Chapter XV
Interlude: Team Bonding

"Rin, you've got to help," Harry pleaded. "I think Kakashi hates us."

She blinked. "Sorry, what?"

Of all the things she'd expected when she came down to breakfast on the morning of December 26th, Harry and Ron pouncing on her with twin expressions of desperation hadn't made the list. She was alone in running bodyguard duty this morning, since Kakashi had gone last night to check in with Hayate at the Stone and reinforce the new chakra seal.

By the sound of it, she had her work cut out for her today.

"We've- uh, we've made a mess of things with Kakashi," Ron explained wretchedly. "He said he didn't hold it against us, but-"

"You saw him," Harry interjected. "He doesn't even want to eat breakfast with us anymore!"

"-says he's got to go to the library, like that isn't an obvious excuse, not even Hermione spends that much time reading-"

"-got up early to leave the dormitory before any of us woke up-"

"-didn't even want to talk to us-"

"Stop," Rin said firmly.

They both broke off, looking at her beseechingly. Their food sat untouched on their plates- they really were upset about this. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to stave off an oncoming headache.

It didn't work.

"You think Kakashi's mad at you?"

Two nods.

"...Why?" Things had been fairly peaceful since the Mirror incident; no new developments or confrontations since Kakashi had dealt with the- oh.

"Well," Ron began uncomfortably. "We... sort of lied to him. I mean, Kakashi said he told you what happened, right?"

He had. He'd recounted the whole disaster in a frustrated rush of words, a tumbling rant with English profanities popping up among his regular vocabulary of expletives. She'd listened with growing dismay as he explained that the charge had not only been going behind their backs to investigate his own near-assassination, but had also acquired a magical cloak that rendered him nigh-imperceptible.

But there was no way he was mad at them... right? Getting mad at some mission complications was just unprofessional. She'd gotten the feeling he was a little more emotionally invested than strictly necessary- but some involvement was to be expected, the Gryffindors were likable kids. All the same, holding a grudge- she dismissed the thought. This was Kakashi, after all.

"He told me most of the details, yes," she responded, a little distracted. "I was going to ask about that when we had a moment."

"He hasn't talked to us at all since yesterday morning," Harry continued, miserably. "We apologized, but-"

Oh, of course.

"I understand." Rin paused and rubbed her eyes. "I really don't think he's angry at you."

"Then why is he avoiding us?" Ron asked. "It can't be homework; it's the holiday!"

Wryly, Rin noted that they'd have to come up with a different excuse until classes started up again. Kakashi was the only one in the group who could write and reinforce the seal properly- sealing was an immensely complicated discipline, requiring high focus and a lot of stored chakra. The precaution was necessary, but it would mean inventing a reason for Kakashi's absence at least once a week and covering up for his subsequent exhaustion.

Not for the first time, she wondered how he'd manage after they went home.

"I can't be sure," she said thoughtfully. "I'll have to talk to him and see about what's wrong. It could be that he's just feeling homesick."

Ron snorted; Harry's looked politely skeptical.

"He is human, you know," she reminded them. "Even when he doesn't act it."

"Well, yeah," Harry agreed. "But he's been here for months and it's never seemed to bother him before. Why would he start getting homesick now?"

She shrugged, not really willing to offer another excuse. "Anyway; I'm sure he isn't really mad at you. It isn't like him to hold grudges over something like that, especially as you've already apologized."

"But you'll talk to him, won't you?" Harry asked.

"Of course."

"You're neglecting your social obligations, Captain Hatake," Rin reported dryly. "Harry and Ron are convinced you hate them."

Kakashi had been lying on the sofa in the Gryffindor common room with his arm over his eyes; now he groaned and stirred and looked up at her with one bloodshot eye underlined by darkly bruised skin. Textbook symptoms for chronic minor chakra exhaustion- he'd get better soon enough, but while it lasted he'd be feeling the effects of a couple all-nighters.

"They what?" he rubbed his eye. "I was only gone a few hours- couldn't they look after themselves at least that long?"

"They think you're avoiding them because you're mad about them hiding things from you."

He sat up. "Shit. Did you make excuses for me?"

"I tried, but I think they'll need to hear it from you."

He grimaced, grey-faced and waxy-skinned and utterly exhausted, and she was caught by a wave of reluctant sympathy. Just once couldn't hurt. She reached out with a hand wreathed in green chakra.

"You really shouldn't," Kakashi noted wearily. "You're the medic- need to keep your chakra levels up-"

She rolled her eyes. "Try to stop me. I've got plenty of chakra, and if you go out to Harry and Ron looking like death warmed over, we'll have a dozen more problems to deal with."

He made a noise of protest, but stilled enough to let her siphon some of her chakra to him. She ignored the growing ache as her own reserves strained- Kakashi had it worse, and she could handle running low for the rest of the day. This much wouldn't be enough to fix the chakra exhaustion entirely, but it would take the edge off his symptoms.

Sure enough, when she drew back her hand, he was looking better. Some of the color had returned to his skin and the dark circles had faded.

He gave her a reproachful look. "That was more than I needed."

"Don't start," she said briskly. "How's the seal?"

He wrinkled his nose. "Finally done, at least. About six hours from start to finish. I've keyed it to everyone's blood signature."

She frowned. "Blood? Not chakra?"

"Believe me, I'd've preferred that." Kakashi shrugged, as if to say, what can you do? "But Professor Dumbledore doesn't use chakra. I don't doubt he could cut through my seal like butter if he had to, but I'd rather not set it up twice."


"Take over from Hayate, then," Kakashi ordered. "He's going to the Hospital Wing for rest and treatment, and Ibiki'll have to tail one of our potential Ravenclaws, since I've apparently got to look after the Gryffindors-"

"Ibiki's doing what?"

He waved a hand. "The kids got the idea that the flower came from a Ravenclaw girl. Probably a false alarm, but it'd be stupid not to cover all our bases."

"Fair enough. Listen, Kakashi- we're almost at the end of our requisition period. Soon you'll be stuck here without backup."

"Your point?" His gaze was flat- obviously he'd thought of this too.

"How are you planning on managing when you're alone here?" Rin shrugged. "Protecting Potter- and Granger and Weasley, dealing with Malfoy, protecting the stone, investigating the assassin- looking after yourself. As much as you'd like to pretend you don't need anyone to watch your back, you'll be overextended."

"I'll manage. I've done it before."

"Just put in an extension request," she urged. "You know Lord Hokage won't turn it down."

"Probably not," he admitted. "But maybe he should. There's a war- you should be fighting by Minato-sensei's side, not playing nice with the wizards here in England."

"Maybe I should be looking after my teammate," she retorted implacably. "Maybe I'll put in the extension request myself."

He grimaced at that. "You know I can't stop you from sending a report."

"But you don't want me to."

"But you will anyway."

"All right."


For a moment they matched each other, arms folded, frowning- then something broke the tension and they broke out laughing. Rin giggled helplessly for a moment, and Kakashi was chuckling tiredly as he pushed himself up from the sofa.

"You should go," he said lightly. "We're running off schedule."

"Fair enough- I'm off, then," she said, slipping a hand inside her robes to check for her blades. "Try not to scare the kids. They mean well."

"I make no promises," he said, but his tone was wry. "See you in the morning."

"Best of luck."

Ibiki was a ghost of a shadow.

Stealth wasn't his forte; he'd never been trained for covert field operations like Kakashi and Rin. He was meant for the interrogations and intelligence division. He played complex, subtle mind games and invented exquisitely painful methods for extracting information from stubborn lips. Espionage of this kind was rather more passive than he was used to.

Hayate was probably the only one to share his discomfort. Kakashi and Rin slipped into their covers easily, comfortably- they were both used to missions of this kind. They knew how to gather information without drawing attention, to smile and make wry comments and put their targets at ease.

Ibiki- well, he was a Leaf ninja. He could conceal his presence and silence his footfalls and blend into the night. But he couldn't hide in plain sight.

Luckily, hiding in the shadows was what he needed now.

"Marietta!" said the target brightly, waving at her friend. "Come sit with us?"

"Wish I could," the other girl said apologetically. "I've got to go meet with Professor Sprout. See you later, though?"

"Oh. Yeah, I s'pose. We're meeting in the library at four."

Ibiki sighed.

To all appearances, Miss Cho Chang was an entirely unremarkable girl. At twelve years old, she was athletic for her age and fairly bright, had a few close friends and several acquaintances. Her school files showed good scores, which her professors tended to attribute to hard work rather than unusual talent. She was the reserve seeker for the Ravenclaw 'Quidditch' team.

All things considered, it seemed unlikely that she would have any grudge against Harry Potter- they'd never even spoken in person. The only reason she was under surveillance was her pureblooded status, despite the fact that she had no documented blood purist leanings and was reportedly very fond of her Squib cousin.

Ibiki glanced down at the blotted scrap of parchment in his hand. It read, sequentially:

Lisa Turpin
Marietta Edgecombe
Morag McDougal
Gretel Slade
Su Li
Rhetta Briggs
Cho Chang

With a sigh, he marked off the last name on the list. If any of the girls had given Harry the flower, it probably hadn't been of her own volition.

Kakashi braced himself and entered the boy's dormitory.

Inside, Harry and Ron were sitting on their beds in an unconvincing attempt at nonchalance. Harry was looking stubbornly at a copy of Best Broomstick, and Ron was vaguely twitching his wand at a toadstool. The unfortunate toadstool shivered and turned a pleasant shade of cerulean.

"Hey," Kakashi said casually. "Can we chat?"

Ron's hand jumped a little. The toadstool went skittering across his bed. "Kakashi! Hey, yeah, um-"

"Definitely," Harry said quickly. "We can definitely talk."

"Good." Kakashi sat on his bed and pulled up his legs, sitting cross-legged. "I was talking to Rin. She said you guys were worried I was mad at you."

"You are, then?" Harry groaned. "Ugh. listen-"

"I'm definitely not," he corrected. "I don't know why you think I am-"

"Well, you're definitely avoiding us," Ron pointed out, a fraction calmer than his friend. "We've scarcely seen you for five minutes straight since we told you the truth. You stayed in the library all afternoon on Christmas. Something's up."

"Oh, right." Kakashi massaged his eyes. "It was a festival day, wasn't it. Shit."

"And it can't be homework; Rin doesn't have any from your school and we don't have much from ours."


He'd come up with some explanations beforehand, of course- he just wasn't feeling well, he was homesick, he'd gotten lost in the castle or Moaning Myrtle was following him and he'd wanted to lose her before coming back to the dormitory.

Well, whatever.

"Rin and I have been... disagreeing, on a few things," he said instead. "I just wanted some space. It's got nothing to do with you."

"Rin?" asked Harry doubtfully. "But she's seemed fine- she was cheerful this morning, and she's never said anything-"

"Not that kind of disagreement. It's about her going home for spring," Kakashi admitted, more honestly than he would have liked. "It isn't a big deal."

"You want her to stay, huh?" Ron observed sympathetically.

"What? No. Why would I...?"

"You want her to go home?" Harry asked, mystified. "But why?"

Kakashi was beginning to deeply regret bringing up this topic. He shrugged uncomfortably. It wasn't as though he could explain that she was needed back home- oh, yeah, didn't you know there's a war going on in my village?

Harry and Ron waited, silent, bewildered.

"It's... complicated," he said at last. "She has... duties, responsibilities, back home. Well, so do I, but it's different- the H- my Headmaster needs me here."

Harry and Ron exchanged a distinctly exasperated glance.

"What?" Kakashi demanded sourly.

"Nothing," Harry said quickly. "But she wants to stay?"


"Then I think that's great."

"You don't get it," Kakashi explained, rubbing his eyes. "She needs to go home."

"Look, all I know is, Rin's really smart. As smart as you and Hermione. I mean, if she wants to stay for the spring, and she's thought it through- then there's probably no problem."

"You make it sound so easy."

"And you know," Harry continued, sounding only a little bit uncertain. "I think you want her to stay too.

Kakashi looked up sharply; Harry put his hands up in a show of innocence.

"Just a thought, buddy. Anyway, you probably ought to talk to her."

"We've talked. Talking more won't change anything."

Harry and Ron exchanged a glance but didn't answer.

"Why are we talking about my problems, anyway?" Ah, such grace and subtlety. Kakashi was the master of conversational manipulation. "I thought we were here to talk about me not being mad at you."

"Yeah, well." Ron said uncomfortably. "I sort of thought we'd gotten that over with. Unless you've changed your mind and decided you're mad at us after all, and I don't mind saying it'd be nice if you didn't."

"I wasn't planning on it."

"But about Rin-" Harry persisted.

"No, nope, not happening. We are done talking about my issues with Rin. Why don't we talk about something nice and mind-numbingly inane instead? How's Quidditch?"

"While I strongly resent your aspersions on the noble sport of Quidditch," Ron noted primly, "this is getting way too touchy-feely, so subject change it is."


"Harry, if you want to gossip, go find Parvati and Lavender," Ron said firmly. "We are going to sit here and quote League statistics until they lose all meaning, if I have to get Seamus in here to do it."

And, to Kakashi's vast relief, they did exactly that.

Rin pressed her thumb to the wide oaken door.

For a moment after she drew back her hand, there was a dark smear of blood glistening on the wood; then there was a flare of chakra as the seal deactivated and the lock of the door clicked open. The blood vanished, absorbed into the sealing matrix.

"Kakashi, you've outdone yourself," she whispered, stepping in.

"I know," Hayate agreed. He had been sitting cross-legged on the smooth stone floor, kunai in hand. Now he pushed himself up and tucked the blade back into his thigh holster, raising his other hand in greeting. "I didn't think he'd manage it in one night. He may be a jounin, but he's still our age."

"Like he's ever let that stop him," she remarked dryly. "Still, I almost wish Minato-sensei were here to see this. He'd be so proud."

Hayate shrugged politely. "I guess so. Your sensei's a seal master, isn't he?"

"Yeah." Rin grinned. "The best in the village." Then she shook herself. "But you should head out. Doctor Pomfrey is expecting you."

He nodded, pulling his student's cloak over his shoulders.

"You're not coughing as much as you used to," she noted. "And your breathing is quieter. Has she been extracting the poison?"

He actually smiled at that. It was an odd expression to see on Hayate, whose default expression seemed to be a pensive frown. "Neutralizing it, apparently. Something she said about how healing the tissue over the acid burns only caused more inflammation."

Rin hummed thoughtfully. "You know, magic really is kind of amazing."

He huffed a raspy laugh. "Don't I know it."

"How're your chakra points?"

He shook his head. "Still dead. She's not sure how to treat them, and we won't have time to try any experimental spells." He shrugged. "But I can breathe again, mostly, and that's more than I could have hoped. I have my sword."

"But if you had just a few more months," she mused. "You think she could do something?"

He regarded her thoughtfully. "What are you planning?"

"An extension request," she answered honestly. "In the next mission report. I wouldn't do it without your permission, but-"

"But you think I might need it." He frowned, leaned against the door. "Have you asked Ibiki?"

"Not yet."

He regarded her seriously, arms folded. The light in the forbidden corridor was dim, and the breath of the three-headed guardian beast was hot and sour. She could faintly see his dark eyes behind his bangs, calm and intent, weighing his options.

As objective as he might try to be- he desperately wanted to be well again.

"Fine," he said. "I'm in."

"All right. I'll add you to the request." Rin clasped his shoulder for a moment, then nodded. "Head out. I've got things covered here."

"Right. And thanks."

Ibiki had always been tall for his age; tall and narrow-eyed. The older he got, the harsher the lines on his face, the more inscrutable the dark, glimmering eyes, the sharper the angle of his mouth. He was destined for a career in interrogation; his demeanor was cold and forbidding and utterly immovable.

"No," he said, and his voice had a ring of finality. "I'm leaving."

"You're sure? You know Hayate plans to stay."

"If Hayate wasn't staying, I'd make him," Ibiki agreed. "I know. He's got a chance at a full recovery. It would be stupid to send him home now."

"But you won't be here with him."

Ibiki shrugged. "Nohara, you want to keep an eye on Hatake. I get that. Hayate wants to get his lungs treated- that's just common sense. But I don't have anything to gain from sticking around."

She opened her mouth, not sure what protest to make-

"You're using me as brute labor," he said flatly. "I don't mind, not when it's obvious you're all exhausted. But I'm trained as an interrogator, and you're trying to stay under the radar. My skills are worthless here."

He had a point.

"You'll be heading back to the battlefield?"

He nodded, swift and certain. "As soon as I get back. I have a running offer from Inoichi Yamanaka to apprentice in the T&I division."

"I understand." She did, really. If it weren't for Kakashi, she would be on the front lines with the other medics, patching together flesh and bone and saving lives, and it ached that she wasn't there- but she only had one teammate left, and she was going to fight by his side.

"Hayate's safer here than at home," Ibiki continued, though she hadn't asked. "And he'll be healed. It's not like I could be much help anyway."

"I'll look after him," she promised. "I'll bring him home safe come June. So you do your best to stay alive until then."

The corner of his mouth quirked a tiny bit upwards. "Right."

They parted in silence.

Captain Kakashi Hatake, jonin, submitting monthly mission report.

Following an attempted assassination in November, little further information has been obtained. Operatives are continuing to pursue leads regarding the event, but no conclusive evidence has been found. A student (see DRACO MALFOY, designation: threat level one) has been co-opted into intelligence work among his peers to little effect thus far. Charge has recovered almost entirely from his convalescence and returned to usual activities.

An encounter with a malignant magical artifact in pursuing further evidence resulted in the temporary incapacitation of the lead operative in the presence of the charge and two other students. Chunin Nohara successfully limited the damage as a result of this incident and all operatives have recovered, to little ill effect. It seems unlikely that this event occurred purely by chance, but there is, again, little evidence. Mission arrangements will continue as usual.

Security around the secondary charge has been increased accordingly as the result of a potential threat (see note: invisibility cloak). The primary charge may prove problematic- if he cannot be informed of the situation in its entirety, he must be dealt with carefully. (see HARRY POTTER, designation: charge).

Personal Memo:
Everything's going as well as can be expected, outside of a few minor disasters. All things considered, I think I can keep Potter alive until summer. Four months down; five and a half to go.

The following is presented as an addendum to the Team Captain primary mission report by Rin Nohara, chunin (designation: medic).

I would like to respectfully note that the report issued by Captain Hatake is total bullshit. He is overextended and exhausted, and he cannot reasonably expect to last a week after the reinforcements return to Konoha. The situation is getting more complicated by the day.

Consequently, this may be considered a formal request for a mission extension in the interest of avoiding disastrous mission failure. Additional benefits include the continuing medical treatment of Chunin Hayate Gekko and preventing burnout of Jonin Kakashi Hatake.

Mission Extension Request: APPROVED
-Rin Nohara, chunin
-Hayate Gekko, chunin

Memo: Thank you for your candid report, Chunin Nohara. I expect you will continue to carry out your mission orders with diligence this spring.

A/N: Sorry for the prolonged absence! I'm back with hopefully a few more chapters this November because NaNoWriMo- if you're participating in this November's session, be sure to look me up as 'Kwizzic' on the site and send me a message. I'd love to have more writing buddies!

This chapter hasn't been thoroughly edited and may be subject to changes.

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