Shameless Pimping: If any of you enjoyed the Kakashi/Rin sequence way back in chapter 7 of this fic, please check out a one-shot by Sna, titled: Fifteen It's a cut-scene from this fic, based on the one time Rin tried to kiss Kakashi! It is so worth a read through if you get a chance, a really awesome piece. Seriously though, what are you waiting for?
For Telosphilos, whose encouragement, feedback, ideas and puppy names are priceless XD.
(And thanks to Azamiko and Delusional Kitty, who pointed out an incredibly STUPID mistake on my part, lol XD going back through, I can't believe how many times I did that:S)
On Thursday afternoon, Jiraiya strolled into Iruka's classroom.
This occurrence might have been strange enough, but when the old shinobi sat himself down on one of the unused desks at the back of the room, Iruka found himself unable to look away. Jiraiya didn't say a word, just sat and stared at the class' meagre attempts to learn Henge, and despite his attempts to remain calm, Iruka ended the class half an hour early - just to be rid of that contemplative - judging - gaze.
"Very good, Iruka-sensei!" Jiraiya actually clapped gleefully as he strolled down to the front of the classroom where Iruka was packing up his things, his back to the other man, so as not to show just how nervous the other man made him. Iruka might have been closer than many to the Sandaime, but Jiraiya was completely unpredictable.
"Forgive me, Jiraiya-sama," Iruka bowed slightly as he politely questioned the superior shinobi. "But why the hell did you disrupt my class?"
Jiraiya laughed nervously, scratching at the back of his head - and it was so reminiscent of Kakashi - and even Naruto - that Iruka itched to know the history there.
"Well, you see, sensei, I thought it best that, as Kakashi's touchstone," he grinned as Iruka's eyes widened, "you are fully aware of his latest messes and adventures."
Iruka considered his answer. "How did you know, Jiraiya-sama?"
"I'm his second touchstone." If Iruka had been shocked before, he was doubly so. The Sannin himself was Kakashi's point of contact?
"Kakashi is on an unclassed mission, and may be gone for many weeks. It isn't an ANBU mission, but it is highly classified. He was no doubt unaware of how much he could say - he hasn't even told his students half of what he could have." Jiraiya leant his hip on the desk, crossing his arms as he studied the stunned Chuunin. "Judging from the look of you, you had no idea about the mission - try not to take offence."
"Of course, Jiraiya-sama." Iruka looked up questioningly, not really surprised that Kakashi hadn't said goodbye. Goodbye was an awkward word between friends. "Is there any way to contact Kakashi-san?"
Jiraiya grinned at the boy's formality. "You must think me blind!" he chuckled. "There is no way to get things to him, but I will keep you informed as best I can. How's that?"
"Thank you, Jiraiya-sama." Iruka bowed again, shaking now - to think that the legendary Toad Hermit would do Iruka favours. He wasn't surprised to find Jiraiya gone before he'd even straightened.
Half an hour later and Iruka was no better informed. Konoha's Gossip Vine had, oddly enough, been sorely devoid of any information regarding the Hidden Leaf's Copy Nin.
There was the several days old news of Kakashi's defeat of Jiraiya - news to Iruka's ears, but time would tell on that one. It was obvious that the obscene exaggeration had already set in - a warning to gossips that one must remain aware of their surroundings at all times, in order to ensure fresh, unembellished information was all that the shinobi received.
Kakashi's battle had already become epic. Genma in particular was taking great joy in telling the more gullible Chuunin about Kakashi's broken hand and how he stopped one of Jiraiya Hunter Winds with just one look from that fabled Sharingan Eye. There were more plausible reports (from Raidou) that Kakashi had apparently used the Sharingan through a clone, but Iruka wasn't sure that was possible, since the eye was so tenuously linked into Kakashi's real body.
The biggest news of the moment was that of Team Gai's disappearance - they were a day late back from a standard clear out mission, aiding the ANBU prepare for something or another. If they'd been ambushed, the enemy may have captured Konoha's most promising weapons expert, taijutsu expert and Byuukagen user, all in one go; the repercussions that might bring upon Konoha would, with such great information, be disastrous.
Half an hour later, Iruka had given up on the Gossip Vine, and chosen a different tact. The Gennin had impressive links of their own; And Naruto was always hungry.
As a young shinobi, so constantly exposed to his father's delusions and disintegration, Kakashi had genuinely thought that everything was out to get him - though as the years progressed that feeling became ever more justified. The irony was that the more reason there was for his extreme paranoia, the more comfortable Kakashi became.
On missions, on training, on anything that called for some level of professional detachment, Kakashi was able to put aside his emotions, his humanity and just get on with being ninja. Many of his comrades had assumed over the years that Kakashi's tense functioning on field missions was his normality; his team mates had thought he was weird. His sensei had teased him mercilessly.
After pausing a few moments to settle his mind, Kakashi had performed a quick scout around the Hidden Stone Village, marking out good hiding places, good listening points, obvious guard posts and quick exits from the large open squares the villages was built around. He quickly found the Tsuchikage's rooms - a low level, heavily guarded and incredibly lavish granite structure - and worked his way inside to the Kage's library.
Entering through a random window, Kakashi found himself in a neglected and shut off room, littered with old planning designs and maps of the village. Pocketing a few, Kakashi went on to finish his tour of the village, following the small river down stream into the surrounding plains.
Kakashi immediately felt exposed and disoriented by the lack of trees, and followed the stream down further than he would have liked, simply to stay out of the range of the village's high guard towers. He saw now why Tsunade had insisted on this clothing - the light browns camouflaged him well in the tall, dry grasses of the Stone's plains - but strong, low winds pushed him towards the clear paths of the river. Some guarding jutsu, perhaps? Or just an oddity of the country's weather?
About 10 minutes jog from the village proper, the grasses tapered off and a rockier landscape overshadowed the flat land. Kakashi found a particularly dry, dusty, awkward cave, and made camp there, settling his packs to begin working on those maps, and how best to approach this mission.
According to the maps, the village was divided into four main quarters, spiraling out from the focus point - the Tsuchikage's Towers and the Stone Academy. The Northern quarter seemed to be made up of specialized training fields - taijutsu and ninjutsu if Kakashi understood the shorthand correctly. The Southern quarter was made up of Clan Housing - he'd have to take note of any particularly strong clan abilities. The Eastern Quarter - farthest from Kakashi's base - was unmarked, so probably involved the law enforcers and interrogators - or whatever the Stone's equivalent of the ANBU was. The quarter nearest to Kakashi was marked 'residential' - the Copy Nin hoped that meant it was poorly guarded, and easier to scavenge food from.
Kakashi slept as long as he dared before beginning a series of short surveillance exercises to gather information. He first had to establish the village's tracking abilities - to what lengths must he go to disguise his presence? He hoped they relied on sight and sense, as he'd already decided to use as little chakra as possible to better aid his extended use of the Sharingan. Then it was a matter of getting to know the village - to get used to navigating the strange, desolate rock structures and brickwork buildings - there was very little greenery here, a Sand and Granite City that added to Kakashi exposed paranoia.
Sleeping in was his first mistake.
Naruto - lying nose to nose with a scruffy grey puppy on the top of a tall building overlooking the Academy - spluttered in protest as a hot wet tongue licked doggy breath all over his face.
"SUSHI!" The blonde shinobi scrambled backwards, ignoring Kiba's teasing laugh and Hinata's quickly stifled, adoring squeal. She'd taken to Sushi in a big way, though Kiba had laughed when Naruto told him the mission brief.
"I'll explain this to you one more time, Naruto-baka," The Inuzuka gave a canine grin as he watched Sushi continue to jump up at Naruto, desperate for affection. "You will never turn that into a Nin-Dog."
"Ah, shut up." Naruto grumbled half-heartedly, sticking his tongue out as Akamaru yapped some snide little insult. "I have to beat Sasuke, I have to. Kakashi-sensei's trusting us with his dogs - that's like, huge. I can't let that bastard think he's more responsible than I am!"
"I know, Akamaru, he just won't listen." Kiba growled to his dog's yapping. "I'm telling you, you air-headed moron, no matter how well you train that dog it will never make a Nin-Dog. I guarantee!"
"Shut up you bastard! I don't want to hear what I can and can't do! Are you gonna tell me how you trained Akamaru or not!" Naruto's frustrated yell petered out into a pathetic sort of pleading - Sushi rolled onto his back, exposing the soft of it's underbelly in hope of a good scritch. Hinata happily complied, smiling as Sushi's hind leg jerked in rhythm; the boys looked on miserably before rounding on each other.
"Of course I'm not!" Kiba yelled.
"WHAT?" the boys were inches away from each other, Sushi's leg twitching to a still as he stared up interestedly. Naruto raised his voice, scrunching up his eyes to better project his frustration. "WHY WON'T YOU TELL ME?"
"THEY'RE INUZUKA METHODS!" Kiba screeched, enjoying the argument. "My mum would kill me if she knew I'd helped you help Hatake-san. She says his dogs are too eclectic, too flashy. She says they're inelegant and dog-like."
"Uh?" The heat fell from Naruto's glare as his shock registered. "Of course they're doglike."
Kiba sniffed disdainfully. "See?"
"They're dogs, Kiba!" Naruto grinned at his friend's dumbfounded expression. "Apart from Pakkun, he's a bit... you know... weird." Naruto made a circling gesture at his temple. "He uses the same shampoo as Sakura-chan!"
"That explains it." nodded the other boy.
"What?" squeaked Hinata. "Kiba-kun, Naruto-kun, you're not making any sense!" Akamaru and Sushi barked in agreement, turning immediately to growl at each other, circling. "Boys!" The Hyuuga heir sighed.
"I can't fail this!" Naruto sulked, flopping down to scratch behind Sushi's ears, pulling him away from Kiba's Nin-Dog. The pup went immediately boneless against the blonde's leg.
"What's the big deal?" Kiba drawled out, genuinely curious. "You aren't dog trainers, any of you - and he must've given you the worst set of dogs I've ever seen!"
Hinata leant in to better survey the conversation - she knew from Kurenai-sensei that a fly on a wall was always necessary. Besides, this was interesting - and any gossip she found out about the Team Elite went straight to her sensei, who always found little ways to pay Hinata back for the information.
"How's this, Kiba - You tell me why this dogs are so impossible to train, and I'll tell you why it's so important that we succeed, ok?" Kiba weighed up Naruto's proposition.
"Deal. They are normal dogs." Kiba ignored Naruto's indignant screech and carried on. "They will never be Nin-Dogs. There's no chakra in them for a start. Kakashi-san has such useless summons. I'm surprised Hana thinks so highly of them. She's like a fangirl, I swear!"
"I don't think they're useless!" Hinata protested, unsurprised when Naruto's crestfallen look didn't dissipate.
"BASTARD-SENSEI!" the blonde shinobi yelled. "A few months ago, Kakashi-sensei took us all to the training fields after a three hour lecture on team-work. He said we'd had a 'difficult time lately' and we were 'greatly improving.' He made us sound awesome."
Naruto continued. "That no-faced, backstabbing, lazy-arse bastard then told us that we deserved a treat for all our hard work. He told us to spar, and that if Sakura won, he'd cook us all dinner - as long as we didn't mind him not wearing the mask. We knew there had to be some trick, so we made the fight look as realistic as possible - Kakashi watched me and Sasuke throw ourselves from the treetops for a good half an hour before saying - "
Naruto paused, tugging his hitae-ate over one eye as he performed an appalling impression of his teacher. " 'Maaaaaa- you hesitated before you sparred. My impression of you? You're all cheats! No treat for you!' Can you believe it? We were sooo close and he knew...."
Sushi wriggled excitedly, bouncing up at Naruto, obviously missing his master. Kurenai would love this information, thought Hinata. To think the Jounin used such cruel mind games against his own students, and to such great effect! There could be no denying the brilliance of Team 7's many ploys to trick their enemies, the easy way each one knew what their team-mates were likely to be doing - their team formations weren't so precise as Team 10's, nor did they know each other like Team 8 did - but with power like theirs, Team 7 didn't really need to go to such lengths to ensure their own survival.
However, with power came ego; with ability came over-confidence; and what Kakashi had managed to instil in his team - whether intentionally or not - was a motivation greater than the promise of power, a motivation so intrinsically curious - even childlike - that they had something binding them together outside of their duty to Konoha.
Kiba seemed to miss the importance of the experience, as Naruto finished his tale forlornly. "...we were just so close to seeing his face..."
He struggled to control his speeding heartbeat as his enemies crept past, concerned that he hadn't the chakra left to conceal his own form and keep hold of the jutsu protecting his package. The young girl squirmed in his arms, fighting for consciousness, and he mumbled affectionately into her hair, calming her. He couldn't let the child wake - it would be safer all round if he could just get her home to the Village without risking her panic alerting the enemy shinobi.
He scraped deep red hair off his face from where it had come loose from his ponytail in muddy, blood-greasy clumps. A shudder worked through his lithe form as a foot crunched lightly three inches from his face. The shinobi looked his way, and Tak realised with a sick jolt that the long staff secured to his back would probably be outside the range of the concealing jutsu. Eyes wide, he barely noticed the flare of his own chakra - warding off the enemy nin.
It was stupid of him, getting so close to the bunkers - those bastard shinobi had been expecting it, waiting for it. Shortcut or not, it was a stupid, amateur move. He thought of his superiors, those great elites who had assumed that the enemy would want to fight only in the trees - who assumed this new war would play out so much like the Third Secret War - the one that had stripped him of everything at such a young age. Now it looked like they were taking the same precautions as his comrades were.
Tak took a deep breath, forcing himself to analyse the situation calmly. Three shinobi had spotted him, they knew that he'd seen them working on the old bunkers - just like his village was preparing to do - and he knew that unless he could at damage each of them he would not leave this forest alive. Tak was good - he had been an active ninja since his childhood - but he wasn't sure if he was good enough to kill four elite ninja with a child in his arms. He searched for the weak-link - ignoring the abrasive appearance of the group as he recognised the eldest of the shinobi - a sensei now? Tak might've laughed at another moment.
The girl, then, she must be the weakest; he'd deal with her last, if she couldn't take a hint. The teenaged ninja standing on his branch was obviously of some blood limit - he kept looking through Tak, searching for strains of chakra, if what he remembered of this clan was correct.
Thank fuck for Hatake Kakashi, Tak thought as he remembered the information the Copy Nin had so kindly shared so many years before. Blood limits had been one of the earliest things he could remember discussing with the infamous son of Konoha's White Fang - back when they'd been teenagers, and Tak had been awed and slightly dry-mouthed just standing in the other shinobi's presence - it was that information that was saving his pretty little arse right now.
Tak struggled not to laugh at the irony.
He loosened the knot of the fabric sling that kept the huge staff in place, pulling the weapon slowly and silently over his head to rest on his knees. Moving the girl carefully onto his back, he looped the sling back around his torso, securing the girl to his body. He used her own blanket to cover her tiny form, hoping she would look simply like a pack of some sort, and the enemy ninja would avoid aiming for her. If what he remembered about this particular Jounin was correct, he had nothing to worry about even if he did notice the suspicious package.
Creating a clone mid-air beneath him, Tak used it to grab the ankles of the teenaged shinobi, the dead weight of the hanging clone holding the ivory-eyed boy securely in place. Tak swung out with his staff, still holding shreds of the concealment jutsu to his form, still blocking the enemy's eyesight. Cloth-wrapped arms moved quickly to block the blow and the red-haired shinobi quickly detached one end of the staff, using the metal tip of the ornate weapon to slam into the boy's exposed temple. The white-eyed shinobi failed to react to the fast, jutsu aided blow - slumping to the ground as Tak's clone dissipated from existence.
Tak immediately began speeding through the trees - only to be faced with the female of the enemy team. Not stopping in his loping run, Tak spun past the barrage of weaponry, again using the shorter end of the staff to kneecap the young shinobi, slamming down on the kunoichi's soft joint and ignoring the anguished noise so desperately half-stifled. Tak retightened the knot on his chest without stopping, tugging his precious package back into a more central position his back, not at all surprised when he heard the speeding rush of the team's leader.
The Jounin moved at such a speed to create at dusty tail as he skidded to a halt in front of Tak, blocking the shinobi's path.
"You bastard!" The man struck a pose; his arm quivering angrily as he screamed into Tak's shocked face. Tak tried to rein in his expression, a snide smirk crossing his face as he realised that his enemy couldn't even remember him. "You would injure my precious students? It's a cowardly thing!"
"Maito Gai," Tak drawled sinisterly, knowing how it would offend the other man. "You haven't changed at all."
"Hn?" A small sound of surprise before Gai launched towards him, apparently deciding to forego his curiosity in favour of beating his enemy senseless. Tak breathed the words of his incomplete, signature jutsu as he deflected the other man's blows. There was no way he could defeat Konoha's taijutsu master, but he could win this battle for now.
Tak grinned as his staff flickered with chakra, moving at a blur as he spun to catch Gai in the temple.
The red-haired shinobi didn't wait to see the state of his opponent as he retreated, aware of how much of his chakra and stamina that jutsu wasted and worried about whether or not he'd be able to run for the next ten minutes; let alone the four days travel it would take to get home, back to Hidden Stone. His mission was to deliver the girl safely. He had to get home.
Panting as he ran, hopelessly willing his stumbling legs to just hold up a little longer, Tak moved gradually closer to the Fire Country borders. Once, and only once, Tak tripped over a body half buried in the filth of the forest floor - he'd accidentally stumbled across the remnants of some fight between Stone's rebel allies and Konoha's troops.
He stood slowly, wiping his now mud-gritty hands on the back of his trousers before dragging the body over to stare vacant eyed up at the Stone Nin. Seeing the hitae-ate, and grinning at the much despised symbol of the Hidden Leaf; Tak spat upon the corpse of his young enemy.
Fuck 'em all, he promised himself; Konoha will burn.
They were taking their precious time devouring their cool ice-pops - Shino lazily looked on as Hinata licked daintily at her fruit-flavoured stick, while Kiba slurped messily at his - grinning wildly as Anko all but spat in his direction.
"I want an ice-cream break!" The violet haired woman hissed, trying to shrug off Kurenai's steely grip on her arm.
"You'll only get hotter if you keep wasting your energy like that." Irritation was obvious in Kurenai's voice - the heat triggering a more potent wave of nausea than she was used to. Something had to be done about all this. And soon. "You're acting like a kid, and everyone's noticing. It's probably the only reason the ANBU are letting my students watch."
Anko froze, her resentment for the ANBU Cat making her think far more deviously than she would have otherwise. "So... If I'm well behaved... I get ice-cream?"
Kurenai sighed. "If you behave, I'll buy your ice-cream myself."
Anko let out a cheerful little sound as she bounded back into formation with the other women. Kurenai exchanged an amused look with Shino, she could see by his posture that he'd been paying attention. Kiba was too busy staring at a bead of melted liquid as it dropped down Hinata's chin. Kurenai grinned to herself - for all the girl's clear-sightedness, Hinata was so oblivious to the attention she received from her male friends. It was so cute!
"Alright, ladies. JAB!" Screamed the ANBU Cat. "STEP, TURN AND AGAIN!"
Team 8 watched as the women carried out basic, but powerful moves. Over and over, until Anko or one of the other more outspoken kunoichi would complain, and they would take a quick water break before moving back into their lines. Kurenai and Anko were right at the back of the formation, with many clumsier Jounin positioned at the front. The women were obviously lined up by skill-level, and it pleased Kurenai's students to see their sensei so competent compared to so many female ninja.
"Why do you think they're doing this now?" Kiba asked his team-mates, quivering slightly in his slouch. If he had a tail it'd be wagging - like Akamaru's against his master's arm.
"Preparing." Hinata blushed as the two boys gave her their full attention. "Ino-chan - she says that there's a - a war coming, all the ambushes - and that everyone's worried. The village wants to avoid it."
Shino nodded thoughtfully as Hinata swallowed the lump in her throat. Kiba just scratched behind his ear - attentive, for once.
"My father said something like that." Shino mentioned, keeping his voice low for reasons unknown even to himself. "He says the Kikkai have been acting similar to how they did in the Third Secret War."
"How's that?" Kiba asked, still scratching away.
"Nervously. I agree. Everything's... tense." Thin eyebrows creased above dark sunglasses. "Like before a storm."
"Maybe we should train too?" Hinata suggested shakily after the ANBU Cat's piercing screech had her jumping in fright. Anko had tripped again, apparently, and all ANBU style wrath fell quickly upon her. They could see Kurenai trying to mask a snicker.
It was odd, Hinata thought, that she could be more comfortable with her eccentric team-mates than she was anywhere else. She wasn't blind to why - with their specialist skills - it had been Kurenai to teach them; the woman's entire clan had been said to weave illusions like they were the Yuuhi's reality. It was a strange place to exist, quite outside of normality, but it allowed her to understand the differing realities of the Aburame's, the Hyuuga's and the dog-like Inuzuka's. She would never be afraid of their oddities.
"In what? Dynamic Marking?" Akamaru barked excitedly, standing to wag his little tail freely. "Hah! Nice one Akamaru!"
"No! Please!" Hinata's face grew bright at the teasing. "Perhaps we should train together, in something more basic, like taijutsu?"
"You're taijutsu doesn't need that kind of improvement." Shino murmured, not wanting to embarrass Hinata with the compliment. "The Gentle Fist training is strenuous enough for other combat styles to come naturally to you. Even Neji-san thinks you're improving."
"Neji-niisan is very skilled." She flushed a little, but didn't deny the comment. An improvement, Shino felt.
"And there's no point practising Genjutsu, our skill are too based in physical reality." Kiba's comment earned him a nod from Shino - the boy's insights, when they came, were insightful and true. It had just taken so long to get him considering things other than pranks, territory, and food!
Akamaru barked something about Ninjutsu, but Kiba didn't bother translating. Shino settled himself down to watch his teacher's determined movements as Hinata and Kiba continued to talk about honing their skills.
When the kunoichi had finished their sequence, they started it again.
Sakura automatically tore down the stairs of the two storey building, kunai in hand, trusting her trained ears to find the source of her mother's bloodcurdling scream. No one messed with a ninja in their own home, as their foolish enemy was about to find out.
"FILTHY LITTLE BEAST, I'LL SKIN YOU!" As soon as she'd reached the traditional sliding panel separating the kitchen from the main room, and heard the answering terrified yap, Sakura began to back away.
Sakura's mother was kind, warm-hearted, loving and supportive. But she didn't like scruffy people, or lazy people, or those that refused to work for their dreams. And apparently, Sakura's mother didn't like dogs.
The panel slid open - meeting the wooden frame with an aggressive thump.
"That rat..." her voice was cold, deliberate, barely restrained, and Sakura wanted to run, to hide, to let anyone else in the world take the brunt of this woman's wrath. "That horrid little rat... has to go."
"What did he do? Joben, here boy!" The puppy yelped, scurrying to hide behind Sakura, obviously terrified of the volume.
"It... it..." Sakura watched nervously as her mother search for the words, a million-and-one pranks that a Nin-Dog of Kakashi's might be capable of, running like wildfire through her mind. "It... widdled on the kitchen floor!"
Sakura coughed to mask a snort. "Pardon?"
"You heard me, young lady!" Sakura's face twisted as she tried to hold back a giggle - if her mother had ever met Pakkun she was certain the woman would be more forgiving of a simple accident.
"It's only a puppy; he's probably not even house-trained yet." Sakura said sweetly. "That's part of my training - Kakashi-sensei says..."
"I don't want to hear it!" Her mother's voice rose a full octave. "One more incident like this and it goes! Now get out! Out!"
"Yes, mum." The panel slammed again as it shut, and Sakura grinned at her mother's frantic silhouette racing around the kitchen.
She picked up Joben, taking him to her room while she got ready to leave for training. He trembled adorably in Sakura's arms, burrowing his little face into her chest as she bounced up the stairs. "Yeah, you're definitely one of Sensei's, aren't you? You little pervert!"
Joben yipped lovingly, and Sakura set him down on her bed, wandering into the bathroom to clean up.
Half an hour later, Sakura happily opened her bedroom door to find Joben sitting on the top of a small hill. A small hill made out of every piece of fabric in her room... bed sheets, pillow casings, clothing and even her underwear. Little scratch marks remained on her drawers where the puppy had scavenged there, and feathers from her comfortable and indulgent pillows floated aimlessly around the room. His little tail was caught in the leg of her widest, most embarrassing pair of knickers, waving them to and fro rhythmically.
Sakura - suddenly understanding her mother's understated pain - screamed.
"Should we alert the Tsuchikage?" A blonde shinobi asked his comrades, eyes nervously darting about the room.
"Go." The low voice of their superior ground them all to attention. "The rest of us will follow it - if Hanamaru-san thinks the scent of his body is clear?"
The tracking master grunted his agreement, and the blonde bowed briefly before disappearing. The five remaining shinobi immediately gave chase, racing through the village in teams of two - the tracking master simply following the intruder's scent while his comrades flanked him, trying to second guess the enemy's movements.
They sped the length of the village, spiralling out, eventually leaping over the west gate as the tracking master followed the undisguised odour through a quickly dug tunnel barely reaching beneath the wall itself.
"We're gaining on it." Their pursuit was faster on the plains - two shinobi glimpsed a grey streak some metres ahead of them; weaving through the tall grasses, buffeted about slightly by the strong wind.
"The wind's affected the scent, can you see it?" The tracking master smiled grimly as his superior answered in the affirmative. It struggled inside one of the small caves and they all halted in their astonishment.
"Well, he's just gone and shot himself in the foot."
"There's no escape from in there." The red-haired commander smirked, adjusting the staff on his back. "Who wants the honours?"
"I'll do it," hissed a dark haired, violently scarred man, pulling a short tanto from his belt.
"I'll cover you, Koukotsu-san." A younger woman offered coldly, mirroring her commander's smirk.
The two shinobi moved in carefully, wary of any attacks this enemy could make in such a confined space. They squeezed through the awkward tunnels, white dust settling brightly in the kunoichi's short dark hair, eventually moving into a larger cavern - dry, dusty and small, but a comfortable fit compared to the tight, claustrophobic entrance.
"Fuck." Koukotsu spat quietly, pausing as his companion edged into the main room.
"What? What is it?" Her eyes widened in utter shock as she saw what her team-mate had. "Oh." She acknowledged. "Fuck."
Two scruffy grey strays - filthy fur browned with earth and dust - fought energetically as another, slightly smaller one, lay behind them, breathing roughly, covering his muzzle lazily with one paw. Tugged to and fro playfully between the sharp, wet teeth of the two larger dogs was a chunk of meat - the flesh their tracking master had smelt so clearly, no doubt. Either that or the enemy had managed to get away somehow - but this cavern was a dead end, there was nowhere for the enemy to go.
The smaller dog's ears pricked up at the sight of the two shinobi, and its hackles rose as a growl reverberated through the cavernous space. The other two dogs crouched protectively in front of the smaller one, adding their own toothy grins to the echoing noise.
"Reiko, I think they're feral." Her companion edged backwards as he spoke, shoving Reiko further from the main cavern.
"Oh." She said, cheerfully. "Shit."
"Back off. Now!" Koukotsu's hand nudged her away persistently, and she scrambled to get out of the cave.
The barks and snarls chased them out, though the dogs didn't seem interested in getting them any further away than their immediate territory.
"Nothing in there but fucking mutts." Koukotsu spat at their tracking master. Reiko grinned at Tak's raised eyebrow - she could imagine what her team-mate was currently thinking of the tracking master's skills. To his credit, however, the blind man seemed to realise the red-head's dark thoughts.
"I smelt a man." He whispered urgently. "I did!"
"Have you had any dealings with the Hidden Leaf's Inuzuka dogs?" Tak's voice was devoid of emotion, affectedly cold - he must be close to breaking, Reiko thought.
"Yes, Hantaro-san." Koukotsu answered stiffly. "It wasn't an Inuzuka, and there is no other clan that fights with dogs."
"Then you were wrong, old man." A slight note of hysteria had them wondering what Tak had faced retrieving that child so close to Fire borders. They knew he had history there. "You waste our time like it was your own."
"We have more important things to be working on than chasing puppies." Reiko's clear voice cut through the rising argument. "So let's go and get on with it, yeah?"
Inside the cave, Kakashi all but fell out of the advance Henge transformation. The chase had been difficult, and the canine appearance had been tricky to maintain throughout the run.
So they could track by scent - at least that blind one could - as well as sight and sense.
Eliminating his mark would be difficult - the scent of blood, sweat and urine clung insistently to the body of a ninja, he knew. He would have to stay clean, urinate downstream of the village so he could not be tracked back to the cave - preferably at specific times and waist deep in water. He'd need to find a way to maintain cleanliness of his uniform - or at least get so utterly fucking filthy no one would mistake him for human at all - but the trick was to mask your scent without the new one being out of place or overpowering, which could affect the success of a mission.
He could bed down with the mutts, perhaps? Their strong and specific scents would dehumanise his own - as long as he didn't make the amateur mistake of pissing away their scent - and allowing the mutts to roam freely around the village would provide an outlet for scavenging as well as convincing the shinobi that there were wild dogs on the plains.
It wouldn't be fun, but it would be a good motivator to eat at little as possible (no scent clung so much to a form as faeces) - a motivator he would need to keep his mind off the food the dogs would no doubt provide. Maybe he'd find a good opportunity to dispose of the blind tracker - something a little less conspicuous than a good push off a tall building?
The only other inconvenience was Kakashi's inability to make use of his Nin-Dogs. If the Copy Nin used any trick of his own, Tak would recognise it - and luck would have it that the crazy fuck was seemingly surrounded by sycophants and lackeys - it only made him harder to kill.
But Kakashi was nothing if not resourceful. If he couldn't kill Tak, he'd just have to work the other man to his favour.
Unlike Naruto and Sakura - who each had gone to various Inuzuka's (Naruto's odd relationship with Kiba surely had its uses, and Sakura's medical training had brought her into the veterinary on several occasions, where Inuzuka Hana worked) to figure out how to train the pups - but Sasuke was almost certain that Kakashi wouldn't give them something they'd need extra help for.
Granted, there was some mind game involved, and the brief had been to affectively train the dogs - but Sasuke was learning, albeit slowly, to read beneath the underneath. And at the moment, no amount of books or advice was going to get his irritating little puppy out from underneath his fucking stairs!
"Kioshi..." the dark haired boy felt vaguely ridiculous crooning to the dog, knowing that if he'd been unable to get a reaction from the mutt yesterday he'd be unlikely to get any reaction now. But he was late for training. Him. Sasuke. He was three hours late. Kakashi's average. It was completely humiliating.
"Kiosshhhiiii pleeeaaasseeeee!" Sasuke flopped to the floor hopelessly. He extended his hand out to the dog - let it just rest there, rather than give in to his instinct to grasp - and was deeply shocked to find a cold, wet nose sniff warily at his loosely curled fingers.
"C'mon pup, you're making me look bad!" To Sasuke's utter amazement, Kioshi leapt out and onto Sasuke's chest - biting his shoulder before bounding out the door.
"I knew one day he'd pass his tardy-arsed laziness to the three of you." Genma grumbled loudly, chewing on a senbon, either not noticing or choosing to ignore the exhausted bags beneath both Naruto's and Sakura's eyes; the too-cheerful puppies bounding around at their heels despite weak protests. Genma grinned, knowing how Kakashi would get such a kick out of this. "I just knew it."
Eventually, Sasuke slowly trudged to team 7's meeting spot. Genma's eyes imperceptibly took in the dust in the Uchiha's usually perfect hair, the small, neat tear in the cloth at Sasuke's shoulder. His smug grin widened.
"Sorry I'm late." The Uchiha scowled and slouched and sniffed disdainfully at the puppy lapping at his wrapped ankles. "Sensei's dog ate my training brief."
"How long was I out?" His voice was rough but weak, Shikamaru nodded to the water jug on the table beside the bed.
"Only about half an hour." Shikamaru's drawl was soft, a tone usually reserved for Chouji, and Asuma realised just how worried he must've had everyone. Kurenai hadn't even visited yet, a sure sign of her denial. "Shiranui-san dropped by to inform you that Hatake-san has 'disappeared on some confidential mission', and there's no news on Maito Gai. He also said that the Kunoichi are training again, and you should really get better fast enough to appreciate it."
Asuma laughed, a retort coming quickly to his lips about how Genma could appreciate it - though he'd rather avoid that conversation with his students for as long as possible. Once was enough.
"I'm not feeling up to chess, Shikamaru. Do you mind if we take a rain-check?"
A rush of commotion from outside the small room as several medics wheeled three separate beds along. Anguished screams drifted in from the crowd, but became louder for a brief moment as a sobbing Rock Lee was shoved into Asuma's room.
"Gai-senseeeeiiii! I've faiilllledd you!" His hands were balled into fists, clenched in a dramatic position before the boy's chest. Asuma and Shikamaru exchanged a cryptic look of tentative amusement - hoping all was not so bad as it seemed.
"Lee!" Asuma's rough voice couldn't be heard past the green-clad shinobi's wailing - but Shikamaru's could. It always shocked the Jounin when his unmotivated student took on that commanding tone - he was infinitely proud to say he'd been the one to put that confidence there.
Bright round eyes glistened beatifically as he looked up to Shikamaru's cross legged perch on Asuma's bed. Asuma patted the chair next to him, gesturing for Lee to sit as Shikamaru carried on. "What happened?"
"A powerful opponent from Hidden Stone knocked both Neji-san and Gai-sensei unconscious. Tenten's knee was all but destroyed and the enemy escaped. The medics think it looks like a staff wound, they seem to find it familiar."
"That's not so bad," Shikamaru said, carefully, the slight conflict within his sensei's eyes not going unoticed. "What did the enemy look like?"
"I don't know; I was guarding the bunkers when I heard Tenten's scream - she told me to get help." A proud smile crossed Lee's tear-streaked face. "She attacked the medics when they tried to sneak up on her. She was aware enough to do that!"
"Tenten is highly skilled." Lee burst into grateful tears at Asuma's acknowledgement of his team-mate's strength.
Asuma's reply was vacant, though, automatic. He was remembering a shinobi from stone, highly skilled with the staff. He was remembering a boy who knew their strengths, and was fuelled by a spiteful insanity. Kakashi was on a confidential mission, and Gai had been bested by Hidden Stone. Grave coincidence indeed.
"Shikamaru, call the nurse. I need to find out when I can begin my training."
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