Notes: Outside of my window, there's a huge bush with a blackbird nest. But it's more like a blackbird commune. There are about three separate nests and they've ALL had a busy spring. Today, a magpie got into the bush, and every single blackbird there went all crazy-like. No one got the chidori joke. sigh

The time jumps around a lot, though I've tried to make it as clear as possible. Please let me know if it's too vague, I'll date each part or something XD!
Also, at least part of this is for WinterOfOurDiscontent, who made me want to know more about the album as well! XD

Thank you so much for all the kind reviews! And thanks to everyone reading! As usual, Criticism welcome, thanks are below!

(Also, because I'm shameless, I wrote a sort of companion piece for chapter 7, called 'shell shock.' The only reason it wasn't included in the chapter itself was because of the angst overload. It doesn't have any relation to the main plot of this fic, so there's no need to read it, but I thought I'd pimp it anyway! lol XD!)

Tuesday, for Iruka's pre-Gennin classes, was Weapon's Training. It was, generally speaking, Early enough in the week for his students to still be lethargically mourning their last weekend, but not late enough for them to be looking forward to the next one. Put simply, Iruka felt that Tuesday was the only safe day to give his students sharp objects and expect to come away with only the standard number of orifices – because on a Tuesday, the horrid little brats weren't hyper enough to give serious thought to murdering one another for the fun of it. (He had learned well from Hyuuga Neji's graduating class.)

Umino Iruka had been a pre-Gennin teacher for quite a few years now, though, and his main success in teaching his kids was that he never underestimated them.

He'd been one once, after all.

Another advantage of holding Weapons Training on a Tuesday was that it gave him an extra day to mark the previous day's homework. Iruka worked his students hard; half to drill them into efficiency, half to exhaust them into forgetting the grades they were owed. By the end of the year, the likely graduates should have picked up on the ploy, and begun to question their sensei.

Tuesday the 14th had been one of the best practises this year's group had taken part in. The aim, accuracy and power of even the youngest students' throws had improved steadily over the year, leaving Iruka with high hopes for this year's end exams. It was almost a shame the quality of their written work hadn't grown quite as steadily!

Iruka was so lost in his scrutiny of one boy's atrocious handwriting, that he didn't notice the rapping on his front door until the lock physically clicked open, startling Iruka into a defensive stance.

"Yo, Iruka?" the voice of a certain Jounin sang across the hallway, making Iruka smile to himself as he sat back down. "Are you there?"

"In the main room!" he called out.

Kakashi, Iruka had come to realise in the years of their friendship turned whatever-you'd-call-this-now, was painfully shy. No. Perhaps that was the wrong word for it. He was… careful.

His every action screamed control – the effortlessly graceful slouch, the expression of absolute indifference. Naruto could be dancing naked in front of his Jounin sensei – Sasuke could be dancing naked in front of his Jounin sensei – and the most they'd probably get would be a raised eyebrow. He was careful with his reactions, as well. In Iruka's new, tentative exploration of the Copy Nin he had often found that Kakashi would not speak while being touched, didn't like to be petted or held or soothed like a normal person. Even the few times Iruka had seen the older shinobi in a rage, Iruka's comforting hand or worried touch would do nothing to calm the other man, one time it had almost made it worse.

Kakashi's words were obsessively careful - unless he was moved to arrogance, the last stage in Kakashi's defence mechanisms before he'd just disappear on you completely. The only time Iruka had heard Kakashi use the word home, for instance, had been when referring to lost shinobi returning to Konoha. The only time he'd heard him say "I'm afraid" was as the precursor to another implausible lie.

I'm afraid I'm unable to return your book, sensei. I had to use it to fend off a giant whale.

Of course, a week later, he'd finally seen Naruto, fresh from their mission to Snow Country – and he'd learned about Kakashi's new 'summon-a-huge-giant-whale' ninjutsu, as described by Naruto. Iruka had known that the lie was still a lie, but he wondered how much Kakashi had really been telling him.

"Yo," Iruka was pulled from his thoughts by Kakashi's low voice in front of him. "You're light was on…"

Iruka smiled up at the Jounin, looked cheekily at his watch. Seven pm. "Let me guess – you're after my cooking?"

"Hm? No, actually. Just company. I spent the day finding interesting ways to skip an ANBU meeting. I forgot how eventful those things can be." Iruka grinned at Kakashi's light tone of voice, seeing a story in there somewhere.

"Any gossip is good gossip…" Iruka stood to tug Kakashi's mask down, glad when the man didn't pull away.

"Mm…I shouldn't stay too long...I have to think of a way to torture the brats tomorrow." The hint was clear, and Iruka was pleased to find himself only slightly distracted by that pretty pout.

"Ah, fine. Put the kettle on while I finish this marking and then I'll help you torture your students!"

A small, almost triumphant smirk crossed the Jounin's face as Kakashi made his way to the kitchen. Iruka could hear the other man pottering about, seemingly searching his cupboards – nosy bastard - and was comforted by the small noises drifting through the parting. Once or twice, Iruka heard a sigh, or a heavy whump as Kakashi flopped down onto a chair.

The sounds were strange coming from the graceful Jounin, but Iruka had heard from a couple of shinobi that this week had been a bad one for his friend – an anniversary of a friend's death that would probably only drag on the trauma of those last horrid missions the man had been on. Iruka hardly expected Kakashi to be some bright and dauntless ray of sunshine, so didn't think anything of the almost out-of-sync behaviour – like that beautiful, needy pitch to his greeting as he had walked through the door.

After a while, a stream of pained curses drifted through the small parting of the two rooms, and Iruka walked slowly into his kitchen, bemused and, at first, only a little concerned. Kakashi was slumped on a chair - with hands, like claws, shaking in his lap, the kettle lying on its side on the floor, hot water seeping out of it – if that sight shocked Iruka, not even he realised it.

Iruka quickly wiped the boiling liquid from the floor, dumping the kettle on the side before dragging Kakashi up swiftly, running his gloved hands under cold water until the sink filled. Pushing those shaking hands beneath the water – holding them down as the Copy Nin pulled at them by instinct, gasping at the shock of cold – Iruka peeled back the gloves to ensure the skin was soothed fully.

"It's so cold…" Kakashi gasped, leaning into Iruka's body, reminding him fearfully of the lost, exhausted Kakashi of weeks ago.

"Fucking idiot," mumbled the Chuunin fondly, burying his nose into the Copy Nin's exposed temple, kissing him. "What are you like?"

Kakashi turned his head, catching Iruka's lips with his own, shutting the Chuunin up, shutting himself off. Kakashi didn't like to be touched and teased all at once, but Iruka knew he needed it. If only to hold him here, in some sense of normality.

Kakashi grew gradually more needy, more insistent, harder, bolder, hotter - at some point, the two shinobi made it to the bed – all teeth and tongues and soft and – cold, numb fingers tingling painfully as they ran down an arching spine – making both men gasp.

At some point, Iruka remembered what it had been like to mourn.

Nobody had seen the Copy Nin for three days before his team-mates began to question it. Gai had explained, in part, what Kakashi had been like on the anniversary of Rin's death, only five days prior, and it had been pretty much expected that the shinobi would want some space. Hatake Kakashi, while the rest of the Elite Jounin considered him one of their own, had always been a loner. In terms of experience, he all but outranked them; in terms of what he'd done and seen, he pretty much outranked them; in terms of his own insanity, he outranked them. They loved him like a brother (if a scarily efficient, completely bat-shit, eternally frustrating, sort of brother); but that didn't mean they had to get him.

Eventually, rumours of shaking hands and ANBU missions and inherited insanity caught Jiraiya's finely tuned ears, and he decided to put a stop to it. He met their vicious rumours with one of his own, and soon, the gossip vine was buzzing again.

Kakashi's losing his touch, you know? Jiraiya-sama's been training him!
THAT pervert?
Oh yeah!

Jiraiya had looked everywhere, checked every gate, every guard, every file, every recent record. He was shocked to finally find Kakashi, on Sunday morning, curled up helplessly in his small apartment.

The door had been unlocked, though an enormous bulldog had slumped against it, guarding its master. Kakashi had a better relationship with his summons than almost any ninja the Toad Hermit knew. His eight trained dogs were effortlessly brilliant, aware of their skills and what was expected of them – and so long as Kakashi occasionally gave them some pointless affection, each of them would gladly give their lives for their masked master.

What Jiraiya hadn't expected, aside from those eight, trained nin-dogs, were the couple of dozen other canine summons that packed Kakashi's tiny apartment. Pakkun, of course, had pride of place on Kakashi's pillow, large wet nose against the Copy Nin's shivering temple. A couple of large, white wolf-hounds nudged lovingly at their master's quilt-covered form.

Jiraiya, moving carefully over the dogs littering the entire floor, accidentally stepped on a small dog's unnaturally long tail and was startled at the pained yelp. Anxious not to offend, Jiraiya quickly bent to scritch apologetically behind the sniffling puppy's ear. Though some of the dogs looked up, not a single one made a move or sound towards him; the Sannin briefly wondered if they would even move without their broken master's command. Pakkun's huge, mournful eyes narrowed as he surveyed Jiraiya, and he crawled slowly across Kakashi to stand at the end of the bed. Another dog – wearing sunglasses – eagerly leapt up to Pakkun's vacated spot nearer to their master.

"What do you want?" Pakkun sounded fiercer than Jiraiya had ever heard him.

"To make sure he's alright. That's all." The Toad Hermit made his voice as soothing as possible, maintaining eye contact as his own summons liked, not realising how this would agitate the pug.

"You're not supposed to be here."

At the words, Pakkun's tail flew between his legs– and every dog in the room stood, growling. The crescendo of noise made the hairs rise on the back of Jiraiya's neck, made Kakashi toss restlessly in his child-like slumber. As the huge pack of dogs, teeth bared, hackles raised, began to prowl menacingly towards Jiraiya, the Sannin gave up trying to play nice.

He flew through a small series of hand seals and stamped twice on the wooden floor, smirking at nothing as the dogs vanished.

Jiraiya contemplated what he could possibly do next. He'd never seen the brat break, though he been aware of it once or twice over the years. Kakashi would drag himself through his grief until everyone around him thought he would snap, then disappear for a few days – appearing later, tired, a little easily confused, but stronger than before. Fearless again.

The old man sat on Kakashi's bed, trying to ignore the slight acidic smell of urine clinging to the sheets. He ran an insistent finger over the Jounin's tear-tracked cheeks, over his brow, trying to smooth away the deep creases with a gentle pad. Kakashi whimpered, close to waking, and Jiraiya dug a soothing hand through sweaty silver hair until the boy's restless noises ceased.

Jiraiya pulled the covers from Kakashi's form, intending to clean him up and get him somewhere a little less depressing, but was stopped by a thick book clutched against the kid's chest. Jiraiya tugged at it, taking a grasping hand in his own when Kakashi began to whine again, and rested the book on his lap as he opened it. As soon as he'd read the inscription he'd realised what must've happened.

Sandaime,Jiraiya sent up a silent prayer. What were you thinking of?

Jiraiya flicked through the album – smiling fondly every now and then, as a wave of nostalgia made him squeeze a little at Kakashi's hand.

But, just look at this picture! (A young Kakashi – a tiny Kakashi – drowning in an enormous Chuunin vest – Yondaime biting his lip to keep from laughing at the poor boy's sour expression as he struggled to see past the green collar.)

There was this picture: (where Obito and Kakashi were both grinning, for once, though guiltily – the small stain on Obito's goggles the only clue that they were the reason for their sensei's odd green colouration. All because an eleven year old Kakashi had been injured in battle and Obito had insisted on cheering his team-mate up – spurning on a wave of pranks that had put the Yellow Flash's own streak of mischief to shame.)

Oh, or this one: (Wherein the Yellow Flash was literally holding his nine year old students off the ground by the scruffs of their necks while Rin looked on, laughing freely at their young, furious expressions.)

Jiraiya could remember taking a few of these himself, and wondered who'd been around to take the others. The later ones, of just Yondaime, Kakashi and Rin had probably been taken by his student's fiancée (and oh, how Jiraiya had teased him when he'd finally settled down!), and the few pictures of the couple had obviously been taken by Kakashi – who was the only shinobi he knew that could make pictures of benches look like pornography.

The Yellow Flash had spent his last few nights making the album; Jiraiya could remember him dutifully looking through stacks of images, looking for something that Jiraiya couldn't see. Some spark of contentment within Obito's black eyes. Some defiant fury in Rin's to get them all through. As if he'd known all along.

Knowing the Fourth, he probably had done.

On the last night, after Kakashi had fallen asleep in Yondaime's lap and Jiraiya had stepped gratefully out of the shadows with a whispered 'I thought he'd stay awake all night' his student had told him where he'd hidden the album, 'Bottom left drawer in the desk, sensei, don't let the Professor forget!' and made him promise that Kakashi would get it. He'd promised; because Yondaime trusted his sensei as much as Jiraiya trusted his; so when Sandaime had said 'Kakashi isn't ready yet.' Jiraiya had figured it was fine to just leave it in the old man's hands.

But what should have been a gentle reminder of the good times had simply turned into a slap in the face.

Jiraiya put the album on the windowsill, next to the two framed pictures that gave so much of the Copy Nin away, before gathering the sleeping shinobi in his arms and transporting them both to his apartment near the Hokage's tower.

Thursday rolled around far too quickly for Shikamaru, he met his sensei at their normal spot and they walked in a tense sort of silence to the ANBU headquarters. They passed Naruto, looking pale and strained despite the beautiful weather - clutching what appeared to be a white book. Asuma wondered aloud what the blonde was up to – why he wasn't training already – and Shikamaru explained away Hatake's chronic laziness.

To his shock, Asuma began to laugh. "He's still late!" The man lit up a cigarette, the white stick bobbing up and down as he spoke. "Kakashi only does that to keep people on their guard – don't tell me he's made a routine of it?"

Shikamaru – too tense about his own dramas to worry about anyone else's – merely nodded as Asuma carried on.

"Just wait till I tell Kurenai!" The low chuckle should have picked up Shikamaru's interest, and on any other day it would have, but they had reached the small but intimidating two level building (two levels above ground, but no-one knew how many more beneath it), and Shikamaru waited anxiously for his teacher to finish that endless nicotine fix.

Eventually, an ANBU in an owl mask poked his head out of an upstairs window of the compound, spotted them, and leapt to the ground with a deadly grace. Asuma stubbed out his cigarette and bowed respectfully.

"Nara-san. Thanks for coming today. Please follow me." The ANBU stepped into the building, and Shikamaru was relieved to feel Asuma's hand on his shoulder, steadying him. Logically, Shikamaru knew that he was in good hands – Konoha's own wouldn't hurt him in any way – but the thought didn't soothe his nerves as he'd hoped.

The ANBU led him to a small room, bare but for a single oak table and half a dozen comfortable chairs. Shikamaru appraised the room. Interviews and Interrogation room, probably. Put the victim at ease and then bring on the trauma.

Shikamaru sat nervously on a seat next to Asuma as five ANBU operatives marched silently through the door, three of them sitting opposite the two normal shinobi, the other two flanking the door.

"Nara-san, my apologies, the ANBU Locust cannot be with us to take this meeting today," A kunoichi with a Cat mask began. Why did he always get the women? Nothing but trouble. "So I shall be performing the recruitment in his place."

Asuma's eyebrow raised, his tapped a cigarette dauntingly on the arm of his chair – Shikamaru recognised the nervous gesture.

"Recruitment, ANBU-sama?" Shikamaru felt the scrutiny of the ANBU operatives.

"Please don't flatter us by playing dumb, Nara-san. We are aware of your perceptive abilities." The ANBU Cat tossed a file to the Chuunin. "In that file is a brief outline of the duties we wish for you to perform. We are not asking you to become a field active ANBU member - that is above your present capabilities. We need shinobi of your quick thinking and intelligence working in our favour, Nara-san."

Shikamaru flicked through the pages – his eyes caught the extensive recommendations in his favour. Every one of Asuma's elite team had nominated him, - 'including Hatake-sama!' – as had his pre-Gennin teacher, Umino Iruka. He didn't miss the enormous back-handed compliment.

"We wish for you to act as a strategist, in the long run." The Cat continued. "For now we would like to take you through the advanced strategic training, military strategic training, and further your abilities in the Blind Ops department. You do not have to take a position with us at the end of this course, and at any time may quit the training; the ANBU is very flexible in that regard. However, we ask that you read that file through and decide if you'd like to give our training program a try. If nothing else, any new skill to a shinobi may be valuable. Any questions?"

Shikamaru, lost for words, shook his head.

"Cool. Take that away with you, then. When you've made up your mind let us know, and we'll discuss wages. Forgive the quick exit, but we have other things…" As one the ANBU rose abruptly to their feet, bowed, and disappeared.

Asuma smirked at a dumbstruck Shikamaru, who stood up shakily, clutching the file. "Well…" he breathed. "How troublesome."

The Jounin merely laughed at his student's slow, excited drawl. Wait till I tell Kurenai!

Kakashi finally woke to a light weight resting on his head and the scratching sound of a pen hitting paper. It took him a long while to orient himself, eventually looking up at Jiraiya's face in absolute confusion. He was lying on his side in a huge, soft bed; thick red covers tucked around his body. Jiraiya was sitting up, leaning against the broad headboard, his right hand scribbling in the notepad on his lap while his left lay gently, paternally, in the Jounin's grey hair. Kakashi was lying flush against the old man's leg, one hand clutching at the thick material of his trousers, his forehead securely against a strong hipbone.

To be in such a position with anyone else would have mortified Kakashi; as it was the Copy Nin was just far too comfortable to move. The heavy pressure in his chest was gone, he felt freer than he had in a long time, emotionally drained and dazed – something had come undone deep inside his gut, almost, and without the spur of restless tension Kakashi was loathe to do anything beyond wriggling back down to sleep.

Jiraiya glanced down quickly, raising a fond eyebrow at Kakashi's sleepy expression before chuckling and turning back to his writing. "Feeling better, brat?"

Kakashi just hummed in contented agreement, aware that he should probably give the older shinobi some polite space but unable to make himself pull away from the comforting heat radiating from the man.

"Good. You won't be put on field duty for a few weeks. From Wednesday morning, you're mine to train." Kakashi hummed again, the words not sinking in through his boneless state. Jiraiya leered at nothing, rustling the paper he'd been scribbling on. "Want a bed-time story?"

Kakashi's eyes lit up slightly, as he grinned sleepily. "S'kinky?" he asked hopefully.

"Totally. It's only a draft…" Jiraiya's rich, dirty laugh soothed whatever little of Kakashi's nerves still frayed, and he fell asleep to one of the dirtiest scenes he'd ever heard read aloud.

Saturday the 18th marked the third day of Kakashi's disappearance. Naruto was shaking with the force of the gossip he had spent three days loyally suppressing.

Strolling casually along Konoha's peaceful (pre-dawn) streets, Sasuke couldn't help but wonder why they hadn't taken the day as a chance to lay in. Was Team 7 really so dedicated to their duties as shinobi, that despite the lack of missions, the lack of sensei and the lack of training ideas, they would still meet up in the pre-dawn hours, just because they were so often told to?

Or did they just want the familiar company?

Sasuke couldn't stop thinking of Kakashi's words. Couldn't stop wondering if, since he had thrown it all away once before, he could really trust the friendship and loyalty offered to him. He wasn't sure if he deserved it.

Alright. Sasuke shook his head. So I know I don't deserve it!

But then there was Naruto; acting like a complete idiot and making a show of everything he did, dragging everyone he came in contact with through a huge pile of embarrassment, drama and general crap, and still stupidly fucking powerful on top of that, and still there. Ready to stand up for Sasuke without a moment's hesitation; ready to defend the boy that had betrayed him, because in Naruto's world, that's just what you did.

Sasuke hadn't given up on his vengeance, he couldn't. He needed it like he needed air to breathe. It was just that there were more important things, sometimes; like getting through the day. Or the adrenaline rush of flooring Kakashi when the Jounin wasn't expecting it. Or the necessary beating when they realised that he'd been expecting it the whole time but let them make the contact anyway. Sakura - so much older now - often just looked on and laughed. Or gave as good as either of the boys.

And Sakura was theirs, wasn't she? Sasuke would never want her the way she wanted him - or used to, he wasn't so sure about that anymore – and she'd never want Naruto the way the blonde idiot wanted her too – or did he? Sasuke wasn't sure of that, either, anymore. But they were a team.

Naruto had called them best friends, and with a terrific jolt, Sasuke realised that they were more like family.

"I can't take it anymore!" Naruto's wail sent the birds from the trees, and Sakura barely managed to dodge what seemed to be a lamp, flung in their general direction by an irate villager.

Of course, not all families had to get along – and as Naruto's jittering silence finally cracked, the thought was all that kept Sasuke from murdering the blonde.

"Something's wrong with Kakashi-sensei!" wailed Konoha's most surprising shinobi.

Sakura and Sasuke – not yet entirely awake– stared silently at a panting Naruto.

"Idiot." The Uchiha finally turned around; hands thrust deeply in his pockets – unconsciously emulating their sensei – and sauntered towards one of the inner-village training fields. "We should work on our taijutsu."

"Listen to me you bastard!" Sakura watched, amused, as her boys bickered pointlessly, Sasuke already brushing off whatever Naruto felt the need to say. He was blabbering something about an album and Konohamaru and Kakashi acting strangely, disappearing agitatedly and then not showing up - and the blonde's team-mates continued their slow progression to the training fields.

They had already begun to warm up when Naruto, as a last resort, pulled a crumpled picture from a pocket on his shoulder. He thrust it into their faces. "Look familiar?"

The picture showed a young Yondaime, handsome and smiling widely from his reclining position on the branch of a tree. A pretty brunette, wearing one of the old medic aprons, sat cross legged next to her sensei, grinning cheerfully and flashing a victory sign. Between the two seated shinobi, hung the dark head of an Uchiha that Sasuke didn't recognise – standing upside down on the branch above, waving to the camera. His bright grin seemed competitive, and although his focus was on the camera, his goggled eyes seemed to peer towards the other boy in the photograph, a young Hatake Kakashi. He was crouched on the trunk of the tree, fingers of one hand lightly brushing the bark, his head dangling sideways next to Yondaime's. Mature, slate grey eyes peered intensely into the camera, while the unruly tufts of grey hair made him seem incredibly young.

They stared at the photo for a long time. Naruto told his story again, less frustrated this time, now that his team-mates were paying attention. He finished his story uncertainly, concerned.

"Do you think Kakashi-sensei's alright?" Sasuke hadn't realised Naruto cared so much. About all of them. That small voice gave everything away.

"He's strong." Sakura said, uncertainly. "He's not about to just…"

"Sasuke's strong." Naruto didn't bother mincing his growled words. "He still managed to go psychotic on us!"

"Naruto!" Her hand came up to hit the blonde – more out of habit than any real malice – until Sasuke stopped her.

"No, he's right." Sasuke sighed deeply. "But Kakashi-sensei is… he wouldn't that to us. He wouldn't break on us, like I did."

Naruto flopped down moodily onto the grass of the training field, pulling great fistfuls of mud and weeds up his frustrated anxiety. "You didn't see his face."

Sasuke smirked, crouching down comfortably. "Idiot. We never see his face."

A long silence followed, the familiar joke just not comforting them in this new contemplation. Finally, Sasuke spoke again. "He tried to stop me from leaving. That first time." Naruto and Sakura looked up in shock. "He - well. He said a lot, and I was just so childish, and he… he told me that everyone he cared about was dead."

The three of them looked down at the picture again, a team just like their own, maybe. At least, they imagined it that way. "You don't think he still believes that, though?" Naruto's voice wasn't hollow, it was familiar.

"He wouldn't have told Sasuke-kun about that, he wouldn't let us know about his past unless he cared about us. Remember the bell test? The first one? He would never tell us a thing!" Sakura's voice was soft before giving a helpless laugh.

"Ramen?" the pink haired kunoichi asked, changing the subject. "We could go gossip hunting, instead of sitting here doing nothing?"

"Ramen!" Naruto tore from the field, training forgotten at the prospect of his wonder food. Sasuke thoughtfully pocketed the photograph, before strolling after his team.

On Monday night - out of the blue - a light rapping at Namiashi Raidou's window brought two sleeping Jounin to immediate alertness. The ANBU crouching, spider-like on the window-pane, waved in greeting, before leaping to the ground below.

Shiranui Genma stuck his bed head out of the window to see a group of at least twenty ANBU operatives standing casually in the middle of the street, as if it were normal to see so many so exposed.

"Oh fuck." He sank back onto the bed, stunned for fearful second, before getting up to pull his crisp, fresh ANBU uniform onto his body.

"Is it bad? If they're so many?" Raidou tried to mask his worry, couldn't quite manage it, not after last Wednesday morning, when a distinctly ruffled looking Kakashi had wordlessly handed over a wad of scribbled notes from their deserted ANBU meeting. Genma had thanked Kakashi calmly, waiting until the younger Jounin left to do whatever it was he did before turning to Raidou and desperately explaining the previous day's horrid grief. Poor Ibiki.

"Nah." Genma voice was strong, though still failed to completely mask his concern. "The more of us there are to kill, the more chance I'll come home!" Genma grinned at Raidou's exasperated expression, quickly finishing securing his arm shield before dragging the older man into a deep kiss.

Another tap to their window, slightly more insistent, made them aware of their grasping embrace, broke them apart.

Genma leapt gracefully onto the street, Bear (though how it resembled a bear Genma would never understand) Mask in place, nodding a greeting to his own ANBU graduate lot, bowing slightly to the older, more experienced ANBU – and fuck but there were a lot of them.

"So sorry to have interrupted, ANBU-san." The Hound's low voice sung through the porcelain, receiving an amused inclination of heads from several of the older ANBU.

"Y'know, I don't think I'm ever going to get used to that!" Genma gestured to their tilted heads, receiving a genuine laugh from a few of them.

"Do you remember the guy that quit because of it?" A violet haired kunoichi spoke to the Hound. The chuckle ran through the team.

"Silence." The Locust's strong voice ran through the assembly. "We're running on a timeframe." Genma sighed slightly in relief at the familiar capability of Ibiki – he had worried that these supposed 'break patterns' an ANBU was supposed to cultivate would cause more harm than good, but here was the end result, and it was as intimidating as ever.

The experienced shinobi each grabbed a newbie by the arm, and all twenty ANBU members transported as one to a deserted field, packed with scarecrows. The four new recruits formed a line opposite the more experienced ANBU.

"Those of you that are new to our ranks, take note of the shinobi standing before you. These will be your team-mates until you are ready for solo missions." The foolish excitement of the recruit next to Genma gave away how young and inexperienced he probably was. The Locust continued. "You may be paired with any one of these ANBU operatives in the next few weeks, learn to adapt to the working styles of each. If you can not adapt, you will die."

Genma shuddered slightly. He was good at adapting, so in theory, he'd be fine. He'd worked with Kakashi and Ibiki, so if they adhered to their usual methods he'd even have a heads up on his fellow newbies; he didn't count on it though, knowing the awkward bastards like he did. Ibiki was already continuing his speech.

"As much as we hate to just jump right in, we have called you all here for an important mission. It will take all of our skill and experience -"

"Not so much your experience." Genma wasn't sure which shinobi had said it, but he was shocked to see Ibiki let the comment slide.

"– in order to successfully accomplish our task." He paused for effect. The ANBU Hound crouched down beside him – a ferocious pet at heel – resting on a fist. "There are a series of objects in our own headquarters that should not be there. It is possible that the enemy is using our own security devises to monitor its own back, therefore we must avoid them.

"Our mission is to covertly infiltrate our base and flush out the issue as quickly as possible. This is a High Risk mission, meaning that, if we fail, we run serious risk to our organisation and our village. If we are caught we run the risk of public disgrace, and severe castigation."

Genma shuddered slightly, wondering how the ANBU headquarters could be so at threat. The security there was excellent, and they had to what? Avoid it?

"We will pair up. Owl, get the cameras – shut off Control Room Security completely – make it look like a technical glitch. Bear," - Genma started - "you're with him. Cat and Hound will guard your backs, monitor from above and below. The rest of you with me – we will infiltrate at the secure signal, and all of us will regroup inside the largest Control Room. Do not fail."

The ANBU squad sped to it.

Aoba rushed into the Godaime's office, startling Kotetsu and Izumo - on night shift, dozing on each other's shoulders while Tsunade, feet up on her desk, filed her nails as she read from a large text book.

"Hokage-sama! There's an emergency Hokage!" While Aoba wasn't an ANBU member himself, he often covered the mission desk – to save ANBU pranksters from having access to each other's confidential files; and their security systems – Aoba's substantial technical knowledge made him ideal for identifying threats to their electrical systems.

Tsunade looked up calmly, knowing Aoba's penchant for the dramatic. "Explain shinobi!"

"The ANBU security has just crashed – an entire floor – it appears to be some kind of technical glitch, but it's too central. The Control Rooms are completely unmonitored – the files! The equipment!"

"Aoba, calm down!" The Godaime stood, fists clenched on the table, head bent. Kotetsu couldn't help but sleepily admire her ample –

"Stop staring at her tits, dude!" Izumo hissed. "You know what happened last time!" Kotetsu stuck his tongue out.

"Have there been any new recruits in the last week?"

"I believe so, Hokage-sama…"

"It's probably just hazing. If the security doesn't come back online tomorrow, send in a team to flush the place out." Izumo's eyes lit up in interest at the Godaime's words.

"But, Hokage -"

"That will be all, Aoba. What did I tell you about staring at my breasts, Kotetsu?"

Kotetsu's eyes shot up to meet hers sheepishly as his team-mate smirked.

Genma was amazed at the ability of the ANBU operatives. The speed and efficiency of the break in was graceful, fluid, sure. It almost seemed rehearsed.

The Owl's quick tapping into the computer's mainframe was a comforting thrill – combined with the cat-and-mouse-like chase as the Hound and Cat circled each other in their guard – it was enough to give Genma butterflies. This was why he'd joined the squad. This level of skill was something he wanted to be a part of. He'd wanted to prove himself, had wanted that forever, for his parents, for Hayate.

"Yo, dude," Genma's eyes shot up at the Owl's low whisper, echoing in the dark, enclosed room. "That keypad beside you? When my screen flashes red you'll have 1.5 seconds to press ctrl-alt-delete before the whole fucking alarm system goes ballistic on our arses. You handle that?"

"Sure, gimme warning?" Genma positioned his hands, staring at his partner.

"Alright – any time now."

The screen flashed red and Genma tapped the keys – a brief, tense silence where even their guards held their breath – suddenly, every computer in the room went down. Letting out a relieved sigh, the Owl put a post-it on the monitor in front of him. Written on it were the words 'Don't Forget!'

"What the fuck?" Genma was ignored as the ANBU quickly made their way down the dark hallway – the Cat stopping briefly to let a tiny flare out of the window. Downstairs Genma could barely make out the sound of locks being picked before a Dark Army made its way silently up the stairs.

The Hound broke silently into the main control room – a large, sound proof war cabinet with stereo monitoring – and the three ANBU began to push equipment into the walls as Genma watched, baffled. When all the ANBU had finally amassed in the room, the Locust stood before them again.

"Hijiri!" One of the ANBU stepped forward, "Get the door." He immediately ran to lock it.

Ibiki surveyed the room intently; the recruits felt a chill run up each of their spines and faced forwards nervously, until someone behind them snorted with laughter. A ninjutsu, Genma realised. Goddamn ANBU pranksters.

"ANBU, remove your masks." The new recruits stood in shock as each of the shinobi removed their porcelain masks, exposing themselves.

"But, ANBU-sama!" That excitable boy from earlier exclaimed. "That's against the rules!"

Genma suddenly understood, at least partially, removing his mask and glancing at a smirking Kakashi. "There are rules," Genma began, smirking. "And then there are house rules."

Several of the ANBU grinned, the violet haired ANBU Cat – who Genma finally recognised as Uzuki Yuugao, Hayate's girl - rolled her eyes in Kakashi's general direction.

"The first one to pass out," Hijiri Shimon (another nin Genma recognised, one of Ibiki's subordinates) pulled a large case of alcohol out from somewhere, "Gets tied naked to the scarecrows in the training field!"

Grinning, Ibiki lifted a bottle in toast – the rest of the assembly did the same. "Welcome to the ANBU!"

"If there's one thing I missed from you bastard lot," Kakashi smirked, "It was the quality hazing."



Thanks to:

Nezuko: for all your kind comments!

Winter of our Discontent: thank you so much! (sorry if I repeat myself, I forget what I said before) but your support (and capitals, lol) really means a lot! Glad you're enjoying it!

Meleth78 and Faith b

Frolicking Llama: lmao – you know that first lesson with the bells? When Kakashi whips out icha icha and says something to Naruto like "I really wanna see what happens next!"? I just find infinitely more amusing to believe he's telling the truth.

Cinnamaroll: thank you soo much! I was worried that the inscription would end up really daft and cliché, I can't help but think letters rarely work on a realistic level so thank you for the comment!

Sorviball: XD wow, thank you, that's such a huge compliment! Especially about Gai, because I think I've said how difficult I find him to pin down! Thank you.

Isolde1: Thank you so much! Rin is really fun to write, there's so much you do with her! XD thanks for your comment on my one-shots as well (I can glomp you here for that, right?), and for the Gai comment! Meh, just thank you!

Paper Fox: (I love your user name! XD) thanks a lot! I'm glad that this is uplifting in a roundabout way, and I hope I can continue to keep it interesting! Cheers!

JuliTina: thank you! Kurenai rocks, I have plans for her, lol!

Shake It Buddy: Thank YOU, so much! They're cute when they're hurting, lol.

Telosphilos: Thanks again, for the comments as well as the ideas! you're thoughts are awesome!

Sna: XDDDDD I'm so glad/relieved you liked! Lol! You're very welcome for the dedication! Thank you so much for well... all your comments, actually! I was thinking about Naruto and Sakura in the part you mentioned – I originally write a lot about what they were seeing, but then from Kakashi's voice I think it made more sense to not have them acknowledged too much. Like you said, the poor brat's going through all of this the last thing he needs is to think 'Naruto and Sakura are soooo pitying me right about now!'
And yeah, poor Kakashi. snickers

DirtyChild: When I started this off it was meant as a one shot, just to try and destroy my writer's block, so really chapter one is just…crap, lol. It doesn't fit with anything I've done since, it's total crack. If I wasn't so endlessly lazy it'd be re-written by now! Thank you very much for your comments! XD

Huge thanks to: Bluelady198, Masked Shinobi, Lady Guena, Azamiko, Jemiul, Narika, Zenna (don't die! Eek!), Rane Metal (crazy pressure lady, lol!), R A Duckro, and Fuhrer XD