places to cut, everything's so intertwined. Glad you're enjoying it!

Hey-Diddle-Diddle: XD cheers! It's always nice to have a scapegoat 3

Isolde1: There might not be Tsunade punching any time soon, but there's something on the horizon…

Paxnirvana: I have it bad for ANBU, but I also have a thing for grit –thus, gritty ANBU. And I think I've ranted enough about Jiraiya and the goodness there of. Thank you so much for your comments and pointers - hope this didn't disappoint!

Irukasensei22: thank you! I find so many of the characters really interesting. Can't help but think how much more screwed up they'd be if it was an adult-oriented show… Can't help but play with that, really!

Celestral Moon: lol, no hints needed. It may not be perfect, but it's definitely veering that way. Friendship is such a useful tool….

Sna: what can I say? Firstly, thank you so much for giving my story a chance despite the yaoi – if it's any consolation, if this has anything graphic at all – be it yaoi or het - it will be for a purpose. Heehee, what you mention about Kakashi's views… that'll be explained eventually, maybe. But probably not now that I know it's been noticed! Thanks a lot! XD (I just wanted to mention, your story 'Delicate' partly inspired one of the more intense (at least I hope so) sections coming in a few chapters or so… I wanted to mention it and thank you, although I read that fiction a while ago, it was really impressive on how I view Kakashi now!)

DarkLadyErisa: Thank you so much for your comments! When I started reading the series, I thought "Heh, Naruto's teacher's only twenty-six. Hot." Then I started thinking "Holy shit, Naruto's teacher's only twenty-six." As for the breaking… I promise nothing. XD

Thanks also to Shake-it-buddy, Iceheart19, Blue tajiri, KoHakuuRiver, eyes0nme19