A/N: Some people might want to know where I get all the elemental-affinities from. Mostly, I find canon-listings like Narutopedia; if I can't find it there, then I work with the official playing cards ('cause they normally have an affinity listed in the corner with the character). I've yet to need the nature-affinity of a character that doesn't have a card. I do twist it a bit sometimes though (ie. Shimon is listed as water, but I also gave him earth).

Disclaimer: Just for fun, not for profit.

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There were birds singing outside his window which meant no odd ninja lurking there, and no one left in the Mission Room apart from the workers.

"Finally," Iruka exhaled heavily in relief, slumping back in his chair. "Rush hour is over," he called out with a slightly raised voice. The groans and cries of thankful relief mingled around the room, making the teacher smile.

He was always tired after taking an early morning shift in the Mission Room. There were two major rush hours – dusk and dawn, simply because ninja liked getting the reports out of the way as soon as they could, and the setting or rising of the sun was when they normally returned from inter-village missions. So, tied with a rush of paperwork, a lack of sleep, and practically no breakfast spare two bites of soggy toast, Iruka was feeling a little burnt out – but too charged for rest.

"Thanks the deities it's a Saturday, eh, Umino?" laughed Iwashi from beside him, stretching his arms out and working out the kinks.

Iruka was usually rostered to work next to Iwashi. The guy was good for a laugh, even thought they were currently at odds to what should be removed – Iruka's ponytail, or Iwashi's tiny goatee. So far, Iruka was winning (though it was hard to really tell with their convoluted point system).

"We need to petition for a raise at the Academy. I'm pulling double-shifts now at the Mission Room, and alongside my classes, it's getting to be a pain in the ass," complained Shimon as he filed the last of his paperwork away. A rumble of agreement came from the handful of teachers in the room, and an indifferent noise from those who didn't.

"We could all strike for a week, and see how they deal with the kids..." Iruka's suggestion got a round of laughs, but they all knew that was a joke at best. Children, unsupervised, and armed with weapons was not an equation they wanted to know the answer to.

Suzume adjusted her glasses and announced to the group, "I'll take it up with the Council, see what I can do." She ran a hand through her auburn frizzy curls with a tired arm and jotted down the note in a book on her desk.

The woman was a bit sharp, but generally the go-to person for official matters. Even though she was the main teacher for kunoichi seduction, she was brilliant with power play and politics. Her voluntary participation practically guaranteed a rise within the next few months for Iruka.

"Hey, you lot, d'ya hear about Yuugao?" Iwashi grinned wickedly as he dropped the information on them all. A heavy pause fell as the group eyed him suspiciously.

"About her with Genma at the Scarlet Sun?" Iruka queried warily. He'd heard something about this from someone who heard it from someone else, and the reliability of the information was sketchy at best.

The gossip of lovers' trysts was nothing generally, but most people knew Hayate, the shy, tired bloke with a sickly couch and an aptitude with blades; and they knew about how he died a few years back at the hands of Sand at the chuunin exams in Leaf. His fiancé was Yuugao, a well-known jounin and suspected ANBU. Genma was usually on the roster as Hayate's mission partner before the guy had died.

Iruka knew them all, but not on a personal level. Still, Hayate's death sent shockwaves through Konoha—even if it was overshadowed when the Third died not too long afterwards.

"Is that even true?" Shimon asked, his voice lifting at the end in that weird way that highlighted his accent.

Suzume challenged in a dull voice, "If it is true, so what?"

"It's been years," added a quiet female voice from the back rooms.

"Time fixes everything," dismissed a fresh-faced youth Iruka vaguely recognised as being a new graduate; judging by the arm wounds, was forcibly confined to desk duty due to injury.

"But his mission partner's widow..." trailed off Shimon, unknowingly stressing his vowels.

"Hayate would've wanted it," Iwashi inserted deftly, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

"I highly doubt he'd have wanted it—"

"—but he wouldn't say no, now he's dead and all."

Iruka finished writing his signature on the last piece of work he had before asking, "How are we to know what's right or wrong?"

"I think: good for her; the living have to move on from the dead," Suzume said as she stood up, gathering her things in preparation to go home and catch up on much needed sleep. The idea of getting away from more work was appealing to Iruka, so he increased his pace of packing things away, half an ear still trained on the conversation.

"I'm pretty sure she swore revenge," said the quiet woman coming from the back rooms, balancing an unstable load of boxes in her arms.

"She can't do anything about it until Leaf breaks its ties with Sand," Shimon replied, batting at the hair in front of his eyes tiredly. He further sympathized, "Poor Yuugao. I mean, for her rank and all, she can't even go after the bloody bastards who did that to Hayate."

"Anyone know about how Genma's coping?" Iruka asked as he slipped his messenger bag over his head. "I think Hayate's saved his life on more than one occasion."

"Right, but Genma's returned the favour with those bloody poisoned needles of his," Iwashi added.

Suzume stated firmly, "If they're happy, who are we to judge?" With that, she made the half-tiger seal and disappeared with only a wisp of smoke where she once stood.

"We always judge anyway," murmured Iwashi, earning a short laugh from Iruka.

Several puffs of smoke quickly appeared in and around the Missions Room; Suzume's departure was usually the sign that it was an acceptable time to go. Iwashi stuck around, because the place always had to be manned, and he usually waited for the changing of the guard. However, Iruka was waiting for Shimon to hurry up and finish – though that man was unfortunate to be a very slow writer – so they could go spar and train.

Playfully, Iwashi pulled at Iruka's hair, tugging out the hair tie. Just as Iruka had whipped out a pair of sharpened kunai to give the other chuunin a quick trim to his goatee, the doors of the Mission Room opened, giving way to two jounin—one of them immediately recognisable as Hatake Kakashi, the other average and otherwise completely forgettable if he wasn't wearing an odd mask-stylized forehead protector that covered his jaw.

They were staring at the scene before them with mild shock; which was admittedly justified, seeing as Iruka looked a little crazed, with a pair of knives pointed at a co-worker's neck and his hair falling haphazardly around his face.

Clearing his throat, Iruka sheathed his weapons and snatched back his hair tie, returning his hair back to its ordered state, glaring daggers at Iwashi. The bastard simply shrugged and smiled. Iruka gave him a look that threatened later in a way that might've been playful if there wasn't such a wicked glint to it.

"How can I help you?" Iwashi asked briskly, sitting back down in his chair, picking up a pen in resigned preparation of impending paperwork.

As Kakashi stepped forward to the desk, murmuring details of his last mission—perhaps the one he was talking about the day before?—his companion wandered over to Iruka's side and asked curiously, "Your family name is Umino, is it not?"

"Yes, it is." Iruka frowned slightly, but made no move to expand on that line of thought.

"Mitarashi speaks well of you." His eyes were dark and stern under furrowed brows. The intense gaze unsettled him somewhat, and he scratched at the corner of the scar crossing his face.

Anko? "That's ... good to know," Iruka replied warily, eyeing up the man before him, wondering again at the odd addition he made to his forehead protector, so eerily reminiscent of the Second Hokage.

"I would like to introduce myself," said the other man after a pause that made it clear Iruka would say no more. "Please, call me—"

"—Tenzou," Kakashi called out, interrupting the conversation. "Come here. Iwashi says you need to sign on the dotted line."

A brief flash of undefined irritation flashed across Tenzou's eyes, but then they were blank again, and covered with a slight, bashful smile.

"Ahh, I thought I filled out that form correctly."

"You apparently didn't," shrugged Kakashi as he stepped aside to make room for Tenzou to bend over the desk and sign the scroll.

Iruka wondered if he was imagining it, or was the silver-haired jounin avoiding his gaze? Regardless, he didn't spare it much more thought when he heard the loud click coming from Shimon's suitcase as he closed it. Iruka had tried to convince his senior that a messenger bag was more functional, but the other chuunin liked the battered, old suitcase for the sense of professionalism.

"Which grounds do you want to practise on?" he asked, flicking his head to get his fringe free from his eyes, even though that didn't help and it merely flew back down.

Shifting the bag strap around his shoulder, Iruka mused over several spots before asking with the faintest of grins, "Got a change of clothes?"

Predictably, Shimon groaned and asked, "Don't tell me; the SS-Grounds?"

The Leaf SS-Grounds was one of many specialised training zones in the village. Technically it stood for Snow/Slush Grounds, where the dirt was intentionally slicked with ice and snow to make a churning mixture of watery, cold mud to practise in. No matter how careful you were, inevitably you would need a hot shower and a change of clothes after an hour or so in there. Especially since it was winter and there was a hell of a lot of snow to go around.

"You owe me a trip to the hot springs for this," grumbled Shimon, and Iruka smiled widely. The man didn't like the SS-Grounds much, but on the few occasions he conceded to spar there, Iruka really got a work out. After all, Shimon had an affinity with water, and was learning to work with earth as well. Mud was as much his element as lightning was Iruka's.

"You're scheduled for a short solo-mission tomorrow, right?" Iruka asked and Shimon nodded absently.

Getting rostered for a Sunday mission always sucked; they were normally pointless, yet tedious, assignments that were out of the village. You got no rest for Monday and a shorter weekend. At least the pay was decent.

Iruka turned around to go with Shimon in time to see Kakashi leaving with Tenzou, but the silver haired jounin was looking back, staring intently at him before the door swung shut. Again, Iruka felt like he was missing the bigger picture. He frowned and tightened his grip on the strap of his bag.

Hopefully Hijiri was feeling energetic, because Iruka was fully intending of using their spar to release some frustration.

"Later, Iwashi," called out Shimon as they walked out. The grunt of reply brought Iruka back to reality as he rubbed his eyes and shook his head. He was simply tired; thinking things that didn't exist.

Next thing he'd know, he'd be seeing things.

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"Done already, Umino?" taunted Shimon as he raised his hands in a casual defensive position. Sweat ran down his brow, and mud streaked his clothes and face.

"Screw you, Hijiri," Iruka snarled back, biting back gasps as he tried to concentrate. With his clothes weighed down by so much mud, and his body cold from the snow, his movements were slower than usual. He was tiring fast.

"Ooh, watch that spinning back-fist," commented Shimon as he stepped back gracefully. "You're leaving your left flank open for attack, you know, right?" He demonstrated with a light jab that Iruka instinctively jumped back from.

"I don't need the commentary, but thanks," the lightweight chuunin growled, his ponytail falling from its bindings.

They'd long forsaken jutsu and weapons, and were now doing things a little old school with only their fists. Shimon was stronger with jutsu, Iruka was better with weapons and exploding tags, but it seemed they were even enough with hand-to-hand combat.

Shimon suddenly ducked before chuckling. "Reverse knife-hand, instead? Very nice choice."

The elbow-strike was sudden, making contact, forcing Shimon back. Now his arms were braced in a crossed position, and he looked a little surprised.

"How about you concentrate on your own moves rather than mine?"

Iruka barely finished his words before a sidekick nearly hit him on the back of his head. The air made a whistling noise as it passed harmlessly, but he staggered slightly.

Quick on his feet, Shimon took advantage of Iruka's sudden imbalance with an open-palm hit to the chest. There was a loud crack. But Iruka used a simple locking technique, turning the other chuunin's attack against him. Grabbing the arm, twisting the wrist and then flinging him down.

Winded, Shimon barely dodged the knee aimed at his gut. Rolling to his left, he scrambled to his feet, and quickly retaliated with a solid punch. Too much time to build up the momentum; Iruka stepped out of harm's way.

"Not bad," Hijiri smirked before adding, "You could do better."

"Still doing better than you," Iruka barked back aggressively.

Feinting to his left, Iruka then ran straight forward and tried to tackle Shimon; normally it would never have worked, but the blunt head-on approach came unexpectedly. They both landed in the mud and grunted at the hard impact.

Before Iruka could blink, Shimon had got him in a headlock from behind. Fingers coated with mud, frozen from ice-water, they scrabbled at the arm but left no damage. Getting hard to breathe. Iruka tried an elbow to gut, and though it hit, Shimon merely oomphed and continued his grasp.

He was waiting for submission. Like hell would Iruka concede at this point in the game.

It was a bit underhanded, but he pinched a sensitive pressure point on Shimon's wrist. The man yelped and let go, Iruka pulling free from the hold and scrambling away to build up distance between them.

Before he got too far, Shimon aimed to knock his legs out with a low, sweeping kick. Iruka intuitively leapt up, avoiding the blow.

Since they were within an arm's length of one another, Iruka attempted another reverse-knife hand. Deftly blocked, he went for an uppercut punch.

It hit. Just brushed the jaw, but it was with enough force that Shimon staggered backwards. A trail of blood dripped from his mouth. Iruka could feel a bruise forming around his neck, so he wasn't too sympathetic.

Warily, they both eyed their opponent, knees bent in preparation to spring.

"Truce?" Iruka asked tiredly, not moving from his position, ready for a counter-attack.

"Yeah, truce," Shimon said as he straightened up, stretching his back until it cracked.

"Starting to get a bit late," Iruka shrugged, lowering his hands. "Sun's preparing to set – even though we had a break for lunch, I'm starving."

"Agreed; I need to rest up anyway, for tomorrow." There was a touch of sarcasm in those words—a Sunday mission rarely needed additional training.

They began walking back to the fence bordering the training grounds, where they left their belongings. As they moved slowly through the thick, cold mud, their uniforms squelched and stuck uncomfortably to their skin. They smelled of sweat and dirt.

"I need a shower," muttered Iruka under his breath as he observed the grime covering his arms and torso. He wondered how something that was once green look so, so brown now. At least it was an old set and he could throw it away.

"Same," agreed Shimon, raking a dirty hand through even dirtier hair. For once, his bangs stayed out of his eyes, instead wetly stuck to his cheekbones. "You owe me a trip to the hot springs once I'm back from tomorrow's mission," he reminded.

"Yeah, yeah," Iruka said. "Worth it, though."

"Definitely," replied the other with unsuppressed enthusiasm.

They reached their gear and stopped to have a drink and wipe away the worst of the muck from their skin. It was a fruitless effort, and they soon gave up, sitting under the trees instead, sipping from their canteens.

"Hey, are you going to try out for the jounin exams soon?" Iruka asked. He knew of the other's aspirations of achieving a higher rank and figured from the spar that the time would be coming soon.

"I'm waiting for you to put your hand up," Shimon replied without blinking.

Rolling his eyes, Iruka laughed, "I could never have the chakra stores for that."

"Apply for a special-jounin role then," Hijiri countered persistently. "You'd do well in tactical planning."

"Shimon, we've been over this. I'm not going to change from journeyman ninja." Covering a deep yawn with his hand, Iruka continued, "Seriously, when are you signing up?"

"I'm thinking of applying in the spring," exhaled Shimon heavily. "I've mastered earth fairly well now, so I've got the double-elemental requirement down."

"The mud element would probably be appreciated by the higher-ups," Iruka mused, looking up at the crow glaring down at them, ruffling its feathers like a regal prince.

"Perhaps," Shimon murmured, taking gulps from his flask of herbal tea. After a long pause, he added, "It's harder than I thought it would be."

"What? Training for a double-elemental affinity? I'd suppose that would be difficult."

"No. Well, yes, that was quite a challenge, but I'm talking about the kids," Shimon said with a bashful grin. "It'll be hard to leave the buggers behind."

"Thought you couldn't wait to get rid of them?"

"Not quite yet. They're a bunch of brats, but once you earn their respect, it's like you hung the moon," said Shimon with a small smile. "Ahh, I don't know. Kids grow on you, I guess."

"Don't worry, I get what you mean."

Shimon nodded affirmative, and then closed his eyes and leant against the trunk with the appearance of napping.

Iruka noted the pale skin glaring in stark contrast with the dirt and wondered whether the guy wanted to rise to jounin for the village or for acceptance. A jounin was a mark of strength, resilience, power. Shimon had all those things, but his foreign background stopped him being treated quite like everyone else – the kids probably judged him without considering his background, and he most definitely appreciated that.

For some reason, Kakashi flashed in his mind and he thought: Not all jounin are accepted; some are lonelier than the rest of us.

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Iruka's body felt tingly in that uncomfortable raw way that spoke of new skin. Perhaps he was a little too rough in cleaning up his body of the sticky dirt, and even though he got home and was freezing, scalding hot water was not the best of options. At least the soft cotton of casual wear was kind enough to it, compared to the stiff starchy material in normal ninja garb.

Usually he would simply crash after his shower, tired as he was from his early shift and the sparring session, but he needed to make a quick grocery run. One arm carried bread, milk and eggs, the other hefting a few kilos of rice. Probably he should have gotten more food, but exhaustion was starting to take its toll on him, and Iruka loathed taking soldier pills – the inevitable next-day crash never made them worth it.

As he paused at a fruit stall, he felt, rather than saw, Anko pass him with – who was it? Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he saw the purple-haired kunoichi walking beside Tenzou, easily recognisable by his flashing confining forehead protector. Wait, what was she doing with Tenzou?

"Umino!" a familiar voice called out. Turning around, he saw Shimon jog towards him, looking a bit conspicuous with his arms full carrying a filled fish-bowl; there was a plastic bag hooked around his elbow, bouncing with every stride.

"Aren't you meant to be sleeping?" Iruka asked as soon as the other was close enough. He eyed the man's possessions without commenting; he was still debating whether he should ask.

"I could ask you the same thing," laughed Hijiri, shifting the fish-bowl in his arms to a more stable position. He motioned with his head for Iruka to lead the way.

Wordlessly, Iruka started walking towards his apartment, Shimon easily falling in step beside him. The bustling sounds of the marketplace were soothing in an almost meditative way as the men darted past the stalls. Ice or snow sometimes blocked their path, but they carefully navigated around those with chakra re-enforced feet.

Finally, curiosity won over everything and Iruka asked about the fish-bowl. A bashful grin spread across the other's face, Shimon chuckling in a somewhat embarrassed manner.

"About that; I was kind-of hoping you could take care of Kuro and Shiro for me—" Iruka blinked in confusion before realizing that he was referring to the black-and-white striped Angelfish swimming languidly in the water, "—while I'm off on the mission."

"Sunday missions barely take a day though," Iruka pointed out bemusedly, "So no need to be overly concerned over the welfare your fish."

"New orders," shrugged Shimon before sighing heavily. "The mission rank got bumped up, too, now that it's escorting."

"How long will you be out?" Iruka took on a sympathetic tone, knowing how troublesome it was to have mission parameters change the day before. "And what about your students?" he tacked on as an afterthought.

"Probably I'll be out for a few extra days," Hijiri waved his hand vaguely, as if he wasn't quite sure. "As for what'll happen in my absence, I've conned Mozuku into looking after the brats."

"Trusting the trainee with your kids?" There was disbelief and good humour in Iruka's voice.

"More like punishing him with them," replied Shimon. They shared a grin before bursting out in laughter.

"Getting back to the original question; sure, I'll look after—, wait, what were their names again?"

"Their names are Kuro and Shiro." The hint of pride was not imagined, Iruka decided firmly after a heartbeat of hesitation.

Bending down to look at the Angelfish with better clarity, Iruka suddenly frowned. Both fish looked identical with their alternating black-and-white strips and long, thin fins floating out behind them.

"How can you tell which is which?"

Shimon paused in his step, looked down, and replied, "You know, I've never really figured that out. It doesn't really matter anyway – those two are always together, born from the same mating pair too, for that matter."

"Same pet store?" Iruka asked as they climbed the stairs of his apartment block, his hands busy patting his front pockets for his house keys.

"No, no, no," Shimon answered quickly. "I bred them myself." Ahh, the pride is thus explained. A splash came from the bowl as it was shifted in its hold.

"I didn't know you had that as a hobby," Iruka said, moving all his bags to one hand, the other searching blindly for keys within his back pockets.

"Watching fish swim is relaxing," was all that was said as way of explanation. Iruka looked at the other chuunin with a sceptical gaze.

"It is," Shimon enthused. "Try it when you're looking after them."

They were now in front of room 011850, and Iruka hoorah-ed at the sudden almost-miraculous discovery of his keys, roughly shoving them in the lock. He should consider investing in a bigger keychain, but that would probably mean a slightly bigger embarrassment at not being able to locate them every time.

"Sorry about the mess," Iruka muttered with a sudden flush as the pair walked in, feeling the need to apologise for the complete clutter that made up his home.

He wondered vaguely why a pair of his training pants was atop the kitchen table, but thought perhaps the wilting—read: dying—pot plants were something of more concern to a visitor thinking of entrusting something alive into his care.

"Mess is a part of life," Shimon recited in an overly—clearly mocking—philosophical tone.

"Is that why everything doesn't make sense?" Iruka asked as he placed his groceries on the table, knocking the pants to the floor surreptitiously.

"I'm betting it's this huge cosmic joke to fuck us up."

"Always eloquent, you are," Iruka commented as he rolled his eyes.

As Shimon put down the fish-bowl and bag—which Iruka finally saw to be holding some fish pellets—on a small coffee table, he said, "Your traps are rather strange."

"You noticed?" Iruka wasn't surprised, even though he voiced the question.

"Yeah, when I walked in. Why do you have them attuned to your chakra; isn't it better to manually set and disable them?"

Putting away the eggs in his fridge, Iruka said, "I've got a few around the doors and windows."

"Not enough to be that much of a bother," Shimon muttered doubtfully.

"Guess I'm just lazy then, aren't I?" Iruka shrugged, unrepentant.

Shaking his head, Shimon moved to a window and said, "I'll be off then. Thanks for the help."

"No worries." Iruka was leaning against the kitchen table as he waved his colleague off.

As the chuunin jumped from the windowsill to a downstairs balcony, Iruka heard him add, "You still owe me a trip to the hot springs, you know!"

¥¥Y¥¥

The tinkle of a bell turned heads. Two other ninja were entering the back room where Shizune and Iruka were – presenting their identification and chakra signatures. Weapons stores always had a backroom for ninja. It was a general law that was strictly enforced. Hidden Villages regulated who got weapons, and how much they got. Retired, injured, or off-duty high-ranked chuunin usually manned the desks. Visiting ninja either brought their own weapons or jumped through hoops to get some from Leaf.

Iruka owned a special card allowing him to buy large stockpiles for his class and charge the purchases to village administration. Shizune got a special ID to access restricted materials that most jounin wished they could get. It was not just a matter of skill, but trust, too.

Shizune was holding several thin ropes woven from copper thread. "What do you think?" she asked. "Twelve bronze pieces per meter sounds good, but copper is such a limited metal if your chakra affinity isn't lightning or fire..."

"Too bad you're a wind-affinity then."

Flipping her short, dark hair back, Shizune sighed and put away the copper rope, moving to look at some pretty little vials with some nasty poisons in them. Packaging ranged from glass to plastic to metal to porcelain. She scrutinized a rose-tinted glass vial of pain-induced-paralysis toxin, made from the extract of fox-glove nectar.

"You've trained under Lady Hokage; I truly doubt that anything here could match your lethal poisons," Iruka added as he absentmindedly picked up a rotund bottle, unnaturally cold to the touch.

Without looking up, Shizune admitted, "Sometimes it's less time consuming to get pre-made toxins – but even then, Lady Tsunade only will let me carry ANBU-grade quality."

"It's good to see there's someone keeping an eye on you."

"Shouldn't you do that? I generally look after your sorry ass when you pass out from over-exhaustion."

She shot him a quick look that seemed to encapsulate how idiotic she considered him to sometimes be. Which he was, sometimes; like when he took a double-shift at the Mission Room right after a day of school and a few hours of afternoon tutoring. Not to mention the lack of lunch and breakfast.

Damn, Iruka winced at the memory. Shizune's 'Glare Of Death' was terrifying – especially when he was confined to a hospital bed and couldn't move.

When Shizune shoved him playfully, Iruka didn't even budge an inch from the force, instead laughing at the infuriated growl he elicited from the kunoichi.

"One of the Sannin trumps whatever card a mere chuunin like me can hold, don't you think?" Iruka grinned, as Shizune muffled a laugh in vain.

They were now in the corner of the shop shelved with blades of all varieties. Naturally, the chuunin gravitated towards the kunai. While the long swords were flashy, Iruka had always favourite the short hand-sized blades. Easy to conceal, easy to sharpen, and worked well with exploding tags.

Shizune drifted away slightly to observe a new shipment of throwing stars – five pointed, instead of the usual four, with a curve to the tips; very nifty, deeper penetration but not as practical for accuracy.

"Have you heard about Genma and—"

"—Yuugao?" Iruka finished. "Yeah, odd coincidence, but that was the rumour running around the Mission Room the other day."

"Thought you'd like to know; it's not a rumour." After Iruka shot her a look, she elaborated, "They're moved in together; signed up for a permit and everything."

"Figures," muttered Iruka. "Ninja can never go for the easy relationships, can they?"

"Where's the fun in simple?" Shizune laughed as they moved past the weaponry department.

"Good point."

"So what do you think?"

"Not sure. The living can't cling to death forever, I'd suppose." Otherwise they'd go insane.

Iruka's attention was then diverted as he checked out a new variation of exploding tag – instead of releasing a concentrated fire bomb it would burst in a cloud of scalding steam.

"Don't recommend those," Shizune piped up, noting where Iruka's gaze fell. "I've had a few soldiers swing by the hospital because those were misused. They're less predictable than the usual exploding tags."

Iruka rolled his eyes, and grabbed a small stack anyway. He wanted to fiddle with them a bit; he always liked dissecting equipment and gadgets to see how they worked.

Shizune pursed her lips, but he pre-empted her by saying, "I'll practise with them beforehand so don't worry."

After Iruka had paid for his purchases, they walked down the cobblestone streets almost aimlessly, talking about the predicted snow storm that was coming – some people predicted it would be one of the worst in years.

"Can we stop by the hot springs?" Iruka asked with his cold nose as prompter.

"You keen for a soak?"

"Yeah, but I also need to pick up a voucher 'cause I owe someone."

"I'd love to join you, but I need to check up on Lady Tsunade," Shizune explained apologetically.

Shrugging, Iruka said, "Won't keep you then."

"Ahh, we would have been split up anyway into the different gender-sections, so chin up." She pushed his jaw up with a gloved finger before laughing and making her way to the tower.

Shaking his head with still-glowing good humour, Iruka made the extra five minute walk to the hot springs. By the looks of things, the weather had made the place extra busy, but Iruka was so cold he was beginning not to care so much.

As he sank into the water, the thought suddenly crossed his mind, Where has young Bito been? I haven't seen him at all today.

¥¥Y¥¥

A/N: This was originally meant to include the hot springs scene (in next chapter), but it got too long.

Hope you've enjoyed!