A/N: I've been on a Naruto kick (especially since they're finally animating Kakashi Gaiden), which means you guys get a new chapter. I really shouldn't have written this one before I wrote a new chapter of my Uric fic, but somehow, I suspect you guys don't mind. Thanks to my beta, infiniteviking and to all my reviewers.

I try to keep my Japanese in this story limited to name honorifics and titles, but I did end up using 'baka' (idiot) in this chapter as an insult (for those of you who don't know what it means). And of course, a lot of my original character names are (mostly obvious) jokes in Japanese. So it goes.

Kakashi wanted to spend the day after the second part of the exam training, but the medics and Minato-sensei forbid it. He lay on his futon in the now empty room he had shared with his team. Everything inside felt dull. Sensei had told the remaining Leaf genin about Saburou-san's death right after the exam, and Masuyo's had been confirmed a few hours after that. Yoshino and Arata had cried, while Ume had angrily demanded details Minato-sensei didn't have. Kakashi, no matter how hard he tried, couldn't seem to keep even a fake smile on his face. Any facial expression at all seemed too much effort, and he was sure that his inability to follow the mission parameters was the real reason Minato-sensei had told him to take the day off.

Sensei had slipped into his room early this morning and handed him the final book of the Daruma trilogy. It was one of Kakashi's favorite series, and the book wasn't supposed to be out on the shelves for another month. Kakashi had no idea how sensei had gotten it. Unfortunately, since the book was about a group of friends fighting to defeat an evil god, he reached the death of the hero's best friend and had to close the book. Life shouldn't be allowed to bear so many similarities to fiction.

Kakashi lay on his futon, staring at the wooden ceiling. He wasn't in the mood to deal with people, but now that he wasn't in a life or death situation, there was far too much time to analyze his teammates' deaths, and Kakashi's own performance. There was nothing he could have done for Kai, but Masuyo? He couldn't understand why a man who had disliked him so much had given his life for him.

No. That wasn't true. Losing your teammates hurt. Kakashi knew that now. Maybe losing so many had injured Masuyo to a point of no return? A sort of mental injury. Those happened sometimes, he thought, though usually it was to older ninja, especially those who had been captured or tortured. He would have to ask Minato-sensei.

There was a gentle tap on the frame of the door. Kakashi called for whoever it was to come in. The door slid open. He was surprised to see Ume. Her bright orange hair was covered in a handkerchief, and she had a long, cloth covered package in her hands. Kakashi sat up and she knelt next to his futon, laying the package in front of her. There was a stiffness in her posture that hadn't been there before the exam.

"The smith sent us a note saying that Kai's package was ready. It's for his sister and brother, right? I thought maybe they'd want it."

Kakashi nodded. "I think they will." He would go and buy more caltrops for Kenji, so that at least Kai's last presents would go to his siblings. It was more than most ninja left behind. The thought struck like a blow. He stared down at his lap. His hands were shaking, so he pressed them hard against the futon.

Ume-san laid a hand over his. It was rough with calluses from weapon's training, but comforting all the same. She held it there for only a few seconds, then squeezed and let go. "I keep telling Yoshino-baka not to baby you, so don't take this wrong, but you need to take a bath 'cause you stink. And if you don't eat something at dinner, I'll make sure Yoshino sits next to you."

Kakashi couldn't tell if she was teasing or not. She was right about him stinking though.

"I'll take a bath," he promised, though he wasn't sure about the food. He had a feeling it would just come back up again. A thought occurred to him. "What are you doing for training?" Saburou-san would have been her teacher for the next month if he hadn't been killed. If Minato-sensei couldn't train Kakashi because of his mission, then he certainly couldn't train Ume-san.

She patted a scroll that was tied to her belt. "When I woke up this morning, there was a scroll filled with new techniques for me to learn. The fire ones should work really well since that's my element. I figured he'd spend all his time training you, so it was nice of him to leave the scroll."

Kakashi didn't correct her assumption that he was being trained. "You need to perform well since you're representing Konoha. Sensei knows that."

She seemed to take that as a challenge. "I'll perform well! Right on your ass! Don't think I'll go easy on you when we have to fight." Anger made the scar across her neck stand out in a red line.

"You mean 'if'," retorted Kakashi, somewhat relieved that Ume-san was back to her confrontational self.

"The only 'if' will be if you get knocked out in your first fight." She abruptly stood up and stalked toward the door. He heard her say, "I'm twice his age, dammit!" before slamming the door shut.

Kakashi smirked at that, but it faded quickly when he realized how similar the argument had been to his fights with Masuyo. Sober again, he gathered his things and went to take a bath.

Minato had been stressed by missions before, but now thought they were nothing compared to the ongoing burden of his current assignment. He had a comrade and two students dead. A conspiracy of the highest degree involving Stone and Rain that was most likely aimed at Konoha. A cheerful and oblivious persona to maintain when he'd rather be serious. Two sannin as subordinates who hadn't bothered to report in since the end of the second part of the exam a week before. Kakashi, who needed training (which he couldn't give) and comfort (which Kakashi wouldn't accept), and another three genin who needed varying levels of help and supervision. In particular, Arata-kun wasn't dealing well with the loss of his eye.

It was a mess.

The only things he seemed to have accomplished were largely intangible. He'd planted the makings of his jutsu everywhere but some of the forbidden areas. Ume-san was making good progress training from the scroll he'd hastily written up for her. The villagers were all fond of him, and he was friendly with a number of Stone nin. So where were the Rain jounin and chuunin hiding? And just why was the son of the Tsuchikage stalking him while he shopped?

"Mister Leaf-jounin," said the kid, approaching him as he browsed a stall of spices. Minato couldn't sense the kid's team mates anywhere. It was the first time he'd seen him without them. He guessed that even the Tsuchikage's son's safety took second place to training for the finals.

"Hi," Minato said, keeping his face open and relaxed. "Can I help you with something? You need me to reach those peppers?" He pointed at a bunch of dried peppers that hung from the top of the stall, and smirked inwardly as he caught a flash of annoyance on the kid's face before it was wiped away.

"You're Kakashi-chan's sensei, right?" The kid's attempt at an innocent face needed work. "Could you ask him if he'd like to come and play?"

"What?" Minato didn't have to pretend to be surprised.

The kid shrugged. "I have a private training ground and so long as we don't show each other our special techniques, we should be able to train together. My father believes you should be able to defeat someone regardless of how well they know you, so he doesn't care."

"Isn't someone training you personally?" Minato asked. He was torn by the kid's offer. On one hand, it would be dangerous for Kakashi and might disrupt his training. On the other, Kakashi could plant Minato's jutsu at the Tsuchikage's personal training ground, and probably his home as well. It might also push Kakashi out of his shell of grief to be forced to interact with someone.

"He's busy," said the kid, "And I don't need any extra help." The arrogance looked adorable on his freckled face.

Minato was astonished that the Tsuchikage's son wasn't receiving any personal prep for the finals. The astonishment was quickly replaced with the suspicion that the kid's teacher was involved in the Stone/Rain conspiracy. Perhaps if he knew that jounin's speciality it would provide a clue. Hopefully, Kakashi would be up to the challenge.

"You guys didn't fight during the exam or something?" he asked, pretending to be suspicious. "What if you're planning some nefarious revenge?" Never one to skip a mission report, Kakashi had briefed him on the events of the exam the day after the second exam finished. His student had been so professional and detached, Minato's heart had ached for him.

The kid looked disgusted. "We teamed up for most of the second exam. Didn't he tell you?" Minato was examined from head to foot. He pretended to be distracted by the spices and did his best to seem open and oblivious. "Maybe he's hiding his skills from you too," muttered the kid before speaking up. "Just tell him Ippei wants to train. I'll meet him in front of your inn tomorrow morning." Apparently, Kakashi's acceptance was a given.

"I'll let him know," said Minato cheerfully, then wagged a finger in front of the kid's face. "But you better not be tricking me."

Ippei rolled his eyes. "I'm not." He left, his long braid smacking Minato on the chest as he turned to go. "Not that it would be hard," Ippei said under his breath as he walked away. Minato grinned to himself. After Kakashi, winding up other children was child's play.

Ippei was leaning against the inn's doorway when Kakashi left the inn. The sun was bright that morning, so the older boy was wearing a pointed straw hat to combat the glare. Squinting in the sunlight, Kakashi half wished he had his own.

"Yo," said Ippei.

"Hello," said Kakashi. He was confused as to why Ippei had sought him out.

"Follow me," said Ippei before Kakashi could ask him. The older boy raced off, but not at a speed where Kakashi had to exert himself to follow. They went through town, then into what Kakashi knew was a forbidden area. Forbidden only if you weren't with the Tsuchikage's son though (Kakashi was still upset he hadn't realized Ippei's identity) since the Stone chuunin guarding the area simply watched them pass. They headed uphill. A few more turns and they were in front of a large gate with a smaller, open door. A bored Stone genin with wild green hair was manning the door, and he blinked in surprise when he saw Kakashi, or rather, Kakashi's Konoha hitaeate.

"This is your guest?" he asked, consulting a scroll of paper. "Hatake Kakashi? Hatake… Hatake. Oh! The White Fang's son."

"Yes, and you're nobody," said Ippei impatiently. "Would you let us in already, Yakumi?"

"Somehow I doubt this is what the Tsuchikage meant when he said you could pick out your new training partner," said Yakumi, but he let them both in.

Inside, the compound reminded Kakashi of the bigger clan's areas in Konoha. He had been inside the Hyuuga compound once and it was similar, though the Tsuchikage had less space since the main house was perched on the side of the mountain. Long, porch supporting beams were visible under the stairs. They probably kept the house level. Kakashi tossed one of his sensei's jutsu behind the beams as he followed Ippei up the steps. Instead of going inside, they followed the outside porch around the corner of the house. Behind the house and off to the left was a clearing made of dirt with a few battered looking boulders scattered about.

"We can train here," said Ippei, and jumped to the ground. A cloud of dust drifted towards Kakashi. He had a feeling he was going to be wishing for his mask soon. Though maybe if Stone's arena was dusty, Minato-sensei would let him wear his mask for the finals.

"You invited me here to annoy your father?" asked Kakashi once he'd joined Ippei near one of the boulders. It wasn't something he had ever done himself, but Kai's brother, Kenchi, was apparently dating an Inuzuka girl just because their father was allergic to dogs. He frowned, annoyed that such an innocuous thought about Kai brought up pain. The image of Kai bound to that tree was never going to go away.

"It's more like a bonus. It is annoying that he took away Sekiei-sensei, but I was going to invite you to join me one way or another."

"Why?" asked Kakashi. Ippei's answer would decide if he would stay or go now. Technically, he had fulfilled sensei's mission by planting some jutsu and discovering Ippei's sensei's name so there was no reason to stick around.

"Why? We've got a lot in common. I'm only a year older than you. We're both prodigies who are stuck in the shadow of their famous father. We work well together, and we're both hiding our true skill levels." Ippei was sketching a circle in the dust with his foot, not meeting Kakashi's eye. "You treated me like an equal during the exam. I appreciated that."

"I didn't know who you were," said Kakashi.

Ippei shrugged, glancing up at Kakashi before looking down again. "My team mates are there to guard me, even if they follow my orders. They at least fight with me when I order it. All the other genin treat me like glass. You wouldn't do that. You're not doing it now, even though you know who I am."

Kakashi frowned. That was simply because politeness wasn't Kakashi's strong point.

"Anyway," said Ippei. He lowered his voice so Kakashi had to lean in to hear. "I thought we could be friends."

"Our villages are not on good terms," Kakashi pointed out, though part of him was flattered. He had never had someone ask to be his friend before.

"We're ninja," said Ippei scornfully. "Friendships and all other emotions are put aside on the battlefield. If I face you in the exam or on a mission, we're going to fight with everything we've got, but we're not on a mission or a battlefield so friendship is okay."

Ippei might not be on a mission, but Kakashi was in the middle of one – a mission that would be better served by Kakashi getting close to the Tsuchikage's son. "Okay," Kakashi said. "Friends until the exam is over." If they were still friends then, and their villages weren't at war, maybe they could continue the friendship. Minato-sensei would certainly encourage him to do so. He had always nagged him to spend more time with Kai, and now Kakashi wished he had.

"Just until then, huh?" asked Ippei, but the relief was evident in his voice. "I'd call you over-cautious, but I've seen you take down a three man team in under a minute." The sing-song quality of his tone told Kakashi that he was probably teasing.

He decided to tease back. "Since I haven't seen you do anything," said Kakashi in a deliberately thoughtful voice, "I'd have to call you slow."

Ippei snorted. "I'll show you slow. We spar until noon. Don't use any tricks you want to save for the exam. Mom's made us lunch. Afterwards, I happen to know where most of the other finalists are training. We can go spy on them, if you want?"

That sounded surprisingly good to Kakashi. He had expected more of the arrogance Ippei had shown during the second part of the exam, but maybe friendship really did make a difference.

"Sounds good," he said, and threw the first punch at his friend.

After shooing Kakashi outside to meet the Tsuchikage's son, and teaching Yoshino and Arata a card game to help them pass the time, Minato gathered up his bathing gear and strolled down the street to the local hot springs. He would have preferred to do this in his room, but the maids were always in and out cleaning. It was more traditional for people to bathe in the evenings, so with luck he would have the springs to himself. He paid the small fee, undressed and stuffed his things in a cubby hole. He debated setting a trap for anyone who tampered with them and reluctantly decided it was against his cover. Luckily, the men's side of the springs was empty, though he could hear two old ladies exchanging news over on the women's side.

He settled into the main pool, claiming one of the better rocks that faced the entrance to support his back. His hand towel was placed at the side of the pool. After a thorough survey of the room for spy holes and other surveillance, he reached into the towel and pulled out the flyer he had received this morning. It was in the form of a book preview that had been handed out to all the male guests at the request of the author. Minato would have thrown it out if he hadn't recognized his sensei's handiwork in the author's chosen alias.

He settled in to read, intending to just pick out the code words. Encryption was one of Jiraiya's hidden talents, but thankfully Minato was familiar enough with sensei's style to be able to pick out a code without them having to agree on it beforehand. There were no secrets in the book description so he turned to the book excerpt on the back of the flyer. He read a few sentences, then read a few more before realizing he was blushing for the first time in years. He stifled a laugh.

Jiraiya had sent him one of the most explicit sex scenes he had ever read. Not only that, but it was excellent in both quality and style – it certainly wasn't just the hot spring that was making Minato feel overheated. He couldn't help reading it over once for pleasure before settling in to try to figure out the code. It took three rereads before it became apparent. He pieced it together in his head, and any enjoyment of sensei's unexpected skill at writing coded pornography disappeared.

Rain have killed and replaced the Earth daimyo, most of his retinue and some minor lords. Awaiting orders. Good luck.

A/N: Hot springs are such a nice excuse to get someone naked, don't you think? *whistles innocently*

Next time: I'm going to skip a week or two so, the final days before the final.

Thank you all for reading. Reviews and opinions are always appreciated.