A/N: I'm so sorry for the long delay guys, I really am! I totally scrapped the original pages of this chapter and re-wrote the whole thing. Trust me, it works out better this way. And also, I've landed myself with a second job, so there's my two reasons for this chapter's delay. Now, I won't ramble any longer. Enjoy!

Warnings: Some mildly disturbing events are mentioned in the middle of this, sensitive readers be aware. Un-beta-ed as usual, I only bothered with a quick read through. I'll go over it more carefully tomorrow when I'm not as tired! ^^


Cover

By General 16


Chapter Nine

Frustration – a feeling of annoyance at being hindered or criticized

The night was slowly progressing towards dawn; thin tendrils of pink, dark blue, indigo and orange entwining and stretching over the horizon with the sun's approach. Konoha's Fifth Hokage didn't even flinch when two shadows slipped inside of her office, brown irises never slowing in their perusal over the stack of papers in front of her.

"How did it go?" she asked without looking up. A brief silence followed, small sounds of feet shuffling over the carpet in from of her desk drifting through the room.

"Better than expected, Hokage-sama."

"Is that so?" She lifted her head, eyes sharp despite the early hour as she assessed the two men before her.

"Yes. He was… not what either of us had anticipated, to be honest."

A snort of wry amusement escaped her and she dropped the papers in her hands. Leaning back in the chair, a smirk lifted the corners of her mouth. "I find that's usually the case when concerning him." Slender fingers tapped against the top of her desk, a pondering silence between her and her two subordinates.

"So?" she asked at length, "How did he take it?"

The man to the right shifted slightly. "I… cannot say, really. Good enough, considering it was his first time."

Blond brows furrowed. "He knows it wasn't really real, right?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama, we explained it to him."

"Good", she nodded distractedly, mind miles away for a moment. "And what's your conclusion?"

The man on the left produced a file, which he handed to Tsunade, the snarling mask over his face obscuring any facial expressions he might've had from her. "Approved, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade dipped her chin slowly as she opened the file, gaze scanning over the neatly scribbled words on the page inside. "That's… nothing less than what I expected", she mumbled absently.

"He showed a remarkable ability to think on his feet. Clever and innovative ways to use his surroundings to his advantage, not to mention the clones", the man on the right said, a small trace of amusement in his voice.

"He's known not to go by the norm when dealing with things", Tsunade chuckled, the file placed on the desk as she finished reading. "Do you think he's ready?"

The man on the left nodded. "Yes. Once his last training mission with team 13 is over, he should be ready for live action."

"And Wolf has agreed with you on this?"

The men glanced at each other. "He has not given any indication of the opposite, Hokage-sama. I'd say he's rather pleased with the progress", Monkey offered.

Tsunade snorted again. "It's hard to know with Wolf, but I'll trust his silence and your estimation." Reaching to rummage around under the piles of paperwork cluttering her desk, the Fifth's deft fingers found a stamp somewhere underneath the chaos. She pressed it on the bottom of the page laid open before her, picking the file up and snapping it shut once the green Approved was imprinted.

"Deliver this to Tiger; I'm sure he'll be as thrilled as I am to see it."

Two heads bowed in unison. "Certainly, Hokage-sama."

Once alone again, Tsunade turned her chair to look out over the village, brows furrowed in thought as she contemplated, wondering what the future would bring for Naruto, now that he was permitted and about the become a full member of ANBU.

Sighing deeply, she turned back to the never ending heaps of work waiting for her. "I really hope you know what you're doing, Naruto."


Atsuki Yuzuha was not an attractive man. The fat belly strained against the yellow fabric of his shirt, the brown jacket he wore over gaping in between the buttons. He was bald on top of the head and had combed the hair still clinging to the edges of his skull to cover the bare skin, the thin strands looking more painted on than anything else. He was short; Naruto would've guessed that standing toe to toe, he'd reach up to have his potato-like nose level with Naruto's collarbone. His small, beady eyes bulged in the puffy face, quite hilariously reminding Naruto of a pug and the man's ears looked big enough to be able to carry him away, should a strong enough wind blow when he went outside.

Yet, Naruto couldn't help but feel impressed over the poise the man carried himself with, as if he was the most important man in the world, greater than any emperor or ruler. Peeking at the short man from underneath dirty blond bangs, as Yuzuha dodged between the narrowly placed tables in the dingy inn, Naruto slumped further in his chair.

Kakashi was slumping opposite him, almost unrecognizable in plain, brown and dirty clothes; his hair tamed back into a short, messy tail. He wore a strip of grey fabric to cover his Sharingan, but the rest of his face was bare, his jaw and chin shadowed by a soft, grey beard that came from not shaving for three days. It had been hard, trying to keep his eyes from lingering over how the facial hair accented Kakashi's lips, pronouncing their slight pout to Naruto's interested gaze.

The older man sat with his good eye almost entirely closed; only a slip of grey iris visible as Kakashi played his part of a very drunk farmer, dangerously close to passing out in his booze. His head was thrown back, his long neck stretched as he watched their target's trajectory towards the back of the inn's dimly lit interior.

"I thought bad guys were supposed to be, y'know, more suave", Naruto muttered into his drink, his head bobbing jerkily as if he was trying to stay awake when Yuzuha scurried by their table. Kakashi straightened wobbly, peering at the blond slightly cock-eyed. How the hell the Copy-nin managed that, Naruto had no idea, but it was convincing.

If he hadn't known Kakashi, Naruto knew he would've been fooled to believe whatever Kakashi wanted him to. The man was good and Naruto was thankful to have him as his teacher, two and a half months into his apprenticeship.

"Don't let his appearance fool you", Kakashi muttered as he almost collapsed over the table, "he's almost as smart as Shikamaru and twice as malicious as the Kyuubi."

"How do you know that? We've only been doing this for four days!" Naruto hissed a little petulantly, keeping one ear on the hubbub around them and the other on their hushed conversation. It may have been a trick of the dim light to others, but Naruto clearly saw one of the dimples adorning Kakashi's cheeks deepen, as the older man smiled down into the tabletop.

"You've been at this for four days. The rest of us have had two weeks, while you've been… otherwise engaged."

Naruto suppressed a shudder, his exasperated amusement slipping away at the mere remembrance. One and a half week with the crazy Hunter duo known as Panther and Monkey had been more than enough to last him through a life time. Once it had been over and Naruto had found himself collapsed on his bed, in the relative safety of his home, he was hard pressed to believe how he'd even survived the first day with his sanity intact.

The same night after his and Kakashi's third date, where nothing, save for some intense necking, had occurred he'd received a message to meet Panther at one of the concealed training grounds belonging to ANBU, at six o'clock the following morning. He was to come in his uniform and bring with him a survival kit that would last him for ten days.

That had been it, no more information. He'd shown up on the strike of six, on edge and jittery, waiting with his stomach full of butterflies. Three hours later he was still jittery but the anxiety had been replaced with annoyance. If he hadn't known better, Naruto would've felt inclined to think that it was Kakashi he was supposed to meet.

The blond had sighed explosively, had turned around and around and around in circles, scanning the small training area and keeping his guard up the entire time. The Copy-nin's unconventional training methods aside, they had been efficient and had instilled a new sense of awareness in Naruto.

Which had ultimately saved him, when around noon, almost six hours after the given time, he'd been attacked. Suddenly a black shape had charged, seemingly out of nowhere, and Naruto had found himself fighting someone; a black clad figure that moved with such grace and speed, he'd been having a hard time keeping up at first.

The snarling face of a monkey had been the first clue, the panther masked one the other, as Naruto had almost fallen for the diversion tactic Monkey had executed; leaving his partner to sneak up from behind while their prey were occupied with defending himself.

They'd teamed up against him, using several, unknown jutsus to keep him off balance and force him into a figurative corner; leaving Naruto to scramble and utilize more chakra than he'd intended. Not that it made any difference to him, not with his naturally large supply of the life energy, coupled with the almost infinite amount he got from the Kyuubi.

A freakishly amount of chakra did the blond no good though, not when he was up against two very skilled men, on par with Kakashi but without a Sharingan. They'd kept their distance, had Naruto on his toes as they evaluated his moves, how he was handling their attacks and just generally being bastards of the highest degree.

It had lasted for almost thirty minutes and then they'd just stopped, leaving Naruto panting and sweating from the physical and mental extortion. Monkey had been the first one to walk up to him, long, lanky body at ease and moving fluidly with the kind of grace which to some came naturally. Naruto had eyed him warily, senses alert and on edge the whole time.

"You really need to work on your stamina", Monkey had drawled when he'd stopped a few paces away, biceps bulging above the edge of black gloves as he'd crossed his arms over his armored chest.

Naruto, sputtering from outrage and red in the face, had tried to protest when Panther joined his partner, his slightly shorter and stocky frame mirroring that of his partner's at they'd stared Naruto down. No one had ever questioned Naruto's stamina before; he'd held his own against stronger enemies in the past, and that without even having the jounin training to back him up!

"Your balance was off key", Panther had offered once Naruto had caught his breath, blue eyes glaring from behind the eye slits in his mask at the pair all but looming over him.

"I know", Naruto grunted. "About the balance at least. No one's ever complained about my stamina!"

Monkey had snorted, his stance relaxing ever so slightly. "I wasn't talking about your body. Your mind, boy. You really need to start working that brain of yours more."

Completely baffled, Naruto had stared at them for a good minute. "What?"

Panther had chortled in wry amusement, the sound deep and velvety. "Your body kept up just fine, to the point where we ganged up on you. You need to train your mind to be as adaptable as your body, to be able to analyze and come up with solutions in a split second."

"I can do that!" Naruto protested, the small dislike he felt for them growing bigger. The masked duo had glanced at each other, communicating flawlessly and transmitting whatever they were thinking between them without uttering a single word.

"Crazy plans which have a fifty-fifty chance or less of working out don't count", Panther had said at last. "If you can't plan ahead you'll be dead in a week, if you're ever cleared for active duty."

"And this is where we come in", Monkey had interjected as Naruto was about to open his mouth again. The large man couldn't see Naruto's face behind the porcelain any more than Naruto could see his, but Monkey had still been able to read Naruto like an open book. "We will teach you how to do this. Come on, we're heading out."

And that's where Naruto had entered what could only have been Hell. They'd led him straight out into nowhere, traveling fast for almost a whole day before stopping in one of those small, natural clearings that could be found all over in Fire country's dense forest landscape.

Panther had looked at Monkey for a long time, doing that silent talking thing Naruto had already begun to loathe. Then, as one, they'd turned to him and he hadn't been able to shake the feeling that they had been grinning behind their snarling masks.

"This is your last line of defense", Panther had declared with a flourish of his hand, motioning towards the grass and shrubbery covered gland behind them.

Naruto knew he shouldn't, but his vocal cords had seemed to have a mind of their own as he'd asked,

"Defense… Defend it from what?"

"Us", Monkey had answered and then they'd been gone with barely a flicker of chakra. Naruto had been left alone in the clearing with nothing sans his backpack and what weapons he carried on him.

"Great." The word was more an annoyed exhale than a grumble. Slowly turning around to get a cleared view of what would, essentially, be his home for the next nine days he'd muttered, "Just freaking great."

He'd spent the first night up in a tree, getting sleep in bouts of an hour or so at a time, senses too alert to really be able to relax and settle down properly. He'd kept three clones as guards during the time, having them act as lookouts and warn him by dispersing should they spot anything threatening.

When he'd woken up at dawn the following morning all of his clones had been intact, had spotted nothing else sans some night active animals. Naruto had been more than a little befuddled by this fact, when he'd found a scroll at the base of the tree he'd been hiding in, lying there innocently with a note tied to it.

The message had been short and blunt, urging him to learn the two jutsus inside of the scroll in two days and to plan out how to defend the gland from them or else… The last part hadn't actually been written down, but Naruto had gotten the gist of it. So he'd settled down to learn, having his clones make a small, camouflaged camp where they'd used the surrounding nature to hide his small tent.

He'd chosen an even smaller gland a couple of miles from his base camp, not wanting to draw any unwanted attention to him when he set out to learn, or die trying. Or well, not dying maybe, he still had Hokage seats to reach, Copy-nins to do and so forth, but he would rather drop down unconscious before giving up.

The jutsus had been deceptively easy on paper, proving far more difficult to master once he'd tried his hands at them. The first one had been a simple cloaking jutsu, similar to a genjutsu but more suited for when he wanted to hide instead of trapping someone in an illusion he'd only fail to hold on to. Naruto knew his weaknesses very well, and while he could by then sense and dispel a genjutsu with just a little more trouble than your average shinobi, a genjutsu master he would never be. He didn't have a problem with that; illusions had never really been his style anyway.

The second one had been a tracking jutsu, designed for dispatchers when they'd lost sight of their target. It would only take one, good read on the mark's chakra signature to make it work and then it would, without fail, lead the user in the right direction. He'd been standing with the scroll in his hand for a long time, wavering and wondering if he'd done right when deciding to pursue the path of a dispatcher.

Shrugging off the doubt crowding his mind and squaring his shoulders, Naruto had clenched his jaw and started to learn the signs written down, leaving all reservations behind.

It had taken four days before Monkey and Panther had attacked again, in the middle of the night, without setting off any of Naruto's clones. The cloaking jutsu had proven to come in handy then, and the lessons Kakashi had instilled in him about always being aware and ready, had turned that particular fight more in Naruto's favor.

He'd managed to keep himself hidden long enough for the Hunters to spring one of the traps he'd made, Iruka's hand in his earlier training shining through as they'd almost fallen for it. In the end they'd escaped the hole filled with sharpened pikes and explosives, forcing Naruto out into the open and had engaged him in combat.

It had been vicious; him alone against two elite Hunters who were set out to really kill him. They hadn't pulled any of their punches, going all out as they'd tried to take him down. Never let it be said that Naruto couldn't think on his feet though, and a clever plan consisting of him using clones and mingling with them to create confusion, Naruto had managed to get away by the skin of his teeth.

They'd been gone by then, forcing him to use the tracking jutsu by having deliberately used an abundance of showy jutsus that required a lot of chakra in the fight. Naruto had used it with success, congratulating himself for getting them away from the gland which was his to defend, and it hadn't even taken him ten minutes to find them again.

They'd been pleased with him, or so he assumed, one could never know with those masks in the way. They had, however, each given him a pat on his shoulder once the battle had ended after a dragged out, two hour long stalemate. They'd called it and ended it before anyone of them could get seriously hurt, and Monkey had handed him another scroll, ordering him to read and learn in yet another two days, before the final day out in the forest with them.

The second scroll had contained one, last jutsu; a technique that still left Naruto unsettled with the mere knowledge that he could and would most likely use it at some point in the future. Simply named Body disposal, it had been fairly easy to learn; but the way he'd been required to go about to execute it had weighted heavily on his mind.

As always, Naruto had used his trusted Kage bunshin and had two of them hunt and kill some animals, three bunnies, one badger and two small deer. Having felt nauseous and holding back the bile rising in the back of his throat at the sight of the animals lying in a neat row in front of him, Naruto's hands had trembled as he'd made the signs and said the words to reduce the dead wildlife to fresh dirt.

Seeing that, witnessing fur and hair disintegrate, flesh implode and crumble and bones cracking and falling apart to nothing, had shaken him to the core, had left a stale taste in his mouth that lingered, even weeks after. And it wasn't like he'd been left to learn in peace either, like with the other jutsus.

No, Panther and Monkey had attacked him randomly all through the days and nights, left traps around his camp, planted deadly illusions all over the place. It had left Naruto drained, his mind and body so taxed after several days of being kept on his toes. It was Kakashi's training all over again, only ten times worse.

Naruto had learned though. He'd learned to see, to hear and to trust his gut, his senses elevating to higher levels the more time progressed. His thoughts had processed all new scenarios faster, had been able to come up with split second solutions. And whether those solutions had been the best or the wisest… well Naruto was still Naruto, and true to his nature he hadn't let something as harsh words or glares from his mentors, whenever he had done something unexpected, stop him.

The last day, the one Naruto would remember for the rest of his life, had come all too fast. He'd woken up inside of his drafty tent, dreading to get out and see what Panther and Monkey had come up with. A third scroll awaited him just outside, telling him to pack up and be ready.

Panther had come to get him half an hour later, alone and somber.

"Your mission today", the man had said, voice devoid of any emotions or hints whatsoever, "is to find Monkey and dispatch him."

Naruto had stood frozen, thoughts running through his head faster than they could be processed, wide eyes staring at Panther.

"…What?" he'd managed to choke out at last, fine tremors of dread and uneasiness chasing up and down his spine.

Panther had glared back steadily. "You have your remits, you have your mark. Do you dare to disobey a direct order from your superior?" he'd asked coolly, eyes hard as flint behind the slits in his mask. "You are to use the knowledge we've taught you and complete your mission. You have until midnight. I'll be watching."

With that Panther had vanished, barely a flicker of chakra before Naruto was left alone, beads of sweat forming at his hairline underneath his blank mask. He had no idea how long he'd remained unmoving, staring blankly out in the air while trying to curb the fear turning his stomach into knots.

A crow from a bird in the distance had shaken him out of the strange trance, enabling him to move and get his mind straight. He couldn't afford to hesitate; he wouldn't. He'd chosen the path for himself, and no one but him could make him fail to follow its trail. Taking a deep breath and leaving something he would never really get back behind, Naruto had steeled his heart and moved out.

"Heads up, he's coming back." Kakashi's words, almost too low to hear in the raucous pub, yanked Naruto back into the present, blue eyes blinking in the dim light. Through the flood of memories he'd rather just bury in the deepest, darkest recesses of his mind – blood, so much blood spilling over his hands, eyes barely visible through narrow slits in a snarling porcelain face growing dimmer as life fled – he did his best to pull himself together.

Nausea, a constantly occurring feeling ever since, was pushed back and Naruto swallowed around the sudden tightness in his throat. Slumping further in his seat, he caught a glimpse of their target out of the corner of his eye again, waiting for Kakashi's signal before they got up on seemingly wonky feet, staggering out of the tavern while leaning on each other.

Two pair of sharp eyes followed Atsuki Yuzuha as the rotund man rounded a corner, disappearing down a narrow alley.

"And our work here is done", Kakashi mumbled in Naruto's ear, the close proximity and warm breath fanning against his neck and cheek sending shivers of a different kind down Naruto's spine.

"Did we actually get what we came here for?" Naruto wondered as they walked in the other direction, their steps growing surer and straighter the further away they got.

"Well, one can never be too sure, but the way his pockets bulged when he returned from that room, I'd say, we sure did."

Naruto glanced at the older man disbelievingly. "You notice stuff like that?"

Kakashi shrugged as he straightened up, leaving Naruto to walk by his side, missing the warmth. "It's what we do. You need to pay more attention."

Naruto's lower lip turned down in a pout. "I pay attention."

"Don't worry; you'll get the hang of it. Eventually." Chortling lowly, Kakashi gently nudged his shoulder against Naruto's. Still pouting, though it was mostly for show, they walked in companionable silence, enjoying the calm night and docile city around them.

"So… what's gonna come from the information we've gathered?" Naruto asked after a while, giving Kakashi a brief glance.

"Well that's for the higher ups to decide. Had they wanted the object dead we would've been in an entirely different situation." Naruto flinched at Kakashi's calloused reply, wondering if he would be as indifferent one day too. The thought didn't sit well with him, nausea and guilt churning unpleasantly in his gut.

As if reading his mind, Kakashi stopped, his eyes serious as he regarded Naruto with a certain kind of gentleness Naruto had started to recognize, not as something patronizing, but sympathy.

"This is what we do, Naruto", Kakashi told him lowly. "This is the reality you have to come to terms with if you want to do this. We all go through it and we all have different ways to deal with it."

Naruto, standing a few paces away, his gaze lost as it stared down the dim street, closed his eyes and lowered his head. "I know. It's just that…" Turning to face Kakashi, Naruto gave him a lost look. "I think it would be easier if I could finally move past all this "internship" bullshit. I get… antsy", he confessed, blushing slightly at the admission.

Kakashi's gaze turned calculating, the warm grey and red growing a little colder. "You're ready for live action when I say you are." Naruto gritted his teeth and Kakashi's commanding tone, bristling at the implication that he wasn't prepared.

"I know", Naruto repeated, bitingly. "But when? Three months… time's almost up. When will you decide?"

He almost flinched back when Kakashi came right up in his personal space, forcing Naruto back against a nearby wall. Naruto's breath hitched as Kakashi leaned in, stopping with his face a mere inch from Naruto's. Kakashi stared at Naruto for a long moment, calm, steely irises scrutinizing Naruto's face deeply.

"Soon", Kakashi said at length, backing away. He waited for Naruto to bite back on the snarling reply clawing at the back of his throat, but Naruto swallowed it down with effort, keeping his mouth shut as they resumed their walk towards the city border.

As they reached the wooden palisade shielding the small city, on the verge where shadows stretched and danced at the edge of light, Kakashi stopped again, eyes trained on the dark wood beyond as he spoke again.

"One more mission, a live one, and then I'll decide."

Naruto's heart thudded heavily against his ribs, blood rushing in his veins as he watched Kakashi take the final step and was swallowed by darkness. Hesitating slightly, feeling as if he was standing on the threshold of something big, bigger than anything he'd ever done, Naruto walked after Kakashi, following him into the unknown.


The mission had taken its toll on everyone. Once team 13 got back to Konoha they didn't linger before going home. They all had soft words of praise for Naruto, told him he'd done well, and offered a brief pat on his back or shoulder before they departed. Naruto only gave a tired nod in thanks. Sighing deeply, all Naruto wanted to do was to go home and collapse on his bed.

All the subterfuge was starting to become as tiring, if not more, as mindless fighting. A heavy hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks, as he'd tried to grunt a garbled goodbye to Kakashi. Moaning lowly, Naruto slumped back against Kakashi's solid chest, his spine all but melting against the older man's frame.

There was a note of sympathy in Kakashi's voice when he said, "Not yet. We're going to swing by the headquarters before you're allowed to go home."

"But why?" Naruto refused to admit to the whiny quality in his words. "First ten days with the crazy Hunter duo then another five with you guys and now this? How is this my life?"

"Oh give it a rest, you drama queen", Kakashi chided, pushing Naruto in the direction of the ANBU HQ. "It's not anything you haven't chosen yourself so stop complaining and take it like a man."

"I'm not whining", Naruto pouted, all but dragging his feet through the quiet streets. Truth to be told, he wasn't all that serious. Even though the training with Panther and Monkey had been more than a little unnerving and slightly traumatizing, it had been useful and kind of fun, in the middle of the seriousness. Not to mention how much he enjoyed going out on missions together with team 13.

They worked like a well-oiled machine, every member having their place and knowing what to do without needing more than a signal or two. Knowing that his place among them wasn't permanent, that he would be placed in his own team, if Kakashi would just give the good to go sometime, Naruto hadn't been able to help himself and dream a little.

The mission so far had been strictly surveillance and intelligence gathering. No fighting, no killing, no nothing. Naruto, aware that he was fooling himself, had so far been lulled into a false sense of security, hoping that the missions wouldn't get any worse than what he'd done so far.

Kakashi's earlier words, so casually mentioned, had nicked Naruto's pretenses at the edges, had reminded him that ANBU wasn't only about stealth and sneaking around and collecting information. Naruto had yet to see the darker sides, but had come uncomfortably close on his training with the Hunter duo. Stomping on the memories floating in the back of his mind, of bloody hands and wide eyes staring straight into his, Naruto made an effort not to think about it, too tired to deal with the feelings they invoked.

Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, the two of them walked at a leisure pace to the HQ, letting silence rest comfortably between them. Naruto hung back as Kakashi accessed the entrance, gaze heavy and bleary when they walked into the dimly lit corridor behind the door.

Soft voices ahead of them slipped by Naruto's notice, too focused as he was on not falling asleep on his feet, and almost walked straight into Kakashi when the older man stopped when they reached the lounge area. Unlike the last time, when it had been devoid of any life, it was now filled with people.

Or well, at least five individuals, Naruto's brain had the time to register, before the small crowd greeted them with loud cheers.

"Yo", Kakashi replied, pushing his mask up and away as he gave his usual, trademark wave.

"The lost son returns!" a man in a Bear mask proclaimed dramatically, loud guffaws and good-natured jeering clamoring in Naruto's ears as the gathering got to their feet. Naruto stood back, watching in fascination as Kakashi was drawn into the middle of the hubbub, all of the ANBU talking over each other as questions hailed down over the Copy-nin.

Naruto bit back on a smirk, feeling a little more alert as he witnessed the close kinship they all seemed to share despite the fact that they all wore masks. His smile dropped off his face, however, when he spotted a Cat masked woman, small and petite, sidling up to Kakashi, standing too close and touching him with a familiarity that definitely didn't sit well with Naruto.

All but invisible, for maybe the first time in his life, Naruto had to grit his teeth and seethe on the inside as the Cat wrapped herself all around Kakashi, who didn't seem to mind in the least. On the contrary, he lifted his arm to settle it around the Cat's shoulders, holding her close as he bantered with the small crowd.

So busy was he that Naruto hardly noticed when the group, one after one, grew silent, their piercing gazes going in his direction until all of them were staring at him. Kakashi was the last to turn, and though Naruto couldn't see his eyes, the older man seemed… expectant somehow.

"This is Yellow, our new recruit", Kakashi introduced, a little superfluous, and Naruto gave a small wave in greeting.

"Hi."

As one they crowded around him, humming and snickering and pulling at the bandana covering his hair.

"Is this him?" A Dog masked man asked, the growling quality of his voice all too familiar to Naruto. A little put out that Kiba had made it into ANBU before him, Naruto ignored the query.

"A little on the small side, right?" another ANBU mused out loud, the snarling Cobra face contradictory to the gentle lilt of her voice.

"Nah, that's just the new generation, they're all on the small side", said the fourth and last ANBU, carrying the mask of an Owl.

"Hey, speak for yourself!" Kiba yelped, punching Owl in the shoulder.

"Well there are always exceptions", Owl conceded "I mean, mutations do occur from time to time and-" Reply drowning under roaring laughs as Kiba launched himself at Owl, who nimbly danced out of the way, Naruto glumly noted that Kakashi still hadn't let go of the Cat masked woman, arm casually resting across her back.

"You'll scare him away like that", Kakashi spoke up, words chiding but the tone amused. Naruto glared at the silver-haired man, wishing he'd spontaneously combust or something.

"If he's survived three months under your tutelage, he can come out unscratched from anything", the Cat suddenly spoke up, unwinding from Kakashi so she could step closer to Naruto, peering into the eye slits of his blank mask. "Pretty eyes too", she mumbled, almost to herself.

Naruto had to refrain from leaning back from her closeness, forcing himself to remain where he was as he withstood the scrutiny from all of them. He looked up at Kakashi, who gave him a small, approving, nod. Relaxing slightly was his mistake, as his bandana was ripped off in the next second; Bear crowing triumphantly as he waved it over his head.

Silence fell over the group again until Kiba started to laugh. "How long did you think nobody would recognize that hair when you're finally done with your internship, Naruto?"

Feeling a little silly, now that the cat was out of the bag, Naruto pushed his mask to the side, giving Kiba a sardonic smile. "Right back at you, Kiba."

"Son of a bitch!" Kiba swore, yanking the mask down to dangle around his neck. "How the hell did you know it was me?" he asked, outraged.

Naruto snorted. "Try disguising your horrible dog-breath as good as your chakra signature and you'll dodge it the next time."

Cheeks flamed hotly under the torrent of ear-splitting hilarity from the rest of them, but Kiba managed to ignore them as he treated Naruto too to a punch on the shoulder. "Welcome to ANBU, fox-boy, where insanity's abound and drinks a plenty."

"Thanks", Naruto muttered, glancing in Kakashi's direction when he saw that the Copy-nin had retreated a few steps, and was now quietly speaking with the Cat. The jealousy didn't wait this time, but flared high and hot inside of him. He didn't like it at all, Kakashi being close to other people, not when he seemed so intimate and all too familiar with it, not when the only thing Naruto had gotten in almost three months, were kisses and nothing else.

He did try to break free from the questions fired at him from Bear, Kiba and Cobra and Owl, not really sure of what he was going to do once he'd be at Kakashi's side again. Staking his claim sounded a little too dramatic, even for him, even as he wanted to snarl at the Cat masked hussy to get her filthy paws off of Naruto's man and-

No. Naruto firmly choked that thought before it could gain any more ground. Kakashi was not his man and he had not given any inclination that he wanted to be either. Until Kakashi voiced it out loud, until he'd say that he wanted Naruto's love as well as his body, Kakashi was free to do as he pleased. Really? A small voice in the back of his head hissed. Even as you're already in love with him? Don't you want him to belong to you, and only you? Don't you want to leave your mark on him for all of Konoha, and the world, to see? To let him mark you in return and erase every trace of Sasuke from your mind and skin?

Of course he wanted that; wanted it with such ferocious intent it threatened to consume his every waking thought, as well as his sleeping. They'd had dates after that first, perfect one; dates that always ended with Naruto pressed up against his front door with Kakashi kissing him as if his life depended on it.

Naruto had invited Kakashi inside each time, only for Kakashi to decline every offer. It drove Naruto mad. Not only was he in love with the illusive Copy-nin, but he was also insanely horny and wanted nothing else but drag Kakashi inside and screw his brains out. Despite his attempts at appearing as attractive and alluring as possible, Kakashi had yet to relent, damn him.

To be frank, Naruto was starting to think that Kakashi didn't want him as much as he'd said and was losing hope, just a little bit. As famous as he was for never backing down, even Naruto had to relent when faced with the blank wall Kakashi had somehow, when Naruto hadn't been looking, erected between them.

Stopping in trying to get away from the curious ANBU, Naruto's eyes were anguished and a little hurt as he stared at Kakashi over their shoulders, silently begging him for answers.


"You're a cruel man", Anko whispered at Kakashi, from where they were standing and watching the others all but overwhelm Naruto, babbling and joking and asking every other second.

Kakashi hummed a little under his breath. "How so?"

"You should sleep with the poor guy and get it over with already; if his eyes could kill I'd be a wet spot on the floor by now."

Smirking, Kakashi bent his head slightly so he could murmur directly into Anko's ear. "Feeling threatened, Anko? I didn't know you had it in you."

She snorted inelegant behind her mask, which she had declined from removing. "Please. As if he could ever get one up on me. I just think it's sad that you're appreciating this teasing game you got going on." She turned her head, glancing at him out of the corner of her eyes. "You certainly didn't when you started the game with me."

It was Kakashi time to snort. "You enjoyed torturing me for months, if I recall it correctly. I, on the other hand, am just… raising the stakes a little."

He didn't need to see it to know that her eyebrows were arched behind the porcelain mask. "Really? Wow. The Uchiha brat really did a number on him, then?"

"Yeah, you could say that", Kakashi sighed.

Anko leaned into him, in silent support. "What did he say?" she wondered, jerking her chin in Naruto's direction.

"Something about wanting to keep things casual", Kakashi answered honestly, suddenly tired of games and half-truths. If he couldn't be up front with Anko, someone he had been in a causal relationship with for years before and become quite close to, there really was no hope for him.

"And you believed him?" Anko shook her head. "Boys. You're all so silly. You all make this more complicated than it has to be."

"Oh, we do, do we? Care to share a word of wisdom then, oh Goddess of love?"

She turned to face him fully then, her small hands coming up to cup the back of his neck. Applying a little pressure, she didn't speak up until he had relented and his face was level with her ear.

"Just tell him you love him, idiot." Letting Kakashi go, Anko just threw a wave at her team, before she sauntered towards the room she kept at the HQ. Kakashi stared at her retreating back, heaving a great sigh when Naruto's pleading looks grew more insistent.

"It's not that easy", he whispered after her. A hand on his shoulder had Kakashi turning around, coming face to face with Genma, who had removed his Bear mask.

"So, Kakashi… getting tired of babysitting duty yet?" Genma smirked, glancing briefly at Naruto, who had been cornered by Kiba and was having a heated – and loud – discussion about tracking versus dispatching.

Kakashi shook his head. "I wouldn't say he needs much babysitting, Genma."

"Ah. And the fact that he have got the hots for you has nothing to do with it, right?"

Kakashi's right brow quirked. "That's none of your business, is it?"

Laughing out loud, Genma slapped Kakashi's shoulder. "Don't be such a sourpuss, I'm not blind y'know! And anyway, the way he looks at you… "Genma gave a low wolf-whistle "Man, I'd be burned."

"Was there a point of this conversation?" Kakashi wondered mildly, though a little archly, wanting to escape the third degree. It had been two, long weeks. He wanted to go home and take a shower and get some sleep already.

"We're having a get together tomorrow night, at the usual place. Just thought I'd invite you." Genma shrugged, but he wouldn't meet Kakashi's gaze.

Narrowing his eyes, Kakashi had a firm suspicious just why Genma didn't want to look him in the eye. "You want me to bring the rest of the team?"

The shrug Genma gave was way too casual. "Sure. I mean, the gathering is for all of us ANBU."

Kakashi was not impressed. "Huh. And the fact that you've got the hots for Iruka has nothing to do with it?"

Genma couldn't hide the small blush slowly creeping up his neck, but he was fast to turn his back on Kakashi, tossing his reply over his shoulder as he made his way towards the entrance. "I have no idea what you're talking about!" he said, too loudly, efficiently getting Owl's, Kiba's and Cobra's attention.

"Same time as usual tomorrow night?" Owl called after Genma, who gave a thumb up before he disappeared down the corridor.

"That goes for you too", Kiba said to Naruto, slinging an arm around his shoulders and ruffling his hair with his free hand. Naruto battered at Kiba, scowling when he got out of the hold.

"Alright, I'll go I promise!"

"Promise on a lifetime?" Kiba smirked.

"You wish", Naruto snarked back, getting to Kakashi's side and almost hid behind him. The older man gave him an amused glance.

"See you tomorrow night guys, go home and get some rest."

"Rest is not for the wicked, I'm going over the Hyüga compound!" Kiba declared happily, pumping a fist in the air.

"Oh please, Owl said, exasperate. You could almost hear the eye roll. "Like she'll ever agree to go out with you. How many times have you asked her already? I swear-" Their voiced trailed off as they also departed, bickering amongst themselves and leaving Kakashi and Naruto alone in the common room.

"Who are they talking about?" Naruto wondered and followed Kakashi, when the Copy-nin turned and walked in the direction of Tiger's office down the hall.

"Sweet little Hyüga Hinata", Kakashi smiled. "We have a standing bet on when she'll cave and give in to Kiba's insistence for a date."

"What?" Naruto almost cried. "Since when does Kiba want to date Hinata?" Kakashi gave Naruto a patronizing look, as if he was too stupid to understand. Naruto hated when he did that.

"Since their first day as team 8." Naruto wanted to ask more, to know what else he'd missed while being so wrapped up in Sasuke and his own, insane life. "We all know she's going to turn him down again, she's still carrying a torch for you, after all."

Naruto stopped in his tracks, gaping at Kakashi's back. "She does not!" Naruto sputtered at last, when Kakashi turned back to look at him. The patronizing look was back again and Naruto scowled. "I know she used be into me, but I swear she's not anymore!"

"Oh?" Kakashi moved towards him, forcing Naruto to back up until he was pressed up against the wall just outside Tiger's office. "And how do you know that?"

"Well…" Naruto started, not really sure where to look as Kakashi leaned in real close, slowly nuzzling at his temple. "I… kinda asked her. A while ago."

"Really?"

"Y-yeah", Naruto breathed, lids sliding shut when Kakashi pressed a cloth-covered kiss against the spot right beneath Naruto's ear. "She said that…" He had to stop because while Kakashi's mask stopped the feeling of his lips on Naruto's skin, the mere prospect of them was enough to scramble Naruto's brain. Kakashi made an encouraging noise, prompting Naruto to pick up the thread again. "She said that while I'd always have a special place in her heart, I was mostly a source of strength and inspiration than a love interest…" Naruto trailed off again, eyes closing again on their own volition as Kakashi switched sides, kissing down the other side of his neck.

"I see. And aside from Sasuke, does anyone else carry a torch for you right now?" It was like getting doused by a bucket of cold water. Kakashi's words ripped Naruto straight out of arousal and back into reality. That had sounded way more like a question from a jealous lover, than the bland, casual – seemingly innocent – query Kakashi had wanted to disguise it as.

Naruto was suddenly angry; at Kakashi for having women – and men, sometimes – throwing themselves at him, at himself for feeling jealous even when he couldn't help it, at Sasuke for being the bastard he is, and at the world in general for being a shitty place where one could never be certain of anything. He was so sick and tired of it all, to always be on guard and never be able to relax and just freaking ask Kakashi whether he was interested in more or not.

Naruto was unfair, he knew he was unreasonable, for wanting Kakashi to take the first step towards something else than this dancing around each other they had going on, while Naruto was too much of a coward to be the braver and just ask himself.

"I'm really not that popular", Naruto told Kakashi coolly "and isn't it more your department wading through throngs of people wanting you?" Kakashi jerked back as burned, taken by surprise of the abrupt venom in Naruto voice. He'd only wanted to see if Naruto would get jealous, if seeing Kakashi get close to another could get any reaction out of him. Kakashi, older and wiser, though that could be debatable sometimes, should've known better than to let Anko cling to him in front of Naruto.

Kakashi had been an idiot to do that, when Naruto was only shy of four months from discovering Sasuke's philandering. Shit. Shit, shit, shit! He had to do, say, something, anything, to show Naruto that he wasn't like Sasuke; that Naruto could trust Kakashi with his heart, that he wouldn't stomp on it, but treat it like the treasure it truly was.

Taking a step back, Kakashi let his eyes soften, to show how sorry and sincere he was. "Naruto… there's nothing between Anko and me."

"What?" Naruto asked, face blank.

"Anko, the one in the Cat mask", Kakashi said again, motioning in the direction of the other hallway. "There's nothing between us but friendship, I promise."

Naruto turned his face away, arms coming up to cross defensively over his chest. "I didn't ask."

Reaching up, Kakashi gently cupped Naruto's chin, mindful of the claws attached to the fingertips of his gloves. "I want you to know that anyway. While we said we'd keep it casual, I'm not really the man to have several lovers at once."

"Are we?" Naruto asked, reluctantly looking Kakashi in the eyes. "Lovers I mean? You haven't really done anything and we've been dating for months now." Sighing on the inside, Kakashi saw more of mistakes he'd made. Apparently he'd been wrong when wanting to take it slow with Naruto, however much it'd killed him not to pounce and ravish Naruto to the point of no return.

"You're the one who wanted to keep it casual", Kakashi pointed out, heart picking up speed. Was Naruto saying what he thought he was saying?

"I- Yeah, I know but…" Naruto huffed irritably, shaking his head and escaping the hold Kakashi still had on his chin. "I don't really know what I want", Naruto lied, peeking up at Kakashi through his lashes. The Copy-nin sucked in a breath at that, the coy way Naruto was looking at him making sparks of arousal dance up and down his spine.

"What if – "Kakashi began; taking a step closer only to be interrupted by Tiger's muffled voice through the door.

"As amusing as listening to this is, could the two of you keep flirting tomorrow instead? Some of us want to go home and get some sleep some time tonight. Or morning, as it were,"

Kakashi suppressed a peeved growl at Tiger's poor timing. The bastard was probably perfectly aware of what he was intruding on. Giving Naruto a look that told the blond that they were far from finished with the conversation, Kakashi turned on his heel and opened the door, almost stalking inside with Naruto meekly trailing behind, blushing furiously.

The small office was as disorganized as the last time Naruto had been in there; books and scrolls and loose sheets of paper spilling out of the bookcases and over the desk. Tiger didn't even glance up when they walked in, just motioned for them to take a seat in the empty chairs before his desk.

Kakashi's, movements were stiff and angry as he sat down and waited for Tiger to give them his attention. Naruto sat a little straighter, finding himself in a state pending between elated and scared shitless. He desperately wanted to turn back time and scream at Tiger to shut the hell up, to find out what Kakashi had been about to say. As it was, Naruto's gut was filled with butterflies, anticipation, hope and sleepiness waging war between them.

"So", Tiger said at length, when he'd signed the last document in the pile in front of him with flourish. "How did it go?"

"No casualties, all information gathered", Kakashi droned, still vexed but controlled about it, producing a scroll from the pouch around his leg, which he handed to Tiger. "I'd say it was a success."

Tiger hummed, opening the scroll and scanning it before looking up at them again, his eyes resting on Naruto. "Excellent. Rewarding and quite enlightening, if nothing else."

"Yes sir", Kakashi drawled, sinking deeper in his seat.

"How's your training been, Naruto? I heard about your days with Panther and Monkey", Tiger then said, changing the subject so fast, Naruto had a hard time keeping up in his sleep and sex depraved state.

"…Interesting, sir", Naruto replied a little hesitantly. "They're both crazy but excellent teachers."

Tiger nodded, sounding chagrined and amused at the same time when he said, "I know. I couldn't give you anyone else though, they are two of our best and most experienced."

"I understand, sir", Naruto assured him.

"Brilliant results, I must say, one of the finest we've ever seen. Their report was very informative."

Neither Tiger nor Kakashi missed the way Naruto winced, or how his eyes grew dark and a little sad. Kakashi had yet to read the report, but he was almost certain of what Panther and Monkey had taught Naruto, and how they'd gone about to teach him too. He'd trained them both; he knew they hadn't gone easy on Naruto. Their argument from minutes before temporarily pushed to the side, Kakashi focused on the discussion in the now.

"I did my best, sir", Naruto answered at last, pale and quiet as he stared at the floor. Kakashi met Tiger's eyes for a moment, the small nod he gave receiving an answering nod in return. Naruto's reaction to what had happened during those ten days wasn't unusual, but expected. If he hadn't been a little disturbed by it they'd have been more worried.

"Well you're in luck, kid. Thanks to them – and yourself – you're going on your first, live mission." Naruto's head snapped up lightning fast, eyes losing the dull edge as he stared at Tiger with excitement in his gaze.

"Really? When?" Kakashi had to hold back on a chuckle at the sight of Naruto, hanging onto the edge of his seat and nearly vibrating with contained eagerness.

Tiger wasn't as successful and huffed a quiet laugh. Though the mission he had in mind was no laughing matter, it was time for Naruto to spread his wings and show what he was made of, to prove just how serious he was.

"As soon as we've compiled and assimilated the information from this scroll, you'll be dispatched together with team 13. I'd say in two or three days. Kakashi will let you know when it's time."

"Hell yes!" Naruto exclaimed, uneasiness forgotten in the face of a mission, a real mission, for the first time in months. Kakashi's joy was more muted, dimmed underneath the realization of what kind of mission they'd be sent on.

"Alright, thanks for letting us know", Kakashi said, standing with a little less grace than usual, due to the tiredness slowly sinking its claws in him. "Let's go home and get some sleep", he told a smiling Naruto. Tiger waved them out, smile dying and dropping off his face as they closed the door behind them. He knew what this mission would do to Naruto, but had no other choice. No simulations or illusions could fully prepare Naruto for this.

As he was mourning for the impending loss of Naruto's last innocence, Tiger was still hopeful. He knew Naruto would come through, one way or the other. Sighing deeply, Tiger turned back to his paperwork, the last before he could go home to his own bed. Thinking that the coming week would most likely turn out most interesting, he picked up his pen again. A commander's work never ceased, not to mention the damned paperwork. Oh well…

tbc...


A/N: As always, please leave a comment for me. I do really want your opinions on this, what could be done better, what you liked and disliked etc. Just, no flames please, they will be ignored and/or laughed at ^^